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Afghan Women At Forefront Of Nonviolent Resistance To Taliban

A Taliban fighter stands guard as Afghan women shout slogans during a protest rally near the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul on September 7.

KABUL -- Hundreds of Afghans with bold placards and loud microphones are spilling into the streets of major cities every day, directly challenging the militant Islamist group, the Taliban, which seized power in Afghanistan last month.

Leading the charge have been women, who are defying Taliban threats and violence to demand their rights, their representation in government, and their roles in the deeply religious and conservative country of 38 million.

The Taliban has inherited a country that has been transformed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, with millions of girls returning to school and women joining the workforce as reporters, judges, and ministers, though the biggest changes took place in urban areas.

During the Taliban’s repressive regime from 1996 to 2001, women were forced to cover themselves from head to toe, banned from working outside their homes, and required to be accompanied by a male relative if they went outside. Education was limited to pre-adolescent girls.

Afghan women protest in Herat on September 2.
Afghan women protest in Herat on September 2.


The message carried in the protests now, as seen on large posters carried by protesters, is “We are not the women of the 1990s.”

"Since the Taliban have returned, women don’t know whether they will be able to work or if they will still have their fundamental rights,” Samira, one of the organizers of the female-led protests in Kabul, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

“That's why we felt the need to start a protest movement to enable women to speak up for their rights and for what they have achieved over the last 20 years,” she added.

‘Sign Of Repression’

Since seizing control of Kabul on August 15, the Taliban has tried to project a more moderate image to convince Afghans and the international community that it has changed.

At its first press conference in Kabul, the Taliban vowed to protect women’s rights -- but within their own fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic Shari’a law.


The militants have not shown any signs that their views have changed since they first ruled Afghanistan two decades ago, and their actions thus far have betrayed their initial pledges.

The Taliban has already reimposed some of the same repressive laws and retrograde policies that defined its extremist former rule.

The Taliban formed a new, all-male government on September 7 that is made up exclusively of senior militants. It did not include any women, even in secondary roles. The Taliban said women were not suited to serve in the cabinet.

The militants also abolished the Women’s Affairs Ministry and reestablished the feared Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.

Afghan women protest in Kabul on September 7.
Afghan women protest in Kabul on September 7.

In the 1990s, that ministry was responsible for enforcing the Taliban's morality laws, including its strict dress code and gender segregation in society. The ministry’s dreaded police were notorious for publicly beating offenders, including women.

The Taliban has advised women to largely remain indoors for their own safety. The militants have also ordered tens of thousands of former female government workers not to return to work even as their male colleagues went back.

Many girls’ schools have also remained shut across the country. At universities and colleges, the Taliban is enforcing a new dress code and separating men and women in what activists have described as practices alien to Afghan culture and a “clear sign of repression.”

Meanwhile, the Taliban has violently cracked down on the independent media, banned unsanctioned rallies, and detained, beaten, and killed former police officers, soldiers, and government officials.

Despite Gunfire And Lashings, Afghan Women's Protests Grow
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The militants have also reportedly carried out reprisal killings, cut off communication lines, and imposed a humanitarian blockade in Panjshir Province, a vast valley north of Kabul that is the last pocket of resistance against the militants.

Educated And More Informed

As the Taliban rolls back freedoms and use brute force to crush dissent, Afghans have taken to the streets of a dozen cities and towns in recent weeks to vent their anger.

At the forefront of the nonviolent resistance to the Taliban have been young women and female activists.

“Afghan women are not going to accept a return to repression and discrimination,” said Samira Hamidi, a prominent Afghan women’s rights activist. “Today, Afghan women are more educated and informed about their rights.”


Scores of women in Kabul, the western city of Herat, and the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif have defied the Taliban’s ban on protests and its heavy-handed tactics. Smaller rallies have been held in the northern provinces of Parwan and Kapisa, the central provinces of Ghor and Daikundi, and the southwestern province of Nimroz.

Armed Taliban fighters have shot at and killed protesters, fired warning shots in the air, and have used rifle butts and whips to beat and disperse the women, most of whom had donned Islamic head scarves.

But that has not dissuaded women from returning to the streets demanding their right to education, work, and security.

Among them is Sadat, who was among the women who protested in Kabul on September 7.

"I saw a Talib beating one of our friends with a rifle butt,” she told Radio Azadi. “I tried to stop him from beating our friend and he started to beat me. They hit my head with a metal bar. I have five stitches on my head now. They beat women so badly!"

Written by Frud Bezhan in Prague with contributions from RFE/RL Radio Azadi correspondents in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their safety.

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At Least 31 Killed Over Past Three Days As Rain, Floods Rage In Afghanistan

Afghan men look at destruction after a flash flood in Maidan Wardak Province.

At least 31 people have been killed and 74 others injured in flooding throughout Afghanistan over the past three days of heavy rains, Taliban authorities said on July 23. Authorities added that casualty figures were likely to rise and that hundreds of acres of agricultural land and more than 600 houses have been destroyed. Government spokesman Shafiullah Rahimi said most of the casualties were in Maidan Wardak Province. Authorities warned of the danger of sudden flooding in the Kabul and Helmand regions. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi, click here.

The Azadi Briefing: The Taliban's War On Music

Zabiulla Nuri, 45, an Afghan musician based in Kabul, says the Taliban broke his musical instruments.

Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Frud Bezhan, regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.

The Key Issue

The Taliban this week burned scores of musical instruments it claimed to have recently seized across Afghanistan.

The Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice on July 19 released photos of the blaze. The ministry declared music is un-Islamic and promotes "immorality that has caused the youth to go astray and society to be destroyed."

Widely condemned by Afghans on social media, the move is seen as part of the Taliban's war on music.

The extremist group banned music soon after seizing power in 2021 and has burned instruments and beaten musicians. That has led hundreds of musicians to flee the country in fear of their lives.

Why It's Important: The Taliban also banned music during its brutal regime in the 1990s.

At that time, many musicians fled to neighboring Pakistan and Iran, where they could practice freely and pass their knowledge on to the next generation. Most musicians who remained in Afghanistan either played secretly in their homes or hid their instruments.

Now, a new generation of Afghan musicians have decided to escape their homeland.

"Music is ending in Afghanistan," a musician, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "We [musicians] will go to Pakistan or anywhere else [where we are safe]."

Ahmad Sarmast, the self-exiled founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, told Radio Azadi that Afghanistan is the only country where music is prohibited.

"The people of Afghanistan have been deprived of all their musical rights, which includes access to music education, listening to music, participating in musical programs, making a living through music, and access to facilities for publishing, reproducing, and sharing music with society."

What's Next: Great strides were made in reviving Afghanistan's musical traditions after the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban's first regime in 2001.

Those gains have now been reversed, and more musicians and artists are likely to flee Afghanistan or abandon their musical careers if they remain in their homeland.

The Week's Best Stories

Afghan women demonstrated in Kabul on June 19 to demand the Taliban back down from its decree ordering the closure of beauty salons. The women say the shutdown would leave their families with no income. Taliban officials say beauty salons are forbidden under Shari'a law and demanded they be closed by July 25.

The Taliban has suspended the activities of a major Swedish aid group operating in Afghanistan. Afghans fear the move will aggravate an already devastating humanitarian crisis that has pushed millions to the brink of starvation.

What To Keep An Eye On

The family of Afghan journalist Irfanullah Bidar said he has been missing since July 12.

A source close to the family who did not want to be named for fear of retribution told Radio Azadi that Bidar was detained by unknown gunmen outside a mosque in the eastern city of Jalalabad. The men put a bag over Bidar's head before whisking him away in a car, the source said.

The source said Bidar, a reporter for Radio Safa, had no known enemies.

The disappearance of Bidar, a father of four, has been widely blamed on the Taliban's notorious intelligence service. The militant group has not publicly commented on his disappearance.

Why It's Important: Bidar is the latest journalist to be arrested or disappear in Afghanistan, where the Taliban has intensified its crackdown on independent reporters and media outlets.

In its annual report issued in May, the Afghanistan Journalist Center, a media watchdog, said cases of arbitrary arrests and detention, threats, and intimidation of journalists rose around 60 percent in the past year.

Since seizing power, the Taliban has waged a brutal crackdown on dissent that has targeted human rights defenders, women activists, intellectuals, and journalists.

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 azadi.english@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Frud Bezhan

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.

Taliban Violently Disperses Protest Against Closure Of Beauty Salons In Afghanistan

Afghan women stage a protest for their rights at a beauty salon in the Shahr-e Naw area of Kabul on July 19.

Security forces used water cannons and fired guns into the air to disperse a women’s protest in Kabul on July 19 over the Taliban-led government’s decision to close women’s hair and beauty salons.

Dozens of women took part in the rare public protest in the center of the Afghan capital. They held a poster with the slogan: "Don't take away our bread and water."

Beauty salons are a source of livelihood for women in Afghanistan, where the Taliban-led government has curbed the rights and freedoms of Afghan women and girls in education and most forms of employment.

One female protester told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi that Taliban security officers beat some of the demonstrators with batons and used tear gas to break up the demonstration.

"Yes, they were very violent. They fired shots in the air and sprayed water on us. They beat the girls. They took their mobile phones," one woman told Radio Azadi through WhatsApp.

WATCH: Afghan women demonstrated in Kabul on June 19 to demand the Taliban authorities back down from their decree ordering the closure of all beauty salons.

Taliban Violently Disperses Women's Protest Against Ban On Beauty Salons
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Another demonstrator also described the violence used by security forces against the women.

"They shot around us. They hit us with electric batons. They beat us with rods. We ran from alley to alley,” said the protester. “I am 15 years old, and I want to defend my mother's right, my sister's right, everyone's rights.”

Both women requested anonymity to protect themselves from retribution. Their accounts could not be independently verified.

The office of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) responded on Twitter to reports of the crackdown.

“Reports of the forceful suppression of a peaceful protest by women against the ban on beauty salons -- the latest denial of women’s rights in #Afghanistan -- are deeply concerning. Afghans have the right to express views free from violence. De facto authorities must uphold this,” UNAMA said.

The Taliban government's order to close women's beauty salons was issued last month.

WATCH: Afghan women who work in beauty salons in Kabul gathered on July 12 to protest a Taliban decree that would shut down their businesses.

Afghan Women Denounce Taliban Beauty Salon Ban
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The Taliban's Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice issued a letter on June 24 conveying a verbal order from the supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada. On July 4, Mohammad Sidik Akif Mahajar, a spokesman for the ministry, confirmed the contents of the letter, which had been circulating on social media.

The spokesman justified the order, saying the salons charge exorbitant amounts of money for makeup and that some of the procedures performed, such as plucking eyebrows and adding hair extensions, are illegal.

The Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice gave women's salons a month to close their doors.

Taliban Violently Disperses Women's Protest Against Ban On Beauty Salons

Taliban Violently Disperses Women's Protest Against Ban On Beauty Salons
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Afghan women demonstrated in Kabul on July 19 to demand the Taliban authorities back down from their decree ordering the closure of all beauty salons. The women say the shutdown would leave their families with no income. Taliban officials say beauty salons are forbidden under Shari'a law and demanded they be closed by July 25. It's the latest step in restricting women's freedoms since the regime seized power in Afghanistan in 2021.

Afghan Professors Say Taliban-Appointed Clerics Taking University Jobs

The Taliban's efforts to eradicate secular education has raised fears that the moves are likely to contribute to the spread of extremist ideologies in Afghanistan.

Several public university professors have complained that Taliban members and those around them have started taking some of the top positions at universities and other educational institutions in Afghanistan as the Taliban-led government's Higher Education Ministry increases its control of the school system.

According to the professors, some of whom spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, Akram Shah Asim has been appointed president at Kandahar University, while Mohammad Yaqub Haqqani has been installed in the same post at Khost University. The social media pages of the state universities now show the two -- both of whom come from the madrasah religious school system -- as presidents of the universities.

Three others who are linked to the Taliban -- Shafiullah Haqqani, Mohammad Sediq Kamal, and Shir Ahmad Abbas -- have been appointed as the head of higher education institutions in Maidan Wardak Province, Nimroz Province, and Paktika Province.

The professors said that most of the vice chancellors of the financial and administrative departments at universities have also been filled with people linked to the Taliban, and that people close to the Taliban have taken the lead in other scientific departments.

Since regaining power following the exit of international troops in August 2021, Taliban militants have moved to assert control over the country's education sector, converting scores of secular schools, public universities, and vocational training centers into Islamic seminaries.

The group also has banned women from attending university and girls above the sixth grade from going to school.

The Taliban's efforts to eradicate secular education and replace it with radical religious instruction has raised fears among observers that the moves are likely to contribute to the spread of extremist ideologies in Afghanistan.

"When I was in the university, they brought many changes. In the university, they identified those who were like-minded [and] brought them to professorships, heads of departments, vice presidents, and presidents of universities," Mohammad Qayyum Sial, a former professor at Paktia University who went to France a year ago to continue his studies, told Radio Azadi from France.

Qayyum Sial said he expects that after the changes in the leadership of the universities, professors will end up experiencing the same fate.

Jandad Jahani, who taught at an Afghan government university before going to Germany after the Taliban came to power, said the Taliban promised in the beginning to only make changes in political positions and not replace professional and academic positions.

But according to Jahani, the Taliban has not kept to its promise and instead brought "nonprofessionals and uneducated people to strategic and academic positions -- those who have not even finished high school," Jahani said from Germany.

Hamed Obaidi, a spokesman for the Higher Education Ministry in the former government, also noted that the Taliban has made many changes in the leadership of public universities and appointed its own people. In his opinion, these appointments will have a negative impact on the educational process and on academic institutions.

According to Article 23 of the Law for Civilian Higher Education in Afghanistan, a university president should be appointed from among a group of professors who have the proper academic qualifications, a guideline Obaidi says needs to be followed to ensure quality education.

"The president of the university is an important position. Without an academic figure, it is very difficult to manage an academic department. It will be the biggest punishment if professional people and professors are removed from their duties and are replaced by people who have no idea about how an academic institution works,” Obaidi said.

Ziaullah Hashemi, the spokesperson of the Higher Education Ministry, declined to comment on the issue of the appointments when contacted by Radio Azadi.

Afghan Refugee Finds New Career In California Playing A Film Character A Lot Like Herself

Afghan Refugee Finds New Career In California Playing A Film Character A Lot Like Herself
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An Afghan refugee seeking asylum in the United States is now captivating audiences onscreen, portraying a character she has a lot in common with. In her first-ever acting role, Anaita Wali Zada plays a haunted young immigrant named Donya who finds herself beached in the northern California city of Fremont. Her new life: working in a factory, writing fortunes for Chinese cookies.

Afghan Women Complain Of Harassment, Threats By Taliban's Morality Police

Taliban security forces man a checkpoint in Herat city in western Afghanistan. (file photo)

Women in the western Afghan city of Herat say they have been harassed and threatened by members of the Taliban’s notorious morality police for not wearing the hijab, or Islamic head scarf.

The complaints come a week after the Taliban deployed more members of the morality police across Afghanistan’s third-largest city, according to local residents who spoke to RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.

Soon after seizing power in 2021, the Taliban ordered all women in public to cover their faces by wearing an all-encompassing burqa or a niqab that is common in the Arab Gulf states.

The militant group said punishments, including arrest or even jail time, could be imposed on violators.

One woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said she was traveling with her father by car when they were stopped by members of the morality police. She said the car was impounded and they were ordered to show up at the Ministry of Public Affairs for questioning after she was accused of not wearing a hijab.

Another woman who spoke on condition of anonymity said members of the morality police forced her out of a taxi, accusing her of improperly wearing the hijab. “The taxis don’t pick up women anymore,” she said.

The morality police are overseen by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice and enforce the Taliban’s religious edicts, including its strict dress code and gender segregation in society. During the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, the force was notorious for publicly beating offenders, including women.

The Taliban has imposed severe restrictions on women’s appearances, freedom of movement, and their right to work and education since it regained power in August 2021.

Rights campaigners have accused the hard-line Islamist group of trying to erase women from public life and imprison them in their homes.

In a new report issued on July 17, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said the Taliban had further increased restrictions on women and girls in recent months.

UNAMA said it had “recorded instances where the de facto authorities took steps to enforce previously announced limitations on women’s freedom of movement and participation in employment.”

The agency said it also “recorded instances when the [Taliban] interfered in NGOs led by women, or employing them.”

Afghanistan's Shi'ite Minority Suffers 'Systematic Discrimination' Under Taliban Rule

People walk around the Sakhi Shah-e Mardan Shrine in Kabul. The shrine is visited mainly by Hazaras, a Shi'ite community.

When the Taliban seized power in 2021, Afghanistan's Shi'ite Hazara minority feared that the historically persecuted community would once again become the main target of Taliban atrocities.

During its first stint in power from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban terrorized the group, wresting control of Hazara regions in Afghanistan through a campaign of targeted killings.

After regaining power, the Sunni militant group tried to assuage Hazaras' fears of discrimination and persecution. The Taliban visited Shi'a mosques in the Afghan capital and deployed its fighters to protect ceremonies marking the Shi'ite month of Muharram.

But members of the community have accused the Taliban of since backtracking on its promises to protect Shi'a and grant them the right to freely observe their faith.

Last week, the Taliban prevented Shi'a from celebrating an important religious festival. The militants have also restricted the teaching of Shi'a jurisprudence in universities in Afghanistan. In February, the Taliban reportedly banned marriages between Shi'a and Sunnis in northeastern Badakhshan Province.

The Shi'ite community has accused the Taliban of failing to prevent deadly attacks on Hazaras by the rival Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) extremist group. Meanwhile, rights groups have documented the forced evictions of Hazaras by the Taliban, a predominately Pashtun group, in several provinces.

"The Taliban are becoming increasingly intolerant of public expressions and displays of the Shi'ite religious faith," said Niamatullah Ibrahimi, senior lecturer at Australia's La Trobe University. "If it becomes a pattern, it will clearly limit the religious freedom of Shi'a, especially ceremonies that are often public in nature."

Mahtab, an 8-year-old Hazara student, poses for a photo in her classroom at the Abdul Rahim Shaheed School in Kabul days after a bombing attack in April 2022.
Mahtab, an 8-year-old Hazara student, poses for a photo in her classroom at the Abdul Rahim Shaheed School in Kabul days after a bombing attack in April 2022.

Taliban fighters prevented Shi'ite residents in Kabul from publicly celebrating Eid al-Ghadir on July 7. The festival celebrates what Shi'a believe is the day that Prophet Muhammad declared Ali, a cousin and son-in-law, his successor.

But the festival clashes with the Sunni belief that Abu Bakr, the first Muslim caliph, was the rightful successor to Prophet Muhammad. These conflicting beliefs are among the most important differences between the two main Muslim sects.

'They Want To Eliminate Minorities'

In May, the Taliban banned the teaching of the Shi'a Jafari school of jurisprudence at Bamiyan University. It is not clear if the ban has been extended to all universities in Afghanistan. Most residents in the province of Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, are Shi'a.

Nematullah, an Islamic studies student at Bamiyan University, said they have been forced to study the Sunni Hanafi school of jurisprudence that is followed by the Taliban.

"We were told that if we raise our voice, we will be taken away and tortured," the 20-year-old told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, adding that the Taliban ban was forcing Shi'a to give up their education or leave their homeland.

Mohammad Hassani, another student at the university, accused the Taliban of trying to "eliminate minorities and their religions by force."

Seyyed Mohammad Hossein Rizwani, a prominent scholar at the Shi'a Ulema Council of Afghanistan, told Radio Azadi that the Taliban's ban on teaching Jafari jurisprudence contradicts "the spirit of Islamic brotherhood and national unity."

Although a census has never been conducted, Shi'a are believed to make up around 15 percent of Afghanistan's 40 million people, which is largely Sunni. Hazaras account for the overwhelming majority of Shi'a in the country.

During the 19th century, Afghan monarchs attempted to forcibly convert the Hazara, seize their lands, and bring Hazara regions in the country's central highlands under the control of the central government, campaigns that killed thousands and forced even more to flee their homes, including many to British India. Hazaras who resettled in Kabul and other cities suffered discrimination and were often employed only in low-paying jobs.

In a significant step to address the historical grievances of the Hazaras, Afghanistan's 2004 constitution permitted Shi'a to use Jafari jurisprudence in court cases involving personal matters. The community also gained an unprecedented share in power during the Western-backed political order that emerged after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Only The Beginning?

Since regaining power in August 2021, the Taliban has mostly maintained the state's administrative structure. But it has scrapped the 2004 constitution and laws that guaranteed freedoms and rights to Afghans, particularly to religious minorities and women.

The Taliban's theocratic government is made up almost entirely of senior Taliban members, with no women and just a few non-Pashtuns.

"There are deep fears within the community that this could be only the beginning of systematic discrimination against the Shi'a and the representation of their understanding of Islam in the country's laws, society, and politics," said Ibrahimi of La Trobe University.

Niala Mohammad, the director of policy and strategy at the nonprofit Muslim Public Affairs Council in Washington, said the Taliban has failed to protect Afghanistan's Shi'ite minority from the IS-K, which has killed scores of Hazaras in attacks on schools and mosques since the Taliban takeover.

"[The Taliban] continue to harass and target those that do not adhere to their distorted view of Islam," said Mohammad, who was previously the South Asia analyst for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "Particularly Shi'a Hazaras, whom they view as heretics."

She said the Taliban's mounting restrictions on the Shi'ite minority "emboldens Shi'a persecution by other religious extremists across the region and deepens the sectarian divide."

Afghans Fear Taliban's Ban On Swedish Aid Will Further Worsen Humanitarian Crisis

A child stands in a waiting room at the Tangi Saidan clinic run by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan in the Day Mirdad district of the central Wardak Province.

Shima runs a sewing course for several dozen women that is funded by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA), one of the largest aid groups operating in the country.

The program has provided a sustainable livelihood for the women, who live in an impoverished rural district in the eastern province of Laghman.

But the project could be scrapped after the Taliban on July 11 suspended the activities of the SCA. The militants have also threatened to stop the operations of other aid groups that receive funding from Sweden.

The Taliban’s decision came after the burning of the Koran, Islam’s holy book, in Stockholm last month, which triggered outrage in the Muslim world and was condemned by the Swedish government.

The SCA has played a major role in the fields of health, education, and vocational training since the Taliban seized power in 2021, which aggravated a devastating humanitarian crisis and triggered an economic collapse.

The Swedish Committee For Afghanistan built a new school in Paktika Province in 2022.
The Swedish Committee For Afghanistan built a new school in Paktika Province in 2022.

"I am very sad that the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan is closing," the 25-year-old Shima told RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. "I request the Taliban not to shut down this organization."

The Swedish aid group has operated in Afghanistan for most of the past 40 years of war, and millions of Afghans have benefited from its assistance.

"The decision of the Taliban to shut down this organization is very bad news for the Afghan economy," Farida Hafeez, who has worked for the SCA for the past five years, told Radio Azadi. "Unemployment will rapidly rise in Afghanistan."

The SCA employs around 8,000 Afghans in 18 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. With an annual budget of over $50 million, the organization runs health-care facilities in the central province of Wardak and the eastern province of Nuristan. Last year, its clinics treated more than 2.5 million patients in the two provinces, the group has said.

The SCA also educates over 130,000 children in its rural schools and supports more than 20,000 people with disabilities in the same communities.

Hafeez said the Taliban’s decision to suspend the SCA’s activities will further worsen the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.

The United Nations estimates that some 28 million Afghans, or more than two-thirds of the country's 40-million population, need humanitarian assistance. Six million Afghans are on the brink of starvation.

The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), a government agency that oversees Sweden's development assistance to developing countries, has been a major donor of humanitarian and development assistance to Afghanistan for years. Last year, its funding to Afghanistan exceeded more than $90 million.

The Taliban has warned that it could target aid groups that receive funding from SIDA.

The Taliban on July 11 ordered the suspension of "Sweden's activities in Afghanistan until they apologize to Muslims for this heinous act," in reference to the Koran burning in Stockholm.

Protesters burn a Swedish flag during a demonstration against the burning of the Koran by Swedish-Danish far-right politician Rasmus Paludan in Kandahar on January 25.
Protesters burn a Swedish flag during a demonstration against the burning of the Koran by Swedish-Danish far-right politician Rasmus Paludan in Kandahar on January 25.

On the same day, the SCA issued a statement that said it was seeking a "dialogue" with the Taliban to clarify the group's order.

The SCA said it is a "people to people" organization that has observed "deep respect" for Islam and Afghan traditions since it first started operating in Afghanistan in 1980.

The SCA worked in Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan during the extremist group’s nearly 20-year insurgency against the Western-backed Afghan government and international forces.

"SCA strongly condemns all acts of desecration of the Holy Quran," said the statement. "Just as we condemn any attempt to create conflict or hostility between people based on religious belief, ethnicity, nationality, or any other division."

The organization said that it is not a Swedish government entity but "independent and impartial in relation to all political stakeholders and states" and funded by a "broad range of donors."

Students focus on their lessons at a school opened by the Swedish Committee of Afghanistan in Sheberghan.
Students focus on their lessons at a school opened by the Swedish Committee of Afghanistan in Sheberghan.

The Taliban has been at loggerheads with international aid groups for months. In December, the group banned Afghan women from working for local and foreign NGOs, leading major organizations to halt or reduce their operations, including emergency food distribution, health-care services, and education. In April, the ban was expanded to include the UN.

Later that month, international donors and aid agencies suspended their operations in three Afghan provinces after accusing the Taliban of attempting to divert or manipulate aid distribution.

In June, the UN revised its annual aid budget for Afghanistan from $4.6 billion to $3.2 billion this year, citing reduced funding from international donors. The world body said that a "changing operating context" in the wake of the Taliban's ban on female aid workers had contributed to the revised plan.

Written by Abubakar Siddique based on reporting by Radio Azadi correspondent Khatir Pardes

Turkey Provides Support For Disabled People In Afghanistan

A carpentry class in Afghanistan (file photo)

The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency has provided financial support for vocational training courses for people with disabilities in northern Afghanistan to help them gain professional skills and find employment. The state-run charity will provide six-month courses for women in soap manufacturing and for men in carpentry, the production and repair of shoes, and welding of metal structures. The courses will take place in Jowzjan Province and will accommodate 50 people with disabilities. To read the original story from the RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

Pakistani Army Chief Warns Afghan Taliban Against Harboring Militants

Pakistani Army chief General Asim Munir (right) meets with Amir Khan Muttaqi, the interim foreign minister for the Taliban-led government in Afghanistan, in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on May 6.

The head of the Pakistani Army has threatened the Taliban-led government in Kabul with an "effective response" if it continues harboring militants who launch attacks in Pakistan.

Pakistan has "serious concerns on the safe havens and liberty of action available to TTP in Afghanistan," General Asim Munir said, referring to the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan militant group, also known as the Pakistani Taliban.

The July 14 statement came after two militant attacks in recent days killed 12 Pakistani soldiers in the southwestern Balochistan Province that borders Afghanistan.

Nine soldiers were killed when militants stormed an army base in the Zhob district on July 12, marking the highest death toll in a single day for the Pakistani Army in several months.

Three soldiers were killed in a separate attack on the same day when gunmen targeted an army convoy in Sui, a town that the country’s main natural gas pipeline passes through.

"Such attacks are intolerable and would elicit an effective response from the security forces of Pakistan," said Munir, who visited Balochistan on July 14.

Several militant groups, including the TTP, Islamic State, and the newly formed Tehrik-e Jihad Pakistan have a presence in Balochistan.

Tehrik-e Jihad Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attack in Zhob.

The army chief said he expects the Afghan Taliban to live up to their promises from a 2020 Doha agreement with the United States to prevent any terrorist group from using Afghan soil for attacks.

Munir also claimed that "Afghan nationals were involved in recent acts of terrorism in Pakistan," but didn't provide further details.

There was no immediate response from the Taliban in Kabul. The Taliban-led government has in the past rejected Islamabad’s claim that it harbors militants who carry out cross-border attacks in Pakistan.

The TTP has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks on Pakistani troops and police in Balochistan in recent years.

The gas-rich province has also been the scene of a low-level insurgency by local separatists for two decades.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, and dpa

The Azadi Briefing: Taliban Intensifies Efforts To Eradicate Secular Education In Afghanistan

Since seizing power, the Taliban has attempted to root out all forms of secular education in Afghanistan.

Welcome back to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Mustafa Sarwar, a senior news editor 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

The Taliban ordered the closure of all teacher-training centers in Afghanistan on July 4, according to a letter circulated by its Education Ministry and obtained by Radio Azadi.

The order affects 49 teacher-training centers and 198 support facilities across the country, according to a source at the ministry who spoke to Radio Azadi on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Around 5,600 instructors and other staff were employed by the training centers. Created under the previous Western-backed Afghan government, the centers were aimed at improving the quality of education in the war-torn country.

In its letter, the Taliban did not reveal the reasons for its decision. But the militant group said employees of the centers could be given jobs in Taliban-run education facilities, although it is unclear how many would take up the offer.

The Taliban's Deputy Education Minister Sibghatullah Wasil, in an interview with BBC Pashto, suggested that the centers were inefficient and "had no plans, no work, and were not busy."

Why It's Important: The Taliban's decision to close the training centers appears part of its wider efforts 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.

The hard-line Islamist group has also vowed to overhaul the national curriculum and build a vast network of madrasahs across the country's 34 provinces.

Last month, a Taliban education official, Abdul Wahid Tariq, said the group had so far built madrasahs in five provinces.

The Taliban's closure of the teacher-training centers will likely see thousands of instructors and educators lose their jobs.

"Cutting off the income of these people and making them unemployed will cause society and the families of the teachers serious problems," a Kabul-based teacher, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Radio Azadi.

What's Next: The Taliban appears likely to continue what some activists have called its war on education.

The group has banned women from attending university and girls above the sixth grade from going to school.

The Taliban's efforts to eradicate secular education and replace it with radical religious instruction are likely to contribute to the spread of extremist ideologies in Afghanistan.

The Week's Best Stories

An Afghan refugee seeking asylum in the United States is now captivating audiences on-screen, portraying a character she has a lot in common with. In her first-ever acting role, Anaita Wali Zada plays a haunted young immigrant named Donya who finds herself beached in the northern California city of Fremont. Her new life: working in a factory, writing fortunes for Chinese cookies.

A court in Pakistan recently ordered the government to grant citizenship to the Afghan husbands of four Pakistani women. While it sets a precedent for a few hundred similar cases, the huge majority of Afghan refugees cannot get Pakistani nationality -- even those who were born and have lived in the country for decades.

What To Keep An Eye On

When the United States pulled out its forces from Afghanistan in 2021, it left behind billions of dollars' worth of military equipment and weapons.

The Taliban seized the arms after the fall of the internationally recognized Afghan government during the chaotic U.S. withdrawal.

Some of those arms are being sold in weapons markets in border areas with Pakistan with the consent of local Taliban officials, according to a new report by the Small Arms Survey.

The Switzerland-based research group says the Taliban has tried to tighten its control over the group's massive weapons stocks. But it said arms smuggling exists.

Why It's Important: The Small Arms Survey says the presence of weapons markets in Afghanistan increases the risk of arms proliferation in the region.

Afghanistan and Pakistan are home to dozens of militant groups, and observers have raised fears that U.S. weapons have fallen into the hands of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), or Pakistani Taliban, which is waging an increasingly bloody insurgency against Islamabad.

The Taliban has rejected the findings of the survey as propaganda, saying all weapons under the group's control are accounted for.

Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, recently accused the Taliban of selling U.S. weapons left behind in Afghanistan to Washington's "enemies," including Iran.

That's all from me for now. Don't forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you have.

Until next time,

Mustafa Sarwar

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.

Afghan Migrants Seek A Better Life At A Turkish Tea Plantation

With living conditions continuing to deteriorate under the Taliban regime, Afghan migrants are fleeing their country in pursuit of a better life wherever they can find it, including on a tea plantation in Turkey.

Afghan Women Denounce Taliban Beauty Salon Ban

Afghan Women Denounce Taliban Beauty Salon Ban
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Afghan women who work in beauty salons in Kabul gathered on July 12 to protest a Taliban decree that would shut down their businesses by July 25. In interviews with RFE/RL, women said the closures would leave their families with no means of subsistence. Taliban officials say such services are forbidden under Shari'a law.

Taliban Bans Activities Of Swedish Organizations In Afghanistan Following Koran Burning

Protesters burn a Swedish flag during a demonstration in Kandahar on January 25. The demonstration followed the burning of a Koran by a far-right politician in Stockholm. In June, an Iraqi immigrant also burned a Koran outside a Stockholm mosque.

Afghanistan's Taliban rulers have banned all activities of Swedish entities in the country after the burning of a Koran outside a mosque in Stockholm last month. The announcement was made in a statement issued by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on July 11. Sweden closed its embassy in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August 2021. The ban will mostly impact the activities of a Swedish NGO, the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan. The NGO employs thousands of aid workers across the war-wracked country. Last month, an Iraqi immigrant to Sweden burned a Koran outside a Stockholm mosque. The incident has sparked a wave of outrage in Muslim countries. To read the original story by RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, click here.

The Lucky Few: Pakistani Citizenship Still Elusive For Most Afghan Refugees

Gul Mohammad finally sees a glimmer of hope.

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Pakistan is the only country Gul Mohammad, a 42-year-old Afghan refugee, knows.

He was born in a refugee camp in the teeming, sizzling northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar.

Eighteen years ago, he married a Pakistani woman, hoping to settle down in the city he calls home. Yet the father of four has not yet been able to get Pakistani citizenship even though the country's laws allow him to obtain nationality because of his spouse.

"I don't want to go back to Afghanistan because my children will have no future there," he told RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal about his war-ravaged homeland.

But living in Pakistan is anything but easy.

His wife is now finding it difficult to renew her government identity card because her husband -- as the recognized head of the household -- does not have a Pakistani national identity card, which serves as proof of citizenship and is required for government services and to make business transactions.

"When I try to enroll my children into the public schools, they are asked for their father's national ID card," he said, adding that his children were being deprived of their education. "I now visit government offices to get my Pakistani ID card, but they turn me away."

But Mohammad now sees a glimmer of hope.

The Peshawar High Court, the top court in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, granted citizenship rights on June 17 to four Afghan men who are married to Pakistani women. "They will now have all [citizenship] rights like other Pakistanis," said Saifullah Mohib Kakakhel, a lawyer who won the cases. But he added that the four men would still be unable to get Pakistani passports.

Afghan women living in Pakistan wait to get registered during a proof-of-registration drive at the UNHCR office in Peshawar. (file photo)
Afghan women living in Pakistan wait to get registered during a proof-of-registration drive at the UNHCR office in Peshawar. (file photo)

Nauman Kakakhel, another lawyer in Peshawar, said the courts had granted citizenship to some 300 of his plaintiffs, most of whom are Afghan men married to Pakistanis.

"Terrorism and other similar policy matters and certain policies prevent the government from granting citizenship to [eligible] Afghans," he told Radio Mashaal. "But we have now filed their cases before the courts, which are now ordering the government to give them citizenship."

Afghan refugees and human rights campaigners consider the recent granting of citizenship to a few hundred Afghan men a welcome step. But most Afghans born in Pakistan or living there for decades still have no path to Pakistani citizenship.

Islamabad is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or the 1967 protocol intended to remove constraints on who can be considered a refugee.

But it has hosted one of the largest refugee populations in recent history. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, currently estimates that 1.4 million documented Afghan refugees live in Pakistan. It is estimated that an equal number of Afghans remain undocumented.

Since the communist coup in Afghanistan in April 1978 and the subsequent Soviet invasion in December 1979, millions of Afghans have fled to Pakistan to seek shelter from the various cycles of war and extremist governments that have taken power.

Afghan refugee families return to Afghanistan through Spin Boldak, a border crossing connecting southern Afghanistan to southwestern Pakistan.
Afghan refugee families return to Afghanistan through Spin Boldak, a border crossing connecting southern Afghanistan to southwestern Pakistan.

The treatment of Afghan refugees in the country is a major human rights issue often reflected in the headlines, with arbitrary arrests, security sweeps, mistreatment, and harassment.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), a leading rights watchdog, welcomed the Peshawar court decision granting the Afghan husbands of Pakistani women citizenship rights. The HRCP said the move was in line with Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognizes citizenship as a fundamental right.

"It will go some way towards easing the hurdles that refugees face, including harassment by law enforcement agencies and lack of access to health care, education, and decent livelihoods," said Zohra Yusuf, an HRCP council member.

The HRCP wants Islamabad to accede to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol and adopt national legislation to fulfill the obligations outlined in these international agreements.

"The state should ease cumbersome documentation requirements, provide more dignified living situations, and make every effort to provide a safer, more inclusive environment," Yusuf said.

But officials in Islamabad see the issue very differently.

As the chief commissioner for Afghan refugees in Pakistan's States and Frontier Regions Ministry, Muhammad Abbas Khan oversees all aspects of Afghan exiles in Pakistan. In written comments to RFE/RL, he argued that Islamabad cannot grant citizenship to Afghans born in Pakistan because it will open the door to many among the more than 4.3 million Afghans who have already returned to their country from Pakistani during the past four decades.

"Such facility could be exploited and would open yet another floodgate for large numbers of individuals, claiming their birth in Pakistan on forged documents," Khan said. "Thus leading to a complex, uncontrollable, and unmanageable situation."

Most Afghan refugees in Pakistan are ethnic Pashtuns, who are the second-largest ethnic group in the country of some 231 million people. In some regions their presence has become part of the local ethnic competition for power and resources.

"The majority of the newborn Afghans are of Pashtun ethnicity, which, if included in the Pakistani population, may change the delicate demographic balance in the sensitive province of Balochistan," he said of the long-running political wrangling over the presence of Afghan refugees in the vast region in the southwest that borders Iran and Afghanistan.

The 2017 census in Pakistan showed that Balochistan's Baloch population had shrunk from 61 percent to 55 percent compared to 1998.

The Pashtun population, on the other hand, had increased. In the ensuing years, Islamabad canceled the citizenship of 200,000 people, alleging that Afghan refugees had illegally obtained Pakistani IDs.

The treatment of Afghan refugees remains a pressing concern for human rights watchdogs.

Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International's deputy regional director for South Asia, says that the Afghan refugees' ambiguous legal status in Pakistan and arduous asylum or third-country relocation processes have made them even more vulnerable.

"They are caught in an impossible situation from which there is no escape," she said.

Taliban Bans Women's Beauty Salons In Afghanistan

An Afghan beautician applies makeup to a client at a beauty salon in Mazar-e Sharif on July 5.

The Taliban is banning women's beauty salons in Afghanistan, a government spokesman said on July 4. It's the latest curb on the rights and freedoms of Afghan women and girls, following edicts barring them from education, public spaces, and most forms of employment. A spokesman for the Taliban-run Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice Ministry, Mohammad Sidik Akif Mahajar, gave no details of the ban. He only confirmed the contents of a letter circulating on social media. The ministry-issued letter, dated June 24, says it conveys a verbal order from the supreme leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada. To read the original story by Associated Press, click here.

Afghan Taliban Says Biden 'Acknowledged Reality' About Al-Qaeda

U.S. President Joe Biden (file photo)

Afghanistan's Taliban government has seized on an off-the-cuff remark by U.S. President Joe Biden to underscore its claim that there was no Al-Qaeda threat in the country. Biden had said "all the evidence is coming back" and quoted himself around the time of the pullout in mid-2021 as saying, "Al-Qaeda would not be there" and "I said we'd get help from the Taliban," before adding, "I was right." On July 1, the Taliban regime's Foreign Ministry said, "We consider remarks by U.S. President Joe Biden about the nonexistence of armed groups in Afghanistan as acknowledgement of reality." It added a criticism of a recent UN report alleging that more than 20 armed groups are in Afghanistan.

State Department Review Of 2021 Afghanistan Evacuation Critical Of Biden, Trump

A U.S. Air Force aircraft evacuates some 640 Afghans from Kabul to Qatar on August 15, 2021.

A State Department report on June 30 criticized the handling of the 2021 U.S. evacuation operation from Afghanistan, saying decisions by U.S. President Joe Biden and predecessor Donald Trump to leave had "serious consequences for the viability" and security of the former U.S.-backed Kabul government. Adverse findings in the report also reflected on Secretary of State Antony Blinken -- without naming him -- including a failure to expand the department's crisis-management task force and the absence of a senior diplomat "to oversee all elements of the crisis response." The review contributed to a report released by the White House in April. To read the original story by Reuters, click here.

Pakistan's Imran Khan Accuses Army Of Waging 'Revenge' Campaign

Pakistan's Imran Khan Accuses Army Of Waging 'Revenge' Campaign
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Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has accused the country's powerful army of waging a "revenge" campaign against him and his political party, Pakistan Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI). Khan has previously alleged that the military conspired to oust him from power last year and then plotted to assassinate him. In an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal on June 28, Khan suggested that Pakistan cannot "turn into a real democracy" until the military stops meddling in politics.

The Azadi Briefing: Violence 'Widespread' In Afghanistan, Despite Conflict Subsiding

A 19-year old Afghan woman cries on the bench she was sitting on during a suicide bomb attack that killed dozens of her fellow students in a Hazara education center in Kabul on October 1, 2022.

Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Frud Bezhan, regional desk editor for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.

The Key Issue

The Institute for Economics and Peace has named Afghanistan as the least peaceful country in the world for the sixth consecutive year.

In its 2023 Global Peace Index released on June 28, the international think tank said “violence is still widespread throughout the country,” although it noted that the “level of conflict has dropped considerably” since the Taliban seized power in 2021.

“Afghanistan recorded the largest reduction in deaths from armed conflict in 2022 with conflict-related deaths falling 90.6 per cent, from almost 43,000 to just over 4,000,” the index said.

But the think tank noted that the security situation in Afghanistan remains uncertain and terrorism continues to be a “serious security concern.”

The index warned that there was a “strong possibility” that the conflict between the Taliban and the rival Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) extremist group could escalate. IS-K remains the biggest threat to the Taliban, carrying out deadly attacks against Taliban officials and the country’s religious minorities.

The index also noted that a growing number of local militias have joined the Afghan National Liberation Front and the Afghan National Resistance Front, armed groups that have been waging a low-level resistance to Taliban rule.

The Global Peace Index, which ranks 163 countries, measures the state of peace according to three values: the degree of militarization, the level of security, and the extent of ongoing conflicts.

Why It's Important: Since regaining power, the Taliban has repeatedly claimed that it has eliminated IS-K in Afghanistan and boasted about restoring law and order in the war-wracked country.

But the continuing violence in Afghanistan, as documented by the Global Peace Index as well as the United Nations, has busted the Taliban’s narrative that it has established complete security.

The UN mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a June 27 report that it had documented significant civilian casualties in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover, despite a sharp reduction compared to previous years.

UNAMA said there were 3,774 civilian casualties, including 1,095 people killed in violence in the country, between mid-August 2021 and the end of May 2023.

Mohammad Naeem Ghayor, an Afghan security expert, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi that although the security situation in Afghanistan has improved, there is not “real peace and stability” in the country.

What's Next: The Taliban is likely to face growing internal resistance to its rule. The militants have rolled back many rights, carried out widespread human rights abuses, and sidelined many of the country’s ethnic and religious groups.

The militant Islamist group has also been undermined by widening internal rifts and international isolation.

The Week's Best Story

Muslims across the world celebrated Eid al-Adha this week. But the festivities were muted in Afghanistan, where many people are struggling to survive amid a devastating humanitarian and economic crisis. The Taliban’s severe restrictions on women’s freedom of movement, including a ban on them going to public parks, also hampered celebrations.

What To Keep An Eye On

Amnesty International called on the Taliban to release Matiullah Wesa, a widely known and respected education rights activist who was beaten and arrested by the Taliban in Kabul on March 27.

“Today marks three months since education rights activist Matiullah Wesa was arbitrarily arrested by the Taliban de-facto authorities,” Amnesty said in a tweet on June 27.

“His continued detention is a clear violation of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly under international human rights law. The Taliban de- facto authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Matiullah Wesa.”

His arrest on charges of “anti-regime activities” sparked an international outcry.

In a written message to Radio Azadi, Attaullah Wesa said his brother’s arrest was unjustified and demanded that the Taliban release him.

Why It's Important: Wesa’s continued detention has served to highlight the Taliban's intensifying crackdown on dissent.

In recent months, the militant group has specifically targeted educators, including Rasul Parsi, a former university professor in the western city of Herat, who had written Facebook posts critical of the Taliban.

In February, the Taliban arrested former university professor Ismail Mashal after he distributed books to women and girls in Kabul to protest the Taliban’s ban on women attending university and girls above the sixth grade going to school. Mashal was later released.

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 azadi.english@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Frud Bezhan

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. Please note that the newsletter will not be issued next week due to public holidays. It will return on July 14.

New Chinese 'Super' Observation Station In Tajikistan -- Near Afghan, Uzbek Borders -- Said To Be For Climate, Technological Uses

The first "super" observation station for climate and environment outside China began operations in Shahritus, Tajikistan, earlier this month.

A new Chinese “super” observation station for climate and environmental monitoring has opened in Tajikistan, as China aims to advance in a developing technological arena and improve its green credentials in Central and South Asia.

The station -- located in Shahritus, a town in southwestern Tajikistan near the meeting point of the country's borders with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan -- was first mentioned by China’s Xinhua news agency on June 16, but Tajik media has not reported about it.

It is part of a growing constellation of stations in countries along Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that are run by or partnered with Lanzhou University.

It is the latest addition to a growing network of LiDAR (light, detection, and ranging) systems stretching across a major corridor of the BRI that is subject to extreme weather and is intertwined with Beijing’s broader technological ambitions.


But the station’s location and the Tajik government’s close cooperation with Beijing has also raised questions about whether it could be used for surveillance and security purposes.

While its full scope is unclear, Bradley Jardine, managing director of the Oxus Society for Central Asian Affairs, told RFE/RL that stations like those in Shahritus “rely on weather satellites -- possibly similar in nature to the object that had recently run errant across the United States.”

Earlier this year, a high-altitude Chinese balloon that Beijing said was strictly for climate purposes flew over Alaska, western Canada, and much of the United States before being shot down by the U.S. Air Force. U.S. officials said it carried large amounts of equipment used to spy on sensitive areas. The Canadian military also said it was used for surveillance.

"There could be surveillance capabilities on the Tajik border,” Jardine said.

A sign marks an entrance for Shahritus, an arid region of Tajikistan known for its high temperatures close to the country’s borders with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.
A sign marks an entrance for Shahritus, an arid region of Tajikistan known for its high temperatures close to the country’s borders with Afghanistan and Uzbekistan.

LiDAR systems help scientists to accurately map and examine natural and manmade environments, features that are a key component of smart, autonomous, and electric vehicles -- a sector where China is an emerging global leader.

Jardine told RFE/RL that “bold projects” such as the LiDAR network are primarily designed to allow China to refine its domestic technology, hone its edge in the autonomous- and electric-vehicle space, and help improve its environmental record abroad.

“As China positions itself to become dominant in the future global automotive industry, there are a large number of state grants available for refining the technology, and research institutes like Lanzhou are on the cutting edge,” Jardine said.

LiDAR And Beyond

The LiDAR network begins in the northwestern Chinese city of Lanzhou and extends across Xinjiang Province to Pakistan, Tajikistan, Iran, Israel, and Algeria -- consisting of more than 20 stations.

Huang Jianping, a professor at Lanzhou University working on the project, told Xinhua that the station provides comprehensive data for dust, pollutants, and weather in key areas of Central Asia and that the station can help warn about extreme weather conditions, as well as provide data about climate change.

The new facility in Tajikistan is in one of the hottest areas of the country, and Lanzhou University’s team -- which has been building the network of stations since 2016 -- says the location will help the laser-generated 3D maps of climate-impacted regions.

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon looks on at the roundtable during the China-Central Asia Summit in Xi'an, China, on May 19.
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon looks on at the roundtable during the China-Central Asia Summit in Xi'an, China, on May 19.

But while China says the new station in Tajikistan has clear environmental dimensions to its work, it comes amid a growing list of dual-use or secretive Chinese projects in the Central Asian country.

Lanzhou University has clear links to China’s defense industry and, according to a 2019 report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), it is among at least 68 other Chinese universities that are “officially described as parts of the defense system or [which] are supervised by China’s defense industry agency, the State Administration of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense.”

China has also financed, built, and in some cases helped operate surveillance and security outposts and facilities in Tajikistan along its long and porous border with Afghanistan. One such facility is operated near Shaymak and is part of a broader joint Chinese-Tajik venture to renovate and modernize old Soviet-era patrols near Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor that borders a small stretch of Xinjiang Province.

Dushanbe also approved the construction of a Chinese-funded police outpost near the country’s border with Afghanistan in 2021.

Beijing remains concerned that Islamist militants in Afghanistan could enter China or destabilize the region -- and much of its security footprint in Tajikistan is believed to be related to this issue.

China also opened an observation station on Tajikistan’s Lake Sarez in 2021 for environmental research and “international disaster reduction and prevention,” according to the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

While little information is available about its work, some analysts have noted that the facility could also be used for surveillance and monitoring beyond its environmental goals.

How the new station in Shahritus will fit in with this trend -- if at all -- is unknown.

Jardine adds that China’s security focus has largely been concentrated in the Pamir Mountains and the Wakhan Corridor, whereas the new station is located in a different part of the country “where there are less immediate security imperatives for China.”

Muted Eid Celebrations In Afghanistan As Economic Crisis Worsens

As Muslims around the world prepare to celebrate Eid al-Adha, many Afghanis are struggling to afford basic necessities amid a deepening economic crisis and Western sanctions.

More Than 1,000 Afghan Civilians Killed In Violence Since August 2021, UN Says

The majority of deaths -- just over 700 -- were caused by improvised explosive devices including suicide bombings in public places such as mosques, education centers, and markets.

More than a thousand Afghan civilians have been killed in bombings and other violence since foreign forces left and the Taliban took over in 2021, according to a report by the UN's mission to the country released on June 27. Between August 15, 2021, and May this year, 1,095 civilians were killed and 2,679 wounded, according to the UN Mission to Afghanistan, underscoring the security challenges even after the end of decades of war. The majority of deaths -- just over 700 -- were caused by improvised explosive devices including suicide bombings in public places such as mosques, education centers, and markets.

Taliban Leader Claims Women Have A 'Comfortable And Prosperous Life' In Afghanistan

A Taliban fighter stands guard as women wait to receive food rations distributed by a humanitarian aid group in Kabul on May 23.

The supreme leader of the Taliban released a message on June 25 claiming that his government has taken the necessary steps for the betterment of women's lives in Afghanistan, where women are banned from public life and work and girls' education is severely curtailed. The statement from Hibatullah Akhundzada was made public ahead of the Eid al-Adha holiday, which will be celebrated later this week in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries. Akhundzada, an Islamic scholar, rarely appears in public. He surrounds himself with other religious scholars and allies who oppose education and work for women. To read the original story from AP, click here.

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