Taliban torn over reforms one year after seizing power

Taliban torn over reforms one year after seizing power
On a superficial level at least, the Taliban appear to have changed in some respects. (AFP)
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Updated 13 August 2022

Taliban torn over reforms one year after seizing power

Taliban torn over reforms one year after seizing power
  • The group’s hard-line core, composed of battle-hardened veteran fighters, is against any significant ideological change that could be viewed as a sign of capitulation to their enemies in the West

KANDAHAR: One year on from the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, some cracks are opening within their ranks over the crucial question of just how much reform their leaders can tolerate.
Infamous during their first reign for their brutal crackdowns on rights and freedoms, the Islamists vowed to rule differently this time.
On a superficial level at least, they appear to have changed in some respects.
Officials in Kabul have embraced technology, while cricket matches are cheered in full stadiums.
Televisions were banned under the Taliban government’s first incarnation, while Afghans now have access to the Internet and social media.
Girls are allowed to attend primary school and women journalists are interviewing government officials — unthinkable during the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s.
The group’s hard-line core, composed of battle-hardened veteran fighters, is against any significant ideological change that could be viewed as a sign of capitulation to their enemies in the West.
“You have one (Taliban) camp, which is pushing ahead with what they’re seeing as reforms, and another camp that seems to think even these meagre reforms are too much,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan analyst with International Crisis Group.

The United States and its allies — which had bankrolled Afghanistan for 20 years — have locked the country out of the global banking system and billions in frozen assets abroad, as they hold out for reforms from the Taliban.
Without significant progress, it is the Afghan people who suffer as the country reels under a massive economic crisis that has seen some families choose between selling their organs or their infant daughters.
On whether the Taliban are even capable of reform, analysts are wary that recent policy changes amount to little more than “tokenism.”
“There are some cases where we could point to an evolution in policy, but let’s be very clear... We’re still looking at an organization that has refused to move beyond very retrograde, dogmatic views,” said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan specialist with the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank.
Most secondary schools for girls remain closed. Many women have been forced out of government work, while many fear venturing out and being chastised by the Taliban.
Simple joys such as music, shisha and card games are strictly controlled in the most conservative areas, while protests have been crushed and journalists regularly threatened or detained.
Demands from the West for an inclusive government were ignored, and the assassination of Al-Qaeda’s leader in Kabul last week underlined the Taliban’s ongoing ties with jihadist groups.
It is from the Taliban’s power base of southern Kandahar that the secretive supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada gathers his powerful inner circle of veteran fighters and religious clerics to impose a harsh interpretation of sharia.
And for them, ideological concerns outweigh any political or economic drivers to effect change.
“The needs of the Afghans remain the same as 20 years ago,” Mohammad Omar Khitabi, a member of a council of clerics who advise Akhundzada in Kandahar, told AFP.
His thoughts are echoed by Kandahar’s Vice and Virtue Director Abdul Rahman Tayabi, another close aide of the supreme leader.
“Our people do not have too many demands, like people in other countries might have,” he told AFP.
Afghan families were left stunned in March when Akhundzada overturned the education ministry’s decision to reopen secondary schools for girls.
Some analysts believe he felt uneasy over what could be seen by hard-liners as an act of surrender to the West on girls’ rights.
Hopes of restoring international money flows were shattered — to the dismay of many Taliban officials in Kabul, some of whom spoke out against the decision.
Relations with Western diplomats — who meet regularly with Taliban ministers but have no access to Akhundzada — suffered a major setback.
A slew of directives that harked back to the first reign of the Taliban quickly followed.
“The decisions that (Akhundzada) has made so far are all based on the opinions of religious scholars,” said Abdul Hadi Hammad, the head of a madrassa and member of the supreme leader’s advisory council.
Akhundzada has stressed the need for unity in the movement as he carefully seeks to balance several factions — including competing groups that claim the credit for the 2021 victory over US-led forces.
While advisers to Akhundzada claim the Taliban can survive without foreign income, unlocking billions of dollars in frozen assets abroad would be a crucial lifeline.
“We know the Taliban can be transactional, but they cannot appear to be transactional,” a Western diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Within the movement, no one dares openly challenge Akhundzada’s power, but discontent is quietly growing among the lower ranks.
“Taliban guards are getting their salaries late, and their salaries are low too. They are unhappy,” said one mid-level Taliban official based in northwestern Pakistan, who asked not to be named.
Many have returned to their villages or traveled to Pakistan to take up different work, another Taliban member added.
Attempts by the movement to shore up revenue through lucrative coal mining have sparked infighting in the north, exacerbated by ethnic divisions and religious sectarianism.
With winter only a few months away, food security and freezing temperatures will put even more pressure on the leaders of one of the world’s poorest countries.
These mounting stresses have the potential to worsen divisions, Kugelman said, though likely not enough to force any dramatic shift in policy.
“If the Taliban leadership start to feel very real threats to their political survival, then could they change?” he asked.
“Given that they are ideologically focused, that may not be the case.”


Russian military recruiter shot amid fear of Ukraine call-up

Russian military recruiter shot amid fear of Ukraine call-up
Updated 32 sec ago

Russian military recruiter shot amid fear of Ukraine call-up

Russian military recruiter shot amid fear of Ukraine call-up
  • Zinin was arrested and officials vowed tough punishment. Authorities said the military commandant was in intensive care

KYIV, Ukraine: A young man shot a Russian military officer at close range at an enlistment office Monday, an unusually bold attack reflecting resistance to Russian President Vladimir Putin's efforts to mobilize hundreds of thousands of more men to wage war on Ukraine.
The shooting comes after scattered arson attacks on enlistment offices and protests in Russian cities against the military call-up that have resulted in at least 2,000 arrests. Russia is seeking to bolster its military as its Ukraine offensive has bogged down.
In the attack in the Siberian city of Ust-Ilimsk, 25-year-old resident Ruslan Zinin walked into the enlistment office saying “no one will go to fight” and “we will all go home now," according to local media.
Zinin was arrested and officials vowed tough punishment. Authorities said the military commandant was in intensive care. A witness quoted by a local news site said Zinin was in a roomful of people called up to fight and troops from his region were heading to military bases on Tuesday.
Protests also flared up in Dagestan, one of Russia’s poorer regions in the North Caucasus. Local media reported that “several hundred” demonstrators took to the streets Tuesday in its capital, Makhachkala. Videos circulated online showing dozens of protesters tussling with the police sent to disperse them.
Demonstrations also continued in another of Russia’s North Caucasus republics, Kabardino-Balkaria, where videos on social media showed a local official attempting to address a crowd of women.
Concerns are growing that Russia may seek to escalate the conflict — including potentially using nuclear weapons — once it completes what Ukraine and the West see as illegal referendums in occupied parts of Ukraine.
The voting, in which residents are asked whether they want their regions to become part of Russia, began last week and ends Tuesday, under conditions that are anything but free or fair. Tens of thousands of residents had already fled the regions amid months of fighting, and images shared by those who remained showed armed Russian troops going door-to-door to pressure Ukrainians into voting.
“Every night and day there is inevitable shelling in the Donbas, under the roar of which people are forced to vote for Russian ‘peace,’" Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kirilenko said Monday.
Russia is widely expected to declare the results in its favor, a step that could see Moscow annex the four regions and then defend them as its own territory.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday no date has been set for recognizing the regions as part of Russia but it could be just days away.
Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, said Russia would pay a high, if unspecified, price if it made good on veiled threats to use nuclear weapons in the war in Ukraine.
“If Russia crosses this line, there will be catastrophic consequences for Russia. The United States will respond decisively,” he told NBC.
Elsewhere, the British government on Monday slapped sanctions on 92 businesses and individuals it says are involved with organizing the referendums in occupied Ukraine. U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly called the votes on joining Russia “sham referendums held at the barrel of a gun.” He said they “follow a clear pattern of violence, intimidation, torture and forced deportations.”
The White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre likewise said Monday the U.S. “will never recognize” the four regions as part of Russia, and threatened Moscow with “swift and severe” economic costs.
Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alexander Lukashenko, meanwhile, held an unannounced meeting Monday in the southern Russian city of Sochi and claimed they were ready to cooperate with the West — “if they treat us with respect,” Putin said.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Monday that Putin had told Turkey’s president last week that Moscow was ready to resume negotiations with Ukraine but had “new conditions” for a cease-fire.
The Kremlin last week announced a partial mobilization — its first since World War II — to add at least 300,000 troops to its forces in Ukraine. The move, a sharp shift from Putin’s previous efforts to portray the war as a limited military operation, proved unpopular at home.
Thousands of Russian men of fighting age have flocked to airports and Russia's land border crossings to avoid being called up. Protests erupted across the country, and Russian media reported an increasing number of arson attacks on military enlistment offices.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday once again decried the Russian mobilization as nothing more than “an attempt to provide commanders on the ground with a constant stream of cannon fodder.”
In his nightly televised address, Zelenskyy referenced ongoing Russian attempts to punch through Ukrainian defense lines in the eastern industrial heartland of Donbas, a key target of Moscow’s military campaign.
“Despite the obvious senselessness of the war for Russia and the occupiers’ loss of initiative, the Russian military command still drives (troops) to their deaths,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly televised address.
The Ukrainian military on Monday said in its regular Facebook update that Moscow was focusing on “holding occupied territories and attempts to complete its occupation of the Donetsk region,” one of two that make up the Donbas. It added that Ukrainian troops continued holding Russian troops at bay along the frontline there.
Meanwhile, the first batches of new Russian troops mobilized by Moscow have begun to arrive at military bases, the British Defense Ministry said Monday, adding that tens of thousands had been called up so far.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday on Facebook that the Ukrainian military is pushing efforts to take back “the entire territory of Ukraine,” and has drawn up plans to counter “new types of weapons” used by Russia. He did not elaborate.
An overnight drone strike near the Ukrainian port of Odesa sparked a massive fire and explosion, the military said Monday. It was the latest drone attack on the key southern city in recent days, and hit a military installation, setting off ammunition. Firefighters struggled to contain the blaze.
New Russian shelling struck near the Zaporozhzhia nuclear power plant, according to Zelenskyy's office. Cities near the plant were fired on nine times by rocket launchers and heavy artillery.
Local Ukrainian officials said Monday evening that the strikes had wounded three civilians in the town of Marhanets, across the Dnieper river from the plant.
Russia also kept pummeling Ukrainian-held territory in the country’s east, parts of which have seen ramped-up shelling and missile strikes since Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive made sweeping gains there this month. At least seven civilians, including a 15-year-old girl, were killed Monday in a rocket attack on the city of Pervomayskiy in the northeastern Kharkiv region, local officials reported.
Further south, Ukrainian officials reported that a Russian missile on Monday evening destroyed a civilian airport in the eastern city of Kryvyi Rih, President Zelenskyy’s birthplace. The regional governor, Valentyn Reznichenko said that while there had been no casualties, the airport had been knocked out of commission.
In Ukraine’s industrial heartland of Donbas, four civilians were wounded on Monday after a Russian strike slammed into apartment blocks in the city of Kramatorsk, its mayor said on social media.
Kramatorsk is one of two largest Ukrainian-held cities remaining in the Donbas, and home to the headquarters of Ukrainian troops there.
In the town of Izium in eastern Ukraine, which Russian forces fled this month after a Ukrainian counteroffensive, Margaryta Tkachenko is still reeling from the battle that destroyed her home and left her family close to starvation with no gas, electricity, running water or internet.
“I can’t predict what will happen next. Winter is the most frightening. We have no wood. How will we heat?” she asked.

 


Putin grants Russian citizenship to US whistleblower Snowden

US whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks during an interview with The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong.
US whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks during an interview with The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong.
Updated 35 min 55 sec ago

Putin grants Russian citizenship to US whistleblower Snowden

US whistleblower Edward Snowden speaks during an interview with The Guardian newspaper at an undisclosed location in Hong Kong.
  • “Our position has not changed,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday. “Mr. Snowden should return to the United States where he should face justice as any other American citizen would”

MOSCOW: Russia on Monday granted citizenship to former American intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, who fled prosecution after he revealed highly classified US surveillance programs to capture communications and data from around the world.
A decree signed Monday by Russian President Vladimir Putin listed Snowden as one of 75 foreign citizens listed as being granted Russian citizenship. After fleeing the US in 2013, Snowden was granted permanent Russian residency in 2020 and said at the time that he planned to apply for Russian citizenship without renouncing his US citizenship.
Ties between Washington and Moscow are already at their lowest point in decades following Putin’s decision to launch what the Kremlin has dubbed a “special military operation” in Ukraine.
While Snowden, 39, is considered by supporters to be a righteous whistleblower who wanted to protect American civil liberties, US intelligence officials have accused him of putting US personnel at risk and damaging national security. He currently faces charges in the United States that could result in decades in prison.
“Our position has not changed,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday. “Mr. Snowden should return to the United States where he should face justice as any other American citizen would.”
Snowden becomes a Russian citizen as Moscow is mobilizing reservists to go to Ukraine. In Russia, almost every man is considered a reservist until age 65, and officials on Monday stressed that men with dual citizenship are also eligible for the military call-up.
Snowden, however, has never served in the Russian armed forces, so he is not eligible to be mobilized, his lawyer Anatoly Kucherena told the Interfax news agency. Having previous combat or military service experience has been considered the main criterion in the call-up.
Kucherena told Russia’s state news agency RIA Novosti that Snowden’s wife, Lindsay Mills, an American who has been living with him in Russia, will also be applying for a Russian passport. The couple has two children.
“After two years of waiting and nearly ten years of exile, a little stability will make a difference for my family,” Snowden tweeted Monday. “I pray for privacy for them — and for us all.”
Snowden, who has kept a low profile in Russia and occasionally criticized Russian government policies on social media, said in 2019 that he was willing to return to the US if he’s guaranteed a fair trial.
Snowden has become a well-known speaker on privacy and intelligence, appearing remotely at many events from Russia. But he has been sharply criticized by members of the intelligence community, and current and former officials from both US political parties say he endangered global security by exposing important programs. A US damage assessment of his disclosures is still classified.
James Clapper, who served as US director of national intelligence at the time of the disclosures, said Snowden’s grant of citizenship came with “rather curious timing.”
“It raises the question — again — about just what he shared with the Russians,” Clapper said in an email Monday.
Snowden has denied cooperating with Russian intelligence and was traveling through Moscow when the US revoked his passport.
Snowden leaked documents on the National Security Agency’s collection of data passing through the infrastructure of US phone and Internet companies. He also released details about the classified US intelligence budget and the extent of American surveillance on foreign officials, including the leaders of US-allied countries.
Snowden says he made the disclosures because he believed the US intelligence community had gone too far and wrongly infringed on civil liberties. He also has said he didn’t believe the administration of former President Barack Obama, which was in office when Snowden leaked the records to journalists, would act had he made an internal whistleblower complaint instead.
His decision to turn against the NSA came when he used his programming skills to to create a repository of classified in-house notes on the agency’s global snooping and as he built a backup system for agency data, he wrote in his 2019 book “Permanent Record.”
Reading through the repository, Snowden said he began to understand the extent of his government’s stomping on civil liberties and became “cursed with the knowledge that all of us had been reduced to something like children, who’d been forced to live the rest of their lives under omniscient parental supervision.”
Snowden was charged in 2013 with unauthorized disclosure of US national security and intelligence information as well as theft of government property. The three charges each carry a maximum 10-year penalty.
The Justice Department also sued to stop Snowden from collecting profits on his memoir, saying he had violated his nondisclosure agreements with intelligence agencies.
The White House on Monday referred comment on Snowden’s citizenship to the Justice Department, citing the pending criminal charges.

 


Blinken urges Pakistan to seek China debt relief after floods

Blinken urges Pakistan to seek China debt relief after floods
Updated 44 min 17 sec ago

Blinken urges Pakistan to seek China debt relief after floods

Blinken urges Pakistan to seek China debt relief after floods
  • Blinken promised strong US support for Pakistan as it dries out and rebuilds from the floods

WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Monday on Pakistan to seek debt relief from its close partner China as floods devastate the South Asian country.
Blinken promised strong US support for Pakistan as it dries out and rebuilds from the floods, which have submerged one-third of the country, an area the size of the United Kingdom.
“We send a simple message. We are here for Pakistan, just as we were during past natural disasters, looking ahead to rebuild,” Blinken said after talks with Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
“I also urged our colleagues to engage China on some of the important issues of debt relief and restructuring so that Pakistan can more quickly recover from the floods,” Blinken said.
China is a key economic and political partner of Pakistan, pushing ahead with a $54-billion “economic corridor” that will build infrastructure and give Beijing an outlet to the Indian Ocean.
Washington, whose Cold War alliance with Islamabad has frayed, has repeatedly charged that China will reap the benefits while Pakistan will face unsustainable debt.
The warnings by the United States — which considers China its preeminent global competitor — have repeatedly been brushed aside by Pakistan.
But Beijing has faced concerns about security following a series of attacks linked to separatists, including a suicide bombing in April on a minibus from a Chinese cultural program that killed four people, three of them Chinese.
Some 1,600 people have died in Pakistan’s floods and more than seven million displaced, amid fears that such severe disasters will become more commonBlinken promised strong US support for Pakistan as it dries out and rebuilds from the floods due to climate change.
The United States has committed $56 million in humanitarian aid and sent 17 planes full of supplies, with Blinken promising to look at longer-term support, as well.


UN speeches end with silence from Myanmar, Afghanistan

UN speeches end with silence from Myanmar, Afghanistan
Updated 26 September 2022

UN speeches end with silence from Myanmar, Afghanistan

UN speeches end with silence from Myanmar, Afghanistan
  • There was no speech from Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, who now control the nation after a US withdrawal, and no words from Myanmar, where a military junta toppled the civilian government
  • Myanmar and Afghanistan didn’t go entirely unmentioned at UNGA77 with Nepali FM Bharat Raj Paudyal referencing both countries

UNITED NATIONS: For the second straight year, Afghanistan and Myanmar were silent at the UN General Assembly’s leaders’ meeting, which ended Monday with no representative of either government stepping forward to talk as the United Nations tries to resolve who should represent them.
At the annual high-level meeting of leaders, there was no speech from Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban, who now control the nation after a US withdrawal last year, and no words from Myanmar, where a military junta toppled the civilian government last year and detained its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.
For Afghanistan, it mirrored last year’s assembly when the Taliban — in its second chapter of ruling the nation — tried to figure out how to interact with the United Nations.
Last month, the UN special envoy on Myanmar said she wouldn’t visit the Southeast Asia nation again unless its military government allows her to meet with Suu Kyi, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison, including a three-year term with hard labor imposed last week for alleged election fraud.
Myanmar’s military seized power in February 2021 from Suu Kyi’s elected government, plunging the country into what some UN experts have described as civil war. Critics say the charges subsequently brought against Suu Kyi and top figures in her Cabinet were fabricated to keep them out of politics.
In December, the UN delayed actions on both Afghanistan’s and Myanmar’s bid for seats. UN diplomats said then that the decision to delay the requests by Myanmar’s junta and the Taliban had wide support because of the actions of the two countries’ new rulers.
Myanmar and Afghanistan didn’t go entirely unmentioned Monday. Bharat Raj Paudyal, foreign secretary of Nepal, brought up both of them.
“Afghanistan has remained on the precipice of uncertainty and violence,” he noted, and asked all parties in Myanmar to “respect the will of the people to elect their representatives.”


World needs a ‘new paradigm for peace,’ Indonesian foreign minister tells UN General Assembly

World needs a ‘new paradigm for peace,’ Indonesian foreign minister tells UN General Assembly
Updated 26 September 2022

World needs a ‘new paradigm for peace,’ Indonesian foreign minister tells UN General Assembly

World needs a ‘new paradigm for peace,’ Indonesian foreign minister tells UN General Assembly
  • Retno Marsudi said it is the responsibility of all nations to ensure all peace efforts apply ‘consistently, not selectively or only when we see fit’

LONDON: Peaceful solutions offer the only hope for resolving conflicts around the globe, Indonesia’s foreign minister told the UN General Assembly Debate on Monday.

Focusing in particular on the plight of the peoples of Palestine and Afghanistan, Retno Marsudi said the world needs a “new paradigm to reignite the spirit of peace,” and added that it is a global responsibility to apply it “consistently, not selectively or only when we see fit.”

She continued: “The fundamental principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity are non-negotiable. For far too long, the people in Palestine have suffered and longed for peace. Until Palestine can truly become an independent state, Indonesia will stand firm in solidarity with our Palestinian brothers and sisters.

“People in Afghanistan also deserve a peaceful and prosperous life, where the rights of all people, including women, are equally respected, where access to education for women and girls are granted.

“Without this new paradigm, peace will remain an elusive dream.”

Marsudi also said the developing world is looking to the members of the G20, of which Indonesia currently holds the presidency, to spearhead economic recovery efforts worldwide.

“The whole world is pinning their hope on the G20 to be a catalyst of global economic recovery, especially for developing countries,” she said.

“The G20 must not fail. We cannot let global recovery fall at the mercy of geopolitics. We must act urgently to address food and energy crises and prevent a fertilizer crisis from happening, otherwise billions more people would be at risk, particularly in developing countries.”

Marsudi also echoed the growing calls during the General Assembly for reforms within the UN.

“Inclusive and meaningful engagement must trump a take-it-or-leave-it approach (and) the voices of all countries — big and small, developed and developing — must equally matter,” she said.

“This is the very foundation of multilateralism. That is why we need a strong and reformed UN. That is why we need a renewed multilateralism that is fit for purpose and that is fit for its time, and that is why we need a multilateralism that delivers.”