Inside Afghanistan’s secret schools, where girls defy the Taliban

Inside Afghanistan’s secret schools, where girls defy the Taliban
In this combination of pictures, Afghan women persist on pursuing education despite the harsh restrictions imposed by the Taliban rulers. (AFP photos)
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Updated 13 August 2022

Inside Afghanistan’s secret schools, where girls defy the Taliban

Inside Afghanistan’s secret schools, where girls defy the Taliban
  • Since seizing power a year ago, the Taliban have imposed harsh restrictions on girls and women to comply with their austere vision of Islam
  • To circumvent the restrictions, Afghan women and girls attend secret schools that have sprung up in rooms of ordinary houses across the country

KABUL: Nafeesa has discovered a great place to hide her schoolbooks from the prying eyes of her disapproving Taliban brother — the kitchen, where Afghan men rarely venture.
Hundreds of thousands of girls and young women like Nafeesa have been deprived of the chance of education since the Taliban returned to power a year ago, but their thirst for learning has not lessened.
“Boys have nothing to do in the kitchen, so I keep my books there,” said Nafeesa, who attends a secret school in a village in rural eastern Afghanistan.
“If my brother comes to know about this, he will beat me.”
Since seizing power a year ago, the Taliban have imposed harsh restrictions on girls and women to comply with their austere vision of Islam — effectively squeezing them out of public life.
Women can no longer travel on long trips without a male relative to escort them.
They have also been told to cover up with the hijab or preferably with an all-encompassing burqa — although the Taliban’s stated preference is for them to only leave home if absolutely necessary.
And, in the cruellest deprivation, secondary schools for girls in many parts of Afghanistan have not been allowed to reopen.
But secret schools have sprung up in rooms of ordinary houses across the country.
A team of AFP journalists visited three of these schools, interviewing students and teachers whose real names have been withheld for their safety.
This is their story.

Clandestine classroom
Decades of turmoil have played havoc with Afghanistan’s education system, so Nafeesa is still studying secondary school subjects even though she is already 20.
Only her mother and older sister know about it.
Her brother fought for years with the Taliban against the former government and US-led forces in the mountains, returning home after their victory imbued with the hard-line doctrine that says a woman’s place is the home.
He allows her to attend a madrassa to study the Qur'an in the morning, but in the afternoon she sneaks out to a clandestine classroom organized by the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA).
“We have accepted this risk, otherwise we will remain uneducated,” Nafeesa said.
“I want to be a doctor... We want to do something for ourselves, we want to have freedom, serve society and build our future.”

 

When AFP visited her school, Nafeesa and nine other girls were discussing freedom of speech with their female teacher, sitting side-by-side on a carpet and taking turns reading out loud from a textbook.
To get to class, they frequently leave home hours earlier, taking different routes to avoid being noticed in an area made up mostly of members of the Pashtun ethnic group, who form the bulk of the Taliban and are known for their conservative ways.
If a Taliban fighter asks, the girls say they are enrolled in a tailoring workshop, and hide their schoolbooks in shopping bags or under their abaya and burqa overgarments.
They not only take risks, but also make sacrifices — Nafeesa’s sister dropped out of school to limit any suspicions her brother might have.

No justification in Islam

Religious scholars say there is no justification in Islam for the ban on girls’ secondary school education and, a year since taking power, the Taliban still insist classes will be allowed to resume.
But the issue has split the movement, with several sources telling AFP a hard-line faction that advises supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada opposed any girls’ schooling — or at best, wanted it limited to religious studies and practical classes such as cooking and needlework.
The official line, however, remains that it is just a “technical issue” and classes will resume once a curriculum based on Islamic rules is defined.
Primary girls still go to school and, for now at least, young women can attend university — although lectures are segregated and some subjects cut because of a shortage of female teachers.
Without a secondary school certificate, however, teenage girls will not be able to sit university entrance exams, so this current crop of tertiary female students could be the country’s last for the foreseeable future.
“Education is an inalienable right in Islam for both men and women,” scholar Abdul Bari Madani told AFP.
“If this ban continues, Afghanistan will return to the medieval age... an entire generation of girls will be buried.”

Lost generation

It is this fear of a lost generation that spurred teacher Tamkin to convert her home in Kabul into a school.
The 40-year-old was almost lost herself, having been forced to stop studying during the Taliban’s first stint in power, from 1996 to 2001, when all girls’ schooling was banned.
It took years of self-study for Tamkin to qualify as a teacher, only for her to lose her job at the education ministry when the Taliban returned last year.
“I didn’t want these girls to be like me,” she told AFP, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“They should have a better future.”
With the support of her husband, Tamkin first turned a storeroom into a class.
Then she sold a family cow to raise funds for textbooks, as most of her girls came from poor families and couldn’t afford their own.
Today, she teaches English and science to about 25 eager students.
On a rainy day recently, the girls trickled into her classroom for a biology lesson.
“I just want to study. It doesn’t matter what the place is like,” said Narwan, who should be in grade 12, sitting in a room packed with girls of all ages.
Behind her, a poster on a wall urges students to be considerate: “Tongue has no bones, but it is so strong that it can break the heart, so be careful of your words.”
Such consideration by her neighbors has helped Tamkin keep the school’s real purpose hidden.
“The Taliban have asked several times ‘what’s going on here?’ I have told the neighbors to say it’s a madrassa,” Tamkin said.
Seventeen-year-old Maliha believes firmly the day will come when the Taliban will no longer be in power.
“Then we will put our knowledge to good use,” she said.

'We are not afraid'

On the outskirts of Kabul, in a maze of mud houses, Laila is another teacher running underground classes.
Looking at her daughter’s face after the planned reopening of secondary schools was canceled, she knew she had to do something.
“If my daughter was crying, then the daughters of other parents must also be crying,” the 38-year-old said.
About a dozen girls gather two days a week at Laila’s house, which has a courtyard and a garden where she grows vegetables and fruit.
The classroom has a wide window opening to the garden, and girls with textbooks kept in blue plastic folders sit on a carpet — happy and cheerful, studying together.
As the class begins, one by one they read out the answers to their homework.
“We are not afraid of the Taliban,” said student Kawsar, 18.
“If they say anything, we will fight it out but continue to study.”
But the right to study is not the only aim for some Afghan girls and women — who are all too frequently married off into abusive or restrictive relationships.
Zahra, who attends a secret school in eastern Afghanistan, was married at 14 and now lives with in-laws who oppose the idea of her attending classes.
She takes sleeping pills to fight her anxiety — worried her husband’s family will force him to make her stay home.
“I tell them I’m going to the local bazaar and come here,” said Zahra of her secret school.
For her, she says, it is the only way to make friends.


Women in power across Europe

(From L to R) Danish Prime Minster Mette Frederiksen, British Prime Minister Liz Truss, Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin.
(From L to R) Danish Prime Minster Mette Frederiksen, British Prime Minister Liz Truss, Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin. (A
Updated 7 sec ago

Women in power across Europe

(From L to R) Danish Prime Minster Mette Frederiksen, British Prime Minister Liz Truss, Finland's Prime Minister Sanna Marin.
  • Truss is Britain’s third woman prime minister after “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher, who was in charge from 1979 to 1990, and Theresa May, who governed from 2016 to 2019 — all Conservatives

PARIS: Italy’s far-right leader Giorgia Meloni looks set to join a group of over a dozen European women who hold the top political jobs in their country following her party’s victory in Sunday’s general election.
Here is the list of women presidents and prime ministers, which does not include Ursula von der Leyen, who became the first woman president of the European Commission in December 2019:

(From L to R) Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid, Giorgia Meloni of Italy and Kosovo President Vjosa Osmani. (Agencies)

In Britain, which is part of Europe but no longer part of the EU, Liz Truss became the new prime minister on September 6. Truss had won the leadership race of the ruling Conservative Party, automatically making her leader of the country after Boris Johnson’s resignation in July.
Truss is Britain’s third woman prime minister after “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher, who was in charge from 1979 to 1990, and Theresa May, who governed from 2016 to 2019 — all Conservatives.

Social Democrat leader Mette Frederiksen became her country’s youngest-ever prime minister in June 2019 when she was elected premier at the age of 41.
Denmark’s first woman prime minister was Helle Thorning-Schmidt, also from the Social Democrats, who served from 2011 to 2015.

Former EU auditor Kersti Kaljulaid, 52, became the first female president of the Baltic state of Estonia in October 2016. The position is a largely ceremonial one.
Kaja Kallas in January 2021 became Estonia’s first woman prime minister. Her father Siim Kallas was prime minister from 2002-2004.

In December 2019, Sanna Marin, a Social Democrat, became the youngest sitting prime minister in the world at the age of 34.
Finland’s third female prime minister has been in the headlines recently over pictures of her dancing and partying with friends.

Elisabeth Borne, a 61-year-old engineer, was named French prime minister in May, becoming only the second woman to hold the position after Edith Cresson, a Socialist, who held the job for less than a year in the early 1990s.

Katerina Sakellaropoulou, a trailblazing lawyer, was elected Greece’s first female president in January 2020.
While the presidency is a mainly ceremonial role in Greece, Sakellaropoulou had already broken new ground in the judiciary by becoming president of the country’s top court in 2018.

Katalin Novak, a close ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and former minister for family policy, was elected Hungary’s first ever woman president in March 2022.
The presidency is a largely ceremonial role.

Lithuanian former finance minister Ingrida Simonyte, a 47-year-old rock and ice hockey fan, was appointed prime minister of a center-right government in December 2020.
Lithuania has a strong tradition of female leadership, with “Baltic Iron Lady” Dalia Grybauskaite spending a decade in power from 2009 to 2019.

Liberal lawyer and anti-graft campaigner Zuzana Caputova, 48, took office in June 2019 as Slovakia’s first woman president.
A political novice, she had comfortably beaten the ruling party’s candidate in elections. In Slovakia, the president has less power than the prime minister but can veto laws and appointments of senior judges.

Despite being a country that champions gender equality, Sweden never had a woman as prime minister before Magdalena Andersson, a Social Democrat, who won the top job in November 2021.
She resigned on September 14, 2022 after an unprecedented right-wing and far-right bloc narrowly won the election.

Elsewhere in Europe, outside the EU, other women currently in power are: Georgian President Salome Zurabishvili, Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, Kosovo’s president Vjosa Osmani, Moldova’s president and prime minister Maia Sandu and Natalia Gavrilita, Serbia’s openly-gay prime minister Ana Brnabic, and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

 


‘Dozen’ dead in suspected Burkina Faso jihadist attack

‘Dozen’ dead in suspected Burkina Faso jihadist attack
Updated 16 min 50 sec ago

‘Dozen’ dead in suspected Burkina Faso jihadist attack

‘Dozen’ dead in suspected Burkina Faso jihadist attack
  • Violence has raged in the landlocked west African country after Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba seized power in a January coup

OUAGADOUGOU: A suspected jihadist attack in the north of Burkina Faso has killed around a dozen people, mostly soldiers, security sources told AFP on Monday.
Violence has raged in the landlocked west African country after Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba seized power in a January coup, ousting Burkina’s elected leader and promising to rein in jihadists.
But as in neighboring countries, insurgents affiliated to Al-Qaeda and the Daesh group have stoked the unrest.
In the latest attack, a convoy carrying supplies to local residents and escorted by a military unit “was the target of a terrorist attack” near Gaskinde in the Sahel region, an army statement said.
“The attack unfortunately caused human and material losses,” and a full toll would be established “as soon as possible,” it said.
A security source told AFP that a preliminary toll indicated “about a dozen dead among elements of the unit. There were also a number of seriously wounded.”
The source added that reinforcements had been sent to the area, both to secure it and to aid the victims.
On Sunday an improvised explosive device that targeted another army-escorted resupply convoy in the Sahel wounded four people, security sources said.
These attacks followed one on Saturday in the country’s east near the borders with Niger and Benin. The army said at least two soldiers and two civilian auxiliaries were killed in an ambush on their patrol.
Thousands have died and about two million people have been displaced by the fighting since 2015 when the insurgency spread into Burkina Faso.
Earlier this month Damiba sacked his defense minister and assumed the role himself after a series of jihadist attacks.


Russian military recruiter shot amid fear of Ukraine call-up

Russian military recruiter shot amid fear of Ukraine call-up
Updated 27 September 2022

Russian military recruiter shot amid fear of Ukraine call-up

Russian military recruiter shot amid fear of Ukraine call-up
  • Zinin was arrested and officials vowed tough punishment. Authorities said the military commandant was in intensive care

KYIV, Ukraine: A young man shot a Russian military officer at close range at an enlistment office Monday, an unusually bold attack reflecting resistance to Russian President Vladimir Putin's efforts to mobilize hundreds of thousands of more men to wage war on Ukraine.
The shooting comes after scattered arson attacks on enlistment offices and protests in Russian cities against the military call-up that have resulted in at least 2,000 arrests. Russia is seeking to bolster its military as its Ukraine offensive has bogged down.
In the attack in the Siberian city of Ust-Ilimsk, 25-year-old resident Ruslan Zinin walked into the enlistment office saying “no one will go to fight” and “we will all go home now," according to local media.

A man is put an a stretcher after a shooting at a military draft office in Ust-Ilimsk, Irkutsk region, Russia September 26, 2022 in this screen grab obtained from social media video. (REUTERS)

Zinin was arrested and officials vowed tough punishment. Authorities said the military commandant was in intensive care. A witness quoted by a local news site said Zinin was in a roomful of people called up to fight and troops from his region were heading to military bases on Tuesday.
Protests also flared up in Dagestan, one of Russia’s poorer regions in the North Caucasus. Local media reported that “several hundred” demonstrators took to the streets Tuesday in its capital, Makhachkala. Videos circulated online showing dozens of protesters tussling with the police sent to disperse them.
Demonstrations also continued in another of Russia’s North Caucasus republics, Kabardino-Balkaria, where videos on social media showed a local official attempting to address a crowd of women.
Concerns are growing that Russia may seek to escalate the conflict — including potentially using nuclear weapons — once it completes what Ukraine and the West see as illegal referendums in occupied parts of Ukraine.
The voting, in which residents are asked whether they want their regions to become part of Russia, began last week and ends Tuesday, under conditions that are anything but free or fair. Tens of thousands of residents had already fled the regions amid months of fighting, and images shared by those who remained showed armed Russian troops going door-to-door to pressure Ukrainians into voting.
“Every night and day there is inevitable shelling in the Donbas, under the roar of which people are forced to vote for Russian ‘peace,’" Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kirilenko said Monday.
Russia is widely expected to declare the results in its favor, a step that could see Moscow annex the four regions and then defend them as its own territory.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday no date has been set for recognizing the regions as part of Russia but it could be just days away.
Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, said Russia would pay a high, if unspecified, price if it made good on veiled threats to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.
“If Russia crosses this line, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia. The United States will respond decisively,” he told NBC.
Elsewhere, the British government on Monday slapped sanctions on 92 businesses and individuals it says are involved with organizing the referendums in occupied Ukraine. U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly called the votes on joining Russia “sham referendums held at the barrel of a gun.” He said they “follow a clear pattern of violence, intimidation, torture and forced deportations.”
The White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre likewise said Monday the U.S. “will never recognize” the four regions as part of Russia, and threatened Moscow with “swift and severe” economic costs.
Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, meanwhile, held an unannounced meeting Monday in the southern Russian city of Sochi and claimed they were ready to cooperate with the West — “if they treat us with respect,” Putin said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Monday that Putin had told Turkey’s president last week that Moscow was ready to resume negotiations with Ukraine but had “new conditions” for a cease-fire.
The Kremlin last week announced a partial mobilization — its first since World War II — to add at least 300,000 troops to its forces in Ukraine. The move, a sharp shift from Putin’s previous efforts to portray the war as a limited military operation, proved unpopular at home.
Thousands of Russian men of fighting age have flocked to airports and Russia's land border crossings to avoid being called up. Protests erupted across the country, and Russian media reported an increasing number of arson attacks on military enlistment offices.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday once again decried the Russian mobilization as nothing more than “an attempt to provide commanders on the ground with a constant stream of cannon fodder.”
In his nightly televised address, Zelenskyy referenced ongoing Russian attempts to punch through Ukrainian defense lines in the eastern industrial heartland of Donbas, a key target of Moscow’s military campaign.
“Despite the obvious senselessness of the war for Russia and the occupiers’ loss of initiative, the Russian military command still drives (troops) to their deaths,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly televised address.
The Ukrainian military on Monday said in its regular Facebook update that Moscow was focusing on “holding occupied territories and attempts to complete its occupation of the Donetsk region,” one of two that make up the Donbas. It added that Ukrainian troops continued holding Russian troops at bay along the frontline there.
Meanwhile, the first batches of new Russian troops mobilized by Moscow have begun to arrive at military bases, the British Defense Ministry said Monday, adding that tens of thousands had been called up so far.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday on Facebook that the Ukrainian military is pushing efforts to take back “the entire territory of Ukraine,” and has drawn up plans to counter “new types of weapons” used by Russia. He did not elaborate.
An overnight drone strike near the Ukrainian port of Odesa sparked a massive fire and explosion, the military said Monday. It was the latest drone attack on the key southern city in recent days, and hit a military installation, setting off ammunition. Firefighters struggled to contain the blaze.
New Russian shelling struck near the Zaporozhzhia nuclear power plant, according to Zelenskyy's office. Cities near the plant were fired on nine times by rocket launchers and heavy artillery.
Local Ukrainian officials said Monday evening that the strikes had wounded three civilians in the town of Marhanets, across the Dnieper river from the plant.
Russia also kept pummeling Ukrainian-held territory in the country’s east, parts of which have seen ramped-up shelling and missile strikes since Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive made sweeping gains there this month. At least seven civilians, including a 15-year-old girl, were killed Monday in a rocket attack on the city of Pervomayskiy in the northeastern Kharkiv region, local officials reported.
Further south, Ukrainian officials reported that a Russian missile on Monday evening destroyed a civilian airport in the eastern city of Kryvyi Rih, President Zelenskyy’s birthplace. The regional governor, Valentyn Reznichenko said that while there had been no casualties, the airport had been knocked out of commission.
In Ukraine’s industrial heartland of Donbas, four civilians were wounded on Monday after a Russian strike slammed into apartment blocks in the city of Kramatorsk, its mayor said on social media.
Kramatorsk is one of two largest Ukrainian-held cities remaining in the Donbas, and home to the headquarters of Ukrainian troops there.
In the town of Izium in eastern Ukraine, which Russian forces fled this month after a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Margaryta Tkachenko is still reeling from the battle that destroyed her home and left her family close to starvation with no gas, electricity, running water or internet.
“I can’t predict what will happen next. Winter is the most frightening. We have no wood. How will we heat?” she asked.

 


Putin grants Russian citizenship to US whistleblower Snowden

US whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks during an interview with The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong.
US whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks during an interview with The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong.
Updated 27 September 2022

Putin grants Russian citizenship to US whistleblower Snowden

US whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks during an interview with The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong.
  • “Our position has not changed,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday. “Mr. Snowden should return to the United States where he should face justice as any other American citizen would”

MOSCOW: Russia on Monday granted citizenship to former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who fled prosecution after he revealed highly classified US surveillance programs to capture communications and data from around the world.
A decree signed Monday by Russian President Vladimir Putin listed Snowden as one of 75 foreign citizens listed as being granted Russian citizenship. After fleeing the US in 2013, Snowden was granted permanent Russian residency in 2020 and said at the time that he planned to apply for Russian citizenship without renouncing his US citizenship.
Ties between Washington and Moscow are already at their lowest point in decades following Putin’s decision to launch what the Kremlin has dubbed a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
While Snowden, 39, is considered by supporters to be a righteous whistleblower who wanted to protect American civil liberties, US intelligence officials have accused him of putting US personnel at risk and damaging national security. He currently faces charges in the United States that could result in decades in prison.
“Our position has not changed,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday. “Mr. Snowden should return to the United States where he should face justice as any other American citizen would.”
Snowden becomes a Russian citizen as Moscow is mobilizing reservists to go to Ukraine. In Russia, almost every man is considered a reservist until age 65, and officials on Monday stressed that men with dual citizenship are also eligible for the military call-up.
Snowden, however, has never served in the Russian armed forces, so he is not eligible to be mobilized, his lawyer Anatoly Kucherena told the Interfax news agency. Having previous combat or military service experience has been considered the main criterion in the call-up.
Kucherena told Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti that Snowden’s wife, Lindsay Mills, an American who has been living with him in Russia, will also be applying for a Russian passport. The couple has two children.
“After two years of waiting and nearly ten years of exile, a little stability will make a difference for my family,” Snowden tweeted Monday. “I pray for privacy for them — and for us all.”
Snowden, who has kept a low profile in Russia and occasionally criticized Russian government policies on social media, said in 2019 that he was willing to return to the US if he’s guaranteed a fair trial.
Snowden has become a well-known speaker on privacy and intelligence, appearing remotely at many events from Russia. But he has been sharply criticized by members of the intelligence community, and current and former officials from both US political parties say he endangered global security by exposing important programs. A US damage assessment of his disclosures is still classified.
James Clapper, who served as US director of national intelligence at the time of the disclosures, said Snowden’s grant of citizenship came with “rather curious timing.”
“It raises the question — again — about just what he shared with the Russians,” Clapper said in an email Monday.
Snowden has denied cooperating with Russian intelligence and was traveling through Moscow when the US revoked his passport.
Snowden leaked documents on the National Security Agency’s collection of data passing through the infrastructure of US phone and Internet companies. He also released details about the classified US intelligence budget and the extent of American surveillance on foreign officials, including the leaders of US-allied countries.
Snowden says he made the disclosures because he believed the US intelligence community had gone too far and wrongly infringed on civil liberties. He also has said he didn’t believe the administration of former President Barack Obama, which was in office when Snowden leaked the records to journalists, would act had he made an internal whistleblower complaint instead.
His decision to turn against the NSA came when he used his programming skills to to create a repository of classified in-house notes on the agency’s global snooping and as he built a backup system for agency data, he wrote in his 2019 book “Permanent Record.”
Reading through the repository, Snowden said he began to understand the extent of his government’s stomping on civil liberties and became “cursed with the knowledge that all of us had been reduced to something like children, who’d been forced to live the rest of their lives under omniscient parental supervision.”
Snowden was charged in 2013 with unauthorized disclosure of US national security and intelligence information as well as theft of government property. The three charges each carry a maximum 10-year penalty.
The Justice Department also sued to stop Snowden from collecting profits on his memoir, saying he had violated his nondisclosure agreements with intelligence agencies.
The White House on Monday referred comment on Snowden’s citizenship to the Justice Department, citing the pending criminal charges.

 


Blinken urges Pakistan to seek China debt relief after floods

Blinken urges Pakistan to seek China debt relief after floods
Updated 27 September 2022

Blinken urges Pakistan to seek China debt relief after floods

Blinken urges Pakistan to seek China debt relief after floods
  • Blinken promised strong US support for Pakistan as it dries out and rebuilds from the floods

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Monday on Pakistan to seek debt relief from its close partner China as floods devastate the South Asian country.
Blinken promised strong US support for Pakistan as it dries out from the floods, which have submerged one-third of the country, an area the size of the United Kingdom.
“We send a simple message. We are here for Pakistan, just as we were during past natural disasters, looking ahead to rebuild,” Blinken said after talks in Washington with Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
“I also urged our colleagues to engage China on some of the important issues of debt relief and restructuring so that Pakistan can more quickly recover from the floods,” Blinken said.
China is a key economic and political partner of Pakistan, pushing ahead with a $54 billion “economic corridor” that will build infrastructure and give Beijing an outlet to the Indian Ocean, although Chinese interests have also faced attacks from separatists.
Washington, whose Cold War alliance with Islamabad has frayed, has repeatedly charged that China will reap the benefits while Pakistan will face unsustainable debt.
The warnings by the United States — which considers China its preeminent global competitor — have repeatedly been brushed aside by Pakistan.
Some 1,600 people — one-third of them children — have died in Pakistan’s floods and more than seven million have been displaced, amid fears that such severe disasters will become more common due to climate change.
The United States has committed $56 million in humanitarian aid and sent 17 planes full of supplies, with promises of long-term support.
Bhutto Zardari said that President Joe Biden, who signed a landmark domestic climate package last month, also needed to look at “climate justice.”
“It’s not only important that you ‘build back better’ here,” he said, using Biden’s campaign slogan.
“The opportunity of this crisis in Pakistan is that we must build back better — greener, more climate-resilient — back home as well,” he said.
“I believe that working together we can do this.”
Pakistan, despite being the fifth most populous country, contributes only about 0.8 percent of greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change due to its state of development.
The US relationship with Pakistan sharply deteriorated over the course of the two-decade war in Afghanistan.
Under heavy pressure, Pakistan provided crucial logistical access, but US officials believe Islamabad’s powerful military and intelligence apparatus never abandoned the Taliban, who swept back to power last year as US troops pulled out.
“We have had our differences — that’s no secret,” Blinken said.
But he said Pakistan and the United States “have a shared stake in Afghanistan’s future,” including greater freedoms for women and girls, whose rights have again been heavily curtailed by the Taliban under their austere interpretation of Islam.
In another longstanding concern of the United States, Blinken encouraged Pakistan to respect for freedom of religion and expression.
Pakistan has seen repeated attacks against religious minorities and mob violence over accusations of blasphemy.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s five-month-old government has faced criticism for restrictions on the media since he replaced Imran Khan, who lost a no-confidence vote in parliament after running afoul of the military.
Blinken also called on Pakistan to pursue a “responsible relationship” with India.
Dialogue has been at a standstill between the historic rivals, with India launching airstrikes in February 2019 in response to a deadly attack blamed on Pakistan-backed militants.
Immediately after meeting Bhutto Zardari, Blinken was hosting a dinner for India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, with whom he will hold talks on Tuesday.
The South Asian foreign ministers were not expected to meet in Washington.