Kabul shrugs after US says troop pullout ‘on track’

Kabul shrugs after US says troop pullout ‘on track’
Security forces stand guard outside a hospital in Kabul, which came under attack on May 12. The US has blamed Daesh for the assault. (Reuters)
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Updated 17 May 2020

Kabul shrugs after US says troop pullout ‘on track’

Kabul shrugs after US says troop pullout ‘on track’
  • Afghan forces ‘self-sufficient,’ defense ministry claims

KABUL: Afghanistan on Saturday downplayed Washington’s claim that it was on track with a total pullout of US troops from the war-torn country, saying that Kabul was self-sufficient and the withdrawal would have no impact on local forces.

“If US troops leave Afghanistan, there will be no vacuum because the Afghan forces are in a position to conduct ground operations 100 percent. They have become self-sufficient and can perform ground offensives independently,” Fawad Aman, chief Defense Ministry spokesman, told Arab News.

However, local forces will continue to bank on US and NATO nations for some time, with “serious discussions” underway, he said.

It follows a statement by US officials in Washington on Friday, claiming that the withdrawal process was on track, despite a spike in attacks, a stalled intra-Afghan dialogue and a political stalemate.

As part of the conditions-based deal signed in February this year, the process will see the reduction of troops by 8,600, by July 15, and the abandonment of five bases in Afghanistan, media reports citing US officials said on Friday.

Additionally, by next spring, all foreign forces are expected to leave Afghanistan, ending Washington’s longest war in history after nearly 20 years of engagement, with loss of money and lives on all sides, particularly among Afghans, who have witnessed more than four decades of conflict.

“However, based on the pledges made in the peace deal, US and NATO member countries will continue to mentor Afghan forces and provide them with equipment and funding, costing billions annually until 2024,” Aman said.

US President Donald Trump had made the withdrawal of all troops from Afghanistan his top priority during the 2016 election campaign.

With the Taliban gaining ground despite an increase in ground forces, the high cost of war and rising public resentment to it, and political infighting among Afghan leaders, Trump had assigned a special envoy in 2018 to initiate peace talks with the insurgents.

After more than a year of intensive talks behind closed doors, special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad succeeded in brokering a deal with the Taliban in Doha, which paved the way for troops to leave the country by 2021.

In return, the Taliban, who US-backed forces toppled from power in late 2001, pledged not to allow areas under their control to be used against any country, including US interests and to halt attacks against foreign forces.

If US troops leave Afghanistan, there will be no vacuum because the Afghan forces are in a position to conduct ground operations 100 percent. They have become self-sufficient and can perform ground offensives independently.

Fawad Aman, Defense Ministry spokesman

However, the government said the Taliban has carried out more than 3,000 attacks since February, while the insurgents accuse Kabul of provoking them.

Opponents of the deal in Washington and Kabul raised concerns that the Taliban — encouraged by the controversial accord — will try to usurp power once again in Afghanistan and the gains made in the country since US invasion will be lost.

Supporters of the agreement argue that the troops’ pullout is needed, considering Washington’s plan for winning the war as a failure in Afghanistan, and that some leaders in Kabul and elsewhere are seeking to enrich themselves with the help of US aid and Washington’s continued presence in the country.

They have pinned their hopes on the start of peace talks between the Taliban and other Afghans, including President Ashraf Ghani’s government, which should have begun in March based on the Qatar deal.

US officials have voiced their frustration at the lack of progress on the start of the talks, as well as the exchange of prisoners between the government and the Taliban.

The announcement by US officials that the troop pullout is on track comes amid heightened tension in recent days between US officials and Ghani’s government, which is also grappling with political pressure from the Afghan leader’s arch poll rival Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week’s deadly attack on a maternity hospital in the Nangarhar province of Kabul and the launch of retaliatory operations against the Taliban by Ghani are among signs of the growing friction, analysts say.

Government leaders blame the Taliban for the attack, which killed 24 civilians, including newborn babies, pregnant women and hospital staff on Tuesday.

The Taliban have denied involvement, with Washington saying on Friday that it believed Daesh was responsible.

In response to Ghani’s launch of attacks against the Taliban, Washington said the Afghan government and the militants needed to cooperate in the fight against Daesh.

“The US has told Ghani that ‘if you are fighting the Taliban, then America is not on your side’,” Wahidullah Ghazikhail, an analyst, said.

The troop withdrawal could “further isolate the current government” in Afghanistan, he added.

“If Ghani does not start negotiations with the Taliban, the latter will further escalate their attacks, and government security commanders will abandon their duties as corruption is rife among the troops,” he said.

Indonesian celebrity’s party blunder sparks criticism over vaccine campaign

Indonesian celebrity’s party blunder sparks criticism over vaccine campaign
Updated 53 min 11 sec ago

Indonesian celebrity’s party blunder sparks criticism over vaccine campaign

Indonesian celebrity’s party blunder sparks criticism over vaccine campaign
  • Indonesia planning to inoculate 181 million in nationwide vaccination drive

JAKARTA: The Indonesian government’s strategy to promote coronavirus vaccination is under fire after an influencer who received a vaccine jab last week was spotted violating health guidelines just a few
hours later.

Indonesia started the nationwide vaccination drive on Wednesday to inoculate 181 million of its 276 million people, after the national drug regulator authorized the emergency use of the Chinese-made CoronaVac vaccine developed by Sinovac Biotech and the country’s highest authority on Islamic affairs approved it as halal, or permissible under Islamic law.

President Joko Widodo, who was the first Indonesian to receive the vaccine, described the campaign as a “game changer,” amid hopes that achieving herd immunity would help to revive the economy, which has been reeling from the pandemic. 

Alongside officials and religious leaders, 33-year-old soap opera star Raffi Ahmad also received the jab. Government strategists hoped he would promote vaccine acceptance with his huge social media presence of some 50 million followers on Instagram and 19 million on YouTube.

However, soon after receiving his shot Ahmad was photographed at a party, without a face mask and violating social distancing measures imposed by the government to contain the virus spread. The photos quickly made the rounds on social media, provoking a backlash to the government’s campaign and resulting in a lawsuit against the celebrity.

“He was really careless. He is tasked with promoting the vaccination drive, but he failed to behave accordingly,” said David Tobing, an independent lawyer who has filed the case against Ahmad for “violating the regulations to control the pandemic and for public indecency.”

“I demand in my lawsuit that the court order Ahmad to stay at home for 30 days after he gets his second vaccine jab and to issue a public apology in national print and broadcast media,” Tobing told Arab News on Saturday. “I filed the lawsuit after I received a lot of feedback from the public, including COVID-19 survivors and those who have lost loved ones because of the coronavirus.”

Ahmad has apologized on social media, saying that he did not want to disappoint the president and the public after getting the privilege of being vaccinated, but justified going to the party as it was held at a private home and said that he taken the mask off only to eat. The first hearing against Ahmad is scheduled to be held at a district court in Depok near Jakarta on Jan. 27, Tobing said. He added that he is aware that Ahmad had apologized but the actor “did not seem to have any regret.”

In response to a question by Arab News at a press briefing after the incident, national COVID-19 task force spokesman Wiku Adisasmito said that officials had reprimanded Ahmad over the blunder. He justified the involvement of celebrities in the vaccination campaign.

“When we have a major program like vaccination, we hope that a big influencer such as Raffi Ahmad can play a pivotal role to make sure young people will support the vaccination,” Adisasmito said.

Experts have criticized the government’s strategy, saying that Ahmad receiving the vaccine is unlikely to appease public concerns over the vaccine’s efficacy and possible side effects.

“Health professionals, religious figures and government officials have more credibility and integrity to promote this vaccination drive than influencers,” said Sulfikar Amir, a sociologist from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Amir, who initiated a petition in early December calling on the government to give vaccinations to all citizens when Jakarta was still planning to inoculate only selected groups, said that by appointing the celebrity influencer to promote immunization the government showed that it “has no ability to influence the public to take part in the vaccination drive.”

“This is not the same as promoting consumer goods that the influencers normally do,” he said. “It is about public health issues.”