Taliban fighters claim capture of key provincial capital in north Afghanistan

Candles are placed by journalists next to the portrait of Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui as a tribute in Kolkata on Friday. (AFP)
Candles are placed by journalists next to the portrait of Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui as a tribute in Kolkata on Friday. (AFP)
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Updated 17 July 2021

Taliban fighters claim capture of key provincial capital in north Afghanistan

Candles are placed by journalists next to the portrait of Reuters photojournalist Danish Siddiqui as a tribute in Kolkata on Friday. (AFP)
  • City of Sheberghan is long-time stronghold of warlord, ex-Afghan vice president, leading figure in anti-Taliban alliance, Abdul Rashid Dostum

KABUL: Taliban fighters on Friday claimed to have taken control of an Afghan provincial capital considered a key gateway to the country’s northern and northeastern regions.

The city of Sheberghan, in Jowzjan province, reportedly became the group’s latest territorial gain following an intensification of clashes between the Taliban and government forces since US-led military accelerated troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.
The Taliban have continued to capture districts and border crossings in the country’s north and west.
Sheberghan has long been the seat of power for one of Afghanistan’s factional leaders, Abdul Rashid Dostum, a warlord, former vice president, and one of the main figures in the anti-Taliban alliance.
Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, told Arab News: “The mujahideen of the Islamic Emirate by seizure of entrances of Sheberghan, capital city of Jowzjan, arrived in Sheberghan today.”
He said fighters loyal to Dostum and government troops had fled toward Sheberghan’s airport.
While government officials declined to comment, an official source in Jowzjan confirmed to Arab News that the city had fallen following a three-pronged attack.
But a pro-Dostum lawmaker, Mohammed Karim Jowzjani, told Arab News the Taliban were still on the outskirts of Sheberghan and that fighting continued to take place.
“The fighting is intense there. If Sheberghan falls, then two other provinces in its neighborhood will also fall and the Taliban will have an upper hand in the whole region,” he said.
He added that Dostum, who left Afghanistan for Turkey after the Taliban began their onslaughts in the northern region in early May, was expected to return to the country.
Since the launch of their attacks, the Taliban have captured scores of districts and a number of key border crossings with Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan, largely due to the surrender of government forces.
Meanwhile, a convoy of government troops heading to recapture the Spin Boldak crossing with Pakistan was on Friday ambushed by the Taliban. A group of army soldiers and an award-winning Indian journalist traveling with them were killed in the attack.
Danish Siddiqui was a photojournalist with Reuters and had been in Kandahar to cover the fighting. Reuters confirmed his death.


Spoons become a new symbol of Palestinian ‘freedom’

Palestinians shop at a market in the old city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
Palestinians shop at a market in the old city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
Updated 58 min 48 sec ago

Spoons become a new symbol of Palestinian ‘freedom’

Palestinians shop at a market in the old city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. (AFP)
  • Prisoners carried out jail break with the utensil

JERUSALEM: The humble spoon has taken its place alongside traditional flags and banners as a Palestinian resistance symbol, after prisoners were said to have carried out one of Israel’s most spectacular jail breaks with the utensil.

When the six Palestinian militants escaped through a tunnel on Sept. 6 from the high security Gilboa Prison, social networks shared images of a tunnel at the foot of a sink, and a hole dug outside.
A hashtag, “the miraculous spoon,” suggested how the Hollywood-style feat might have occurred.
But whether or not the utensil had really been involved or its role was cooked up was at first unclear.
Then on Wednesday a lawyer for one of the fugitives who has since been recaptured told AFP that his client, Mahmud Abdullah Ardah, said he had used spoons, plates and even the handle of a kettle to dig the tunnel from his cell.
He began scraping his way out from the northern Israeli institution in December, the lawyer, Roslan MaHajjana, said.
Ardah was one of four fugitives later arrested after the army poured troops into the occupied West Bank as part of a massive manhunt.
All six were accused of plotting or carrying out attacks against Israelis.
Two men remain on the loose following the extremely rare escape. Israel has begun an inquiry into lapses that led to the embarrassing incident, which Palestinians see as a “victory.”
“With determination, vigilance... and cunning, and with a spoon, it was possible to dig a tunnel through which the Palestinians escaped and the enemy was imprisoned,” writer Sari Orabi said on the Arabi 21 website.
Palestinian cartoonist Mohammed Sabaaneh says the escape has served up “black humor” and exposed Israel’s security system to ridicule.
He has made several drawings featuring the utensil, including one titled “The Tunnel of Freedom.”
The issue has also stirred admiration outside the Palestinian territories, where spoons have been carried in demonstrations supporting prisoners detained by Israel.
In Kuwait, the artist Maitham Abdal sculpted a giant hand firmly clasping a spoon — the “spoon of freedom,” as he calls it.
Similarly inspired, Amman-based graphic designer Raed Al-Qatnani symbolically depicted six silhouettes taking a bridge to freedom, represented by a spoon.
For him, it also evokes the numerous hunger strikes undertaken by Palestinian prisoners to protest their incarceration.
In Tulkarem, a city in the West Bank occupied since 1967 by Israel, the escape brought back memories for Ghassan Mahdawi. He and another prisoner escaped from an Israeli prison in 1996 through a tunnel dug using not kitchen implements but nails.
He had been arrested for belonging to an armed group during the first Palestinian intifada, which lasted until the early 1990s.
“There’s nothing prisoners can’t do ... and there is always a flaw” in the system, said Mahdawi, who was rearrested and then released after a total of 19 years in custody.
In his view, the most recent escapees may have used tools other than spoons, obtained inside the prison, to carry out what every prisoner dreams of but few accomplish.
“To escape from an Israeli prison is something each inmate thinks about,” Mahdawi said.
To have done it with a spoon, he added, is something that “will go down in history.”


Franco-American tension over submarine deal puts fresh strain on trans-Atlantic ties

Franco-American tension over submarine deal puts fresh strain on trans-Atlantic ties
Updated 44 min 25 sec ago

Franco-American tension over submarine deal puts fresh strain on trans-Atlantic ties

Franco-American tension over submarine deal puts fresh strain on trans-Atlantic ties
  • France feels excluded from AUKUS and robbed of chance to land a lucrative submarine deal
  • Macron recalls ambassadors from the US and Australia for consultation in show of anger

LONDON: The French foreign minister’s reaction to the new trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK and the US brings to mind a powerful cartoon published by an American newspaper during the Trump years, when the president was ruling by executive order to evade Congress.

The cartoon, which appeared in the Buffalo News, depicted the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France to the US, stabbed in the back not with a dagger but with the president’s pen. Just like Lady Liberty in this cutting depiction, the French must feel as though a dagger is buried between their shoulder blades.

In fact French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian likened the new Indo-Pacific security alliance, known as AUKUS, to a “stab in the back” and the sort of betrayal that “is not something allies do to each other.”

Because of “the exceptional seriousness of the announcements made on Sept. 15 by Australia and the United States,” Le Drian announced on Friday that Paris would immediately recall its ambassadors to the US and Australia for consultation.

French grievances over the deal relate both to its strategic and financial implications. Paris was not only excluded from the Indo-Pacific strategy but has also lost out on a hugely lucrative contract with Australia to build nuclear submarines. Canberra is tapping American tech instead.

The new alliance, announced during a virtual meeting of US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, has ignited a firestorm of criticism from France.

While many observers in Washington applauded the pact as a clear challenge to China, others warned that the agreement marks the beginning of a new arms race in the region, or perhaps even a strategic blunder following hot on the heels of America’s Afghanistan withdrawal debacle.

US President Joe Biden participates is a virtual press conference on national security with British PM Boris Johnson (R) and Australian PM Scott Morrison on Sept. 15, 2021. (AFP)

Since taking office, Biden has sought to reset America’s frigid relations with its oldest European allies, yet the AUKUS move appears to have had the opposite effect, alienating France and the wider EU.

It has also exposed a potential rift between the US and its European allies on how to handle the growing influence of China. Differing positions on whether to confront or cooperate with Beijing might, as the New York Times recently put it, “redraw the global strategic map.”

The timing of the AUKUS deal could not have been more critical, coming as it did on “the eve of the publication of the EU strategy in the Indo-Pacific, and as Paris has risen as the main EU strategic actor in the region,” wrote Benjamin Haddad, director of the Europe Center at the Atlantic Council.

France's ambassador to the US, Philippe Etienne, has been recalled to Paris for consultations amid a US-France diplomatic row over the sale of submarines to Australia. (AFP file photo)

He predicts the new dynamic will “create a blow to transatlantic strategy in the region and create a lasting hurdle in US-French relations.”

Next week, the White House is due to host the first in-person meeting of leaders of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a strategic alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India. “The Quad,” as it is known, is another important pillar of Biden’s China policy.

Beijing views the Quad, and the new AUKUS, as a “clique based on a Cold War ideology and detrimental to the international order.” China’s regional rival India, meanwhile, predictably welcomed the new alliance.

Although Biden, Johnson and Scott did not mention China in their AUKUS announcement, the pact was described in the US as part of the president’s policy to “refocus” American national security and to reorient its military posture toward the Chinese threat.

China's increasingly expanding navy and aggressive actions beyond its borders has spurred the US, Japan, Australia and India to form a strategic alliance. (Shutterstock image)

The administration has sought to justify its abrupt departure from Afghanistan on the grounds that it needs to pool its resources to address the threat emanating from China. Critics might have given the Biden team the benefit of the doubt had the new strategic architecture in the Indo-Pacific not come at the expense of US-French relations.

France has good reason to be upset. The new deal with Australia, described as “historic” by the US media and “another step by Western allies to counter China’s strength,” torpedoed the largest military contract Australia has ever awarded — a deal for nuclear submarines worth 90 billion Australian dollars ($65.5 billion), signed in 2017 with the French defense contractor Naval Group.

The US media played down the French reaction to AUKUS and chose not to ruminate over what sort of message the deal might send to America’s allies elsewhere. Instead it focused on the historic nature of the sharing of US nuclear-propulsion technology with Australia.

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison at the Elysee Palace in Paris on June 15, 2021. (AFP)

Defense News hailed the deal as the first time the US has shared this type of technology with any ally since the US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement of 1958.

Barry Pavel, director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, likewise drew a parallel between the new pact and the Eisenhower administration’s policy of sharing nuclear technology with the UK, a policy that caused French President Charles de Gaulle to decry “Anglo-Saxon nuclear cooperation and propelled France to develop its own nuclear capabilities.”

Indeed, much like de Gaulle, French President Emmanuel Macron might well interpret the AUKUS deal as a deliberate Anglo-Saxon snub that undermines its strategic posture in the Indo-Pacific.

France is not a minor player in the region. It is the only European country with a big presence in the Indo-Pacific, including about 7,000 soldiers on active deployment.

Cutting France out of the new strategic architecture represents a blow both to Paris and to Macron, who had prided himself on fostering a good relationship with Biden. The perceived snub could backfire badly for the Anglo-Saxon trio by pushing the French president to seek alliances elsewhere.

Daphné class French submarine under construction in Lorient, France. (Shutterstock photo)

Defense News hailed the deal as the first time the US has shared this type of technology with any ally since the US-UK Mutual Defense Agreement of 1958.

Barry Pavel, director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council, likewise drew a parallel between the new pact and the Eisenhower administration’s policy of sharing nuclear technology with the UK, a policy that caused French President Charles de Gaulle to decry “Anglo-Saxon nuclear cooperation and propelled France to develop its own nuclear capabilities.”

Many observers had expected more from the Biden administration after its chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the damage this caused to America’s global standing and perceptions of its commitment to its allies. Instead, AUKUS looks like more of the same.

Biden’s secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, is a francophone who grew up in Paris and has long enjoyed good relations with the French. This had raised hopes of a new flourishing of ties between the two governments. Instead, relations have hit rock bottom.

US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron meeting like long-lost friends during then G-7 summit in Cornwall, UK on June 13. (GETTY IMAGES/AFP/File Photo)

The perceived betrayal seems all the more cruel when one takes into consideration how much America has gained from its French connection during the war on terror. In Africa especially, it is French forces who have led operations against Daesh affiliates. Only this week, Macron announced the assassination of Adnan Abu Walid Al-Sahrawi, the leader of Daesh in the Sahara, who had been accused of killing four Americans.

In Washington, foreign policy watchers currently interpret the rift with Paris as a “tactical error and not a strategic mistake.” But the French beg to differ.

When Blinken recently posted a tweet calling France a “vital partner” in the Pacific, Gerard Araud, the outspoken French former ambassador to Washington, responded sarcastically: “We are deeply moved.”

As Washington sets about redrawing the strategic map in the Indo-Pacific, it would perhaps be wise not to take its oldest friendships for granted. Indeed, if America cannot be counted on to stand by its allies, Washington could find itself short of friends when push comes to shove.

 

 


Taliban shut down ministry for women

Taliban shut down ministry for women
Updated 18 September 2021

Taliban shut down ministry for women

Taliban shut down ministry for women
  • Militia bring back vice department

KABUL: The Taliban appeared on Friday to have shut down the government’s ministry of women’s affairs and replaced it with a department notorious for enforcing strict religious doctrine during their first rule two decades ago.
And in a further sign the Taliban’s approach to women and girls had not softened, the Education Ministry said only classes for boys would restart on Saturday.
In Kabul, workers were seen raising a sign for the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice at the old Women’s Affairs building.
Several posts have appeared on Twitter in the last 24 hours showing women workers from the ministry protesting outside the building, saying they had lost their jobs.
No official from the Taliban responded to requests for comment.
Also on Friday, the Education Ministry issued a statement ordering male teachers back to work and said secondary school classes for boys would resume on Saturday.
Despite insisting they will rule more moderately this time around, the Taliban have not allowed women to return to work and introduced rules for what they can wear at university.
The UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution saying that the Taliban need to establish an inclusive government that has “the full, equal and meaningful participation of women” and upholds human rights.
The resolution adopted by the UN’s most powerful body also extends the current mandate of the UN political mission in Afghanistan for six months and delivers a clear message that its 15 members will be watching closely what the Taliban do going forward.
The resolution also calls for strengthened efforts to provide humanitarian assistance to some 14 million Afghans needing aid and demands “unhindered humanitarian access” for the UN and other aid agencies. It also reaffirms “the importance of combating terrorism in Afghanistan ... and ensuring that the territory of Afghanistan should not be used to threaten or attack any country, to plan or finance terrorist acts, or to shelter and train terrorists” in the future.
Russian and China’s leaders urged the Taliban government to remain peaceful to their neighbors and combat terrorism and drug trafficking.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke via video link at a summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Putin said the organization, holding its meeting in Tajikistan, should “use its potential” to “stimulate the new Afghan authorities” in fulfilling their promises on normalizing life and bringing security in Afghanistan.
Xi said it was necessary to “encourage Afghanistan to put in place a broad-based and inclusive political framework” and to “resolutely fight all forms of terrorism” and live in peace with its neighbors.


France recalls envoys in US and Australia over submarine deal

France recalls envoys in US and Australia over submarine deal
Updated 17 September 2021

France recalls envoys in US and Australia over submarine deal

France recalls envoys in US and Australia over submarine deal
  • Foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said the rare decision taken by President Emmanuel Macron was made due to the seriousness of the event
  • Earlier on Friday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected French criticism

PARIS/CANBERRA/WASHINGTON: France said on Friday it had decided to recall its ambassadors in the US and Australia for consultations after Australia struck a deal with the United States and Britain which ended a $40 billion deal to purchase French-designed submarines.
Foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement that the rare decision taken by President Emmanuel Macron was made due to the seriousness of the event.
The US State Department and White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Earlier on Friday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison rejected French criticism that it had not been warned, saying he had raised the possibility in talks with the French president in June that Australia might scrap the 2016 submarine deal with a French company.
On Thursday, Australia said it would scrap the $40 billion deal with France’s Naval Group to build a fleet of conventional submarines and would instead build at least eight nuclear-powered submarines with US and British technology after striking a trilateral security partnership.
Le Drian described the decision as a stab in the back.
Morrison acknowledged the damage to Australia-France ties but insisted he had told French President Emmanuel Macron in June that Australia had revised its thinking on the deal.
“I made it very clear, we had a lengthy dinner there in Paris, about our very significant concerns about the capabilities of conventional submarines to deal with the new strategic environment we’re faced with,” Morrison told 5aa Radio.
“I made it very clear that this was a matter that Australia would need to make a decision on in our national interest,” he said.
Strained Australia-French ties come as the United States and its allies seek additional support in the Asia and the Pacific amid concern about the rising influence of a more assertive China.
France is about to take over the presidency of the European Union, which on Thursday released its strategy for the Indo-Pacific, pledging to seek a trade deal with Taiwan and to deploy more ships to keep sea routes open.


Pentagon says Kabul drone strike killed 10 civilians in 'tragic mistake'

Pentagon says Kabul drone strike killed 10 civilians in 'tragic mistake'
Updated 17 September 2021

Pentagon says Kabul drone strike killed 10 civilians in 'tragic mistake'

Pentagon says Kabul drone strike killed 10 civilians in 'tragic mistake'
  • "At the time of the strike, I was confident that the strike had averted an imminent threat to our forces at the airport": McKenzie
  • He said he now believed it unlikely that those who died were Daesh militants or posed a direct threat to US forces

WASHINGTON: The US military said on Friday that a drone strike in Kabul last month killed as many as 10 civilians, including seven children, and it apologized for what the Pentagon said was a tragic mistake.
Senior US officers had said the Aug. 29 strike that took place as foreign forces completed the last stages of their withdrawal from Afghanistan targeted a Daesh suicide bomber who posed an imminent threat to Kabul airport.
"At the time of the strike, I was confident that the strike had averted an imminent threat to our forces at the airport," US General Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, told reporters. "Our investigation now concludes that the strike was a tragic mistake."
He said he now believed it unlikely that those who died were Daesh militants or posed a direct threat to US forces. The Pentagon was considering reparations for the civilians killed, McKenzie said.
Reports had emerged almost immediately that the drone strike had killed civilians including children. A spokesman for Afghanistan's new Taliban rulers, Zabihullah Mujahid, had said at the time that strike had killed seven people.