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Gandhara Briefing: Taliban Rule, China’s Dilemma, Pakistan Border

A member of the Afghan special forces fires at Taliban militants after coming under heavy fire during the rescue mission of a police officer besieged at a check post in Kandahar Province on July 13.
A member of the Afghan special forces fires at Taliban militants after coming under heavy fire during the rescue mission of a police officer besieged at a check post in Kandahar Province on July 13.

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.

Life under the Taliban

Frud Bezhan and Mustafa Sarwar report on how the Taliban is reimposing its signature brand of harsh Islamist rule by placing draconian restrictions on women, enforcing strict gender segregation, banning music and TV, and forbidding men to trim their beards in territories they have swept in recent weeks across northern Afghanistan.

“Now, women are oppressed. The Taliban says we must be accompanied by a male escort if we leave home. We must cover ourselves,” Monira, a 26-year-old woman, told us of life in Faryab Province, where her native Shirin Tagab district was recently overrun by the Taliban. “Before, I could go to the market alone to buy groceries. I could go to the hairdresser's. I could wear my hair up.”

The fear is palpable in Kabul, where young professionals are reluctant to give up their emancipated lifestyles if the Taliban overruns the capital and other teeming cities.

“I can’t imagine losing it all,” said Roman Asrar, a recent graduate of Kabul University, adding that his generation is “accustomed to certain freedoms” such as choosing how to dress and what lifestyle to adopt. “I’ve had more or less concrete plans about my future, working and living in Kabul. I can’t dream or make different plans anymore.”

Hard choices lie ahead for many Afghans. Our interactive map shows how the Taliban’s control has grown exponentially since the final departure of international troops from Afghanistan began on May 1. In a photo essay, we capture the intense battles between the Taliban and the elite Afghan special forces as both sides seek a battlefield advantage ahead of possible peace talks later this month.

China’s Af-Pak dilemma

Reid Standish delves into China’s dilemma as it figures out how to respond to the mounting insecurity in Afghanistan that magnifies threats to its regional investments and domestic security.

“In the future, we can likely expect more [Chinese] engagement with different parties in the Afghan conflict, but only if it fits China’s interests in the region,” Temur Umarov, an expert on China’s role in Central Asia at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told us. “The most important goal for China is to seal the chaos inside Afghanistan’s borders.”

Beijing’s regional approach will hinge on its increasingly tangled ties with Islamabad. As Standish reports, Islamabad is keen to protect its bilateral relationship with Beijing by praising its authoritarian system and notably refraining from criticizing reported atrocities in Xinjiang.

But militant attacks on Chinese interests will continue to severely test the alliance. Chinese and Pakistani officials initially disagreed over whether a gas leak or explosives caused a blast in a bus carrying Chinese workers this week. At least 12 people were killed and 28 others injured when the bus plunged into a ravine in Upper Kohistan.

The battle for Kandahar

In a video report, we take you to Kandahar, where intense clashes resulted in the Taliban seizing homes and forcing civilians to flee amid a battle with the security forces.

“We were about to enter the room when bullets came flying in our direction and injured my son,” says Hamid Gul, an elderly resident.

The city and the larger province by the same name were the seat of Taliban power in the 1990s. It is also an important gateway to Pakistan, which prompted the rival sides to fight heatedly over the Spin Boldak border crossing. Award-winning Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui was killed while covering the clashes.

The Taliban’s motives in the north

I take an in-depth look at why the Taliban has concentrated so much of its offensive in the rural districts of northern Afghanistan.

The region’s ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras offered up tough resistance even after the Taliban captured Kabul and other regions in 1996, and the militants want to prevent the reemergence of the Northern Alliance coalition of anti-Taliban factions that stood in their way for much of the 1990s.

The Taliban’s also looking to cut off Kabul in more ways than just encircling the capital: The prosperous key trade routes and border crossings in the north on which Kabul relies heavily are now in Taliban hands.

“The Taliban concentrated on this strategic region because it generates vital revenues,” Tamim Asey, a former Afghan deputy defense minister, told us.

A brewing humanitarian crisis

As intense fighting gripped various parts of Afghanistan, the UN appealed for new funding to cope with a situation its top humanitarian envoy said in which “everything is a challenge.”

The UN says more than 18 million Afghans need humanitarian assistance. But it has only received roughly half of the $850 million it desperately needs to fight malnutrition, a severe drought, and the return of 627,000 Afghans deported from neighboring Iran this year.

Some Afghans, however, will have a chance to build a new life elsewhere as the United States begin Operation Allies Refuge this week to evacuate thousands of those who have helped the U.S. presence in the past two decades. It remains to be seen, however, where they will be relocated while their visa applications are pending.

Central Asia’s fears

Bruce Pannier evaluates the response of three Central Asian nations to the mounting crisis in Afghanistan, which is yet again threatening to send refugees and dangerous security threats their way.

Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan are on high alert “and are carefully preparing for a possible return to power of the Taliban and all of the possible ramifications.” In a sign of things to come, Ashgabat has moved heavy weaponry and aircraft closer to its border with Afghanistan. The country was neutral in the 1990s when the Taliban first swept the regions along its borders.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s newsletter, and I encourage you to forward it to colleagues who might find it useful.

If you haven’t subscribed yet, you can do so here. I encourage you to visit our website and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

Abubakar Siddique
Twitter: @sid_abu

P.S.: You can always reach us at

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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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