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Gandhara Briefing: Afghan Nomads, Russian Policy, Pakistani Military

A Kuchi nomad family in southren Afghanistan. (file photo)
A Kuchi nomad family in southren Afghanistan. (file photo)

Dear reader,

Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If you’re new to the newsletter or haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here.

Afghanistan’s vanishing nomadic life

Decades of war, competition for pastures, hard borders, and the societal pressure to settle have almost completely erased Afghanistan’s nomadic heritage of the Kuchis.

Today, they’re one of the most marginalized groups in the country. Many Kuchis are mourning the loss of a wandering lifestyle in which their caravans moved from Pakistan’s fertile Indus plains in winters to the cool pastures of Afghanistan’s central highlands in the Hindu Kush Mountains in summers.

The government has been slow to allocate the nomads the sort of aid that has lifted other parts of society out of poverty. In addition to the discrimination the Kuchis face, this hinders their attempts at integration.

“I long for the freedom that defined our lives,” Haji Abdul Manan, a 70-year-old Kuchi patriarch whose family settled a decade ago, told us. “Nothing could beat the sense of freedom where we could just stay anywhere that we liked and leave without worrying.”

Prison terms and fines for Pakistani military critics

Two years in prison or more than $3,200 in fines: These are now the punishments in store for someone who “intentionally ridicules, brings into disrepute or defames” the Pakistani military, according to a draft law approved by a parliamentary committee this week.

The bill, however, has met with a strong backlash and ridicule from Pakistanis who have witnessed mounting censorship in their country since 2018.

“It is against the [fundamental] provisions of our constitution, which guarantees the freedom of expression,” Lawmaker Rafiullah Agha, who opposed the bill, told us. He argued it will "enhance a false perception, which says that people in Pakistan are against the military interior.” Agha demands that constitutional guarantees be protected so that “all citizens are equal and there are no sacred cows.”

Taliban resumes attacks on U.S. forces

In a stark warning, the Taliban attacked a NATO military base in Kandahar this week. The apparent aim of the rocket attack, which caused no significant damage, was to remind Washington that the Taliban will resume its attacks against international forces if U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan past the May 1 deadline set by the 2020 peace accord.

The attack followed an Afghan Army mission that reportedly reclaimed the strategic district of Arghandab from the Taliban. The fighting looms over a stalled peace process that is expected to receive a major boost from a conference in Turkey later this month. Human rights observers are keen to highlight the importance of including women, war victims, and other marginalized groups in the talks on shaping Afghanistan’s future.

Is Russia prepping for a major role in South Asia?

COVID vaccines, Afghan peace, energy, the military, and counterterrorism cooperation were on the agenda as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Islamabad this week.

His visit is significant in light of the Kremlin’s efforts to carve a key role for itself in the Afghan peace process. There is no indication yet that Moscow is underwriting its return to the region with hard military power or major economic projects, which for now comes across as ambitious diplomacy.

Growing COVID protests in Pakistan

With a slow vaccine rollout that is doing little to stem the tide of a rising death toll and mounting hospitalizations, a third wave of COVID infections is wreaking havoc in Pakistan. But there’s been increasing resistance against government measures to control the pandemic through school and business closures.

The sight of Pakistani teachers and students protesting school closures is now commonplace. Watch our video reports about this week’s protests in Peshawar and Islamabad.

Pakistani plane turned back from Kabul

In a curious development this week, the speaker of the Pakistani parliament was not allowed to land in Kabul, which forced him to cancel the trip aimed at showcasing goodwill and cooperation between the often-quarreling neighbors.

While officials from both countries blamed a security threat for the sudden closure of Hamid Karzai Airport, speculation ran wild over what caused the incident.

"Security threat arose just when landing. Was visit not cleared beforehand?” former lawmaker Farhatullah Babar asked. “Visit postponed indefinitely, [no] date given. No regrets by hosts. Decision conveyed by tower operator. Normal protocol of high-level representative of host speaking to guest from tower ignored. There’s more to it."

I hope you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, and I encourage you to forward it to colleagues who might find it useful.

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Abubakar Siddique
Twitter: @sid_abu

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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