The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal

Special One year after the Taliban took over the country, Afghans are paying a high cost for the militants’ return to power in Afghanistan. (AFP/File Photo)
One year after the Taliban took over the country, Afghans are paying a high cost for the militants’ return to power in Afghanistan. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 14 August 2022

The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal

The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal
  • Aid-dependent economy remains in free fall since the Taliban takeover of the war-ravaged country
  • Prices of food and other essentials have soared as drought compounds financial collapse

KABUL: When the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, amid the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan, the group’s stunning return to power marked the end of two decades of warfare, which had killed tens of thousands of Afghans on their own soil. 

One year on, with the country pauperized and isolated on the world stage under its new leadership, life for ordinary Afghans has changed — largely for the worse.

During their first stint in power, from 1996 until late-2001, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, enforced with brutal public punishments and executions. 

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Women and girls were removed from public life, prevented from working or receiving an education, and even barred from leaving the house without the all-enveloping niqab and a male relative to chaperone them.

In Oct. 2001, US-led forces invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power, accusing the group of sheltering Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader deemed responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US that killed almost 3,000 people.




Edi Maa holding her baby receiving treatment for malnutrition at a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) nutrition centre in Herat. (AFP)

What followed were 20 blood-soaked years of fighting between the NATO-backed Afghan national forces and Taliban guerrilla fighters intent on retaking power.

While under the Western-backed administration, Afghanistan made progress with the emergence of independent media and a growing number of girls going to school and university. 

However, in many regions beyond the big cities, Afghans knew only war, depriving them of the many development projects implemented elsewhere by foreign donors.

Now that US-led forces have withdrawn and the Taliban has traded guerrilla warfare for the day-to-day running of the country, security has greatly improved.




During their first stint in power, from 1996 until late-2001, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, enforced with brutal public punishments and executions. (AFP)

“We only saw war in the past several years. Every day, we lived in fear. Now it’s calm and we feel safe,” Mohammad Khalil, a 69-year-old farmer in northwest Balkh province, told Arab News. “We can finally breathe.”

But the uneasy peace has come at a cost.

Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy has been in free fall since the Taliban returned to power. Billions of dollars in foreign assistance have been suspended and some $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets parked overseas have been frozen.

Denied international recognition, with aid suspended and the financial system in paralysis, the UN says that Afghanistan faces humanitarian catastrophe. About 20 percent of the country’s 38 million population are already on the brink of famine.

Afghanistan: One year since the Taliban takeover

Aug. 15, 2021 - Taliban campaign culminates with the fall of Kabul.

Aug. 30 - The last US troops depart Kabul airport after evacuating more than 120,000 people over 17 days.

September - A new interim government is unveiled. The Taliban bring back the feared religious police.

October - More than 120 people are killed in two Daesh-claimed mosque blasts in Kandahar and Kunduz.

Jan. 2022 - Deprived of aid, Afghanistan is plunged into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis.

March - The Taliban block secondary school girls from returning to class. Government employees must grow beards.

May - Women and girls are ordered to wear the hijab and cover their faces when in public. Women are banned from making long-distance journeys alone.

June - More than 1,000 people killed and thousands left homeless in a massive earthquake.

August - The US announces the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a drone strike on his Kabul hideout.

The price of essential commodities has soared as the value of the Afghan currency has plummeted. A continuing drought has further aggravated the situation in rural areas.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimates about 70 percent of Afghan families are unable to meet their basic food needs.

“Most of the time we eat bread and drink tea or just water. We can’t get meat, fruit or even vegetables for the children. Only a few people have goats or cows to feed the children with milk,” Khalil said.

In the capital, Kabul, food is widely available, but few can afford a vaied and nutritious diet.

“There are plenty of food items in the market, but we don’t have the money to buy them,” Mohammad Barat, a 52-year-old daily wage earner, told Arab News.

The looming catastrophe is not only one of shocking levels of poverty, but also lost hope and opportunities.

Tens of thousands of Afghans fled the country over several chaotic days last August, when US forces and their coalition partners hastily airlifted Afghans from Kabul airport. Many others, including professionals, have since followed in their footsteps.

“Doctors are leaving, engineers are leaving, professors and experts are also leaving the country,” Abdul Hamid, a student at Kabul University, told Arab News. “There’s no hope for a better future.”

Those who worked for the deposed Western-backed administration have been removed from public life, particularly women, who are now forced to wear face coverings, banned from making long-distance journeys alone, and prevented from working in most sectors beyond health and education.




Women face a growing number of restrictions in their daily lives; right, Taliban fighters in Kandahar celebrate the US withdrawal. (AFP)

Education, too, has been strictly limited for women, even though allowing girls into schools and colleges has been one of the international community’s core demands since the Taliban retook control of the country.

In mid-March, after months of uncertainty, the Taliban said that they would allow girls to return to school. However, when they arrived at schools around the country to resume studies, those above the age of 13 were ordered to return home.

In a last-minute decision, the Taliban had announced that high schools would remain closed for girls until a plan was ready to receive them in accordance with Islamic law.

Almost half a year later, teenage girls fear they will not return to the classroom anytime soon.

“There’s no reason for banning girls from school,” Amal, an 11th grade student at Rabia Balkhi High School in Kabul, told Arab News. “They just don’t want us to get an education.”




Now that US-led forces have withdrawn and the Taliban has traded guerrilla warfare for the day-to-day running of the country, security has greatly improved. (AFP)

Despite repeated hints by the predominantly Pashtun, Islamic fundamentalist group that experience and the passage of time have softened its rough edges, the streets of Kabul increasingly resemble the Taliban-governed pre-2002 era.

Since the restoration of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which enforces the group’s austere interpretation of Islam, traditional clothing, turbans and burqas have replaced suits and jeans, which only a year ago had been considered normal attire in the Afghan capital.

Key symbols of the nation’s identity are also changing, with the white and black banner of the Taliban now appearing on government buildings and in public spaces, gradually replacing Afghanistan’s tricolor, despite earlier pledges it would not be changed.  

For some, the replacement of the old national flag is more than symbolic, and is indicative of the Taliban’s hijacking of the country. 

“It doesn’t represent any government or regime. The Taliban could keep both,” Shah Rahim, a 43-year-old resident of Kabul, told Arab News. 

“The flag is a representation of our nation, our values and our history.”

 

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Indian village goes for evening ‘detox’ to break digital addiction

Indian village goes for evening ‘detox’ to break digital addiction
Updated 06 October 2022

Indian village goes for evening ‘detox’ to break digital addiction

Indian village goes for evening ‘detox’ to break digital addiction
  • Mohityanche Vadgaon in Maharashtra introduced daily breaks from electronic devices in August
  • Digital addiction has come to attention of Indian authorities, parents following 2 years of online classes

NEW DELHI: When a siren goes off at 7 p.m., residents of one Indian village turn off their TV sets and mobile devices to observe a self-imposed blackout, a measure they hope will help protect their children from digital addiction.

The daily routine started in Mohityanche Vadgaon on Aug. 15 when India celebrated 75 years of independence. Since then, the village in the Sangli district of Maharashtra has been trying to observe its own liberation — 90 minutes of freedom from digital clutter.

“Everyone observes self-discipline,” village head Vijay Mohite told Arab News. “It’s digital cleansing for the whole village.”

Digital addiction has come to the attention of Indian authorities and parents following long coronavirus pandemic restrictions which kept children away from school and group activities for nearly two years.

Soon after online classes started in 2020, a study by a city hospital in the northern Indian city of Jaipur warned that 65 percent of the minors surveyed had shown symptoms of addiction to mobile phones, making them unable to leave their devices for more than 30 minutes.

In March, Electronics and IT Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar told the parliament that more than one-third of Indian children were experiencing reduced concentration due to mobile phone use.

In Mohityanche Vadgaon, the fallout from virtual online learning was observed as well.

“COVID-19 lockdowns and the online classes for school kids made the majority of school-going boys and girls addicted to mobile phones and that was affecting the academic and emotional behavior of youngsters,” Mohite said.

“We know that it’s like going against the tide, but digital detox is important if the parents in the village want their kids to have a bright future.”

The agrarian village, which survives mainly on growing sugarcane, has two government schools. Jayvant Vitthal Mohite, who teaches history at one of them, said he had noticed that after two years of online learning there was a significant drop in his students’ academic performance, and they would remain connected to their phones even during classes.

“The initiative that the village head has taken, and the parents’ awareness have made a difference in the behavior and attitude of the kids in school.”

He noted that daily digital detox, even for as short a period of 90 minutes, helped improve the well-being of kids, and even after one month his students demonstrated more creativity and focus.

“They look more relaxed and at ease than before,” he added.

Fifteen-year-old Gayatri Nikam now turns off her phone when loudspeakers at a village temple sound the digital break time in the evening.

She told Arab News: “My academic performance has improved over one month, and I have not played any mobile games for some time now.”

Parents in Mohityanche Vadgaon follow the discipline of detox too to support their children.

“We don’t switch on the TV, we don’t use mobile phones, and take only calls which are necessary,” Nikam’s father, Anil, said. “I have two daughters and I want them to do well in life.”

For her mother, Anuradha, the regular 90-minute digital-free sessions come with a sense of relief.

She said: “You hear stories of how children get spoiled by mobile addiction. The initiative in the village has really made me happy and I feel the kids are becoming more creative by being away from mobile phones.”


Six facing criminal charges over Indonesia stadium disaster: police chief

Six facing criminal charges over Indonesia stadium disaster: police chief
Updated 06 October 2022

Six facing criminal charges over Indonesia stadium disaster: police chief

Six facing criminal charges over Indonesia stadium disaster: police chief
  • The six suspects include three police officers and three people responsible for the match and its security
  • The announcement came as anger grew over the police response to a pitch invasion

MALANG, Indonesia: Indonesia’s police chief on Thursday said six people were facing criminal charges over a football stadium disaster that killed 131 people at the weekend.
“Based on the investigation and sufficient evidence, we have determined six suspects,” national police chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo told a press conference.
The six suspects include three police officers and three people responsible for the match and its security, including the head of Arema FC’s organizing committee and one of the club’s security officers, he said.
The announcement came as anger grew over the police response to a pitch invasion.
Officers reacted by firing tear gas into packed stands as fans of Arema FC tried to approach players following their defeat to fierce rivals Persebaya Surabaya on Saturday evening.
Hundreds of people fled for small exits, resulting in a crush that left many trampled or suffocating to death.
Police described the pitch invasion as a riot and said two officers were killed, but survivors accused them of overreacting.
Officers responded with force, kicking and hitting fans with batons, according to witnesses and footage, pushing the spectators back into the stands where many would die after tear gas was fired.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo announced an investigation after the tragedy and called for a safety review of all stadiums.


UK government talks tough on immigration — again

UK government talks tough on immigration — again
Updated 06 October 2022

UK government talks tough on immigration — again

UK government talks tough on immigration — again
  • "It's not racist for anyone... to want to control our borders," said Home Secretary Suella Braverman x
  • "It's not racist for anyone... to want to control our borders," said Home Secretary Suella Braverman The 42-year-old anti-EU right-winger pointedly vowed to get tough on asylum seekers who do not "meet the needs of the country"

LONDON: Accusing asylum seekers of “abusing the system” and urging the need to “take back control,” the UK government is once again talking tough on immigration.
But its latest pledge to reduce crossings from northern France in small boats comes with a blatant promise to defy international conventions.
“It’s not racist for anyone... to want to control our borders, it’s not bigoted to say that we have too many asylum seekers who are abusing the system,” said Home Secretary Suella Braverman.
The stance earned Braverman, whose parents emigrated to Britain from Kenya and Mauritius in the 1960s, a standing ovation at this week’s Conservative party’s annual conference.
The 42-year-old anti-EU right-winger, who has been in the job for the past month, pointedly vowed to get tough on asylum seekers who do not “meet the needs of the country.”
“If you deliberately enter the United Kingdom illegally from a safe country, you should be swiftly returned to your home country or relocated to Rwanda. That is where your asylum claim will be considered,” she said.
Successive Conservative governments since 2010 have been promising to drastically reduce the number of migrants but to no avail.
Since the beginning of the year, a record 33,500 people have crossed the Channel in small boats.
More than half of them came from Afghanistan (18 percent), Albania (18 percent) or Iran (15 percent), according to the Home Office.
Since 2018, Iranians and Iraqis have accounted for almost half of all migrants intercepted on the route.
Zoe Gardner, an expert on British migration and asylum systems, said while the pro-Brexit Tories have never managed to reduce immigration, they have made a tougher for asylum seekers to settle.
“For a long time, it (immigration policy) has been a way to gain support, when every other area of policy seems to be a failure for them,” she told AFP.
“Every time the government of Boris Johnson had a bad week in the newspapers, you can be sure they would announce another plan to target immigrants just to distract people.”
The strategy, though, is in danger of running out of steam, she added.
Britons are overwhelmingly in favor of taking in refugees, according to polls, but are now more concerned about a cost-of-living crisis.
Proposing to ban access to asylum would be a violation of the UN Refugee Convention to which Britain is a signatory.
It states that a migrant can travel in any way he or she wishes — or can — to a country to seek refuge, without being harmed by the mode of arrival.
For some experts, such a ban would result in court action, just as it did when the government attempted to deport the first batch of failed asylum seekers to Rwanda.
In June, a plane bound for Kigali was grounded after last-minute legal challenges in the English courts, and a ruling at the European Court of Human Rights.
Braverman, a former attorney general and successor to another hard-liner Priti Patel, blasted the ruling of the “foreign court,” which Britain helped set up after World War II.
She told conference delegates with a smile that her “dream” for Christmas would be to see “a front page of The Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda.”
According to Braverman’s own department, 94 percent of the 50,000 or so migrants who arrived in the UK across the Channel between January 2018 and June 2022 applied for asylum.
Some 82 percent of those applicants were still waiting for a decision, but the majority who have received a response were successful.
“We are talking about people with good reason to seek asylum in UK, with no other way of doing so because the government has closed the majority of other options,” said Daniel Sohege, a refugee law specialist who heads the association Stand For All.
As the law currently stands, a migrant must be physically in the UK to start the asylum process.
But there is “no way” that London would allow them to arrive in the country and seek refuge, Zoe Gardner said.
The UK also relies on its island status and believes that it does not have to take in migrants who have traveled through other so-called safe countries.
With this impossible equation for refugees, “the UK receives fewer asylum applications than France, Germany or Italy,” said Gardner.


North Korean warplanes stage bombing drill after two ballistic missiles fired

North Korean warplanes stage bombing drill after two ballistic missiles fired
Updated 06 October 2022

North Korean warplanes stage bombing drill after two ballistic missiles fired

North Korean warplanes stage bombing drill after two ballistic missiles fired
  • The latest missiles were launched 22 minutes apart from the North’s capital region

SEOUL/TOKYO: South Korea scrambled fighter jets after North Korean warplanes staged an apparent bombing drill on Thursday, Seoul’s defense ministry said, as allied warships held missile defense drills and Pyongyang fired off the latest in a series of ballistic missiles.

The rare bombing drill by at least eight North Korean fighter jets and four bombers prompted the South to deploy 30 fighters. The warplanes swarmed each side of the heavily fortified border amid rising tensions over a string of missile tests by Pyongyang.

North Korea fired two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea on Thursday in the direction of Japan, just an hour after condemning the repositioning of a US aircraft carrier to the region, and a UN Security Council meeting held in New York.

North Korea has launched about 40 missiles this year, including its largest intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and appears ready to hold its first nuclear test since 2017, officials in Seoul and Washington have said.

Thursday’s launches followed the return of the carrier, USS Ronald Reagan, to waters off the Korean peninsula, and a UN Security Council meeting held in response to the North’s recent tests.

The missile launch was the sixth in 12 days and the first since North Korea fired an intermediate-range missile (IRBM) over Japan on Tuesday, which prompted joint South Korean and US missile drills in which one weapon crashed and burned.

The launch was reported by South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Japanese government.

“This is the sixth time in the short period, just counting the ones from the end of September,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters. “This absolutely cannot be tolerated.”

The launch came after North Korea condemned the United States for talking to the United Nations Security Council about Pyongyang’s “just counteraction measures” on joint South Korea-US drills, suggesting its missile tests are a reaction to the allied military moves.

In a statement, the reclusive nation’s foreign ministry also condemned Washington for repositioning the US aircraft carrier off the Korean peninsula, saying it posed a serious threat to the stability of the situation.

The carrier and its strike group of accompanying warships were abruptly redeployed in response to North Korea’s IRBM launch over Japan.

The carrier strike group joined destroyers from South Korea and Japan in maritime missile defense training, the South Korean military said on Thursday.

“This training focuses on mastering detection, tracking and interception procedures through shared target information under a scenario of (North Korea) conducting ballistic missile provocations,” it said in a statement.

A State Department spokesperson said the United States condemned Thursday’s launch as a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions and a threat to regional neighbors and the international community.

The spokesperson, however, added that Washington was committed to a diplomatic approach and called on the North to engage in dialogue.

Thursday’s first missile probably flew to an altitude of about 100km and a range of 350km, while the second had an estimated altitude of 50km and covered 800km, probably taking an irregular trajectory, he said.

South Korea’s JCS said the missiles were launched from near the North Korean capital, Pyongyang.

The United States and its allies have stepped up displays of military force in the region, but there appears little prospect of further international sanctions by the UN Security Council, which has already passed resolutions banning the North’s missile and nuclear development.


Ex-policeman kills at least 36 people, mostly children, at Thai nursery

Ex-policeman kills at least 36 people, mostly children, at Thai nursery
Updated 06 October 2022

Ex-policeman kills at least 36 people, mostly children, at Thai nursery

Ex-policeman kills at least 36 people, mostly children, at Thai nursery
  • Attacker Panya Kamrab also kills wife, son before turning gun on himself
  • He had been sacked from the police in January on charges of drug possession

BANGKOK: At least 36 people, most of them children, were killed by an ex-policeman at a preschool daycare center in Thailand’s northeast on Thursday, police and hospital officials said.

The attack took place in the Na Klang area of Nong Bua Lamphu province in the early afternoon.

Authorities at Nong Bua Lamphu Hospital said 24 of those killed were children. A further 12 people were injured in the attack.

Police identified the killer as 34-year-old Panya Kamrab, a former police sergeant who was dismissed from service in January. According to a police report seen by Arab News, he was sacked after being found in possession of narcotics.

Panya is thought to have gone to the daycare center to find his son but when he failed to find the boy he began shooting. He then returned home, where he killed his wife and child.

“He (Panya) was already stressed after going to court to hear the case against him for narcotics possession. When he didn’t see his child, he carried out the attack with a gun and a knife,” local police spokesperson Paisan Luesomboon said.

“He left the children’s development center for his home, which is around 2 kilometers away. He collided with people on the road and also fired at them. He returned home and saw his wife and kid. He then shot them before killing himself.”

Video footage and images shared on social media showed the distraught relatives of the victims standing beside ambulances outside the daycare facility as police and rescuers dealt with the aftermath of the attack.

Another image showed the body of a woman lying beside a motorcycle on a roadside.

It was not immediately clear if the death toll included the killer and his family or the people attacked on the road.

Nong Bua Lamphu is a province in northeastern Thailand, about 500 km from Bangkok.