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Helmand, Biden, Taliban Rift, Kafala: Your Briefing From Afghanistan And Pakistan

U.S. President-elect Joe-Biden
U.S. President-elect Joe-Biden

Dear reader,

Welcome to Gandhara’s redesigned weekly newsletter aimed at bringing you exclusive coverage by our correspondent networks in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Every Friday, you’ll get the week’s best dispatches from our extensive network of journalists and all the context you need to make sense of the political and cultural trends in the two countries. If you’re new to the newsletter or haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here.

Before we get started, I’d like to ask you to please spare a few minutes for this short survey that will help us make this newsletter, and Gandhara, more useful and insightful to you.

Intrepid RFE/RL Reporter Killed

This week brought home the toll of the ongoing violence in Afghanistan as one of my colleagues, Mohammad Ilyas Dayee, was killed in a despicable car bomb attack in the volatile southern province of Helmand.

The killing came days after a popular former TV presenter was killed in a similar sticky bomb attack in Kabul. Dayee’s killing raises new questions about journalist safety and freedom of expression as peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government remain stalled.

I showcased some of his best reporting from one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous frontlines over a decade of professional camaraderie. Another colleague remembers him as “talented, committed, unbiased, and bold.”

Is The Taliban Splitting Apart?

In an intriguing piece, Frud Bezhan takes a look at whether the recent increase in violence -- a gruesome attack on Kabul University, in particular -- exposes a widening gulf between the Taliban and its ultra-radical military arm, the Haqqani network.

"It is convenient for the Kabul authorities to simply attribute the attacks to the Taliban, but today relations between the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura are very poor," author and London-based exert Antonio Giustozzi told him.

Biden’s Af-Pak Approach

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will soon take over the reins of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. But contrary to much speculation, he isn’t likely to fundamentally transform U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Any changes will be more in tone and process than on substance,” one expert told me.

‘Modern Slavery’ Lives On

Away from the battlefield in Afghanistan, human suffering is expected to continue in Saudi Arabia, where millions of foreign workers -- many of them from Afghanistan and Pakistan -- will continue to suffer under an exploitative visa-sponsorship program known as “kafala.”

“My life has not improved one bit,” recalls one Pakistani driver who has spent eight years in Riyadh. “It is still a life of pain and suffering.”

A War Widow’s Tragedy

Like hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have mourned the loss of loved ones over four decades of war, Taj Bibi is grieving. But her grief is multifold after she lost three husbands who were brothers and all served in the Afghan National Army.

“The children want both of their parents with them,” she says. “It is a tough life.”

Pakistan’s Second COVID Wave

COVID cases and resulting deaths are rapidly rising in Pakistan. Daud Khattak reports on a possible second coronavirus wave in the country of 200 million.

"We have 26 beds for COVID patients. All are occupied right now, and there is no place for new patients,” a doctor at the infectious diseases hospital in Islamabad tells him.

Afghan Women Take The Wheel

In some cheering news this week, we catch up with Farkhunda Bahmanyar, who became one of the first women drivers in a remote conservative Afghanistan province.

“It is not shameful,” she says. “Women can just drive like men.”

I hope you enjoyed this weekly newsletter, and I encourage you to share it with colleagues who might find it useful. Again, if you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here.

You can also reach us directly at


Abubakar Siddique

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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Azadi Briefing

Radio Azadi is RFE/RL's Dari- and Pashto-language public service news outlet for Afghanistan. Every Friday, in our newsletter, Azadi Briefing, one of our journalists will share their analysis of the week’s most important issues and explain why they matter.

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