US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says

US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says
Under President Joe Biden’s Republican predecessor Donald Trump, the United States made a deal with the Taliban to withdraw all American forces. (AFP)
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Updated 18 May 2022

US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says

US-Taliban deal biggest factor in collapse of Afghan forces, watchdog says
  • Withdrawal ‘destroyed’ the morale of the Afghan military as it was dependent on US military support

WASHINGTON: The biggest factor that led to the collapse of the Afghan military in August last year was the US decision to withdraw forces and contractors from Afghanistan through an agreement with the Taliban signed by the Trump administration and executed by the Biden administration, a US watchdog report concluded.
The withdrawal “destroyed” the morale of the Afghan military as it was dependent on US military support, according to an assessment by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, which was made public late Tuesday.
“SIGAR found that the single most important factor in the ANDSF’s (Afghan National Defense and Security Forces) collapse in August 2021 was the US decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from Afghanistan through signing the US-Taliban agreement in February 2020 under the Trump administration, followed by President Biden’s withdrawal announcement in April 2021,” the report said.
Under US President Joe Biden’s Republican predecessor Donald Trump, the United States made a deal with the Islamist Taliban to withdraw all American forces.
After the signing of the deal, the US military support to Afghan forces came down, which also included a drop in air strikes in 2020 after a record high level in the previous year, the report added.
“Limiting airstrikes after the signing of the US-Taliban agreement the following year left the ANDSF without a key advantage in keeping the Taliban at bay,” John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, said.
The Taliban overran Afghanistan in August as the former Western-backed government collapsed with surprising speed and the last US troops withdrew.
Biden had argued the war in Afghanistan needed to be brought to a close after 20 years of fighting that had cost American lives, drained resources and distracted from greater strategic priorities.
The US Congress created the office of SIGAR to provide an oversight of reconstruction projects and activities during the war in Afghanistan.
“Many Afghans thought the US-Taliban agreement was an act of bad faith and a signal that the US was handing over Afghanistan to the enemy as it rushed to exit the country,” Sopko said.


US tells pharmas to make Covid boosters targeting BA.4 and BA.5

US tells pharmas to make Covid boosters targeting BA.4 and BA.5
Updated 30 June 2022

US tells pharmas to make Covid boosters targeting BA.4 and BA.5

US tells pharmas to make Covid boosters targeting BA.4 and BA.5
  • A panel of medical experts convened by the agency voted in favor of updating Covid vaccines against Omicron
  • BA.4 and BA.5, which are more transmissible and immune evasive, now comprise more than 52 percent of US Covid cases

WASHINGTON: The US Food and Drug Administration on Thursday told vaccine makers that Covid boosters for this fall and winter should include components targeting the BA.4 and BA.5 sub lineages of omicron.
Earlier this week, a panel of medical experts convened by the agency voted in favor of updating Covid vaccines against omicron, with most indicating they would favor shots that target the latest iterations rather than its original form, BA.1, fearing the latter would be too out-of-date.
BA.4 and BA.5, which are more transmissible and immune evasive, now comprise more than 52 percent of US Covid cases, according to an official tracker.
“We have advised manufacturers seeking to update their Covid-19 vaccines that they should develop modified vaccines that add an omicron BA.4/5 spike protein component to the current vaccine composition to create a two component (bivalent) booster vaccine,” the FDA said in a statement.
These vaccines would also need to target the original Wuhan strain, in order to increase the breadth of immune response.
Pfizer and Moderna, which produce messenger RNA Covid vaccines, have developed and tested vaccines against BA.1, and representatives of both companies indicated during the experts’ meeting they would need around three months to produce BA.4 and BA.5 vaccines at scale.
Pfizer shared early results showing its BA.4/5 vaccine produced a strong antibody response in mice, but it hasn’t yet been trialed in humans.
Novavax, which makes a protein subunit vaccine, said it could offer BA.4/5 vaccines by the end of the year.
The FDA said in its new statement that the companies would need to submit human data prior to authorization.
The “primary series” or first shots a person receives would remain against the original strain, the FDA added.
While previous “variants of concern” like Alpha and Delta eventually petered out, omicron and its sub lineages have dominated throughout 2022, to the point it comprises the vast majority of all Covid in the world, FDA official Jerry Weir told the expert meeting this week.
This makes it more likely that the virus’s future evolution will also occur along the omicron branch of the Covid family tree, he added.
Earlier this month, the World Health Organization also recommended the use of omicron boosters after a primary series against the original strain.


Muslim World League holds first conference of Asian ulama in Kuala Lumpur

Muslim World League holds first conference of Asian ulama in Kuala Lumpur
Updated 30 June 2022

Muslim World League holds first conference of Asian ulama in Kuala Lumpur

Muslim World League holds first conference of Asian ulama in Kuala Lumpur
  • More than 1,000 participants arrived from Saudi Arabia and 16 Asian countries
  • Conference was opened by Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob

KUALA LUMPUR: Participants from 17 countries gathered in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday for the first conference of Asian religious scholars organized in Malaysia by the Muslim World League to unite efforts addressing extremist ideologies.

The MWL is an international non-governmental Islamic organization founded in Saudi Arabia in 1962, that focuses on promoting and clarifying the worldwide understanding of Islam. It is headquartered in Makkah and maintains offices around the world.

More than 1,000 participants arrived from Saudi Arabia and countries including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines.

The conference was opened by Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob, Malaysian Religious Affairs Minister Idris Ahmad and MWL Secretary-General Sheikh Dr. Mohammad bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa.

“We feel proud and lucky that the MWL has chosen Malaysia to host the conference, which of course is a recognition to our country, which highlights Islam as a harmonious, safe and prosperous religion in a multi-racial and multi-religious society,” Yaakob said, adding that the meeting was taking place at a time when Muslims are still facing various challenges, including disputes among themselves, provocation, and Islamophobia.

The meeting will pave the way for the establishment in Kuala Lumpur a permanent council under the umbrella of the MWL.

Al-Issa said that the council’s first session was planned next year. The conference aims at developing educational tools and initiatives to foster collaboration and solidarity, especially among young and emerging leaders, to combat extremist ideology and what the MWL said in a statement were “artificial differences that sometimes exist” in politically diverse societies.

“With the efforts of the scholars, multi-pronged activities are being carried out to counter extremism in all parts of the world,” Al-Issa told Arab News on the sidelines of the conference. “We are hopeful that such efforts will bear fruits in due course and help wipe out extremism totally.”

He said that the MWL had chosen multiethnic Malaysia as it is “well known for its harmonious life.

“It is an ideal region for the propagation of harmony and peaceful coexistence among Muslims and non-Muslims,” he added.

“The attendance in large numbers bears eloquent testimony to the enthusiasm of the people and religious scholars to work towards peace, harmony, and coexistence.”


Taliban meet tribal leaders, minority reps in first loya jirga since takeover

Taliban meet tribal leaders, minority reps in first loya jirga since takeover
Updated 30 June 2022

Taliban meet tribal leaders, minority reps in first loya jirga since takeover

Taliban meet tribal leaders, minority reps in first loya jirga since takeover
  • Participants included non-Taliban local leaders, representatives of Afghan refugees
  • Gunshots heard near gathering site, 2 attackers reportedly killed

KABUL: Around 3,500 scholars and tribal elders from throughout Afghanistan gathered in Kabul on Thursday for a grand assembly meeting, the first such session since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year.

Known as the loya jirga, grand assemblies are a centuries-old Afghan institution, a forum attended by various parties to discuss and reach a consensus on important political issues.

The conference, expected to end by July 2, was called by the Taliban, as unacknowledged by foreign governments they have been under mounting pressure to form an inclusive government to win international recognition.

Participants in Thursday’s session included non-Taliban local leaders, members of the minority Shiite community, as well as representatives of Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan. No female delegates were present.

Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund, acting prime minister of Afghanistan, opened the session by calling on the representatives of all Afghan groups to help uphold the Islamic system of governance, which the Taliban introduced as they took control of the country in August, following the withdrawal of US-led forces after two decades of war.

“We all should work to strengthen it,” Akhund said. “The Islamic Emirate is trying in all aspects to address all issues. There might be problems in some places, but if they are shared with us, we will take steps to solve them.”

Mawlawi Mohammed Omar Khattabi, from the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, who runs a network of madrasas and Islamic radios in southern Afghanistan, urged Taliban authorities to seek consultations with religious scholars when it came to the Islamic system, “because they know the nature of it,” but in professional and technical issues they, “must consult with experts.”

The issue of reopening of schools for girls was raised by Shiite scholar Sayed Nasrullah Waezi, from Bamyan in central Afghanistan.

Since the Taliban assumed power, they have introduced a series of restrictions on women, including on their clothing and choice of profession. Secondary school girls have been barred from education.

Waezi, who belongs to the Hazara community that had been targeted during the first Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, said he hoped that under the current Taliban leadership Afghans could create in their country, “an atmosphere of harmony, sincerity, brotherhood, and fraternity.”

Despite heavy security surrounding the meeting’s venue, the Loya Jirga Tent at Kabul’s Polytechnic University, gunshots were heard during a lunch break. State broadcaster RTA reported that two assailants were killed.

The first loya jirga since the Taliban takeover, the meeting has so far raised hopes that some of the country’s current challenges can be addressed.

“It is a very positive step that the Taliban called for this gathering of scholars and tribal elders from all provinces of Afghanistan. Jirga has historically played a vital role in discussing and solving major national issues,” Hekmatullah Zaland, a member of the Center for Strategic and Regional Studies, told Arab News.

He said it was important that critical issues such as girls’ education, political reconciliation, people’s participation, and engagement with the international community be raised, as such discussions could, “help in addressing the challenges that we are facing right now.”


Marcos Jr. takes oath as president, vows ‘fresh chapter’ in Philippine history

Marcos Jr. takes oath as president, vows ‘fresh chapter’ in Philippine history
Updated 8 min 20 sec ago

Marcos Jr. takes oath as president, vows ‘fresh chapter’ in Philippine history

Marcos Jr. takes oath as president, vows ‘fresh chapter’ in Philippine history
  • Rise to power comes 36 years after his dictator father was forced from office in a bloodless popular uprising
  • New leader promises economic transformation, education reform and support for millions of overseas Filipino workers

MANILA: Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was sworn in as president of the Philippines on Thursday, vowing to open a new chapter in the country’s history, almost four decades after his dictator and namesake father was ousted in a popular uprising.
Marcos Jr., 64, scored a landslide victory in May’s presidential election, winning almost 60 percent of the vote after promising unity, prosperity and happiness to the 110 million population weary of years of political polarization and pandemic hardship. 
His rise to power comes 36 years after his father was removed from office by the bloodless popular revolt known as People Power. The dictator had ruled the country with an iron fist for two decades — an era marred by martial law, widespread corruption and human rights abuses.
For years, Marcos Jr. has sought to rehabilitate the family name by portraying his father’s rule as an age of prosperity. But while he mentioned infrastructure projects built at the time, he distanced himself from the past in his inaugural address.  
“In this fresh chapter of our history, I extend my hand to all Filipinos,” he said during a ceremony at the steps of the National Museum in Manila. “I am here not to talk about the past. I am here to tell you about our future.”
In the 25-minute speech, Marcos Jr. covered plans for economic transformation, education reform, improvement of food sufficiency, infrastructure development, energy supplies, pollution, waste management, as well as support for millions of overseas Filipino workers.
“Come, let us put our shoulders to the wheel and give that wheel a faster turn to repair and to rebuild and to address challenges in new ways to provide what all Filipinos need, to be all that we can,” the incoming president said, adding that he seeks dialogue and to “listen respectfully to contrary views.”
Marcos’ thematic speech, which covered all issues, came as a surprise since he has little direct experience on the political scene.
“He took up all things, he even had something to say on climate change,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila, told Arab News.
However, Casiple added that he will reserve judgment until Marcos speaks before Congress.
“By then, he will already have concrete proposals. That’s more important for me.”
The political analyst believes Marcos’ references to the future were attempts at charting “his own path,” not merely a continuation of his father’s.
“I’ve already noticed that during the campaign. He was avoiding talking about martial law and he was also avoiding debates. He doesn’t want to be treated as a son to the father in terms of his programs. His inaugural speech was basically his own,” Casiple said. “There’s hope.”
However, the new administration, despite the unity pledge, is likely to be a polarizing one due to the historical burden the Marcos family carries, according to political sociologist Prof. Frederick Rey.
“A polarizing administration in the sense that there is what I call the natural enemy of the Marcoses. This may be viewed as a love affair, a Filipino love affair, but on the other side of it, there is also a natural enemy when we talk about the dark history of the Philippines, as mentioned in our textbooks,” Rey said in a TV interview.
“This really is a difficult administration.”


Belgium chocolate factory shut after salmonella infection

Belgium chocolate factory shut after salmonella infection
Updated 30 June 2022

Belgium chocolate factory shut after salmonella infection

Belgium chocolate factory shut after salmonella infection
  • Contamination is investigated at Barry Callebaut company
  • All chocolate products made at the plant placed on hold

BRUSSELS: A huge Belgian chocolate factory has halted production after detecting salmonella in a batch of chocolates.
The Barry Callebaut company said Thursday that its plant in Wieze – which it says is the world’s largest chocolate factory – shut down all production lines as a precaution while the contamination is investigated.
Barry Callebaut produces chocolate for multiple brands sold around the world.
The salmonella was detected Monday, and all chocolate products made at the plant were placed on hold pending investigation, the company said. It identified lecithin, an emulsifier routinely used in making chocolates, as the source of the contamination.
The company said it informed Belgian food safety authorities and is contacting customers who might have contaminated products in their possession.
It is unclear whether any consumers have reported being sickened by the chocolates.
Earlier this year, at least 200 reported cases of salmonella were believed linked to chocolate Easter eggs made in another Belgian plant operated by Italian company Ferrero.