US sticks to promise, begins troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

An Afghan boy watches US soldiers from 1st Infantry Division patrolling in a village during a search mission in Nishagam, in Afghanistan’s Kunar province. (AFP/File)
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Updated 11 March 2020

US sticks to promise, begins troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

  • Phased pullout will see exit of nearly 13,000 military personnel from country

KABUL: The US on Tuesday began the first phase of a troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, a key Taliban condition prior to signing an historic peace deal on Feb. 29.

In a statement on Monday, Col. Sonny Leggett, spokesman for American forces in Afghanistan, said: “In accordance with the US-Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Joint Declaration and the US-Taliban Agreement, US Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) has begun its conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days.”

Based on the agreement, Washington has 135 days from the signing of the accord to reduce troop numbers from the 12,000-13,000 currently in the country, ending the 18-year-old Afghan conflict, the longest in American history.

“USFOR-A maintains all the military means and authorities to accomplish our objectives, including conducting counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K (Daesh) and providing support to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces,” said the colonel, adding that the Americans were on track “to meet directed force levels while retaining the necessary capabilities.”

The peace deal followed 16 months of intensive secret talks between the Taliban and US special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, with the insurgents pledging not to allow Afghan soil to be used against any other country, including the US.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan for five years until their ouster in a US-led invasion in 2001, as a punishment for protecting Al-Qaeda which Washington accused of orchestrating the 9/11 attacks on the US.

In the face of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and other local factors, the Taliban managed to gain ground in various parts of the country, challenging the central government and mounting bloody attacks on foreign troops.

By 2010, more than 140,000 foreign troops were stationed in the country, but tens of thousands left in the years that followed, allowing the militants to gain footholds in areas outside their traditional power base such as the north and the northeast.

Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense, told Arab News on Tuesday that the withdrawal of troops will have no impact on the security situation in the country.

“Afghan defense and security forces have always had preparations for the defense of the country and have been conducting and planning most of the operations independently in recent years,” he said, adding that Kabul had no problem in continuing that based on “the capacity that we have.”

Retired Afghan Gen. Attiqullah Amarkhail said on Tuesday that the national security forces had borne the brunt of executing the operations across the country and that the departure of the US troops would “not have much effect on the battleground.”

However, he noted that divisions among political leaders — which became more apparent on Monday when incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his election archrival, Abdullah Abdullah, held separate inaugural ceremonies for the presidency — would seriously embolden the Taliban and affect the situation.

“That is a really worrying factor since the Taliban will gain more morale seeing this disunity and a thirst for power among some people in Kabul,” he told Arab News.


Afghan robotics team builds COVID-19 ventilator

Updated 10 April 2020

Afghan robotics team builds COVID-19 ventilator

  • Team drew up its own product design and sent to MIT, Harvard University for approval

KABUL: A team of Afghan female robotics experts has developed a lifesaving ventilator, made from Toyota car parts, to help with the treatment of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patients.

The girls, who won a medal in a global competition for creating a robot that could distinguish between contaminated and clean water, were invited by the governor of the western Afghan city of Herat to try and build a version of the medical device due to a desperate shortage of ventilators in the province.

The impoverished region of war-torn Afghanistan has recently witnessed a sharp rise in the number of COVID-19 cases.

The team, aptly named the Afghan Dreamers, initially tried to source parts from abroad for an advanced digital machine, but high costs and flight suspensions caused by the pandemic made shipments to Afghanistan impossible.

Undaunted, the innovative group looked for supplies closer to home, and came up with the idea of using parts from Toyota Corolla cars sourced from local bazaars.

Based on copies of modern ventilators produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, the team drew up its own product design and sent copies to MIT and Harvard University for approval.

“We had to be prepared for the worst situation because we do not have access to Amazon and other companies for online orders. So, it was best to use local devices we have in our country,” tech entrepreneur Roya Mahboob, who set up the team, told Arab News.

“We discussed our design with a professor from MIT, and sent it, based on the MIT prototype, using Toyota Corolla parts. He (the professor) was so surprised and wrote back to us saying that it was a clever design but would need to see if the system worked.

“What we are hoping, is that with the help of MIT we will be able to improve our model and make it ready for actual use by the end of May or June,” added Mahboob.

The prototype ventilator would have to be approved by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Afghan Public Health Ministry before the team could start producing more machines, said Dr. Mehdi Hadid, a member of the consultative board fighting the spread of COVID-19 in Herat.

“The machine (ventilator) will be able to supply a certain volume of oxygen and adjust the rate of respiration,” he told Arab News.

With acute shortages of electricity in many parts of the country, the ventilator can operate not only on mains supply, but also by battery and solar power, he said.

Afghanistan has 300 digital ventilators and hopes to buy more for its fight against the virus which has so far infected 484 people and claimed 15 lives.

The Afghan Dreamers’ locally made ventilator will cost around $400 and would mostly be used for emergency cases in remote areas where there were few clinics, said Farzana Nekpour, the team’s head of public relations.

“The current challenge for us is the risk of contracting the coronavirus by being in the workshop under one roof working on the design. We work very close together and there is no social distancing, so there is the chance of contamination despite us wearing masks and gloves,” she told Arab News.

Mahboob said that one of the main future challenges would be finding enough Toyota parts to produce more devices, as many shops and outlets were closing due to lockdowns imposed throughout Afghanistan. “But we have to find a means to help people and make this a successful project for our poor nation. It is vital.”

Entrepreneur Mahboob became one of Afghanistan’s first female chief executives at the age of 23. She set up a nonprofit organization to help young women to build digital literacy and has since been named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people.

In 2017, the members of her all-female robotics team made international headlines when their US visas were rejected not long before they were due to travel to an international robotics competition in Washington, DC. After individual appeals to the US Embassy in Kabul failed, the group took to social media to air their grievances. The team’s plight received international attention and led to US President Donald Trump intervening on their behalf.

The team returned from the competition with a silver medal for “courageous achievement” won by their ball-sorting robot, designed to distinguish between contaminated and clean water.

Since returning home, the team has become an inspiration for women seeking higher education in male-dominated Afghanistan, where about 40 percent of women are literate.

Its other achievements include the development of a device to help farmers pick saffron, one of the country’s main industries, and the building of drones and robots for use in the mining sector.