7 min read

#1 Afghanistan

Welcome to the first week of the 195 series, where I take you on a mini-tour of every country (and maybe some places that want to be countries). Each week I'll feature a new location. Some you may have heard of, while others may be new to you. The point is to learn and nurture our curiosity about the wider world. Maybe you'll find a new artist or musician you like, too.

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Thank you all so much for the outpouring of support for the 195 series! I'll answer all of your emails individually soon. Now, onto the main show:

Country info:

The Afghan flag has the country's national emblem in the center.

Population: Roughly 38.9 million.

Current government: The Taliban.

Languages spoken: Dari and Pashto are the official languages of Afghanistan and the most frequently spoken. Dari is the official name of the variety of Persian spoken in Afghanistan. Some people in Afghanistan also speak minority languages like Uzbek, Turkmen, Urdu, Pashai, Nuristani, Arabic, and Balochi.

Religion: Islam is the official religion of Afghanistan. An estimated 80 to 90 percent of residents practice Sunni Islam. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom had this to say about religious minorities in Afghanistan:

"Although most non-Muslim Afghans fled after the Taliban previously consolidated control of the government and ruled between 1996 and 2001, small populations of religious minorities, including Sikhs, Hindus, Ahmadi Muslims, Baha’is, and Jews, remained. Many religious minority community members practiced their faith in hiding due to fear of reprisal. The Taliban consider conversion from Islam to another religion apostasy, which could be punishable by death according to their interpretation of Shari’a or Islamic law. Hazara Shi’a Muslims, labeled heretical by the Taliban along with other non-Sunni Muslims, faced targeted violence and many fled as refugees to neighboring Iran and Pakistan."

Standout artist: Rada Akbar. She's an Afghan visual and conceptual artist and the founder of Abarzanan, which showcases women who made contributions to Afghan society. You can follow her on Instagram here.

Standout musician: Aryana Sayeed, a London-based artist and one of Afghanistan's most well-known female artists.

Standout film: Wolf and Sheep. A beautiful movie that trails sheepherders in rural Afghanistan. The movie won the Art Cinema Prize in Cannes.

It was directed by Shahrbanoo Sadat, who was only 26 when she made it. The film is based on the region of Afghanistan where she grew up but featured a naked green fairy and other aspects of magical realism.

Last year, the Hollywood Reported published an article about how Sadat was trying to flee Afghanistan with her family after the Taliban seized power.

A surprising thing: The world's oldest oil paintings were discovered in Afghanistan. Archeologists found the world's oldest oil paintings inside caves in the Bamiyan Valley, where the Taliban blew up two giant stone statues of Buddha in 2001.

Story of the week: On May 7, the Taliban ordered all Afghan women to wear a full-coverage burqa in public. Women have since deserted public streets to remain cloistered in their homes, France 24 reports.

What I'm writing:

• I spoke with Senator Jeanne Shaheen about funding to support Ukraine, her recent visit to the Western Balkans, and the rights of women and girls globally. Shaheen is the senior senator representing the state of New Hampshire. She is also the only female lawmaker on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and she sits on the Armed Services Committee. Senator Shaheen is one of the lawmakers most focused on the regions I follow, so a large chunk of this conversation was about the Western Balkans. Here's a Twitter thread with some of the takeaways.

• I spoke with Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon about her visit to Washington, her plans for Scotland's energy sector, a second independence referendum, and whether an independent Scotland would join NATO [This is unlocked and free to read].

• My colleague Savannah Behrmann and I wrote about disunity in the Republican party after Congress passed a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine. A growing number of Republicans say they are concerned about excessive government spending, arguing that the U.S. cannot be an indefinite source of cash for Ukraine.

What I'm reading:

• Radio Free Europe has a special project out on the untold details of corruption scandals and scams that swirled around Vladimir Putin and his associates as he began his political ascent.

• One recent battle in Eastern Ukraine was so deadly for Russia that it led to criticism from pro-Russia bloggers, the New York Times reports.

• Russian President Vladimir Putin has become so personally involved in the Ukraine war that he is making operational and tactical decisions “at the level of a colonel or brigadier,” the Guardian reports, citing western military sources.

• In attempting to overcome Ukrainian resistance, Russia made significant use of auxiliary personnel, including Chechen Forces, likely consisting of several thousand fighters primarily concentrated in Mariupol and the Luhansk region, according to a UK intelligence update.

• Mariupol officials warned of a possible “environmental catastrophe” following Russia’s siege of the city’s Azovstal steel plant. They said tens of thousands of tons of toxic chemicals stored in the plant could leak into the Sea of Azov, and subsequently the Black and Mediterranean seas, the Washington Post reports.

• The Russian-installed governor of occupied Kherson in southern Ukraine said the region will soon be fully integrated into Russia, the Moscow Times reports.

• Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told an Italian media outlet that French President Emmanuel Macron asked Ukraine to make concessions on its sovereignty to help Putin save face, Politico Europe reports.

• Belarus will deploy special operations forces along the Ukraine border and air defense, artillery, and missile units to training ranges in the country's west. The presence of Belarusian troops near the border with Ukraine could tie up Ukrainian troops who would otherwise support operations in the Donbas, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said.

• Sweden has abandoned 200 years of military non-alignment to apply to join NATO alongside its neighbor Finland, CNBC reports.

• A Russian energy supplier cut off electricity to Finland ahead of the country’s announcement that it plans to join NATO, Agence France Presse reports.

• Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that diplomats from Sweden and Finland intending to visit Turkey should not come since Ankara did not intend to approve their bids for NATO membership, the Washington Post reports.

Finland does not want NATO to deploy nuclear weapons or set up military bases on its territory even if it becomes a member, Reuters reports, citing Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin.

• Balkan Insight has a Who's Who analysis of the new Hungarian government.

• The European Commission recently unveiled a 210-billion-euro plan for how Europe can end its reliance on Russian fossil fuels by 2027, Reuters reports.

• Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell urged President Biden to name Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, which would lift sovereign immunity protections shielding the country from being sued for civil damages, the Hill reports.

• Former guerrilla Gustavo Petro appears set to win the Colombian presidency on May 29, raising concerns in Washington over its closest South American ally, the Financial Times reports.

• Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan became the president of the United Arab Emirates, the New York Times reports. He succeeded his older half-brother, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed, who died after leading the Persian Gulf country for 18 years.

• Iran-backed Hezbollah was dealt a blow in Lebanon's parliamentary election, with the Saudi-aligned Lebanese Forces party showing significant gains, Reuters reports.

• Jerusalem police said they opened an investigation into their handling of the high-profile funeral of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh after images of Israeli police beating mourners sparked global condemnation, the Washington Post reports.

• The future of Israel's government was plunged into uncertainty after an Arab member of the coalition from the left-wing Meretz party resigned, the BBC reports.

• Authorities in Ethiopia's Tigray region are forcing young people to join their fight against the central government by threatening and jailing relatives, Reuters reports.

• The U.S. is poised to remove five groups believed to be defunct from its list of foreign terrorist organizations: the Basque separatist group ETA, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, the radical Jewish group Kahane Kach,  and two Islamic groups, NPR reports.

What the State Department says:

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