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Gandhara Briefing: Al-Zawahri Assassination, Taliban Media Crackdown, And Killings In North Waziristan

The killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in one of Kabul's more affluent districts has raised eyebrows in the region. (file photo)
The killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in one of Kabul's more affluent districts has raised eyebrows in the region. (file photo)

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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 week's Gandhara Briefing brings you insights into the assassination of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahri, the Taliban's ongoing media crackdown, and a spike in targeted killings in Pakistan’s North Waziristan district.

Al-Qaeda Chief Killed In Upscale Neighborhood

I write about the irony of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, who many believed was hiding in the rugged border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, being killed in a U.S. drone strike in Shirpur, a wealthy neighborhood in central Kabul that was largely built on U.S. taxpayers' money.

The villa where Zawahri and his family were living is among scores of multimillion-dollar mansions that were built in Shirpur after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

The neighborhood came to embody the endemic corruption and impunity of the post-Taliban era. Most of the land in the area was allegedly grabbed by high-ranking government officials and powerful former warlords, who were empowered and enriched by the international military presence.

"Why do international terrorists still live in Kabul?" asked Safa, a Kabul resident. "Why are the Taliban unable to destroy and expel the terrorists from our country?"

The Taliban’s War On The Free Press

Michael Scollon reports on the Taliban continuing to crack down on domestic and foreign media through harassment, beatings, and the enforcement of haphazard rules imposed on journalists.

As the extremist group recently released a new decree intended to protect its government from "disrespectful" criticism by the media, one foreign journalist who returned to Afghanistan was detained and forced to publicly retract previous reporting.

"They stood around me when it got to the point of 'If you don't publicly apologize you will go to jail,' so it was pretty clear that that was what I had to do," Lynne O'Donnell, a longtime Afghanistan correspondent, told us.

(See our infographic on the human rights abuses committed by the Taliban government)

Meanwhile, the beating of a local female journalist added to the growing list of pressure by force.

"My cell phone fell, and when I tried to pick it up, they [the Taliban] hit me on the shoulder and I fell. A second [Taliban fighter] hit me, and I lost consciousness," said Salgai Ehsas, a journalist in Jalalabad, about an incident on July 22.

Heather Barr, associate director of the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch, said it was “becoming difficult for everyone to provide real news from Afghanistan because the Taliban are not ready to tolerate what is published in the free media."

(Watch German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock criticizing the Taliban for taking away "every human right" from Afghan women.)

Targeted Assassinations Rise In North Waziristan

Daud Khattak reports on a recent surge in targeted killings in Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal belt, a region that was a former militant stronghold.

Many of the 50 killings this year have occurred in North Waziristan. Residents have blamed the attacks -- which have often targeted activists, religious leaders, and tribal elders -- on Pakistan’s powerful army and militants still holed up in the region.

"I narrowly escaped death," said Mir Wali, an activist in North Waziristan, recalling the killing of four of his colleagues on June 19. "I believe that I was the main target."

Lawmaker Mohsin Dawar argues that the targeted killings are an attempt to silence dissenting voices.

"Militant groups are trying to create chaos and fear so they can stop people from engaging in political activities," he told us.

China's Belt And Road Hits Bumps

Reid Standish writes about China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) facing growing challenges.

Beijing is scrambling to respond to a widening debt crisis as developing nations, such as Pakistan, struggle to repay Chinese loans.

New Chinese investment in Pakistan through the BRI dropped by 56 percent during the first half of 2022. Islamabad remains the biggest recipient of BRI financing globally, with Beijing investing around $62 billion in infrastructure projects.

"Pakistan went through some big political changes last year and this year and there has been some reevaluation of the political risks from the Chinese side," said Christoph Nedopil Wang, the director of the Green Finance and Development Center at Fudan University, who helped write a new report evaluating BRI projects.

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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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