From motorcycle warriors to knife and fork wielding diplomats: How the Afghan Taliban insurgency evolved

Afghan Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering in Alingar district of Laghman province, Afghanistan, on March 2, 2020 to celebrate the peace deal and their victory over the US. (AFP)
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Afghan Taliban militants and villagers attend a gathering in Alingar district of Laghman province, Afghanistan, on March 2, 2020 to celebrate the peace deal and their victory over the US. (AFP)
A Taliban fighter celebrates with villagers a ceasefire on the second day of Eid on the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018. (AFP)
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A Taliban fighter celebrates with villagers a ceasefire on the second day of Eid on the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018. (AFP)
Afghan Taliban militants celebrate ceasefire on the second day of Eid in the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018. (AFP)
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Afghan Taliban militants celebrate ceasefire on the second day of Eid in the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018. (AFP)
Victorious Taliban fighters mingle with villagers at a town in Kandahar on August 13, 2021. (AFP)
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Victorious Taliban fighters mingle with villagers at a town in Kandahar on August 13, 2021. (AFP)
Taliban fighters stand with their weapons in Ahmad Aba district on the outskirts of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, on July 18, 2017. (AFP)
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Taliban fighters stand with their weapons in Ahmad Aba district on the outskirts of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, on July 18, 2017. (AFP)
This screengrab taken from video from AFPTV shows armed members of the Taliban standing on a military vehicle in the streets of Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city, after government forces pulled out. (AFP)
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This screengrab taken from video from AFPTV shows armed members of the Taliban standing on a military vehicle in the streets of Herat, Afghanistan's third biggest city, after government forces pulled out. (AFP)
In this file photo 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)
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In this file photo 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)
A Taliban fighter is surrounded by locals at Pul-e-Khumri on August 11, 2021 after the group captured Pul-e-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province about 200 kms north of Kabul. (AFP)
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A Taliban fighter is surrounded by locals at Pul-e-Khumri on August 11, 2021 after the group captured Pul-e-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province about 200 kms north of Kabul. (AFP)
Taliban negotiators walk down a hotel lobby during the talks in Qatar's capital Doha on August 12, 2021. (KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)
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Taliban negotiators walk down a hotel lobby during the talks in Qatar's capital Doha on August 12, 2021. (KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)
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Updated 15 August 2021

From motorcycle warriors to knife and fork wielding diplomats: How the Afghan Taliban insurgency evolved

Afghan Taliban militants celebrate ceasefire on the second day of Eid in the outskirts of Jalalabad on June 16, 2018. (AFP)
  • No longer are the Taliban just an assortment of brutal men in black turbans: they are a formidable fighting force
  • The group is estimated to have 55,000-85,000 trained fighters; locals say they are better equipped than ever

KARACHI, Pakistan: Spring, 1996. Tulips, poppies and contradictions were blooming across Afghanistan. Uzbeks and Tajiks in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif were celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year. A red flag flew over the city’s Blue Mosque.

Nearby, thousands gathered to watch horsemen play buzkashi, a game similar to polo except the ball is replaced with the carcass of a goat. The sport aptly reflects the violence and power struggles that have marked Afghanistan for centuries.

Almost a thousand miles away, in the southern city of Kandahar, I watched as members of the Taliban, then a newly emerged religious force, held a massive congregation of clerics from the seminaries of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“The Taliban are counting on the ulema to implement Shariah law on this land of Allah,” Taliban leader Mullah Omar said as a crowd of armed militiamen raised battle cries. “A new generation has to be trained. Our duty is to use force, take weapons … our mission has to be fulfilled.”

My Talib (student) guide explained the significance of Omar’s words. “These madrasah (Islamic college) clerics are our ideological custodians and their students are future soldiers,” he said.

The Taliban initially gained popularity among locals for offering security and an end to the brutal civil war that had been gripping the country.

On crossing the border from Pakistan into the town of Spin Boldak, en route to the Taliban’s headquarters in Kandahar, the group’s distinctive white flags were visible from a distance flying on rooftops and among the surrounding hillocks.




Victorious Taliban fighters mingle with villagers at a town in Kandahar on August 13, 2021. (AFP)

By the time of my next visit to Kandahar, in 1998, the Taliban had seized control of about 90 percent of Afghanistan. Local clerics announced new rules from mosques and over the airwaves of Radio Shariat.

Music, football and kite flying were banned. Men were told to grow beards at least the length of a clenched fist. Women were not allowed to leave their homes unless accompanied by a male relative. The education of girls was prohibited.

I wore a traditional salwar kameez but was still taunted on account of my French beard and uncovered head. My driver had learned to deftly switch music cassettes on the car stereo to play warrior anthems while driving in the city or in the vicinity of Taliban checkpoints.

I had traveled there to cover the first-ever talks between the UN and Mullah Omar at his fortress-like residence.

“The Western world fails to understand the Taliban,” Mullah Muttamaen, a leading member of the group, told me repeatedly. I asked him whether the Taliban, in turn, understood the world. He looked away in tense silence.

While investigating the experiences of minorities under Taliban rule, I found a neighborhood in which Hindus and Sikhs had been ordered to wear yellow cloth to identify themselves. I wrote a story about it that was published while I was still in Afghanistan. After receiving threats, I was forced to flee the country in the dead of night.

Since then, the Taliban has evolved into an organized force. No longer is it an assortment of clueless, brutal men in black turbans riding motorcycles and bullying locals.

When I met Mullah Akhtar Mansour in the late 1990s, he had just been appointed aviation minister by Mullah Omar because he had downed two Russian helicopters with a rocket launcher and was therefore thought to understand how objects worked in the air. He went on to become leader of the Taliban in July 2015, and was killed in a US drone strike in May 2016 after entering Balochistan in Pakistan from Iran.




Taliban fighters stand with their weapons in Ahmad Aba district on the outskirts of Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, on July 18, 2017. (AFP)

Mullah Omar often boasted about how the Taliban movement began with just a few dozen madrasah students with motorcycles and two borrowed vehicles. Now it has developed a hierarchical structure.

Its leaders coalesce in the Leadership Council, or Rehbari Shura, a decision-making body for political and military affairs. It controls many commissions on economics, health and education, operating like a cabinet of ministers.

Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar effectively serves as the Taliban’s foreign minister. Its political commission has an office in Doha for international representation, which negotiates with diplomats on the Islamic militia’s behalf. The Taliban has developed ties with Iran, Russia and China in preparation for a potential return to power.

“If our leaders are eating meals with a knife and a fork in Moscow, Beijing, Tehran or Doha, it doesn’t mean we will betray our ideology,” one Taliban leader said.

At one time, young Taliban fighters in Afghanistan feared American air power. I once witnessed a Taliban soldier shouting curses at a formation of B-52 bombers. “Meet us face to face if you have the courage,” he shouted at the sky. Now the group has reportedly used drones in some of its attacks.

It is estimated that the Taliban currently has between 55,000 and 85,000 trained fighters, and locals say they are better equipped than in previous years.

“They have night-vision goggles, thermal rifle scopes, armored vehicles, bulletproof vests, wireless sets,” said Rashid Khan, a resident of Nimroz province. “They have a huge quantity of American weaponry captured from Afghan forces — even Humvees.”

Although Taliban forces appear to be taking control of the country following the recent departure of US troops, with districts and provincial capitals falling like dominoes, reestablishing and maintaining rule across Afghanistan will not be easy.




A man sells Taliban flags in Herat province, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, on  Aug. 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Hamed Sarfarazi)

They will face opposition from a new generation of Afghans, including educated youths who bitterly oppose the group’s return to power.

During recent peace talks there has been much speculation about just how much the Taliban has changed in the past two decades in terms of governance, adherence to human rights, artistic expression, and whether women will be allowed to work and girls to go to school.

The group’s political leaders know that the methods of the past will not grant them legitimacy, but the fighters on the ground are ideologically committed to establishing an “Islamic emirate.”

The latter include the men who shot dead the comedian Nazar Mohammad Khasha in Kandahar in July. In another incident, two alleged kidnappers were publicly executed without a trial. Reports are also circulating about various restrictions already being placed on women.

It seems the Taliban now has three faces: The Rahbari Shura leaders who are the custodians of the Taliban ideology; the political Shura leaders who are trying to gain legitimacy by improving the Taliban’s public image; and the mass of fighters forged in war.




Taliban negotiators walk down a hotel lobby during the talks in Qatar's capital Doha on August 12, 2021. (KARIM JAAFAR / AFP)

There is also uncertainty over whether the Taliban can or will prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a global hub for terrorism. More than 2,000 militants affiliated with Daesh are reportedly operating in the country.

There is additionally the issue of the Pakistani Taliban using Afghanistan as a safe haven from which to launch attacks in Pakistan.

It will be difficult for the Afghan Taliban to sever ties with Al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban, even if it wants to, because the trio formed a nexus during the course of the “war on terror.”

While many analysts were surprised by how quickly the Taliban regime fell after the 2001 US invasion, porous borders continued to provide a sanctuary for its members. Many crossed into Pakistan’s Balochistan province with their families.

Much of the border has since been fenced but at the time, Taliban fighters in remote villages in Zabul and Uruzgan provinces were betting on the US forces eventually getting tired of fighting.

“Mullah Omar has said: ‘Americans have the clocks but we have the time,’” as one seasoned fighter put it. The Taliban’s perception of having time on its side persists.

For more than 40 years Afghanistan has been a battlefield of conflicting ideologies and ethnicities — a bloody tug-of-war between warlords over opium and opportunities for corruption.

I am reminded of the words of Shahrbano, a young Afghan woman I met in Peshawar years ago whose family twice had to flee Kabul: once due to Mujahideen infighting, which reduced the city to ruins, and again during the regressive rule of the Taliban.

“With every invasion, be it Russians or Americans or Mujahids or Taliban, each Afghan dies a little,” she said. “We are the target in this game of death, like a carcass in buzkashi — and the world watches it, again and again.”


UK study finds vaccinated people easily transmit Delta variant in households

UK study finds vaccinated people easily transmit Delta variant in households
Updated 20 sec ago

UK study finds vaccinated people easily transmit Delta variant in households

UK study finds vaccinated people easily transmit Delta variant in households
LONDON: The Delta coronavirus variant can transmit easily from vaccinated people to their household contacts, a British study found on Thursday, although contacts were less likely to get infected if they were vaccinated themselves.
The Imperial College London study illustrates how the highly transmissible Delta variant can spread even in a vaccinated population.
The researchers underlined that did not weaken the argument for vaccination as the best way of reducing serious illness from COVID-19 and said booster shots were required.
They found infections in the vaccinated cleared more quickly, but the peak viral load remained similar to the unvaccinated.
“By carrying out repeated and frequent sampling from contacts of COVID-19 cases, we found that vaccinated people can contract and pass on infection within households, including to vaccinated household members,” Dr. Anika Singanayagam, co-lead author of the study, said.
“Our findings provide important insights into... why the Delta variant is continuing to cause high COVID-19 case numbers around the world, even in countries with high vaccination rates.”
The study, which enrolled 621 participants, found that of 205 household contacts of people with Delta COVID-19 infection, 38 percent of household contacts who were unvaccinated went on to test positive, compared to 25 percent of vaccinated contacts.
Vaccinated contacts who tested positive for COVID-19 on average had received their shots longer ago than those who tested negative, which the authors said was evidence of waning immunity and supported the need for booster shots.
Imperial epidemiologist Neil Ferguson said that the transmissibility of Delta meant that it was unlikely Britain would reach “herd immunity” for long.
“That may happen in the next few weeks: if the epidemic’s current transmission peaks and then starts declining, we have by definition in some sense reached herd immunity, but it is not going to be a permanent thing,” he told reporters.
“Immunity wanes over time, it is imperfect, so you still get transmission happening, and that is why the booster program is so important.”

Greece marks day it said ‘No’ to Mussolini

Greece marks day it said ‘No’ to Mussolini
Updated 28 October 2021

Greece marks day it said ‘No’ to Mussolini

Greece marks day it said ‘No’ to Mussolini
  • Greece’s Oct. 28 national holiday, known as Ochi Day, or No Day, marks the day in 1940 when Athens rejected a pre-dawn Italian ultimatum to allow its forces to enter Greek territory
  • Italian troops invaded hours later, prompting Greece’s entry into World War II, in which outnumbered and outgunned Greek forces successfully repulsed the Italians

THESSALONIKI, Greece: Fighter jets flew over the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki Thursday as parachutists landed and troops marched in the city’s center to mark a national holiday commemorating Greece’s defiance of Fascist Italy that forced it to enter World War II.
But some student parades traditionally held in municipalities across Greece were canceled, especially in northern areas which have seen a spike in coronavirus infections, fueled by low vaccination rates in those areas.
Greece’s Oct. 28 national holiday, known as Ochi Day, or No Day, marks the day in 1940 when Athens rejected a pre-dawn Italian ultimatum to allow its forces to enter Greek territory and take control of parts of it.
Italian troops invaded hours later, prompting Greece’s entry into the war, in which outnumbered and outgunned Greek forces successfully repulsed the Italians only to be overwhelmed months later by a separate German invasion.
“The anniversary of ‘No’ is a day of honor and pride for our nation,” President Katerina Sakellaropoulou said, adding that the country’s actions in 1940 “remind us of everything we can achieve when we are united.”
Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who attended a student parade in a southern suburb of Athens, said the day honored “those who fought against fascism and the conqueror.”
“Today we have the right to look to the future with more confidence and more optimism,” he said, adding that Greece was now stronger both geopolitically and economically.
“I wish and hope we can move forward in this future with the unity the times demand and always have the discretion to tell the difference between the useful ‘yes’ and the necessary ‘no’.”
Last year’s parades were canceled as the country grappled with the coronavirus pandemic. This year, most were allowed to go ahead, although Thessaloniki’s military parade was somewhat pared down, with only military, fire service and security forces parading without the participation of many of the civic groups and associations that traditionally take part. Participants and spectators alike were asked to wear masks.
But several municipalities and regions across northern Greece canceled parades by schoolchildren amid spiking coronavirus cases.
Just over 61 percent of Greece’s population of around 11 million has been fully vaccinated, and only slightly more — just under 64 percent — has received at least one dose. The country has been seeing increasing coronavirus infections, particularly in the north, with intensive care units beginning to fill up.
New infections are over 3,000 per day with dozens of deaths, and ICUs set aside for COVID-19 patients in the country are now at an average 77 percent capacity. On Wednesday, Greece reported 63 deaths and 3,651 new coronavirus cases, bringing the total death toll to 15,770 since the start of the pandemic, with 728,210 confirmed cases.


Businessman who organized flight that killed footballer Emiliano Sala convicted

Businessman who organized flight that killed footballer Emiliano Sala convicted
Updated 28 October 2021

Businessman who organized flight that killed footballer Emiliano Sala convicted

Businessman who organized flight that killed footballer Emiliano Sala convicted
  • David Henderson texted a number of people telling them to stay silent, warning it would ‘open a can of worms’
  • The former Royal Air Force officer admitted in court he had feared an investigation into his business dealings

LONDON: The businessman who organized the 2019 flight that killed Argentine footballer Emiliano Sala was Thursday found guilty of endangering the safety of an aircraft.
David Henderson, 67, was convicted by a majority verdict of 10 to two over the death of the 28-year-old forward by a jury at Cardiff Crown Court.
The plane carrying Sala crashed into the English Channel on January 21, 2019, killing him and pilot David Ibbotson, 59.
Sala had signed for Cardiff City, who were then in the Premier League, for a club-record £15 million (18 million euros, $20 million) from French side Nantes.
It took the jury seven-and-a-half hours to convict Henderson, the aircraft operator, whom the trial heard had arranged the flight with football agent William “Willie” McKay.
He had asked Ibbotson to fly the plane as he was away on holiday with his wife in Paris.
Ibbotson, who regularly flew for Henderson, did not hold a commercial pilot’s license, a qualification to fly at night, and his rating to fly the single-engine Piper Malibu had expired.
The jury heard how just moments after finding out the plane had gone down, Henderson texted a number of people telling them to stay silent, warning it would “open a can of worms.”
The former Royal Air Force officer admitted in court he had feared an investigation into his business dealings.
Prosecutor Martin Goudie said Henderson had been “reckless or negligent” in the way he operated the plane, putting his business above the safety of passengers.
In his closing speech, he claimed Henderson ran an “incompetent, undocumented and dishonest organization.”
Stephen Spence, defending, said his client’s actions were “purely a paperwork issue” and had not led to a likelihood of danger.
He told the court the only difference between a commercial license and the private license held by Ibbotson was whether you could carry passengers for money or not, and not about ability.
Henderson had already admitted a separate offense of attempting to discharge a passenger without valid permission or authorization.
The judge granted Henderson bail to return to be sentenced for both offenses on November 12.
He faces maximum sentences of five years’ imprisonment for endangering the aircraft and two years for the lesser charge.
A British air accident investigation report published in March last year concluded Ibbotson was not licensed to fly the plane or to fly at night.
It assessed that he lost control and flew too fast as he tried to avoid bad weather, and that both he and Sala were affected by carbon monoxide poisoning before the crash.
Sala’s body was recovered from the seabed in February 2019 but that of Ibbotson was never found.
Two months after Sala’s body was discovered, his father, Horacio Sala, died of a heart attack in Argentina.


UN calls for more climate adaptation cash from COP26

UN calls for more climate adaptation cash from COP26
Updated 28 October 2021

UN calls for more climate adaptation cash from COP26

UN calls for more climate adaptation cash from COP26
  • Climate adaptation means adjusting to the current effects of climate change and preparing for its predicted impacts in future
  • UN's trade and development agency said a round-the-world effort was needed to address the climate crisis

GENEVA: The United Nations on Thursday called for nations at the upcoming COP26 climate change summit to increase funding for developing countries to adapt.
Climate adaptation means adjusting to the current effects of climate change and preparing for its predicted impacts in future.
The approach is crucial in developing countries, which are more vulnerable to extreme weather caused by climate change — floods, drought, heatwaves and wildfires, for example.
The UN’s trade and development agency said Thursday that a round-the-world effort was needed to address the climate crisis, with a focus on helping poorer countries adapt to changing weather.
“Climate change has no borders. So our strategy to adapt to it must be globally coordinated,” UNCTAD chief Rebeca Grynspan told reporters.
“Aligning ambition and action will require... a concerted effort at the multilateral level to ensure adequate funding for developing countries to adapt to the worsening impact of ever-increasing climate change events.”
The cost of adapting to climate change in developing nations could reach $300 billion in 2030 and, if mitigation targets are not met, up to $500 billion in 2050, said UNCTAD.
However, current funding levels are less than a quarter of the amount envisaged for 2030, and the report warns that relying on private finance will not serve the countries that need it most.
UNCTAD called for debt relief and restructuring for developing countries and for increased availability of capital for multilateral development banks.
UN economists have said that this capital could be financed by green bonds or by reallocating subsidies from fossil fuels.
According to the UN, the economic losses from climate disasters are proportionally three times worse in developing states than in high-income countries.
The landmark COP26 climate change conference kicking off Sunday in Glasgow is being billed as the best chance to reverse catastrophic climate change before it’s too late.


Myanmar ‘integral part’ of ASEAN, Brunei says, despite junta snub

Myanmar ‘integral part’ of ASEAN, Brunei says, despite junta snub
Updated 28 October 2021

Myanmar ‘integral part’ of ASEAN, Brunei says, despite junta snub

Myanmar ‘integral part’ of ASEAN, Brunei says, despite junta snub
  • ‘Myanmar is an integral part of the ASEAN family, and their membership has not been questioned’

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei: Myanmar remains an “integral part” of Southeast Asia’s regional bloc, member Brunei insisted Thursday, despite the coup-hit country boycotting annual talks in protest at a ban on its junta chief.
The crisis in Myanmar, which is still in chaos following February’s military takeover and subsequent deadly crackdown, dominated this week’s virtual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The bloc decided to exclude junta chief Min Aung Hlaing after his regime refused to allow ASEAN’s special envoy to meet ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
It was an unprecedented snub from an organization long accused of being toothless, and infuriated the junta — which rejected an invite to send a senior official to the meeting in his place.
ASEAN is facing calls to go further by suspending or even expelling Myanmar but Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei, the summit host, instead sought to ease tensions.
“Myanmar is an integral part of the ASEAN family, and their membership has not been questioned,” he told a press conference.
“ASEAN will always be there for Myanmar.”
However, he added that the 10-member group hopes “Myanmar will return to normalcy, in accordance with the will of its people.”
Saifuddin Abdullah, the foreign minister of member state Malaysia, hinted the junta could be barred from further meetings of the bloc.
Asked if Myanmar will join future talks, he responded: “That is a million dollar question which I cannot answer now.”
“We would want to look at the implementation of the ‘five-point consensus’,” he added, referring to a roadmap to restore peace drawn up by ASEAN.
The bloc appointed its special envoy for Myanmar, Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, in August after months of wrangling.
But he is yet to visit the country after the regime’s refusal to allow him to meet Suu Kyi, who is facing a raft of charges in a junta court and could be jailed for decades.