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Reports: Germany Looks To Move Up Afghanistan Troop Withdrawal To July 4

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (center) visits German troops stationed in Mazar-e Sharif on February 26.
German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (center) visits German troops stationed in Mazar-e Sharif on February 26.

Media reports say Germany is looking at a plan to bring forward the date for withdrawing its troops from Afghanistan to July 4.

The German news agency dpa and France’s AFP quoted a Defense Ministry spokesman on April 21 as saying lawmakers were informed of the plan, and that consultations with NATO are under way.

"The current thinking ... is to shorten the withdrawal period. A withdrawal date of July 4 is being considered," a ministry spokesman told AFP, stressing that the final decision would be made by NATO.

U.S. President Joe Biden last week announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, four months later than the May 1 deadline agreed by the previous U.S. administration with Taliban insurgents.

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer had previously set mid-August as the deadline for her country’s removal of troops from the war-torn country.

Under the Doha accord, all foreign forces were to leave Afghanistan by May 1 in exchange for security guarantees from the militant group such as severing ties with Al-Qaeda and refusing to harbor any foreign terrorists.

The Taliban also pledged to negotiate a cease-fire and a power-sharing deal with Kabul.

Earlier on April 21, Turkey said that an international peace conference on Afghanistan previously scheduled for later this week had been postponed until after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan over issues regarding the preparations.

Reuters, however, quoted three sources as saying that the gathering was postponed over the Taliban’s refusal to participate in the event.

Afghan officials and Taliban representatives have not commented on the matter.

Based on reporting by dpa and AFP

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Little Cheer As Afghans Mark Eid Under Taliban Rule

Little Cheer As Afghans Mark Eid Under Taliban Rule
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The Muslim festival of Eid Al-Fitr passed peacefully but with few celebrations in the Afghan capital, Kabul. Extra security was in place at mosques and parks, but shopkeepers reported business remained stagnant. The United Nations estimates the Afghan economy has shrunk 27 percent since the Taliban retook power in 2021, with unemployment doubling.

RFE/RL Freelance Journalist Attacked By Armed Men In Islamabad

Afghan journalist Ahmad Hanayesh
Afghan journalist Ahmad Hanayesh

Ahmad Hanayesh, a freelance journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, sustained injuries in an attack by unknown gunmen in Islamabad on April 3. Pakistani police said that they are investigating the incident. One of Hanayesh's relatives told Radio Azadi that three armed men on a motorcycle attacked the Afghan national as he was returning home from a walk in the Pakistani capital. Hanayesh, who is in stable condition, worked as a reporter with Radio Azadi for several years before leaving the country for neighboring Pakistan, where he has since worked as a freelance journalist. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

Could Taliban Canal Spark Water War In Central Asia?

Could Taliban Canal Spark Water War In Central Asia?
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The Taliban-led government is pushing forward with the ambitious Qosh Tepa canal project despite concerns over its impact. The waterway taps the Amu Darya River, a key water source that runs through Afghanistan and Central Asia. While Afghan farmers await a potential agricultural boon, neighboring states Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have expressed concern over possible damage to water security and farming in the area.

Amnesty International Calls On Pakistan To Stop Expelling Afghan Girls And Women

Afghan refugee women and children sit at a registration center after arriving back from Pakistan in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, late last year.
Afghan refugee women and children sit at a registration center after arriving back from Pakistan in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, late last year.

Amnesty International has urged Pakistan to halt expelling hundreds of thousands of Afghan girls and women to neighboring Afghanistan.

“The deportation of Afghan refugees from Pakistan will put women and girls at unique risk,” Amnesty's South Asia Office wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on March 27.

The global rights watchdog's plea comes ahead of the beginning of a new phase of the expulsion of Afghan refugees from neighboring Pakistan. Islamabad plans to force some 850,000 documented Afghan refugees back to their country next month if they don't leave voluntarily.


Since October, Pakistan has already expelled more than 500,000 Afghans who lacked proper documents to stay in the country.

“Forced returns seriously curtail their rights to education, work, movement, and in some cases, expose them to imminent threat of violence,” Amnesty said.

“The Government of Pakistan must halt all deportations and take affirmative measures to ensure the safety of refugee women and girls,” it added.

After returning to power in August 2021, the Taliban’s ultraconservative Islamist government n Afghanistan has banned teenage girls and women from education. It also prohibited women from employment in most sectors.


Afghan women must also wear a niqab -- a strict head-to-toe veil -- in public. Taliban restrictions have severely curtailed women’s mobility by requiring them to be accompanied by a male chaperone outside their homes. Women are also banned from leisure activities, including visits to parks.

“Women and girls will experience serious repression of their rights to education, work, freedom of movement and more if deported,” Amnesty said.

The new warning comes two days after Amnesty called in a new report on Islamabad to reverse forced expulsions of all Afghans.

The report, Pakistan: Human Rights Charter, issued on March 25, asked Islamabad to protect all at-risk "refugees in compliance with Pakistan obligations under the principle of non-refoulement."

Non-refoulement is a fundamental principle of international law that prohibits a state from returning asylum seekers to a country where they would face persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

Pakistan lacks a domestic law that offers a path to refugee status. It is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 protocol intended to remove constraints on who can be considered a refugee.

From Offshoot To 'Spearhead': The Rise Of IS-K, Islamic State's Afghanistan Branch

A still taken from an undated video shows Hafiz Saeed (center), the founder of IS-K, at an undisclosed location at the Afghanistan-Pakistani border in January 2015.
A still taken from an undated video shows Hafiz Saeed (center), the founder of IS-K, at an undisclosed location at the Afghanistan-Pakistani border in January 2015.

Since its emergence a decade ago, the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) militant group has largely focused its attacks on Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But IS-K, the Afghanistan branch of Islamic State (IS), has carried out an increasing number of mass-casualty attacks outside its stronghold in South Asia in recent years, including in Iran and Russia.

Experts say the deadly attack on a concert venue outside Moscow on March 22, which was widely blamed on IS-K, shows the affiliate’s growing capabilities and ambitions, as well as its leading role in the umbrella organization.

“This branch has become the spearhead, the leading internationally minded branch of the Islamic State,” said Lucas Webber, co-founder and editor of MilitantWire.com.

Webber said IS’s central leadership in Syria and Iraq has had to “focus more on survival, regrouping, and reconstituting its capabilities and its networks” after the group was largely defeated and dismantled by a U.S.-led coalition in 2019.

Taliban fighters stand guard outside a hospital in Kabul in November 2021 after an attack claimed by IS-K. At least 19 people were killed.
Taliban fighters stand guard outside a hospital in Kabul in November 2021 after an attack claimed by IS-K. At least 19 people were killed.

“It’s essentially become the parent organization of the IS franchise,” said Webber, referring to IS-K, which first appeared in Afghanistan in late 2014, the same year that IS seized large swaths of Syria and Iraq and declared a self-styled caliphate.

IS also has branches in the Arabian Peninsula, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Caucasus.

External Operations

As well as continuing to carry out attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, IS-K appears to have shifted its focus to external operations in recent months.

In January, IS-K was blamed for killing more than 90 people in Iran’s southern city of Kerman, the deadliest attack in the Islamic republic in decades.

Relatives identify the bodies of some of the 90 people who were killed in explosions in the Iranian city of Kerman in January that were blamed on IS-K.
Relatives identify the bodies of some of the 90 people who were killed in explosions in the Iranian city of Kerman in January that were blamed on IS-K.

On March 22, gunmen stormed the Crocus City Hall concert venue in the Moscow region, killing at least 139 people, in Russia’s worst terrorist violence in two decades.

IS claimed responsibility for the attack. U.S. officials specifically blamed IS-K, while Moscow attributed the attack to Islamic extremists without mentioning the IS affiliate.

IS-K on March 25 threatened to carry out more “massacres” against Russia. Moscow has targeted IS militants in Syria and Africa and forged ties with the Taliban government, a fierce rival of IS-K in Afghanistan.

Webber of MilitantWire.com said IS-K poses a rapidly growing threat to the West. “For the foreseeable future, this seems to be an indication of things to come,” he said.

General Michael E. Kurilla, head of the U.S. military’s Central Command, told lawmakers on March 21 that IS-K “retains the capability and the will to attack U.S. and Western interests abroad in as little as six months with little to no warning.”

Law enforcement in Europe have uncovered several IS-K plots in recent years.

Why Would Islamic State Attack Russia?
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German police on March 19 said they had arrested two suspected IS-K supporters. They were accused of plotting to attack the Swedish parliament.

In July, police in Germany and the Netherlands arrested nine people who they said were in contact with IS-K.

During the past year, the group has threatened to carry out attacks in Sweden, the Netherlands, and Denmark after cases of Koran burnings in those countries.

'Loose Network Of Cells'

After its emergence, IS-K initially captured small pockets of territory in eastern and northern Afghanistan as part of IS’s broader aim of expansion throughout South and Central Asia.

But IS-K was driven out from its territorial strongholds around 2019 after coming under increasing fire from Afghan and international forces as well as the Taliban. Since then, IS-K has embarked on a new strategy of urban warfare.

“We are witnessing a new phase of the Islamic State-Khorasan,” said Riccardo Valle, the co-founder of The Khorasan Diary, an online platform that tracks militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.


He said IS-K has evolved from a group aiming to seize territory like a “traditional army” to a “loose network of cells, which tends to carry out more lethal attacks.”

IS-K is made up of Afghan and foreign fighters. In a report published in June 2023, the UN Security Council said the number of IS-K militants in Afghanistan ranged “from 4,000 to 6,000,” including family members. Some experts estimate that the number is much lower.

Sara Harmouch, a terrorism and defense policy expert in Washington, said IS-K’s focus on asymmetric warfare instead of territorial control has enabled the group to adapt to local conditions and withstand counterterrorism operations.

“This flexibility could make IS-K a more dynamic and resilient leader within the IS network, capable of navigating post-caliphate era complexities,” she said.

Harmouch said IS-K’s ability to carry out high-profile attacks outside Afghanistan and Pakistan has raised its profile and indicated its expanding capabilities.

“This visibility could position IS-K as a leading figure within the broader IS network, especially in attracting recruits and resources,” she said.

Explainer: What Is Islamic State-Khorasan, The Group Blamed For The Moscow Concert Attack?

Relatives load the coffin of a victim of twin suicide bombs that killed scores of people outside Kabul airport in August 2021. The attack was claimed by the Islamic State-Khorasan militant group.
Relatives load the coffin of a victim of twin suicide bombs that killed scores of people outside Kabul airport in August 2021. The attack was claimed by the Islamic State-Khorasan militant group.

Scores of people were killed after gunmen stormed a concert venue in the Moscow region in what was the deadliest attack in Russia in decades.

The March 22 attack was claimed by the Islamic State (IS) militant group. U.S. officials said a regional branch of IS -- Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) -- was behind the incident.

Based in Afghanistan, IS-K has previously targeted the Russian Embassy in Kabul and threatened to carry out attacks inside Russia.

When Did IS-K First Emerge?

IS-K was founded in Afghanistan in late 2014, the same year that IS overran large swaths of Iraq and Syria and declared a self-styled caliphate, or a state governed by Islamic law. IS was later defeated by a U.S.-led coalition.

IS-K initially captured small pockets of territory in eastern and northern Afghanistan as part of IS’s broader aim of expansion throughout South and Central Asia. Khorasan refers to a historical region that comprised parts of modern-day Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia.

But IS-K began withdrawing from its territorial strongholds in Afghanistan around 2019 after coming under increasing fire from Afghan and foreign forces as well as the Taliban, a rival militant group. IS-K then embarked on a new strategy of urban warfare.

Where Are IS-K Fighters From?

IS-K was founded by disgruntled members of the Afghan Taliban, the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, and Al-Qaeda who declared allegiance to IS.

Over the years, IS-K’s ranks have been further boosted by local recruits and foreign fighters, particularly those from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia.

The Crocus City Hall following the deadly attack at the venue in the Moscow Region on March 22 that was claimed by Islamic State.
The Crocus City Hall following the deadly attack at the venue in the Moscow Region on March 22 that was claimed by Islamic State.

In a report published in June 2023, the UN Security Council said IS-K fighters included citizens of Pakistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and a small number of Arab fighters from Syria who had traveled to Afghanistan.

The UN Security Council said the number of IS-K militants in Afghanistan ranges “from 4,000 to 6,000,” including family members. Some experts estimate that the number is much lower.

What Attacks Has IS-K Carried Out?

IS-K has carried out attacks against Afghan and international forces as well as the Taliban. It has also targeted Afghanistan’s religious minorities.

The group carried out one of its most high-profile attacks -- the killing of 170 Afghan civilians and 13 members of the U.S. military at Kabul's international airport -- in August 2021 as foreign troops pulled out of Afghanistan.

After the Taliban seized power that month, IS-K has since targeted Taliban officials, foreign nationals and embassies, Afghanistan's Shi’a Hazara community, and others it considers incompatible with its own extreme interpretation of Islam.

On March 21, IS-K claimed responsibility for an attack outside a bank in Afghanistan’s southern city of Kandahar that killed at least 21 people, most of them Taliban employees.

The group has also launched cross-border attacks. In January, IS-K was blamed for killing more than 90 people in Iran’s southern city of Kerman, the deadliest attack in the Islamic republic in decades.

Experts said IS-K has remained a resilient force despite hundreds of its fighters being arrested or killed by the Taliban since 2021.

“IS-K is probably the most active and potent of all of the regional affiliates of Islamic State today,” said Michael Kugelman, the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson’s Center in Washington.

Why Would IS-K Attack Russia?

In September 2022, IS-K claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing outside the Russian Embassy in Kabul that killed at least six people, including two employees of the embassy.

The attack did not surprise observers, who said IS had long threatened to carry out attacks inside Russia.

Lucas Webber, co-founder and editor of MilitantWire.com, said IS had named Russia alongside the United States early on as a primary enemy.

“This was only intensified in 2015 when Russia intervened militarily in Syria to support the government,” he said, referring to Moscow’s backing of President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.

“And it continued to intensify after Russia's various military and private military contractor interventions across Africa,” during which IS fighters were targeted, he added.

Why Would Islamic State Attack Russia?
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Experts said Moscow’s support of the Taliban could have also motivated the attack.

Russia, like the rest of the international community, does not recognize the Taliban government and officially considers the hard-line Islamist group to be a terrorist organization. But Moscow on multiple occasions has hosted Taliban officials and maintained an embassy in Kabul.

Reid Standish and Neil Bowdler contributed to this report.

Taliban Strongly Condemns Moscow Concert Hall Attack

A Russian police officer approaches a woman outside the Crocus City Hall in the Moscow region following a deadly attack at the concert venue on March 22.
A Russian police officer approaches a woman outside the Crocus City Hall in the Moscow region following a deadly attack at the concert venue on March 22.

Afghanistan's Taliban rulers have issued a stark condemnation of the March 22 attack on a Moscow concert venue that left at least 115 dead and wounded more than 100 others. The Taliban Foreign Ministry "condemns in the strongest terms the recent terrorist attack in Moscow... claimed by Daesh & considers it a blatant violation of all human standards," ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi wrote on X, formerly Twitter, referring to the Islamic State (IS) extremist organization by its Arabic acronym. IS has staged frequent attacks in Afghanistan since the return of the Taliban to power in 2021. On March 21, IS claimed an attack that killed 19 Taliban employees outside a bank in Kandahar. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

Pakistan Threatens To Close Vital Afghan Trade Corridor With India

As part of pressuring the Taliban, Pakistan is set to force some 850,000 documented Afghan refugees back to their country next month if they don't leave voluntarily. (file photo)
As part of pressuring the Taliban, Pakistan is set to force some 850,000 documented Afghan refugees back to their country next month if they don't leave voluntarily. (file photo)

Amid escalating tensions between Islamabad and Kabul, Pakistan's defense minister has warned Afghanistan's Taliban rulers that his country could block a corridor it provides to allow trade with India.

Khwaja Asif said that Islamabad could block access to its western neighbor Afghanistan through its territory that allows goods to flow into its eastern neighbor India if the Taliban government fails to rein in the Pakistani Taliban, formally known as the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

"If Afghanistan treats us like an enemy, then why should we give them a trade corridor?" Asif told Voice of America on March 20.

Tensions between Islamabad and Kabul are running high after the Taliban said it retaliated against Pakistani air strikes that killed eight people, including two children, on March 18. Over the past two decades, Islamabad has repeatedly closed trade routes and border crossings with Afghanistan to pressure Kabul whenever tensions spiked in their bilateral relations.

Islamabad said it targeted a hideout of the TTP, which it blames for mounting attacks on its forces. Pakistan says the TTP is using the Afghan side of the mountainous border region to launch such strikes.

The corridor allowing goods to flow between Afghanistan and India has become an important economic pillar for Kabul.

According to the World Bank, Kabul's trade with India increased 43 percent to $570 million last year, while its trade with Islamabad has shrunk from more than $4 billion a decade ago to less than $1 billion.

Given the growing importance of the corridor, threats of a possible blockade was met with anger and resentment in Afghanistan.

"Their policy has always been harmful to Afghanistan," Ahmad Khan Ander, an Afghan military expert, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "[Pakistan] has never been a friend of Afghanistan."

Ghaus Janbaz, an international relations expert, told Radio Azadi that Islamabad wants to shift the blame to Afghanistan instead of focusing on its domestic crises.

"[The Pakistani government] wants to show that the violence is coming from elsewhere, when all the violence is coming from within Pakistan," he said.

As part of pressuring the Taliban, Pakistan is set to force some 850,000 documented Afghan refugees back to their country next month if they don't leave voluntarily.

According to reports in Pakistani media, the expulsions, the latest in an ongoing campaign of forced deportations, are scheduled to begin on April 15.

The Azadi Briefing: Deadly Bombing In Taliban's De Facto Capital Deals A Blow To Militants

Relatives attend the funeral of an Afghan man who was killed in the suicide attack in Kandahar on March 21.
Relatives attend the funeral of an Afghan man who was killed in the suicide attack in Kandahar on March 21.

Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Abubakar Siddique, senior correspondent at RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.

The Key Issue

A deadly suicide bombing struck Afghanistan’s southern city of Kandahar on March 21.

The attack outside a bank killed at least 21 people and wounded around a dozen others, hospital sources in the city told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Taliban officials put the death toll at three.

The Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) extremist group, a rival of the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Many of the victims appeared to be people queuing outside a branch of the New Kabul Bank in central Kandahar to collect their salaries.

Why It’s Important: The high-profile attack undermined the Taliban’s claim that it has restored security in Afghanistan since seizing power in 2021.

“Such acts also took place under the previous government and it was a disaster,” said Gul Ahmad, whose brother was killed in the attack, referring to the Western-backed Afghan government.

“Now similar attacks happen, too. I request and I beg the current [Taliban] government to bring security to the country,” Ahmad told Radio Azadi.

That IS-K managed to carry out a major assault in the heart of Kandahar, the de facto capital of the Taliban government, is also a blow. The Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, is based in the city.

The suicide bombing has also highlighted the enduring threat posed by IS-K, which continues to carry out attacks against the Taliban and religious minorities.

What's Next: The Taliban is likely to continue to be the target of attacks by IS-K as well as several resistance groups that have waged a low-level insurgency against it.

IS-K has been weakened by years of fighting with the Taliban, but it poses the biggest threat to its rival.

What To Keep An Eye On

The new school year officially began in Afghanistan on March 21. It is the third school year in a row that teenage girls were barred from returning to their classes.

Many girls across Afghanistan lamented the education ban on girls above the sixth grade, which was imposed in March 2022.

Niayesh, who was in the eighth grade when the Taliban seized power, said she is dismayed at the ongoing ban.

"I'm disappointed," Niayesh told Radio Azadi. “I still want to go to school just like my brother.”

Bahar, who is now in the sixth grade, expressed optimism. “I hope all schools will open so that we can study until the 12th grade," she said.

Why It's Important: The Taliban appears unlikely to reverse its restrictions on female education, despite condemnation inside and outside Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s repressive policies have threatened to make its government an international pariah.

The militant group is unlikely to gain international recognition without reversing some of its most draconian policies, including its ban on teenage girls attending school and women going to university.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have. You can always reach us at azadi.english@rferl.org

Until next time,

Abubakar Siddique

Please note that the next newsletter will be issued on April 19.

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every Friday. You can always reach us at azadi.english@rferl.org.

Deadly Suicide Bombing Strikes Outside Bank In Kandahar As Taliban Employees Wait For Pay

Relatives stand around the dead body of a victim of a suicide bomb attack in Kandahar on March 21.
Relatives stand around the dead body of a victim of a suicide bomb attack in Kandahar on March 21.

A suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt outside a bank in the Afghan city of Kandahar early on March 21 as Taliban employees waited for their salaries.

The bombing, later claimed by the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, killed 19 people, according to a source who spoke to RFE/RL on condition of anonymity.

The source at Kandahar's Mirwais Hospital said the bodies of 19 people were transported to the hospital from the scene along with 18 people who were injured.

Another source quoted by the AFP news agency said 20 people had been killed. That source also spoke on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal for speaking to the media.

A statement from the Taliban-led government's police headquarters in Kandahar said three had been killed in the incident and 13 were injured.

Inamullah Samangani, the director of information and culture for Kandahar Province, said that the situation at one of the city's hospitals where the wounded were transported was under control, denying that there was an urgent need for blood donations.

"There is no such issue, and the wounded people are not in serious condition, they have superficial injuries," he said in a message to journalists quoted by AFP.

The bombing took place around 8 a.m. local time as people employed by the Taliban gathered outside a local branch of the New Kabul Bank to collect their salaries, reports said.

Mullah Asadullah Jamshid, the spokesman of the Taliban's police headquarters in Kandahar, said most of the victims were civilians who were waiting to receive their pay.

An IS fighter "detonated his explosive belt" near a bank in Kandahar city, said a statement from the militant group's Amaq news agency on Telegram. The statement also made reference to a "gathering of the Taliban militia."

One of the dead, Khalil Ahmad, a father of eight in his 40s, had gone to the bank to get his salary, said his nephew, Mohammad Shafiq Saraaj.

"We beg for security to be properly maintained in the country and especially in crowded places, and that our nation be saved from this kind of tragedy," Saraaj was quoted by AFP as saying.

Taliban Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Mateen Qani told AFP that an investigation had been launched and that "the criminals will be identified...and punished for their actions."

The number of random bombings and suicide attacks in Afghanistan has declined since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, but multiple explosions have been reported since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on March 11 as the regional chapter of IS and other armed groups remain a threat.

The U.S. Charge d'Affaires for Afghanistan, Karen Decker, condemned the bombing at the bank as a "cowardly act" in statement on X, formerly Twitter, and offered condolences to the victims' families.

"Afghans should be able to observe Ramadan peacefully and without fear," she said.

With reporting by AFP

Pakistan's Campaign To Expel Millions Of Afghan Refugees Enters Second Phase

Afghans in Pakistan holding Afghan Citizen Cards will reportedly be asked by the Islamabad government to voluntarily leave the country. (file photo)
Afghans in Pakistan holding Afghan Citizen Cards will reportedly be asked by the Islamabad government to voluntarily leave the country. (file photo)

Pakistan is set to force some 850,000 documented Afghan refugees back to their country next month if they don't leave voluntarily.

According to reports in Pakistani media, the expulsions, the latest in an ongoing campaign of forced deportations, are scheduled to begin on April 15.

The News, an English-language daily, reported that Afghans holding an Afghan Citizen Card (ACC), an ID card issued by the Pakistani government, will be first asked to voluntarily leave the country.

“Later, they will be arrested and deported,” the report said.

Islamabad is calling this the second phase of its move to force more than 3 million documented and undocumented Afghans out of the country. Since October, it has expelled more than 500,000 Afghans who lacked proper documentation to stay in Pakistan.

“This new step will force Afghans to face danger and fear," lawyer Muniza Kakar told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

Kakar, a lawyer who has voluntarily represented Afghan refugees arrested in the Pakistani city of Karachi, says the campaign aims to expel more than 850,000 ACC-holding Afghans from the South Asian nation.

"When the expulsions begin, they will not discriminate between Afghans holding ACC cards and those holding valid visas,” she said.

Widespread abuses marred Pakistan's earlier expulsions. Afghans complained of police and other authorities pressuring them for bribes. Many said they were robbed or were expelled despite holding documents that proved that their stay in Pakistan was legal.

“Urgent action is needed to protect the lives and rights of refugees,” Muniza said.

She shared a government document on X, formerly Twitter, that asks the provincial authorities in the southern province of Sindh, where Karachi is the capital, to complete their respective “mapping and repatriation plans” by March 25.

"Unfortunately, the Pakistani government’s campaign against Afghan refugees has upended our lives," said Suraya Sadat. "When outside, we always fear being arrested."

Samira Hamidi, a campaigner for global human rights watchdog Amnesty International, questioned why Islamabad is going after Afghan refugees given the situation in Afghanistan.

“Most of these refugees fled Afghanistan fearing persecution of the Taliban,” she wrote on X. "Such mapping and any further decision will expose them to great risk.”

The new plan for exclusions comes after Afghanistan’s Taliban government shelled a Pakistani military installation on March 20. The Taliban said that the attacks were a retaliation for Pakistani air strikes that killed women and children in two southeastern Afghan provinces.

Pakistan said the attacks targeted members of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, which Islamabad says is sheltering in Afghanistan. Islamabad blames the group for violent attacks on its security forces.

Updated

Swedish Aid Group Suspends Afghanistan Operations After Taliban Order

A doctor talks with a patient and her child at the Tangi Saidan clinic run by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan in the Daymirdad district of Wardak Province.
A doctor talks with a patient and her child at the Tangi Saidan clinic run by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan in the Daymirdad district of Wardak Province.

The Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA), one of the country's oldest and largest international aid groups, has suspended activities in Afghanistan following a decree issue by the Taliban that provides for the suspension of all of "Sweden's activities" in the country following the burning of copies of the Koran in Stockholm in June.*

"We are extremely saddened by the current situation and the effects our suspension will have on the millions of people who have benefitted from our services over the past four decades," the organization said in a statement on March 19.

The SCA said it suspended its operations only after the decree called for a halt in all Swedish activities in Afghanistan and that its license was not revoked.

"We strongly condemn and distance ourselves from these acts," the statement said, referring to the June incident.

"Desecration of the Holy Koran is an insult to all Muslims around the world who hold this sacred text dear to their hearts, and it constitutes a flagrant attack on the Islamic faith," it said.

Every year, nearly 3 million Afghans residing in 16 provinces benefit from the SCA's projects in health care, education, and disability and livelihood support.

"We are also gravely concerned about the future of our nearly 7,000 Afghan employees across 16 provinces," the SCA said.

"Many of them are the sole breadwinners of their families and if they lose their jobs, thousands of families will suffer," the organization added.

The closure of the SCA has disappointed Afghans across the country because it was seen as a leading example of how best to work with Afghan communities.

"All these activities were effective in healing our nation's pain," an Afghan aid worker who requested anonymity told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

"While our people face starvation and don't have enough food and water, they are closing such humanitarian organizations," he added.

An SCA employee in the southeastern Ghazni Province told Radio Azadi that the closure of the group's operations was wreaking havoc on the daily lives of Aghanistan's most vulnerable.

"Our hospital was helping more than 200 disabled people daily," he said.

"Now hundreds wait outside the hospital's gates with no prospects of it reopening soon."

In the northern Balkh Province, another employee said that closing an education training institute was a further blow to the region.

"Our people are grappling with monumental problems," he told Radio Azadi. The SCA employees interviewed sought anonymity because they said they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The SCA was founded as a nongovernmental organization in 1980. It first supported millions of Afghan refugees in neighboring Pakistan who had fled the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

From a small office in northwestern Pakistan, it established health clinics inside Afghanistan in 1982. In the 1990s, it moved into Afghanistan and provided lifesaving health care and education to millions of Afghans. Various Western donors have supported its projects.

*CORRECTION: This story has been amended to reflect that the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan's operations were suspended because of a Taliban decree and not as a result of its license being revoked. It also clarifies that the group established health clinics in Afghanistan in the 1980s from its office in Pakistan.

Afghans Pushed Out, Fenced In By Once-Accommodating Neighbors

Afghan refugees rest at a camp near the Torkham Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing in Afghanistan on November 3, 2023. More than half a million Afghans were forced to leave Pakistan when Islamabad announced its plans to expel "undocumented foreigners."
Afghan refugees rest at a camp near the Torkham Pakistan-Afghanistan border crossing in Afghanistan on November 3, 2023. More than half a million Afghans were forced to leave Pakistan when Islamabad announced its plans to expel "undocumented foreigners."

Afghans are being pushed back, fenced out, and left to fend for themselves in the face of Taliban persecution and widespread hunger.

Hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans have been kicked out of neighboring countries and forcibly returned to Afghanistan in recent months. Millions more are slated to join them, complicating the already daunting humanitarian effort to stave off a famine.

Underscoring that Afghans are not welcome, neighboring states are rolling out the barbed wire in an attempt to keep them out.

Returnee Overload

Over the course of a year, a total of 1.5 million Afghans have been forcibly returned to Afghanistan by various countries, the Taliban said earlier this month.

Most, according to migration officials, were sent back by Pakistan, Iran, and Turkey -- for decades destinations for Afghan migrant workers as well as refugees looking to escape war and poverty. Others have been sent back from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Trucks transporting Afghan refugees with their belongings travel a road toward the Pakistan-Afghanistan Torkham border crossing on November 3, 2023, following Pakistan's government decision to expel people illegally staying in the country.
Trucks transporting Afghan refugees with their belongings travel a road toward the Pakistan-Afghanistan Torkham border crossing on November 3, 2023, following Pakistan's government decision to expel people illegally staying in the country.

That number could more than double if Iran and Pakistan fully carry out their goals of deporting all undocumented Afghans, including asylum-seekers who face persecution under the Taliban and some who have not lived in their home country for decades or were born abroad.

Pakistan was initially accommodating to Afghans fleeing Taliban rule, serving as a temporary destination for many as they sought asylum in a third country.

But since October 2023, when Islamabad announced its plans to expel more than 1.7 million "undocumented foreigners," more than a half million Afghans have been forced to leave Pakistan, Abdulmatallab Haqqani, spokesman for the Taliban’s Refugees and Repatriations Ministry, said this week.

Some of the new arrivals are now trying to resettle in a homeland they have never stepped foot in, and most are being held in temporary tent camps set up along Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan, where aid groups are struggling to provide them with emergency relief.

More than half of Afghanistan's population of around 40 million faces a food security crisis that is approaching the level of a famine, according to aid and rights groups.

According to the UN's World Food Program, the situation is contributing to "a humanitarian crisis of incredible proportions" that has "grown even more complex and severe since the Taliban took control" in August 2021. The UN body warns that Afghanistan is on the brink of economic collapse, with the currency struggling and food prices on the rise.

The vast majority of the returnees aim to return to their provinces of origin, according to the International Organization for Migration Afghanistan, but many have no homes or livelihoods to return to.

The new arrivals have been welcomed in Afghanistan, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) senior public information officer Caroline Gluck told RFE/RL in written comments, but "there are limited capacities to offer them the support they need."

Afghan refugees deported from Pakistan receive food aid from the Red Cross Society in Kandahar on January 24.
Afghan refugees deported from Pakistan receive food aid from the Red Cross Society in Kandahar on January 24.

"The arrival of around a half million Afghans from Pakistan is putting a huge strain on already limited services -- from health to shelter, work opportunities, and schools," Gluck said.

"Many have arrived, having spent all their life in Pakistan and never having set foot in Afghanistan," Gluck added, noting that more than 23 million Afghans are in need of humanitarian aid.

Like many returnees, Abdul Basit, a migrant who recently left Pakistan and moved to Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar Province, has experienced difficulties settling back in.

Basit told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that there is no work and he and other deportees spend much of their time bouncing around from government office to government office.

The situation now promises to get even worse, with a second phase set to begin on April 15 to expel Afghan citizens from Pakistan, meaning more than 1 million Afghans could be potentially deported.

To the west, Iran is also engaged in a concerted effort to push out Afghans.

According to Iranian officials, more than 1 million undocumented Afghans have been deported in the past year. That number, too, could more than double, with Tehran saying it intends to expel half of the 5 million Afghans it estimates live in Iran.

In the meantime, Iran has taken steps to make Afghans' lives difficult on its territory, with migrants and refugees barred from living in, traveling to, or seeking employment in more than half of Iran's 31 provinces.

Amid rising resentment against Afghan migrant workers whom some Iranians accuse of stealing their jobs, parliamentary committees and officials have also discussed plans that would introduce strict punishments for renting homes or hiring undocumented foreigners.

Afghan refugees arrive in trucks from Pakistan at the Torkham border crossing in Nangarhar Province on October 30, 2023.
Afghan refugees arrive in trucks from Pakistan at the Torkham border crossing in Nangarhar Province on October 30, 2023.

Heydayatullah, an Afghan laborer who gave only his first name to Radio Azadi, said he was recently deported from Iran after spending only 20 days in the country.

He said that now that he is back in Afghanistan, he is unemployed and has no way of supporting his family of six.

Nasir Ahmad, a 30-year-old who was deported from Iran and has tried to settle in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif, said "there is no work in Afghanistan" and that he had depended on traveling to Iran to support his wife and children. Now, he says, he is ready to work for a pittance if only he could find employment.

Fenced Out

From all sides, Afghanistan's neighbors are taking steps to prevent Afghans from entering their territory, a situation that has led to tensions and occasional clashes.

The efforts are far-reaching, including Tajikistan calling on fellow members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to establish a "security belt" along the Afghan border to combat drug trafficking, and Turkey's construction of a 170-kilometer wall along its border with Iran that is widely seen as intended to keep Afghan migrants out.

A Pakistani soldier stands guard along the border fence on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border near Quetta, Balochistan Province.
A Pakistani soldier stands guard along the border fence on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border near Quetta, Balochistan Province.

But most of the work is being done along Afghanistan's borders with Pakistan and Iran.

In April 2023, Pakistan announced it was "98 percent" done installing fencing along its around 2,600-kilometer border with Afghanistan. Ahmed Sharif, the spokesman for the Pakistani military's media department, said the barrier was intended to prevent "terrorists" from crossing into Pakistani territory.

But the fence also reinforces Islamabad's anti-migrant position, observers suggest, and has posed difficulties for traders on both sides.

Running along the contentious Durand Line border that the Taliban does not recognize as legitimate, the fence has also left Taliban officials bristling. Having previously boasted about destroying the barbed wire fencing, the Taliban has said it will not allow the fence to be completed.

Tensions along the border have risen considerably in recent days, with Islamabad this week launching retaliatory air strikes on armed groups it says have carried out militant attacks in Pakistan and are hiding out in Afghanistan.

The Taliban, in turn, said its forces had fired at Pakistani positions in retaliation on March 17.

Iran, meanwhile, has launched its own initiative to block the paths of Afghans across its 920-kilometer border with Afghanistan.

Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi said in January that the project was a "complete plan" that went beyond the erection of a wall along a porous 74-kilometer stretch of the border, stressing it is a top priority to seal gaps in the border that are being "misused."

Observers note the initiative comes after Iran accused extremist groups in Afghanistan of attacks on Iranian territory as well as following clashes between Iranian and Taliban border forces that reportedly led the Taliban to reinforce the border.

Aziz Maaraj, a former Afghan diplomat in Iran, told Radio Azadi that "Iran is installing cameras and barbed wire" to prevent smuggling and the entrance of illegal migrants, as well as to protect itself against future clashes and possible militant attacks.

Fereshta Abbasi, a researcher in the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL that "definitely, Iran and Pakistan are trying to send the message to Afghans that they are not welcome."

Contributing to the problem is that the international community has been slow in living up to commitments to resettle Afghan asylum seekers and refugees who fled after the Taliban seized power. That has left thousands of Afghans who did find temporary refuge in neighboring countries as they awaited processing at the risk of having to return to the persecution and insecurity they fled.

Afghan refugees stay at holding camps for verification near the Afghan border in Chaman, Pakistan, on November 2, 2023.
Afghan refugees stay at holding camps for verification near the Afghan border in Chaman, Pakistan, on November 2, 2023.

"Some of these people who are now being forced to leave Pakistan and Iran are the ones whose lives are not safe inside Afghanistan," Abbasi said.

"The Taliban have arbitrarily detained journalists, human rights activists, former government employees, and former security officers. These people have been tortured. In some cases, they have been forced to disappear and killed," she added.

Outside countries have also been slow to deliver money, leaving the coffers of the UN's 2024 humanitarian response plan at just 3 percent of expected levels, coming after the 2023 plan was only funded by half, according to Abbasi.

"These governments are not living up to their commitments," Abassi said, adding that Afghans who worked with the previous Western-backed government or alongside Western forces are at particular risk. "They need to be reminded of the fact that they are leaving those Afghans behind who have stood by them."

Afghan Asylum Seeker Convicted For New Mexico Killing Of Pakistani Immigrant

The Afghan man was found guilty of murdering a Pakistani immigrant in the state of New Mexico in one of three ambush-style shootings. (file photo)
The Afghan man was found guilty of murdering a Pakistani immigrant in the state of New Mexico in one of three ambush-style shootings. (file photo)

A jury in the U.S. state of New Mexico on March 18 found an Afghan asylum seeker guilty of murdering a Pakistani immigrant in one of three 2022 ambush-style shootings. Mohammad Syed, 53, faces life imprisonment for the murder of Aftab Hussein, 41. Syed is charged with two other killings of Muslim men that have been linked to sectarian violence, but police and the Islamic community blamed them on interpersonal feuds. “As best we can tell, the motive in this may truly be a random serial killer type of mentality that we will never understand,” the prosecutor said.

'I Feel Like An Alien': Afghan Muslims Decry India's New Citizenship Law

Students protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Guwahati, India, on March 12. The new rules implemented by New Delhi on March 11 exclude Muslims, who are the majority in all three countries.
Students protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Guwahati, India, on March 12. The new rules implemented by New Delhi on March 11 exclude Muslims, who are the majority in all three countries.

Osman Ali was just a few weeks old when his family fled Afghanistan's devastating civil war and moved to India in the early 1990s.

Today, few members of his family of eight remember their homeland. Ali and his five siblings all grew up in India and do not speak any Afghan languages.

But the 30-year-old, like many other Afghans in India, is only on a temporary visa and ineligible to work or receive government help.

When Indian lawmakers moved to amend the citizenship law for migrants from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, many Afghans were hopeful of gaining a fast track to naturalization.

But the new rules implemented by New Delhi on March 11 exclude Muslims, who are the majority in all three countries. Only members of non-Muslim minorities, including Hindus, Sikhs, and Buddhists, who moved to India before December 31, 2014, can apply for citizenship.

A Hindu refugee who migrated from Sindh Province in Pakistan displays her passport in Ahmadabad, India.
A Hindu refugee who migrated from Sindh Province in Pakistan displays her passport in Ahmadabad, India.

The move is a major blow to many of the thousands of Afghan Muslims in India, a Hindu-majority country of some 1.4 billion people.

"I feel like an alien staying in my own country and not enjoying any of the rights that all citizens in India enjoy," Ali told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "It is a dark day for secularism in India."

The Citizenship Amendment Act has sparked protests in India and attracted widespread criticism. Human rights groups said the legislation discriminates against Muslims and undermines the South Asian country's secular constitution.

'Bad Development'

Farhad, an Afghan migrant, has lived in India for the past 15 years. Each year, he must renew his visa. He is not permitted to travel abroad. Even traveling within India is difficult, he said.

Farhad, a Muslim, had hoped the Indian government would provide a fast track to citizenship for Afghans who had fled their homeland due to war and poverty.

"This is a bad development," Farhad told Radio Azadi, referring to the new citizenship law. "We have tried very hard, but we have been denied citizenship [for years]."

Without Indian citizenship, many Afghans cannot open a bank account or work legally, condemning them to a life of poverty, said Farhad, who only revealed his first name.

People supporting changes to the citizenship law destroy the protest site used by those opposing them in New Delhi in February 2020.
People supporting changes to the citizenship law destroy the protest site used by those opposing them in New Delhi in February 2020.

"The government needs to pay attention to the numerous problems we face," he said.

India has been a close ally of Afghanistan for decades. New Delhi has granted asylum to tens of thousands of Afghans since the civil war of the 1990s, including Muslims as well as members of Afghanistan's small Hindu and Sikh communities.

But New Delhi is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the related 1967 protocol intended to eliminate restrictions on who can be considered a refugee.

The result has been that thousands of Afghan migrants and refugees have lived in India in limbo for years, with no livelihood or security.

The exact number of Afghans in India is unknown. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, said in 2022 that people from Afghanistan and Myanmar comprised most of the 46,000 registered refugees in India. Several thousand more undocumented Afghans are also believed to live in India.

"Most of us have no money to pay rent and other expenses," said Mohammad Qais Malakzada, the head of the Afghan Solidarity Committee, an NGO based in New Delhi that provides help to the estimated 7,000 Afghans living in the Indian capital.

Boon For Hindus, Sikhs

The new citizenship law does not just affect Muslim migrants.

The legislation marks the first time that India -- officially a secular state that is home to over a dozen religious groups -- has established religious criteria for citizenship.

Rights groups said the amended law is the latest attempt by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist government to further marginalize the 200-million-strong Muslim minority in India.

"The Citizenship Amendment Act is a bigoted law that legitimizes discrimination on the basis of religion," said Aakar Patel, chairman of the board at Amnesty International India, on March 14.

Despite widespread criticism, the new law is a significant boon for members of Afghanistan's Hindu and Sikh minorities.

Sikhs and Hindus together numbered around 100,000 several decades ago, but the outbreak of war and the onset of growing persecution pushed many out.

Many of those who remained fled Afghanistan after a string of deadly militant attacks in 2018 and 2020.

"This law will solve all of our problems," Partab Singh, an Afghan Sikh who arrived in New Delhi in 1992, told Radio Azadi.

Diya Singh Anjan is another Afghan Sikh who has lived in the Indian capital for decades.

"If we go to any government office now, we will receive the same treatment and privileges given to a citizen," he said.

Updated

Taliban Says It Strikes Back After Deadly Pakistani Strikes

A Pakistani Army soldier stands guard on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. (file photo)
A Pakistani Army soldier stands guard on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. (file photo)

Afghanistan's Taliban-led government said its border forces targeted the Pakistani military installation along its eastern border in retaliation for two air strikes that Islamabad carried out on Afghan territory that killed eight people, including three children.

The Taliban's artillery shelling on March 18 came hours after Pakistani warplanes bombed "militant hideouts" inside Afghanistan that Islamabad said belonged to Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban.

In Kurram, a western district in Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, locals confirmed the Taliban’s shelling of the area. There were no immediate reports of casualties or damage.

Haji Nowroz Ali, a local tribal leader, told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal that a gunbattle between the Taliban and Pakistani forces ensued after four rockets were fired at the border village of Kharlachi from Afghanistan.

Pro-Taliban accounts on X, formerly Twitter, shared a video they claimed showed the Taliban's attacks on Pakistani installations in what appeared to be Kharlachi.

Tensions between Pakistan and Afghanistan have been on the rise since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of the U.S.-led forces in August 2021. Islamabad accuses the conservative Islamist movement of harboring TTP militants on its territory and allowing them to carry out cross-border attacks in Pakistan. Afghanistan's ruling Taliban deny this.

At "around 3 a.m., Pakistani aircraft bombarded civilian homes" in Afghanistan's southeastern provinces of Khost and Paktika bordering Pakistan, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.

"Pakistan should not blame Afghanistan for the lack of control, incompetence, and problems in its own territory," Mujahid said in a statement.

He added the strikes targeted Pakistan's Barmal district of Paktika and the Spera district of Khost, killing three women and three children in Paktika, and two women in Khost.

In a March 18 statement, Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry defended the attacks.

"Certain elements among those in power in Afghanistan are actively patronizing the TTP and using them as a proxy against Pakistan," the statement said, adding that groups like the TTP are a collective security, which requires the two neighbors to "work toward finding joint solutions in countering terrorism and to prevent any terrorist organization from sabotaging bilateral relations."

Pakistani officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said that the house of Abdullah Shah, one of the TTP commanders reportedly hiding in Afghanistan, was apparently targeted in the attacks in Paktika.

But Mujahid rejected the accusation and said Shah was inside Pakistan.

"The same [Pashtun] tribe lives on both sides [of the Durand Line border]. Its members frequently move among their communities," he said in a statement.

The TTP said the strikes targeted civilians, denying Shah's house had been hit.

The group issued a video in which Shah claimed to be present in the Shawal areas of Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan’s Paktika and Khost Provinces.

An unconfirmed social media post said "multiple" Pakistan strikes targeted the Paktika, Khost, and Kunar regions.

The reported strikes came after seven Pakistani soldiers were killed and 17 others wounded in a militant attack that targeted a sprawling army post in the volatile North Waziristan district near the Afghan border on March 16.

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, who attended the funeral of those killed in the attack on March 17, said Islamabad would give "a befitting reply to the terrorists" that perpetrated the attack.

With reporting by AFP and Reuters

Traffic Accident In Southern Afghanistan Leaves 21 Dead, 38 Injured

A motorbike crashed into a passenger bus, which then hit a fuel tanker on the opposite side of the road, said a traffic official. (file photo)
A motorbike crashed into a passenger bus, which then hit a fuel tanker on the opposite side of the road, said a traffic official. (file photo)

A traffic accident in southern Afghanistan left at least 21 people dead and 38 injured, according to a provincial traffic department. The accident occurred on the morning of March 17 in the Gerashk district of Helmand Province on the main highway between the southern Kandahar and western Herat provinces, a statement from the department in Helmand said. A motorbike crashed into a passenger bus, which then hit a fuel tanker on the opposite side of the road, said a traffic official in Helmand. An investigation into the accident was under way, he added.

The Azadi Briefing: Taliban's Investment In Iranian Port Signals Shift Away From Pakistan

Iranian President Hassan Rohani inaugurates the first phase of the Chabahar Port in the southern Iranian coastal city in December 2017.
Iranian President Hassan Rohani inaugurates the first phase of the Chabahar Port in the southern Iranian coastal city in December 2017.

Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Abubakar Siddique, senior correspondent at RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.

The Key Issue

The Taliban has said it will invest around $35 million in Iran's strategic Chabahar Port, located in the country’s southeast.

The move announced in late February is seen as an attempt to lessen landlocked Afghanistan's dependence on Pakistani ports to access international markets.

Relations between the Taliban and Pakistan, longtime allies, have plummeted in recent years. Islamabad has accused the Taliban of harboring anti-Pakistani militants.

As bilateral ties have deteriorated, Islamabad has sporadically closed the border with Afghanistan, blocked the transit of Afghan imports, and increased taxes on Afghan exports to Pakistan. The moves have hit traders and the fragile Afghan economy hard.

“Depending on a country that has been heavily involved in Afghanistan’s affairs in such a critical area was not the right thing for Afghanistan,” a senior Taliban official told told Arab News. “Particularly that the economy of the other country is closely tied with politics."

Why It's Important: The Taliban’s decision to turn to Iran to access international markets is a strategic move with regional implications.

Access to the Chabahar Port reduces Afghanistan’s reliance on Pakistan and gives it access to India, Islamabad’s archenemy and Kabul’s traditional ally.

Islamabad has historically been Kabul’s biggest trading partner, but Iran has taken its place in recent years.

In Pakistan, foreign policy experts have expressed concern at Kabul’s expanding trade ties with its other neighbors.

“Pakistan-Afghanistan trade has dwindled from a high of $4 billion to less than a billion now,” former lawmaker Mushahid Hussain Syed wrote on X, previously Twitter.

According to the World Bank, Afghanistan’s trade with India increased by 43 percent to $570 million last year.

Since 2002, India has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in developing Chabahar and linking Afghanistan to the Iranian port.

“As a competitor of Pakistan, India cooperates with any government in Kabul if its relations with Islamabad are tense,” Nasrullah Stanikzai, an Afghan political expert, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

What's Next: The Taliban is following in the footsteps of the former Western-backed Afghan government, which saw the country’s economic future linked with Chabahar.

The cash-strapped Taliban, which remains unrecognized and sanctioned by the international community, is likely to increasingly turn to Iran to increase trade and develop the Afghan economy.

What To Keep An Eye On

The World Bank has said work has resumed on the Afghan section of a $1.2 billion project to build a power line from Central Asia to South Asia.

Work on CASA-1000 was suspended after the Taliban forcibly seized power in Afghanistan in 2021.

The World Bank announced last month that it would move forward with financing pylons and other infrastructure in the Afghan section. The Taliban confirmed the move last week.

The project will allow Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to sell excess energy to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the summer months.

Why It's Important: The project, if completed, would be a major boon for the Afghan economy because Kabul will receive cheap hydropower and substantial transit fees.

CASA-1000 has long been seen by Afghanistan as part of its goal to be a regional hub of connectivity and trade.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have. You can always reach us at azadi.english@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Abubakar Siddique

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every Friday. You can always reach us at azadi.english@rferl.org

Deadly Floods Continue To Ravage Herat In Afghanistan

At least 60 people have been killed by weeks of heavy rain and snow in Afghanistan.

Hunger, Poverty Overshadow Ramadan In Afghanistan

A woman and boy beg for alms outside a mosque during Ramadan in Kabul. (file photo)
A woman and boy beg for alms outside a mosque during Ramadan in Kabul. (file photo)

Ramadan is usually a time of compassion, charity, and celebration.

But the Islamic holy month has been overshadowed in Afghanistan, the world's largest humanitarian crisis, by rising hunger, poverty, and joblessness.

As some in the Muslim world break their fast with nightly feasts, millions of Afghans are desperately trying to stave off starvation in a country where many survive on only bread and water.

"We have nothing to eat during iftar," said Maria, a mother of three who lives in Kabul, referring to the nightly, fast-breaking meal served after sundown throughout the month of Ramadan.

Maria, whose husband is a drug addict, is the sole breadwinner of the family. But the Taliban, which seized power in 2021, has barred most women from working outside their homes.

"We won't be able to celebrate Eid either," she said, referring to Eid al-Fitar, the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, which began on March 11 this year.

Abdul Qadir is one of the more than 500,000 Afghan refugees and migrants expelled from neighboring Pakistan since October. Unable to feed his family, he said he cannot observe Ramadan this year.

"It's impossible to fast when you have nothing to eat [in the evening]," said Qadir, who lives in the eastern province of Laghman. "The economy is absolutely zero. There's no work."

Multiple Crises

Ramadan has coincided with a devastating humanitarian and economic crisis in Afghanistan.

Around 24 million people -- out of a population of around 40 million -- will need life-saving humanitarian support this year, the United Nations said on March 10.

The World Food Program said around 4 million Afghans are acutely malnourished, including over 3 million children under the age of 5.

In a report issued on March 10, the World Bank said Afghanistan was experiencing deflation amid weak economic activity. It also reported a significant decline in Afghanistan's exports and depreciation of the national currency.

Afghan women sit after receiving food aid distributed by a charity foundation during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in Kandahar. (file photo)
Afghan women sit after receiving food aid distributed by a charity foundation during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan in Kandahar. (file photo)

The Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 triggered an economic collapse and worsened a major humanitarian crisis. Western donors abruptly cut off assistance and the Taliban government was hit by international sanctions.

Aid groups have continued their humanitarian operations, although major cuts in international funding have restricted their activities.

The Taliban government, which remains unrecognized and under sanctions by the international community, appears unable to address the crises.

Natural disasters like earthquakes and droughts as well as the influx of over 1 million Afghan refugees from neighboring countries recently have further aggravated the already dire humanitarian situation in the war-torn country.

'I Have Nothing'

Many Afghans are scaling back or even skipping Ramadan altogether this year due to their increasing financial restraints. "Like everyone I know, we suffer enormous economic pressures," said Mursal, a civil servant under the previous Western-backed Afghan government who is now unemployed.

"I can't cope with the expectations and demands of Ramadan," added Mursal, who lives with her family in Kabul.

Women in burqas buy dry fruit on a street in the northern Faryab Province.
Women in burqas buy dry fruit on a street in the northern Faryab Province.

Nida Ahmadi, a female teacher in the northern province of Parwan, says she took out a loan in order to be able to fully observe Ramadan.

"But even that is not enough," said Ahmadi, whose monthly salary of around $200 is not enough for her family of seven.

"When I go to the market, I wonder what to buy with the little money I have," she said.

Written by Abubakar Siddique based on reporting by Faiza Ibrahimi and Sana Kakar of RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

Tajikistan Going All In On Hydropower, Doubters Be Damned

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon attends the construction-launching ceremony of the Roghun hydroelectric project some 100 kilometrers from the capital, Dushanbe, in October 2016.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon attends the construction-launching ceremony of the Roghun hydroelectric project some 100 kilometrers from the capital, Dushanbe, in October 2016.

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- When it comes to energy bets, Tajikistan is all-in on hydropower.

Having spent much of the last decade and several billion dollars building the Roghun "megadam," the project is clearly too big to fail from the point of view of Tajikistan's leadership.

But amid spiraling costs and long-standing questions about the environmental and human impacts, its critics contend that Roghun is also too big to be sustainable.

Tajikistan is not alone in eying Roghun's potential 3,600 megawatts of installed capacity.

While millions of Tajiks continue to live without power or have it for just a few hours per day, especially in the colder months, Roghun is an important piece of the energy-security puzzle in Tajikistan's electricity-strapped neighborhood, with Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan all potential customers.

So there is a lot at stake.

And that is without considering whether large-scale hydropower is a wise direction for a region where climate change is set to continue the erosion of river-feeding glaciers.

But while some of Tajikistan's Central Asian neighbors are already diverting resources to smaller solar and wind projects to plug their deficits, megadams new and old are still the order of the day for Dushanbe.

Supply Outrunning Demand

On March 9, a delegation from the board of executive directors at the World Bank Group wrapped up a regional tour of Central Asia that included talks in Tajikistan with Roghun's ultimate champion, President Emomali Rahmon, as well as a trip to the dam's partly operational hydropower plant (HPP).

The group's press release gave little in terms of the details of the talks, but they included "a particular focus on climate change within the prism of the water-energy nexus."

The visit came on the back of both negative and positive developments for Tajikistan's power sector.

The negative was a massive and as-yet-unexplained power outage that plunged the vast majority of the country, including the capital, Dushanbe, into darkness for several hours on March 1.

Local media outlet Asia-Plus cited a source that attributed the outage to an "accident" at the Norak HPP that currently supplies around half of Tajikistan's power.

Another outlet, Dushanbe TV, cited a source claiming a "technical accident on the main republican high-voltage lines."

State power company Barki Tojik did not provide RFE/RL's Tajik Service with a comment.

Just days later, on March 4, Deputy Energy and Water Minister Sorbon Kholmuhammadzoda was dismissed. A government decree said he would assume a new post, although it is unclear what that will be.

More encouraging was news issued by the World Bank last month, and confirmed by the Taliban last week, that the all-important Afghan leg of CASA-1000 -- a four-country regional power project in which Tajikistan is expected to play the role of top provider -- is back on track.

A map shows the CASA-1000 route during the inauguration ceremony in 2016.
A map shows the CASA-1000 route during the inauguration ceremony in 2016.

CASA-1000 had been de facto suspended since the Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan in 2021, but the World Bank announced it would move forward with financing pylons and other infrastructure in the Afghan section "in a ring-fenced manner" to ensure distance from the radical government that is yet to gain international recognition.

When CASA-1000 eventually becomes reality, Tajikistan should transmit 70 percent of an approximately 1.3 gigawatts of electricity to the power-starved Afghan and Pakistani grids, with Kyrgyzstan due to receive the remainder.

But the power-transportation infrastructure is of little use if Tajikistan doesn't have the spare energy.

With colder-than-usual temperatures recently hitting Central Asia in the final lap of winter, Tajikistan's annual but now worsening power shortages have had some tragic consequences.

In recent weeks, RFE/RL's Tajik Service has reported multiple carbon-monoxide deaths, including of children, as rural families load up their stoves to get through the freezing nights.

Tajik Family Dies Trying To Keep Warm Amid Chronic Power Cuts
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And if reports of the Dushanbe blackout being connected to an accident at the Soviet-era Norak HPP are true, that means progress at Roghun -- where only two of six 600-megawatt units are currently online -- cannot come fast enough.

Bulldozing On

In December, Rahmon said he expected the third unit of Roghun to come online in 2025.

His personal attachment to the project is clear. In 2016, when construction began, he clambered into a bulldozer to move earth around the site in a grandiose ground-laying ceremony. Some political subordinates of the long-serving leader have even called for the HPP to take his name.

At the time of its ground-laying, the government's estimate for the total cost was just under $4 billion. Following a long construction delay during the coronavirus pandemic, the most recent government estimate put the project's total cost at $6 billion.

The Italian-based company Webuild (formerly Salini Impregilo) is the project's principal contractor. But there is no clear path to financing the final stages of a facility that Dushanbe wants to be the tallest of its kind in the world at 335 meters.

Is the world's tallest dam what Tajikistan really needs?
Is the world's tallest dam what Tajikistan really needs?

Norak, which is 300 meters high, once held this honor but was displaced from the top more than a decade ago by China's Jinping-I dam, which has a height of 305 meters.

Roghun has thus far been financed with a combination of state budget funds and borrowed money. The former have been disproportionately large for Central Asia's poorest country, reportedly outweighing all other infrastructural spending.

The latter has included a $500 million, 7.1 percent-yield eurobond issued in 2017, the success of which Reuters hailed as "the latest indication of the undiminished thirst for high-yield debt, even from frontier markets -- so-called because of their poverty and rock-bottom credit scores."

Tajikistan is clearly hoping that international institutions will pick up the rest of the tab.

In a release this month, a group of 17 environment- and government-focused nonprofit organizations -- including the Prague-headquartered watchdog CEE Bankwatch Network -- called on the World Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and the European Investment Bank to "reconsider" an apparent collective-funding pledge of up to $600 million to support Roghun, branding the project's current Environmental and Social Impact Assessment unfit for its purpose.

The coalition had in February referred to Roghun as "a sad reminder of the Soviet ideology of exerting total control over nature," while pointing out that at least 46,000 people would have to be displaced for a dam that it said might not reach full operational capacity until 2040.

"The development of the [Roghun] HPP project on the Vakhsh River is of great concern due to its enormous associated social and environmental risks, not only to Tajikistan but to the region as a whole," the organizations wrote.

One important former Roghun critic has in recent years become a cautious supporter.

That is partly because Tajikistan's downstream neighbor Uzbekistan -- a water-stressed country of around 35 million people -- has prioritized better regional relations under President Shavkat Mirziyoev than did his late, hard-line predecessor, Islam Karimov.

But it is also because Uzbekistan is increasingly unsure which it needs more -- water or electricity -- with deliveries from Tajikistan potentially easing one of those problems.

Back to basics in Tajikistan
Back to basics in Tajikistan

Tajikistan, for its part, has begun talking up other "green technologies" to plug its deficits.

But in comparison to the region's renewable pacesetters, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan -- which are also mulling nuclear power -- this appears to currently be little more than an idea.

At the Effective Energy In Tajikistan conference in Dushanbe in October, Tajik officials said solar and wind energy could contribute up to 70 megawatts to Tajikistan's energy mix by 2030.

But then-Deputy Energy and Water Minister Kholmuhammadzoda was clear what the government's priority was. "In the next seven years, energy [production] capacity in Tajikistan will increase by an additional 4,000 megawatts of electricity due to the commissioning of the Roghun hydroelectric power station and the reconstruction of other hydroelectric power stations, such as Norak, Sarband and Kairakkum," he said.

So it's hydro or bust. Or perhaps, "hydro and bust."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Tajik Service

'I Can't Tell': Sexual Abuse At Taliban-Run Madrasahs Fuels Fear, Dropouts

Young boys study at a madrasah in Afghanistan.
Young boys study at a madrasah in Afghanistan.

Male students who enrolled in Taliban-run religious schools say that sexual and physical abuse has led some to end their pursuit of an education in Afghanistan.

The students, all of whom were aged 10 to 17 and spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity out of fears of repercussion, described numerous instances in which they and fellow classmates were pressured to engage in sexual acts with teachers and subjected to corporal punishments.

The reported cases took place in western and southwestern Afghanistan at Taliban-run madrasahs, part of the network of religious schools that the extremist group has expanded significantly as part of its drive to foster religious education more in keeping with its hard-line Islamist views.

One 16-year-old student, a resident of Farah Province, described being propositioned by a teacher at the madrasah he attends.

"One day at school a Taliban member who teaches there made an inappropriate offer, but I did not accept it," the boy told Radio Azadi, using inexplicit language to describe sexual abuse, a culturally taboo topic in Afghanistan. "When the lessons were over, he bothered me again."

The boy said he reported the incidents to a "qari," a person who has memorized the Koran and serves as a religious authority at the school, to no avail.

"I told the qari that the teacher was doing bad things to me, and the qari told him not to do these things, that he was a teacher," the boy said. "The teacher admitted doing it, but it had no effect. He has continued to do bad things and made sexual requests to numerous students at the school."

A Taliban-controlled madrasah in Afghanistan
A Taliban-controlled madrasah in Afghanistan

Another student in southwestern Afghanistan, a 17-year-old in the 10th grade, gave a similar account of his experience during his six months studying at a Taliban-run madrasah.

"A Taliban member who teaches at the school proposed having a relationship with me and said some other things that I did not accept," the boy said.

After being refused, the teacher swore and issued threats, the boy said, adding that his fellow students have faced similar treatment.

"He also harassed several of my classmates, and one of them left the school," the boy said. "He told me I should not go to school anymore because the same teacher is harassing me."

The boy said the experience has left him "damaged" and unsure of whom he can confide in. "I can't tell my family," he said.

The Taliban has come under widespread criticism for the severe restrictions it has placed on the daily lives of the Afghans since seizing power in August 2021. In its pursuit to impose its extreme interpretation of Islam, the Taliban has restored many of the draconian rules it was infamous for during its first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.

The ban on the education of girls past the sixth grade, and the erasure of women's role in society stand out among the measures the Taliban has taken. But other steps -- including prohibitions on music and idolatry through art, and pressure against students and teachers -- have affected all walks of life regardless of sex.

Since the Taliban returned to power, many educators have left the country, while female teachers have been left at home without work due to restrictions on women's freedom of movement and their ability to teach males.

Meanwhile, the Taliban has steadily worked to replace secular state schools and informal madrasahs with a system of religious schooling. The system does allow for girl students, including those of university age, but critics say it falls far short of the standards of modern education for girls and boys alike and often promotes extremism.

According to a report on Afghanistan issued by the United Nations in February, the Taliban has established 6,836 madrasahs for males and 380 for females and was expected to finalize a standardized religious curriculum in time for the new school year beginning this month.

Afghan boys read the Koran at a madrasah in Kabul.
Afghan boys read the Koran at a madrasah in Kabul.

The recruitment of madrasah teachers is also in full swing, according to the report, following a decree by the Taliban’s spiritual leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada to have 100,000 new madrasah teachers in place.

In December, Human Rights Watch gave a stinging assessment of the state of education in general, saying that in addition to the obstacles to the education of girls and women, the Taliban had "also inflicted deep harm on boys' education" in Afghanistan.

"Many boys were previously taught by women teachers; the Taliban has prohibited women from teaching boys, depriving women teachers of their jobs and often leaving boys with unqualified replacement male teachers or sometimes no teachers at all," HRW said. "Parents and students said that corporal punishment, which has long been a problem at Afghan schools, has become increasingly common. The curriculum in many schools appears to be under revision to remove important school subjects and promote discrimination."

The rights watchdog said the circumstances had "led many boys to leave school altogether" and "left boys struggling with mental health problems such as anxiety and depression."

Shortly after the Taliban regained power, the United Nations highlighted the dire situation for children in Afghanistan, including exposure to sexual violence and increased risk of students dropping out of school.

A madrasah in Kandahar
A madrasah in Kandahar

Difficulties in ensuring the protection of children are exacerbated, according to the UN, by the Taliban's refusal to consider people below the age of 18 to be children, as is the international standard, instead using the onset of puberty as the basis for adulthood.

Younger madrasah students in western and southwestern Afghanistan below or at the age of puberty said they were not spared physical abuse and sexual harassment from teachers.

One young man who spoke to Radio Azadi said he recently learned that his young brother was being subjected to sexual abuse at a madrasah in western Afghanistan.

The young man said his brother was being assigned extracurricular "homework by a teacher, or to put it bluntly, he was being asked for sex, [the teacher] fondled his hands and feet and kissed him."

As a result, the young man said he told his brother not to go to school anymore.

Fear of sexual harassment and sexual and physical abuse were cited as a common factor leading boys in western and southwestern Afghanistan to give up their studies.

"Some teachers harass our students and make immoral requests," said one 14-year-old boy who also described common methods of corporal punishment at his madrasah. "They strike our faces or beat our hands and feet under the pretext of disciplining us for not learning our lessons properly."

Afghan boys peek out from inside a madrasah in Kandahar.
Afghan boys peek out from inside a madrasah in Kandahar.

The boy said many students were studying hard in fear of being taken to a special room for punishment, and that "some even drop out of school."

Another student, aged 10, said his teacher separated him and other students from their class to beat the soles of their feet.

Afterward, he told Radio Azadi, he stopped going to class because he was afraid. And upon hearing about the incidents, his and his classmates' parents "did not allow us to go to school."

The Taliban authorities did not respond to requests for comment on the allegations of abuse at madrasahs it has established. And efforts to speak to individuals aware of the situations at madrasahs in other areas of Afghanistan were met by refusals to comment due to fear of reprisals.

A women's rights activist who asked that her name not be published told Radio Azadi that families have no avenue to lodge complaints about the abuse their children encounter at Taliban-run madrasahs because they, too, would face threats.

The activist said that not only had she been made aware of sexual harassment against both girls and boys at Taliban-run madrasahs, but the curriculum also serves to "increase the level of extremism in the country."

Reducing the risks of both threats, she said, would require greater oversight by the Taliban authorities and ideally, she said, a reduction in the number of madrasahs.

Najib Amini, a civil society activist in western Afghanistan, said that for now, the onus falls on families to be aware.

"Children are subjected to sexual abuse in madrasahs established under the Taliban regime," Amini said. "Families have an important and essential role in this regard. If they do not want their children to be abused in schools, if they want their children to get a basic education...then they should not send their children to madrasahs under the control of the Taliban."

Written by Michael Scollon based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi

Afghan Women, Lives Upended, Demand Taliban End Bans And Restrictions

Afghan women held small demonstrations on March 8 to demand their rights and for authorities to release imprisoned Afghan women activists.
Afghan women held small demonstrations on March 8 to demand their rights and for authorities to release imprisoned Afghan women activists.

Afghan women on International Women's Day demanded the country's hard-line Islamist Taliban rulers end bans and restrictions that have turned their lives upside down since the militants seized power in August 2021 as international troops withdrew.

Despite a Taliban-mandated ban on protests, Afghan women held small demonstrations on March 8 to demand their rights and for authorities to release imprisoned Afghan women activists.

They also called on the government to reopen schools and universities to females after cutting off their education after grade seven.

"The international community should defend the rights of Afghan women and help them gain the right to work, education, and equality," an exiled women's rights activist who requested anonymity told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.

The Taliban seized power promising more moderate policies than when it ruled the country some two decades earlier. But its leaders have since doubled down on the recreation of a totalitarian clerical regime, especially with regard to women, who have effectively been denied any public role in society.

Afghan Exiles Say Taliban Tightening Restrictions On Women
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Afghan women have been banned from working in many sectors of the economy. Women-owned businesses face myriad restrictions. Women are also banned from recreation and leisure activities such as visiting public parks and public baths.

Women also are dealing with severe restrictions on mobility and how they can appear in public. In most instances, they are required to be accompanied by a male chaperone. A Taliban decree requires women to wear the niqab, the head-to-toe veil in which only their eyes are visible.

"The Taliban's restrictions have upended our lives," a university student in Kabul who requested anonymity told Radio Azadi. "My hopes of serving my community and our country have been dashed."

In the capital, Kabul, right campaigner Kavia Siddiqi said the Taliban-led government has systematically deprived Afghan women of rights and freedoms.

"Afghan women live in a prison because they are deprived of all their rights," she said.

The Taliban has treated the anger surrounding its decisions with the same type of oppression. Its government has detained and tortured hundreds of women activists, some of whom remain in custody.

"The fight for women's rights in Afghanistan is a global fight and a battle for women's rights everywhere," said Alison Davidian, special representative for UN Women in Afghanistan.

Richard Bennett, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, told Radio Azadi that Taliban discrimination against Afghan women could amount to "gender apartheid" if codified in international law.

He said that under the concept of "gender persecution," the treatment of women in Afghanistan could be prosecuted as crimes against humanity under the 1998 Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court.

"It is already possible to criminally prosecute for the crime of gender persecution," he said.

Afghan Exiles Say Taliban Tightening Restrictions On Women

Afghan Exiles Say Taliban Tightening Restrictions On Women
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Two exiled Afghan women have told RFE/RL that the Taliban appears to be further tightening restrictions on women and girls in Afghanistan. Speaking ahead of International Women's Day, activists Nargis Sadat and Fawzia Wahdat said that more women were being imprisoned amid a fresh clampdown on female activists. The Taliban has barred women and girls from secondary schools, universities, and many jobs since retaking control of the country in 2021.

The Azadi Briefing: Taliban Appears Split Over Women's Education Ban   

Afghan women protest in Kabul to demand that the Taliban administration allow the reopening of girls schools and ensure ample employment opportunities for women. (file photo)
Afghan women protest in Kabul to demand that the Taliban administration allow the reopening of girls schools and ensure ample employment opportunities for women. (file photo)

Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Abubakar Siddique, senior correspondent at RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.

The Key Issue

Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former senior Taliban official, has criticized the extremist group’s severe restrictions on female education.

“Those who oppose modern education or invent arguments to undermine its importance, they are either completely ignorant or oppose Muslims under the garb of Islam,” he wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on March 5.

The Kabul-based Zaeef is one of the founders of the Taliban and a former deputy minister and ambassador during the group’s first stint in power from 1996 to 2001.

Since seizing power in 2021, the Taliban has banned girls above the sixth grade from going to school and women from attending university, in moves that provoked international condemnation.

Zaeef, a dissenting voice for years, is the second prominent Taliban figure who has recently criticized the group's restrictions on female education.

The Taliban’s deputy foreign minister, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, called on the government to rescind the ban on women’s education.

"Learning should be open to all because education is obligatory for both men and women,” he said. “No country can progress without education.”

Why It’s Important: Zaeef and Stanikzai’s comments highlight the rifts within the Taliban over the issue of female education.

The Taliban’s spiritual leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, has come under growing fire from figures inside the group over his extremist policies, including the severe restrictions on women’s rights.

In his attempt to create what he sees as a "pure" Islamic system, Akhundzada has alienated many Afghans and isolated the Taliban's unrecognized government internationally.

What's Next: It is unclear if Akhundzada, who has the ultimate say on all important matters under the Taliban’s theocratic system, will moderate the group’s policies.

Without reversing its repressive policies and creating an inclusive government, the Taliban appears unlikely to gain international recognition.

What To Keep An Eye On

Afghan laborers and traders say they face increasing visa restrictions in the Gulf states.

During the past four decades, the oil-rich states in the Persian Gulf have provided jobs to hundreds of thousands of poor, uneducated Afghans.

"I want to go there, but the Gulf Arab nations are now reluctant to grant us visas," Naqibullah, a resident of southeastern Khost Province, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

“There is no business here, but it is tough to obtain a visa for the United Arab Emirates,” said Asmatullah Zadran, a trader in Khost.

According to a January report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization, none of the Gulf countries, except Oman, currently grant work visas to Afghans.

Why It's Important: The increasing visa restrictions on Afghans are likely to affect tens of thousands of families who have relied on remittances from family members working in the Gulf.

Afghanistan is already reeling from an economic crisis and mass unemployment since the Taliban takeover.

The drop in remittances from the Gulf are likely to further aggravate the economic situation in Afghanistan, where millions of people are on the verge of starvation.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.

Abubakar Siddique

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every Friday. You can always reach us at azadi.english@rferl.org

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