Taliban organize first loya jirga since last year’s takeover of Afghanistan

Taliban organize first loya jirga since last year’s takeover of Afghanistan
The loya jirga is a centuries-old institution, a forum to discuss and reach a consensus on important political issues. (AFP file Photo)
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Updated 28 June 2022

Taliban organize first loya jirga since last year’s takeover of Afghanistan

Taliban organize first loya jirga since last year’s takeover of Afghanistan
  • 3,000 participants from around country expected to arrive for meeting
  • Assembly being held after former administration officials returned to Kabul following months of exile

KABUL: The Afghan government was preparing to host a loya jirga, a grand assembly of scholars and leaders from around the country, authorities said on Tuesday, for what would be the first such meeting since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year.

The loya jirga is a centuries-old institution, a forum to discuss and reach a consensus on important political issues. It will be held as the Taliban — unacknowledged by foreign governments since they took control of the country — have been under mounting pressure to form an inclusive government to win international recognition.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is holding a large gathering of scholars based on the hopes and demands of scholars from across the country,” Bilal Karimi, deputy spokesperson of the Taliban government, told Arab News, adding that the Taliban government was “committed to solving the current issues in light of its facilities and limitations.”

Karimi did not confirm the exact dates of the meeting, but it was likely to begin as soon as Wednesday, according to last week’s announcement by the acting prime minister of Afghanistan, Mullah Mohammad Hasan Akhund.

Preparations for loya jirga were underway in the Afghan capital on Tuesday, and the Kabul Polytechnic University, where the gathering will be held, has called off classes until July 2. Loya jirga meetings usually take several days.

The assembly will be held as a number of former administration officials have returned to Kabul following months of exile abroad and declared readiness to serve the country after security assurances from its new authorities.

Most high-ranking officials left the country after its Western-backed government collapsed when the Taliban seized power in August, following the withdrawal of US-led forces after two decades of war.

Afghanistan’s former chief executive and lead peace negotiator between the previous government and the Taliban, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, also returned to the country last week, after being in India since May.

Karimi declined to comment on whether the former officials would take part in the meeting, but said, “there will be influential figures from all provinces.”

Local media reported that around 3,000 participants were expected to arrive for the meeting, as representatives from provinces have already started to depart for Kabul.

From southern Kandahar province, they started their more than 10-hour-long journey on Monday.

Javed Ahmad Tanveer, a Kandahar-based journalist, told Arab News: “One-hundred-and-seven scholars and tribal elders from Kandahar city and districts traveled to Kabul for the planned gathering.”

The meeting will be the first such gathering since the Taliban takeover, but Torek Farhadi, analyst and adviser to the former government, told Arab News that its significance would be symbolic, with no impact on solving the country’s current challenges.

He said: “Afghanistan is facing three problems right now: Monopoly of power, restrictions on women’s rights, and concerns about unequal treatment of minorities.

“An allegiance from 3,000 selected guests by the Taliban in a meeting will not fix any of these problems, nor will it confer any internal or external legitimacy to the Taliban government.”


Eye-watering onion prices make Philippine staple a luxury

Eye-watering onion prices make Philippine staple a luxury
Updated 31 January 2023

Eye-watering onion prices make Philippine staple a luxury

Eye-watering onion prices make Philippine staple a luxury
  • Onion prices have soared in recent months, reaching as high as 800 pesos (nearly $15) a kilogram in Manila supermarkets, making them more expensive than chicken or pork

BONGABON, Philippines: Even before his onions are fully grown, Philippine farmer Luis Angeles races to harvest the crop and cash in on eye-watering prices for a vegetable that has become a luxury item in the country.
Onion prices have soared in recent months, reaching as high as 800 pesos (nearly $15) a kilogram in Manila supermarkets, making them more expensive than chicken or pork.
Some restaurants have stripped the staple ingredient from dishes, while many families already grappling with the highest inflation in 14 years have stopped eating them.
To meet demand and push retail prices back below 200 pesos, the government has approved the importation of 21,000 tons of onions and faces calls to crack down on traders suspected of hoarding.
But prices remain stubbornly high and onion farmers like Angeles have been harvesting earlier than usual to reap the windfall.
“What is happening is historic,” said Angeles, 37, as his workers pulled undersized red and white bulbs out of the soil near the northern town of Bongabon, the country’s self-proclaimed “onion capital.”
“This is the first time that prices have reached this level.”
When he began harvesting last month, Angeles received as much as 250 pesos per kilogram for his crop.
By the time his onions reached Manila supermarket shelves, the price had more than doubled, exceeding the daily minimum wage.

Customers shop for onions at a market in Manila. (Jam Sta. Rosa / AFP) 

“I told my family, ‘Let’s just smell the onion instead of eating it’,” Candy Roasa, 56, said as she walked through a market in the capital where she has seen vendors selling bulbs the size of a small child’s fist for as much as 80 pesos each.
As onion memes spread on social media, the humble vegetable has become a symbol of wealth in the poverty-afflicted country.
At least one bride used pricey bulbs instead of flowers for her wedding bouquet.
Philippine Airlines crew members on a recent flight from the Middle East were busted trying to smuggle a few bags of the pungent commodity through Manila’s airport.

It is not the first time the Philippines has experienced a shortage of a basic food staple that caused prices to spike — sugar, salt and rice have all been hit in the past.
Poor yields, high costs, insufficient investment in irrigation and machinery, lack of access to cold storage facilities and farm-to-market roads, and crop-destroying typhoons have long impacted the sector.
Pest outbreaks as well as soaring oil and fertilizer prices since Russia invaded Ukraine last year have only added to farmers’ woes.

A farmer harvests onions at a farm in Bongabon, Nueva Ecija province in the northern Philippines. (Jam Sta. Rosa / AFP) 

Despite government pledges to boost domestic food production, the country relies heavily on imports to feed its growing population — but tariffs fuel inflation.
President Ferdinand Marcos appointed himself agriculture secretary to overhaul the near-moribund industry, which accounts for about a quarter of the country’s employment but only makes up 10 percent of gross domestic product.
“Our agriculture sector is significantly challenged,” said Geny Lapina, agricultural economics and management professor at the University of the Philippines.
Every Filipino eats an average of 2.34 kilograms of onions per year and theoretically the country produces enough to meet the demand, official data shows.
But since the tropical climate only allows one planting per year of the rain-averse crop, stocks are consumed or spoil well before the next harvest.
The recent lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, which allowed the resumption of food-focused festivals and family gatherings for Christmas, triggered soaring demand for onions.
William Dar, who was agriculture secretary in former president Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, said the shortage could have been avoided if the current government had allowed imports back in August.
“This is the net result of the poor planning,” Dar told local broadcaster ABS-CBN.
There are growing concerns about future food security in the Philippines, which is ranked among the most vulnerable nations to the impacts of climate change and is plagued by poor nutrition.
The median age of farmers is 57 and the average farm plot has shrunk to around 1.3 hectares from nearly three hectares in the 1960s.
Many farmers are sharecroppers who do not own the land they till and cannot afford to make much-needed investments to improve productivity without government help.
Salvador Catelo, an agricultural economist at the University of the Philippines, said there were “lots of daunting challenges to be immediately solved.”
“We have rich natural resource endowments which are absent in many countries that are performing (better) than us in terms of productivity and self-sufficiency,” Catelo said.
As imported onions flow into the country, Angeles fears farm-gate prices could plummet to as low as 30 pesos per kilogram before he finishes his harvest.
“We are just trying to make our investment survive,” he said.


Earthquake rocks China’s northwestern Xinjiang region

Earthquake rocks China’s northwestern Xinjiang region
Updated 31 January 2023

Earthquake rocks China’s northwestern Xinjiang region

Earthquake rocks China’s northwestern Xinjiang region
  • The China Earthquake Networks Center registered the quake at a preliminary magnitude of 6.1, while the US Geological Survey reported it as 5.7

BEIJING: Residents and travelers sought shelter after a strong earthquake rocked a remote part of northwestern China on Monday morning.
No injuries or major damage have been reported following the temblor that struck the Xinjiang region at 7:49 a.m., according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
State broadcaster CCTV showed footage of people evacuating an airport departure hall and ceiling fixtures swaying as the ground rocked. Ground crews were seen inspecting the airport’s exterior as the sun began to rise over the region’s Shahe county.
The China Earthquake Networks Center registered the quake at a preliminary magnitude of 6.1, while the US Geological Survey reported it as 5.7.
A vast, resource-rich region of mountains and deserts, Xinjiang is one of China’s most seismically volatile regions, though most quakes strike in sparsely inhabited areas outside major cities.
Investigators were checking on the epicenter but no disruptions had been reported to the local power grid, oil and gas production or petrochemical industries, Xinhua said.
China’s deadliest recent earthquake was magnitude 7.9 that struck Sichuan province, south of Xinjiang, in 2008, killing nearly 90,000 people.

 


China’s Sichuan to scrap three-child limit as birth rates drop

Visitors enjoy skating on the crowded frozen Houhai Lake near the Drum Tower, background, in Beijing, Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. (AP
Visitors enjoy skating on the crowded frozen Houhai Lake near the Drum Tower, background, in Beijing, Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. (AP
Updated 31 January 2023

China’s Sichuan to scrap three-child limit as birth rates drop

Visitors enjoy skating on the crowded frozen Houhai Lake near the Drum Tower, background, in Beijing, Monday, Jan. 30, 2023. (AP
  • The last time China’s population declined was in 1960, as the country battled the worst famine in its modern history, caused by the disastrous Mao Zedong agricultural policy known as the Great Leap Forward

BEIJING: Southwest China’s Sichuan province will lift its three-child birth limit and remove restrictions on single parents as the world’s most populous nation faces a looming demographic crisis.
China’s population shrank last year for the first time in more than six decades, official data released this month showed, and the nation of 1.4 billion has seen birth rates plunge to record lows as its workforce ages.
China ended its strict “one-child policy” — imposed in the 1980s out of fears of overpopulation — in 2016 and began allowing couples to have three children in 2021.
But that has failed to reverse the demographic decline.
Faced with falling birth rates, authorities in Sichuan on Monday said they would remove the limit on the number of children a family can have and lift a ban on single women registering a birth.
The Sichuan Provincial Health Commission said the new rules would take effect on February 15.
Out-of-wedlock births are frowned upon in China, with the National Health Commission saying in 2017 that they were “against the public order and against good morals.”
The last time China’s population declined was in 1960, as the country battled the worst famine in its modern history, caused by the disastrous Mao Zedong agricultural policy known as the Great Leap Forward.
The population stood at around 1,411,750,000 at the end of 2022, Beijing’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported recently, a decrease of 850,000 from the end of the previous year.
Many point to the soaring cost of living — as well as a growing number of women in the workforce and seeking higher education — as being behind the slowdown.
Many local authorities have already launched measures to encourage couples to have children.
The southern megacity of Shenzhen, for example, now offers birth bonuses of up to 10,000 yuan (around $1,500) and pays allowances until the child is three years old.


What’s behind the Pakistani Taliban’s insurgency?

What’s behind the Pakistani Taliban’s insurgency?
Updated 31 January 2023

What’s behind the Pakistani Taliban’s insurgency?

What’s behind the Pakistani Taliban’s insurgency?
  • TTP is separate from but a close ally of the Afghan Taliban, and that group’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 emboldened the TTP

ISLAMABAD: When a suicide bomber struck a mosque inside a police compound in the northwestern city of Peshawar on Monday, suspicion immediately fell on the Pakistani Taliban, also known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP.
In a post on Twitter, a commander for the group, Sarbakaf Mohmand, claimed responsibility for one of the deadliest attacks on security forces in recent months.
But more than 10 hours later, TTP spokesperson Mohammad Khurasani distanced the group from the bombing, saying it was not its policy to target mosques or other religious sites, adding that those taking part in such acts could face punitive action under TTP’s policy. His statement did not address why a TTP commander had claimed responsibility for the bombing.
The TTP’s denial also came after the Afghan Foreign Ministry condemned attacks on worshippers as contrary to the teachings of Islam.
Relations already are strained between Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers, who are sheltering the TTP leadership and fighters.
A look at the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which has waged an insurgency in the country for 15 years:
Why is the TTP fighting an insurgency?
Angered by Pakistan’s cooperation with Washington in the war on terrorism, the TTP was officially set up by Pakistani militants in 2007 when different outlawed groups agreed to work together against Pakistan and support the Afghan Taliban, who were fighting US and NATO forces.
The TTP seeks stricter enforcement of Islamic laws, the release of its members in government custody, and a reduction in Pakistani military presence in parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province bordering Afghanistan that it has long used as a base.

Caption

The TTP has stepped up attacks on Pakistani soldiers and police since November, when it unilaterally ended a cease-fire with the government after the failure of months of talks, hosted by Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers in Kabul. The TTP has repeatedly warned police not to take part in operations against its fighters in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
What is the relationship between the TTP and the Afghan Taliban?
The TTP is separate from but a close ally of the Afghan Taliban, and that group’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 emboldened the TTP, which shares the group’s ideology.
TTP fighters used to hide in Pakistan’s tribal northwest and also had sanctuary in Afghanistan, but they mostly lived a fugitive existence.
However, the Afghan Taliban started openly sheltering the TTP when they came to power. The Afghan Taliban also released TTP leaders and fighters who had been arrested by previous administrations in Kabul.
The Taliban have repeatedly said they will not allow anyone, including the TTP, to use Afghan soil for attacks against any country, including Pakistan. But Pakistani officials say there is a disconnect between the words and actions of the Afghan Taliban, who could stop the TTP from launching attacks inside the country but are failing to do so.


ALSO READ: 59 killed, 157 wounded, as suicide blast rips through Pakistan police mosque

The Pakistani Taliban have expressed their allegiance to the head of the Afghan Taliban, said Abdullah Khan, a senior defense analyst and managing director of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies.
He added, however, that they have their own agenda and strategy.
TTP’s operations have largely been aimed at targeting Pakistani forces, similar to the Afghan Taliban’s agenda of ousting foreign forces from the country.
Khan fears that Pakistan will see a surge in militant violence in the coming weeks and months.
Has viollence increased recently?
Pakistan has seen innumerable militant attacks in the past two decades, but there has been an uptick since November, when the TTP ended a cease-fire with the government that had lasted for months.
The Pakistani Taliban regularly carry out shootings or bombings, especially in the rugged and remote northwestern Pakistan, a former TTP stronghold.
The violence has raised fears among residents of a possible military operation in the former tribal regions of North and South Waziristan, now two districts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Hours after Monday’s mosque bombing, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told the independent Geo news channel that Afghan Taliban rulers must stand by their commitment to the international community to not allow anyone to use their soil for attacks against another country.
“They should honor their promises,” he said.


US seeks to expand birth control coverage under Obamacare

US seeks to expand birth control coverage under Obamacare
Updated 31 January 2023

US seeks to expand birth control coverage under Obamacare

US seeks to expand birth control coverage under Obamacare
  • If the new rule is implemented, women enrolled in plans governed by the ACA would gain birth control coverage regardless of employer exemption, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said in a statement

WASHINGTON: Women whose employers have opted out of covering contraceptives under their health insurance plans on religious grounds would gain no-cost access to birth control under a rule proposed by the Biden administration on Monday.
The Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare, requires private insurance plans to cover recommended preventive services including contraception without any patient cost-sharing, but current regulations grant exemptions for religious or moral objections.
If the new rule is implemented, women enrolled in plans governed by the ACA would gain birth control coverage regardless of employer exemption, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said in a statement.
“Today’s proposed rule works to ensure that the tens of millions of women across the country who have and will benefit from the ACA will be protected. It says to women across the country, we have your back,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra.
Under existing regulations, those enrolled in plans that do not cover contraception on religious or moral grounds can only access contraceptive services through an accommodation that employers can decline to offer.
Under the new rule, a provider would offer contraception at no cost to the employee and be reimbursed by an insurer, who would receive a credit from the government.
The rule would also remove employer moral objections as grounds for exemption from coverage but keep religious ones in place.