Afghanistan Monthly – January

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Picture taken from the Afghan Ministry of Defence's official Twitter account. Afghan Minister of Defence Mawlawi Muhammad Yaqub at a speech with the Afghan airforce.

January has been eventful in Afghanistan. The coverage of events has been almost as disorderly. The new government under the Taliban continues to consolidate its own power, taking tentative steps domestically as well as in foreign diplomacy. At home, the government has overseen the appointment of an Attorney General, the appointment of the first female in public office, the long overdue announcement of the opening of public universities for male and female students, and the general refinement and synchronisation of its operation.

In the foreign arena, brief meetings with fugitive leaders of the National Resistance Front took place in Tehran, and more importantly, a summit in Oslo. The summit marked a trajectory of further acceptance of the new government’s consolidation in the international arena. There were also reports of a meeting between NRF leader Massoud and Mullah Bradar in Moscow, which a Taliban official described to The Afghan Eye as a ‘plain lie’.

On the other hand, the outburst of protests in Maymana the resultant coverage, and the disappearance of two female activists, cast a shadow over what could be perceived as an otherwise positive step.

Protests in Faryab

On 12th January, protests broke out in Maymana: capital of northwestern Faryab province, The protests broke out in response to the arrest of prominent commander Makhdoom Alam on the orders of the Deputy Minister of Defence Mullah Fazel Mazloom. 

Details on the circumstances or cause of arrest were scarce. Reports, however, alleged that the reason for Makhdoom’s arrest was based on his alleged involvement in local kidnapping rings. Those kidnapping rings were, reports alleged, collaborating with ISKP, also known as Daesh. 

The arrest of Makhdoom, an ethnic Uzbek and native of Faryab, triggered protests from hundreds of his followers and supporters in the streets of the provincial capital. International media, including the Wall Street Journal and the Times, were quick to cover the event and highlight the ethnic factors it presumed were at play: Uzbeks were protesting against Pashtuns.

By 14th January, protests had dissipated and according to government officials, the situation had returned to normal. Government sources further revealed that Mawlawi Atatullah Omari, commander of the northern Omari corps, had been despatched to Maymana.

What was revealing, however, were the reactions and coverage the protest generated. They took on a course of their own.

Tajuden Soroush, senior correspondent at the Saudi-funded Afghanistan International (sister to Iran International) was prolific in covering the protests, particularly keen to emphasise ethnicity. On the basis of Najibullah Fayeq, said to have been Faryab’s previous governor, Sorough tweeted that the Taliban had fled Maymana, that Maymana had been ‘captured’ by ‘the Uzbeks’ and that the ‘flag of the [Taliban] Emirate is lowered’.

As of writing, Maimana remains under Taliban control. There is no indication that the city fell from the Taliban’s control, or that the Taliban’s current control of the city is as a result of the government having retaken it from its initial fall, alleged by Soroush in the tweet above.

Elsewhere, exiled politicians, including fugitive Ahmad Wali Massoud, voiced support for the protests. In particular, Tajik nationalist politician Latif Pedram (Massoud’s associate) declared his support for the protests. In a tweet, he called on ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks within the Taliban, who were ‘specifically’ responsible for ‘the pride, honour and land of their people’, which they should not leave ‘under the feet of strangers’. The strangers in this instance were the ‘Pashtun Taliban’, terminology used explicitly by Pedram in his tweet.

 

Amidst backlash, Pedram later issued a clarification. He tweeted that whilst all Taliban were indeed ‘extremist Muslims, Deobandis, Salafis’, the non-Pashtuns lacked ‘Pashtunwali/Afghaniyyat’, presumably making them, at least according to Pedram, superior to Pashtun Taliban. Pedram had equated Deobandis to Salafis, betraying a poor knowledge of the Islamic theological landscape, but there was another aspect that was noticeable.

To many, Pedram’s tweets betrayed a shocking ethno-sectarianism.

To others, who remembered his tweets deriding Pashtuns as ‘terrorists’, not so much.

 

On January 29th Minister of Defence Mawlawi Yaqub visited and delivered a speech in Faryab as part of a larger visit to the north of the country. Yaqub was vague on details regarding Makhdoom’s arrest. He only went as far to say that Makhdoom’s arrest was part of a ‘case’. Makhdoom was not yet a proven criminal, Yaqub emphasised, only a suspect.

In any case, Yaqub went on to proclaim that ‘a court in the Islamic Emirate has this right: to force me off this stage and take me by hand to jail. No one has the right, in supporting me, to even rise from their chair [in protest]. Anyone who does so is committing treachery against the blood of the martyrs, against the Islamic Emirate, against me, and with the nizam [system/government].’ 

 

In the same speech, Yaqub condemned ethno-sectarianism, alluding not just to potential rifts within the Taliban (which he denied) but also attempts to divide Afghans, presumably from outside, and potentially focused at the protests’ coverage.

As Yaqub put it, any ethno-sectarianism would, on the Day of Judgment, be questioned by ‘God, our deceased leaders, martyrs, and their widows and children’.

 

Tamana Paryani

On 16th January, a protest attended by roughly two dozen women was held in Kabul. The women were protesting against the government, with specific focus toward its guidance on what it considered to be proper Islamic dress. The protestors were seen burning the Islamic burqa.

The protest was received with outrage amongst a vast spectrum of Afghan society, and triggered counter protests at perceived insults toward Islamic sanctities. It even led to a Pashto hashtag campaign of ‘protect our values’ on Twitter. One of those protesters was female activist Tamana Paryani. 

On January 19th, Aamaj News uploaded a video of Paryana, who had recorded a video purporting to show Taliban trying to break into her apartment at night to arrest her. In the clip, Paryani claimed the Taliban were breaking into her house in which her sisters were, and pleaded for help.

 

Paryani and her three sisters have since been missing. Suhail Shaheen, former Taliban spokesperson and current Afghan Representative-Designate to the United Nations, dismissed the video as ‘fake’ and as part of an attempt by Paryani to seek asylum abroad.

 

Similar sentiments were echoed by Afghan Foreign Ministry Official Shafi Azam. Azam asked rhetorically what benefit the government would derive from arresting Paryani, and dismissed the video as a ‘drama’ for Paryani to progress her alleged asylum claim.

 

Nonetheless, questions persist. If it were not the government arresting Paryani, who was? No answer has so far been forthcoming. More importantly, where is she? 

Bearing in mind the outrage the protest generated and a government keen to brandish its religious credentials in an ongoing propaganda war against ISKP, Paryani facing legal action from the government as a result of partaking in a protest that burned Islamic garments was somewhat inevitable.

What disturbed many (assuming she was arrested, which the government denies), however was the manner in which the arrest was conducted: a night raid followed by prolonged silence, denial and a blanket lack of clarification on her whereabouts.

Amongst others, Amnesty International called for the Paryani’s release.

 

Oslo Summit

On the 23rd January, mere days after the video purporting to show Paryani’s arrest, an Afghan delegation made its way to attend a summit in Oslo. This was the Taliban’s first official visit to Europe. The delegation’s agenda was ensuring the continuation of foreign humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, facilitating the long-standing aim of gaining official recognition of its government and the unfreezing of the Afghan Central Bank’s foreign reserves. 

Representatives from Norway, Britain, France, the EU, Italy and the United States were also present. Also in attendance were Afghan civil society activists; they held a separate round of talks aimed at voicing their grievances toward their new government.

The government delegation did not gain anything tangible per se. Despite this, attending a summit with the representatives of key Western powers marked its growing legitimacy as a reality that the world had to deal with, even if mutual suspicion and misunderstandings persist. The other countries at the meeting, however, outlined steps for the government to follow in order to increase its prospects of official recognition. Norway, according to Al Jazeera, also raised the case of Parwana Ibrahimkhel and Tamana Paryani, whom the delegation once again denied holding.

The Afghan delegation wrote in a statement following the summit that:

“The Afghan Government expresses gratitude to the Kingdom of Norway for its warm hospitality, facilitation of confidence-building, expediting humanitarian and economic assistance to Afghans, the release of frozen assets, lifting banking and economic sanctions, attracting new aid, and confidence-building for political relations with the US and EU.”

Tomas Niklasson, the EU’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan, also offered his remarks. Niklasson tweeted on his insistence during talks that schools open for both girls and boys at the beginning of the academic year in March. This could be taken as a clear indicator of his priorities.

Onward to February

That was January in Afghanistan. Progress on the government’s front, particularly with regard to diplomacy, the growing organisation of its judiciary evidenced by a new Attorney General, the announcement of the opening of public universities, and the appointment of the first woman in a public role. What are undoubtedly positive developments, however, have a shadow cast over them by the case of Paryani. To add, coverage seems consistently focused on inducing as much panic, especially ethnically-oriented, as it possibly can.