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Gandhara Briefing: Pakistani Visas, Taliban Taxes, Afghan Bodybuilders

Afghan women wait to apply for visas at the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad. (file photo)
Afghan women wait to apply for visas at the Pakistani consulate in Jalalabad. (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.

This week's Gandhara Briefing brings you insights into the black market for Pakistani visas in Afghanistan, the Taliban imposing higher taxes on Afghans, and the Taliban ordering Afghan bodybuilders to cover up.

Black Market For Pakistani Visas

Radio Mashaal and Radio Azadi report on the thriving black market for Pakistani visas in Afghanistan, which can cost up to $1,000. The exorbitant prices line the pockets of corrupt Pakistani officials and their Afghan go-betweens.

There is no shortage of Afghans willing to do whatever it takes to flee Taliban persecution and the economic meltdown in their homeland.

"People can get a monthlong visa by paying $300, a five-month visa for $500, and $700 for a yearlong visa," said Farhad Salehi, a resident of Herat who has already spent $500 in bribes without success.

Pakistani officials have clamped down on corruption and fired 12 embassy staff during the past three months. A senior embassy official told us that the employees were sacked after a "thorough investigation" that established that they were "minting money from Afghans."

Islamabad has also unveiled a new visa policy, making it easier for Afghans seeking asylum in Western counties to transit through Pakistan.

Rising Taliban Taxes

Radio Azadi reports on how the Taliban is hiking taxes on Afghans to fund its $2.6 billion annual budget.

That is despite many Afghans struggling to make ends meet amid an economic crisis that has disrupted basic services, left them with rising costs and dim employment prospects, and battered the health and financial sectors.

Afghans can expect to pay more taxes on everything from moving goods on highways to hanging signs in storefronts. But the Taliban government's lack of transparency and the loss of essential services makes it difficult to see what citizens are getting in return.

"We need to know better what the [Taliban-led] government plans to spend on," said William Byrd, an economist at the United States Institute of Peace. "The key thing about the whole budget is there needs to be transparency."

Afghan Bodybuilders Told To Cover Up

Radio Azadi reports on the Taliban ordering Afghan bodybuilders to cover up during training and competitions.

The order by the Taliban’s Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice is the latest attempt by the militant group to police the appearance of Afghan men and women in public.

The restriction on bodybuilders has been criticized by athletes.

"The Taliban order has no religious justification, but it creates many problems for us," said Mohammad, an aspiring bodybuilder.

While the Taliban has effectively banned all women's sports, bodybuilding is the first male sport the hard-line Islamists have sought to regulate.

Rising Crime In Kabul

Radio Azadi reports on rising crime in Kabul, where some residents say they remain at home after dark to avoid thieves.

The claims have punctured the Taliban’s narrative that it has established security in Afghanistan since seizing power in August.

"The criminals can get you anywhere after sunset. They will rob you of money and your mobile phone. They will also beat you," said Abdul Majid, a laborer in Kabul's Ahmad Shah Baba neighborhood, who was robbed last week.

U.S. Watchdog Cautions Over UN Cash

In an interview with Radio Azadi, John Sopko, the U.S. special inspector-general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), expressed concerns that money sent by the United Nations to Afghanistan for humanitarian and economic aid will end up in the hands of the Taliban-led government.

In late April, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told journalists that the UN had flown $500 million in cash into Afghanistan.

"We have been talking to the UN officials about how they are safeguarding [those] funds," he said in the interview. "We have had discussions on best practices for protecting it.... We are hoping it's protected, but it’s more difficult to ensure that, since we at SIGAR have no presence in Afghanistan."

The United States and other foreign donors have continued to withhold most of their financial assistance to Afghanistan, fearing that if the Taliban was to receive those funds, it would reward and legitimize a regime that took power by force and has committed gross human rights violations.

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.

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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