Taliban capture two more towns in Afghanistan

Taliban capture two more towns in Afghanistan
A Taliban flag flies in the main square of Kunduz city after fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces, in Kunduz, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 8, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 09 August 2021

Taliban capture two more towns in Afghanistan

Taliban capture two more towns in Afghanistan
  • Fall of Kunduz, Sur-i-Pul ramps up pressure on the Kabul government

KABUL: The Taliban on Sunday seized control of two more towns from government forces in northern Afghanistan, lawmakers from the area told Arab News as they lamented the loss of four provinces to the insurgents in the past three days.

The fall of Kunduz and Sar-i-Pul will put more pressure on an embattled Kabul government that has failed to curb Taliban advances despite the resumption of US B-52 bomber strikes against the group, which has stepped up attacks after Washington announced it would end its military mission in Afghanistan by the end of August.

“Sar-i-Pul is gone. The Taliban have taken the entire province without a fight,” Hamidullah Beg, a legislator representing the province, told Arab News.

He accused the provincial police chief of “siding with the Taliban” in capturing the rugged region near Shiberghan, a gateway for northern Afghanistan that the Taliban took over on Saturday.

Beg said that Taliban and Afghan forces exchanged heavy fire near an army base, the last remaining government institution outside the group’s control.

The group has also seized government buildings in the northeastern city of Kunduz, as government troops hang onto control of the airport and their base, a provincial lawmaker said on Sunday.

Nilofar Jalali Koofi said that after two days of intense battles, the Taliban had also taken over the governor’s compound, and the police and intelligence headquarters.

“The only thing that remained outside the Taliban’s control until two hours ago was the airport. The security forces resisted a lot, there was street-to-street fighting for 48 hours, but the Defense Ministry failed to send them supplies and equipment on time,” Koofi told Arab News.

“Part of the city has been on fire; people’s houses have been hit by shelling. The planes are hovering but have not bombed yet,” she said.

Videos footage circulating on social media showed huge plumes of smoke rising from a bazaar in Kunduz, with residents struggling to extinguish the fire. 

FASTFACT

Kabul government has failed to curb Taliban advances despite the resumption of US B-52 bomber strikes against the group.

While several security sources in Kunduz, located near the border with Tajikistan, and Sar-i-Pul, 70 km to Kunduz’s west, confirmed lawmakers’ accounts, government officials in Kabul refused to comment on the latest loss of territory.

“The fall of four provinces in three days shows the Taliban’s ability on the battlefield and indicates the government’s growing weakness,” retired army colonel Mohammad Hassan told Arab News.

“Now the Taliban will not face much resistance in the north following their latest advances as they have managed to besiege some other cities through their fresh gains,” Hassan, who works as an analyst, added.

Besides making rapid territorial gains in rural Afghanistan in recent months, the Taliban have focused on major cities such as Herat in the west, and Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in the south, over the past 10 days.

On Friday, the insurgents captured their first provincial capital in years when they took control of Zaranj, on the border with Iran in Afghanistan’s southern Nimroz province, adjacent to Lashkar Gah province, while on Saturday they overran Shiberghan, despite US and Afghan officials saying a heavily armed B-52 plane had pounded Taliban’s positions in the area, “killing scores of the militants.”

The Taliban were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Sunday.

However, in a statement released to the media, the group said that the air raid had caused “casualties among civilians” in Shiberghan and Lashkar Gah, where a school and a clinic were among buildings hit in the attack.

To curb the Taliban’s drastic advances on major cities in the past two weeks, the US military began using the B-52 planes from outside Afghanistan on Taliban positions.

The planes were mainly used at the start of the Afghan war and considered highly effective in the ousting of the Taliban in a US-led invasion in 2001.

As the remaining foreign troops exit Afghanistan after nearly 20 years of occupation, it remains unclear if Washington will continue to extend aerial support to Afghan forces after the end of August.

The uncertainty comes amid a warning issued by the US and Britain in the past two days ordering citizens to leave Afghanistan “immediately” amid the “worsening security situation” in the country.

Several former and current US military officials have also cautioned that the Afghan government “may collapse after six months” once foreign troops leave.

The Taliban have overrun dozens of districts, and border crossings with Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia, since May 1, sparking concerns it will regain power by force similar to its move in the 1990s, amid fears that the war-scarred nation could descend into another civil war when foreign troops complete their exit by month-end.

The latest development comes less than a day after UN special envoy for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, said that the Afghan war had entered a “new, deadlier and more destructive phase” with more than 1,000 civilians killed in the past month during a Taliban offensive.

“This is now a different kind of war reminiscent of Syria, recently, or Sarajevo, in the not-so-distant past,” she said during a special meeting of the UN Security Council on Afghanistan in New York.

Major powers such as the US and Britain refused to “support the restoration of the Islamic Emirate” of the Taliban during the meeting.

On Sunday, the US embassy in Kabul condemned the Taliban’s “violence new offensives against several Afghan cities,” saying the attacks contradict the group’s claim that it is in “favor of a negotiated settlement of the crisis.”

The latest surge of fighting comes as millions of Afghans are experiencing a harsh drought, the perils of COVID-19 and deep poverty, while nearly 3.5 million Afghans have been displaced by conflict and natural disasters such as floods and drought in recent years.


Sydney eases more COVID-19 curbs as vaccinations pass milestone

Sydney eases more COVID-19 curbs as vaccinations pass milestone
Updated 5 sec ago

Sydney eases more COVID-19 curbs as vaccinations pass milestone

Sydney eases more COVID-19 curbs as vaccinations pass milestone
  • Masks will no longer be mandatory in offices and more people will be allowed to gather in homes and outdoors
SYDNEY: Thousands of children returned to school in Sydney on Monday after months of home learning as Australia’s largest city, buoyed by rising vaccination rates, eased more COVID-19 restrictions.
Masks will no longer be mandatory in offices and more people will be allowed to gather in homes and outdoors after New South Wales state, home to Sydney, reached an 80 percent double dose inoculation rate for people aged over 16 over the weekend.
The latest in a series of planned easing of restrictions marks a shift by Australia’s largest cities to living with the virus, a strategy officials have warned will bring a greater number of COVID-19 cases in coming weeks.
“This is not over, there is a long journey to go,” New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet said on Monday, urging people to strictly follow the remaining health rules.
Retail stores, pubs and gyms can allow more vaccinated patrons and nightclubs can reopen for seated drinking, while weddings can have unlimited guests. However, all must follow social distancing measures.
The return to the classroom has been staggered, with the youngest and eldest students — those in kindergarten, year 1 and year 12 — returning on Monday. All others return next week.
New South Wales reported 265 new cases on Monday, the lowest single-day rise in 10 weeks and well below a high of 1,599 in early September.
Neighboring Victoria reported 1,903 new cases, up from 1,838 a day earlier. State capital Melbourne is on track to begin exiting its lockdown on Friday as full vaccination levels near 70 percent. The city has endured around nine months under strict stay-home orders since March 2020 — the longest in the world, according to Australian media.
Some virus-free states, however, have flagged they will keep internal borders closed amid fears that reopening could overwhelm their health systems.
By contrast, the federal government said it would roll out its vaccination passport for international travel from Tuesday, a key step in its plan to allow Australian citizens to travel abroad from next month.
Authorities said last week that vaccinated international travelers, initially only citizens and permanent residents, will be allowed to enter Sydney from Nov. 1 without the need to quarantine.
With some 145,000 cases and 1,543 deaths, Australia’s exposure to the coronavirus pandemic has been relatively low.

Myanmar opposition welcomes ASEAN’s junta snub, wants summit invite

Myanmar opposition welcomes ASEAN’s junta snub, wants summit invite
Updated 31 min 8 sec ago

Myanmar opposition welcomes ASEAN’s junta snub, wants summit invite

Myanmar opposition welcomes ASEAN’s junta snub, wants summit invite
  • ASEAN will invite a non-political representative from Myanmar to its Oct. 26-28 summit
  • Myanmar has been in turmoil since the coup, which ended a decade of tentative democracy and economic reform

Myanmar’s shadow government, formed by opponents of ruling military, welcomed on Monday the exclusion of junta leader Min Aung Hlaing from an upcoming regional summit, but said it should be the legitimate representative.
However, the opposition said it would accept inviting a truly neutral alternative Myanmar representative, as decided over the weekend by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
ASEAN will invite a non-political representative from Myanmar to its Oct. 26-28 summit, in an unprecedented snub to the military leaders behind a Feb. 1 coup against Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government.
The opposition National Unity Government (NUG), which has been outlawed by the military, said the non-political figure who attends the summit must not be a representative of the junta in disguise.
“ASEAN excluding Min Aung Hlaing is an important step, but we request that they recognize us as the proper representative,” said its spokesman Dr. Sasa.
The decision was an unusually bold step for the consensus-driven bloc, which traditionally favors a policy of engagement and non-interference.
Brunei, ASEAN’s current chair, issued a statement citing a lack of progress made on a roadmap that the junta had agreed to with ASEAN in April to restore peace in Myanmar.
A spokesman for Myanmar’s military government blamed “foreign intervention” for the decision which it said was against the objectives of ASEAN, the ASEAN Charter and its principles.
Myanmar has been in turmoil since the coup, which ended a decade of tentative democracy and economic reform. Thousands of its opponents have been arrested, including San Suu Kyi.
Security forces have killed more than 1,100 people, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an activist group that has tracked the arrests and killings. The military has called its opponents “terrorists.”


New Zealand PM Ardern extends COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland

New Zealand PM Ardern extends COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland
Updated 35 min 4 sec ago

New Zealand PM Ardern extends COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland

New Zealand PM Ardern extends COVID-19 lockdown in Auckland
  • No changes in the social restrictions that have already been in place for over two months in Auckland under alert level 3

WELLINGTON: New Zealand Prime Minster Jacinda Ardern said on Monday that the country’s biggest city Auckland will remain in lockdown for another two weeks as it looks to control the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus.
There will be no changes in the social restrictions that have already been in place for over two months in Auckland under alert level 3, Ardern said at a news conference.


Pakistan to appoint head of spy agency within week

Pakistan to appoint head of spy agency within week
Updated 18 October 2021

Pakistan to appoint head of spy agency within week

Pakistan to appoint head of spy agency within week
  • News comes amid reports of rift between govt and army chief over the appointment

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s interior minister said on Saturday that matters relating to the appointment of the new head of Inter-Services Intelligence, the country’s premier intelligence agency, would be resolved within a week.

The army is arguably the most influential institution in Pakistan, with the military having ruled the country for about half of its 74-year history since independence from Britain, and has enjoyed extensive power even under civilian administrations.

The head of the intelligence in turn, is one of the most important posts in Pakistan.

The army’s media wing on Oct. 6 announced Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ahmad Anjum as the agency’s new head, and posted the current chief, Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, as Corps Commander Peshawar.

Prime Minister Imran Khan, though, has yet to issue an official notification about the posting, fueling reports of a rift between the government and army over the appointment.

Earlier this week, the prime minister and head of the army, Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa, held consultations over the role.  

“From this Friday, which passed yesterday, till the next, all issues will be resolved,” Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said at a ceremony in Islamabad.

“The ones who wish ill of our institutions and can’t stand Imran Khan’s democracy keep talking, but they will not succeed,” he added.

Created in 1948,  Inter-Services Intelligence gained importance and power during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and is now rated one of best-organized intelligence agencies in the developing world.

The agency is seen as the Pakistani equivalent of the US Central Intelligence Agency, or Israel’s Mossad. Its size is not publicly known but the agency is widely believed to employ tens of thousands of agents, with informers in many spheres of public life.

The threat to Pakistan from nuclear-armed neighbor India has been a main preoccupation of the ISI throughout its existence.

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Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region
Updated 18 October 2021

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region

Eyeing Russia, US defense chief heads to Black Sea region
  • Russia has occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and has troops stationed in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia

WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin headed to the Black Sea region Sunday aiming to shore up alliances with countries pressured by Russia and show gratitude for their contributions to the two-decade war in Afghanistan.

Austin will visit Georgia, Romania and Ukraine before taking part in the in-person defense ministers summit at NATO in Brussels on Oct. 21-22.

“We are reassuring and reinforcing the sovereignty of countries that are on the front lines of Russian aggression,” a senior US defense official told reporters ahead of the trip.

All three countries are in the NATO orbit — Romania a full member and Georgia and Ukraine partner states.

All three also sit on the rim of the Black Sea, where Russia has sought to expand its own influence and prevent expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the US-European alliance.

Russia has occupied Ukraine’s Crimea and has troops stationed in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. And Kiev is battling pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east, in a conflict that has cost 13,000 lives.

In June, Russian forces menaced Dutch and British warships as they sailed near Crimea.

Austin will also extend thanks to its partners for their contributions, and significant losses, as part of coalition forces in Afghanistan over two decades, before the hasty US exit this year that ceded the country to the Taliban.

“We are going to be showing recognition and appreciation for the sacrifices and the commitments of our partners and allies,” the official said. In Georgia, Austin will meet with Prime Minister Irakli Garibashvili and Minister of Defense Juansher Burchuladze, with a key aim to keep up defense cooperation as a three-year US Army training program expires this year.

Georgia hopes Austin’s visit will help advance its case for becoming a full NATO member.

It will be “another clear message from the US in support of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, its stable and democratic development, and for the country’s Euro-Atlantic goals” Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said Wednesday.

“We expect that meetings will be focused on further deepening our cooperation, regional security issues, and the process of Georgia’s NATO integration,” he said.

In Ukraine, Austin will have talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky and Minister of Defense Andriy Taran, both of whom visited Washington at the beginning of September to press their case for NATO membership with President Joe Biden.

And in Romania, he will see President Klaus Iohannis and Minister of National Defense Nicolae-Ionel Ciuca, amid a fresh political crisis in the country.

In all three, the US wants to expand defense support but also sees problems of democratic development and corruption.

In Georgia, tens of thousands of protesters were out in the streets this week over the arrest of ex-president and opposition leader Mikheil Saakashvili and over allegations of fraud in recent elections.

Ukraine is under heavy pressure from the West, which provides the country extensive aid, to halt rampant graft.

“It is our belief that strengthening democratic institutions creates greater resilience against Russian influence and external manipulation,” the US official said.

“Our bilateral assistance is actually very much focused on the specific aspects of institutional reform that are necessary for NATO. And that applies to both Georgia and to Ukraine.”

Austin will end the week at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where ties with the US, frayed by the previous administration of Donald Trump, took a fresh hit last month when Washington unexpectedly announced a new pact with Australia and Britain focused on China in the Indo-Pacific region.

The US official said Austin would reinforce US commitment to the pact and press for military adaptation to address future threats.

“NATO needs to keep building its credible deterrence capabilities for its deterrence and defense mission,” the official said.