Can crisis-stricken Afghanistan be prevented from becoming an extremists’ sanctuary again?

Special Could a bankrupt, unstable and internationally isolated Afghanistan once again become a sanctuary for extremists? (AFP)
Could a bankrupt, unstable and internationally isolated Afghanistan once again become a sanctuary for extremists? (AFP)
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Updated 25 June 2022

Can crisis-stricken Afghanistan be prevented from becoming an extremists’ sanctuary again?

Can crisis-stricken Afghanistan be prevented from becoming an extremists’ sanctuary again?
  • Concerns growing about the future of bankrupt, unstable and internationally isolated country
  • IS-K exploiting disunity among Taliban over whether to embrace pragmatism or ideological purity

LONDON: Nearly a year into the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan following the US military withdrawal, there is mounting concern that the bankrupt, unstable and internationally isolated country could once again become a sanctuary for extremist groups and even a launchpad for global terrorism.

The US beat a rushed retreat from Afghanistan in August 2021 after reaching a shaky peace deal with the Taliban, whose leaders pledged to never again offer sanctuary to extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda, which had plotted the 9/11 attacks from Afghan soil.

The hope was that Afghanistan would not become a hotbed of international terrorism as it had been in 2001, and that a plot for an attack of 9/11’s magnitude would never again emanate from the country.

But in common with millions of Afghans, not many South Asian observers were convinced of the Taliban’s sincerity, believing instead that the country was being hijacked yet again by a violent and insular fundamentalist group.

“I do think that Afghanistan has already become a hive of terrorism,” Ahmad Wali Massoud, a former ambassador of Afghanistan to the UK, told Arab News.

“Already we can see many strands of terrorism, from Al-Qaeda to Daesh. They are already staying inside Afghanistan, they are being protected by the Taliban, they are protected by the government of Taliban inside Afghanistan.”

Massoud is the younger brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik guerrilla commander who until the Taliban’s return to power last year was feted as Afghanistan’s national hero.




Daesh’s Afghanistan franchise, IS-K, remains a threat to the Taliban’s grip on power. (AFP)

“The US departure from Afghanistan was very unrealistic, very irresponsible, it was not coordinated well, and ignored the people of Afghanistan,” Ahmad Wali Massoud told Arab News.

“The US left their allies, the people of Afghanistan, the security forces of Afghanistan, which they helped for almost 20 years. They completely ignored them. They left them alone to the mercy of terrorism, of the Taliban, of extremism.”

Today, Ahmad Wali Massoud’s nephew, Ahmad Massoud, heads the National Resistance Front against the Taliban in his native Panjshir, north of Kabul, where his father had famously resisted the Soviets and the Taliban decades earlier.

Recent fighting in Panjshir does not still represent a challenge to the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan, but it is the most significant and sustained armed opposition the group has faced since returning to power.

For Massoud and others, the idea that, once in power, the Taliban would act less like an insurgent movement and more like a government for all Afghans, was not quite grounded in reality.

With political violence now rife across the country, freedom of speech curtailed, and the rights of women and girls eroding steadily, war-weary Afghans’ mood is one of deepening pessimism.

Responding to the developments since last August, the US and global financial institutions have frozen Afghanistan’s assets, withheld aid and loans, and sought to isolate the Taliban regime.




A recently released UN report says IS-K has between 1,500 and 4,000 fighters, “concentrated in remote areas” of Kunar, Nangarhar and possibly Nuristan provinces. (AFP)

As a result, the Afghan government is perpetually on the brink of economic collapse and, in some parts of the country, the specter of famine looms. Almost half the population — 20 million people — is experiencing acute hunger, according to a UN-backed report issued in May.

On Wednesday, the country faced a new humanitarian crisis when a magnitude 5.9 earthquake struck the country’s east, killing more than 1,000 people and injuring another 1,500. Most of the deaths occurred in the provinces of Paktika, Khost and Nangarhar.

Additionally, the Taliban finds itself battling a violent insurgency led by Daesh’s local franchise, the Islamic State in Khorasan, or IS-K, which in recent months has repeatedly targeted members of minority communities including Shiites, Sikhs and Sufis.

A recently released UN report says IS-K has between 1,500 and 4,000 fighters, “concentrated in remote areas” of Kunar, Nangarhar and possibly Nuristan provinces. According to the study, smaller, covert cells are located in northern and northeastern provinces, including Badakhshan, Takhar, Jowzjan, Kunduz and Faryab.

While the Taliban is satisfied with setting up an Islamic polity within Afghanistan, the goal of IS-K is to create a single state for the entire Muslim world, according to scholars of political Islam.

IS-K is seeking to exploit dissension within the Taliban ranks over whether the group should embrace pragmatism or ideological purity. The tensions are intensified by the hodge-podge of entities in Afghanistan, including Daesh, the Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

INNUMBERS

* 20m Afghans experiencing acute hunger.

* 1,000+ Death toll of June 22 earthquake.

* 1,500+ UN estimate of IS-K fighters in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s dilemma as it tries to govern a country that has experienced 20 years of Western-led modernization was predicted by Kamran Bokhari in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 27, 2021.

“The Afghan Taliban have to change but can’t — not without causing an internal rupture,” he wrote. “Such changes ... require a long and tortuous process, and even then, transformation remains elusive.

“The risk of fracture is especially acute when a movement has to change behavior abruptly for geopolitical reasons.”

On the one hand, the number of bombings across Afghanistan has dropped since last August and Taliban 2.0 cannot be accused of directly sponsoring terrorism. On the other hand, the ensuing collapse of state authority in some rural areas and the loss of Western air support for counterinsurgency operations have been a blessing to extremist groups.

“The Taliban takeover has benefited militant groups in multiple ways,” Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center, told Arab News. 

“It has galvanized and energized an Islamist extremist network for which the expulsion of US troops from Muslim soil and the elimination of US-aligned governments are core goals. The takeover has also brought into power a group with close ideological and operational links to a wide range of militant groups.

“This means at the very least that the Taliban won’t try to expel these groups from Afghan territory, and in the case of the one group that it is targeting, IS-K, it lacks the discipline and capacity to undertake careful and effective counterterrorism tactics.

“On a related note, the Taliban lack the capacity to operate air power, which had been the main means used by NATO forces and the Afghan military to manage the IS-K threat. Furthermore, the Taliban has no ability to ease an acute economic crisis, and the widespread privation fosters an environment ripe for radicalization. This benefits the IS-K.”




One of the deadliest earthquakes in decades on June 22 has added to Afghanistan’s woes. (AFP)

Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the international community’s patience has flagged and attention has shifted toward the war in Ukraine and the alarming prospect of a direct confrontation between Russia and NATO states.

Kugelman believes the terror threats emanating from Afghanistan fell off the radar long before Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

“I would argue that the world was letting the terrorism threat in Afghanistan fester well before the Ukraine war, mainly because the US had struggled to build out the capacity to monitor and target terrorist threats in Afghanistan from outside the country,” he told Arab News.

“This isn’t a big problem now, given that the threat is not what it used to be. But if this neglect allows the global terrorism threat in Afghanistan to gradually grow back and the US and its partners still don’t have a plan, then all bets are off and there could be big problems.”

To be sure, the situation in Afghanistan is still very different from that of pre-2001, when the entire Al-Qaeda leadership was based in the country as guests of Mullah Omar, the founder and then-leader of the Taliban.

Al-Qaeda and its then-leader Osama bin Laden had initially been welcomed to Afghanistan by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a Mujahideen leader, after bin Laden’s 1996 expulsion from Sudan.

In Afghanistan’s political and geographic isolation inherited by the Taliban, Al-Qaeda was able to freely plot its attacks against the US.

In April 2001, just a few months before 9/11 and his own assassination at the hands of Al-Qaeda operatives, Ahmad Shah Massoud had addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg, warning the West would pay a heavy price if it continued to allow extremism to fester in Afghanistan.

Does that fateful speech have any relevance to the current situation?




Afghan residents and family members of the victims gather next to a damaged vehicle inside a house, day after a US drone airstrike in Kabul on August 30, 2021. (AFP)

“While one should never be complacent, it’s safe to say the global terrorism threat emanating from Afghanistan isn’t as serious today as it was when Massoud issued his warning in 2001,” said Kugelman.

“Al-Qaeda has become much weaker and the only other group in Afghanistan with globally focused goals is a Daesh chapter that currently can’t project a threat beyond the immediate region.

“That said, let’s be clear: With NATO forces out of Afghanistan and an Al-Qaeda-allied regime now in power, the ground is fertile in the medium term for international terror groups to reconstitute themselves — and especially if we see new influxes of foreign fighters into Afghanistan that can bring shock troops, arms, money, and tactical expertise to these groups.”

In exile in Europe, Ahmad Wali Massoud is convinced that the Trump and Biden administrations made a grave error in deciding to negotiate with the Taliban and in withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Allowing the group to return to power, he believes, will inevitably transform Afghanistan into a terror heartland — a development he is convinced, just as his brother warned, will come back to haunt the West.

“I think, by now, they must have realized, after almost a year, that they have made a mistake, because they know now that the Taliban is out of control,” Massoud told Arab News.

“I do think that if the situation remains like this, they will pay a very high price. Of course, Afghanistan has already paid a very high price. But I’m pretty sure the US will also pay a very high price.”

 


Men face sentencing for hate crimes in Ahmaud Arbery’s death

Men face sentencing for hate crimes in Ahmaud Arbery’s death
Updated 6 sec ago

Men face sentencing for hate crimes in Ahmaud Arbery’s death

Men face sentencing for hate crimes in Ahmaud Arbery’s death
SAVANNAH: Months after they were sentenced to life in prison for murder, the three white men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery in a Georgia neighborhood faced a second round of criminal penalties Monday for federal hate crimes committed in the deadly pursuit of the 25-year-old Black man.
US District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood scheduled back-to-back hearings to individually sentence each of the defendants, starting with Travis McMichael, who blasted Arbery with a shotgun after the street chase initiated by his father and joined by a neighbor.
Arbery’s killing on Feb. 23, 2020, became part of a larger national reckoning over racial injustice and killings of unarmed Black people including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. Those two cases also resulted in the Justice Department bringing federal charges.
When they return to court Monday in Georgia, McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan face possible life sentences after a jury convicted them in February of federal hate crimes, concluding that they violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because of his race. All three face were also found guilty of attempted kidnapping, and the McMichaels face additional penalties for using firearms to commit a violent crime.
Whatever punishments they receive in federal court could ultimately prove more symbolic than anything. A state Superior Court judge imposed life sentences for all three men in January for Arbery’s murder, with both McMichaels denied any chance of parole.
All three defendants have remained jailed in coastal Glynn County, in the custody of US marshals, while awaiting sentencing after their federal convictions in January.
Because they were first charged and convicted of murder in a state court, protocol would have them turned them over to the Georgia Department of Corrections to serve their life terms in a state prison.
In a court filings last week, both Travis and Greg McMichael asked the judge to instead divert them to a federal prison, saying they won’t be safe in a Georgia prison system that’s the subject of a US Justice Department investigation focused on violence between inmates.
Arbery’s family has insisted the McMichaels and Bryan should serve their sentences in a state prison, arguing a federal penitentiary wouldn’t be as tough. His parents objected forcefully before the federal trial when both McMichaels sought a plea deal that would have included a request to transfer them to federal prison. The judge ended up rejecting the plea agreement.
A federal judge doesn’t have the authority to order the state to relinquish its lawful custody of inmates to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said Ed Tarver, an Augusta lawyer and former US attorney for the Southern District of Georgia. He said the judge could request that the state corrections agency turn the defendants over to a federal prison.
The McMichaels armed themselves with guns and jumped in a truck to chase Arbery after spotting him running past their home outside the port city of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck, helping cut off Arbery’s escape. He also recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery at close range as Arbery threw punches and grabbed at the shotgun.
The McMichaels told police they suspected Arbery had been stealing from a nearby house under construction. But authorities later concluded he was unarmed and had committed no crimes. Arbery’s family has long insisted he was merely out jogging.
Still, more than two months passed before any charges were filed in Arbery’s death. The McMichaels and Bryan were arrested only after the graphic video of the shooting leaked online and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police.
During the February hate crimes trial, prosecutors fortified their case that Arbery’s killing was motivated by racism by showing the jury roughly two dozen text messages and social media posts in which Travis McMichael and Bryan used racist slurs and made disparaging comments about Black people. A woman testified to hearing an angry rant from Greg McMichael in 2015 in which he said: “All those Blacks are nothing but trouble.”
Defense attorneys for the three men argued the McMichaels and Bryan didn’t pursue Arbery because of his race but acted on an earnest — though erroneous — suspicion that Arbery had committed crimes in their neighborhood.

Two more grain ships sail from Ukraine, Turkey says

Two more grain ships sail from Ukraine, Turkey says
Updated 2 min ago

Two more grain ships sail from Ukraine, Turkey says

Two more grain ships sail from Ukraine, Turkey says
  • Grains shipment part of a deal to unblock Ukrainian sea exports

ISTANBUL: Two more grain-carrying ships have sailed from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports on Monday, Turkey’s defense ministry said, as part of a deal to unblock Ukrainian sea exports.
The Sacura, which departed from Yuzni, is carrying 11,000 tons of soybeans to Italy, it said, while the Arizona, which left Chernomorsk, is carrying 48,458 tons of corn to Iskenderun in southern Turkey.


Hong Kong reduces COVID-19 quarantine for arrivals

Hong Kong reduces COVID-19 quarantine for arrivals
Updated 13 min 50 sec ago

Hong Kong reduces COVID-19 quarantine for arrivals

Hong Kong reduces COVID-19 quarantine for arrivals
  • Hong Kong will implement a health code system similar to mainland China’s on a government-developed tracking app
  • Under the new system, an infected person will be given a red code that prevents them from leaving quarantine

HONG KONG: Hong Kong will cut mandatory hotel quarantine for international arrivals from one week to three days from Friday, Chief Executive John Lee announced in an easing of COVID-19 restrictions that have severely curbed travel.
Once a global logistics and transportation hub, Hong Kong has been largely cut off from the rest of the world for more than two years under its strict adherence to China’s zero-COVID policy.
Under some of the world’s tightest pandemic rules, Hong Kong had required overseas and Taiwan arrivals to undergo seven days of mandatory quarantine and repeated testing while confined to a room in a designated hotel, a restriction that residents and the business community complained had deterred them from traveling.
Lee, Hong Kong’s ex-security chief turned city leader, announced Monday that the quarantine period for arrivals would be shortened to three days’ hotel quarantine plus four days of health monitoring at home or a hotel of their choice.
“We hope to maintain livelihood activities and Hong Kong’s competitiveness, and to give the society the best development momentum and economic vitality,” Lee said.
He denied the easing signalled any departure from China’s policy.
“Staying in touch with the outside world and working to resume quarantine-free travel with the mainland are no contradiction,” he said.
Alongside the new quarantine arrangements, Hong Kong will implement a health code system similar to mainland China’s on a government-developed tracking app.
Under the system, an infected person will be given a red code that prevents them from leaving quarantine.
Overseas arrivals will be given a yellow code and will not be allowed in places such as restaurants, bars, gyms, and cinemas during their four days of self monitoring.


China says continuing military drills around Taiwan

China says continuing military drills around Taiwan
Updated 17 min 47 sec ago

China says continuing military drills around Taiwan

China says continuing military drills around Taiwan
  • Defies calls for Beijing to end its largest-ever exercises encircling the democratic island

BEIJING: China carried out fresh military drills around Taiwan Monday, Beijing said, defying calls for it to end its largest-ever exercises encircling the democratic island.
“The Chinese People’s Liberation Army continued to carry out practical joint exercises and training in the sea and airspace around Taiwan island, focusing on organizing joint anti-submarine and sea assault operations,” the Chinese military’s eastern command said in a statement.


North Korea to convene rubber-stamp parliament in September

North Korea to convene rubber-stamp parliament in September
Updated 08 August 2022

North Korea to convene rubber-stamp parliament in September

North Korea to convene rubber-stamp parliament in September
  • Under Kim, the North has made rapid progress on its weapons programs and has carried out a record-breaking blitz of tests this year, including firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at full range for the first time since 2017

SEOUL: North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament will hold its next session in September where it is set to discuss new laws and other organizational issues, state media said Monday.
The hermit state’s legislative body meets only once or twice a year, mostly for day-long sessions to approve budgets or other decisions deemed necessary by the ruling Workers’ Party.
“The 7th Session of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) of the DPRK will be convened in Pyongyang on September 7,” the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported.
“The session will discuss the issue of adopting the law on the socialist rural development and the law on landscaping and the organizational matter,” it added.
Such meetings are carefully monitored by observers for any changes to economic policy or a reshuffle of high-ranking officials.
It is unclear whether leader Kim Jong Un will attend the upcoming meeting. Kim did not attend the last session in February this year.
Under Kim, the North has made rapid progress on its weapons programs and has carried out a record-breaking blitz of tests this year, including firing an intercontinental ballistic missile at full range for the first time since 2017.
Last month, Kim said his country was “ready to mobilize” its nuclear deterrent in any future military conflict with Washington and Seoul.
Talks with the United States have been deadlocked since the collapse of a summit in 2019 between Kim and then-US president Donald Trump over sanctions relief and what the North would be willing to give up in exchange.
The meeting comes as North Korea has reported “no new Covid-19 fever cases” in recent days.
Pyongyang has also claimed that everyone who had fallen sick since an omicron outbreak in May has now recovered.
In a separate report, KCNA said the North would hold a national meeting early this month to review the “successes, experience and lessons in the state emergency anti-epidemic work.”