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.”


France calls at UN for ‘a truce leading to a ceasefire’ in Gaza

France calls at UN for ‘a truce leading to a ceasefire’ in Gaza
Updated 15 sec ago

France calls at UN for ‘a truce leading to a ceasefire’ in Gaza

France calls at UN for ‘a truce leading to a ceasefire’ in Gaza
  • The French ambassador to the UN urges council members to take more action to address the conflict because it requires more than only humanitarian pauses
  • More than 700 Palestinians have been killed since Israel resumed its military operations in Gaza on Dec. 1 after a week-long temporary truce

NEW YORK CITY: France on Monday urged the UN Security Council to do more to address the conflict in Gaza, stressing that pauses in the fighting are not enough and what is needed is a truce that can pave the way for a ceasefire.

Nicolas de Riviere, France’s permanent representative to the UN, said that in the short term “we need more than a humanitarian pause. We need a truce leading to a ceasefire, full humanitarian access, full respect of international humanitarian law. Of course, we need the release of hostages.”

He also reiterated that his country respects “Israel’s right to defend itself and go after the terrorists who committed crimes on Oct. 7.”

De Riviere was speaking to reporters at the UN headquarters in New York ahead of a closed meeting of the Security Council. It was called by the UAE, which cited the “deeply concerning resumption of hostilities” at the weekend and the dire humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip.

More than 700 Palestinians have been killed since Israel resumed its military operations in Gaza on Dec. 1 after a week-long humanitarian pause in the fighting. Another 15,500 were killed before the temporary truce.

Israel this week expanded its operations into southern Gaza, forcing tens of thousands of already displaced Gazans into “increasingly compressed spaces, desperate to find food, water, shelter and safety,” according to Lynn Hastings, the UN’s resident and humanitarian coordinator for the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Warning that “an even more hellish scenario is about to unfold,” she added: “Nowhere is safe in Gaza and there is nowhere left to go. The conditions required to deliver aid to the people of Gaza do not exist.”

De Riviere meanwhile, also called for the resumption of a political process to address the wider Palestinian issue, saying: “I don’t think we can continue to refuse to address the aspirations of the Palestinians to statehood. It is a necessity. It should not be under the carpet like has been the case for the past seven years.”

Council members have been discussing a draft resolution, proposed by the UAE, for the scaling up and monitoring of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.

However, speaking before the closed-doors meeting on Monday, US Ambassador Robert Wood told reporters there is no need at the moment for additional resolutions or statements from the council.

He said it already adopted an “important” resolution on Nov. 15, which calls for urgent and extended humanitarian pauses and aid corridors to be established throughout the Gaza Strip. Resolution 2712, the first one that council members have agreed on since the beginning of the conflict, also calls for the release of all hostages and for all sides to refrain from depriving Gazan civilians of access to the basic goods and services that are critical to their survival.

Wood said what is needed now is a “focus on how we can actually bring relief to the people on the ground, improve the situation, and try to get the negotiations back on again, with regard to the hostages. We’re seeing more aid getting in, although clearly not enough. So that’s where we need to focus our efforts.”

Asked to comment on the latest death toll, and whether or not Israel is doing enough to avoid civilian casualties, Wood said: “Israel is doing more and we have been saying to Israel for quite some time now, ‘You need to do more to protect civilians.’

“It’s a difficult operation when you’re trying to root out Hamas and protect civilians, because Hamas is hiding among the civilians. But they’re listening to us and I think that’s important, and they’re taking steps and we’ll continue to encourage them. Because, obviously, no one is happy with the situation on the ground and it needs to improve and they need to do it.

“The Israelis want to do a better job protecting civilians and we’re going to continue to work with them on that.”

Cyprus president pushes Gaza corridor idea

Cyprus president pushes Gaza corridor idea
Updated 04 December 2023

Cyprus president pushes Gaza corridor idea

Cyprus president pushes Gaza corridor idea

Cyprus President Nikos Christodoulides will visit Egypt and Jordan on Tuesday as part of an initiative to establish a humanitarian aid corridor to Israeli-besieged Gaza.

Cyprus, the closest European Union member state to the Middle East, has offered to host and operate facilities for sustained aid directly into the Gaza Strip once hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian militant Hamas group cease.

Christodoulides planned to meet Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and King Abdullah of Jordan. There were “technical discussions” on the matter between Cypriot and Israeli officials on Sunday.

The Cypriot plan is aimed at expanding capacity for humanitarian relief directly to the coastal Gaza Strip beyond limited deliveries being made through the Rafah crossing between Egypt and the Palestinian enclave.

Such an aid corridor faces logistical, political and security challenges — Gaza has no port and its waters are shallow.

Britain, which sent 80 tons of Gaza-destined aid in the form of mostly blankets and tents to Cyprus last week, has offered watercraft able to access the coastline without the need for special infrastructure if the corridor ever materializes, a source with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

As many as 80 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes in an Israeli bombing campaign that has reduced much of the crowded coastal strip to a desolate wasteland.

Separately, human rights groups sought to block the Dutch government from exporting F-35 fighter jet parts to Israel, arguing in court on Monday that the exports could make the Netherlands complicit in possible war crimes.

The Netherlands houses one of several regional warehouses of US-owned F-35 parts, which are then distributed to countries that request them, including Israel.

The rights groups, which included Oxfam Novib, the Dutch affiliate of the international charity, argued Israel was using the planes in attacks in Gaza that were killing civilians. 

Preventing that was more important than the Netherlands fulfilling its commercial or political obligations to allied countries, they argued.

“The (Dutch) state must immediately stop its deliveries of F-35 parts to Israel,” lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld said in summary proceeding at the Hague District Court.

“That is its obligation under ... Article 1 of the Geneva conventions, it is its obligation under the Genocide Treaty to prevent genocide, and it is its obligation under export law.”

Biden’s allies demand that Israel limit civilian deaths in Gaza

Biden’s allies demand that Israel limit civilian deaths in Gaza
Updated 04 December 2023

Biden’s allies demand that Israel limit civilian deaths in Gaza

Biden’s allies demand that Israel limit civilian deaths in Gaza
  • If asking nicely worked, we wouldn’t have been in this position today: Sen. Sanders

WASHINGTON: As a ceasefire ticked down last week and Israel prepared to resume its round-the-clock airstrikes, Sen. Bernie Sanders and a robust group of Democratic senators had a message for their president: They were done “asking nicely” for Israel to do more to reduce civilian casualties in Gaza.

Lawmakers warned President Joe Biden’s national security team that planned US aid to Israel must be met with assurances of concrete steps from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government.

“The truth is that if asking nicely worked, we wouldn’t be in the position we are today,” Sanders said in a floor speech. It was time for the US to use its “substantial leverage” with its ally, the Vermont senator said.

“And we all know what that leverage is,” he said, adding, “the blank-check approach must end.”

With Biden’s request for a nearly $106 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other national security needs hanging in the balance, the senators’ tougher line on Israel has gotten the White House’s attention, and that of Israel.

Lawmakers of both major political parties for decades have embraced the US role as Israel’s top protector, and it’s all but inconceivable that they would vote down the wartime aid. The Democratic lawmakers are adamant that’s not their intent, as strong supporters of Israel’s right of self-defense against Hamas. But just the fact that Democratic lawmakers are making that link signals the fractures in Congress amid the daily scenes of suffering among besieged Palestinian civilians.

Sanders and the Democratic senators involved say they are firm in their stand that Israel’s military must adopt substantive measures to lessen civilian deaths in Gaza as part of receiving the supplemental’s $14.3 billion in US aid for Israel’s war.

The warning from friendly Democrats is a complication for the White House as it faces what had already been a challenging task of getting the supplemental aid bill through Congress. Some Republicans are balking at the part of the bill that provides funding for Ukraine’s war against Russia, and the funding for Israel was supposed to be the easy part.

The demand is a warning of more trouble ahead for an Israeli government that’s often at odds with the US in its treatment of Palestinians.

“There’s a big difference between asking and getting a commitment” from Netanyahu’s government on a plan to reduce civilian casualties and improve living conditions in Gaza, Maryland Democratic Sen. Chris Van Hollen said. Van Hollen has been one of the key senators huddling with administration officials on the demands.

“So our goal is to achieve results,” Van Hollen said. “And not just set expectations.”

Following the senators’ warning, the Biden administration has upped its own demands to Israel since late last week, insisting publicly for the first time that Israeli leaders not just hear out US demands to ease civilian suffering in Gaza, but agree to them.

Over the weekend, as an end to the ceasefire brought the return of Israeli bombardment and Hamas rocket strikes, the Israeli military said it had begun using one measure directed by the Biden administration: an online map of Gaza neighborhoods to tell civilians which crowded streets, neighborhoods and communities to evacuate before an Israeli attack.

Heavy bombardment followed the evacuation orders, and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip said they were running out of places to go in the sealed-off territory. Many of its 2.3 million people are crammed into the south after Israel ordered civilians to leave the north in the early days of the war, which was sparked by the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack in Israel that killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians.

At least 13 killed in gunfight in India’s Manipur — official 

At least 13 killed in gunfight in India’s Manipur — official 
Updated 04 December 2023

At least 13 killed in gunfight in India’s Manipur — official 

At least 13 killed in gunfight in India’s Manipur — official 
  • Their bodies, with multiple bullet wounds, were found in a village in Manipur’s Tengnoupal district 
  • The development comes seven months after ethnic clashes in the border state that killed 180 people 

GUWAHATI: At least 13 people were killed in a gunfight between two unknown militant groups in India’s restive Manipur state on Monday, a police official said, seven months after ethnic clashes in the border state killed at least 180 people. 

Their bodies, with multiple bullet wounds, were found in a village in Manipur’s Tengnoupal district where the official said a “massive” gunfight was reported. 

The state has witnessed sporadic violence since the peak of ethnic clashes that erupted on May 3 between members of the majority Meitei ethnic group and minority Kuki community over sharing government benefits and quotas. 

The clashes have marked a rare security failure for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in a state ruled by his Bharatiya Janata Party. 

No weapons were found near the bodies, the senior police official told Reuters by phone from state capital Imphal, requesting anonymity. 

“It could be possible the weapons were looted after they were killed,” the official said, adding that they could not immediately identify the dead or the militant groups. 

Philippine police identify possible suspects after deadly blast at Catholic mass 

Philippine police identify possible suspects after deadly blast at Catholic mass 
Updated 04 December 2023

Philippine police identify possible suspects after deadly blast at Catholic mass 

Philippine police identify possible suspects after deadly blast at Catholic mass 
  • Powerful explosion in Marawi killed at least 4, injured 50 others  
  • Daesh reportedly claimed responsibility for the attack late on Sunday

MANILA: Philippine police are looking into possible suspects behind the bombing at a Catholic mass in the country’s south, a regional police chief said on Monday after the blast that killed four people was claimed by Daesh militants. 

On Sunday, a powerful explosion ripped through a gymnasium at Mindanao State University in Marawi, a southern Philippine city that was besieged by pro-Daesh militants for five months in 2017. The death toll stood at four as of Monday, while around 50 others were injured from the blast. 

Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack late on Sunday, saying that its members had detonated an explosive device at the gathering, according to reports.  

“Following the explosion, the PNP (Philippine National Police) created a special investigation task group to focus and expedite the investigation relative to this incident … We (now) have persons of interest,” regional police chief Allan Nobleza told reporters, adding that one of the suspects was linked to a local militant group.  

“The investigation is still ongoing. In order not to preempt the investigation, we will not divulge the names.”  

Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., chief of staff of the Philippines’ Armed Forces, said that Sunday’s attack may have been in response to a series of recent military operations that had targeted local militant groups.  

Philippine forces launched an operation targeting the local Dawlah Islamiyah cell in the southern province of Maguindanao on Friday, killing 11 suspected militants including the group’s alleged leader Abdullah Sapal. The militant group, which has been linked to bombings and other deadly attacks in the southern Philippines, pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2015. 

In another operation in Sulu province on Saturday, government forces killed Mudzrimar Sawadjaan, also known as Mundi, a senior leader of another Daesh affiliate, the Abu Sayyaf Group. Brawner said Mundi was the mastermind of two major attacks in the Sulu capital of Jolo, including the 2019 cathedral bombings that killed at least 20 people. 

Both Dawlah Islamiyah —also known as the Maute group — and the ASG were behind the 2017 Marawi siege, a five-month battle that killed more than 1,100 people and forced more than 300,000 others from their homes. 

“Because of the accomplishments … we believe that that could be one of the strong possibilities why this (attack) occurred,” Brawner told reporters in Marawi on Monday.  

“We will go after the perpetrators as soon as possible and use all resources at our disposal in order to make this happen.”