How a new generation of Afghan Taliban fighters was forged under American fire

Taliban fighter (C) is seen surrounded by locals at Pul-e-Khumri on August 11, 2021 after Taliban captured Pul-e-Khumri. (AFP)
Taliban fighter (C) is seen surrounded by locals at Pul-e-Khumri on August 11, 2021 after Taliban captured Pul-e-Khumri. (AFP)
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Updated 19 August 2021

How a new generation of Afghan Taliban fighters was forged under American fire

Taliban fighter (C) is seen surrounded by locals at Pul-e-Khumri on August 11, 2021 after Taliban captured Pul-e-Khumri. (AFP)
  • Many on the front line of the Taliban offensive grew up in post-Taliban Afghanistan
  • Americans misread the Taliban’s power, assuming it had diminished as had Al-Qaeda’s

ISLAMABAD: As Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled Kabul on Aug. 15 for an undisclosed destination, armed Taliban fighters entered official buildings nationwide, including the presidential palace. Senior commanders in black turbans sat down and gave statements while young fighters took selfies.

In the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, fighters were seen shooting at a billboard of powerful warlords and their bitter enemy Rashid Dostum, stomping on it when it fell. Others roamed his residence, making videos of its lavish interiors.

In the western city of Herat, called “Little Iran,” Taliban fighters had photo-ops with helicopters and huge stashes of seized American weaponry.

Most of these young fighters were either born after 9/11 or were children when the US invaded Afghanistan.

While senior commanders are battle-hardened from fighting the Soviets or were products of radicalization in madrasas (religious schools) or refugee camps, many of those on the front line of the Taliban offensives are relatively new recruits who grew up right under the Americans’ noses.

Driving Humvees and riding on tanks, they have hoisted the Taliban’s white flag nationwide. It is not just their clothing that is different. Instead of the radio sets of commanders, they carry smartphones and upload their own videos.

“They’re hot tempered and fearless,” said Javed Khan, a shopkeeper in the market of Lashkar Gah, where Afghan government forces and the Taliban fought pitched battles. “I saw four or five of them firing with one hand and hurling grenades from the other. They’re far more dangerous, as I’ve seen their elders fight as well.”




Taliban fighters sit over a vehicle on a street in Laghman province on August 15, 2021. (AFP)

Maulvi Yahya, a Taliban leader, told Arab News: “This is the new generation of Taliban mujahideen … The older generation defeated Russia, the new generation defeated America.”

Social media posts show some of the new generation playing with bumper cars in an amusement park and jumping on a trampoline soon after the Taliban takeover of the country.

Noor Mohammad from Helmand province said he was called back from school one day because his brother and cousin were killed.

“I saw their bodies ... Both were killed by Afghan army soldiers, wrongly targeted for being with the Taliban,” he said, adding that a local cleric and a Taliban commander visited soon after to offer prayers for the deceased.

“They declared them martyrs and promised they’d go to heaven. They told me it was my duty to take revenge. The next day I went to them instead of going to school.”

Another young fighter, Khaliq, from a village on the outskirts of the city of Kandahar, lost his father in a US airstrike when he was a child.

“When I grew up, I was inspired by the Taliban mujahideen because they were trying to liberate our land from occupying forces,” he said.

For these young Taliban fighters whose family members were killed by Afghan government forces, it will be difficult to accept the amnesty announced for Kabul administration workers and the Americans.




Taliban fighters and local people sit on an Afghan National Army (ANA) humvee vehicle on a street in Jalalabad province on August 15, 2021. (AFP)

But Taliban commanders are mostly madrasa graduates, and are respected as clerics and teachers.

“We’ve pardoned all those who’ve fought against us,” Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, said on Tuesday. ”We seek no revenge.”

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The amnesty also gives safe cover to soldiers, NGOs, officials and the police among others.

There is significant pressure on the top Taliban leadership to refrain from revenge or carrying out any brutal acts that could undermine the group.

A tribal elder from Helmand told Arab News that the Taliban visited villages and towns across the province as recently as Ramadan this year to recruit youngsters.

He said the visitors delivered sermons and offered them a chance to be part of a historic victory against the US.

The tribal elder added that after Eid, Taliban commanders returned with convoys of young recruits from the villages.

The Taliban campaign gained strength when the US started to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan in May after signing a deal with the group in Doha.




A Taliban fighter (2L) is seen with locals at Pul-e-Khumri on August 11, 2021 after Taliban captured Pul-e-Khumri, the capital of Baghlan province. (AFP)

Once the US announced its departure, the Taliban sensed victory, boosting the morale of fighters on the ground fueled by religious zeal.

The Taliban nurtured its next generation under the shadow of US forces, and the speed of its recent victories has stunned the West.

The US miscalculated the strength of Afghan government forces after pumping $100 billion into their army and ignoring key factors such as desertions and corruption within their ranks.

“This is a monumental failure of the US, which will haunt it for a very long time,” said US-based South Asia security analyst Dr. Asfandyar Mir. “Today’s Taliban are as regressive as the first generation, but two decades of combat have certainly made them politically and militarily much better and stronger.”

The Americans misread the Taliban’s power, assuming it had diminished as had Al-Qaeda’s. But unlike Al-Qaeda, the Taliban — which are currently estimated to have between 55,000 and 85,000 trained fighters — had the choice to retreat and melt back into society.

Some analysts are optimistic that the Taliban will bring some pragmatism to their style of governance this time. Their assurances to Shiite Muslims, and their granting of interviews to female journalists, might be positive indications.

But many refuse to believe that the Taliban has changed. “The world saw what they did last time they were in power,” said Fatimeh Noori, a university graduate working in the city of Herat.

“Why should we believe they’ll be different this time when their ideology remains the same?”

The Taliban’s political leadership has experience in diplomacy and has shown flexibility, but its ideological fighters are more rigid and believe that they fought against America to bring back their old rule to Afghanistan.

Since the Taliban is primarily a military force with a harsh image, its fate depends on whether the political leadership dominates over military aspirations.

Meanwhile, images of horrific scenes from the runways of Kabul’s international airport have flooded social media. Arab News received a Facebook message from an Afghan worried for his two teenage daughters.

“I was in Kabul when after 9/11 the Americans landed on the same tarmac claiming they were here to liberate Afghans. Now they’re abandoning us to the Taliban,” said Hashem Ali.

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Twitter: @OwaisTohid


Beijing wanted to ‘break’ Australia -US Indo-Pacific adviser

China’s preference would have been to break Australia. (Shutterstock)
China’s preference would have been to break Australia. (Shutterstock)
Updated 4 min 8 sec ago

Beijing wanted to ‘break’ Australia -US Indo-Pacific adviser

China’s preference would have been to break Australia. (Shutterstock)
  • Campbell underlined the US’ commitment to new security and economic alliances in the Indo Pacific, including the defense technology pact with Australia and Britain, known as AUKUS, and the Quad of India, Japan, US and Australia

SYDNEY: China is conducting “dramatic economic warfare” against Australia and has tried to “break” the US ally, contributing to increased anxiety about Beijing in the region, the White House’s Indo Pacific coordinator, Kurt Campbell, said in a speech to a Sydney think tank on Wednesday.
US President Joe Biden raised the treatment of Australia, which has been subject to trade reprisals by Beijing, in his meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping as an example of behavior that was backfiring because Xi’s advisers were not providing effective feedback, Campbell told the Lowy Institute foreign policy institute.
“China’s preference would have been to break Australia. To drive Australia to its knees,” Campbell said.
Campbell underlined the United States’ commitment to new security and economic alliances in the Indo Pacific, including the defense technology pact with Australia and Britain, known as AUKUS, and the Quad of India, Japan, US and Australia.
These groups would also focus on technology, education, climate and pandemic cooperation, to show the US was bringing value to Asia, he said.
“The United States is not leaving the Indo-Pacific, and we’re not in decline,” he said, adding there appeared to be a belief among “ideological advisers around President Xi that somehow the United States is in this hurtling decline.”
Beijing’s lack of communication over its build up of nuclear deterrent capabilities, hypersonic and anti-satellite systems was of concern to the US, he said, calling them “practices, that, if they continue, run risks of triggering an unforeseen crisis, or a misunderstanding.”
The US was seeking dialogue on the issue, he said, and had told Beijing it wanted competition that was conducted peacefully.


More than third of world has never used Internet: UN

In this photo taken on March 6, 2020, primary school teacher Billy Yeung edits a video lesson he recorded in an empty classroom in Hong Kong. (AFP)
In this photo taken on March 6, 2020, primary school teacher Billy Yeung edits a video lesson he recorded in an empty classroom in Hong Kong. (AFP)
Updated 01 December 2021

More than third of world has never used Internet: UN

In this photo taken on March 6, 2020, primary school teacher Billy Yeung edits a video lesson he recorded in an empty classroom in Hong Kong. (AFP)
  • The number of users globally grew by more than 10 percent in the first year of the Covid crisis — by far the largest annual increase in a decade

GENEVA: Some 2.9 billion people — 37 percent of the world’s population — have still never used the Internet, the United Nations said Tuesday, despite the Covid-19 pandemic driving people online.
The UN’s International Telecommunication Union estimated that 96 percent of those 2.9 billion live in developing countries.
The agency said the estimated number of people who have gone online rose from 4.1 billion in 2019 to 4.9 billion this year, partially due to a “Covid connectivity boost.”
But even among those Internet users, many hundreds of millions might only go online infrequently, using shared devices or facing connection speeds that hamper their Internet use.
“ITU will work to make sure the building blocks are in place to connect the remaining 2.9 billion. We are determined to ensure no one will be left behind,” said ITU secretary-general Houlin Zhao.
The number of users globally grew by more than 10 percent in the first year of the Covid crisis — by far the largest annual increase in a decade.
The ITU cited measures such as lockdowns, school closures and the need to access services like remote banking.
But the growth has been uneven. Internet access is often unaffordable in poorer nations — almost three-quarters of people have never been online in the 46 least-developed countries.
Younger people, men and urbanites are more likely to use the Internet than older adults, women and those in rural areas, with the gender gap more pronounced in developing nations.
Poverty, illiteracy, limited electricity access and a lack of digital skills continue to challenge the “digitally excluded,” the ITU added.


US expected to toughen testing requirement for travelers

US expected to toughen testing requirement for travelers
Updated 01 December 2021

US expected to toughen testing requirement for travelers

US expected to toughen testing requirement for travelers
  • Among the policies being considered is a requirement that all air travelers to the US be tested for COVID-19 within a day of boarding their flight

WASHINGTON: The Biden administration is expected to take steps in the coming days to toughen testing requirements for international travelers to the US, including both vaccinated and unvaccinated people, amid the spread of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.
The precise testing protocols were still being finalized ahead of a speech by President Joe Biden planned for Thursday on the nation's plans to control the COVID-19 pandemic during the winter season, according to a senior administration official who said some details could still change. Among the policies being considered is a requirement that all air travelers to the US be tested for COVID-19 within a day of boarding their flight. Currently those who are fully vaccinated may present a test taken within three days of boarding.
“CDC is evaluating how to make international travel as safe as possible, including pre-departure testing closer to the time of flight and considerations around additional post-arrival testing and self-quarantines,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Tuesday.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration's plans before the announcement, said options under consideration also include post-arrival testing requirements or or even self-quarantines.
The expected move comes just weeks after the US largely reopened its borders to fully vaccinated foreign travelers on Nov. 8.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, which has been identified in more than 20 countries but not yet in the US, including whether it is more contagious, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, said more would be known about the omicron strain in two to four weeks as scientists grow and test lab samples of the virus.
As he sought to quell public concern about the new variant, Biden said that in his Thursday remarks, “I’ll be putting forward a detailed strategy outlining how we’re going to fight COVID this winter -- not with shutdowns or lockdowns but with more widespread vaccinations, boosters, testing, and more.”
Asked by reporters if he would consult with allies about any changes in travel rules, given that former President Donald Trump had caught world leaders by surprise, Biden said: “Unlike Trump I don’t shock our allies.”


WHO warns against blanket travel bans over Omicron coronavirus variant

WHO warns against blanket travel bans over Omicron coronavirus variant
Updated 01 December 2021

WHO warns against blanket travel bans over Omicron coronavirus variant

WHO warns against blanket travel bans over Omicron coronavirus variant
  • Some 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at potentially delaying import of Omicron as of Nov, 28

GENEVA: Countries should apply "an evidence-informed and risk-based approach" with any travel measures related to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, including possible screening or quarantine of international passengers, but blanket bans do not prevent its spread, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.
The WHO, in its latest guidance to authorities and travellers, said that people over 60 years of age and those with underlying health conditions should be advised to postpone travel as they are at higher risk of disease and death.
This was in line with its advice regarding over 60s since December 2020, regardless of a traveller's vaccination status, and did not represent any change in guidance, a WHO spokesperson said.
First reported in southern Africa a week ago, the variant has brought global alarm https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/hong-kong-expands-travel-curbs-omicron-fears-australia-reports-5-cases-2021-11-30, led to travel bans, and highlighted the disparity between massive vaccination pushes in rich nations and sparse inoculation in the developing world.
National authorities in countries of departure, transit and arrival may apply a multi-layered approach to mitigate risk so as to delay or reduce importation or exportation of the Omicron variant, the WHO said on Tuesday.
"Measures may include screening of passengers prior to travel and/or upon arrival, and use of SARS-COV-2 testing or quarantine of international travellers after thorough risk assessment," it said.
All measures should be commensurate with the risk, time-limited and applied with respect to travellers' rights, it said.
"Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods," it said.
Some 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at potentially delaying import of Omicron as of Nov, 28, it added.


Brazil and Japan report first cases of the omicron variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
Updated 01 December 2021

Brazil and Japan report first cases of the omicron variant

 A man walks past an arrivals board showing cancelled flights at Tokyo's Haneda international airport on November 30, 2021. (AFP)
  • Brazil, which has recorded a staggering total of more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa — the first known omicron cases in Latin America
  • Japan announced its first case, too, on the same day the country put a ban on all foreign visitors into effect. The patient was identified as a Namibian diplomat who had recently arrived from his homeland

BRASILIA/TOKYO: Brazil and Japan joined the rapidly widening circle of countries to report cases of the omicron variant Tuesday, while new findings indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.
The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23 were found to contain the variant. It was on Nov. 24 that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization.
That indicates omicron had a bigger head start in the Netherlands than previously believed.
Together with the cases in Japan and Brazil, the finding illustrates the difficulty in containing the virus in an age of jet travel and economic globalization. And it left the world once again whipsawed between hopes of returning to normal and fears that the worst is yet to come.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.
The pandemic has shown repeatedly that the virus “travels quickly because of our globalized, interconnected world,” said Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health. Until the vaccination drive reaches every country, “we’re going to be in this situation again and again.”
Brazil, which has recorded a staggering total of more than 600,000 COVID-19 deaths, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa — the first known omicron cases in Latin America. The travelers were tested on Nov. 25, authorities said.
Japan announced its first case, too, on the same day the country put a ban on all foreign visitors into effect. The patient was identified as a Namibian diplomat who had recently arrived from his homeland.
France likewise recorded its first case, in the far-flung island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Authorities said the patient was a man who had returned to Reunion from South Africa and Mozambique on Nov. 20.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, said much more will be known about omicron in the next several weeks, and “we’ll have a much better picture of what the challenge is ahead of us.”
In the meantime, a WHO official warned that given the growing number of omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, parts of southern Africa could soon see infections skyrocket.
“There is a possibility that really we’re going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds,” said Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a WHO regional virologist.
Cases began to increase rapidly in mid-November in South Africa, which is now seeing nearly 3,000 confirmed new infections per day.
Before news of the Brazil cases broke, Fauci said 226 omicron cases had been confirmed in 20 countries, adding: “I think you’re going to expect to see those numbers change rapidly.”
Those countries include Britain, 11 European Union nations, Australia, Canada and Israel. American disease trackers said omicron could already be in the US, too, and probably will be detected soon.
“I am expecting it any day now,” said Scott Becker of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “We expect it is here.”
While the variant was first identified by South African researchers, it is unclear where and when it originated, information that could help shed light on how fast it spreads.
The announcement from the Dutch on Tuesday could shape that timeline.
Previously, the Netherlands said it found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday, the same day the Dutch and other EU members began imposing flight bans and other restrictions on southern Africa. But the newly identified cases predate that.
NOS, the Netherlands’ public broadcaster, said that one of the two omicron samples came from a person who had been in southern Africa.
Belgium reported a case involving a traveler who returned to the country from Egypt on Nov. 11 but did not become sick with mild symptoms until Nov. 22.
Many health officials tried to calm fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots to every part of the globe.
Emer Cooke, chief of the European Medicines Agency, said that the 27-nation EU is well prepared for the variant and that the vaccine could be adapted for use against omicron within three or four months if necessary.
England reacted to the emerging threat by making face coverings mandatory again on public transportation and in stores, banks and hair salons. And one month ahead of Christmas, the head of Britain’s Health Security Agency urged people not to socialize if they don’t need to.
After COVID-19 led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers began to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would “certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control.”
World markets seesawed on every piece of medical news, whether worrisome or reassuring. Stocks fell on Wall Street over virus fears as well as concerns about the Federal Reserve’s continued efforts to shore up the markets.
Some analysts think a serious economic downturn will probably be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also think a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.