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Imran Khan, Afghan Future, Smuggled Gold: Your Briefing From Afghanistan And Pakistan

U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad meets with Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, in Kabul on March 1.
U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad meets with Abdullah Abdullah, chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation, in Kabul on March 1.

Dear reader,

Welcome to Gandhara's weekly newsletter. This briefing brings you the best of our reporting from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

If you’re new to the newsletter or haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here.

Can Washington pick up the pieces of the Afghan peace process?

It’s been a year since the groundbreaking deal between the United States and the Taliban, but in many ways there’s even more uncertainty now than at its signing. With an unrelenting onslaught of violence in Afghanistan and a wary new U.S. administration, talks remain at an impasse.

Barnett Rubin, a U.S. academic who pioneered the Obama administration’s approach toward reconciliation among Afghans, says a key reason is flaws in the wording of the deal. In an in-depth conversation this week, he argued that the Doha Agreement was “not the right way” to achieve peace. “If you want peace in Afghanistan, it has to involve above all the Afghan parties and the neighbors because they are going to be there forever,” he said.

It seems to be dawning on Washington that it might be too late to get this deal off the ground. As U.S. peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad visited Kabul this week, a senior State Department official mentioned that Washington had suggested a United Nations-sponsored international conference that would include Afghanistan’s neighbors and regional powers.

Meanwhile, in a continued wave of violent, targeted attacks, three female voiceover artists working for Enikass, a private TV station in Jalalabad, were shot dead (watch our video report about their shocking murder). A female doctor and seven members of the Hazara minority were also killed in separate incidents in the region.

Imran Khan’s uncertain political fortunes

In Pakistan, Imran Khan is fighting for survival after his finance minister was defeated in a crucial indirect Senate election this week. The populist prime minister is now seeking a vote of confidence on March 6 to see whether he has enough support to continue leading the country.

Because of his loss on March 3, Abdul Hafeez Shaikh will have to vacate his post in June -- jeopardizing the $6 billion International Monetary Fund program he oversees.

Many were baffled. “I can’t see how the establishment would have wanted to get rid of someone like Hafeez Shaikh, who is seen as a safe pair of hands and someone who enjoys the confidence of the IMF,” Farzana Shaikh, an expert at London’s Chatham House think tank, told me. She questioned, however, the conventional wisdom that a Senate defeat spells the beginning of the end for Khan’s military backing.

Smuggling gold bars into Tajikistan

In what has become somewhat of a reoccurring tale, an Afghan elite scrambled to move their ill-gotten assets out of the country -- and gets caught. My colleagues at Radio Ozodi, RFE/RL’s Tajik Service, reported this week on an evolving scandal that links an Afghan lawmaker to the recent seizure of $20 million in cash and gold bars in Tajikistan.

Mohammad Mirza Katawazai, the deputy chairman of the Afghan parliament, denies any ties to the gold and cash, but he was certainly in Dushanbe recently, where he reportedly sung the praises of Tajikistan’s “favorable investment conditions for Afghan entrepreneurs.”

A sticky wicket for Pakistan cricket

In a sign that COVID cases are on the rise in Pakistan again, the country suspended its major domestic cricket tournament this week after seven players tested positive for the deadly disease.

Before the suspension, officials had increased crowd capacity for the Pakistan Super League to 50 percent from the 20 percent at the start of the tournament on February 20. The pause represents a big setback in the push to revive sports in the country by welcoming cricketing stars from around the world.

Integrating Afghanistan’s stateless minority

As a stateless minority in Afghanistan, the Jogis are unable to receive an education, vote, or own property. My colleagues visited activists in Jowzjan Province who have set up a makeshift school to provide education for children and adults alike. Here’s their video report.

Provincial officials have offered to donate land to Jogi families, but the promise has so far gone unfulfilled. While many remain trapped in poverty and living on borrowed land, the newly founded school offers a glimmer of hope. “We didn’t have a school in the past,” a student named Mustafa told us. “I come here with my father every day to learn something.”

Remembering the Bamiyan Buddhas

Starting next week, we will launch a series looking back at life under the Taliban two decades ago. The first instalment will examine the destruction of the majestic Bamiyan Buddha statues that were carved at the height of the Gandhara civilization 1,500 years ago.

There has never been an investigation into the Taliban’s razing of the two towering statues carved into a mountain cliff in Bamiyan Valley. No one has been held responsible, and there has been no effort to reconstruct Afghanistan’s greatest treasure. (Here’s a look at how the site looks today.)

I hope you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, and I encourage you to share it with colleagues who might find it useful. If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here. You can also follow us on Twitter and Facebook.


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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