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Gandhara Briefing: Islamic State-Khorasan, Chinese Base, Pashtuns

A Taliban fighter reacts to a photographer at a market in Kabul on October 15.
A Taliban fighter reacts to a photographer at a market in Kabul on October 15.

Dear Reader,

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

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Afghan war enters a new phase

Two months after the Taliban takeover, the outline of a new phase of the war in Afghanistan is emerging with the ultraradical Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) challenging the Taliban’s embryonic rule by attacking its members and fomenting chaos through large-scale attacks targeting civilians.

“Death, destruction, and displacement will likely afflict tens of thousands of Afghans in the coming months and years if IS-K is not kept in check,” Andrew Mines, a research fellow tracking extremist groups at George Washington University, told me.

Afghan civilians are bracing for the worst. “Daesh poses a serious threat to the future of our country,” said Ahmad, a resident of Faryab, referring to IS-K by its Arabic name. “They disturb the peace and threaten our future stability.”

The Taliban seems in denial about the true extent of the IS-K threat, and its leaders have refused to work with the United States to contain the threat posed by the group. While the violence allegedly fomented by IS-K continues to target the Taliban, Afghan civilians pay the price for escalating fighting between the two Sunni jihadist organizations.

Afghanistan’s neighbors are also reacting to what they sense is a gathering terrorist threat. In an exclusive report, Reid Standish takes us to a secret Chinese base in Tajikistan’s Pamir Mountains that aims to guard Beijing’s land border with Afghanistan. “Afghanistan now has the potential to become a magnet and safe haven for jihadi groups of all stripes,” Daniel Markey, a senior adviser on South Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told him.

The Taliban is apparently in no mood to compromise with adversaries, which leaves it with only one option -- violence. Choosing this tactic over resolution, the Taliban failed to show up at peace talks brokered by Dushanbe and Islamabad with resistance leader Ahmad Masud.

Taliban revenge in full swing

Mounting evidence from across Afghanistan suggests the Taliban’s hard-line government is reneging on its general amnesty for members of the former Afghan security forces, who are frequently killed or forcefully disappeared.

“He surrendered to the Taliban, but his fate is still unknown,” Helmand resident Gula Jan said of his nephew, a former Afghan Army soldier. “Women who were members of the army are being threatened by the Taliban,” said Zahra, a former decorated military officer, adding that the Taliban visited her father “and told him that it was a shame for him to have let his daughter serve in the army.”

Desperation at the border

In a video report, we take you to the remote Ishkashim region of Badakhshan where the Taliban has forcefully prevented many from seeking asylum in neighboring Tajikistan.

“Many of the families were threatened with death by the Taliban and left Ishkashim as their fate hangs in the balance,” one of the asylum seekers told us. “Now we want to take our problems to the United Nations.”

Across Afghanistan, the economic collapse is prompting many to switch professions in order to survive. “I had to return to my village and do the job that my father and grandfather used to do,” said Gul Ahmad Almas, who gave up his career in journalism to collect brush to sell as fuel in Ghor. Watch the video here.

Even drug users are not immune from the economic downturn and the Taliban’s heavy-handedness. We take you to Nimroz, where the closure of three drug rehab centers has pushed recovering addicts to fend for themselves as those in Kabul face Taliban beatings. “When they see us, they beat the breath out of us,” one man told us in Kabul. “It seems like they are beating animals, not humans.”

Women’s rights

Most of the international community has made it clear that the Taliban’s restrictions on the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan are a deal breaker in the group’s bid for acceptance. The issue of women’s rights featured heavily in the group’s talks this week with officials from the United States and the European Union in Doha.

The European Parliament acknowledged the battle waged against Afghan women by shortlisting a group of 12 women in Afghanistan among its final three candidates for the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

While international support is welcome, the situation on the ground is deteriorating as many women face an uncertain future with no permitted role in society. In Radio Azadi’s call-in show this week, we hear from a female judge exiled in London about how her colleagues face threats and intimidation.

Marzia Babakarkhil says the Taliban refuses to acknowledge women in the role of judge and that many have left the country or gone into hiding.

“The Taliban, in violation of human rights laws, freed from jails all those who were involved in criminal activities and in war crimes on a national and international level,” she says. “This created a serious issue for women judges, who do not feel safe anymore.”

Khan faces Pashtun blowback

I write about why Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing a backlash from his country’s Pashtun minority after repeatedly claiming its members are sympathetic to the Taliban.

“Imran Khan’s comments have added insult to injury for Pashtuns,” Afrasiab Khattak, a former Pashtun lawmaker who survived a Taliban suicide attack in 2008, told me. “Calling himself a Pathan or Pashtun is a marketing gimmick that Imran Khan has used for a very long time,” said Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistan expert at the University of London, while explaining why Khan frequently brandishes his Pashtun heritage.

Turkmen and Uzbek outreach

Even after the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan’s Turkic neighbors, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, continue to follow a policy focused on tapping into their southern neighbor’s potential as a trade and energy transport route to South Asia.

“Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are the only two Central Asian countries that do not border Russia or China. Both have long looked to the south for connectivity to the wider world,” notes Bruce Pannier in his assessment of a summit between the presidents of the two countries, who are engaging with the Taliban because of huge potential profits for their countries.

Taliban censors music

Groups offering “music-less songs” are thriving amid a Taliban ban on singing and musical instruments that comprise Afghanistan’s rich musical tradition.

“There are six of us in this group and we have various [Taliban-approved] programs at weddings -- including recitations from the Holy Koran,” said Rahim Farahmand, who established the Islamic Peace Group in Herat. Founded by the Taliban, such groups are flourishing across Afghanistan while other musicians struggle to find new livelihoods.

I hope you found this week’s newsletter useful, and I encourage you to forward it to your colleagues.

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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.

Azadi Briefing

Radio Azadi is RFE/RL's Dari- and Pashto-language public service news outlet for Afghanistan. Every Friday, in our newsletter, Azadi Briefing, one of our journalists will share their analysis of the week’s most important issues and explain why they matter.

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