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Gandhara Briefing: Durand Line, Pakistani Taliban, Box Camera

PAKISTAN -- Pakistani soldiers patrol next to a newly fenced border fencing along with Afghan's Paktika province border in Angoor Adda in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal agency, October 18, 2017
PAKISTAN -- Pakistani soldiers patrol next to a newly fenced border fencing along with Afghan's Paktika province border in Angoor Adda in Pakistan's South Waziristan tribal agency, October 18, 2017

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.

Fence divides Pashtun tribes

In an extensively reported piece, Pamir Sahill looks at the impact of Pakistan’s fence along its 2,670-kilometer border with Afghanistan that bisects the Pashtuns, the world’s largest tribally organized society, into the two neighboring countries.

His findings are damning. Members of more than two dozen Pashtun tribes straddling the Durand Line -- the 19th-century frontier between British India and Afghanistan that continued as the disputed border between Kabul and Islamabad -- have incurred tremendous economic losses. The fence has deprived them of land and travel rights, and restricted movement severely impacts social ties in the close-knit society.

“If this trend continues for another generation, our tribe will divide into two distinct entities,” Shah Wali Mamund told us in Bajaur. “We will become strangers to one another.”

Pakistani Taliban reincarnated?

Frud Bezhan and Daud Khattak report on the possible return of the deadly Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) years after it was declared dead since losing leaders, cadres, and territorial control to U.S. drone strikes and Pakistani military operations.

The new TTP appears to be shrewder. So far, it has homed in on Islamabad’s vulnerabilities by targeting Chinese interests and striking a tactical alliance with secular Baluch separatists opposed to Beijing’s investments in Balochistan.

“Baluch groups have been cooperating with groups that they are ideologically opposed to,” Pakistani security expert Ayesha Siddiqa told us. “IS and Al-Qaeda have had a strategy of reaching out and connecting with local movements and local issues.”

Portrait of a dying art

Ron Synovitz delves into the 19th-century artform of the Afghan box camera known as “kamra-e-faoree,” which serves as both camera and darkroom to produce black-and-white prints in a matter of minutes. Popularized in the 1950s, box cameras even survived the Taliban regime, which banned portraits.

But now they’re on the brink of disappearing amid digital photography, smartphone selfies, and dwindling supplies of the special paper needed, which is no longer made.

It’s not just about taking photos,” says Hekmatullah Arbabzadeh, who has used a box camera for decades. “It’s the culture and nature of photography -- how it flourished in the past and evolved, who came out of this art, the expressions they used, and how the old tools worked.”

Check out our gallery of photos by Khalid Hadi, who at the age of 11 documented the injuries of 10,000 aid recipients using a box camera between 1992 and 1994.

The con artist of early U.S.-Afghan ties

In the 1920s, Afghanistan’s reformist King Amanullah Khan wanted to strike an alliance with the United States to entice the emerging power into exploring his country’s vast untapped mineral wealth.

But as Amos Chapple illustrates in this photo essay, the deal was overshadowed by a notorious Brooklyn con artist who led a mysterious Afghan princess into the White House.

Finding freedom in menswear

In parts of Afghanistan, a custom known as “bacha posh” allows parents to dress daughters as boys to allow them more freedom. In this video report, we meet Hukmina, a woman in Khost Province who has dressed like a man her whole life.

Respectfully called “Lala” or “older brother” by her community, she enjoys the privileges afforded by dressing in men’s clothes, like going to the market and riding a bike. But she still carries a gun with her in case she encounters any threats or harassment.

“I enjoy wearing these clothes,” she tells RFE/RL. “Dressed this way, I can do everything I want.”

Recruiting female police officers

This week, we also meet Najiba Noor Delewari, whose father was part of the Taliban in their Afghan village. Today, she is the first woman to serve as a district police chief in the northern city of Sheberghan in Jowzjan Province.

The Afghan government is trying to recruit more women into law enforcement across the country, aiming to raise the number from 4,000 to 10,000 over the next three years.

“Why shouldn’t we have women as district police chiefs?” asks Ghullam Jailani Abubakar, Jowzjan police chief. “We can provide security cover for the region with the help of [female officers].”

Kalash death celebrations

In another video report, we take you to meet the Kalash, a pagan tribe in Chitral who celebrate death with dance, drums, and gunfire as part of an exquisite commemoration of a departed loved one’s life.

“People who knew the deceased speak to their ancestors’ noble deeds,” Sardar Khan, a community member, told us. “They slaughter 30 to 40 goats and one to two oxen,” he added, saying the celebrations often cost the equivalent of thousands of dollars.

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

If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here. Until next week, I encourage you to visit our website and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Abubakar Siddique
Twitter: @sid_abu

P.S.: You can always reach us at

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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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