West has more to offer troubled Sahel than Russia: US

Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets in Niamey a youth organization from Abala, western Niger, which benefited from the US support in the dairy sector. (AFP)
Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets in Niamey a youth organization from Abala, western Niger, which benefited from the US support in the dairy sector. (AFP)
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Updated 18 March 2023
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West has more to offer troubled Sahel than Russia: US

West has more to offer troubled Sahel than Russia: US
  • Blinken vows to broaden support for Sahel beyond realm of security

NIAMEY: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has vowed to broaden support for the violence-wracked Sahel beyond the realm of security, pitching the US as a better partner than Russia, which has been expanding its footprint in the region.

Speaking on the highest-level visit ever by a US official to Niger, Blinken called for moving on from what was often seen as a military-first approach by the US and former colonial power France, which wound up a controversial nine-year operation in Mali in November.
“We’re in the midst of building something relatively new,” Blinken said in an interview in the capital Niamey.
“We absolutely have to have a holistic, comprehensive approach in which security is absolutely necessary but is not enough.”
“The fact that Niger, which is obviously one of the poorest countries on earth, is doing this so effectively, I think only underscores the importance of taking this comprehensive approach.”

BACKGROUND

Speaking on the highest-level visit ever by a US official to Niger, Blinken called for moving on from what was often seen as a military-first approach by the US and former colonial power France, which wound up a controversial nine-year operation in Mali in November.

Blinken announced $150 million in new humanitarian aid to Niger and highlighted US support for a program to rehabilitate former extremists as well as a major US initiative to improve irrigation and climate-resilient agriculture in a country battling desertification.
But Blinken acknowledged the desire for security ties with Niger, where the US has stationed forces and built Air Base 201 in the desert to fly drones deep into the Sahel.
France also maintains more than 1,000 troops under a long-running anti-jihadist mission, which is being reconfigured following its pullout from neighboring Mali.
The African Union has voiced concern over the rise of the foreign military presence on the continent, where China also set up its first overseas base in Djibouti.
“These partnerships that we have, it’s not something that we’re imposing on anyone. Countries choose to be partners or not,” Blinken said when asked about the drone base. “The work that we can do to combat terrorist groups — extremist groups — ultimately will be to the benefit of others” as well as Niger, he said.
Blinken’s visit comes as neighboring Mali swings sharply into Russia’s orbit following the end of France’s Operation Barkhane, which was launched in 2014 to prevent jihadists from sacking the capital Bamako.
Mali is ruled by military putschists who have denounced France and turned to Russian operatives for help — Wagner mercenaries, according to France and others.
Mali last month was one of just six nations that joined Russia at the UN General Assembly in voting against a call for Moscow to pull out of Ukraine.
“Everywhere Wagner goes, bad things tend to follow,” Blinken said.
“Where we have seen it act, it hasn’t improved security. On the contrary, we’ve actually seen things get worse, and the exploitation of resources, the corruption, the violence that it brings are a plague on people in the countries that have chosen to work with it.”
Wagner, run by the Kremlin-connected businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, has been accused of abuses in the Central African Republic, Libya, Mali and most recently in the Ukraine war.
Ghana has alleged a Wagner presence in military-ruled Burkina Faso but both the junta and Moscow have denied the charge and Blinken did not directly answer a question on the issue.
A senior official traveling with Blinken said it was no accident that Wagner had thrived in French-speaking nations, saying Russia had fanned post-colonial resentments.
Blinken said he believed the US and France were united on a new approach to West Africa that emphasizes democracy, development and good governance.
“The challenge for everyone — us, France, our partners — is to show through the work we’re doing together that we can get results that benefit the people,” Blinken said.
“If you have profound problems of insecurity, there has to be an answer to them. And if there is no answer to them, then groups like Wagner will try to plunge in and take advantage.”

 


Shehbaz Sharif sworn in as Pakistan’s prime minister, capping weeks of political upheaval

Shehbaz Sharif sworn in as Pakistan’s prime minister, capping weeks of political upheaval
Updated 04 March 2024
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Shehbaz Sharif sworn in as Pakistan’s prime minister, capping weeks of political upheaval

Shehbaz Sharif sworn in as Pakistan’s prime minister, capping weeks of political upheaval
  • This is Sharif’s second term in office, his first one ran from April 2022 to August 2023
  • The new government faces an overlapping trio of political, economic and security troubles

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif took oath as Pakistan's prime minister for a second term on Monday, taking over a troubled country of 241 million people that faces profound political, economic and security challenges.

Sharif, 72, officially took up office at a swearing-in ceremony at the presidential office in the nation's capital, Islamabad. 

On Sunday, Sharif, the candidate for his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and coalition allies, secured a comfortable win over Omar Ayub Khan of the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) backed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of jailed former PM Imran Khan. 

His election comes three weeks after Feb. 8 general elections threw up a hung National Assembly, unleashing weeks of protests by opposition parties over allegations of rigging and vote count fraud.

“As prime minister of Pakistan, I will discharge my duties, and perform my functions, honestly, to the best of my ability, faithfully in accordance with the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the law," Shehbaz said as he took oath.

In his first speech after being voted in on Sunday, Sharif spoke about the struggling $350 billion economy and said it would require "radical reforms" to rid the country of its financial difficulties.

“Can a nuclear-capable Pakistan sustain its existence with the burden of debts,” he had asked. “It will sustain if we collectively decide on a deep surgery and change the system. We have to bring reforms.”

Sharif, the younger brother of former three-time premier Nawaz Sharif, played a key role as prime minister in keeping together a coalition of disparate parties for 16 months after parliament voted Imran Khan out of office in April 2022, and in securing a last gasp International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout deal in 2023.

 

 

He now faces an overlapping trio of political, economic and security crises, much like in his previous tenure.

Sharif's first order of business will be negotiating a new bailout deal with the IMF. The current IMF program expires this month. 

A new program will mean committing to steps needed to stay on a narrow path to recovery, but which will limit policy options to provide relief to a deeply frustrated population and cater to industries that are looking for government support to spur growth.

Inflation touched a high of 38 percent with record depreciation of the rupee currency under Sharif’s last government, mainly due to structural reforms necessitated by the IMF program. Pakistan continues to be enmeshed in economic crisis with inflation remaining high, hovering around 30 percent, and economic growth slowing to around 2 percent.

The new PM will also have to tackle a spike in attacks by the Pakistani Taliban and other groups, including separatists.

But the gravest challenge will be on the political front.

Independent candidates backed by Khan gained the most seats, 93, after the elections, but the PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of the Bhutto dynasty agreed to an alliance to form a coalition government. No single party won a majority.

The Sunni Ittehad Council backed by Khan alleges that the election was rigged against it and has called for an audit of the polls. Lowering political temperatures will thus be a key challenge for Sharif as Khan maintains mass popular support in Pakistan, and a continued crackdown on his party and his remaining in jail would likely stoke tensions at a time when stability is needed to attract foreign investment to shore up the economy. For now, the Khan-led opposition has signaled it would "cooperate" with the new government on issues of public concern but keep protesting the alleged manipulation of election results.

Sharif will also have to manage ties with the all-powerful military, which has directly or indirectly dominated Pakistan since independence. Unlike his elder brother, who has had a rocky relationship with the military in all his three terms, the younger Sharif is considered more acceptable and compliant by the generals, most independent analysts say.

For several years, the military has denied it interferes in politics. But it has in the past directly intervened to topple civilian governments and no prime minister has finished a full five-year term since independence in 1947.


UN rights chief warns ‘great replacement’ theory inspiring violence

UN rights chief warns ‘great replacement’ theory inspiring violence
Updated 04 March 2024
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UN rights chief warns ‘great replacement’ theory inspiring violence

UN rights chief warns ‘great replacement’ theory inspiring violence
  • Turk insisted that racially mixed and multicultural societies were not something to fear but should be seen as a benefit to people everywhere
  • Concern of the growing influence of so-called ‘great replacement’ conspiracy

GENEVA: The pernicious “‘great replacement’ conspiracy theories” spreading in many countries are “delusional” and racist and are directly spurring violence, the United Nations rights chief warned on Monday.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk also took aim at the “war on woke,” which he stressed was “really a war on inclusion.”
Speaking before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Turk insisted that racially mixed and multicultural societies were not something to fear but should be seen as a benefit to people everywhere.
“In many countries — including in Europe and North America — I am concerned by the apparently growing influence of so-called ‘great replacement’ conspiracy theories, based on the false notion that Jews, Muslims, non-white people and migrants seek to ‘replace’ or suppress countries’ cultures and peoples,” he said.
“These delusional and deeply racist ideas have directly influenced many perpetrators of violence.”
The UN rights chief cautioned that “together with the so-called ‘war on woke’, which is really a war on inclusion, these ideas aim to exclude racial minorities — particularly women from racial minorities from full equality.
“Multiculturalism is not a threat. It is the history of humanity and deeply beneficial to us all.”
He regretted the fact that discriminatory legislation and policies were spreading.


Afghan Taliban attend Doha maritime conference to increase engagement with international community 

Afghan Taliban attend Doha maritime conference to increase engagement with international community 
Updated 16 min 27 sec ago
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Afghan Taliban attend Doha maritime conference to increase engagement with international community 

Afghan Taliban attend Doha maritime conference to increase engagement with international community 
  • Afghanistan is a landlocked country with no naval forces
  • Afghan delegation joins over 60 other countries at Qatar event 

KABUL: Afghanistan’s Taliban government said on Monday that its participation at the Doha International Maritime Defense Exhibition and Conference is “very important,” as it seeks to increase engagements with the international community. 

The eighth edition of DIMDEX, which is organized by Qatar Armed Forces and runs from March 4 to 6 at the Qatar National Convention Center, will be attended by official delegations from more than 60 countries, at least five of which are bringing their warships to visit the Hamad Port. 

Despite being a landlocked country with no naval forces, the Afghan delegation is among the participating countries this year and is led by the Defense Minister Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, who is accompanied by the Chief of Army Staff Mohammad Fasihuddin Fitrat. 

Afghanistan's Minister of Defense, Maulvi Muhammad Yaqub Mujahid, and Chief of Staff, Qari Fasihuddin Fitr inspect weapons at the Defense Exhibition of Weapons in Qatar on March 4, 2024. (Photo courtesy: @Zabehulah_M33/X)

“They are going to take part in the Doha International Maritime Defense Exhibition today … This conference and exhibition is very important for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, particularly for its engagements with the international community,”Suhail Shaheen, Taliban government spokesperson in Doha and permanent representative-designate to the UN, told Arab News on Monday. 

“The invitation for the delegation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in this exhibition means that the world understands the reality of Afghanistan and accepts it … and wants to interact with the IEA … and I think this is part of the process of engagement.” 

The Taliban seized power in August 2021 after two decades of war that killed tens of thousands of Afghans. With most nations having closed their embassies in Kabul following the group’s return to power, the new rulers remained officially unrecognized by any country.

The Taliban government has hosted several meetings with other countries in the hopes of improving ties and gaining formal recognition, including talks hosted by interim Foreign Minister Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi in late January that were attended by officials from Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia. 

Afghanistan's Minister of Defense, Maulvi Muhammad Yaqub Mujahid, and Chief of Staff, Qari Fasihuddin Fitr inspect weapons at the Defense Exhibition of Weapons in Qatar on March 4, 2024. (Photo courtesy: @Zabehulah_M33/X)

“They will also hold meetings with top Qatari officials and participants from other countries to discuss and have talks on various topics,” Shaheen said. 

Though maritime security may not be top of mind for Taliban officials, the event in Qatar offers opportunities to interact with the wider international community on other issues, said Abdul Waheed Waheed, an international relations expert based in Kabul. 

“Afghanistan may not have military products to showcase and does not have maritime security (concerns), but the Afghan delegates participation at the exhibition in Qatar can still achieve significant outcomes by leveraging the event for networking, diplomatic outcomes, investment attraction, promoting their own military assets, and fostering peace and stability in Afghanistan and in the region,” Waheed told Arab News. 

“The ongoing defense exhibition in Qatar provides a valuable platform for the Afghan delegation to engage with global defense stakeholders.”


Afghan defense minister attends ‘very important’ Doha maritime conference

Afghan defense minister attends ‘very important’ Doha maritime conference
Updated 04 March 2024
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Afghan defense minister attends ‘very important’ Doha maritime conference

Afghan defense minister attends ‘very important’ Doha maritime conference
  • Afghanistan is a landlocked country with no naval forces
  • Afghan delegation joins over 60 other countries at the Doha event

Kabul: Afghanistan’s Taliban government said on Monday that its participation at the Doha International Maritime Defense Exhibition and Conference is “very important,” as it seeks to increase engagements with the international community.

The eighth edition of DIMDEX, which is organized by the Qatar Armed Forces and runs from March 4 to 6 at the Qatar National Convention Center, will be attended by official delegations from more than 60 countries, at least five of which are bringing their warships to visit the Hamad Port.

Despite being a landlocked country with no naval forces, the Afghan delegation is among the participating countries this year and is led by the Minister of National Defense Mohammad Yaqoob Mujahid, who is accompanied by the Chief of Army Staff Mohammad Fasihuddin Fitrat.

“They are going to take part in the Doha International Maritime Defense Exhibition today … This conference and exhibition is very important for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, particularly for its engagements with the international community,” Suhail Shaheen, Taliban government spokesperson in Doha and permanent representative-designate to the UN, told Arab News on Monday.

“The invitation for the delegation of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in this exhibition means that the world understands the reality of Afghanistan and accepts it … and wants to interact with the IEA … and I think this is part of the process of engagement.”

The Taliban seized power in August 2021 after two decades of war that killed tens of thousands of Afghans. With most nations having closed their embassies in Kabul following the group’s return to power, the new rulers remained officially unrecognized by any country.

The Taliban government has hosted several meetings with other countries in the hopes of improving ties and gaining formal recognition, including talks hosted by interim Foreign Minister Mawlawi Amir Khan Muttaqi in late January that were attended by officials from Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia.

“They will also hold meetings with top Qatari officials and participants from other countries to discuss and have talks on various topics,” Shaheen said.

Though maritime security may not be top of the agenda for Taliban officials, the event in Qatar offers opportunities to interact with the wider international community on other issues, said Abdul Waheed Waheed, an international relations expert based in Kabul.

“Afghanistan may not have military products to showcase and does not have maritime security (concerns), but the Afghan delegates participation at the exhibition in Qatar can still achieve significant outcomes by leveraging the event for networking, diplomatic outcomes, investment attraction, promoting their own military assets, and fostering peace and stability in Afghanistan and in the region,” Waheed told Arab News.

“The ongoing defense exhibition in Qatar provides a valuable platform for the Afghan delegation to engage with global defense stakeholders.”


As Biden prepares to address the nation, more than 6 in 10 US adults doubt his mental capability

As Biden prepares to address the nation, more than 6 in 10 US adults doubt his mental capability
Updated 04 March 2024
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As Biden prepares to address the nation, more than 6 in 10 US adults doubt his mental capability

As Biden prepares to address the nation, more than 6 in 10 US adults doubt his mental capability
  • Roughly 6 in 10 say they’re not very or not at all confident in Biden’s mental capability to serve effectively as president
  • Nearly 57 percent Americans think the national economy is somewhat or much worse off than before Biden took office in 2021

WASHINGTON: A poll finds that a growing share of US adults doubt that 81-year-old President Joe Biden has the memory and acuity for the job, turning his coming State of the Union address into something of a real-time audition for a second term.
Roughly 6 in 10 say they’re not very or not at all confident in Biden’s mental capability to serve effectively as president, according to a new survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. That’s a slight increase from January 2022, when about half of those polled expressed similar concerns.
By the same token, nearly 6 in 10 also say they lack confidence in the mental capability of former President Donald Trump, the 77-year-old Republican front-runner.
For many voters, this year’s election looks like a showdown for the world’s toughest job between two men who are well beyond the standard retirement age. The next president will probably need to steer through global conflicts, fix domestic emergencies and work with a dysfunctional Congress.
Biden is likely to address those challenges and more in his State of the Union address on Thursday as he tries to convince Americans that he deserves another term.
Going into the big event, just 38 percent of US adults approve of how Biden is handling his job as president, while 61 percent disapprove. Democrats (74 percent) are much likelier than independents (20 percent) and Republicans (6 percent) to favor his performance. But there’s broad discontent on the way Biden is handling a variety of issues, including the economy, immigration and foreign policy.
About 4 in 10 Americans approve of the way Biden is handling each of these issues: health care, climate change, abortion policy and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. But people are less satisfied by Biden’s handling of immigration (29 percent), the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians (31 percent) and the economy (34 percent) — all of which are likely to come up in the speech before a joint session of Congress.
Nearly 6 in 10 (57 percent) Americans think the national economy is somewhat or much worse off than before Biden took office in 2021. Only 3 in 10 adults say it’s better under his leadership. Still, people are more optimistic about the state of their own bank accounts: 54 percent say their personal finances are good.
Many respondents to the survey were deeply pessimistic about their likely choices in November because of age and the risk of cognitive decline.
Paul Miller, himself 84, said Biden is just too old — and so is Trump.
“He doesn’t seem to have the mental whatever to be a president,” Miller said of Biden. He added that Trump is “too old, too, and half crazy.”
The retiree from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, said he voted for Trump in 2020 but he wouldn’t do so again.
“I don’t think I’m going to vote for either one of them,” he said. “I hope somebody else is available.”
The president faces added pressure about his age after unflattering descriptions of him contained in a special counsel’s report that did not recommend criminal prosecution of Biden for his mishandling of classified records, unlike Trump who was indicted for keeping classified material in his Florida home. The report said that Biden’s memory was “hazy,” “fuzzy,” “faulty,” “poor” and had “significant limitations.”
Biden has tried to deflect concerns by joking about his age and taking jabs at Trump’s own gaffes. Yet the president’s age is a liability that has overshadowed his policy achievements on infrastructure, manufacturing and addressing climate change.
About one-third of Democrats said they’re not very or not at all confident in Biden’s mental capability in the new survey, up from 14 percent in January 2022. Only 40 percent of Democrats said they’re extremely or very confident in Biden’s mental abilities, with approximately 3 in 10 saying they’re “somewhat” confident.
And in a major risk for Biden, independents are much more likely to say that they lack confidence in his mental abilities (80 percent) compared with Trump’s (56 percent).
Republicans are generally more comfortable with Trump’s mental capabilities than Democrats are with Biden’s. In the survey, 59 percent of Republicans are extremely or very confident that Trump has the mental abilities to be president. An additional 20 percent are somewhat confident, and 20 percent are not very or not at all confident.
But if there is one thing Democrats and Republicans can agree upon, it’s that the other party’s likely nominee is not mentally up to the task. About 9 in 10 Republicans say Biden lacks the mental capability to serve as president, while a similar share of Democrats say that about Trump.
Part of Biden’s problem is that his policies have yet to break through the daily clutter of life.
Sharon Gallagher, 66, worries about inflation. She voted for Biden in 2020, but believes he has not done enough for the economy. She also feels Trump is a bit too quick to anger. The Sarasota, Florida, resident said she doesn’t have the bandwidth to really judge their policies.
“I don’t pay enough attention to politics to even know,” Gallagher said. “I have grandchildren living with me and I have children’s shows on all day.”
Justin Tjernlund, 40, from Grand Rapids, Michigan, said Biden “seems like he’s mostly still there,” but even if he was in decline he has “a whole army of people to help him do the job.” Trjenlund said he voted for Trump in 2020 and plans to do so again because the Republican is “interesting” and “refreshing.”
Still, because of both candidates’ ages, Greg Olivo, 62, said he plans to focus on Vice President Kamala Harris and whomever Trump, if he’s the nominee, picks for a running mate.
“Keep a close eye on the vice president,” said the machinist from Valley City, Ohio, who voted for Biden in 2020 and would do so again. “Because that person will probably be the president in four years, one way or another.”