Taliban say they took Panjshir, last holdout Afghan province

Afghan resistance front and anti-Taliban uprising forces patrol on a hilltop in Anaba district, Panjshir province. (AFP)
Afghan resistance front and anti-Taliban uprising forces patrol on a hilltop in Anaba district, Panjshir province. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 07 September 2021

Taliban say they took Panjshir, last holdout Afghan province

Afghan resistance front and anti-Taliban uprising forces patrol on a hilltop in Anaba district, Panjshir province. (AFP)
  • Continued fighting may lead to resurrection of various militant groups in Afghanistan, says Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff

KABUL: The Taliban said on Monday they have taken control of Panjshir province north of Kabul, the last holdout of anti-Taliban forces in the country and the only province the Taliban had not seized during their blitz across Afghanistan last month.

Thousands of Taliban fighters overran eight districts of Panjshir overnight, according to witnesses from the area who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing for their safety. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid issued a statement, saying Panjshir was now under the control of Taliban fighters.

“We tried our best to solve the problem through negotiations, and they rejected talks and then we had to send our forces to fight,” Mujahid later told a press conference in Kabul.

Pictures on social media showed Taliban members standing in front of the gate of the Panjshir provincial governor’s compound.

Taliban forces said had entered deep into Panjshir Valley on Sunday amid calls for a ceasefire from Afghan religious scholars.

Intense fighting between the Taliban and the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan in Panjshir began last week, as US forces officially completed their withdrawal and ended a two-decade presence on Afghan soil.

For the past few days, Taliban forces and the resistance front, which comprises thousands of fighters from regional militias and Afghanistan’s former security forces, have been claiming battle gains. On Friday night, Taliban sources told the media they had seized the mountainous northern region, but resistance leaders quickly denied the claim. New advances were announced by the Taliban on Sunday, after heavy fighting reported a day earlier. A Taliban commander in Panjshir said fighters had entered deeper into the valley and taken control of new districts.

“Now Anaba and Rokha districts are under our control, mujahideen are gaining ground and they are moving to Bazarak,” the commander, Mawlawi Ezatullah Badr told Arab News from Panjshir. “Yesterday, we took Shotol district and now we have stopped the war, the enemy have suffered massive casualties.”

At the same time, the resistance front said the Taliban who had entered the valley were trapped by their forces.

“The Taliban were ambushed in several fronts in Shotol, Khawak and also Dara-e-Tang. During this operation, the Taliban suffered massive casualties and at least 1,600 Taliban fighters has surrendered to NRFA,” resistance commander Zemaray Ahmadyar said.

As the fighting continued, religious scholars who before the Taliban takeover were in the Kabul chapter of Afghanistan’s Ulema Council, called on both sides to return to negotiations.

“Ending the war is urgent, we need to speak with both sides,” the scholars said in a joint statement on Sunday. “This war is harmful to everyone, and it must be stopped immediately. We would continue to negotiate with both sides; first we would discuss this issue with the Taliban and then we would go to Panjshir.”

Earlier negotiations did not stop the fighting.

“We held negotiations, but they failed. The other side welcomed war rather than peace. Now the mujahideen are ordered to continue their offensive operations and we are close to the center of Panjshir,” said Enamullah Samangani, a member of the Taliban’s cultural commission.

Resistance front spokesperson Fahim Dashti said last week the Taliban had offered them a 50 percent share of power in Afghanistan, but the offer was declined.

Panjshir has a history of resistance. In the 1980s, its famed commander Ahmad Shah Massoud defended the region from Soviet forces, and in the 1990s led an offensive against the first Taliban regime. He was assassinated in 2001, weeks before the Taliban were ousted by a US-led invasion.

The resistance is led by Massoud’s son, Ahmad Massoud, and Amrullah Saleh, who until the Taliban takeover of Kabul and the collapse of the Afghan government over two weeks ago served as first vice president.

While seizing Panjshir would give the Taliban complete control of Afghanistan — something they did not achieve when they ruled the country between 1996 and 2001 — a top US general warned on Saturday that continued fighting may lead to a wider civil war and resurrection of various militant groups in Afghanistan.

“I think there’s at least a very good probability of a broader civil war,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in an interview with Fox News.

“That will then in turn lead to conditions that could lead to a reconstitution of Al-Qaeda or a growth of ISIS (Daesh).”

Afghanistan has been without a government since President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as the Taliban entered Kabul on Aug. 15.

The power vacuum has thrown Afghanistan’s economy into disarray, as most payments to the country, which for the past two decades has depended on foreign aid, have been suspended.

Plans to unveil a new government were postponed as the Taliban waited for Panjshir to fall, sources say.


World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant
Updated 24 min 17 sec ago

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant
  • Scientists are still learning about the variant, first identified at the start of this week
  • Several countries, including in the Gulf, institute travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa

JEDDAH: Fears mounted on Saturday that a highly infectious new COVID-19 strain was pushing its way into Europe as the world brought the shutters down to contain the new omicron variant.

Britain confirmed its first two infections and suspected new cases emerged in Germany and the Czech Republic, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for COVID-19.

South Africa complained it was being “punished” with air travel bans for first detecting the strain, which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern.”

South Korea, Australia, and Thailand joined the US, Brazil, Canada, and a host of other countries around the world restricting travel from the region, fearing a major setback to global efforts against the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia was among countries in the Middle East and North Africa to ban travelers from several African nations.

The Saudi Interior Ministry and authorities in the UAE said visitors from seven African countries were barred from entry.

They listed the countries as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Eswatini.

The Saudi ban comprises flights to and from those countries. But foreign nationals from the seven countries could enter the Kingdom if they had spent the previous 14 days in another country and comply with Saudi health protocols.

In a separate announcement on Saturday, the Interior Ministry said the Kingdom will allow direct entry to travelers from all countries who have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine starting next Saturday. The ministry added the travelers would need to quarantine for three days.

Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant, and whether it can evade existing vaccines.

Anxious travelers thronged Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. Many had cut holidays and rushed back from South African safaris and vineyards.

“It’s ridiculous, we will always be having new variants,” British tourist David Good said, passport in hand. “South Africa found it but it’s probably all over the world already.”

The WHO on Friday declared the recently discovered B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19 to be a variant of concern, renaming it omicron.

Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the omicron variant.

He said most of the mutations appear to be in similar regions as those in other variants.

South Africa is worried that the curbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the Foreign Ministry said, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider.

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, and some have re-introduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lockdowns.


Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron
Updated 28 November 2021

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron
  • Manila imposes new travel curbs over omicron variant fears

MANILA: The Philippines has imposed new restrictions and is considering expanding its travel ban to include new countries, officials said on Saturday, amid concerns over the emergence of the new omicron COVID-19 strain.
The new variant was reported to the World Heath Organization from South Africa earlier this week. It has already been detected in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. The organization on Friday declared the new variant, dubbed omicron, as being “of concern” — the most serious category the agency uses for tracking outbreaks.
The announcement came as the Philippines said that it would start accepting vaccinated foreign tourists from low-risk countries from Dec. 1, after more than 20 months of having its borders shut to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Soon after the update, Manila moved to ban inbound travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. On Saturday, acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles said in a statement the ban “shall take effect immediately and until Dec. 15.”
Dr. Beverly Ho, director at the health promotion and control bureau, told reporters the list of banned destinations may be expanded further.
“There is already an ongoing discussion, and expect that there will be developments,” she said in a press briefing.
“The decision will be based on the data that we will get,” she added, saying that the response to any infectious disease “always starts with strict border controls.”
As the omicron variant has been reported in Hong Kong, home to more than 232,000 Filipino expats, many of whom will be heading home for Christmas holidays, Ho said that restrictions on travel from the region are now under discussion.
Since the WHO’s preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of infection with the omicron strain, Philippines media have been quoting health experts as urging caution to keep the country’s caseload in check.
“If omicron has many mutations, we presume that the behavior of this virus is more transmissible compared to the delta variant,” Dr. Rontgene Solante from the Philippine College of Physicians said, as quoted by the local media.
The number of COVID-19 infections in the Philippines has been steadily falling since mid-September, when the country was recording more than 26,000 new cases per day due to the spread of the highly infectious delta variant.
For the past few days, the country has been recording fewer than 1,000 new cases a day, with 899 reported on Saturday.


Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears
Updated 28 November 2021

Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed local authorities on Saturday to increase their COVID-19 preparedness and review the country’s reopening for foreign arrivals, amid global concerns over the emergence of a new coronavirus strain.
The emergence of the omicron variant comes as India has managed to control the outbreak after facing a deadly COVID-19 wave which, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, killed over 450,000 people between March and May.
The South Asian nation announced on Friday it would reopen for international flights from Dec. 15, after more than 20 months of having its borders shut to stop the spread of COVID-19. On Saturday, Modi requested that the reopening plan be reviewed.
“PM asks officials to review plans for easing of international travel restrictions in light of the emerging new evidence,” his office said in a statement.
Modi also requested that technical support be provided to regions reporting high numbers of new infections and ordered coordination to ensure the proper functioning of oxygen plants and ventilators.
As India has so far fully vaccinated some 35 percent of its 1.3 billion population, the prime minister’s office said he had told officials to accelerate second-dose coverage.
Authorities in Mumbai, the financial center and industrial hub of India, have already announced that inbound passengers from South Africa will be quarantined on arrival and those who test positive for COVID-19 will have their samples sent for genome sequencing.
“There are concerns in Mumbai about the new variant of coronavirus,” Mumbai mayor Kishori Pednekar told reporters on Saturday. “There is an increased risk of COVID-19 in other nations, so those coming from abroad will have to undergo genome test.”
Prof. Rama V. Baru, epidemiologist at the Center of Social Medicine and Community Health at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said genomic sequencing may prove crucial in containing the spread and that a strategy to implement it should be introduced by the Indian Council of Medical Research — the country’s top medical research body.
“Testing can be done, but after testing you need to know what is the variant. For that you need genomic sequencing,” she told Arab News. “There has to be a design by which the ICMR comes up with a protocol because they have a network of institutions in different parts of the country. We need to be proactive and quick before the number of patients increases. Once the number increases, our capacity for genomic sequencing is very limited.”


Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia
Updated 27 November 2021

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

NAIROBI: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greatly concerned about Ethiopia’s military escalation and called for urgent negotiations over the crisis, a US State Department spokesperson said.
The comments came hours after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appeared on the frontline with the national army.
“Secretary Blinken expressed grave concern about worrying signs of military escalation in Ethiopia and emphasised the need to urgently move to negotiations,” Ned Price said in a statement late on Friday.
Price released the statement after a phone call between Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Blinken.
On Friday, Ethiopia’s state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting reported that Abiy was on the frontline with the army fighting rebellious Tigrayan forces in the northeastern Afar region. Abiy posted the same video on his Twitter account.
Abiy’s government has been fighting Tigrayan forces for more than a year, in a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions in Africa’s second-most populous nation.
Ethiopia has announced new restrictions on the sharing of information about the war in the north of the country which stipulate that battlefront updates can only come from the government.
“Disseminating information on military maneuvers, war front updates and results via any medium is forbidden,” except for information provided by a joint civilian-military command set up to oversee a state of emergency, the government’s communication service said late on Thursday.
The statement did not specify the implications of the new rules for journalists or media outlets covering the war, which broke out last November between the government and rebellious forces from the northern region of Tigray.
It did not, for instance, address the consequence of publishing information provided by unauthorized sources. Ethiopia’s media regulator did not return calls from Reuters seeking clarification on the matter.
The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, told Reuters on Friday, “The state of emergency prohibits unauthorized entities from disseminating activities from the front via various channels including media.” She did not elaborate.
Ethiopia’s parliament designated the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party that controls most of Tigray, a terrorist group earlier this year. In its statement, the government’s communication service instructed “those using freedom of speech as a pretext ... to support the terrorist group” to refrain from doing so.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed oversaw sweeping reforms when he took office in 2018, including the unbanning of more than 250 media outlets, the release of dozens of journalists and the repeal of some widely criticized media laws.
However, some rights groups say press freedom has eroded since then as the government has faced outbreaks of deadly violence, including the conflict in Tigray and neighbouring regions.
At least 38 journalists and media workers have been detained since early 2020, most of them since the conflict began, according to a Reuters tally.
Asked about the arrests in May, Ethiopia’s media regulator said “freedom of expression and the protection of the press are sacred values that are enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution.”


US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say
Updated 27 November 2021

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say
  • Analysts refute Taliban claim that Afghanistan branch of terror group poses no threat to country
  • Ismatullah Khalozai’s property and interests in property under US jurisdiction are now blocked, while American citizens are barred from engaging in any transactions with him

ANKARA / KABUL: The US State Department on Monday imposed new sanctions on three leaders of the Afghanistan affiliate of Daesh, widely known as Daesh-K, and another man accused of operating a Turkey-based informal financial network.

The group’s leader, Sanaullah Ghafari, spokesperson Sultan Aziz Azam and Kabul province leader Maulawi Rajab were all named as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, while Ismatullah Khalozai, who is blamed for operating an informal money-moving network, known as a hawala, that has financially supported Daesh-K for the last two years, was also designated.

Khalozai is known as the financial facilitator for the group and has operated a financial scheme that involved the international resale of luxury items, whose earnings were used to finance Daesh-K. The US also accuses him of engaging in human smuggling operations, including bringing a Daesh-K courier from Afghanistan to Turkey.

Last year, Washington identified another critical financial facilitator for Daesh, the Turkey-based Adnan Mohammed Amin Al-Rawi.

Andrea Gacki, director of the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said of this week’s action against Khalozai: “(The) designation underscores the United States’ determination to prevent (Daesh-K) and its members from exploiting the international financial system to support terrorist acts in Afghanistan and beyond… The Biden administration is committed to rooting out terrorist financing networks around the world.”

All Khalozai’s property and interests in property under US jurisdiction are now blocked, while American citizens are barred from engaging in any transactions with him.

Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August and rapid Taliban takeover, Daesh-K has gained a wide presence in 34 provinces and has stepped up its bloody attacks. The group most recently claimed responsibility for a double bomb attack in the Afghan capital Kabul this month.

Turkey’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board has been regularly going after Daesh’s illegal money transfer system and it cooperates with the US to track the hawala chain system.

Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonprofit organization focusing on violent extremism, said: “Turkey needs to open the books to the US Treasury Department and share intelligence on any terrorist networks known to operate on Turkish soil.”

He added that Turkey and the US should cooperate further to crack down on the financial roots of terror groups, regardless of any powerbroker that may benefit from the current arrangement. “So cracking down on this activity will cause some tensions,” Clarke told Arab News.

“After 9/11, the international community fell into the analytic trap of thinking that failed states like Afghanistan are the ideal safe haven for terrorist groups. However, countries like Turkey are far more valuable because they are connected to the trappings of globalization, from communications to transportation to global finance,” he added.

In 2019, Turkey disrupted another of Daesh’s illegal money transfer systems, which used Turkish and Syrian-based jewelry firms and foreign exchange offices as front companies.

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey in Ankara, said the illegal mobility of Daesh money did not appear as a result of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, but was ongoing before then.

“As the US began publicly tracking and announcing the origins of these money transfers, (it) means that there is ongoing cooperation between authorities in Ankara and Washington behind the scenes to cope with global financial crimes, because both countries are obliged to respect the relevant international commitments on this issue,” Ozcan told Arab News.

Ozcan said that, when the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August, half of the country’s parliamentarians had Turkish citizenship because of the assets and investments they had previously had in Turkey.

“Therefore, there are great legal and illegal financial flows in Turkey that also eventually involve human smuggling and drug trafficking. It is not a surprise that some illegal groups use the hawala system through Turkey to finance (Daesh-K) because of this global ecosystem of money and human mobility that goes across borders,” he added.

During the course of the summer, hundreds of Afghans crossed from Iran into Turkey every day. Experts underline that such human flows resulted in uncontrollable money movements within the country.

Ozcan expects that, from now on, the US and Turkey, both victims of terrorism, will step up their efforts to track the roots of the illegal transactions that have fed back to terror cells.

“This latest announcement by the US Treasury is just the beginning of a new process and this bilateral cooperation against global financial crimes will not be restricted to Afghanistan but will probably spread to the regions where Daesh is gaining presence,” he said.

An official Taliban spokesperson in Kabul said Daesh-K does not pose a threat to the country. Bilal Karimi, of the Taliban prime minister’s office, said: “They (Daesh-K) don’t have any adverse effect on Afghanistan. Those names in the list are the unknown faces, and one of them has already been killed two or three years ago. So they are not familiar to anyone; overall, Daesh is not a threat for Afghanistan’s Islamic emirate government or the Afghanistan people.”

He added: “You know that this type of criminal activity happens all over the world, but the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan arrested several people involved in those cases, and many of them were killed. Also, we have dismantled many groups of Daesh in Kabul and other provinces. This group (Daesh-K) doesn’t have any support from the people or any other organization. All of these actions are just show-offs for the Daesh group; they are not a threat. So they cannot do anything to Afghanistan’s Islamic emirate.”

However, Ahmad Sayeedi, an international relations expert, told Arab News that Daesh-K was a significant threat to Afghanistan because it has international support. “What I mean is that they have a lot of money and financial support. Daesh will be the most significant danger for Afghanistan. They will be based mainly in Jalalabad (in Nangarhar Province), the main base of Daesh; and in the cities of Sheberghan and Baghlan.”

Qais Zaheer, another international relations analyst, agreed. “Daesh is a potential threat to Afghan peace; they are the ugly face of terrorism in Afghanistan,” he said. “I think the reemergence of this group can provide an opportunity for the intervention of regional and international powers in Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately, due to the (return) of the group and also Taliban mistakes, the group has turned to action and, with the available financial resources of the group, it can pose threats to the Taliban regime. So putting their officials in US sanction lists can help Afghanistan and also the Taliban regime to fight and weaken Daesh-K in Afghanistan,” Zaheer added.