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Gandhara Briefing: TTP, Afghan Opium Farmers, Shehbaz Sharif

A protest agianst Pakistan in the southeastren Afghan city of Khost after it luanched air strikes allegedly targeting Pakistani Taliban hideouts in the region on April 16.
A protest agianst Pakistan in the southeastren Afghan city of Khost after it luanched air strikes allegedly targeting Pakistani Taliban hideouts in the region on April 16.

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.

Rising Taliban, Pakistan tensions

I reported on the rising tensions between Pakistan and the Taliban, longtime allies who have recently fallen out. The main source of friction is the Taliban’s unwillingness to crack down on the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has intensified attacks against Pakistani security forces from its bases in Afghanistan.

Pakistan sees the TTP as a significant security threat. But the Afghan Taliban is reluctant to turn against the militant group, as the two share ideological and organizational ties.

"It will go against the narrative and history of the Taliban to engage in a military offensive against a fellow Islamist group on Pakistan's behest," Afghan journalist Sami Yousafzai told me.

Pakistan has been targeting TTP sanctuaries in Afghanistan, which has strained Islamabad’s ties with the militants. On April 16, the Pakistani Army launched air raids over eastern Afghanistan that killed dozens of people, mostly civilians. The airstrikes provoked unusually harsh exchanges.

Asfandyar Mir, a senior analyst at the United States Institute of Peace, said Islamabad has concluded that the Taliban is unlikely to deliver on its counterterrorism concerns. “These strikes can be an attempt to alter the Taliban's calculus on support for the TTP by ramping up some costs.”

Afghan farmers resent Taliban drug ban

I wrote about farmers in southern Afghanistan who have voiced anger over the Taliban’s ban earlier this month on poppy cultivation. Opium farmers said that by outlawing opium the Taliban's cash-strapped government is depriving them of their meager livelihoods.

“How will I feed my children?” asked Wali Jan, a middle-aged farmer in Uruzgan. He said his poppy fields provide the money needed to feed his wife and their eight children. "If they impose a harsh ban, it will be devastating for us," he added.

Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, argued that the ban will likely push tens of thousands of farmers into poverty. He said many farmers might circumvent the ban by "using connections to the local Taliban leaders or just plant the poppy somewhere they hope they won't patrol."

Some experts said the ban could be an attempt by the Taliban to win over the international community. But Mohammad Ehsan Zia, a former Afghan minister for rural development, said the Taliban must deliver on “human rights and women's rights, inclusive governance, and counterterrorism” in order to gain recognition.

(Read Radio Azadi’s report on how severe drought is affecting many Afghan farmers and herders.)

Pakistan’s workaholic new PM

Daud Khattak profiles Pakistan’s new prime minister, Shehbaz Sharif, who spent decades under the shadow of his elder brother and three-time premier, Nawaz Sharif. Shehbaz Speed, as he is sometimes called by the Pakistani media, is considered an effective administrator but not an inspiring political leader.

“Considering the challenges confronted by Pakistan right now, the country needs an efficient administrator even if he is uncharismatic,” said Murtaza Solangi, a prominent Pakistani journalist.

Hamid Mir said that unlike his elder brother, who fell out with the military, Sharif’s reluctance to criticize the country's powerful army has paved the way for his rise to the top. “Shehbaz Sharif always avoided confrontation with the army, which is the reason why he is acceptable to the military establishment,” he noted.

Imran Khan still in the political arena

I wrote about why Pakistan's former Prime Minister Imran Khan is unlikely to disappear into the political wilderness after his tumultuous three years in power ended with a no-confidence vote earlier this month.

That’s despite the former cricket star’s run-in with the army and his government’s mismanagement of the economy.

Farzana Shaikh, a Pakistan expert at the Chatham House think tank in London, said Khan is likely to maintain support among the urban middle-class because of the appeal of his brand of Islamist populism.

“[It’s] unlikely to dissipate anytime soon given the inexorable rise of an urban middle-class that is more at ease with the language of authoritarianism than with the values common to liberal democracy," she told me.

Taliban restrictions empty Afghan parks

Radio Azadi reports on Afghans avoiding public parks after the Taliban’s imposition of gender segregation and a strict dress code in public spaces.

“I used to enjoy going out with my family. It was always great fun,” said Shirin Gula, a Kabul resident. “But now there are too many restrictions which prevent me from enjoying an outing.”

Deepening poverty is also keeping many at home. “After the Taliban takeover, we cannot afford to go out,” said Abdul Majeed, 55, who used to take his family for day trips outside Kabul during weekends and public holidays.

Taliban turns schools into military posts

Radio Azadi reports on the Taliban turning schools into military posts in Panjshir, where the move has sparked widespread anger.

“The situation in Panjshir is terrible,” said Tuba Lotfi, a rights activist in the province. "Depriving children of education is alarming."

I hope you found this week’s newsletter useful, and I encourage you to forward it to your colleagues.

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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.

Azadi Briefing

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

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