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Gandhara Briefing: Taliban Rule, Pakistan Blasphemy, Central Asia

Afghan boys look over a metal barrier at people receiving food supplies during a distribution of humanitarian aid for families in need in Kabul on February 16.
Afghan boys look over a metal barrier at people receiving food supplies during a distribution of humanitarian aid for families in need in Kabul on February 16.

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.

Six months on, Afghanistan in despair

I recap Radio Azadi’s reporting about why many Afghans are losing hope six months after the Taliban takeover as the economic collapse hastens a humanitarian crisis affecting most of the country’s population.

In interviews across the country, Afghans spoke of their struggle to survive the harsh winter, diminishing freedoms, disappearing rights, and pessimism over their country’s future.

"Without swift action to help us, we are very close to a humanitarian catastrophe," said Mohammad Mansuri, a farmer in Faryab. Like thousands of residents in his remote Kohistan district, his family of six is starving. His two sick children have no prospect of accessing treatment in the region cut off by heavy snowfall. They are among the 23 million Afghans facing starvation.

Afghan women have fared the worst under Taliban rule. They have lost jobs, education opportunities, and any prominent role in society.

"[The Taliban] had promised to preserve women's rights, but we see nothing....Everyone is in a state of despair and hopelessness," said Zahra Rahnavard, a Kabul resident.

(Listen to a shopkeeper in Kabul who says the Taliban forced him to keep his shop open even after he has lost all his business.)

Pakistan’s resilient blasphemy laws

I write about why campaigners feel that Pakistan’s crackdown on the alleged perpetrators of the latest lynching attack is unlikely to translate into a broader effort to repeal or reform the country's tough blasphemy laws.

Rights advocates and legal experts view Islamabad’s vows to punish perpetrators of mob attacks as a means of skirting the larger issue.

“Everyone knows that blasphemy laws are abused in settling scores,” said Zohra Yousaf, former head of the human rights commission of Pakistan. “If we must have such laws, they should be reformed in ways that are not abused.”

Journalist Sabookh Syed, however, argues that changing the public view of blasphemy laws is a difficult task. “The Islamic clergy have formed a narrative which justifies compulsory punishment for blasphemy accusations," he told us. "In their view, an accused hanged by a court or killed by a mob are the same.”

Taliban soldiers along Central Asian borders

Farangis Najibullah weighs in on why the Taliban’s recent deployment of more than 4,000 troops along Afghanistan’s northern and western borders with Central Asia is not aimed at bolstering domestic security as the militants have claimed. Instead, it serves as a warning to its neighbors.

“If you’re harboring our enemies, we’re here on standby near your borders,” explained Omar Sapi, an Afghan military expert, of the Taliban’s reasoning. He added that the Taliban might not be seeking hostilities but wants to forestall a possible spring offensive by Afghan warlords and political figures now sheltering in Central Asia.

War follows Afghan interpreter in Ukraine

In a moving piece, Mansur Mirovalev takes us to Kyiv to meet Jawed Ahmad Haqmal, an Afghan interpreter who served the Canadian forces based in his hometown, Kandahar.

After fleeing Afghanistan during the chaotic evacuations in August, Haqmal, his wife, four children, and six other relatives are now facing a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine, where they are stranded enroute to Canada.

“Everyone is worried; everyone is getting crazy [about the possibility of war],” he told us. “They just used us and now they've forgotten us,” he said, expressing his disappointment over treatment by the Canadian Immigration authorities. “I am totally broken. There is no hope left.”

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

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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