Frankly Speaking: Two years on, what lies ahead for Afghanistan under the Taliban?

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Updated 10 July 2023

Frankly Speaking: Two years on, what lies ahead for Afghanistan under the Taliban?

Frankly Speaking: Two years on, what lies ahead for Afghanistan under the Taliban?
  • Suhail Shaheen accepts no responsibility for the deteriorating state of affairs in the country since the Taliban took over
  • He appears noncommittal and evasive and in denial while talking about restrictions on women’s education

RIYADH: A senior Taliban leader has admitted that his country is facing dire economic straits because of back-breaking sanctions and lack of recognition by the global community.

Speaking to Katie Jensen in the latest episode of the Arab News “Frankly Speaking” show, Suhail Shaheen said the Taliban had inherited a weak economy and an extremely impoverished Afghanistan when it seized power in Kabul in August 2021.

“The poverty that we are experiencing today was inherited from the past, from the past 20-year-long regime during which foreign forces had a presence in Afghanistan,” he said.

Shaheen said though it was claimed that “the occupying powers” spent billions of dollars in the country, “those dollars went into the private pockets of the warlords. The common people continued to live below the poverty line.”

That situation worsened, he claimed, with the imposition of economic sanctions on Afghanistan after the Taliban took control over the country, as the restrictions led to more poverty.

Shaheen accepted no responsibility for the deteriorating state of affairs in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over, and instead blamed Western powers — “those who imposed the sanctions and those who favored the warlords” — for the economic crisis.

“We are working to tackle these issues and there are some big projects such as road construction that generate internal revenue,” he said.

Shaheen appeared noncommittal and evasive while talking about restrictions on women’s education. At times his statements were full of contradictions and he was on the defensive.

At first, he said there was no ban on women studying. But when confronted with incontrovertible facts about women being barred from attending schools and institutions of higher learning, he attempted to justify the closures, saying: “But it (education) should be according to our rules and values.”

Reminded that all Muslim and Islamic countries around the world provide full educational opportunities for women in schools, colleges and universities, Shaheen responded: “Women should have access to education in an Islamic environment. Ours is an Islamic society (and when there is) a proper environment, they will have the right to have access to education.”

He described the country’s political relations with its neighbors as based on mutual respect, and spoke at length about the recent border clashes between Afghan and Iranian forces, as well as the country’s tense relationship with Pakistan and its evolving ties with the US under the Biden administration.

He argued that the UN needs to look at the situation on the ground, claiming that the decision by the UN and many countries not to recognize the Taliban is “politically motivated rather than based on ground realities.”

Shaheen insisted that the Taliban currently has complete control over all of Afghanistan. “We have secured all the borders. We have control of the entire country. We are able to defend our people and our country. We have the support of the people,” he said.

Turning to Pakistan’s relations with its neighbor under Taliban rule, Shaheen asserted that Afghanistan is an independent country, adding: “We liberated our country. We fought for 20 years against 54 countries.

“We are freedom-loving people. We want peaceful coexistence and ties not only with our neighbors, but with all the world.”

He said the Taliban will not allow anyone to use Afghan territory as a base for operations against neighboring countries or any other nation, including the US.

Shaheen sought to make it clear that the Taliban has no ties with Pakistan’s security forces. “Our policy is peaceful coexistence and positive relations with neighbors in other countries,” he said. “As for their policies, you must ask them.”

When the Americans occupied our country, we fought against them in order to liberate our country. If anyone’s country is occupied, would you not fight for its liberation?

Suhail Shaheen

Responding to Pakistan’s charge — a major source of friction between the two neighbors — that the Taliban is supporting and hosting the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a terror group banned in Pakistan, Shaheen said the TTP is “not in Afghanistan.”

He contended that the TTP operates out of Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas, saying: “They are inside Pakistan. That is their (Pakistan’s) responsibility, not ours.”

Regarding the border clashes with Iran in May this year, Shaheen said the problem was rooted in a 1973 water-sharing treaty between the two countries, referring to an accord under which Afghanistan is committed to sharing water from the Helmand River with Iran at a certain rate.

According to Shaheen, the issue should be solved based on the 1973 treaty, as well as developments, including climate change, that have occurred since its signing.

“But if anyone is using force, we know the history and we will defend our people. That is our right. We are defending. We are not violating anyone’s rights,” he said.

Insisting that the Iranians “attacked our forces,” he said: “Our forces have to defend themselves and that is what has happened. Defending ourselves was our right and no one can impose agreements on us based on the use of force.”

He said that “the seniors” from the Iranian and Afghan sides “came together to resolve the issue through talks.”

Asked whether the Afghans have the means, the army and the resolve to stand up to Iran, Shaheen made a telling comment: “(What happened in the last) 20 years is good evidence and proof of how we defend our country.”

When he said that Afghan territory would not be used to train foreign terrorists, he was reminded of the presence of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman Al-Zawahiri, who was in Kabul when he was killed in a US drone strike in July last year. However, Shaheen dismissed that as a mere allegation.

“If journalists say there are training centers, then they should tell us where the centers are located,” he said. “If someone is sitting 10,000 km away behind a desk and writing reports based merely on what is in the media, how can that reflect the realities in Afghanistan?

“These reports are not based on the realities in Afghanistan; rather, they are only politically motivated reports. They are mere allegations.”

The Taliban recently welcomed comments US President Joe Biden made on the sidelines of a press conference on June 30 about the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan in 2021. Biden denied mistakes had been made during the withdrawal, saying: “Do you remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said Al-Qaeda would not be there. I said it wouldn’t be there. I said we’d get help from the Taliban. What’s happening now? What’s going on? Read your press. I was right.”

Nevertheless, Shaheen rejected the idea that Taliban is cooperating with the US. “We have the Doha Agreement. Based on that agreement, the Americans agreed to withdraw their forces from Afghanistan, and we agreed not to allow anyone to use Afghanistan against the US,” he said.

“That is our commitment and we honor that commitment. We are operating independently, not with any government — neighboring ones, regional ones or those anywhere in the world — including the US.”

However, Shaheen did indicate that the Taliban’s relationship with the US has changed since “the occupation.”

“When they occupied our country, we fought against them in order to liberate our country. If anyone’s country is occupied, would you not fight for its liberation?” he said.

“That’s what we did, and now we are building our country. We aim to eradicate poverty and to provide job opportunities for our people. For that we need cooperation from all countries, and if they are willing, we welcome them.”

Shaheen made an appeal to the global community to come to the rescue of Afghan farmers who have given up the cultivation of poppies.

“In the past 20 years, they (the foreign forces) spent, according to them, billions of dollars in order to eradicate poppy cultivation, but they failed. They were also trying to prevent drug trafficking, but they failed,” he said.

“Now we have a total ban on poppy cultivation according to the (April 2022) decree by our supreme leader (Hibatullah Akhundzada). And we have succeeded. Independent reports say poppy cultivation is down by 80 percent, but we say it is down more than that. We have achieved this by our own ways and means.”

A report published last month by the geospatial analytics firm Alcis said recent satellite images showed an “unprecedented” decrease in the cultivation of opium poppy in Afghanistan, with cultivation in the largest-producing southern provinces down by at least 80 percent compared with last year.

“It is now an obligation for the international community to come forward and help (Afghan) farmers and provide them with substitute crops in order to make the ban sustainable,” Shaheen said.

“In Afghanistan, farmers have two or three acres of land, which is not enough to feed their families. There should be something from the international community for those farmers who are abiding by the ban and who have stopped cultivating poppies.”


Philippines takes cancer screening into the workplace

Philippines takes cancer screening into the workplace
Updated 23 February 2024

Philippines takes cancer screening into the workplace

Philippines takes cancer screening into the workplace
  • Detection rates are low, diagnosis is slow
  • State asks private sector to improve workers’ health

MANILA: Saddled with high cancer rates and late diagnoses, the Philippines is trying a whole new tack: asking businesses to step into state shoes and screen millions of workers for early signs of the disease.

Be it cervical, breast or colon cancer, the Southeast Asian nation wants to lower its cancer deaths by increasing screening.
Medics say early detection is key to improving survival rates, so last year the government changed course and opted to partner with the private sector to boost testing levels.
In September, the government ordered all employers to set up cancer prevention and control programs to ease pressures on time- and cash-poor staff, who must otherwise contribute to the cost of diagnosis and treatment themselves.
Employers are now required to give employees access to cancer screening, by referrals to reputable health facilities or conducting free screenings themselves.
The order stemmed from the landmark National Integrated Cancer Control Act, which pledged better screening, diagnosis and treatment and to make health services “more equitable and affordable for all, especially for the underprivileged, poor and marginalized.”
Cervical screening
Since the start of the year, 500 Filipinos have tested under the new setup — officer worker Gemma Remojo was among the first.
“I’ve been suffering from reproductive issues and hormonal imbalance so I really needed this test,” said Remojo, a 35-year-old employed by finance company Home Credit.
Under the Philippine health system, Remojo would have to pay for tests in a private clinic or ask the national health insurance to cover her screening, which takes time to process.
Home Credit’s cervical screening service began in January, with kits distributed to workers for free after a short lecture.
The workers collect their own specimens in a designated space inside the workplace and their results are posted out by medical providers some weeks later. Employers cannot access the results, circumventing any data privacy concerns.
A positive test detects the presence of HPV, the virus linked to cervical cancer — the fourth most common cancer among women globally.
Roughly 91 percent of cervical cancer cases are thought to be caused by HPV, and every year more than half of cervical cancer cases in the Philippines lead to death.
The kit was provided for free by the Johns Hopkins Program for International Education in Gynecology and Obstetrics (Jhpiego), a nonprofit health organization helping hundreds of workers get free HPV screenings in the Philippines.
According to Jhpiego, the cancer awareness lecture and do-it-yourself kits help simplify the screening process for women.
The government said the aim was to screen more citizens and do it more quickly — then to speed up diagnoses.
“With cancer ranking third among the leading causes of mortality and morbidity in the country, the advisory serves as our proactive contribution to combating the disease,” Alvin Curada, director of the government’s Bureau of Working Conditions, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Engaging the private sector underscores the country’s commitment ... It signifies a shared responsibility between the government and the private sector,” he said.
Bridging health gaps
A key incentive for users to get tested is the lower cost, along with a better health outlook.
The cost of treatment is high; Filipino cancer patients lose a combined 35 billion Philippine pesos ($625 million) a year in medical costs, out-of-pocket expenses and lost wages, according to a study by health economist Valerie Ulep of state think-tank the Philippine Institute for Development Studies.
Ulep said early screening could save lives, as only 1 percent of Filipino women are ever screened for breast or cervical cancer, among the lowest rates in the world.
The poor take-up comes despite that fact that breast and cervical are among the leading cancers affecting Filipino women.
The cost of screening is also prohibitive, said Jhpiego’s Marco Ugoy, who works to raise awareness on reproductive health.
The price in hospitals can range from 3,000 to 30,000 Philippine pesos, when a minimum-wage earner in the Philippines earns an average 17,000 pesos each month.
All employers must enroll staff in the Philippines’ national health insurance company, PhilHealth, but that universal policy only partly covers a patient’s costs.
The new scheme aims to bridge some of the gap.
Hard to roll out
The government’s Curada said work was an ideal place to run a cancer program because of its structure and facilities.
To ensure company compliance, employers must submit an annual report to government detailing the extent of cancer-related activities or else risk an unspecified fine.
But health advocates worry that guidelines may be too scant and that policy awareness remains low.
“It’s a big step that a directive like this was signed. But do all companies implement it? Do the workers know about the policy?” said Ugoy of Jhpiego.
Ugoy said some business owners were already big advocates of workplace screenings, but he cited challenges in getting factories, especially those in autonomous ecozones, to comply.
The Philippines has more than 400 special economic zones that run with little or no government interference, and have historically been linked to a range of human rights concerns.
Nadia De Leon of the Institute for Occupational Health and Safety Development, a nonprofit for worker health and safety, said the new government tack represents a big step forward.
But the guidelines “may remain largely symbolic” if not strictly enforced and monitored, she said.

Screenings for women
Home Credit’s Arianne Eucogo said the company prioritized HPV screenings over other cancer programs since about 65 percent of their employees are women.
“We’re primarily doing it for health promotion of our employees, knowing that the rate of cervical cancer deaths in the Philippines is high,” she said.
Ugoy said one of the biggest barriers to health checkups was simply time, as health centers only open during office hours.
Ugoy said the private sector must also partner with community-based groups and local government to boost take-up and get around the time constraints.
For example, in Taguig City, the fifth most populous in the country, dozens of companies partnered with the city’s own team to run their HPV screenings and cancer treatment, be it through office clinics, ride-hailing services or call centers.
Ugoy said this approach — with free test kits from Jhpiego and labs paid by the city government — had sped up diagnosis.
“It shouldn’t stop at diagnostics. Screening and treatment must go hand in hand when it comes to cancer,” said Marites Diaz, who has worked for 32 years at the Taguig Health Office.

Zelensky urges US Congress to approve new Ukraine aid

Zelensky urges US Congress to approve new Ukraine aid
Updated 23 February 2024

Zelensky urges US Congress to approve new Ukraine aid

Zelensky urges US Congress to approve new Ukraine aid
  • He said a failure to do so will cost Ukrainian lives

WASHINGTON: President Volodymyr Zelensky called on the US Congress to approve additional aid for Kyiv, saying in an interview broadcast Thursday that a failure to do so will cost Ukrainian lives.

Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives have stalled the approval of $60 billion in new aid for Ukraine, and Zelensky made his appeal for action during an interview with Fox News — a favored channel for US conservatives.

“Will Ukraine survive without Congress’ support? Of course. But not all of us,” Zelensky told Fox’s Bret Baier in an interview near a front line in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian leader also warned that the price of helping Kyiv now is much lower than the potential cost of confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin later if he succeeds in Ukraine.

The United States has provided tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine and is by far Kyiv’s biggest donor. But existing funding has dried up, and former president Donald Trump’s allies in the House have been stalling new assistance.

Trump, the likely Republican nominee in the November presidential election, opposes helping Kyiv and recently used his sway to kill a US border reform bill that would have also authorized additional aid to Ukraine.

Zelensky told the Munich Security Conference on Saturday that he was ready to take Trump to the frontlines in Ukraine, saying policy makers should see what real war entails.

Debris from North Korean missile in Ukraine could expose procurement networks

Debris from North Korean missile in Ukraine could expose procurement networks
Updated 23 February 2024

Debris from North Korean missile in Ukraine could expose procurement networks

Debris from North Korean missile in Ukraine could expose procurement networks
  • Conflict Armament Research examined the remnants of a North Korean ballistic missile used by Russia against Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv on Jan. 2
  • In its report, CAR found date codes on the components indicated more than three quarters were produced between 2021 and 2023

WASHINGTON: Revelations that a North Korean missile fired by Russia in Ukraine contained a large number of components linked to US-based companies underline the difficulty of enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang, but could help uncover illicit procurement networks, experts say.

Conflict Armament Research (CAR), a UK-based organization that tracks the origins of weapons used in conflicts, examined the remnants of a North Korean ballistic missile used by Russia against Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv on Jan. 2.
In a report released this week, it said it examined electronic components, including for the missile’s navigation system, and found many were recently manufactured and bore the marks of companies based in the United States.
It said 75 percent of the components documented were “linked to companies incorporated in the United States,” 16 percent to companies in Europe, and 11 percent to companies in Asia.
Date codes on the components indicated more than three quarters were produced between 2021 and 2023 and that the missile could not have been assembled before March last year, the report said.
Sanctions experts said the findings were not surprising even though for years the United States has led international efforts to restrict North Korea’s ability to obtain parts and funding for its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs.
CAR said its findings showed both how difficult it is to control the export of commercial electronic components, and how reliant countries such as North Korea, Russia and Iran are on imported technology.
“North Korea (and Russia and Iran) are experts in avoiding UN and US sanctions through front companies and other efforts,” said Anthony Ruggiero of Washington’s Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, who directed North Korea sanctions efforts in the Trump administration.
“While US sanctions are robust on paper, sanctions must be enforced to be effective,” he said, stressing the need for Washington and it allies to continually update sanctions lists and spend on enforcement.
“We are not doing either one on North Korea sanctions,” he said, adding that the Biden administration particularly needed to do more to target Chinese companies, individuals, and banks aiding sanctions evasion.
CAR said it was working with industry to trace the missile components and identify the entities responsible for their diversion to North Korea, so would not identify the companies linked to their production. It also did not identify specific components.
Martyn Williams of 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea project, said many components made by US firms were easily available online or from electronics markets around the world.
“That North Korea can get these is not surprising at all, and I don’t think anyone imagined the sanctions regime would be able to stop the flow of common components,” he said.
“There are however much more specialized components in missiles and some of those are not a click away on the Internet. Those are also the type of thing that sanctions are meant to stop, so the presence of more specialized components would be more worrying.”
Katsu Furukawa, a former member of the UN Panel of Experts in charge of monitoring UN sanctions against North Korea, said the bulk of the components shown in a photo in the CAR report appeared to be widely available commercial items.
However, in past UN investigations, he said, there were usually a few specific items such as pressure transmitters and flight control computers that enabled investigators to track procurement routes and identify the perpetrators.
38 North director Jenny Town said such specialized items could only be obtained from a small number of vendors and should have more of a procurement paper trail.
The US State Department said Washington uses export controls, sanctions, and law enforcement actions to prevent North Korea from acquiring technology for its weapons programs and to prevent Russia from acquiring such weapons.
“We work closely with the US private sector, as well as foreign allied and partner states, in these efforts,” a spokesperson said.

Commercial US spaceship lands on Moon, a first for private industry

Commercial US spaceship lands on Moon, a first for private industry
Updated 23 February 2024

Commercial US spaceship lands on Moon, a first for private industry

Commercial US spaceship lands on Moon, a first for private industry

WASHINGTON: A Houston-based company has landed America’s first spaceship on the Moon in more than 50 years, part of a new fleet of NASA-funded, uncrewed commercial robots intended to pave the way for astronaut missions later this decade.

But while flight controllers confirmed they had received a faint signal, it was not immediately clear whether Odysseus, the lander built by Intuitive Machines, was fully functional, with announcers on a live stream suggesting it may have come down off-kilter.

The hexagon-shaped vessel touched down near the lunar south pole at 2323 GMT, having slowed from 4,000 miles (6,500 kilometers) per hour.

Images from an external “EagleCam” that was supposed to shoot out from the spacecraft during its final seconds of descent could be released.

For the time being, however, nothing is certain.

“Without a doubt our equipment is on the surface of the Moon and we are transmitting,” said Tim Crain, the company’s chief technology officer. “So congratulations IM team, we’ll see how much more we can get from that.”

A previous moonshot by another American company last month ended in failure, raising the stakes to demonstrate that private industry has what it takes to repeat a feat last achieved by US space agency NASA during its manned Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

The current mission “will be one of the first forays into the south pole to actually look at the environmental conditions to a place we’re going to be sending our astronauts in the future,” said senior NASA official Joel Kearns.

“What type of dust or dirt is there, how hot or cold does it get, what’s the radiation environment? These are all things you’d really like to know before you send the first human explorers.”

Odysseus launched February 15 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and boasts a new type of supercooled liquid oxygen, liquid methane propulsion system that allowed it to race through space in quick time.

Its landing site, Malapert A, is an impact crater 300 kilometers (180 miles) from the lunar south pole.

NASA hopes to eventually build a long-term presence and harvest ice there for both drinking water and rocket fuel under Artemis, its flagship Moon-to-Mars program.

Instruments carried on Odysseus include cameras to investigate how the lunar surface changes as a result of the engine plume from a spaceship, and a device to analyze clouds of charged dust particles that hang over the surface at twilight as a result of solar radiation.

It also carries a NASA landing system that fires laser pulses, measuring the time taken for the signal to return and its change in frequency to precisely judge the spacecraft’s velocity and distance from the surface, to avoid a catastrophic impact.

This instrument was meant to run as a demonstration only, but Odysseus eventually had to rely on it for the entire descent phase of its journey, after its own navigation system stopped working — forcing controllers to upload a software patch to make the switch.

The rest of the cargo was paid for by Intuitive Machines’ private clients, and includes 125 stainless steel mini Moons by the artist Jeff Koons.

There’s also an archive created by a nonprofit whose goal is to leave backups of human knowledge across the solar system.

NASA paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to ship its hardware under a new initiative called Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS), which it created to delegate cargo services to the private sector to achieve savings and stimulate a wider lunar economy.

The first CLPS mission, by Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic, launched in January, but its Peregrine spacecraft sprung a fuel leak and was eventually brought back to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.

Spaceships landing on the Moon must navigate treacherous boulders and craters and, absent an atmosphere to support parachutes, must rely on thrusters to control their descent. Roughly half of the more than 50 attempts have failed.

Until now, only the space agencies of the Soviet Union, United States, China, India and Japan have accomplished the feat, making for an exclusive club.

US to sanction over 500 targets involved in Russia ‘war machine’

US to sanction over 500 targets involved in Russia ‘war machine’
Updated 23 February 2024

US to sanction over 500 targets involved in Russia ‘war machine’

US to sanction over 500 targets involved in Russia ‘war machine’

WASHINGTON: The United States plans to impose sanctions on more than 500 targets involved in Russia’s war in Ukraine, as fighting continues to rage two years after Moscow’s invasion, the Treasury Department said Thursday.

The action to be rolled out on Friday will hit “Russia, its enablers, and its war machine,” a Treasury spokesperson told AFP.

The official added that the sanctions will be imposed by both the Treasury and State Department.

This will be the “largest single tranche since the start of Putin’s further invasion of Ukraine,” the Treasury said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Since Russia invaded neighboring Ukraine in February 2022, Washington and its allies have imposed a host of sanctions, targeting Moscow’s revenue and military industrial complex.

Among the efforts was a price ceiling enacted by the United States and allies, aimed at cutting down Moscow’s revenues from exports of oil and petroleum products.

To reduce revenues while ensuring supplies to the global market, a coalition involving the Group of Seven leading economies, the European Union and Australia had set a price cap of $60 per barrel of Russian crude.

Due to the price cap, Russia had the option to either sell discounted oil to coalition countries or invest in building an alternative ecosystem.

In recent months, the coalition announced plans to tighten compliance for the price ceiling.

The fresh sanctions on Friday come after Kremlin opposition leader Alexei Navalny died last week in a Russian prison.

US President Joe Biden earlier reaffirmed plans to unveil sanctions, saying they would be “against Putin, who is responsible for his death.”

The US government also marked the upcoming two-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of pro-Western Ukraine by unsealing charges against a series of wealthy Russians to help cut the “flow of illegal funds that are fueling” Moscow’s war.