Afghan officials downplay US president’s announcement on early troop withdrawal

Trump said in a Twitter post that the remaining US service personnel stationed in Afghanistan should be “home by Christmas.” (AFP)
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Updated 08 October 2020

Afghan officials downplay US president’s announcement on early troop withdrawal

  • Trump tweets remaining 5,000 American soldiers ‘home by Christmas’ — months ahead of proposed spring 2021 pullout
  • Around 4,000 US service personnel have left Afghanistan since US, Taliban signed February peace deal

KABUL: Afghan government officials on Thursday said US President Donald Trump’s announcement that all American troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by Christmas — sooner than previously outlined — would have no impact on the war-torn country’s security.

In an unexpected move, Trump said in a Twitter post that the remaining US service personnel stationed in Afghanistan should be “home by Christmas.”

The pullout had earlier been scheduled for spring 2021, following a US-Taliban deal in February to end the protracted conflict in Afghanistan, which started after the American invasion in 2001 that removed the Taliban from power.

“The withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan will have no effect on the situation of Afghanistan and our security forces have the capacity to defend the country without the presence of foreign troops,” Fawad Aman, a spokesman for the defense ministry, told Arab News.

He said that for the past six months Afghan security forces had been planning and conducting offensives independently, without assistance from US-led troops.

The US and NATO had pledged to provide support for Afghan troops, despite their soldiers’ departure, until “the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan and in the region is annihilated,” Aman added.

In a video message, Afghan army chief, Yasin Zia, said that Afghan forces had earned the “ability to foil enemy attacks” and were equipped with sophisticated ground and aerial weapons and aircraft which were unmatched in the region.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office was unavailable for comment.

Trump’s decision came as intra-Afghan talks were taking place in Doha, Qatar, where nearly a month ago Taliban and Afghan government negotiators were brought to the table to decide the country’s future political setup.

Discussions have lately reached a stalemate, which may turn Afghanistan “into a Syria, if each side insists on being right on everything. It would be repeating the errors of the past,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan, told Afghan media on Wednesday.

The Taliban, meanwhile, welcomed Trump’s decision. The group’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, told Arab News: “The Islamic Emirate welcomes this announcement and considers it as a positive step in the implementation of the agreement between the Islamic Emirate and America.”

The troop withdrawal was Trump’s electoral promise in 2016, which he appears to be trying to fulfill as he seeks reelection in November.

Hours before Trump’s tweet, US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said the US would reduce the number of troops it had in Afghanistan to 2,500 early next year. Currently, some 5,000 American soldiers remain in the country. As per the US-Taliban accord, 4,000 have already left since February.

Torek Farhadi, a former adviser to the Afghan government, said Trump’s announcement gave the “Taliban an edge, at least psychologically, as they see the republic (Ghani’s government) side very dependent on the US, both financially and militarily.”

With no sign of any breakthrough in intra-Afghan talks, he warned the war could go on for years if Afghan leaders and warring parties “don’t start to find a solution for peace right there, when they are at the negotiations table.”

As Ghani traveled to Qatar to help with the stalemate in talks, Farhadi said Trump’s team might have briefed him about the US president’s decision.

Officials in Kabul refused to comment on whether Trump had informed the Afghan government about his decision.

Zabihullah Pakteen, an analyst, told Arab News that Trump’s move was “a surprise both within US military hierarchy and in Afghanistan” and could be detrimental to the peace process. “The withdrawal of troops before the deadline throws the peace process in jeopardy,” he said.

Malaysian employers shocked, angry over fines ruling for overcrowded migrant workers’ lodgings

Updated 30 November 2020

Malaysian employers shocked, angry over fines ruling for overcrowded migrant workers’ lodgings

  • Businesses face penalties of more than $12,000 per worker for breaching new COVID-19-driven regulations

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian employers on Monday expressed their shock and anger over the government’s decision to impose a $12,277 fine for each foreign worker found to be living in overcrowded lodgings.

A number of company bosses said they were in a race against time to fall in line with the new criteria and avoid being hit with heavy penalties.

“Although many employers are rushing against time to fulfil the requirements, one of the main challenges industry players face is with the local councils,” Soh Thian Lai, president of the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers (FMM), told Arab News.

He said local councils throughout the country were not prepared “to assist the industry with the required endorsements” to comply with the terms of the Employees’ Minimum Standards of Housing, Accommodations, and Amenities Act 446.

“This has led to the main reason for the delay (in providing more space for migrant workers),” he added.

The decision came as a surprise after the Human Resources Ministry (HRM) had set March 2021 as a deadline for all industries to comply with the act which requires employers to ensure that their workers had sufficient residential space.

Malaysian government minister, Ismail Sabri Yaakob, announced last week that the penalty would be imposed from Nov. 26, sending shockwaves through businesses.

Soh said to provide housing facilities for each worker, employers were being forced to create additional space.

“There is, however, a lack of suitable accommodation as there are limited hostels available. Converting shop-lots to dwelling space will take time and costs to renovate the space according to the specifications outlined in the regulations as well as meeting other requirements by local authorities,” he added.

Act 446 was fully implemented in September this year after the country’s parliament amended the previous jurisdiction which only covered housing aspects of more than 20 acres of the plantation and mining sector.

The new amendment, however, extends the rules to all employment sectors that provide housing for workers.

“Most companies are currently juggling their operations toward business recovery while trying their best to adhere to this legislative requirement to readjust the living quarters for their workers,” Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) Executive Director Shamsuddin Bardan told Arab News.

Shamsuddin said that “the spike in (coronavirus disease) COVID-19 infections at a workplace involving foreign workers may have triggered the government” to call for the full compliance of Act 446 with immediate effect.

While the government “needs to contain the new infections” among foreign workers, it was also important to “assist employers,” he added.

“Many employers still depend on various government assistance, such as wage subsidies, to remain in business.

“It was only introduced on Aug. 30 and the government then decided to enforce the act in November, so the lead time given to employers to fully comply with the act was too short.

“It is costly to upgrade accommodations on the backdrop of a decreased cashflow from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Shamsuddin said.

Soh said Minister of Human Resources Saravanan Murugan had acknowledged some of the challenges involved and agreed, in principle, to a more educational approach for enforcement of the act.

“Following several taskforce meetings with the ministry to address compliance to labor laws by industry in recent months, it has been agreed that given these challenges, including the challenges faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, industries would need some time to make the changes and improvements to the housing facilities,” he said.

The FMM said it had written to the government and reiterated a previous request “for a 12-month grace period, without the imposition of any immediate penalty.”

Meanwhile, Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association (MARGMA) president, Supramaniam Shanmugam, told Arab News that 59 members of the association had expressed concerns over the “lack of time” to comply with all the requirements of Act 446.

“The Act 446 talks about the welfare of workers and one of the items to fulfil are the certificate of accommodation, which is done online, and our members have been advised to apply for it. So, what we are asking for is time,” he said.

MARGMA represents rubber glove manufacturers and employers, including leading industry players such as Top Glove and Supermax.

The HR minister and government labor department were both unavailable for comment.

The Malaysian director general of health, Noor Hisham Abdullah, recently called for employers to adhere to Act 446 “as a matter of public safety,” adding that “infections involving foreign workers needed to be addressed. The Ministry of Health urges employers to play a bigger role in tackling it.”

On Tuesday, Malaysia reported more than 1,200 new COVID-19 cases, adding to the national caseload of 65,697 infections.

According to the World Bank’s estimate, Malaysia houses at least 3 million foreign workers and is the sixth-largest migrant-receiving country in East Asia.

Indonesian workers make up to 39 percent of the total migrant workers population, followed by Nepal and Bangladesh at 24 and 14 percent, respectively, according to a report published in August by the Southeast Asia office of the Heinrich Boll Stiftung foundation.

Foreign workers in Malaysia are restricted to low-to-medium skilled industries such as construction, services, plantation, agriculture, manufacturing, and domestic work.