Airstrikes pummel Taliban in south; insurgents gain in north

Airstrikes pummel Taliban in south; insurgents gain in north
Afghan Special forces patrol a deserted street during fighting with the Taliban, in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 05 August 2021

Airstrikes pummel Taliban in south; insurgents gain in north

Airstrikes pummel Taliban in south; insurgents gain in north
  • A defense ministry statement said air strikes were carried out across the country

KABUL, Afghanistan: The Afghan air force carried out more airstrikes against Taliban positions in southern Afghanistan on Thursday, as the insurgent force made additional gains in the country’s north.
A defense ministry statement said air strikes were carried out across the country, including in the southern Helmand province, where the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah is being fiercely contested. The Taliban control of nine of the city’s 10 police districts.
Residents in Lashkar Gah reported heavy bombing near the government radio and television station, which is under Taliban control. Several wedding halls and a guesthouse of the provincial governor’s are all located near the radio and television station.
In northern Afghanistan, the Taliban took control of most of the provincial capital of Sar-e-Pul, the head of its council, Mohammad Noor Rahmani said. In recent months, the group has gained control of dozens of districts across several provinces in the north.
The Taliban onslaught seems to have intensified with the start of the final withdrawal of US and NATO troops in late April. As attacks intensify, Afghan security forces and government troops have retaliated with increasing air strikes, aided by the United States. This has raised growing concerns about civilian casualties across the country.
“We can tell you that we are deeply concerned about the safety and protection of people in Lashkar Gah, in the south, where tens of thousands of people could be trapped by fighting,” Stephane Dujarric, the United Nations spokesman said on Wednesday.
“We, along with our humanitarian partners in Afghanistan, are assessing needs and responding in the south, as access allows,” he said.


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 19 September 2021

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 reaction of France 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 US 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.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Friday 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 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 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)

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.

 


SpaceX capsule with world’s first all-civilian orbital crew splashes down off Florida

SpaceX capsule with world’s first all-civilian orbital crew splashes down off Florida
Updated 7 sec ago

SpaceX capsule with world’s first all-civilian orbital crew splashes down off Florida

SpaceX capsule with world’s first all-civilian orbital crew splashes down off Florida

FLORIDA: The quartet of newly minted citizen astronauts comprising the SpaceX Inspiration4 mission safely splashed down in the Atlantic off Florida’s coast on Saturday, completing a three-day flight of the first all-civilian crew ever launched into Earth orbit.
SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule, dubbed Resilience, parachuted into calm seas around 7 p.m. EDT, shortly before sunset, after an automated re-entry descent, SpaceX showed during a live webcast shown on its YouTube channel.
The return from orbit followed a plunge through Earth’s atmosphere generating frictional heat that sent temperatures surrounding the outside of the capsule soaring to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit (1,927 degrees Celsius). The astronauts’ flight suits, fitted to special ventilation systems, were designed to keep them cool if the cabin heated up.
Applause was heard from the SpaceX flight control center in suburban Los Angeles as the first parachutes were seen deploying, slowing the capsule’s descent to about 15 miles per hour (24.14 kilometers per hour) before splashdown, and again as the craft hit the water.
SpaceX recovery boats were shown approaching the water-proof Crew Dragon as it bobbed upright in the ocean, while retrieval teams clambered over the capsule, attaching rigging before hoisting it out of the water. The crew members will be removed from the capsule once it has been placed safely on the floating recovery vessel.
After undergoing medical checks at sea, the four amateur astronauts will be flown by helicopter back to Cape Canaveral to be reunited with loved ones, SpaceX said.
Camera shots from inside the cabin showed them sitting calmly strapped into their seats.
SpaceX, the private rocketry company founded by Tesla Inc. electric automaker CEO Elon Musk, supplied the spacecraft, launched it from Florida and flew it from the company’s suburban Los Angeles headquarters.
The Inspiration4 team blasted off on Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral atop one of SpaceX’s two-stage reusable Falcon 9 rockets.
Within three hours the crew capsule had reached a cruising orbital altitude of just over 363 miles (585 km) — higher than the International Space Station or Hubble Space Telescope, and the farthest any human has flown from Earth since NASA’s Apollo moon program ended in 1972.
It also marked the debut flight of Musk’s new space tourism business and a leap ahead of competitors likewise offering rides on rocket ships to well-heeled customers willing to pay a small fortune to experience the exhilaration of spaceflight and earn amateur astronaut wings.
The Inspiration4 team was led by its wealthy benefactor, Jared Isaacman, chief executive of the e-commerce firm Shift4 Payments Inc, who assumed the role of mission “commander.”
“That was a heck of a ride for us,” he radioed from the capsule moments after splashdown. “We’re just getting started.”
He had paid an undisclosed but reportedly enormous sum — put by Time magazine at roughly $200 million — to fellow billionaire Musk for all four seats aboard the Crew Dragon.
Isaacman was joined by three less affluent crewmates he had selected — geoscientist and former NASA astronaut candidate Sian Proctor, 51, physician’s assistant and childhood bone cancer survivor Hayley Arceneaux, 29, and aerospace data engineer and Air Force veteran Chris Sembroski, 42.
Isaacman conceived of the flight primarily to raise awareness and donations for one of his favorite causes, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a leading pediatric cancer center in Memphis, Tennessee, where Arceneaux was a patient and now works.
The Inspiration4 crew had no part to play in flying the spacecraft, which was operated by ground-based flight teams and onboard guidance systems, even though Isaacman and Proctor are both licensed pilots.
SpaceX already ranked as the most well-established player in the burgeoning constellation of commercial rocket ventures, having launched numerous cargo payloads and astronauts to the space station for NASA.
Two rival operators, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. and Blue Origin, inaugurated their own astro-tourism services in recent months, with their respective founding executives, billionaires Richard Branson and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, each going along for the ride.
Those suborbital flights, lasting a matter of minutes, were short hops compared with Inspiration4’s three days in orbit.


Owners of Kashmir’s houseboats fret over ‘ailing heritage’

A general view shows the city and its houseboats from the top of the mountain during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Srinagar on April 3, 2020. (AFP)
A general view shows the city and its houseboats from the top of the mountain during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Srinagar on April 3, 2020. (AFP)
Updated 10 min 28 sec ago

Owners of Kashmir’s houseboats fret over ‘ailing heritage’

A general view shows the city and its houseboats from the top of the mountain during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown in Srinagar on April 3, 2020. (AFP)
  • A houseboat is a redesigned boat that serves as a home for tourists with amenities on offer; charges vary based on the facilities provided

NEW DELHI: Manzoor Kundroo wistfully traces his fingers over the intricate woodwork that lines the interiors of the King’s Ring, his family-owned heritage houseboat and one of many stationed on the iconic Dal Lake in Srinagar, Kashmir.
It has been the pride of his family for more than 80 years and their main source of revenue but fell into disrepair after a 2009 Kashmir High Court directive banned construction work in the area as part of an environmental policy to protect Dal.
Authorities were also asked to reduce houseboat numbers and not to renew licenses. The order proved devastating for Kundroo and hundreds like him — with owners banned from repairing them, many houseboats began to sink.
A part of King’s Ring sank a few months ago. Today, its woodwork is rotting, and the carpets stink, but Kundroo says he has no money to keep it afloat.
“The boat needs urgent repair work for it to be used, but I have a family to take care of. The money we used to earn from the houseboat was more than enough for us and the boat’s maintenance. Now, it’s not possible,” Kundroo, 39, told Arab News.
A houseboat is a redesigned boat that serves as a home for tourists with amenities on offer; charges vary based on the facilities provided.
They were first built on Dal Lake in the late 19th century as a place for Europeans — banned by the Kashmir king from owning land in the region — to reside in.
Over a century later, houseboats rose to more than 3,000 and were often featured in Bollywood films, becoming a tourism mainstay in the disputed Kashmir region.

HIGHLIGHT

With political unrest, COVID-19 curbs impacting tourism to the area, hundreds are unable to repair the houseboats due to limited finances, rigid government policies.

Before they hit rock bottom, the Kundroo family used to earn $800 a month by renting the facility to local and foreign tourists who visited the picturesque valley and its must-see attractions.
Nowadays, however, he and his extended family of 11 reside in an area adjacent to the houseboat, struggling to make ends meet.
There are over 950 houseboats in Srinagar that are part of an industry that has been an intrinsic part of Kashmir’s cultural heritage for over 150 years, despite decades of conflict in the hotly contested region that India and Pakistan claim in entirety but rule in part.
But the aftermath of political unrest in the past two years and loss of tourism to the valley due to the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown hundreds of houseboat owners like Kundroo into the deep end.
Driven by the industry’s plight, the government in April said it would allow owners to repair houseboats if they cleared their dues, such as power and water bills, and acquired a No Objection Certificate for repair work, which often takes months to process.

 

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Afghan survivors of US drone strike: Sorry ‘is not enough’

Afghan survivors of US drone strike: Sorry ‘is not enough’
Updated 18 September 2021

Afghan survivors of US drone strike: Sorry ‘is not enough’

Afghan survivors of US drone strike: Sorry ‘is not enough’
  • The driver of the targeted vehicle, Zemerai Ahmadi, was a longtime employee at an American humanitarian organization
  • US Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, called the strike a ‘tragic mistake’

KABUL, Afghanistan: Sorry is not enough for the Afghan survivors of an errant US drone strike that killed 10 members of their family, including seven children.
Emal Ahmadi, whose 3-year-old daughter Malika was killed on Aug. 29, when the US hellfire missile struck his elder brother’s car, told The Associated Press on Saturday that the family demands Washington investigate who fired the drone and punish the military personnel responsible for the strike.
“That is not enough for us to say sorry,” said Ahmadi. “The USA. should find the person who did this.”
Ahmadi said the family is also seeking financial compensation for their losses and demanded that several members of the family be relocated to a third country, without specifying which country.
The AP and other news organizations in Kabul reported after the strike that the driver of the targeted vehicle, Zemerai Ahmadi, was a longtime employee at an American humanitarian organization and cited an absence of evidence to support the Pentagon’s assertion that the vehicle contained explosives.
The missile struck as the car was pulling into the family’s driveway and the children ran to greet Zemerai.
On Friday, US Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, called the strike a “tragic mistake,” and after weeks of denials, said that innocent civilians were indeed killed in the attack and not a Daesh extremist as was announced earlier.
The drone strike followed a devastating suicide bombing by the Daesh group — a rival of the Taliban — that killed 169 Afghans and 13 US military personnel at one of the gates to the Kabul airport. For days, desperate Afghans had swarmed the checkpoints outside the airport, trying to leave the country amid the chaotic US and NATO troops pullout, fearing for their future under the Taliban.
McKenzie apologized for the error and said the United States is considering making reparation payments to the family of the victims.
Emal Ahmadi, who said he heard of the apology from friends in America, insisted that it won’t bring back members of his family and while he expressed relief for the US apology and recognition that his family were innocent victims, he said he was frustrated that it took weeks of pleading with Washington to at least make a call to the family.
Even as evidence mounted to the contrary, Pentagon officials asserted that the strike had been conducted correctly, to protect the US troops remaining at Kabul’s airport ahead of the final pullout the following day, on Aug. 30.
Looking exhausted, sitting in front of the charred ruins of Zemarai’s car, Ahmadi said he wanted more than an apology form the United States — he wanted justice, including an investigation into who carried out the strike “and I want him punished by the USA.”
In the days before the Pentagon’s apology, accounts from the family, documents from colleagues seen by The AP and the scene at the family home — where Zemerai’s car was struck by the missile — all sharply contradicted the accounts by the US military. Instead, they painted the picture of a family that had worked for Americans and were trying to gain visas to the US, fearing for their lives under the Taliban.
Zemerai was the family’s breadwinner had looked after his three brothers, including Emal, and their children.
“Now I am then one who is responsible for all my family and I am jobless,” said Emal Ahmadi. The situation “is not good,” said Ahmadi of life under the Taliban. International aid groups and the United Nations have warned of a looming humanitarian crisis that could drive most Afghans below the poverty level.
McKenzie said the decision to strike a white Toyota Corolla sedan, after having tracked it for about eight hours, was made in an “earnest belief” — based on a standard of “reasonable certainty” — that it posed an imminent threat to American forces at the Kabul airport. The car was believed to have been carrying explosives in its trunk, he said.
But Ahmadi wondered how the his family’s home could have been mistaken for a Daesh hideout.
“The USA. can see from everywhere,” he said of US drone capabilities. “They can see that there were innocent children near the car and in the car. Whoever did this should be punished.”
“It isn’t right,” he added.


Indonesia's most wanted militant killed in shootout

Indonesia's most wanted militant killed in shootout
Updated 18 September 2021

Indonesia's most wanted militant killed in shootout

Indonesia's most wanted militant killed in shootout
  • The East Indonesia Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for several killings of police officers and minority Christians
  • Security operations in Central Sulawesi have intensified in recent months to try to capture members of the network

PALU, Indonesia: Indonesia’s most wanted militant with ties to Daesh was killed Saturday in a gunbattle with security forces, the military said, in a victory for the counterterrorism campaign against extremists in the jungles of Sulawesi island.
Ali Kalora was one of two militants killed in the shootout, said Central Sulawesi’s regional military chief Brig. Gen. Farid Makruf. He identified the other suspected extremist as Jaka Ramadan.
The two men were fatally shot during a raid late Saturday by a joint team of military and police officers in Central Sulawesi province’s mountainous Parigi Moutong district, Makruf said. It borders Poso district, considered an extremist hotbed in the province.
“Ali Kalora was the most wanted terrorist and leader of MIT,” Makruf said, referring to the Indonesian acronym of the East Indonesia Mujahideen network, a militant group that claims allegiance to Daesh. He said that security forces were searching for the four remaining members of the group.
The East Indonesia Mujahideen has claimed responsibility for several killings of police officers and minority Christians.
Security operations in Central Sulawesi have intensified in recent months to try to capture members of the network, particularly targeting Ali Kalora, the group’s leader. 

Kalora had eluded capture for more than a decade. He took over from Abu Wardah Santoso, who was killed by security forces in July 2016. Dozens of other leaders and members of the group have been killed or captured since then.
In May, the militants killed four Christians in a village in Poso district, including one who was beheaded. Authorities said the attack was in revenge for the killing in March of two militants, including Santoso's son.
Makruf said that rugged terrain and darkness have hampered efforts to evacuate the two bodies from the scene of the shootout in the forested village of Astina. He said the bodies of Kaloran and his follower will be taken by helicopter on Sunday morning for further investigation and identification.
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, has kept up a crackdown on militants since bombings on the tourist island of Bali in 2002 killed 202 people, mostly foreigners.
Attacks on foreigners have been largely replaced by smaller, less deadly strikes targeting the government, police and anti-terrorism forces.