U.S. Sanctions Put Spotlight On Iran's Network Of Religious Seminaries In Afghanistan
Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran's clerical establishment has used religious organizations to expand its clout abroad.
Key among them is the Al-Mustafa International University, a network of religious seminaries based in the Shi'ite holy city of Qom that has branches in some 50 countries.
The university claims to teach Shi'ite Muslim theology, Islamic science, and Iran's national language, Persian, to tens of thousands of foreign students across Asia, Europe, Africa, and South America.
But Tehran's adversaries say the university has been involved in espionage and recruited foreign fighters for Iran's proxy war in Syria.
For years, experts have documented the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) recruitment, training, and deployment of thousands of Shi'ite fighters to Syria to defend the country's president, Bashar al-Assad, Tehran's key ally in the brutal civil war that erupted in 2011.
The United States imposed sanctions on the massive university network on December 8, alleging that it was involved in the recruitment of Afghan and Pakistani students to fight in the Syrian conflict.
The U.S. Treasury Department said Iran's elite Quds Force, the overseas operations arm of the IRGC, used the university's foreign branches as a "recruitment platform" for "intelligence collection and operations," including recruitment for pro-Iranian militias.
The Treasury Department alleged that the Quds Force used the Al-Mustafa International University as a "cover" to recruit Afghans for the blacklisted Fatemiyoun Brigade, a pro-Iranian militia that fought in Syria.
Moreover, Treasury said the Quds Force also used Al-Mustafa's campus in Qom "as a recruitment ground" for Pakistani students to join the blacklisted Zeynabiyoun Brigade, a militia that consisted of Pakistani Shi'a.
Treasury added that "multiple students from the university have been killed fighting in Syria."
In a statement on December 9, the university said it promoted "peace, friendship, and brotherhood among nations" and slammed the U.S. decision as "hegemonic."
Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington who has closely monitored IRGC activity in Syria, said that, according to his database from January 2012 to December 2020, 3,059 Iranian and allied foreign fighters were killed in combat in Syria.
Alfoneh says of those, only three were students or graduates of the Al-Mustafa International University -- known as Jamiat al-Mostafa University in Iran.
"This indicates that Jamiat al-Mostafa has never served as the primary recruitment ground for the IRGC's war effort in Syria," he says.
The IRGC recruited thousands of Afghan migrants and refugees within its own borders and covertly drafted hundreds of Shi'a inside Afghanistan. The same strategy was used to recruit Pakistanis.
Alfoneh says the "three individuals identified appear to have been in command, intelligence, or political-ideological indoctrination positions."
That means, he said, that the IRGC perceived the graduates or students of the Al-Mustafa International University as "high-value individuals."
Regular fighters in the poorly trained forces of the Fatemiyoun and Zeynabiyoun brigades were often used as the first line of attack.
Alfoneh says the IRGC considered the Afghan fighters "cannon fodder," considering the seemingly minor investment made to train them and the exposure they faced on the battlefield.
The total number of Fatemiyoun members who fought in Syria is unclear. Experts estimate the number was between 5,000 to 20,000, although Alfoneh says the figure is likely closer to the lower figure cited.
Iranian authorities said the fighters traveled to Syria voluntarily to defend Shi'ite holy sites. Human rights groups said Afghan migrants and refugees in Iran were offered financial rewards and Iranian residency permits to join the fight in Syria.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there to be some 3.5 million documented and undocumented Afghan refugees and migrants living in Iran. Tehran has expelled many Afghans and periodically threatens those who remain with mass expulsion.
Among the three Al-Mustafa students or graduates killed in Syria was Seyyed Hashmat-Ali Shah, a Pakistani national and graduate of Al-Mustafa. He was a member of the Zeynabiyoun Brigade and was killed in combat in Syria in September 2016.
Another Pakistani national was Mohammad-Hossein Momeni, also known as Mohammad Hosseini, a student at Al-Mustafa who was killed in Syria in April 2017.
The most prominent graduate of the university was Alireza Tivasolii, the Afghan commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade.
Also known as Abu Hamed, he was killed in 2015 during clashes with the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Nusra Front in the southern Syrian province of Daraa.
Tivasolii moved with his family to Iran during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Soon after, he volunteered for the Abouzar Brigade, an Afghan militia that had fought on Iran's side in the war against Iraq.
After the war ended in 1988, Tivasolii enrolled and then graduated from the Al-Mustafa International University in Qom.
In the 1990s, he returned briefly to his native Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, which had seized large swaths of the country after the Soviet withdrawal and a devastating civil war.
Tivasolii also fought alongside the Iranian-backed Hizballah movement in Lebanon during the war with Israel in 2006.
In 2015, a large funeral was held for Tivasolii in his adopted city of Mashhad, in northwestern Iran. Iranian state media reported that Tivasolii was trusted by the former powerful commander of the Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. air strike in January 2020.
The hard-line Rajanews.ir posted a photo of Soleimani and Tivasolii in military uniform.
With the Syrian war ebbing, most fighters in the Fatemiyoun and Zeynabiyoun brigades have returned to Iran or their homelands.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif told Afghanistan's Tolo News in an interview on December 21 that less than 2,000 Fatemiyoun fighters still remain in Syria.
It is unclear how U.S. sanctions will affect Al-Mustafa's international activities.
One of Al-Mustafa's largest foreign branches is in neighboring Afghanistan, where the majority of Muslims are Sunni, but around 15 percent of its population -- mainly Hazaras -- are Shi'a with religious links to the Shi'ite-majority in Iran.
Iran shares deep historical, cultural, and linguistic ties with Afghanistan, and it has expanded its sway in the country through the funding of seminaries, media outlets, cultural centers, and infrastructure projects.
Hundreds of students are enrolled at the local branch of the university -- locally known as Jamiat ul-Mustafa -- in the capital, Kabul.
Afghanistan's Higher Education Ministry told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that the Iranian university has "conducted its activities in accordance with the rules and regulations" of the ministry.
But spokesman Hamid Obaidi said the ministry would soon "make a decision" about the university's future in Afghanistan considering U.S. sanctions against Al-Mustafa.
Observers say Al-Mustafa has become Iran's chief tool for promoting Shi'ism abroad.
The university received around $80 million in the 2020-2021 Iranian budget, serving to highlight its importance.
Al-Mustafa is believed to receive additional funding from the office of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and businesses under his control.
Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studied Shi'ite theology in Qom, said the Al-Mustafa International University is owned and run by Khamenei.
Khalaji said Al-Mustafa "specializes in educating non-Iranian clerics."
Observers say Al-Mustafa spreads anti-Western and anti-Semitic propaganda, and its activities are seen to be tied to Tehran's longstanding effort to export the Islamic Revolution.
The university's activities in Europe came under scrutiny in 2016 when an Iranian national in Kosovo was charged with financing terrorism.
Hasan Azari Bejandi was the head of the Qur'an Foundation of Kosova, an umbrella group for five Shi'ite organizations operating in Kosovo. The umbrella group appeared to be affiliated with the Al-Mustafa National University, which claimed that Bejandi was its representative in Kosovo.
Saeed Ghasseminejad and Alireza Nader at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) wrote that three religious organizations -- the Islamic Development Organization, Al-Mustafa International University, and the Islamic Propaganda Office of Qom Seminary -- play a "central role in projecting [Iran's] influence abroad."
They said that the three organizations were focused on "training Shi'ite clerics, sending missionaries across the globe, and disseminating Shi'ite propaganda" with the goal of creating a "network of native missionaries in each country who are loyal to Tehran."
Iranian journalist and writer Akbar Ganji said that Al-Mustafa "harbors a huge army of potential sympathizers of ayatollahs who could spread their ideology around the globe."
Exiled Afghan Professors Say No Return Without Women In Universities
When the Taliban seized power, it soon launched a purge of Afghanistan's universities in a bid to promote its radical Islamic values.
Now, facing a severe shortage of qualified university teachers, the hard-line Islamist group is trying to convince exiled educators to return to their homeland.
The Taliban's education minister, Neda Mohammad Nadim, announced this week that the group had "sent different delegations to various countries so those who are good instructors and are living abroad return."
But professors who left when the Taliban seized power over two years ago say there is little to come back to.
"Being a professor at a university is not only about income and career, what is important is independence, critical thinking, and freedom of expression," Sami Rasakh, an educator who left Afghanistan for an undisclosed country, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi.
"We do not have these rights under such a government [the Taliban]," Rasakh said, concluding that "professors who went to more advanced countries will not return."
Despite the Taliban's recruitment effort, educators remain subject to significant restrictions on what they can teach and to whom. The denial of higher education to girls and women, which forced many women teachers out of their profession or led them to leave the country, is a major sticking point.
Obaidullah Wardak, a former mathematics professor at Kabul University, says the Taliban must first provide girls and women the right to attend universities before the group can expect to convince professors to return. "Professors should not be expected to teach like machines," Wardak told Radio Azadi, saying the right to education for all must be protected.
"The professors want to see if there are [improvements] in place," said Wardak, who resigned from his position and moved abroad. "As a first step, we demand that the gates of the universities be opened again for girls."
The Taliban has fired scores of university professors, particularly women, replacing them with Taliban clerics. Dozens of other professors have resigned from their positions to protest the group's severe restrictions on education.
Another hitch in the re-recruitment drive is the Taliban's continuing purge of universities as it tries to impose its hard-line values on all aspects of Afghan life.
The Taliban has vowed to root out all forms of the modern, secular education that thrived in Afghanistan after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban's first regime. Since regaining power, the militants have converted scores of secular schools, public universities, and vocational training centers into Islamic seminaries, leading to a surge in the number of madrasahs in the country.
Multiple professors told Radio Azadi that the very same Education Ministry that wants them to return to the classroom had ordered the institutions where they taught to replace them with unqualified members of the Taliban government.
"On the one hand, it is ordered that I be removed, on the other, I will be invited [to return]?" Noorullah Shad, a former professor of Pashto literature at Kabul's Sheikh Zahid University, told Radio Azadi from abroad.
"If a professor returns, what guarantees are there that no one will be imprisoned again, my human rights will be protected, my dignity will be protected? Shad asked.
Who Believes Taliban's Promises?
Upon seizing power in August 2021, the Taliban gave assurances that it would not return to the infamously brutal rule it employed while first in power from 1996 to 2001.
In an effort to reverse the damage from the loss of government bureaucrats, military personnel, doctors, and other professionals, the Taliban called on Afghans to return to their former positions to help rebuild the country.
As a carrot, the Taliban pledged to respect girls' and women's right to education and offered amnesty for soldiers and police who worked for the previous Afghan government.
But rights groups have recorded scores of cases in which former military and police personnel were targeted and killed, while the global community has expressed outrage at the Taliban's refusal to live up to its promises when it comes to the rights of girls and women.
Some university professors, meanwhile, have been imprisoned for criticizing the Taliban's restrictions on girls and women attending university. In December, the Taliban doubled down by barring girls and women from campuses entirely.
The end result, according to the United Nations mission to Afghanistan, is that the Taliban has established "the most repressive country in the world regarding women's rights."
The Taliban's education minister, Nadim, nevertheless has claimed that some professors have returned to resume teaching in Afghanistan.
Rasakh, the exiled university professor, conceded in his interview with Radio Azadi that "professors who are down on their luck in [neighboring] Iran and Pakistan would maybe accept the Taliban's pitch out of necessity."
Multiple professors who have returned and spoke to Radio Azadi supported Rasakh's argument, saying they had to come back after experiencing financial problems and difficulties in obtaining legal documents to stay abroad.
Written by Michael Scollon based on reporting by Khujasta Kabiri of RFE/RL's Radio Azadi
Armenia Says 28,000 Arrive From Nagorno-Karabakh, Reports 125 Deaths In Explosion
More than 28,000 people have arrived in Armenia from Nagorno-Karabakh, the government in Yerevan said on September 26 amid a massive exodus that followed an Azerbaijani offensive that gave Baku complete control of the mountainous region.
The Armenian government said that as of 8 p.m. local time the number of people who had entered was 28,120, and registration had already been completed for 20,800 of them. The government is providing housing for all who do not have a place to go.
The Armenian Health Ministry, meanwhile, said the number of deaths from an explosion that occurred on September 25 at a gas station near the enclave's capital, Stapanakert, had risen to 125.
Nagorno-Karabakh authorities said earlier on September 26 that at least 20 people were killed and nearly 300 others injured in the explosion, which occurred as people seeking to flee to Armenia lined up to fuel their cars in order to leave the region.
The cause of the blast has not been determined.
Azerbaijan opened the only road leading from the region to Armenia on September 24, four days after a cease-fire agreement that ended a lightning military operation.
Baku has pledged equal treatment for mainly ethnic Armenian residents who are fleeing, but the Armenian government has warned of possible “ethnic cleansing.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev that he must protect civilians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Blinken spoke by phone with Aliyev to underscore “the urgency of no further hostilities” and to state that there be “unconditional protections and freedom of movement for civilians,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.
Blinken also told Aliyev that there must be unhindered humanitarian access to Nagorno-Karabakh.
Samantha Power, the top official at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Baku's use of force was unacceptable, and she called on Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev to protect ethnic Armenians’ rights.
She said it was "absolutely critical" that independent monitors and aid organizations be given access to people in Nagorno-Karabakh, and she later announced a $11.5-million package of humanitarian aid for Armenia.
In Brussels, envoys from Baku and Yerevan met with European Council diplomats in the first such encounter since Azerbaijan's recapture of Nagorno-Karabakh following a nine-month blockade of the region that Armenian officials said had deprived the enclave's residents of food, medicine, and other essentials.
The EU stressed in a statement the need for transparency and access for international humanitarian and human rights groups and for more detail on Baku’s vision for Karabakh Armenians’ future in Azerbaijan.
During the meeting Hikmet Hajiyev, a foreign policy adviser to Aliyev, outlined Azerbaijan’s plans to provide humanitarian assistance and security to the local population.
The meeting also discussed a possible meeting of Nagorno-Karabakh stakeholders on October 5 in Granada.
"The participants took note of the shared interest of Armenia and Azerbaijan to make use of the possible meeting in Granada to continue their normalization efforts," the statement said.
Armenian representative Armen Grigorian and Hajiyev "engaged in talks on possible concrete steps to advance the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process in the upcoming possible meeting, such as those with regard to border delimitation, security, connectivity, humanitarian issues, and the broader peace treaty," the statement said.
The statement added that the EU believes that the meeting should be used by both Yerevan and Baku to reiterate publicly their commitment to each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in line with previous agreements.
Armenia and Azerbaijan have fought two wars in the last three decades over the region, which had been a majority ethnic Armenian enclave within the internationally recognized border of Azerbaijan since the Soviet collapse.
The region initially came under the control of ethnic Armenian forces, backed by the Armenian military, in separatist fighting that ended in 1994. During a war in 2020, however, Azerbaijan took back parts of Nagorno-Karabakh along with surrounding territory that Armenian forces had claimed during the earlier conflict.
That fighting ended with a Russia-brokered cease-fire and the deployment of Russian peacekeepers. Those peacekeepers did little, however, to prevent the advances by Azerbaijani forces.
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Armenian and Azerbaijani services, AP, AFP, The New York Times, and Reuters
Afghanistan In A New Light: Photographer Captures Life Under The Taliban 2.0
Two years after U.S. troops left, Associated Press photographer Rodrigo Abd returned to Afghanistan with an idea: to use an old-style Afghan "box camera" to document how life has changed under Taliban rule.
Peace has come to Afghanistan, but at a steep price: poverty, global isolation, and the virtual erasure of Afghan women from daily life are now the norm.
Sitting for a portrait in a war-scarred Afghan village, a Taliban fighter remarks, "Life is much more joyful now." For a young woman in the Afghan capital, forced out of education because of her gender, the opposite is true: "My life is like a prisoner, like a bird in a cage."
As a small crowd gathers around Abd's box camera, images of beauty and hardship ripple to life from its dark interior: a family enjoying an outing in a swan boat on a lake; child laborers toiling in brick factories; women erased by all-covering veils; armed young men with fire in their eyes.
The instrument used to record these moments is a "kamra-e faoree," or instant camera. They were a common sight on Afghan city streets in the last century -- a fast and easy way to make portraits, especially for identity documents. Simple, cheap, and portable, they endured a half-century of dramatic changes in this country -- from a monarchy to a communist takeover, from foreign invasions to insurgencies -- until 21st-century digital technology rendered them obsolete.
During their first stint in power from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban banned photography of humans and animals as contrary to the teachings of Islam. Many box cameras were smashed, though some were quietly tolerated, Afghan photographers say.
Using this nearly disappearing homegrown art form to document life in postwar Afghanistan, Abd produced hundreds of black-and-white prints that reveal a complex, sometimes contradictory narrative.
Captured over the course of a month, the images underscore how in the two years since U.S. troops pulled out and the Taliban returned to power, life has changed dramatically for many Afghans. For others, little has changed over the decades, regardless of who was in power.
A tool of a bygone era, the box camera imparts a vintage, timeless quality to the images, as if the country's past is superimposed over its present, which, in some respects, it is.
At first glance, the faded black-and-white, sometimes slightly out-of-focus images convey an Afghanistan frozen in time. But that aesthetic is deceiving. These are reflections of the country as it is now.
Taliban Hyping Huge Mining Deals, But Afghanistan Still Far From Cashing In
The Taliban has been celebrating since the Islamist group that rules Afghanistan signed seven mining contracts promising to attract more than $6.5 billion in investments late last month.
But experts are skeptical about whether the contracts -- signed on August 31 with Afghan-based companies aligned with foreign partners from China, Iran, Turkey, and Britain -- can be implemented.
They question whether large-scale mining investments are even possible as the Taliban's cash-strapped government remains unrecognized because of its extensive human rights abuses and its banning of women from schools, work and public life.
The Taliban's lack of legitimacy also hangs over whether its accelerated efforts to boost mining revenue can deliver as a dire humanitarian crisis deepens in Afghanistan. Experts say few Afghans can benefit from opaque deals that circumvent established international standards.
“Large-scale development of Afghanistan's mineral resources would take more capital than large firms are willing to commit in the absence of diplomatic recognition,” says Jeff Rigsby, a former U.S. military contractor and aid worker who lives in Kabul.
While looking for business opportunities in Afghanistan since 2022, Rigsby has closely followed the Taliban's effort to exploit the country’s mineral resources.
“The Taliban has not always done due diligence in the past when [it has] announced investment deals in other sectors,” he said. Rigsby added that little is known about the foreign firms signing the recent contracts to extract copper, gold, lead, zinc, and iron from several Afghan provinces.
“There is no transparency regarding these contracts,” noted Abdul Qadeer Mutfi, a former adviser to the Afghan Mining and Petroleum Ministry. “The Taliban wants to end the government’s financial problems by selling the minerals as raw materials to various countries.”
Mutfi said that Taliban mining contracts do not follow standard practices, which will deprive Kabul of international arbitration since the Taliban government is not recognized.
“Afghanistan might follow many African countries in experiencing a resource curse,” he said, alluding to the experience of several African nations in which large-scale exploitation of natural resources has not translated into growth and prosperity.
“After drugs, minerals are a significant source of funding conflict,” he said.
The Taliban, however, claims to be striving for self-sufficiency by developing the country’s natural resources. Its leaders have repeatedly projected mining, irrigation, and trade projects as a way out of the current economic and humanitarian crisis.
According to the UN, more than 30 million Afghans out of a total estimated population of 40 million need humanitarian assistance. With international funding declining, the world body has warned that millions of Afghans will not have enough food and that as many as 3 million face starvation.
But Rigsby sees little Taliban success in developing new mines by pointing out that the extremist group has been exporting coal to Pakistan from existing mines and has revived an oil exploration deal with Chinese firms that the former pro-Western government in Kabul first concluded more than a decade ago.
In January, the Taliban government signed a contract with the Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Company (CAPEIC) to invest $540 million until 2026 to explore oil and gas in Afghanistan’s northern Amu River basin. This revived a 2012 contract with the state-owned company China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC).
Surveys estimating Afghanistan’s potential mineral resources to be worth more than $1 trillion generated a lot of headlines in 2010. But the accuracy of this estimate has recently been questioned. The country’s poor infrastructure, absence of advanced technology, a trained workforce, and the high cost of extraction remain significant obstacles.
Nevertheless, the country has vast deposits of iron, copper, coal, lithium, marble, chromite, cobalt, and gold. And, in addition to gas and petroleum, the mountainous country has large reservoirs of lapis lazuli and other gemstones.
Since returning to power two years ago, the cash-strapped Taliban has attempted to turn Afghanistan’s natural resources into a cash cow.
“From these investments you can imagine how many minerals we have and how they can boost our revenues,” said Shahbuddin Delawar, the Taliban's mining and petroleum minister, after signing the deals on August 31.
He said in an interview that the Taliban government has so far concluded 116 small and 27 large mining contracts. He said during the last fiscal year, which ended in March, the government earned more than $220 million in mining revenue.
“The sale of minerals has increased because of transparency and an end to smuggling,” he told the BBC.
His upbeat assessment, however, is not backed by the evolving extractive industry on the ground. The Chinese state and private firms -- who are one of the major international investors in Afghan mining -- appear reluctant to begin working.
The China Metallurgical Group Corporation has yet to start a $2.83 billion contract for copper mining in the eastern Logar Province. The 30-year lease contract was signed in 2007. Taliban attempts to push the Chinese to begin underground mining to protect the vast Buddhist archaeological sites in the region have been unsuccessful.
“The Chinese presence here in the mining sector seems minimal, although some Chinese traders are exporting or smuggling minerals in small quantities,” noted Rigsby.
In a recent report, the research group Afghanistan Analyst Network concluded that the larger Chinese projects will take years to materialize.
“They will generate little immediate income for the ailing Afghan economy,” the report said.
Mutfi argues that in the absence of accountability, supervision, community engagement, and independent political and civil-society oversight, only Taliban leaders will benefit from exploiting Afghanistan’s natural resources.
“We are facing a significant loss,” he said.
The Azadi Briefing: Afghanistan Receives Much-Needed Humanitarian Funding
Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.
I'm Abubakar Siddique, a 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
International humanitarian operations in Afghanistan were boosted after the European Union and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) announced they would provide nearly $550 million in funding.
The ADB has approved $400 million “in grants to protect the welfare and livelihoods of vulnerable Afghan people, particularly women and girls, and ease the adverse impact of the ongoing humanitarian crisis.”
The EU has agreed to release more than $149 million of humanitarian assistance “in the fields of education, health, agriculture, and women's economic empowerment in Afghanistan.”
The announcement follows desperate calls for funding after the UN warned that millions among the nearly 30 million Afghans dependent on humanitarian aid will go hungry if they don’t receive urgent humanitarian funding.
“In Afghanistan, WFP has been forced to end life-saving aid for 10 million people,” Cindy McCain, the executive director of the UN World Food Program (WFP), warned on X, formerly known as Twitter, on September 19. “This is what a funding crisis means: no $$, no food.”
In August, the International Rescue Committee, a U.S. nongovernmental organization, said Afghanistan had only received 23 percent of this year's $4.6 billion proposed humanitarian funding.
Why It's Important: These announcements are welcome news for aid workers attempting to save lives in one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world.
The UN estimates that more than two-thirds of Afghanistan's estimated 40 million people need humanitarian assistance. The WFP estimates that more than 3 million Afghans are at risk of famine.
The Taliban's return to power in August 2021 quickly worsened the vast humanitarian crisis millions faced. The impoverished country lost Western aid, which was financing more than 70 percent of the government budget. The economy collapsed as sanctions kicked in against the Taliban leaders.
Yet the UN and international NGOs prevented thousands of deaths and starvation by quickly responding to the humanitarian crisis after utilizing generous funds from Western donors.
What's Next: New funding will help aid agencies prevent a humanitarian catastrophe during the winter, which begins with the first snowfall in November.
However, Western funding for humanitarian organizations in Afghanistan is not guaranteed in the long run. Domestic pressure is likely to prevent Western governments from giving money to a country where the Taliban government has even banned women from working for international aid groups after banning their education and work.
Longer term, Afghanistan's economy is unlikely to quickly turn around under the Taliban's unrecognized government.
What To Keep An Eye On
The caretaker Taliban government is working on a new constitution to establish a permanent government and consultative bodies.
The Taliban’s chief justice, Abdul Hakim Haqqani, is leading the process of writing a constitution, which is under wraps.
“We are still working on the supreme law as we debate [the role of the consultative] councils,” said Zabihullah Mujahid, chief Taliban spokesman. “Once finalized, it will revive all the aspects of governance.”
After seizing power two years ago, the Taliban has imposed a caretaker government comprised of top Taliban leaders, which has been ruling in a legal vacuum by suspending the country’s 2004 constitution.
Why It's Important: Few Afghans believe the Taliban constitution will be framed and adopted in any kind of a democratic, consultative process.
They are concerned that it will be yet another step toward permanently imposing a government by the group that has taken away most fundamental rights and freedoms from Afghans.
“This law is unlikely to be a recipe for a self-governing democratic polity that will pave the way for the international recognition of the Taliban government,” Attiqur Rahman Habib, an Afghan legal expert, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.
That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.
Until next time,
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.
Afghans Who Recently Arrived In U.S. Get Temporary Legal Status
The Biden administration said on September 21 that it was giving temporary legal status to Afghan migrants who have already been living in the country for a little over a year. The Department of Homeland Security said in the announcement that the decision to give Temporary Protected Status to Afghans who arrived after March 15, 2022, and before Sept. 20, 2023, would affect roughly 14,600 Afghans. This status doesn't give affected Afghans a long-term right to stay in the country or a path to citizenship. It's good until 2025, when it would have to be renewed again. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Mahsa Amini, Activists From Afghanistan, Georgia Nominated For EU's Sakharov Prize
Mahsa Amini and the women of Iran were nominated for this year's Sakharov Prize, the European Union’s top rights prize, the EU Parliament said on September 20. Amini, the 22-year-old Kurdish-Iranian woman who died in Iran last year while in custody for an alleged hijab infraction, was nominated by the parliament’s three largest blocs, making her the favorite to be chosen for the award in December. Afghan education activists Marzia Amiri, Parasto Hakim, and Matiullah Wesa were nominated, as were the "pro-European people of Georgia" and Nino Lomjaria, former public defender of Georgia. The award will be presented in December.
UN Records Torture And Deaths Of Detainees In Taliban Custody
The United Nations said it had documented hundreds of cases of torture and other "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment" committed by the Taliban de facto authorities in Afghanistan during the arrest and subsequent detention of individuals.
In a report issued on September 20, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said it had documented more than 1,600 cases of human rights violations -- nearly half of which comprised acts of “torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment” -- committed by the de facto authorities in Afghanistan during arrests and detentions, and the deaths of 18 individuals while in custody. The report covers the period from January 2022 until the end of July 2023, with cases found across 29 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
“The personal accounts of beatings, electric shocks, water torture, and numerous other forms of cruel and degrading treatment, along with threats made against individuals and their families, are harrowing. Torture is forbidden in all circumstances,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk said in a statement issued with the report.
“This report suggests that torture is also used as a tool -- in lieu of effective investigations. I urge all concerned de facto authorities to put in place concrete measures to halt these abuses and hold perpetrators accountable,” he added.
In a response published with the report, the Taliban-led Foreign Ministry questioned UNAMA’s data and said it had taken steps to improve the human rights situation of detainees.
Since ousting the Western-backed Afghan government and taking over the country in August 2021, the hard-line Taliban has failed to live up to promises of moderation and has instead severely restricted people's freedoms, waged a harsh crackdown on dissent, and reintroduced the militants' brutal form of justice.
Around one in 10 of the violations were against women, the report said. Journalists and civil society members accounted for nearly a quarter of the victims of the violations.
UNAMA considers the extent of torture and other forms of ill-treatment “widely under-reported” and says that the figures presented in the report represent “only a snapshot” of the full scale of human rights violations across Afghanistan.
The report also said that violations of due process guarantees, including the denial of access to lawyers, “are the norm.”
The Taliban claimed the number of reported violations was not accurate, especially the number of journalists or civil society advocates affected. It added that the authorities have taken steps to improve the human rights situation of detainees, and that Islamic law, or Shari'a, prohibits torture.
With reporting by AP and Reuters
China In Eurasia Briefing: What's Driving Beijing's Leadership Turbulence?
Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.
I'm RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here's what I'm following right now.
What's Driving Beijing's Leadership Turbulence?
Less than two months after Qin Gang, who had been serving as China’s foreign minister, disappeared and was replaced, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu has also disappeared from public view and is believed to be under investigation.
What does the turmoil mean for Beijing’s military and foreign policy establishment?
Finding Perspective: According to a report by the Financial Times, the U.S. government believes that Li has been placed under investigation.
There has been no official pronouncement, but Li has not been seen in public for more than three weeks.
One U.S. official who spoke to the British newspaper said the probe into Li, who headed the People’s Liberation Army’s main department for procuring and developing weapons from September 2017 until last October, was corruption-related. Li previously headed the Xichang Satellite Launch Center for a decade and was also sanctioned by the United States in 2018 for weapons deals with Russia.
This is relevant as August saw purges of generals within the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force and Li’s potential investigation could be linked to those cases.
The sequence for Li also has echoes of Qin’s removal in July as foreign minister.
Speculation had run over what could be behind that move, but a September 19 Wall Street Journal report may add some clarity.
Citing “people familiar with the matter,” the Journal reported that Qin was stripped of his title because of an extramarital affair that lasted while he was China’s ambassador to Washington before assuming his foreign minister post.
Senior Chinese officials were told, according to the report, that an internal Communist Party investigation found that the affair led to the birth of a child in the United States.
Why It Matters: The instability at home comes as China’s global competition with the United States is growing and scrutiny of senior officials’ dealings with foreigners is intensifying as Beijing looks to remove any -- real or imagined -- security vulnerabilities.
This has led to some analysis that Chinese leader Xi Jinping may be too consumed with putting out fires at home and that the country’s foreign engagements may suffer. Xi has been less willing to leave the country for extended periods of time, missing the recent Group of 20 summit in India and unexpectedly skipping a business forum at the BRICS summit last month.
Chinese elite politics remain a black box and it’s unclear how the shake ups with Qin and Li have altered Chinese diplomacy. In the case of Qin, it looks to be minimal. He was replaced by his predecessor, Wang Yi, an experienced foreign policy hand that was appointed as director of the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee on Foreign Affairs earlier this year.
But the move signals an era of turbulence at the top in Beijing that could continue as the Chinese economy suffers a crisis of confidence not seen since the country’s opening to the world in the late 1970s.
Podcast Corner: The Investigation That Shows China And Russia's Cooperation On Censorship
On the latest episode, I’m joined by Andrei Soshnikov, who heads RFE/RL’s Russian investigative unit, Systema, and we break down our recent investigation based on leaked documents from closed-door meetings between Chinese and Russian officials where they trade tactics and expertise to censor the Internet and monitor dissent.
Be sure to listen and leave a review on your listening platform of choice. I’d also love to hear what you think. Reach out at Standishr@rferl.org
Three More Stories From Eurasia
1. CEFC's Ripples Still Felt In Georgia
CEFC China Energy -- a high-flying Chinese conglomerate worth more than $40 billion that went bankrupt following a string of scandals -- is coming back into focus in Georgia as the prime minister’s past work with the company is being seen in a new light as he strengthens ties with Beijing.
You can read the full report by my colleague Luka Pertaia from RFE/RL’s Georgian Service and myself here.
The Details: CEFC was known for its meteoric rise that left behind a trail of high-profile commodity deals, politically linked acquisitions, and scandals across Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa that analysts say are representative of the blurred lines between lofty investments and China’s geopolitical ambitions.
The company has since unraveled in dramatic fashion, and its founder and chairman hasn't been seen since he was detained in China on corruption charges in the spring of 2018.
But current Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili’s work as an adviser to the board of the firm that managed CEFC’s projects in Georgia before he returned to politics in 2019.
His work for the Euro-Asian Management Group received little attention in Georgia or abroad at the time, but that’s changing as Garibashvili moves the country closer to China, including signing a strategic partnership agreement with Beijing in July. Moreover, since Garibashvili returned as prime minister in 2021, every infrastructure project in Georgia worth more than $100 million has involved Chinese firms.
“Garibashvili's cooperation with CEFC -- however brief -- gave the foundation for further connections and opened new doors for him with the Chinese that we are seeing today,” Tinatin Khidasheli, who was Georgian defense minister from 2015 to 2016, told me.
A particularly interesting case study is CEFC’s investment in the Poti Free Industrial Zone, a tax-free manufacturing base near the Poti port on Georgia's Black Sea coast in 2017.
That deal ultimately fell apart as CEFC’s broader fortunes turned, but as Luka and I reported in the article, the ownership of the Georgian companies involved in the deal can be traced back to close associates of Bidzina Ivanishvili, the billionaire founder of the governing Georgian Dream party and a former prime minister.
Those links were further borne out in the 2021 Pandora Papers leak of offshore financial documents, which also showed the ownership structure more clearly and showed politics and business overlapping in CEFC’s work in Georgia.
Read more here.
2. Why New Work Rules At A Chinese-Run Mine In Serbia Matter
Strict new rules enforced at a Chinese-operated mine in eastern Serbia have sparked controversy and pushback in the Balkan country over concerns that the company is violating local labor laws, my colleague Sonja Gocanin from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reports.
What You Need To Know: According to an internal document from the Chinese firm Jinshan Construction leaked to Serbian media in mid-August, workers at the site are expected to begin each shift by lining up in formation for inspection by their managers and to greet their supervisors in unison.
Employees of Jinshan Construction -- which manages a large copper mine near the eastern town of Majdanpek -- spoke to RFE/RL's Balkan Service and added that these pre-shift meetings sometimes consist of workers being reprimanded publicly for small infractions and then asked to recite company safety rules.
News of the rules have been criticized by labor unions inside the country and led to an inspection of the mine by the Serbian government.
The controversy has also exposed a wider fissure in Serbia between local and Chinese work cultures and a growing public perception that the country's authorities are turning a blind eye to unlawful practices by Chinese firms, which are becoming increasingly vital to the national economy.
Jinshan Construction is a subcontractor that operates the mine on behalf of the Chinese mining giant Zijin, which took control of a money-losing copper smelter in the nearby city of Bor in 2018 and has since opened copper and gold mines across eastern Serbia.
Serbia under President Aleksandar Vucic has enthusiastically welcomed Zijin and other Chinese firms into the country, and it’s not the first scandal involving the companies in the Balkans.
3. The China Angle On Slovakia’s Elections
Slovakia is headed to the polls on September 30 where populist former Prime Minister Robert Fico -- who plans to reverse the country’s military and political support for neighboring Ukraine -- and his SMER party are forecast to get a leading share of votes.
What It Means: If Fico is intent on delivering on his campaign promises, it may prove more difficult for the EU and NATO to forge unified foreign policy positions on Ukraine and Russia -- and could be the latest display of war fatigue spreading among Kyiv’s strongest supporters in Europe.
The upcoming election will have larger consequences for Russian influence in Slovakia, but as Nikoleta Nemeckayova lays out in a new report for MapInfluenCE, a project tracking Chinese influence across Europe for the Association for International Affairs in Prague, this could also affect relations between Bratislava and Beijing.
Support for China’s peace document around ending the war in Ukraine that it unveiled in February and Slovakia’s relationship with Taiwan, which remains one of Europe’s strongest, are the main issues that could be shaped.
As the report notes, positive attitudes toward China and Russia are most commonly embraced by Slovak political parties like SMER, the Republika, and SNS, which hold socially conservative and nationalist views in domestic policies.
Narratives around Chinese and Russian foreign policy also provide fodder for these parties in domestic discourse where they’re looking to frame the current pro-EU, pro-Western leadership as not following Slovak’s national interests and that they’re instead controlled by the collective West, particularly the United States, the report says.
There’s still lots to be determined at the ballot box later this month. Even if Fico and SMER perform strongly, no winner can rule within Slovakia’s electrical math without a coalition in parliament. That means it’s possible that even with a strong showing, Fico may not claim the right to form a government and emerge as prime minister again.
Across The Supercontinent
U.K. Spy Scandal: A U.K. parliamentary aide, along with another individual, was arrested in March on charges of violating the Official Secrets Act on behalf of China.
The scandal could shape London’s line in China and the news has already been met angrily by British lawmakers, in part due to the six-month delay in the announcement. The aide, a 28-year-old man, was a parliamentary researcher for the Conservative Party, a position that allows access to some sensitive information. He was released on bail and has denied the charges.
Baerbock’s Words: Beijing summoned the German ambassador to China after Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called Xi a “dictator,” in the latest flare-up of tensions between the countries.
Another Step From Tbilisi: Georgian Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili announced on September 11 that Chinese citizens can now enjoy visa-free travel to the South Caucasus nation, RFE/RL’s Georgian Service reported.
Beijing’s New Man In Kabul: China became the first country to formally name a new ambassador to Afghanistan since the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021.
Beijing did not indicate any wider steps toward formal recognition of the Taliban, but the appointment highlights that China’s practical ties are growing.
One Thing To Watch
Despite tensions staying high, talks are ongoing between Beijing and Washington.
Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, recently held multiple meetings with White House national-security adviser Jake Sullivan in Malta and Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Chinese Vice President Han Zheng on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week. Wang and Sullivan also held a secret meeting in Vienna in May.
The meetings have set the stage for the revival of high-level contacts that were derailed earlier this year after a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon drifted across Canada and the United States. The talks are believed to be paving the way for Xi’s expected attendance at a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders in San Francisco in November -- as well as a possible summit on the sidelines of the event with U.S. President Joe Biden.
That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.
Until next time,
If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox every other Wednesday.
Afghan Court Hands Down Flogging Punishment For Nine Convicts
Nine people were flogged in an Afghan Taliban-ruled court on September 17. The eight men and one woman, who had been tried and are serving jail time, received 20-39 lashes, according to the information and culture department on social platform X, in the southern province of Zabul. The Supreme Court said the individuals in the provincial court were punished for committing "robbery and illegal relations crimes." Without providing further details, the court said "Tazir" punishment was applied. "Tazir" refers to punishment for offenses at the judge's discretion and usually results in "moderate" flogging intended as a form of discipline and rebuke.
Pakistani Taliban Attempts Land Grab To Boost Insurgency Against Islamabad
A middle-aged lawyer, Nia Beg, is anxious after a large incursion by Islamist militants rattled his homeland in northwestern Pakistan this month.
Beg is Kalash, and he follows the ancient pagan religion practiced in Bumburet and other remote valleys collectively called Kalash in the northwestern district of Chitral, which borders eastern Afghanistan.
He says that attacks by scores of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on several villages in Kalash pose hard questions about the security of Chitral, which had rarely seen Taliban violence and is one of Pakistan's top tourist destinations because of its unique culture and natural beauty.
"My children ask me, 'How will we now go to school or walk freely in our village?'" he told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal after the Taliban incursion into Chitral that began on September 6.
Pakistan claimed to have repulsed the attack and forced the TTP militants to retreat into Afghanistan.
On September 6, the military said four soldiers and 12 militants were killed in clashes. In a sign that all was not well in Chitral, the government imposed a three-day curfew in the mountainous region.
On September 10, the military said it killed seven more militants in ongoing "sanitization" operations. Gunship helicopters were also used, which suggests some of the TTP militants were well entrenched.
"Residents of Kalash are extremely frightened because the Taliban are religious extremists," Abdul Majeed Qureshi, a local Muslim leader, told Radio Mashaal.
"We want the Taliban attacks to end permanently," he added.
The once-peaceful Chitral region now appears to be in the crosshairs of the TTP, whose insurgency has grown remarkably after its ideological and organizational ally, the Afghan Taliban, returned to power in Afghanistan two years ago.
Experts say the surprise incursion into Chitral showcases the TTP's attempt to reestablish a territorial foothold in Pakistan.
After its emergence in 2007, the TTP controlled large areas in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province. But by 2014, Islamabad's military operations had forced it to flee into neighboring Afghanistan, which shares a more than 2,600-kilometer border with Pakistan.
"Chitral's complex terrain and geographical importance made it a significant option for the TTP to challenge the state’s territorial control," said Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based researcher who tracks the TTP.
"The TTP's attack on Chitral is part of its ambition to establish a stronghold on the Pakistani side of the border," he added.
Chitral, now divided into Upper and Lower Chitral districts, consists of high-altitude valleys in the Hindu Kush Mountains. It borders the eastern Afghan provinces of Kunar, Nuristan, and Badakhshan. A narrow strip of Afghan territory separates it from China and Tajikistan, which gives the region great strategic significance.
"The TTP wants to carve out a new safe haven that could serve its objectives," said Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud, director of news at Khorasan Diary, a website tracking militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Mehsud argues that the TTP's incursion into Chitral "is very dangerous" because the group might want to carve out other sanctuaries in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces, which form Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan.
After its emergence in 2007 as an umbrella alliance of Pakistani Taliban groups, the TTP swiftly extended its control over large parts of the South Waziristan, North Waziristan, Mohmand, Bajaur, and Swat districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Years of TTP attacks and the Pakistani Army's counterinsurgency killed more than 80,000 Pakistanis, predominantly ethnic Pashtuns. The violence also displaced more than 6 million Pashtuns.
"The TTP is seeking to restore some of the territorial control it once enjoyed in regions such as Swat and Waziristan," Mehsud said.
TTP violence has risen dramatically since the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021. The Taliban-led government brokered negotiations between Islamabad and the TTP, but these ended in November after the TTP formally declared that its cease-fire with Islamabad was over.
According to the Pakistani Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, a think tank in Islamabad, this August was the most violent month since November 2014.
The TTP claimed some 147 attacks that month. During the first eight months of the year, 227 Pakistanis were killed and 497 were injured in 22 suicide attacks, mostly claimed by the Pakistani Taliban.
The Pakistani military and law enforcement have endured mounting losses. At least 120 soldiers and military officers were killed in militant attacks in the first six months of this year. The police, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, have had similar losses.
Rising TTP violence has sharply deteriorated relations between longtime allies Pakistan and the Afghan Taliban.
Islamabad swiftly closed its main border crossing with Afghanistan in Torkham, which is some 400 kilometers to the south. It has also launched a crackdown on an estimated 3 million Afghan refugees and migrants in the country.
“We expect the Afghan interim authorities…to ensure that Afghan territory is not used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks against Pakistan," said the Foreign Ministry in Islamabad on September 11 in response to a Taliban statement demanding the reopening of Torkham.
The border crossing was reopened on September 15.
Sayed said the mountainous border between Chitral and the eastern Afghan province of Nuristan comprises deserted areas known as No-Man's Land.
“This could give the Afghan Taliban the pretext that the TTP has not attacked from areas under their control,” he said.
Mehsud said the TTP attack was also encouraged by the relatively small presence of security forces in Chitral. It is also the only region where the Pakistani border fencing with Afghanistan is incomplete.
"Things are reaching a boiling point between the two countries," Mehsud noted. "Pakistan might launch surgical attacks or kinetic actions inside Afghanistan to target the TTP leaders and their bases."
On September 10, an improvised explosive device targeted a senior TTP commander, Badshah Khan, in the southeastern Afghan province of Paktika.
In Chitral, civilians remain anxious in the aftermath of the TTP attack.
"People are worried that if the Taliban continues to attack, tourists will stop coming," said Ihkamuddin, a local politician in Bumburet.
Taliban Said To Suspect Detained NGO Workers Of Promoting Christianity
Local officials in the central Afghan province where the Taliban detained 18 staffers for a long-serving humanitarian NGO earlier this month suggest the group was suspected of spreading Christianity, RFE/RL's Radio Azadi has learned.
Taliban intelligence and other officials in Kabul have remained silent over the detentions.
The International Assistance Mission (IAM) humanitarian group in Afghanistan on September 15 announced the detention of 18 team members from its offices in Ghor Province between September 3 and 13. It said they all appear to have been transferred to the Afghan capital, Kabul.
IAM and other information suggested the detainees comprise 17 Afghan nationals and a female American surgeon.
Early on September 16, IAM said it still "has not been informed of the reasons for the detention of our staff."
But Taliban officials in Ghor have accused them of spreading Christianity, which can be punished under strict interpretations of Islamic law in Afghanistan.
In a written message to Radio Azadi, Abdul Hai Zaim, the head of information and culture for the Taliban-led government for Ghor Province, confirmed the arrest of the IAM employees and claimed -- without providing evidence -- that they had been promoting Christianity.
The fundamentalist Taliban, who retook control of Afghanistan as U.S.-led international forces withdrew in 2021, have imposed a particularly harsh form of Shari'a law on the country when they have been in power at various points in the past four decades.
The internationally unrecognized Taliban-led government in Afghanistan has been accused by UN and other international officials of grave human rights offenses against non-Muslims, women, and minorities.
IAM said on September 16 that it had inquired with the Taliban-led Afghan government's Finance Ministry and was "working together with the UN and ACBAR, the coordinating body for NGOs in Afghanistan," to seek the release of the staff members.
IAM has worked in Afghanistan for nearly six decades, it said.
"IAM has worked in Afghanistan alongside Afghan communities for 57 years and we value and respect local customs and cultures. We stand by the principle that 'aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint,'" it said, adding, "All IAM staff agree to abide by the laws of Afghanistan."
U.S. Military Orders New Interviews On Deadly 2021 Afghan Airport Attack As Criticism Persists
The Pentagon's Central Command has ordered interviews of roughly two dozen more service members who were at the Kabul airport when suicide bombers attacked during U.S. forces' chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal, as criticism persists that the deadly assault could have been stopped. The interviews are meant to see if service members who were not included in the original investigation have new or different information. The decision, according to officials, does not reopen the administration’s investigation into the deadly bombing and the withdrawal two years ago. But the additional interviews will likely be seized on by congressional critics, mostly Republican. To read the original story by AP, click here.
Pakistan Reopens Afghan Border Gate
Bustling traffic returned to Pakistan's Torkham checkpoint on September 15 as the crucial crossing on the border with Afghanistan reopened for trucks and pedestrians. Families with children and people seeking medical treatment entered Pakistan while others were returning to Afghanistan. The border gate was closed after a reported gunfight between the Afghan Taliban and Pakistani paramilitary patrols on September 6. The closure left thousands of people stranded and business owners complained of serious losses.
'They Deserve Some Peace': U.S. Envoy Rejects Support For Anti-Taliban Factions In Afghanistan
A top U.S. diplomat to Afghanistan has categorically ruled out Washington's support for a new war in the nation, saying Afghans "deserve some peace" after more than four decades of international conflict ended two years ago when American and international troops left as Taliban militants seized power.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, Karen Decker, the chargé d’affaires of the U.S. mission to Afghanistan, dismissed any support for anti-Taliban armed factions such as the National Resistance Front (NRF) and the Afghanistan Freedom Front (AFF), saying Afghans themselves have been adamantly against the launch of any new conflict.
“No. Absolutely not! We do not support renewed conflict in Afghanistan. Full stop," she said in response to a question about whether Washington would support these groups.
"The one overwhelming message I hear from Afghans inside the country is no more war," she said, adding that Washington would "support" and "promote" a dialogue among Afghans.
Most of its neighbors have resisted supporting another round of war in Afghanistan after the hard-line Islamist Taliban swept to power in the wake of the final withdrawal of U.S.-led NATO troops two years ago.
After the pro-Western Afghan republic collapsed on August 15, 2021, some defunct Afghan security force members joined the NRF and other smaller groups to attack Taliban forces in the northern provinces of Panjshir and Baghlan. This raised the possibility that four decades of war in Afghanistan could enter a new phase.
Ahmad Massoud, the NRF’s leader in exile, recently visited Moscow in what was seen as an effort to win support for the NRF and pressure the Taliban, which has marked its two years in power so far by severely restricting rights and freedoms, especially for women.
Decker, however, questioned whether the Kremlin could support a new Afghanistan conflict.
"The Russians are kind of busy right now doing something else in Ukraine, so I don't know if that is a realistic scenario," she noted in a thinly veiled reference to Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which continues to take a heavy toll on its military resources.
“Any proxy warfare? Absolutely not,” she said. “The Afghan people have had more than 40 years of war. They deserve some peace.”
Decker said that Washington supports a dialogue among Afghans to work out the future of their country, including forming an inclusive government.
After returning to power, the Taliban's internationally unrecognized government has refused to share power with other Afghan political groups and armed factions.
Instead, it has recreated its extremist Islamic emirate. Exclusively led by senior Taliban leaders, the de facto government has banned women from education, work, and public life. The Taliban has also denied Afghans many fundamental rights and freedoms.
Taliban officials, however, point to a commission as evidence of their willingness to embrace reconciliation among citizens in the country.
The commission has invited former senior government members and state officials to come back to the country as long as they do not participate in politics.
Pakistani Police Detain Hundreds Of Afghan Citizens In Karachi
Hundreds of Afghan citizens have been detained in Pakistan's southern province of Sindh, most of them in the port city of Karachi, for allegedly not possessing legal residency documentation. But many Afghans complained they were held by police despite having the correct documents. Sindh Province Governor Kamran Tessori said on September 11 that Pakistan's federal government had decided to repatriate illegal Afghan immigrants.
Taliban Detains 18 Staffers At Humanitarian NGO's Offices, Including American Surgeon
The ruling Taliban has detained 18 staff members of the International Assistance Mission (IAM) in Afghanistan from the humanitarian group's offices in the central Ghor Province, including an American surgeon. The IAM said in a statement on September 15 that it believed all 18 of the team members had been transferred to the Afghan capital, Kabul. The group said the detentions had taken place over 11 days. The long-serving NGO said, "We are unaware of the circumstances that led to these incidents and have not been advised of the reason for the detention of our staff members." To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.
The Azadi Briefing: Shrinking Food Assistance Hits Afghans Hard
Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe for free, click here.
I'm Malali Bashir, senior editor for women's programs 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
Millions of impoverished Afghans are bearing the brunt of receding international aid to Afghanistan, the world's largest humanitarian crisis.
International organizations operating in the country have been forced to cut their assistance to Afghans in the fields of health care and food aid in recent months, largely due to funding shortages.
The UN World Food Program (WFP) said last week that it would cut emergency assistance to 2 million vulnerable Afghans by the end of the month because of a "massive funding shortage."
Meanwhile, the International Committee of the Red Cross stopped funding 25 hospitals across Afghanistan on August 31, citing a lack of resources.
The drop in foreign assistance has directly impacted the lives of Afghans, many of whom are reeling from the devastating economic impact of the Taliban's seizure of power in 2021.
"We used to survive on food assistance [from the WFP]," Zarmina, a resident of the northern province of Parwan, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "But now this assistance has been cut off and my situation is dire."
Zarmina, 27, is the sole breadwinner for her family of six. She said her family received around 4,000 afghanis ($50) worth of food handouts every six weeks from the WFP.
"There's no work for me," she said. "It's very difficult. What are we going to do?"
Why It's Important: Declining international assistance will worsen the devastating humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
Around 6 million people -- out of a population of around 40 million -- are already on the brink of starvation, according to the UN.
Wahidullah Amani, the spokesperson for the WFP in Afghanistan, told Radio Azadi that the lack of aid will specifically affect women and children, the most vulnerable segments of society.
"My children suffer from malnourishment because they don't have enough food to eat," Hamidullah, a resident of the southeastern province of Khost, told Radio Azadi.
"All Afghans have the same problem. We ask all humanitarian organizations to help Afghans," added Hamidullah, who is the head of an extended family of 20.
What's Next: The cash-strapped Taliban government, which is unrecognized and under international sanctions, appears unable or unwilling to alleviate the economic and humanitarian crisis in the country.
Some Afghans have called on the militant group to do more to create employment opportunities and deliver food to the most needy. "The government should solve these problems and provide a chance for people to find work," said Samiullah, a resident of the eastern province of Nangarhar.
The Week's Best Stories
Afghanistan has seen a surge in the number of female suicides since the Taliban takeover, making the country one of the few in the world where more women take their own lives than men. The spike comes amid the Taliban's severe restrictions on women's lives, including their right to education and employment.
What To Keep An Eye On
China has become the first country to formally name a new ambassador to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover.
The Chinese envoy presented his credentials to the Taliban's prime minister at a ceremony in Kabul on September 13.
The Taliban government has not been recognized by any country in the world. It was unclear if Beijing's appointment was a step towards formal recognition.
"This is the normal rotation of China's ambassador to Afghanistan, and is intended to continue advancing dialogue and cooperation between China and Afghanistan," China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Why It's Important: It is unclear if the appointment signals China's growing interest in Afghanistan.
After the Taliban takeover, there was a surge in Chinese traders visiting Afghanistan to explore business opportunities and ink deals. The Taliban has boasted of Beijing's interest in expanding trade and investing billions of dollars in Afghanistan's mining sector.
But experts have said that China's relationship with the Taliban has been limited and largely transactional.
Experts said Beijing's primary concern in Afghanistan is the threat posed by members of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), an Uyghur extremist group. The Taliban has been accused of sheltering the militants.
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 email@example.com.
Until next time,
If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe for free here. It will be sent to your inbox every Friday.
Key Afghan-Pakistan Border Crossing Reopens Week After Gunbattle
Customs officials reopened a key border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan to trucks and pedestrians early on September 15, nine days after the Torkham checkpoint was closed when a gunbattle reportedly erupted between Taliban troops and Pakistani border guards.
The gateway is on a key transit route between the tense South Asian neighbors and is a vital link for residents on both sides of the border. It lies at the end of Pakistan's N-5 National Highway about 5 kilometers west of the Khyber Pass summit.
Sporadic closures have raised fears of deteriorating Pakistan-Taliban relations two years after the radical fundamentalist group took control of Afghanistan as U.S.-led international troops withdrew after two decades of war.
The Afghan Taliban's alleged support of Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) extremists is at the center of tensions.
The closure created massive lines of hundreds of stranded trucks and left thousands, including sick people seeking medical treatment across the border, seeking shelter in local mosques and other places.
The head of the Afghan-Pakistani Joint Chamber of Commerce said the closure had cost businesses millions of dollars.
The acting foreign minister for the Taliban-led Afghan government late on September 14 urged Pakistani authorities to reopen transit routes. That discussion followed a week of efforts to reach agreement on ensuring security and other aspects of a reopening.
The Pakistani Army took control of the area of Khyber district from Torkham to the Lundi Kotal checkpoint after a firefight on September 6 between Pakistani and Taliban troops.
There were contradictory reports of casualties in that incident, which reportedly began when Pakistani guards intervened after the Taliban tried to erect a structure on the Afghan side of the gate.
Torkham has undergone sporadic closures since the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan took over in August 2021.
In early August, Torkham was closed briefly after another clash between Pakistani border forces and Taliban guards.
Hoping For A Sweeter Future: Kandahar's Impoverished Farmers Increase Raisin Exports
Afghanistan's Kandahar Province exported 10,000 tons of raisins last year, with many of the producers still employing traditional techniques. It's one of the few cash crops left in the country, which is currently experiencing both an economic and humanitarian crisis under the Taliban.
Afghan Soldier Who Was Arrested At U.S.-Mexico Border After Fleeing Taliban Is Granted Asylum
An Afghan soldier who fled the Taliban and traveled through nearly a dozen countries before being arrested at the Texas-Mexico border and detained for months has been granted asylum, allowing him to remain in the United States, his brother said on September 13. Abdul Wasi Safi, 27, is one of tens of thousands of Afghan citizens who fled to the United States following the withdrawal of its forces from Afghanistan in August 2021. The soldier worried that if he wasn't granted asylum, he could be sent back to Afghanistan, where he would likely be killed by the Taliban because he had worked with the U.S. military. Two of his brothers live in Houston. To read the original story by AP, click here.
China Becomes First To Name New Afghan Ambassador Under Taliban
China has become the first country to formally name a new ambassador to Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, after its envoy presented credentials at a ceremony in Kabul. The Taliban has not been officially recognized by any foreign government, and Beijing did not indicate whether the September 13 appointment signaled any wider steps toward formal recognition of the Taliban. "This is the normal rotation of China's ambassador to Afghanistan, and is intended to continue advancing dialogue and cooperation between China and Afghanistan," China's Foreign Ministry said in a statement. "China's policy towards Afghanistan is clear and consistent." To read the original story by Reuters, click here.
Hundreds Arrested In New Pakistani Crackdown On Afghan Refugees
Police in the southern Pakistani province of Sindh have arrested more than 250 Afghan refugees and migrants as part of a new crackdown aimed at repatriating undocumented Afghans.
Most of the arrests and detentions have occurred in Karachi since September 11. The seaport is the capital of Sindh and also serves as the key industrial and trade hub for the Muslim nation.
"The government has directed the police and other [law enforcement] organizations to arrest Afghans living illegally in Sindh and elsewhere in the country," Kamran Tissori, the governor of Sindh, told journalists on September 11.
Afghan refugees and Pakistani human rights campaigners say the arrests are aimed at harassing mostly impoverished Afghans who cannot return to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan because of security fears or economic reasons.
"The mass arrest of Afghan refugees is based on their racial profiling," Muniza Kakar, a lawyer who has voluntarily represented Afghan refugees arrested in Karachi, wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
Kakar said that many of the detained Afghans possessed cards issued by the Pakistani government identifying them as Afghans.
"Urgent action needed to protect refugee rights," she wrote.
Afghan refugees in Pakistan complain of harassment and a lack of information and help in completing the paperwork needed for extending their stay in the country.
“After my Pakistani visa ended in July, I repeatedly applied to extend it but the government, unfortunately, has not processed it,” said one such refugee, who said his name was Ahmad.
“The Pakistani government announcement has created huge pressure and most of us now face mental health problems,” he told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.
The Pakistani government issued Proof of Registration cards for more than 1 million Afghans that expired on June 30.
Qaiser Khan Afridi, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Radio Mashaal that the UNHCR is discussing the issue with the federal authorities in Islamabad.*
"I am extremely afraid of being arrested whenever I go to the market to buy groceries," said Aimal Habibi, an Afghan refugee in Sindh.
Since the early 1980s, Pakistan has hosted one of the largest refugee populations in the world.
But it has not signed the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It also is not a signatory of the 1967 protocol, which broadens the definition of who can be considered a refugee.
Islamabad currently hosts about 1.4 million documented Afghan refugees. An equal number of undocumented Afghans are estimated to also be living in the country.
*Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted the spokesman for the UNHCR about an extension of the deadline.
At An Impasse: Pakistani-Afghan Border Still Closed As Tensions Rise
Trucks remain stranded amid growing tensions at the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, following a firefight that led to the closure of the countries' main crossing point.
Support Grows As Hunger Strike By Afghan Activists In Germany Enters Second Week
A hunger strike by a group of Afghan rights activists to protest the anti-female policies of the ruling Taliban has entered its second week as they seek international recognition of the militants' policies as "gender apartheid."
The protest that began on September 1 in the German city of Cologne comes after the Taliban rulers who seized power in the country two years ago banned women from education and from working in most economic sectors. The hard-line Islamist group has also banned women from visiting parks and imposed strict restrictions on their movement and how they can appear in public.
Zarmina Paryani, whose sister Tamana Zaryab Paryani was taken to the hospital on the night of September 9 after her health rapidly deteriorated because of the hunger strike, struck a defiant tone, saying that "until Tamana’s demands are heard, she will not end her strike.”
"She told doctors she could not leave her comrades alone and returned straight to the protest camp from the hospital,” Zarmina Paryani told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.
The two sisters and several other Afghan women activists said they launched the strike after hundreds of protests inside Afghanistan and internationally failed to produce any results.
The protest has attracted solidarity and support from rights activists in Europe and Pakistan, they say.
“There is gender apartheid in Afghanistan,” said Ziauddin Yousafzai, the father of Pakistani Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai, who visited the protesters in Cologne on September 11.
“Under the Taliban, there is no notion of a public life for women,” he told RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal.
In the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, Roqia Saee, an Afghan women’s rights activist, is leading a hunger strike in solidarity with the activists in Cologne.
“We will continue the strike until the United Nations, countries of the region and the world, and those who support human rights pay attention to our demand,” she told Radio Azadi.
Since July, UN experts and senior officials have said the Taliban’s systematic restrictions on women and girls could amount to "gender apartheid."
The Taliban, however, has so far resisted all international and domestic pressure calling for a change in policies toward women.
After Russia's Invasion Of Ukraine, Bulgaria Is Rapidly Trying To Modernize Its Armed Forces2
'Chaos, Screams, And Explosions': Ukrainian Forces Make Modest But Important Gains In Grueling Counteroffensive3
U.S. Condemns Attack In Kosovo's North As Country Observes Day Of Mourning4
Karabakh Separatists Say They Are Implementing Withdrawal Deal As Aid Arrives Through Lachin5
Ukrainian Military Claims Russian Navy Commanders Killed In Sevastopol Attack6
Ukraine Hails Arrival Of First U.S. Abrams Tanks As Occupation Officials Claim Missile Attack On Sevastopol Repelled7
Crimea: The Last 'Gentleman's War'8
Kherson Under 'Massive Shelling' As Cities In Southern Ukraine On Alert9
Live Briefing: Russia Invades Ukraine10
Russian-Installed Leader Of Crimea Denies Strikes Hit Power Plants