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

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Updated 10 July 2023
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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.”

 


UN chief ‘condemns’ deadly Gaza aid delivery incident

UN chief ‘condemns’ deadly Gaza aid delivery incident
Updated 12 sec ago
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UN chief ‘condemns’ deadly Gaza aid delivery incident

UN chief ‘condemns’ deadly Gaza aid delivery incident
UNITED NATIONS: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “condemns” the deadly aid delivery incident in northern Gaza, in which Hamas says over 100 people were killed, his spokesperson said Thursday.
Desperate for food, thousands of Palestinians in Gaza City flocked to an aid distribution point early Thursday, only to be met with lethal chaos including live fire by Israeli troops.
An Israeli source has acknowledged that troops opened fire on the crowd, believing it “posed a threat,” but a spokesperson for the prime minister’s office also said that many people had been run over by the aid trucks.
United Nations spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the events “need to be investigated.”
“We don’t know exactly what happened but whether people were shot and died as a result of Israeli gunfire, whether they were crushed by a crowd, whether they were run over by truck, these are all acts of violence, in a sense, due to this conflict,” said Dujarric.
He said there was “no UN presence” at the scene and reiterated the secretary-general’s call for “an immediate humanitarian ceasefire and the unconditional release of all hostages.”
“The desperate civilians in Gaza need urgent help, including those in the besieged north where the United Nations has not been able to deliver aid in more than a week,” Dujarric said, adding that Guterres was “appalled by the tragic human toll of the conflict.”

Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack

Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack
Updated 29 February 2024
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Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack

Four go on trial in France over 2018 Christmas market attack
  • The four men on trial in Paris are accused of crimes ranging from “terrorism” to helping supply weapons
  • The trial opened at the Paris court with the suspects confirming their names

PARIS: Four men went on trial on Thursday over a 2018 Christmas market attack in France’s eastern city of Strasbourg, with a key suspect insisting he did not know the plans of the radical Islamist who killed five people before being shot dead by police after a 48-hour manhunt.
The traditional Christmas market was in full swing on December 11 when Cherif Chekatt — a convicted criminal featured on a list of possible extremist security risks — opened fire on revellers, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is Greatest” in Arabic).
The four men on trial in Paris are accused of crimes ranging from “terrorism” to helping supply weapons, including the 19th-century revolver Chekatt used in the attack.
The trial opened at the Paris court with the suspects confirming their names.
One of them, Audrey Mondjehi, faces the maximum penalty of life in prison if convicted of “terrorism.” The others risk 10 years imprisonment.
The trial, due to last until early April, is the latest legal process over the militant attacks that have hit France since 2015, with most of those in the dock accused of complicity since the actual perpetrators were generally killed while carrying out their attacks.
In December 2022, a Paris court convicted all eight suspects in the trial over a 2016 truck attack in the Mediterranean city of Nice, which left 86 dead, including the driver.
In the highest-profile case, 20 defendants were convicted in June 2022 over their roles in the November 2015 attack in the French capital, when 130 people were killed.
The Daesh group claimed the Strasbourg attack, but the then-French interior minister Christophe Castaner said it was taking credit for an attack it hadn’t planned.
A video pledging allegiance to the group was however found at the assailant’s home.
Of the accused only Mondjehi, 42, was charged with “terrorism,” while the three others — all in their 30s — face criminal conspiracy charges for their role in supplying weapons.
A fifth defendant, in his mid-80s, may be tried at a later date after a medical examination found his health was not compatible with taking part in the current long trial.
Mondjehi, a former cellmate of the assailant, played “a key role in supplying a weapon” by putting him in touch with sellers, and “could not have been unaware of, or may have even shared, all or part of Cherif Chekatt’s radical convictions,” according to the indictment.
Mondjehi told the court this was not true.
“Never could I have known that this weapon could have been for an attack,” he said.
His lawyer Michael Wacquez said he was concerned Mondjehi could be used as a scapegoat.
“Mondjehi should not be an outlet for the grief of the victims and should not be condemned because Cherif Chekatt is not there,” he said.
According to the investigation, there was no evidence of the other suspects having been aware of Chekatt’s plans.
Although Chekatt cannot now be brought to justice, survivors and relatives of victims said the trial was still crucial.
The attack “turned my whole life upside down,” said Mostafa Salhane, a 53-year-old former taxi driver who spent 15 terrifying minutes with Chekatt who climbed into his cab with a gun in his hand as he fled the scene.
A lawyer representing some of the families, Arnaud Friederich, said the trial was a “key moment” for his clients.
“There will be a before and an after,” he said.
Claude Lienhard, a lawyer for several dozen people, said there was a perception the investigation has been dragging on.
“There’s a fear that this will be a low-cost trial compared with other terror trials, as many feel they have been forgotten,” he said.
Audrey Wagner, who saw Chekatt wound one of her friends, said she expected proceedings to be “distressing” but important to “turn the page.”
Jean-Yves Bruckman, a now-retired firefighter who aided one of the victims said he needed answers “to heal.”
“One question keeps coming back to me: How can you kill someone like that?“


Italy foreign minister urges ‘immediate ceasefire’ in Gaza

Italy foreign minister urges ‘immediate ceasefire’ in Gaza
Updated 29 February 2024
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Italy foreign minister urges ‘immediate ceasefire’ in Gaza

Italy foreign minister urges ‘immediate ceasefire’ in Gaza
  • “We strongly urge Israel to protect the people in Gaza and to rigorously ascertain facts and responsibilities,” Tajani said
  • The Israeli military said a “stampede” occurred when thousands of Gazans surrounded a convoy of 30 aid trucks, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries

ROME: Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani called Thursday for an “immediate ceasefire” in Gaza and called on Israel to protect the Palestinian population after troops opened fire at an aid convoy.
“The tragic deaths in Gaza demand an immediate ceasefire to facilitate more humanitarian aid, the release of hostages and the protection of civilians,” he said on X, hours after the incident which the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory said killed 104 people.
“We strongly urge Israel to protect the people in Gaza and to rigorously ascertain facts and responsibilities,” he said.
The Israeli military said a “stampede” occurred when thousands of Gazans surrounded a convoy of 30 aid trucks, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries, including some who were run over by the lorries.
An Israeli source acknowledged troops had opened fire on the crowd, believing it “posed a threat.”
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni expressed her “deep dismay and concern” over the violence, calling on Israel to “urgently ascertain the dynamics of the incident and relative responsibilities.”
She also called for negotiation efforts to be “immediately intensified to create the conditions for a ceasefire” and the freeing of the hostages.


India’s economy grows at its fastest pace in six quarters in election boost for Modi

India’s economy grows at its fastest pace in six quarters in election boost for Modi
Updated 29 February 2024
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India’s economy grows at its fastest pace in six quarters in election boost for Modi

India’s economy grows at its fastest pace in six quarters in election boost for Modi
  • India’s economy grew 8.4% in the October-December quarter, much faster than 6.6% estimate
  • India has beaten market expectations, is ranked as one of fastest-growing economies in the world

NEW DELHI: India’s economy grew at its fastest pace in one-and-half years in the final three months of 2023, led by strong manufacturing and construction activity and bolstering Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic record just months before a national election.
Asia’s third largest economy grew 8.4 percent in the October-December quarter, much faster than the 6.6 percent estimated by economists polled by Reuters and higher than the 7.6 percent recorded in the previous three months.
“The ongoing growth momentum is indicative of the Indian economy’s resilience, notwithstanding global headwinds,” said Sunil Kumar Sinha, economist at India Ratings, noting that industrial growth continued its good run in the quarter.
India has consistently beat market expectations and is ranked as one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, with China struggling to recover after the pandemic and the euro zone narrowly escaping a recession.
India revised its growth estimate for the current fiscal year to March 31 to 7.6 percent from 7.3 percent.
Such a strong showing in the last major economic data release before elections due by May could bolster Modi’s chances after he made high economic growth one of his main platforms at rallies across the country.
The December growth “shows the strength of Indian economy and its potential,” Modi said in a social media post.
Modi has sharply raised government spending on infrastructure and offered incentives to boost manufacturing of phones, electronics, drones and semiconductors to help India compete with likes of Vietnam and Thailand.
The manufacturing sector, which for the past decade has accounted for 17 percent of Asia’s third-largest economy, expanded 11.6 percent year-on-year in the December quarter, while investment growth was above 10 percent for the second consecutive quarter, and the construction sector grew by more than 9 percent.
“Manufacturing sector growth was supported by lower input costs,” said Rajani Sinha, Economist at CareEdge
Private consumption, accounting for 60 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), recovered slightly in the quarter, with a 3.5 percent year-on-year rise, compared with 2.4 percent in the previous three months.
Government spending contracted 3.2 percent year-on-year, compared with 1.4 percent growth in the previous quarter.
RURAL WEAKNESS
The farm sector, which accounts for about 15 percent of the $3.7 trillion economy, continued to struggle due to unfavorable monsoon rains. It contracted 0.8 percent in the December quarter, compared with 1.6 percent growth in the September quarter.
Slowing rural growth dragged down farm incomes and some farmers have hit the streets
demanding higher procurement prices.
Rural weakness has led to slower growth for major retail companies like Hindustan Unilever and Britannia Industries.
The pace of growth in real rural wages was around 1 percent in 2023 after contracting nearly 3 percent in the previous two years, according to ICRA, while average salaries in urban areas have been going up by nearly 10 percent a year.
However, policymakers remain optimistic about rural recovery.
“With the anticipated better value addition in the farm sector next financial year, rural demand growth and rural income growth will be even better and more evident in FY25,” country’s Chief Economic Adviser V Anantha Nageswaran said.


Indonesian artists seek to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics at Art Dubai

Indonesian artists seek to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics at Art Dubai
Updated 29 February 2024
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Indonesian artists seek to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics at Art Dubai

Indonesian artists seek to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics at Art Dubai
  • 17th edition of Art Dubai runs from March 1-3 in Madinat Jumeirah
  • Over 65% of the fair’s presentations are from the Global South

Jakarta: Indonesian artists are hoping to amplify Southeast Asian aesthetics in the Middle East with their showcase at Art Dubai this week, where they will join a diverse group of Global South artists from 40 countries.

The 17th edition of Art Dubai, which runs from March 1 to 3 in Madinat Jumeirah, will showcase leading artists and galleries from developing countries, as it seeks to provide a platform for art from typically underrepresented regions and communities. This year, over 65 percent of its presentations are drawn from the Global South.

Indonesia’s artists, represented by various galleries such as Gajah Gallery and Yeo Workshop, are among a group of Southeast Asian creatives presenting works focused on the region’s heritage.

Erizal As, a painter from Indonesia’s West Sumatra province, is hoping that Dubai will help boost the global visibility of his, and other Southeast Asian artists’ work.

“I am indeed hopeful to garner greater recognition in the Middle East, a region experiencing rapid growth and burgeoning appreciation for the arts. I am confident that the universal themes and expressive depth of my work will resonate with the discerning Gulf audience, fostering a meaningful dialogue transcending cultural boundaries,” Erizal told Arab News on Thursday.

“I also think that the inclusion of more Indonesian and Southeast Asian artists may bring a fresh perspective to the local art scene … Maybe the different visual language that we bring actually has the same soul or essence as what Dubai has been feeling and communicating through their arts. The two visual languages can communicate with each other.”

After spending the COVID-19 years painting outdoors in the West Sumatra mountains, Erizal returned to his studio to transform his experiences into a series of abstract paintings, presenting various forms through texture and strokes, to capture the essence of nature. Some of those works are being showcased in Dubai this week.

“With my recent creations, my foremost aspiration is to evoke contemplation on the intrinsic essence of nature, spirituality, and the profound energy that permeates our existence,” Erizal said.

Yunizar, who is also from West Sumatra and is known for his childlike creations seeking to capture the psyche of ordinary individuals, will present his paintings and bronze sculptures at Art Dubai.

“My work depicts my observations of life around me. I mix visualizations of objects with things that are fantastical in nature,” Yunizar told Arab News.

Indonesian artist Yunizar working on his “Detail of Bonsai,” 2021. (Gajah Gallery)

He believes in the “common relatability towards art between humankind everywhere” and hopes to amplify the reach of his work at the international art fair.

“Dubai, in my opinion, has a burgeoning art scene with a rich cultural background that can support the development of new visual trajectories. Showcasing my work on such a global scale, I can only strive and attempt to deliver my best work,” he said.

“I believe that my work transcends cultural boundaries and reverberate with viewers from diverse backgrounds. In terms of quality, my work is not less than that of artists from other regions, such as those from Europe. And with its rich visual language and unmistakable Southeast Asian essence, in my opinion, my art will find resonance among the Gulf audience, fostering meaningful dialogue and appreciation for art across borders.”