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Gandhara Briefing: Taliban's First Year In Power, TTP's Return, Afghan Schoolgirls  

Taliban security officers patrol the streets of Kabul one year after the militant group seized power in Afghanistan.
Taliban security officers patrol the streets of Kabul one year after the militant group seized power in Afghanistan.

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

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This special edition of the Gandhara Briefing recaps our extensive coverage of the Taliban's first year in power in Afghanistan and why locals oppose the return of the Pakistani Taliban.

One Year Later, Taliban Firmly Entrenched

I assess whether the Taliban will hold on to power a year after marching triumphantly into Kabul.

The Islamist movement's nearly two-decade-long insurgency ended with a dramatic seizure of Afghanistan in the wake of the withdrawal of Western troops.

The hard-line Islamists have crushed armed resistance and peaceful civil rights activists opposing the Taliban's extensive human rights violations, its repression of women, and its muzzling of the free press.

"For the Taliban, it is a very big deal that their current government is the only regime in Afghanistan's past four-decade history that controls the entire country," journalist Sami Yousafzai noted. He argues that territorial control and military strength will protect the Taliban from a new civil war.

Yet, the Taliban remain on a collision course with the West over the group's ambivalent attitude toward terrorism. The recent U.S. killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in an alleged Taliban guesthouse has raised questions about whether the Taliban will honor the counterterrorism commitments it signed up to in its February 2020 peace agreement with the United States in Doha.

With its government still deprived of international recognition and domestic legitimacy, the Taliban remain vulnerable to internal fractures. But even those are unlikely to break up the group or weaken its grip on power as it broadly remains the most united armed faction in recent Afghan history.

"There seems a conscious effort [within the Taliban] to avoid the kind of fractures that could undermine the regime's grip on power and therefore a strong incentive to reconcile differences," Marvin Weinbaum, a former intelligence analyst at the State Department, told me.

Firm Opposition To Pakistan's Returning Taliban

I report on why many Pashtuns in Pakistan firmly oppose the return of armed Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants.

Hundreds of TTP militants are back in their former strongholds in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, even before inking a deal they had been negotiating with Islamabad for months.

Their return to Swat, Waziristan, and Dir has touched raw nerves because it reminded many that the TTP's violence had left tens of thousands of civilians killed and millions displaced.

"The TTP's show of strength is gauging the public reaction to their demand of returning to these regions with their arms," said Abdul Sayed, a Swedish-based researcher who tracks the group.

The return of the TTP militants saw a spike in violence in Swat and Dir. The group's intimidation is also felt in Peshawar, where the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf leaders faced accusations of paying protection money to it. Most political leaders in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa gathered this week to oppose Islamabad's negotiations with the TTP.

Who Is To Blame For The Afghan Government's Fall?

In an interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi, former U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad weighed in on his controversial peace deal with the Taliban that many see as the reason why the pro-Western government of President Ashraf Ghani fell. He mainly focused on why it failed to achieve peace between the Western-backed Afghan government and the Taliban.

Khalilzad blames Ghani and other elites for failing to secure reconciliation among Afghans. He says they mistakenly believed that U.S. President Joe Biden would scrap the U.S. agreement with the Taliban made by his predecessor Donald Trump.

"The bad habit in Afghanistan is that no one accepts responsibility and even don't accept facts," said Khalilzad. "They only blame a foreigner or a foreign country because everything [allegedly] happens for their interests."

(Watch our video with the Taliban, Ghani, and Khalilzad offering divergent views on why Kabul fell)

The Human Toll Of Afghanistan's Fall

Asadullah Ludin talked to the parents of a young Afghan dentist who fell from a U.S. cargo plane as it took off from Kabul airport in the chaotic time after the collapse of the government.

Fida Mohammad Amir, 26, was among hundreds of Afghans who flooded the runway at Kabul airport on August 16, 2021, a day after the Taliban seized Kabul.

The dentist was one of three young Afghans who fell to their death from a C-17 Globemaster military transport plane as they attempted to flee from Afghanistan by clinging to its landing gear.

"Why didn't they stop the takeoff to keep everyone safe," said his father, Payenda Mohammad Ibrahimkhel, who had invested everything in educating Amir and had even acquired a large debt for his marriage.

The debt, his mother Shahjan said, weighed heavily on Amir’s mind. "We were facing imminent destitution. Otherwise, why would a doctor be so desperate [to leave]," she said.

China's Cautious Dealings With The Taliban

In an interview with Reid Standish, China expert Raffaello Pantucci examined Beijing's careful dealings with the Taliban. Contrary to conventional wisdom, China has not stepped up to fill the vacuum left behind by the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan.

"Any of the predictions that said that we're going to suddenly see loads of [Chinese investment] through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) focused on mining opportunities have not come to pass," Pantucci said, explaining that the dearth of infrastructure and the Taliban's lack of "technocratic capability" to manage or facilitate large projects prevents Beijing from playing a larger economic role.

On the diplomatic and security fronts, Beijing is also limiting its footprint. It encourages a regional consensus on Afghanistan while ensuring that the Taliban keep tabs on Uyghur militants.

Afghan Schoolgirls Paint Shattered Dreams

Radio Azadi has collected the paintings and diaries of teenage Afghan schoolgirls banned from going to school after the Taliban takeover.

"I have worked so hard to achieve my beautiful dream, but today I am confined in a prison called home," wrote Manizha, 15, who wants to become a physician.

"Apart from war, suicide, explosions, and the deprivation and condemnation of women, the Taliban have nothing to do," wrote Monawara, an 11th-grader confined to her home.

Pakistani Psychologist's War On Addiction

In a video report, we take you to meet Saba Khan in Charsadda. The young psychologist has so far treated nearly 100 drug addicts in her clinic Rokhana Saba, which means “bright future” in Pashto.

"I have received threats from the drug dealers," she said of one of the major hurdles she faces in treating patients with methamphetamine addictions.

That's all from me this week.

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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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