Pakistani officials allege the terrorist group operates out of Afghan border areas and receives support from the intelligence agency of the neighboring country, charges Kabul denies
More than 3,500 terrorists have been killed since the army-led Zarb-e-Azb offensive was launched in the North Waziristan tribal districts and surrounding areas
Militants linked to the Pakistani Taliban and JuA have killed tens of thousands of people over the past decade in suicide and other terrorist attacks across Pakistan
Sept 16, 2016: A suicide blast Friday tore through a crowded mosque in northwestern Pakistan, killing at least 25 people and wounding at least 30 more, officials said.
The bombing happened in Mohmand Agency, one of the seven semi-autonomous Pakistani districts on the Afghan border.
A spokesman for a splinter faction of the Pakistani Taliban contacted VOA and took responsibility for the blast. The Jamaatul Ahrar (JuA) faction said the bomber targeted the mosque because of members of a pro-government tribal militia, named the Peace Committee, were among the worshippers.
Last month, the United States designated JuA a global terrorist organization, saying the group has staged multiple attacks on civilians, religious minorities, military personnel and law enforcement, and was responsible for the killing of two Pakistani employees of the U.S. Consulate in Peshawar in early March.
Pakistani officials allege the terrorist group operates out of Afghan border areas and receives support from the intelligence agency of the neighboring country, charges Kabul denies.
Officials say more than 3,500 terrorists have been killed since the army-led Zarb-e-Azb offensive was launched in the North Waziristan tribal districts and surrounding areas. About 540 soldiers also have died in the counter-militancy campaign.
Critics say recent rise in attacks, however, suggests the militants remain capable of inflicting major assaults, though most of them have targeted civilian installations, including hospitals and public parks. (VOA)
Khalida Khorsand, a 35-year-old rights activist from the western Afghan city of Herat, is skeptical about Taliban claims that it has dispensed with its strict rules against girls’ education and women working.
The militant Islamic group made the declaration in the midst of recent peace talks with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad aimed at bringing an end to the long U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.
But Khorsand still remembers the notorious repressions under Taliban rule as a teenager in the western city of Herat when she risked the death penalty to study literature in a class disguised as a women’s sewing group.
“After nearly 18 years without the Taliban in power, we now see that the Taliban are coming back in Afghanistan and there haven’t been big changes for women’s lives — especially in rural areas,” says Khorsand, who has dedicated much of her life since 2001 to advancing women’s rights in western Afghanistan.
Even without the Taliban in power in Herat, Khorsand says, many hard-fought gains for women since the collapse of the Taliban regime already are under threat.
She attributes that situation to what she calls “a Taliban way of thinking” by many Afghans and a proliferation of unregistered religious schools in Herat teaching “radical Islam” to as many as 50,000 young people.
If the Taliban gets a role in the Afghan government as part of a peace deal, as Khorsand expects, she fears a floodgate will be opened for resurgent “radical Islamists” in Herat.
“I don’t know why this has been allowed to happen under the current government of Afghanistan since 2014,” Khorsand laments. “They are not paying attention to the rise of fundamentalists and radical groups in Herat.
“Now the city has become a safe haven for the radical groups that support the ideology of the Taliban,” Khorsand says. “The fundamentalist groups in Herat are very organized and have a lot of money. They take the young people into madrasahs and teach to them the principles of the Taliban, and they are having an enormous impact on the young generation.”
Those groups already have gained backing from municipal authorities for an unofficial ban on live musical performances in Herat and for a ban on celebrating Valentine’s Day — with both practices being declared “unIslamic.”
In rural areas of Herat Province, where Khorsand worked for years to help women who are victims of domestic violence, Khorsand says she has seen disturbing signs of support for the punishments doled out by the Taliban under its strict enforcement of Islamic Shari’a law — amputating the hands of thieves, publicly flogging people for drinking alcohol, and stoning to death those who engage in adultery.
Students at Herat’s madrasahs deny being radical Islamists. But they also support a return to the prohibitions and punishments of the Taliban era.
“Allah says cut off the hands of a male thief and a female thief,” says Jan Agha Jami, a 21-year-old at the Fakhr al-Madares madrasah in Herat. “When men and women commit adultery, whip them if they are single. If they are married, they should be stoned, and the Koran’s rulings should be implemented in public.
“Music concerts are absurd because they are forbidden,” Jami tells RFE/RL. “Music is bad for the mind, memory, and even human psyche. When a girl performs in front of strangers, the whole society is corrupted.”
Reflecting on the growing popularity of such beliefs in Herat, Khorsand says “it makes no difference for women in Afghanistan if the Taliban exists or doesn’t exist.”
“The Taliban’s way of thinking about women is the way many people are thinking in Afghanistan,” she says. “A lot of Afghans have traditional ways of thinking and they believe the talk of the Taliban. Unfortunately, much of their way of thinking is against the rights of women.”
Move Forward, Step Back
To be sure, Khorsand says there have been important advances for Afghan women since 2001 — including language in the Afghan Constitution that enshrines the right to education and to work.
Women are members of parliament and can be seen on television, competing in sports, and performing in concerts in Kabul.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has refused to put a bill to a parliamentary vote that would prohibit violence against women — despite years of domestic and international focus on the legislation.
But the Afghan government since the collapse of the Taliban regime has included many conservative Islamists and former warlords whose attitudes about women are similar to the Taliban.
Sima Simar, the head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, says the gains for women since 2001 can easily be overturned and have rarely been implemented in rural areas where most Afghans live.
The 2018 Women, Peace, and Security Index by Georgetown University and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo ranks Afghanistan as the second-worst place in the world to be a woman. Only Syria was ranked worse.
That study notes that only 16 percent of Afghanistan’s workforce is female and that half of all Afghan women have four years or less of education.
UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, says only half of school-aged Afghan girls now go to school, and that only one out of five girls under 15 are literate.
Nearly two out of three Afghan girls are married when they are teenagers or younger. On average, they are sent by their parents into arranged marriages between the ages of 15 and 16.
Most imprisoned Afghan women have been jailed for so-called “morality crimes,” such as leaving an abusive husband or demanding to marry a man of their own choosing.
A study issued in January by UN Women and the nongovernmental gender equality group Promundo found that 80 percent of Afghan women have experienced domestic physical violence.
That study found that only 15 percent of Afghan men think women should be allowed to work outside of their home after marriage, and that two-thirds of Afghan men think women already have too many rights in Afghanistan.
It is in this environment that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has refused to put a bill to a parliamentary vote that would prohibit violence against women — despite years of domestic and international focus on the legislation.
Ghani has appointed only five women to a 37-member council tasked with trying to pave the way for direct peace talks between his government and the Taliban at a time when the Taliban refuses to talk directly with the Kabul government.
Only 10 women were invited to be part of a 240-strong delegation for so-called “all-Afghan talks” with the Taliban, and even then, the first round of those talks was canceled over reported complaints by the Taliban over the composition of the delegation.
No Happy Ending
Khorsand was one of about 20 women who, under Taliban rule in Herat, regularly attended covert literature classes for girls and women at a place known as the Golden Needle sewing school.
Lamb tells RFE/RL that although women have fought bravely for their rights since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, many are now concerned that those gains will be lost as U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration seeks a peace deal with the Taliban.
“Women are very unhappy because it seems as though in the rush to get out of Afghanistan, the Trump administration has prioritized only two things: that the Taliban renounce terrorism and that they stop attacking Americans and other NATO soldiers, and not that they respect the constitution and minorities and equal rights,” Lamb says.
“This has left women very exposed — which considering that women’s rights had been very much part of the initial reason for removing the Taliban, it’s very disappointing,” Lamb says.
“I’m sure that the Taliban will insist on having some share in power as part of negotiations,” Lamb says. “They are saying at the moment in these negotiations that things have changed, that they will allow girls to go to school and for women to work. But who knows what the reality will be were they to actually have power again.
“We certainly have seen in some areas [under Taliban control recently] women being lashed by Taliban because they’re not regarded as being properly covered,” Lamb says. “It’s very risky and I can see why women are extremely concerned.”
As for the women Lamb wrote about in The Sewing Circles Of Herat, she says most have not seen a happy ending to their story after 18 years.
“Sadly, those particular women who bravely met under the guise of the sewing circles and who were writing stories and poems secretly, most of them have left the country or have stopped writing because they are not happy with the situation,” Lamb tells RFE/RL.
“One of them, a poet called Nadia Anjuman, was actually killed by her husband because he wasn’t happy about the fact that she was speaking publicly and writing about women’s rights,” Lamb says.
In 2016, Khorsand left Afghanistan for Ottawa, Canada, where she lives with her husband and twin 14-year-old daughters and remains in regular contact with rights activists in Herat.
Some information in this report came from Reuters.
More than 1 million Afghan children, particularly in conflict-stricken regions of the country, were deprived of polio vaccinations in 2018 because of actions taken by Taliban and Islamic State militants, Afghanistan health officials tell VOA.
“Overall, 1.2 million children were deprived of vaccinations in the country,” Dr. Gula Khan Ayoubi, public affairs director of the mass immunization program at the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, told VOA. “And the hope this year is to bring down the number to about 200,000 children. The remaining 200,000 children are living in areas where the Islamic State terror group has a strong presence and does not allow any vaccinations.”
“To a large extent, the southern provinces of Zabul, Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, and in the east, Kunar, have been affected the most due to the Taliban’s opposition,” Ayoubi added.
Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria are the only three countries in the world where polio is still not eliminated and continues to threaten the lives of millions of children. In 2018, Afghanistan had the most cases of polio among the three, with 21 cases reported across the country.
Afghan officials charge that contentious fighting, unrest, and the Taliban, IS and other armed groups are the main obstacles in the hard-to-reach areas in southern, southeastern and eastern Afghanistan.
The Afghan Taliban last week told Reuters the group had banned the activities of World Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross in areas under their influence until further notice.
“They [vaccinators] have not stuck to the commitments they had with Islamic emirates, and they are acting suspiciously during vaccination campaigns,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.
Polio vaccinators often go house to house to vaccinate children, and they mark the doors of houses where members are not present at the time to ensure the residents are vaccinated at a later date.
The Taliban consider these vaccinators spies for the government and foreign forces, and are sensitive to their presence in areas under their influence.
Afghan health officials told VOA this month that they had reached a conditional agreement with the Taliban to continue their vaccination campaign in Taliban-controlled areas.
“With the help of religious leaders and local influential elders, local Taliban commanders have agreed to allow the children under their controlled areas to be vaccinated,” Ayoubi said at the time. “Their condition, however, is that the mass vaccinations take place at a mosque or a similar place. Our vaccinators would not be allowed to go house by house and mark the doors.”
In a statement issued last week, WHO said the Taliban’s ban would negatively affect its operations across the war-torn country.
“We are deeply concerned that the temporary ban will negatively impact delivery of health services to affected populations,” the organization said. “WHO has been supporting health activities in all parts of Afghanistan, including primary health care, response to health emergencies, vaccination and polio eradication.”
Sanela Bajrambasic, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, also said her organization was seeking clarification from the Taliban and that it would work with the group to find a solution to the issue.
“What we can say at this point is that we have seen the same statement on their website, and we will be seeking to engage bilaterally with the Taliban on it,” she told Reuters.
Some experts charge that in addition to militant groups, negative campaigns and rumors that swine are used to prepare the polio vaccine or that it has dangerous side effects have also made it difficult for vaccination campaigns to succeed in rural areas, which contribute to the spread of polio.
“The groups that spread these rumors are those opposing the mass immunization programs,” said Dr. Najib Safi, WHO program manager of health system development. “These groups have always been trying to confuse people. In 2016, Afghan religious scholars decreed that it is permissible to use the polio vaccine. In addition to that, there are Islamic decrees from Egypt’s al-Azhar University, [Saudi Arabia’s] Jeddah and India’s Deobandi Islamic school that the polio vaccine is permissible to administer.”
“Polio, and all other immunizing vaccines that are being administered to children, have no side effects. There are no links between the polio vaccine and impotency,” Safi added.
Dr. Alam Shinwari, a medical expert who follows health-related developments, including polio in Afghanistan, charges that public awareness is the key to overcoming this issue.
“Polio is mainly endemic in areas around the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, where traditional conservative religious tribes are residing, who have been influenced by their local religious scholars and local traditions beliefs that have negatively impacted their perceptions toward polio vaccination,” Shinwari said.
“To overcome such barriers, we need to increase the level of public awareness by involving local religious scholars and imams, local educational experts, and finally, local leaders and elders. They have significant influence among people in tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan and can help overcome this problem,” he said. (VOA)
Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of Afghanistan’s most notorious former warlords, said there is “no doubt” neighboring Pakistan supports the Afghan Taliban.
In an interview with RFE/RL in the Afghan capital on April 14, Hekmatyar also expressed hope that talks scheduled this week between the Western-backed Kabul government and the Taliban could prove a significant step towards ending the war.
U.S. and Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan of providing safe havens for the militants, a claim rejected by Islamabad.
Hekmatyar forged close ties with Pakistan’s shadowy military establishment and its notorious spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), a relationship that was built during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the mujahideen commander was one of the main beneficiaries of Pakistani and CIA money and weapons.
“Pakistan has an interest in Afghanistan’s political affairs,” said Hekmatyar, whose Hezb-e Islami militant group signed a controversial peace accord with the Kabul government in 2016. “Pakistan is supporting the Taliban. There is no doubt about it.”
Hekmatyar said Pakistan now sees the war in Afghanistan as “more harmful” than beneficial to its interests, especially because of a crippling financial crisis and growing international pressure on Islamabad to clamp down on the Taliban.
Washington has said Pakistan is playing a positive role in the ongoing U.S.-Taliban peace talks in Qatar that are aimed at ending the nearly 18-year war.
U.S. and Taliban negotiators have held several rounds of talks in the Qatari capital, Doha, culminating in the basic framework of a potential peace deal in which the militants would prevent international terrorist groups from basing themselves in Afghanistan in exchange of a withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan.
That framework deal is dependent on a political settlement among Afghans, including the Kabul government, the Taliban, and opposition figures.
The Taliban long refused to talk with Kabul, calling it a U.S. “puppet,” although Kabul has said a government delegation will meet the Taliban for introductory talks in Doha on April 19.
Hekmatyar is a member of the Reconciliation Leadership Council, a new council led by President Ashraf Ghani, that will appoint negotiators for the April 19-21 talks with the Taliban, create their mandate for talks, and oversee their work.
The council is composed of both current and former senior government officials and leaders of political parties and opposition groups.
The 69-year-old said he hopes the council will bridge chronic divisions among the political elite over peace talks with the Taliban, but warned that Kabul should not sideline powerful opposition figures from the process.
“Peace should not be monopolized,” said Hekmatyar, a candidate in the presidential elections scheduled for September. “Peace is a national issue. An agreement requires us all to engage honestly and unconditionally. (RFERL)