Blinken in unannounced visit to Afghanistan to sell US troop withdrawal

Blinken in unannounced visit to Afghanistan to sell US troop withdrawal
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to reassure the Afghan leadership that the withdrawal did not mean an end to the US-Afghan relationship. (Reuters)
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Updated 15 April 2021

Blinken in unannounced visit to Afghanistan to sell US troop withdrawal

Blinken in unannounced visit to Afghanistan to sell US troop withdrawal
  • NATO says its roughly 7,000 non-American forces in Afghanistan are also departing within a few months

KABUL: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan on Thursday to sell Afghan leaders and a wary public on President Joe Biden’s decision to withdraw all American troops from the country and end America’s longest-running war.
Blinken was meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, and civic figures, a day after Biden announced that the remaining 2,500 US soldiers in Afghanistan would be coming home by the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that led to the US invasion.
His trip also came after NATO immediately followed suit, saying its roughly 7,000 non-American forces in Afghanistan would be departing within a few months, ending the foreign military presence that had been a fact of life for a generation of Afghans already reeling from more than 40 years of conflict.
Blinken sought to reassure the Afghan leadership that the withdrawal did not mean an end to the US-Afghan relationship.
“I wanted to demonstrate with my visit the ongoing to commitment of the United States to the Islamic Republic and the people of Afghanistan,” Blinken told Ghani as they met at the presidential palace in Kabul. “The partnership is changing, but the partnership itself is enduring.”
“We respect the decision and are adjusting our priorities,” Ghani told Blinken, expressing gratitude for the sacrifices of US troops.
Blinken arrived in the Afghan capital from Brussels where he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin briefed NATO officials on the move and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg announced the alliance would also be leaving.
Biden, Blinken, Austin and Stoltenberg have all sought to put a brave face on the pullout, maintaining that the US- and NATO-led missions to Afghanistan had achieved their goal of decimating Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network that launched the 9/11 attacks and clearing the country of terrorist elements that could use Afghan soil to plot similar strikes.
However, that argument has faced pushback from some U.S, lawmakers and human rights advocates who say the withdrawal will result in the loss of freedoms that Afghans enjoyed after the Taliban was ousted from power in late 2001.
Later, in a meeting with Abdullah, Blinken repeated his message, saying that “we have a new chapter, but it is a new chapter that we’re writing together.”
“We are grateful to your people, your country, your administration,” Abdullah said.
Despite billions of US dollars in aid, Afghanistan 20 years on has a poverty rate of 52 percent according to World Bank figures. That means more than half of Afghanistan’s 36 million people live on less than $1.90 a day. Afghanistan is also considered one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman according to the Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security.
For many Afghans the past two decades have been disappointing, as corruption has overtaken successive governments and powerful warlords have amassed wealth and loyal militias who are well armed. Many Afghans fear worsening chaos even more once America leaves.
Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are at a stalemate but are supposed to resume later this month in Istanbul.
Under an agreement signed between the Trump administration and the Taliban last year, the US was to have completed its military withdrawal by May 1. Although Biden is blowing through that deadline, angering the Taliban leadership, his plan calls for the pull-out to begin on May 1. The NATO withdrawal will commence the same day.
“It is time to end America’s longest war,” Biden said in his announcement in Washington on Tuesday, but he added that the US will “not conduct a hasty rush to the exit.”
“We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan hoping to create the ideal conditions for our withdrawal, expecting a different result,” said Biden, who delivered his address from the White House Treaty Room, the same location where President George W. Bush announced the start of the war. “I am now the fourth United States president to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan. Two Republicans. Two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility to a fifth.”
Biden, along with Blinken and Austin in Brussels, vowed that the US would remain committed to Afghanistan’s people and development.
“Bringing our troops home does not mean ending our relationship with Afghanistan or our support for the country,” Blinken said. “Our support, our engagement and our determination remain.”
Austin also said that the US military, after withdrawing from Afghanistan, will keep counterterrorism “capabilities” in the region to keep pressure on extremist groups operating within Afghanistan. Asked for details, he declined to elaborate on where those US forces would be positioned or in what numbers.


Gunmen kill former TV presenter then escape in Afghanistan

Gunmen kill former TV presenter then escape in Afghanistan
Updated 49 min 51 sec ago

Gunmen kill former TV presenter then escape in Afghanistan

Gunmen kill former TV presenter then escape in Afghanistan
  • Former TV present Nimat Rawan was shot at noon by two assailants who escaped with his mobile phone
  • Security officials have told several other journalists in the area that extremists are targeting them as well

KABUL: Gunmen killed a former Afghan TV presenter on Thursday as he was traveling in the southern city of Kandahar, a provincial official said, adding to fears for press freedom in the war-wrecked country.
Nimat Rawan was shot at noon, provincial spokesman Baheer Ahmadi said, by two assailants who were able to escape with his mobile phone.
Security officials have told several other journalists in the area that extremists are targeting them as well, he added.
The killing heightens worries over the fate of Afghan journalists as US troops pullout. Many fear violence will spike and reprisals will be taken out against those who worked with foreign forces.
Rawan was a former presenter for the well-known local channel Tolonews. He had been working in the Finance Ministry’s media office, media watchdog Nia said in a statement.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but it comes a day after the Taliban issued a threat to Afghan journalists it considered too close to US-backed security agencies.
In a statement, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid warned Afghan journalists against giving “one-sided news in support of Afghanistan’s intelligence,” or otherwise “face the consequences.”
Afghanistan is considered one of the most dangerous countries in the world to be a journalist. Since 2006, as many as 76 journalists have been killed in Afghanistan, according to UNESCO.
Last year alone at least 15 were killed, and earlier this year, three women employed by media outlets were killed in eastern Afghanistan. The Daesh group has claimed responsibility for some of the killings, including that of the three women. The majority of the targeted journalists have been women.
The government blames a resurgent Taliban — who now control or hold sway over half the country — for many of the targeted killings. The insurgents, meanwhile, claim the Afghan intelligence service is carrying out these attacks so as to blame the Taliban.


UK urged to intervene to stop illegal Israeli evictions

UK urged to intervene to stop illegal Israeli evictions
A Palestinian demonstrator is blindfolded and surrounded by Israeli security forces during protests against the forced evictions of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem. (AFP)
Updated 06 May 2021

UK urged to intervene to stop illegal Israeli evictions

UK urged to intervene to stop illegal Israeli evictions
  • Council for Arab-British Understanding: ‘The forcible transfer of an occupied population constitutes a war crime’
  • ‘The international community continues to condemn such violations, yet little or no action is ever taken’

LONDON: The Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) has urged the UK government and the international community to take political action to prevent the forced eviction, displacement and dispossession of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem.

“The UK government is well aware that the forcible transfer of an occupied population constitutes a war crime under international law,” CAABU said in a statement issued to Arab News.

“The international community continues to condemn such violations, including Israel’s illegal annexation of occupied East Jerusalem, forcible transfer of Palestinian populations and settlement expansions, yet little or no action is ever taken.”

Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah, a district of East Jerusalem, have been fighting an Israeli court order — which CAABU calls “discriminatory” — that declared settler organizations the owner of numerous Palestinian homes, forcing the occupants out of their homes or into an arrangement that would see them pay rent to the settlers in exchange for the right to remain in place.

The UK should immediately intervene politically to prevent these evictions and dispossessions, CAABU said.

“A clear political demand that should be asked is a moratorium on evictions for Palestinians based on discriminatory law and that Israel stops applying such discriminatory laws,” it added.

Last week, the UK’s consul general in Jerusalem said: “The UK position on this is clear. East Jerusalem is occupied and it has been illegally annexed. The restitution and planning laws here, and their implementation, are unfair and they breach Israel’s obligations as an occupying power.”

CAABU welcomed the consul general’s statement, but warned that for Palestinians, “such words will do little to convince them that justice for them will be taken seriously unless the egregious human rights abuses related to their forced eviction and dispossession also come with actions and consequences for the occupying power, Israel.”

Joseph Willits, a parliamentary officer at CAABU, told Arab News: “There’s a lack of willingness by the (British) government to go further than issuing standard pro forma statements which issue condemnations, talk of a two-state solution and a peace process — but effectively, there’s no action.”

Willits echoed the demands made by over 80 British MPs in an open letter in February, which said: “All measures should be considered including reducing diplomatic engagement and banning trade in settlement products in full conformity with international law obligations in order to challenge the settler economy that profits from the occupation.”  

He said: “There’s a willingness from so many quarters, including among so-called progressives in the UK, to justify, ignore or remain tacitly complicit in such egregious human rights abuses. We need to begin to call this anti-Palestinian racism out for what it is.” 

He added: “If we’re unable to stand with, or speak up for, Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere, to help save Sheikh Jarrah, then human rights abusers globally will continue to rub their hands with glee.” 


Former Ugandan rebel commander Ongwen sentenced to 25 years in prison

Former Ugandan rebel commander Ongwen sentenced to 25 years in prison
Updated 06 May 2021

Former Ugandan rebel commander Ongwen sentenced to 25 years in prison

Former Ugandan rebel commander Ongwen sentenced to 25 years in prison
  • Dominic Ongwen was convicted in February of 61 crimes including rape and sexual enslavement
  • Ongwen was abducted by the group as a 9-year-old boy and forced into life of violence
AMSTERDAM: Judges at the International Criminal Court on Thursday sentenced a former Ugandan child soldier who became a commander of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army to 25 years in prison.
Dominic Ongwen, who was taken into ICC custody in 2015, was convicted in February of 61 crimes including rape, sexual enslavement, child abductions, torture and murder.
Presiding Judge Bertram Schmitt said the panel of judges had considered sentencing Ongwen to life imprisonment, the court’s harshest punishment, but had sided against it due to the defendant’s own personal suffering.
Led by fugitive warlord Joseph Kony, the LRA terrorized Ugandans for nearly 20 years as it battled the government of President Yoweri Museveni from bases in northern Uganda and neighboring countries. It has now largely been wiped out.
Ongwen was abducted by the group as a 9-year-old boy and forced into life of violence. At the same time, the judges found, he knowingly committed a vast range of heinous crimes as an adult, many of them against defenseless children and women who had been forced into slavery.
He was “a perpetrator who willfully brought tremendous suffering upon his victims, however, also a perpetrator who himself has previously endured extreme suffering at the hands of the group of which he later became a prominent member and leader,” Judge Schmitt said.
Prosecutors had demanded he get at least 20 years in prison, while his defense argued he should get no more than a 10-year sentence because he was traumatized as a child soldier.
The sentence can be appealed.

France ‘won’t be intimidated’ by UK maneuvers around Jersey

France ‘won’t be intimidated’ by UK maneuvers around Jersey
Updated 06 May 2021

France ‘won’t be intimidated’ by UK maneuvers around Jersey

France ‘won’t be intimidated’ by UK maneuvers around Jersey

PARIS: France “won’t be intimidated” by the deployment of British navy ships to the Channel island of Jersey, which is at the center of a standoff between the two neighbors over post-Brexit fishing rights, France’s European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune said Thursday.
Beaune told AFP he had spoken with Britain’s minister for relations with the EU, David Frost, and added: “Our wish is not to have tensions, but to have a quick and full application of the (Brexit) deal.”


Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court

Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court
Updated 06 May 2021

Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court

Australian COVID-19 travel restrictions challenged in court
  • Government resisting growing pressure to lift the Indian travel ban imposed last week until May 15
  • Almost one third of Australians are born overseas and most barred from leaving the country for more than a year

CANBERRA: Australia’s drastic COVID-19 strategies of preventing its citizens leaving the country and returning from India were challenged in court Thursday.
The government is resisting growing pressure to lift the Indian travel ban imposed last week until May 15 to reduce infections in Australian quarantine facilities.
A challenge to the ban by Gary Newman, one of 9,000 Australians prevented from returning home from India, will be heard by a Federal Court judge on Monday, Chief Justice James Allsop said.
The ban was made by order of Health Minister Greg Hunt under the Biosecurity Act which carries penalties for breaches of up to five years in prison and fines of up to $51,000 (A$66,000).
A libertarian group LibertyWorks took its case to the full bench of the Federal Court on Thursday against a separate order under the Biosecurity Act that has prevented most Australians from leaving the country without compelling reasons since March last year.
The government hopes to maintain Australia’s relatively low levels of community transmission of the virus by preventing its citizens from becoming infected overseas and bringing variants home. Travel to and from New Zealand has recently been exempted.
LibertyWorks argues that Hunt does not have the power to legally enforce the ban, which has prevented thousands of Australians from attending weddings and funerals, caring for dying relatives and meeting newborn babies.
With almost one third of Australians born overseas and most barred from leaving the country for more than a year, a win by LibertyWorks is likely to lead to a surge in citizens wishing to travel internationally. The three judges hearing the case will likely announce their verdicts at a later date.
The challenge to the Indian travel ban will be heard by Justice Michael Thawley five days before flights could potentially resume.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the pause was working in reducing infection rates among returned travelers within Australian quarantine facilities.
“The early evidence indicates that that temporary pause to May 15 is on track and that we are very hopeful and confident that on the other side of May 15 we’ll be able to start restoring those repatriation flights,” Morrison said.
A decision would be made before May 15, but Morrison could not say how long before that date that a decision would be announced. Around 20,000 Australians had been repatriated from India before the travel ban.
Newman’s lawyer Christopher Ward told a preliminary hearing on Thursday that the legal team wanted a verdict before May 15.
Newman’s lawyers argue that it is important that the minister’s power was reviewed by the court even if the travel ban was not extended.
The court cases were heard in Sydney where new pandemic restrictions were imposed on Wednesday due to two recent cases of community infections.
Masks have become compulsory in the greater Sydney area in all public indoor venues and on public transport from late Thursday and visitors to homes in Australia’s largest city have been capped at 20.
The measures follow a Sydney man on Wednesday becoming New South Wales state’s first case of COVID-19 community transmission in a month. The man’s wife on Thursday was confirmed as also being infected.
Authorities have yet to determine how the couple became infected with the same variant as a traveler from the United States had been diagnosed while in Sydney hotel quarantine.