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Gandhara Briefing: The Taliban's Grand Gathering, More Madrasahs, And Mehdi Mujahid

A Taliban fighter secures the venue of the "Grand Gathering" in Kabul on June 30.
A Taliban fighter secures the venue of the "Grand Gathering" in Kabul on June 30.

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 Taliban's grand assembly, atrocities during the Taliban offensive against rebel Hazara commander Mehdi Mujahid, and the Taliban's efforts to convert secular schools into religious seminaries.

The Taliban's Big Tent

Radio Azadi reports on why critics view this week's Taliban "Grand Gathering" as failing to showcase grassroots inclusivity, as it falls short of granting representation to many segments of Afghan society.

No women are participating in the grand assembly because, according to a senior Taliban organizer of the event, they will be "somehow involved" because "their sons will be part of the gathering."

Heather Barr, co-director of the Women's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, says the assembly has only gathered Taliban supporters.

"This cannot boost their legitimacy because they ignored others, especially women, who have no place in this meeting," she told us.

In his speech to the gathering -- his first in Kabul -- the Taliban's reclusive supreme leader, Mawlawi Haibuatullah Akhundzada, indicated that the Taliban is likely to double down on the policies that have prevented the group from winning domestic and international legitimacy.

Atrocities Feared In Taliban Operation

I write about the mounting concerns residents, the UN, and international watchdogs have expressed over grave rights abuses during a Taliban offensive against a dissident commander in northern Afghanistan.

Mehdi Mujahid, the most senior former ethnic Hazara security official in the Taliban government, rebelled against the group after he was fired in early June. He accused the Taliban of discriminating against the predominantly Shi'ite group.

The Taliban responded with force by sending troops into his stronghold in Balkhab, a mineral-rich district in Sar-e Pul.

"Crimes against humanity are now taking place in Balkhab," said a male resident of the district who requested anonymity. "I want to ask the United Nations and independent media to probe these abuses."

Mehdi has joined several Taliban commanders from among Afghan ethnic minorities who have revolted against the Islamist group, led by Pashtun clerics, since the beginning of this year.

The Taliban's War On Modern Education

Radio Azadi reports on the Taliban's aggressive tactics of dismantling modern education in Afghanistan by converting secular schools into religious seminaries.

Provincial teacher-training centers and prominent high schools appear to be the first targets because of their influence in implanting secular syllabuses and shaping the worldview of youth.

"It has upset people," said Sainullah Siyal, a graduate of Abdul Hai Habibi High, which was recently converted into a madrasah. Residents of Khost revered it as the most prestigious school in southeastern Afghanistan. "It is wrong to turn secular schools into madrasahs."

Critics say the move is part of the Taliban's efforts to transform Afghan society through "social engineering" by brainwashing the new generation in ideological schools.

"This way, they can keep recruiting [madrasah] students to be their soldiers and build a medieval theocratic system," said Mohammad Mohiq, an Islamic scholar.

(Listen to why an Afghan schoolgirl is lamenting the Taliban ban on teenage girls going to school.)

Smuggled Iranian Medicines For Afghan Patients

In a video report, Radio Farda takes us to Tehran and Kabul to probe the booming business of Iranian medicines being sold illegally on the Afghan market.

The illegal trade generates much-needed employment for many Afghans and provides cheaper medicines compared to those imported from Pakistan. But there are doubts over the quality of the drugs and whether some can retain their potency as they are moved without refrigeration across international borders.

"Smuggled drugs are always lower in quality," said an Afghan pharmacist. "The packaging may look right, but the content lacks quality."

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

Please note that there will no Gandhara Briefing on July 8. We will return on July 15.

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

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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