Why Afghanistan’s Taliban proved unstoppable after all

Taliban fighters are pictured in a vehicle of Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) on a street in Kandahar on August 13, 2021. (AFP)
Taliban fighters are pictured in a vehicle of Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) on a street in Kandahar on August 13, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 16 August 2021

Why Afghanistan’s Taliban proved unstoppable after all

Taliban fighters are pictured in a vehicle of Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) on a street in Kandahar on August 13, 2021. (AFP)
  • As the fighting shows, the Kabul government has been unable to match the Taliban’s staying power
  • The Taliban claims the upper hand militarily now that it has captured more than half of Afghanistan

PESHAWAR: The Taliban has reportedly seized control of the Afghan cities of Herat, Kandahar and Ghazni after weeks of military gains across the country, prompting fears the Afghan government in Kabul could collapse.

Acknowledging the rapid deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, the US and UK governments both plan to send troops to help evacuate embassy staff.

Taliban fighters have taken charge of the southern Chaman-Spin Boldak border crossing with Pakistan and several crossing points with Iran to the west and Central Asian countries to the north.

Since May 2021, when the US and NATO powers began their final drawdown some 20 years after their arrival in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the fragility of the Afghan government has been revealed by a string of battlefield losses.

Just how lopsided the victories of the Taliban have been is evident from the fact that, in many cases, government forces have surrendered without fighting. Even Afghan elite commandos, so highly praised by their US military patrons, have failed to make a stand.

The Taliban has seized 10 provincial capitals in less than a week, with fighting ongoing in Lashkar Gah in the south. Government forces have effectively lost control of the north and west — traditional anti-Taliban strongholds.

Taking full control of Kandahar, a vital southern city of 600,000 people, would be a major boost for the insurgents. Not only is it an important trade hub, but the militant group’s birthplace and stronghold after it seized power in 1996.

According to several reports emerging late on Thursday, the Afghan government’s negotiating team in Doha has approached the Taliban leadership with a proposal for a power-sharing deal in return for a ceasefire.




US army soldier with the 101st Airborne Division Alpha Battery 1-320th fires an AT-4 as Combat Outpost Nolen on the outskirts of the village of Jellawar in the Arghandab Valley came under Taliban attack in 2010. (AFP/File Photo) 

The intra-Afghan peace talks have been an agonizing, drawn-out affair, with few concrete achievements to show for President Ashraf Ghani and his backers.

The lighting advances by the Taliban in multiple provinces on Thursday may well be a make-or-break moment for the negotiations.

Granted, nobody expected the peace process to be smooth, but the talks, beginning on Sept. 12, 2020, have proved particularly slow and unproductive.

After almost nine months, the only achievement the two sides have made is an agreement on the code of conduct for the negotiations themselves.




A US Marine is given a hand using barbed wire to secure the walls the US embassy in Kabul on January 11, 2002. (AFP/File Photo)

Disagreements persisted over the precise agenda of the talks, despite mounting pressure on both negotiating parties by major stakeholders, including the US, Pakistan, Qatar and China. Yet it was obvious that any negotiations concerning substantive issues could only proceed once the agenda had been finalized.

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the name favored by Ghani’s internationally recognized government, has long insisted on placing the matter of a ceasefire at the very top of the agenda.

For the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, what mattered most was the question of what system of government the country ought to adopt — its preference being Shariah, or Islamic, law.

Analysts were largely correct when they predicted that intra-Afghan negotiations would be far more challenging once the Taliban-US peace agreement was signed.




Undated handout photo received from the Public Relation Office of the 215 Maiwand Corps on August 11, 2021, shows Sami Sadat, commander of the 215 Maiwand Afghan Army Corps, talking on the radio in Helmand province. (AFP)

The conflict in Afghanistan, a country of some 38 million people of multiple ethnic backgrounds, has ground on for more than four decades, drawing in state and non-state actors and creating a fertile ground for both terrorism and opium cultivation — quite the opposite of what American and British forces set out to achieve then they launched a bombing campaign in October 2001.

Back then, the administration of President George W. Bush was responding to the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and Washington, in which nearly 3,000 people perished. Accusing fingers were pointed at the terrorist group Al-Qaeda led by Osama bin Laden, who was once a mujahideen fighter in the Soviet-Afghan war.

But the Taliban refused to hand over bin Laden, who was then living in Afghanistan under the group’s protection. Bin Laden and his closest aides had fled Afghanistan by the time a US-led coalition intervened and toppled the Taliban in December 2001, setting the stage for America’s longest war.

AFGHAN WAR COST TO USA

* $2,261bn - Total cost from 2001 to 2021.

* $933bn - Defense of Defense (DoD) allocation.

* $59bn - State Department budget allocation.

* $530bn - Interest on DoD & State Dept. borrowing.

* $296bn - US veterans’ care.

* $443bn - Additions to DoD base budget.

After Joe Biden took office in January, he set a symbolic date of Sept. 11, 2021, for full troop withdrawal, pushing back the May 1 deadline set in an accord struck with the Taliban under former President Donald Trump last year.

It had taken 18 months of exhaustive talks between the Taliban and the US to reach their deal, signed in Doha on Feb. 29, 2020, after repeated suspensions and acute differences over the exchange of Afghan prisoners.

Five and a half months were spent on an agreement to exchange 5,000 Taliban prisoners for more than 1,000 Afghan servicemen, and only after seeking approval from a specially convened loya jirga — a legal assembly in Pashtunwali culture.




Internally displaced Afghan families, who fled from Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan province due to battles between Taliban and Afghan security forces, sit at a gas station at Sara-e-Shamali in Kabul on August 11, 2021. (AFP)

Momentum was quickly lost, however, and mutual mistrust again crept in, to the extent that, even after several weeks of talks, neither side could agree on something as simple as whether to call the Kabul government an Islamic republic or an Islamic emirate.

As the Taliban offensive intensified in recent weeks, the Afghan government, through its Foreign Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar, asked Pakistan for help in containing the Taliban, arguing that the militants posed a threat to neighboring countries and regional security.

The statement was unprecedented. No Afghan government had ever asked for Islamabad’s help fighting its enemies, instead choosing to accuse it of taking sides in the Afghan civil war.

Atmar also accused the Taliban leadership of cheating the Afghan government by holding peace talks in Doha on the one hand and preparing for a military offensive on the other.




Taliban fighters stand on a vehicle along the roadside in Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city, after government forces pulled out the day before following weeks of being under siege. (AFP)

During a recent visit to Russia, Shahabuddin Delawar, a senior member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha, held the door open to further Taliban offensives by arguing the group had made no such promises to withhold attacks or refrain from seizing provincial capitals.

With the Taliban capturing more than half of the country in less than two months, it is now justifiably claiming the upper hand militarily.

There are several possible reasons for the Taliban’s rapid gains in northern Afghanistan, one being that many non-Pashtuns, including Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen, have joined the Taliban’s ranks after graduating from madrassas in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Another possible reason is the long history of disunity in the ranks of non-Taliban factions, which has fostered splits and undermined their collective strength.

Short of allowing the country to sink into a protracted, bloody stalemate and a humanitarian catastrophe on a scale not seen in decades, a negotiated solution involving some measure of power-sharing appears to remain the only viable option for the warring sides.




The American flag flies on a flag pole after it was raised at the opening ceremony of the US embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul on December 17, 2001. (AFP/File Photo)

Although the two negotiating teams reiterated their commitment to the peace process in the latest round of talks on July 16, the Taliban has flatly refused to give up its demand for “a genuine Islamic system.”

Ghani has insisted his forces may lose battles, but will ultimately win the war, and made it clear his government is in the war for the long haul. His predecessor, Hamid Karzai, also warned the Taliban they would lose if they refused to reach a political settlement.

The government began mobilizing and equipping the arbaki (militia) as early as 2019, providing tribal fighters with resources to resist the Taliban. The former mujahideen, made up mostly of non-Pashtuns, was also mobilized, particularly in its northern strongholds, but soon began to collapse in the face of the Taliban onslaught.

Three giant portraits of Ghani, Karzai and the late mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Masood that hang outside Hamid Karzai International Airport are symbols of the grit that government forces were expected to show in the face of the Taliban.

But as the fighting has shown over the past two months, the Kabul regime has been unable to match the Taliban’s strength, to say nothing of determination.

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Twitter: @rahimyusufzai1


UK to lift travel test requirements for the vaccinated

Passengers arrive at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport in London, Aug. 2, 2021. (AP)
Passengers arrive at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport in London, Aug. 2, 2021. (AP)
Updated 25 January 2022

UK to lift travel test requirements for the vaccinated

Passengers arrive at Terminal 5 of Heathrow Airport in London, Aug. 2, 2021. (AP)
  • Testing requirements are being lifted for vaccinated adults and all children under 18

LONDON: The British government announced Monday that it is scrapping coronavirus travel testing requirements for the vaccinated, news hailed by the travel industry as a big step back to normality.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that “to show that this country is open for business, open for travelers, you will see changes so that people arriving no longer have to take tests if they have been vaccinated, if they have been double vaccinated.”
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the change would take effect Feb. 11, coinciding with a midterm holiday break for many schoolchildren.
“Border testing of vaccinated travelers has outlived its usefulness,” Shapps said. “Today we are setting Britain free.”
Tourism and travel firms that have been hammered by pandemic restrictions welcomed the move, which makes the UK one of the most open countries in the world for international travel.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of airline industry body Airlines UK, said it was “a landmark day.”
“Nearly two years since the initial COVID restrictions were introduced, today’s announcement brings international travel toward near-normality for the fully vaccinated, and at last into line with hospitality and the domestic economy,” he said.
Johan Lundgren, chief executive of budget airline easyJet, said “testing for travel should now firmly become a thing of the past.”
“It is clear travel restrictions did not materially slow the spread of omicron in the UK and so it is important that there are no more knee-jerk reactions to future variants,” he said.
Currently, travelers who have had at least two vaccine doses must take a rapid coronavirus test within two days of arriving in the UK Those who are unvaccinated face stricter testing and quarantine rules.
Testing requirements are being lifted for vaccinated adults and all children under 18. Britain is also easing rules for the unvaccinated, who will have to take coronavirus tests before and after traveling to Britain but will no longer face quarantine.
Johnson’s Conservative government is also lifting mask mandates and other restrictions this week, and is relying on vaccinations and widespread testing to keep the virus in check.
The UK government sets public health policy for England. The other parts of the UK — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — set their own health rules, but said they would adopt the same rules as England for international travel.
Coronavirus cases in Britain soared in December, driven by the extremely transmissible omicron variant, though hospitalizations and deaths have remained well below previous pandemic peaks.
Britain has seen over 154,000 deaths in the pandemic, the second-worst toll in Europe after Russia.
 


Webb telescope reaches final destination, a million miles from Earth

In this file photo released by NASA, engineering teams at NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Mission Operations Center monitor progress as the observatory’s second primary mirror wing rotates into position. (AFP)
In this file photo released by NASA, engineering teams at NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Mission Operations Center monitor progress as the observatory’s second primary mirror wing rotates into position. (AFP)
Updated 25 January 2022

Webb telescope reaches final destination, a million miles from Earth

In this file photo released by NASA, engineering teams at NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Mission Operations Center monitor progress as the observatory’s second primary mirror wing rotates into position. (AFP)
  • The plan was intentional, because if Webb had gotten too much thrust from the rocket, it wouldn’t be able to turn around to fly back to Earth, as that would expose its optics to the Sun, overheating and destroying them

WASHINGTON: The James Webb Space Telescope has arrived at its cosmic parking spot a million miles away, bringing it a step closer to its mission to unravel the mysteries of the Universe, NASA said Monday.
At around 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time (1900 GMT), the observatory fired its thrusters for five minutes to reach the so-called second Lagrange point, or L2, where it will have access to nearly half the sky at any given moment.
The delicate burn added 3.6 miles per hour (1.6 meters per second) to Webb’s overall speed, just enough to bring it into a “halo” orbit around L2, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.
“Webb, welcome home!” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in a statement.
Webb will begin its science mission by summer, which includes using its high resolution infrared instruments to peer back in time 13.5 billion years to the first generation of galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.
At L2, it will stay in line with the Earth as it moves around the Sun, allowing Webb’s sunshield to protect its sensitive equipment from heat and light.
For the giant parasol to offer effective protection, it needs the Sun, Earth and Moon to all be in the same direction, with the cold side operating at -370 degrees Fahrenheit (-225 Celsius).
The thruster firing, known as an orbital burn, was the third such maneuver since Webb was launched on an Ariane 5 rocket on December 25.
The plan was intentional, because if Webb had gotten too much thrust from the rocket, it wouldn’t be able to turn around to fly back to Earth, as that would expose its optics to the Sun, overheating and destroying them.
It was therefore decided to slightly underburn the rocket firing and use the telescope’s own thrusters to make up the difference.
The burns went so well that Webb should easily be able to exceed its planned minimum life of five years, Keith Parrish Webb observatory commissioning manager told reporters on a call.
“Around 20 years, we think that’s probably a good ballpark, but we’re trying to refine that,” he said. It’s hypothetically possible, but not anticipated, that a future mission could go there and refuel it.
Webb, which is expected to cost NASA nearly $10 billion, is one of the most expensive scientific platforms ever built, comparable to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and its predecessor telescope, Hubble.

But while Hubble orbits the Earth, Webb will orbit in an area of space known as a Lagrange point, where the gravitational pull from the Sun and Earth will be balanced by the centrifugal force of the rotating system.
An object at one of these five points, first theorized by Italian French mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange, will remain stable and not fall into the gravity well of the Sun and Earth, requiring only a little fuel for adjustments.
Webb won’t sit precisely at L2, but rather go around it in a “halo” at a distance similar to that between the Earth and Moon, completing a cycle every six months.
This will allow the telescope to remain thermally stable and to generate power from its solar panels.
Previous missions to L2 include the European Space Agency’s Herschel and Planck observatories, and NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe.
Webb’s position will also allow continuous communications with Earth via the Deep Space Network — three large antennas in Australia, Spain and California.
Earlier this month, NASA completed the process of unfolding Webb’s massive golden mirror that will collect infrared signals from the first stars and galaxies that formed a few hundred million years after the Universe began expanding.
Visible and ultraviolet light emitted by the very first luminous objects has been stretched by the Universe’s expansion, and arrives today in the form of infrared, which Webb is equipped to detect with unprecedented clarity.
Its mission also includes the study of distant planets, known as exoplanets, to determine their origin, evolution and habitability.
Next steps include aligning the telescope’s optics and calibrating its scientific instruments. It is expected to transmit its first images back in June or July.


2 killed, dozens injured as 2 quakes shake southwest Haiti

A moto-taxi driver transports customers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (AP)
A moto-taxi driver transports customers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (AP)
Updated 25 January 2022

2 killed, dozens injured as 2 quakes shake southwest Haiti

A moto-taxi driver transports customers in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Friday, Jan. 21, 2022. (AP)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti: Two moderate earthquakes shook southwest Haiti on Monday, killing two people, injuring dozens of students and damaging hundreds of homes as it created panic in a region that was rocked by a powerful tremor that killed more than 2,000 last summer.
A magnitude 5.3 quake at 8:16 a.m. (1316 GMT) was followed by a magnitude 5.1 quake nearly an hour later. Both were centered on Haiti’s southern peninsula, west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, according to the US Geological Survey. It said both occurred about 10 kilometers (6 miles) below the surface.
Haiti’s civil protection agency said at least two people died and dozens of schoolchildren were injured, adding that 50 people between the ages of 15 and 23 were in a state of shock and taken to the hospital. Officials said 191 homes were destroyed and 591 were damaged in one region.
Yves Bossé, an elected official for the southern department of Nippes, told The Associated Press that one person died when the earthquake caused a landslide at a sand mine. He said homes were cracked and businesses shut down for the day.
“People are scared to go back into their homes,” he said.
Sylvera Guillame, director of Haiti’s civil protection agency for the country’s southern region, told AP that schools in the area closed and sent children home as a precaution.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry offered his condolences to the victims and said his administration would fully support those affected.
A magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck southwest Haiti on Aug. 14, killing more than 2,200 people and damaging or destroying some 137,500 homes.


Burkina Faso army deposes president in West Africa’s latest coup

Captain Sidsore Kader Ouedraogo, spokesman for the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration, announces that the army has taken control of the country in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso January 24, 2022. (REUTERS)
Captain Sidsore Kader Ouedraogo, spokesman for the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration, announces that the army has taken control of the country in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso January 24, 2022. (REUTERS)
Updated 25 January 2022

Burkina Faso army deposes president in West Africa’s latest coup

Captain Sidsore Kader Ouedraogo, spokesman for the Patriotic Movement for Safeguarding and Restoration, announces that the army has taken control of the country in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso January 24, 2022. (REUTERS)
  • Kabore had been leading Burkina Faso since being elected in 2015 after a popular uprising ousted longtime strongman President Blaise Compaore

OUAGADOUGOU: Burkina Faso’s army said on Monday it had ousted President Roch Kabore, suspended the constitution, dissolved the government and the national assembly, and closed the country’s borders.
The announcement cited the deterioration of the security situation and what the army described as Kabore’s inability to unite the West African nation and effectively respond to challenges, which include an Islamist insurgency.
Signed by Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba and read by another officer on state television, the announcement said the takeover had been carried out without violence and that those detained were at a secure location.
The statement was made in the name of a previously unheard-of entity, the Patriotic Movement for Safeguard and Restoration, or MPSR, its French-language acronym.
“MPSR, which includes all sections of the army, has decided to end President Kabore’s post today,” it said.
Kabore’s whereabouts were unknown on Monday, with conflicting accounts of his situation.
Army putsches have toppled governments over the past 18 months in Mali and Guinea. The military also took over in Chad last year after President Idriss Deby died fighting rebels on the battlefield in the country’s north.
Landlocked Burkina Faso, one of West Africa’s poorest countries despite being a gold producer, has experienced numerous coups since independence from France in 1960.
The MPSR said it would propose a calendar for a return to constitutional order “within a reasonable time frame, after consultations with various sections of the nation.”
The US State Department on Monday said it was aware of reports that Kabore had been detained by the military and called for his release. It added that it was “too soon” to officially characterize developments in the West African country, when asked if Washington was undertaking a coup assessment.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “strongly condemns any attempted takeover of government by the force of arms” in Burkina Faso and calls on the coup leaders to lay down their weapons, a UN spokesman said after the army statement.
The broadcast came after two days of confusion and fear in Ouagadougou, the capital, where shooting erupted at army camps on Sunday, with soldiers demanding more resources for their fight against Islamist militants.
Several hundred residents gathered in Ouagadougou’s central Place de la Nation to show their support for the coup.
“We are really happy. We have been out for two days to support the army,” said Ibrahim Zare. “We are behind them.”
Intense gunfire was heard in the area around Kabore’s residence overnight.
Earlier, Kabore’s party said he had survived an assassination attempt, but gave no details. It also said his personal residence had been sacked.

POPULAR SUPPORT
Several armored vehicles belonging to the presidential fleet could be seen near Kabore’s residence on Monday, riddled with bullets. One was spattered with blood.
Security sources gave conflicting accounts of Kabore’s situation, with some saying he was being detained by the coup organizers and others saying forces loyal to him had taken him to a secure location. Reuters could not independently verify his circumstances.
Islamist militants control swathes of Burkina Faso’s territory and have forced residents in some areas to abide by their harsh version of Islamic law, while the military’s struggle to quell the insurgency has drained scarce national resources.
Kabore had faced waves of protests in recent months amid frustration over killings of civilians and soldiers by militants, some of whom have links to Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
Ouagadougou resident Eli Sawagogo said the coup had not come as a surprise to him.
“It was expected because the country has been in this situation for six years without a real solution to this terrorism,” he said. “If a coup is the solution, then it is welcome.”
Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said Kabore’s government had shown itself unable to tackle a range of problems.
“The coup, and apparent support for it, lays bare the inadequacies of Kabore’s government to address deep-seated problems with corruption, governance and civilian protection, which were all made exponentially worse by the armed Islamist threat,” she said.


Entry of Iranian apples sours Kashmiri fruit industry

In this photo taken on Jan. 13, 2022 a fruit vendor waits for customers at his store in Shopian district, Indian-administered Kashmir. There are fears of crisis with the arrival of Iranian apples. (AN photo)
In this photo taken on Jan. 13, 2022 a fruit vendor waits for customers at his store in Shopian district, Indian-administered Kashmir. There are fears of crisis with the arrival of Iranian apples. (AN photo)
Updated 25 January 2022

Entry of Iranian apples sours Kashmiri fruit industry

In this photo taken on Jan. 13, 2022 a fruit vendor waits for customers at his store in Shopian district, Indian-administered Kashmir. There are fears of crisis with the arrival of Iranian apples. (AN photo)
  • The new apples on the Indian market have devalued Kashmir’s fruit sector
  • Worth $1.34 billion, the apple industry contributes up to 10 percent of Kashmir’s GDP

NEW DELHI: Tajamul Habib Makroo was hoping a bumper crop of apples this year would help him recover from huge losses due to early snowfalls in the previous harvest season, but now he says a new crisis is looming: The arrival of cheap Iranian fruits, which growers like Makroo fear could upend horticulture in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.

Concentrated in the southern Shopian district, the state’s apple industry contributes 1.8 million tons of the fruit, or 80 percent of India’s annual production, and involves over 5 million workers in the region.

With annual production worth about $1.34 billion, it saw a sudden drop in value last year, when cheap Iranian apples entered the Indian market via Afghanistan, which boasts a free trade agreement with New Delhi.

“Today’s market is very down, rates are down because the apples coming from Iran have brought the apple prices in India down,” Makroo, who has orchards in Sugan village, Shopian, told Arab News.

He said the Iranian apples have slashed the price of local produce in half.

“Earlier, I used to get 1,200 rupees ($16) per box, today the rate is 600,” Makroo added. “The rate we are getting is not able to cover production costs.” In early January, the Kashmir Valley Fruit Growers-cum-Dealers Union, an apex body representing Kashmiri fruit growers, wrote a letter to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, asking him to save the industry.

Bashir Ahmad Bashir, the union’s president, said Iranian apples were cheap due to international sanctions imposed on Tehran.

“We have taken up the matter with the Indian government when we came to know about it and warned the government that if the products come to India from Iran, (the) Indian horticulture industry will suffer a lot,” Bashir told Arab News, adding that imposing duties on Iranian fruits could help save the domestic industry.

Sheikh Ashiq Ahmad, president of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said a lack of intervention would deal a major blow to the local economy. “It’s 8 percent to 10 percent of our GDP of Kashmir,” he told Arab News. “When unemployment is a big challenge for Jammu and Kashmir in this situation the government should take strong notice of it and should defend our people.”

 

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