Baztab News

Record Monsoon Rain Kills Dozens, Obliterates Livelihoods In Pakistan

30 Aug 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

Heavy monsoon rains that hit parts of Pakistan for a fifth straight day have caused flash floods and accidents, killing scores of people across the country. Authorities have reported at least 80 deaths in southeastern Sindh Province, with almost 50 in the port city of Karachi alone. Fifteen are reported to have died in Shahgram village in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's Swat district where video images from August 29 show heavily damaged buildings and streets covered in mud, uprooted trees, and displaced boulders. The monsoon season in Pakistan lasts from June to September.

Freed Taliban Fighter Calls For 'Flexibility' In Looming Afghan Peace Talks

29 Aug 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

A recently freed Taliban fighter has called for "flexibility" in peace negotiations that are expected to start soon between the militants and the Afghan government. After spending six years in prison, a 27-year-old named Muslim Afghan was released as part of a U.S.-Taliban deal that calls for the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan. The ex-prisoner says that after almost 19 years of war, the violence must end for the sake of the country's children, like his young nephew.

For Displaced Afghans, Hardship Increases During Pandemic

28 Aug 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

KABUL, -- Najiba, who goes by one name only, is an Afghan widow who begs to survive after being displaced in her own country. The middle-aged woman says she and her seven children had no choice but to flee their village in eastern Afghanistan last year after an airstrike killed her husband, Karimullah. She now lives on donations from strangers and family in the capital, Kabul. “After my husband was killed, we had to leave because of continued fighting,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “The government hasn't helped us in any way. All we want is to receive is the help we desperately need. We are living in a difficult situation.” Najiba had lived in Deh Bala, a rural mountainous district in the eastern province of Nangahar, where hundreds of thousands have repeatedly been forced to flee their homes by the emergence of the ultra-radical Islamic State (IS) militants in 2015. The jihadist group has engaged in horrendous atrocities against civilians, but their presence has also attracted operations by Afghan and international forces. The Taliban have also fought against IS in Nangarhar. Sayed Arif, 60, a farmer in the neighboring district of Achin, has braved repeated displacement during the past five years. He now lives in Jalalabad, Nangarhar’s provincial capital, but has not received any assistance. “I can’t find work, and our problems and needs increase every day,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “I want the government and aid organizations to pay attention to our misery.” Arif and Najiba are among some 4 million Afghans the United Nations estimates have been displaced by fighting and natural disasters inside their country since 2012. For nearly four decades, Afghans have been one of the largest refugee groups globally, but in recent years internal displacement has turned into a top humanitarian issue for the country of 35 million people. As the Afghan government and the Taliban are expected to begin important peace talks soon, tens of thousands of Afghans continue to be displaced. Just this month, more than 50,000 civilians were displaced by fighting between the Afghan security forces and insurgents in the northeastern province of Kunduz. “Conflict continues to be the main driver of internal displacement in Afghanistan,” said Parvathy Ramaswami, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Afghanistan. “The combination of decades of conflict with repeated displacement, poverty, and now COVID-19 have eroded people’s ability to cope and increased humanitarian needs across the country.” The UN estimates that so far this year more than 122,000 people were displaced by conflict across Afghanistan while natural disasters forced another 55,000 to flee their homes. The largest number of displaced are concentrated in the north, northeast, and eastern parts of the country. In addition, almost half a million undocumented Afghans have returned to their country. Most came from neighboring Iran. “Many are still living in overcrowded and underserviced informal settlements,” Ramaswami said of the displaced. “For people on the move, we are particularly concerned about the risk of spreading COVID-19 due to population movements as compliance with COVID-19 prevention measures is not possible for the majority of displaced families.” She says humanitarian aid agencies have helped more than 2 million displaced people with water, sanitation, and hygiene aid. In addition, they have helped Afghan authorities spread information about COVID-19 to some 5 million Afghans while also helping authorities cope with ongoing floods in the country. Abdul Basit Ansari, an adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations, says last year Kabul categorized more than 250,000 individuals as internally displaced. He says the Afghan authorities are working with international aid organizations to help them. However, he told Radio Free Afghanistan that their efforts have barely made a dent in the massive displacement problem Afghanistan faces. The UN has received only a third of the more than $1 billion in funding it is seeking for humanitarian needs in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, many Afghans continue to suffer in displacement. Gul Jan, a mother of four, is among the thousands displaced by fighting in the northern province of Faryab this month. As she cooks rice inside a makeshift kitchen in a dilapidated mud house in the provincial capital Maimana, her two young sons run barefoot around the courtyard. One of her elder sons became a heroin addict while the other disappeared amid fighting in the rural district of Pashtun Kot. “Our life is very hard, and every day is a challenge,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Alas, there could be peace, but we don’t see it coming.” Millions of Afghans are now closely watching whether the Afghan government and the Taliban will strike a bargain over their country’s political future, which could end more than four decades of war in the country. “We remain hopeful that the intra-Afghan talks scheduled to start soon will result in sustainable peace and a better future for all people in Afghanistan,” Ramaswami said. Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents Rahmatullah Afghan and Mohammad Ekram Karam contributed reporting from Kabul and Maimana, Afghanistan.

Pakistani City Of Karachi Paralyzed By Deadly Flooding

28 Aug 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

Torrential rain lashed the Pakistani city of Karachi on August 27, causing widespread flooding. People were seen wading through knee-high water as cars were submerged and houses inundated. Authorities said record-breaking rainfall over a three-day period in Karachi has left at least 19 people dead.

Head Of Pakistan’s Foreign Relations Committee Sees Strong Regional Position

27 Aug 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

Lawmaker Mushahid Hussain heads the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Pakistani Senate or upper house of the country’s parliament. In an interview with RFE/RL Gandhara, the former journalist weighed in on Islamabad’s recent spat with key ally Saudi Arabia and his country’s current standing in the region. RFE/RL Gandhara: With all the hype about the Pakistani foreign minister’s comments, and the army chief’s visit subsequent visit to Saudi Arabia wherein the optics weren’t great for the Pakistani military’s top brass, how would you assess Pakistani-Saudi relations? Mushahid Hussain: The regional context and the geopolitical scenario are changing. Both in the larger Muslim world and the Middle East, the relationship is still close. We have had differences with Saudi Arabia in the past; we had differences on the issue of Yemen in 2015 when we were asked for troops and declined. We also have had differences on the issue of Pakistan’s relations with Iran, and on Saudi Arabia’s relationship with India. On the issue of Kashmir there are expectations from the Organization of Islamic Countries, the OIC, and people expect more from the OIC, to speak up for Muslim causes like Palestine and Kashmir. I do not see a crisis in Pakistan-Saudi relations, but there can be a difference of policy and perception on specific issues. But strategically the relationship is still strong because both sides are mutually dependent on each other. RFE/RL Gandhara: Pakistan has provided a security umbrella to Saudi Arabia since the 1960s. Do you think Pakistan has some leverage over Saudi Arabia because of its security cooperation with the kingdom, which is otherwise vulnerable? Hussain: Both countries are mutually dependent, and both countries have clout in specific areas. The Saudis’ clout over Pakistan is essentially economic because there are 3 million Pakistanis who work in Saudi Arabia, sending home large remittances. Saudi Arabia gives a lot of economic support to Pakistan. And Saudi Arabia also has a certain significance as the home of Muslim countries, because the house of God is located in Mecca, and the Prophet’s final resting place is in Medina. Saudi Arabia has also depended on Pakistani clout for security. Since the time of General Ziaul Haq in 1982, there was a special security agreement between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia which allowed the stationing of Pakistani troops and advisers on Saudi territory for internal security purposes. That was there between ‘83 and ‘87, when we had a large division stationed in Saudi Arabia; it was there during the first Gulf War in 1991, when Pakistan sent troops as part of the larger coalition. During the Afghan war, Saudi Arabia gave about $2 billion in covert assistance to Pakistan’s military and the ISI [Inter-Services Intelligence] to fund and arm the Afghan mujahedin, which in relation to the $2 billion sent by the CIA for that purpose was a matching fund. At the time, only three countries recognized the Taliban regime [in the 1990s]: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and UAE. What Pakistan can provide to Saudi Arabia in terms of security no other country -- Arab or not, Muslim or not -- can provide. The Saudi government knows that; hence there is a strategic confluence of objectives and interests between Islamabad and Riyadh which remains unchanged despite some technical differences on some issues as they arise.   RFE/RL Gandhara: In a changing regional environment where key Saudi rival Iran is negotiating a major strategic agreement with Pakistan’s ally China, how do you see the Pakistani-Saudi relationship going forward? Hussain: Saudi Arabia has a very close economic and political relationship with India, which also affects Saudi Arabia’s low-key position on Kashmir. And Saudi Arabia knows Pakistan has very close relations with Turkey and Qatar, two countries with which the Saudis do not have good relations. And they know that Iran, as a neighbor of Pakistan, [has] a very cordial rapport [with Pakistan]. The two countries can agree as friends to disagree on issues which are vital to their respective national interests. But as far as the strategic confluence is concerned, when the Saudis know they need Pakistan’s support for their security, for defense, for internal protection, they can count on Pakistan, and Pakistan can also count on Saudi Arabia when we need an economic bailout, when we need financial assistance. RFE/RL Gandhara: We know about all the problems with CPEC [the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor]. Do you think CPEC is being revived? How does Iran fit into this project as it reportedly negotiates a major strategic agreement with China? Hussain: We should be clear that CPEC today is the centerpiece of the Pakistan-China strategic relationship, which is the number one relationship in Pakistan’s foreign policy. And even the Pakistani prime minister last week for the first time in his interview on the second anniversary of his coming to power said the future of Pakistan lies with China. So … it is clear that [for] the state of Pakistan, the armed forces of Pakistan, the parliament and the political parties of Pakistan, China is a strategic partner we can rely on and a partner that has been there for the past four or five decades -- a resilient and reliable partner. On the Iran-China cooperation, we welcome that because if China is displacing India from Chabahar, which is 170 kilometers from Gwadar Port, that is positive because China is a best friend. CPEC will be most secure on our western front, and Gwadar Port will be more secure if a Chinese presence is there, an economic presence or a political presence in Iran. So, this is something that is there because China is so close to Pakistan, and there is a comfort level between Pakistan and China which is not there with any other country. RFE/RL Gandhara: As the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, can you give us an overall assessment of Pakistan’s foreign policy? Hussain: Due to a number of factors, and it’s no thanks to any government, Pakistan’s regional position has been strengthened and we have got what I call strategic space and a geopolitical breather. Number one is the Afghan peace process; Pakistan has been pivotal in bringing the U.S. and the Afghan Taliban to the conference table, and the U.S. is beholden and dependent on Pakistan for this purpose. Hence the U.S. tone, the U.S. rhetoric, the U.S. statements regarding Pakistan have become more positive. Secondly, after this beating that the Indians got from the Chinese in Ladakh in June, the Indians have been cut down to size in their own neighborhood. You can see India having problems with not just Pakistan, not just China, but also countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh for the first time because of [the Indian Prime Minister] Modi’s Hindutva extremist policies. Nepal has brought a new map where they say India is occupying part of their territory. Bangladesh for the first time has protested to India because of the citizenship amendment act, which affects Bangladesh also. So, there are new winds of change. And the recent elections in Sri Lanka have brought to power the Rajapaksa brothers, who are friends of China and who are also friends of Pakistan. The recent scenario is changing, and CPEC is changing, which is driving CPEC forward. As you can see, three or four major agreements have been signed on CPEC, which were there especially on energy and also on the railway line. And just on August 20 we organized a big conference which included nine political parties, and they all agreed to protect and promote CPEC as the guarantor of a better tomorrow for Pakistan. We had messages off the president of Pakistan and the president of China, Xi Jinping, for this purpose. Relations with China are strong and resilient, and China needs Pakistan and Pakistan too needs China. It is Modi whose Kashmir annexation and occupation have backfired, and I’ve never seen in my professional life so much criticism of India as we have seen in the last year. Pakistan is right now in a comfortable position regionally, and it has given us a breather and strategic space for the next couple of years. We should use that to our advantage and build better relations with other countries in the region.

Former Mujahedin Sanctuary Now An Afghan Weekend Gateway

25 Aug 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

PANJSHIR, Afghanistan -- Countless songs and poems have been dedicated to the beauty and captivating landscape of Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Panjshir with its soaring mountains and crystal-clear, blue-green river. An oasis tucked away a little more than 150 kilometers northeast of the capital, Kabul, Panjshir has survived Afghanistan’s tumultuous times: the Soviet invasion, Taliban rule, and an insurgency of nearly two decades. Under the leadership of the region’s charismatic Islamist commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in the 1980s, the valley gained fame for resisting repeated Red Army incursions. Today, the remote valleys of Panjshir are now among a handful of Afghan rural territories where peace prevails, and the population largely supports the Afghan government. The region’s relative safety and unequivocal raw beauty is a major draw for thousands of Afghan tourists seeking an escape from a daily life that is often threatened or affected by their country’s four-decade-old war. Kabulis, as the more than 5 million residents of the teeming Afghan capital are known, are particularly fond of visiting rustic Panjshir. Bahara Azizi, 24, is a resident of Kabul’s Khair Khana neighborhood. She tells Radio Free Afghanistan that visiting Panjshir and witnessing its picturesque beauty in person left an emotional impression. “Panjshir Province is truly beautiful, especially with its unbelievably high mountains, rivers, and its glorious weather. It really touched my heart in an unexpected way,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan. “There are great spots for picnics, and when you sit near the water, you can feel the cool breeze hitting your face. It’s refreshing.” Visitors like Azizi travel from Kabul with their families in large caravans during peak tourist season in spring and summer to escape the pollution in the capital and enjoy the country life. Panjshir is a favorite destination because of its proximity to Kabul and its optimal weather. Most tourists spend their time hiking, exploring the region’s valleys, and sightseeing. But many of these visitors waited for the coronavirus pandemic to ease up before making the drive to the green valley divided by the white waters of Panjshir River amid the Hindu Kush Mountains. Mohammed Fahim is from the Qasaba neighborhood of Kabul. He says he chose to travel to Panjshir with his family to get a change of scenery. “Panjshir is breathtaking with so much greenery and beautiful spots to sightsee with the family,” he said. “Because of the pandemic, people could not travel as much as before, but now that the threat from the virus has lessened, we decided to take a family vacation here.” Officials in Panjshir, too, have noticed an uptick in tourist numbers. Mohammed Amin Seddiqi, deputy governor of Panjshir, tells Radio Free Afghanistan that on average they have noticed more than 45,000 visitors arriving on Thursdays, which marks the beginning of Afghan weekend. “Panjshir seems to be an attractive option for many tourists,” he noted. “It is considered to be a safe province, and very close to the capital,” he added. “Other provinces are unfortunately dealing with their own problems, but it's necessary for Afghans to have at least one safe haven where they can visit without worrying for their safety. Most importantly, they need a destination that will lift their spirits.” But several incidents have marred this tourist season in Panjshir. This month, several Afghans reported on social media about the bad treatment they received from unnamed individuals who bothered travelers and even prevented some from entering the region through the mountain road that links Panjshir with the rest of Afghanistan. Some complained their musical instruments had been smashed and they were harassed. Officials in Panjshir, however, say this type of harassment is unacceptable and they will work to stop it. Panjshir made Afghan headlines this week after an Afghan government operation to apprehend Keramuddin Karim failed. The fugitive former head of the country’s national soccer federation has been evading an Afghan arrest warrant issued last year over sexual abuse and other criminal charges. A stable security situation has allowed for the region to remain peaceful. But like the rest of Afghanistan, its future hinges on whether the Afghan government and the Taliban can agree on a shared future or if they will continue to push for a military victory over their opponents. Nilly Kohzad wrote this story based on reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Ahmad Hanayesh from Panjshir, Afghanistan.  

Taliban Tax Illegal Gold Mines In Northeastern Afghanistan

24 Aug 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

FAIZABAD, Afghanistan – Residents and officials in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Badakhshan say the Taliban are raking in considerable revenues by taxing illegal gold mining in the remote region bordering China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan. They say revenues from gold mining are helping the hard-line movement to expand its control in the strategic province, which largely remained outside its control during the Taliban’s stint in power in the 1990s when they controlled most of country’s more than 650,000-square-kilometer territory. “Taliban control the district of Raghistan and control the gold mining there, too,” Haseebullah, a resident of the remote district, told Radio Free Afghanistan in Badakhshan’s capital, Faizabad. “Everyone who looks for gold in the region is forced to share one-fifth of their find with the Taliban.” Haseebullah says the Taliban are also equipping some of the rudimentary mining operations with modern machinery to increase their output. Revenues from illegal gold mining are now seen as supplementing the Taliban’s income from lapis lazuli mines, which they exploited for years. While the Taliban deny taxing gold mining in Badakhshan, their actions are in line with insurgent tactics during the more than four decades of war in Afghanistan. Many groups, mostly Islamist factions, have exploited Afghanistan’s natural and mineral resources, trade routes, and illicit narcotics to fund their violent campaigns in the country where most governments have struggled to control the countryside because of attacks by rural rebels. Badakhshan’s governor, Mohammad Zakaria Sawda, estimates the Taliban are raising tens of thousands of dollars every month from Badakhshan’s gold mines, which are mostly concentrated in the Raghistan and Yaftali Shufla districts of Badakhshan. He says the group uses this money to bankroll their violent campaign in eight of Badakhshan’s 28 districts. “There is no doubt that control over resources plays a major role in the violence in the region,” Sawda told Radio Free Afghanistan. “They engage in extraction themselves and also tax the locals, who mostly pan for gold in rivers and streams.” Abdul Baseer Haqjoo, a local mining expert, says that in addition to funding streams from abroad the Taliban’s taxation of gold and lapis lazuli extraction contributes to their war chest. “The areas the Taliban control in Badakhshan have gold and lapis lazuli mines, which are central to buying their weapons and strengthening their forces [through recruitment],” he said. But Zabihullah Mujahed, a purported Taliban spokesman, denied taxing illegal gold mines in Badakhshan. In a message to Radio Free Afghanistan, he said only locals were involved in mining in the region. Lapis lazuli is believed to have been mined in Badakhshan’s rugged mountains for thousands of years. The region is said to have major deposits of gemstones such as azure, rubies, emeralds, and diamonds. Estimates suggest that one ton of substance has 80 grams of gold while some of the region’s rivers have considerably more gold reserves. Locals often find gold by panning the river sediment or sand. In a 2016 report, Global Witness, a resource and conflict watchdog, estimated that revenues going to the Taliban from lapis lazuli mines in one small area of Badakhshan rivaled the Afghan government’s revenue from the entire Afghan natural resource sector. “Badakhshan illustrates the wider dangers around Afghanistan’s natural resources,” the report said. “Mining is implicated in violence from Balkh to Helmand.” Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Nimatullah Ahmadi’s reporting from Badakhshan, Afghanistan.

Rural Afghan Province Still Struggling With Internet Access

21 Aug 2020 Gandhara - RFE/RL Gandhara - RFE/RL

TARINKOT, Afghanistan – Ehsanullah Wulasmal, a freelance journalist in Afghanistan’s remote southern province of Uruzgan, is feverishly typing up a story about the restive region where the Taliban control the countryside and have practically besieged its capital, Tarinkot. He says reporting stories in the dangerous region is not a problem for him. He enjoys chasing leads, talking to people, and visiting villages for on-the-ground coverage. Even the armed Taliban and uncooperative government officials are not major hurdles for him. Rather, it’s the lack of reliable Internet in Uruzgan that poses a major problem. Wulasmal says he faces a real struggle whenever he tries to file a story to the radio station and website he writes for. “Sometimes, I spend a day or several days reporting a story, but then filing that story is an uphill task,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. Wulasmal frequents half a dozen government offices around Tarin Kot to email his stories from their connections. “As a journalist, I frequently report critical stories about the government, which prompts officials to deny me their Internet,” he said. The mobile phone industry is often seen as one of Afghanistan’s major successes after the fall of the hard-line Taliban regime in late 2001. The Afghanistan Telecom Regulatory Authority (ATRA) estimates that more than 18 percent of Afghanistan’s more than 35 million people are now connected to the Internet. While the telecommunications sector has grown exponentially, remote provinces such as Uruzgan are still lagging far behind because of poor infrastructure, a Taliban ban on Internet access, and attacks on telecom facilities. “I appeal to the Taliban that the ban on Internet access for journalists is preventing us from highlighting critical problems facing the residents of this region,” Wulasmal said. Taliban restrictions in the region mean that currently mobile operators only offer 2G Internet while their overall mobile telephone service is limited to a few hours during the daytime. The only reliable Internet service in Tarinkot is offered by a couple of Internet cafes. But at nearly $7 for 1 gigabyte, it is simply too expensive for most residents. While using his mobile phone to access the web in the blazing sun outside Uruzgan’s Hewad Internet Café, Naqibullah, a young resident, complains about the price of satellite Internet. “Even when you pay a lot of money for the Internet, you can hardly use it for a couple hours because the 1 GB packet lasts briefly,” he said. Said Wali, the owner of Hewad café, says Internet service providers in the city have no choice because they too spend a lot of money purchasing satellite Internet. “We do not have a fiberoptic cable here or [3G or 4G] Internet access,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “How can we sell the Internet cheaply when buying it is so expensive?” Mohammad Saeed Shinwari, a spokesman for the government regulator ATRA, says the government plans to connect Uruzgan to the country’s fiberoptic network. He says that as a stop-gap solution authorities attempted to provide Tarin Kot with microwave Internet, but the insurgents destroyed eight of the aerials. “What can we do about such insecurity?” he asked. “We appeal to the armed opposition and the security forces to provide security to us so we can provide all our compatriots with telecommunications facilities.” It was not possible to immediately reach the Taliban for comment. But targeting telecommunications infrastructure has been a favorite insurgent tactic since the Taliban insurrection gradually strengthened after 2006. By 2008, targeting the newly installed mobile-phone towers became a frequent Taliban strategy. In later years, the Taliban forced mobile companies to shut or limit their coverage. To disrupt the presidential election last year, the Taliban resorted to destroying cell towers. Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Sharifullah Shahrafat’s reporting from Tarinkot, Afghanistan.