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Gandhara Briefing: Year Of The Taliban, Great Game, Girls' Education

Taliban fighters pose for a selfie with a mobile phone in Kabul.
Taliban fighters pose for a selfie with a mobile phone in Kabul.

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.

Victorious year clouds Taliban's future

I write about what clouds the immediate future of the Taliban at the end of a year that saw the Islamist movement return to power on the back of a nearly two-decade violent campaign.

Most of the extremist group's immediate challenges can be summed up in its struggle to transform from insurgency to government.

Growing alienation and international isolation amid a collapsing economy and mounting humanitarian crisis are hallmarks of the Taliban's embryonic rule.

"Managing the economy, keeping Afghans united, and gaining international recognition are others," veteran Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai told me regarding the challenges the Taliban faces.

Marvin Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute, sees the Taliban wrestling with a collapsed economy and a dire humanitarian situation. "In all probability the Taliban will make do with minimal governing even while it continues to rule," he predicted.

One potential silver lining for Afghanistan is that for the first time in four decades its immediate neighbors and regional powers appear to have no interest in an armed conflict in or with the country. But Weinbaum says even that could change. "Pockets of resistance will rise and, importantly, discontent is likely to increase within the Taliban's ranks," he said.

New Great Game in the heart of Asia

Ron Synovitz examines whether Afghanistan is set to become the scene of another competition between global powers after the U.S. departure this year prompted China, Russia, Iran, and Pakistan to reposition themselves in the region.

"There may be a new Great Game in Central Asia, but it is going to have a lot less importance to the United States than the new Great Game in the Western Pacific and East Asian waters," said James Reardon-Anderson, a professor of history at Georgetown University, alluding to Washington's growing competition with Beijing.

The renewed competition, however, is unlikely to have any clear winners. "China and Russia project an appearance of coordination, but in practice their differing regional interests and identities set real limits," Sabine Fischer and Angela Stanzel noted in a recent analysis for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

A secret school for Afghan girls

Radio Azadi reports on an Afghan university graduate who has stepped up to run a secret school for teenage girls deprived of education by their Taliban rulers.

Mursal is teaching sciences, math, and literature to some 50 girls from grades seven through 12 at her own expense in a makeshift classroom at her Kabul home.

"This school has helped us a lot," said Suraya, one of Mursal's students who feel the Taliban's return to power has sentenced them to a life in prison. "Many girls were hopeless and suffering from depression and stress."

The Taliban's treatment of Afghan women is a major impediment to its recognition as Afghanistan's legitimate government. And yet the militants’ Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice further curtailed women's freedom of movement by directing taxi drivers to refrain from offering rides to female passengers not wearing the Islamic hijab or those traveling without a male chaperone.

Several women were injured in a stampede after Taliban soldiers resorted to firing in the air to stop a demonstration this week. In an effort to boost women's rights in Afghanistan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken appointed Rina Amiri, an Afghan-born U.S. scholar and mediation expert, as the special envoy for Afghan women, girls, and human rights.

The Taliban's war on the dead

I write about the alleged destruction and vandalism at the graves of some of the Taliban's most prominent foes.

While the Taliban denies taking part in defiling graves, it has not punished the perpetrators of such acts, which have been widely condemned by Afghans.

"Seizing homes, vehicles, property, and the destruction of tombs in several places shows how the younger generation of Taliban [fighters] are constantly taking part in these actions," exiled Afghan journalist Bilal Sarwary said of what he called a "growing trend."

Afghan Kazakh resettlement stalls

Farangis Najibullah reports on how the Taliban takeover has hindered the resettlement of Afghanistan's tiny Kazakh community to their ancestral homeland, Kazakhstan.

"We sent them money [for their flights], but it won't be enough anymore," said Hangama Abdul Karim. She is among the handful of Kazakh citizens seeking to relocate some 200 relatives from Afghanistan. "We can't afford to pay for their travel with connecting flights [through other countries.]"

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.

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