Taliban mark two years since return to power in Afghanistan  

Taliban supporters march during a rally to celebrate the second anniversary of Taliban’s takeover in Kandahar, Afghanistan on Aug. 15, 2023. (AFP)
Taliban supporters march during a rally to celebrate the second anniversary of Taliban’s takeover in Kandahar, Afghanistan on Aug. 15, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 15 August 2023
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Taliban mark two years since return to power in Afghanistan  

Taliban supporters march during a rally to celebrate the second anniversary of Taliban’s takeover in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
  • Over 50% of Afghan households still “struggle to maintain their livelihoods and consumption,” according to the World Bank 
  • Taliban have imposed increasing restrictions on women and girls, including bans on university education and public spaces

KABUL: The Taliban said on Tuesday they are committed to serving Afghans within their “framework of Shariah” as they celebrated the second anniversary of their takeover of Kabul.  

After two decades of war that killed tens of thousands of Afghans on their soil, the fall of Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021 marked the Taliban’s return to power, which was followed by foreign military pulling out from the country and the collapse of the US-backed government led by Ashraf Ghani.  

“On the arrival of the second anniversary of the conquest of Kabul, we would like to congratulate the mujahid (holy warrior) nation of Afghanistan and ask them to thank Almighty Allah for this great victory,” the Taliban said in a statement on Tuesday, which was declared a national holiday for the occasion.  

“Now that overall security is ensured in the country, the entire territory of the country is managed under a single leadership, Islamic system is in place and everything is explained from the angle of Shariah … The officials of the Islamic Emirate are committed to serving their people within the framework of the Islamic Shariah as long as they are alive and will work for the development and stability of the country.” 

While the new rulers are not officially recognized by any country in the world, security in the country has been “stable” in the two years since their takeover, said security expert Mohammed Sadiq Shinwari.  

“The safety of the people is assured compared to the past as the Taliban have control in all 34 provinces … Within the last two years, security concerns were addressed and people can travel to any province without any fear. Thus, we can say a huge difference can be seen compared to the past,” Shinwari told Arab News.  

“People can feel safety and stability from the past two years but there are (also) economic problems,” he added.  

Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy plunged into a freefall after the Taliban took over, but the World Bank reported last month that the local currency, the afghani, gained value against major currencies as exports increased by 9 percent between January and May this year. It also noted an improvement in job opportunities for both skilled and unskilled laborers since March 2023.  

However, over half of Afghan households still “struggle to maintain their livelihoods and consumption,” according to the World Bank.  

“Like other Afghans, I have faced a lot of problems: economic problems, social problems, etc. When the previous government fell, I lost my job while I was supporting my family,” Shah Wali Khan Safi, who has been unemployed since the Taliban takeover, told Arab News.  

Safi had previously worked as an IT engineer for the military and said he was forced to sell some of his prized possessions “because of the bad economic situation.” 

Afghanistan’s current economy is “full of worries and concerns,” said Nazakmir Ziyarmal, an economy expert based in Kabul.  

“Afghanistan will not be able to recover the country’s economy alone,” Ziyarmal told Arab News. “It needs to have more and more interaction with the international community so that we can receive at least some humanitarian assistance for a short time.”  

Taliban authorities have called for sanctions to be removed and billions in frozen funds to be released to alleviate Afghans’ sufferings, but the international community is only willing to take such steps once the government takes certain actions, such as lifting restrictions on girls and women.  

Yet despite initial promises of a more moderate rule than their previous stint in power in the 1990s, the Taliban have imposed increasing restrictions on the rights of women and girls, including stopping girls from receiving education beyond the sixth grade and banning women from public spaces.  

“Afghan women have experienced very difficult days in the last two years,” Zakira Sadat, a women’s rights activist in Kabul, told Arab News. “If this continues, we Afghan women have no hope for our future.” 

Taliban’s treatment of girls and women has sparked widespread international condemnation, but those protests have done little to force change. As global attention comes and goes, many Afghans feel like they have been left behind.  

“We are tired of the international messages about women’s rights on social media. We hope that they will give action to their promises and implement them,” Sadat said.  

“Those countries that have been shouting for the rights of Afghan women for 20 years and have claimed human rights, spent billions of dollars to invest in women, where are they now and why are they silent? Why do they ignore the situation of Afghan women and think that everything is fine here?” 


France’s Macron to meet Lebanon PM in Paris Friday: French presidency

French President Emmanuel Macron will meet Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Friday in Paris. (File/Reuters/AFP)
French President Emmanuel Macron will meet Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Friday in Paris. (File/Reuters/AFP)
Updated 27 min 5 sec ago
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France’s Macron to meet Lebanon PM in Paris Friday: French presidency

French President Emmanuel Macron will meet Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Friday in Paris. (File/Reuters/AFP)
  • Lebanon has been without a president for more than a year after ex-head of state Michel Aoun’s mandate expired
  • Former French colony is also in the grips of an unprecedented economic crisis

PARIS: France President Emmanuel Macron will meet Lebanon’s Prime Minister Najib Mikati and army chief Joseph Aoun on Friday in Paris, the French presidency said.
The announcement on Thursday comes as fears have increased in recent days of a regional escalation in the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
Lebanon is grappling with a deep economic and political crisis.
That has been compounded by near-daily cross-border fire between Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group and neighboring Israel ever since war erupted on October 7 between Israel and Hamas, a Hezbollah ally.
Hezbollah on Thursday said two of its fighters had been killed as Israel appeared to intensify strikes on south Lebanon following an attack by the Iran-backed group that wounded 14 Israeli soldiers.
Fears of a regional conflict have spiked in recent days after Tehran launched its first ever direct military attack on Israel late Saturday in retaliation for an April 1 air strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus widely blamed on Israel.
Lebanon has been without a president for more than a year after ex-head of state Michel Aoun’s mandate expired, with its feuding factions repeatedly failing in parliament to elect a new leader.
The multi-confessional former French colony is also in the grips of an unprecedented economic crisis.
Mikati has been prime minister since 2021 but leads a caretaker government with limited powers.
Joseph Aoun, no relation to the country’s former president, has good relations with all sides in the country and is sometimes put forward as someone who could lead it out of political deadlock.
Macron has visited the country twice in recent years in a bid to help bring it out of crisis, but then in 2023 assigned the task to former foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.


Philippines’ Marcos features among Time’s 100 most influential people

Philippines’ Marcos features among Time’s 100 most influential people
Updated 18 April 2024
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Philippines’ Marcos features among Time’s 100 most influential people

Philippines’ Marcos features among Time’s 100 most influential people
  • Other Filipinos previously featured are Rodrigo Duterte, Leila de Lima, Maria Ressa
  • Magazine recognizes Marcos’ attempts to rehabilitate the name of his dictator father and namesake

MANILA: Time magazine has featured Philippine President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. in its list of the 100 most influential people of 2024, which includes other heads of state, celebrities, scientists and tycoons.

First published in 1999, the annual list recognizes people from various fields for making an impact, breaking records or rules. Entrants are featured for making change — regardless of the consequences of their actions.

Marcos, 66, the son and namesake of the late Philippine dictator, won a landslide victory in the 2022 elections. He campaigned on the issue of national unity and portrayed himself as the candidate for change, promising happiness to 110 million Filipinos, weary of pandemic hardships and years of political polarization under his immediate predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.

The magazine recognized his efforts to rehabilitate and “whitewash” the name of his father and also highlighted his other achievements in office.

“He brought technocrats back into government, steadied the post-pandemic economy, and elevated the Philippines on the world stage,” Time’s news correspondent Charlie Campbell wrote.

“Many problems persist, including extrajudicial killings and journalists routinely attacked. But by trying to repair his family name, Bongbong may reshape his country too.”

The article also recognized Marcos for standing against Beijing’s claims in the disputed South China Sea, where Chinese ships have been regularly entering the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Standing steadfast against Chinese aggression has also gained him praise at home.

“His policy on the West Philippine Sea of standing up against China is good,” said Raymond Zabala, a lawyer, who was “optimistic and skeptical at the same time” about Marcos’ inclusion in Time’s list, owing to unanswered issues about his family’s ill-gotten wealth and abuses during his father’s rule.

“Given his family’s background and some of the issues during the election campaign, I can’t help but feel critical.”

While appearing on Time’s list is often seen as an honor, Filipinos said they did not see how their country was improving its reputation, although they were observing fewer human rights violations compared with the previous Duterte administration and its “war on drugs,” which according to rights groups has led to the deaths of over 12,000 people.

“The Philippines will be reverting back to its usual image of a corrupt nation, probably minus the extrajudicial killings,” said Crystal Arcega, a law student.

Writer Pam Musni told Arab News she felt the perception of Marcos’ administration was the same as that of his predecessor’s, although “probably less bloodthirsty” and “more emboldened” against China.

“I understand why he was included in the list, with ‘influential’ not necessarily being a good or bad thing,” she said.

“It is especially frustrating that he does not make any significant strides towards the threat of climate change, and that he has expressed support for Israel, a country that has been killing many innocent lives in Palestine.”

A recent Pulse Asia survey showed Marcos’ performance ratings fell from 68 percent in December 2023 to 55 percent in March.

“I’m still waiting to hear how he plans to assert our sovereignty, since that is always a balancing act with the US,” said sustainable development practitioner J.K. Asturias.

Initially enthusiastic about Marcos’ $160 billion infrastructure plans under his Build Better More program, he has been increasingly critical over lack of support for alternative modes of transportation.

“In recent times I’ve been especially disappointed with how they are banning light electric vehicles even though there is a law that says the government should be incentivizing their adoption. I also feel he does a lot of greenwashing, pretending he’s pro-environment even though he pushes for mining,” Asturias said.

For him, the impression that Time’s list would create was one of the Filipinos’ tendency to forget.

“Many people will most likely see the Philippines as a nation that forgets too soon and forgives too much,” he said. “If they don’t think that already.”

Other Filipinos featured by Time have included Duterte and his vocal critic and former senator Leila de Lima in 2017.

Journalist Maria Ressa was recognized by Time in 2019 — two years before becoming a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

The late former President Corazon Aquino, a central figure in the ousting of Marcos’ father in the bloodless 1986 People Power Revolution, was Time’s Woman of the Year in 1987.


Indonesia and China make joint call for permanent Gaza ceasefire

Indonesia and China make joint call for permanent Gaza ceasefire
Updated 18 April 2024
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Indonesia and China make joint call for permanent Gaza ceasefire

Indonesia and China make joint call for permanent Gaza ceasefire
  • Countries’ foreign ministers also support Palestine’s bid for full UN membership
  • Both officials urge restraint following Israeli, Iranian strikes this month

JAKARTA: Indonesia and China made a joint call on Thursday for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza, and the implementation of the two-state solution in Palestine.

The move came after a meeting between Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi and her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, in Jakarta. The two ministers exchanged views on international security and stability amid fears of a regional conflict in the Middle East.

“The visit of the Chinese foreign minister comes at a time when we all have concerns about the evolving situation in the Middle East. We share the same view on the importance of all parties exercising restraint and the necessity of deescalation,” Marsudi told reporters during a joint press briefing.

“I am sure that China will use its influence to prevent escalation. We also shared the same views on the importance of a ceasefire in Gaza and the fair resolution on the issue of Palestine through a two-state solution,” she said.

“Indonesia will support full Palestinian membership at the UN. Stability in the Middle East cannot be achieved without a resolution of the Palestinian issue.”

Wang’s visit to Jakarta is part of a six-day tour that also involves trips to Papua New Guinea and Cambodia.

His meeting with Marsudi followed Iran’s attack on Israel last weekend. The attack was a response to an Israeli airstrike earlier this month that destroyed an Iranian consulate building in Damascus, Syria, killing 13 people, including two top military commanders.

“We urge all parties involved to maintain calm and restraint in order to avoid escalation of the situation, and prevent conflicts from spilling over. China supports the UN Security Council in promptly accepting Palestine as a full member of the UN,” Wang said.

The council is due to vote on Friday on a Palestinian request for full UN membership.

Beijing is also advocating “a larger, more authoritative and more effective international peace conference” that will formulate a timetable and road map to implement the two-state solution.

“Unconditional and lasting ceasefires need to be immediately implemented, and substantive action should be taken to protect civilians. Urgent humanitarian assistance should be sent to Gaza to ensure that supplies can be delivered quickly, safely and sustainably,” Wang added.

Six months on, Israel’s war on Hamas in Gaza has killed more than 33,800 Palestinians as the UN warns of impending famine in the besieged enclave.

Although the UN Security Council in March adopted a resolution demanding an immediate ceasefire during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, there was no stop in the deadly Israeli attacks.


UK’s Rwanda plan rejected by Lords after vote to exempt Afghan soldiers

UK’s Rwanda plan rejected by Lords after vote to exempt Afghan soldiers
Updated 18 April 2024
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UK’s Rwanda plan rejected by Lords after vote to exempt Afghan soldiers

UK’s Rwanda plan rejected by Lords after vote to exempt Afghan soldiers
  • Peers approve amendment to bill to protect ex-servicemen, families from being deported
  • Bill to return to Commons after Lords also vote to set up committee to monitor safety in Rwanda

LONDON: The UK’s House of Lords rejected the government’s plan to send migrants to Rwanda for asylum processing in a vote on Wednesday after it approved two amendments to the legislation.

The upper chamber of Parliament voted in favor of a proposal to exempt Afghans who worked with UK military personnel from being deported to the East African country, and of another that would see a committee established to monitor safety in Rwanda.

The bill will return to the House of Commons early next week, where MPs have previously refused to back amendments made to it by the Lords. 

The government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has made the Rwanda scheme a core part of his pledge to lower illegal migration across the English Channel before the next general election, says the bill in its current form is “the right way forward.”

However, a previous version of the scheme was rejected by the UK Supreme Court in 2023 as unlawful. 

The plan has also drawn cross-party criticism for its expense, worries about its effectiveness, the government’s inability to implement it and for the way it treats people in need of asylum, including former Afghan soldiers, translators and their families, many of whom risked their lives to assist the UK during operations in Afghanistan.

Numerous Afghans have been identified as having been threatened with deportation to Rwanda for entering the UK illegally, with many claiming safe legal routes either don’t work in practice or don’t exist.

The Independent highlighted the cases of a former Afghan Air Force pilot hailed as a “patriot” by former colleagues, who crossed the Channel in a small boat, and of two former Afghan special forces soldiers belonging to units known as “Triples” run by the British Army, who were wrongly denied assistance by the UK Ministry of Defence.

Along with reporting by Lighthouse Reports and Sky News, hundreds of other former Triples soldiers have also been identified hiding in Pakistan, awaiting an MoD review after many were refused entry to the UK.

The Lords amendment on protections from deportation for former Afghan military personnel was proposed by a former UK defense secretary, Lord Browne of Ladyton, and supported by two former chiefs of the UK’s defense staff.

Earlier on Wednesday Home Office minister Michael Tomlinson said peers should reject the amendments to “send a clear signal that if you come to the UK illegally, you will not be able to stay.”

But Lord Browne told the Lords: “Now is the time to give these people the sanctuary their bravery has earned.”

He added the government needed to be reminded of “the political consequences of their failure not to give either an assurance that is bankable or to accept this amendment. Because there is little, if any, support in your lordships’ House for their failure to do this and there (is) certainly no majority support in the country to treat these brave people this way.”

Lord Coaker, shadow home affairs spokesperson in the Lords, added: “Why on earth would the government oppose that particular amendment? It’s one of those things that is completely unbelievable.”

On Wednesday, Conservative MP Sir Robert Buckland told the Commons: “There is still a class of people who have served this country, who have been brave and have exposed themselves to danger, who have not yet been dealt with.

“Many of them are in Pakistan, and I think that it would have been helpful to have perhaps seen an amendment in lieu to deal with that point.”


Once a fringe ideology, Hindu nationalism is now mainstream in India

Once a fringe ideology, Hindu nationalism is now mainstream in India
Updated 18 April 2024
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Once a fringe ideology, Hindu nationalism is now mainstream in India

Once a fringe ideology, Hindu nationalism is now mainstream in India
  • Modi’s spiritual and political upbringing from the RSS group is the driving force, experts say
  • At the same time, his rule has seen brazen attacks against minorities, particularly Muslims

AHMEDABAD: Hindu nationalism, once a fringe ideology in India, is now mainstream. Nobody has done more to advance this cause than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of India’s most beloved and polarizing political leaders.

And no entity has had more influence on his political philosophy and ambitions than a paramilitary, right-wing group founded nearly a century ago and known as the RSS.

“We never imagined that we would get power in such a way,” said Ambalal Koshti, 76, who says he first brought Modi into the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in the late 1960s in their home state, Gujarat.

Modi was a teenager. Like other young men — and even boys — who joined, he would learn to march in formation, fight, meditate and protect their Hindu homeland.

A few decades earlier, while Mahatma Gandhi preached Hindu-Muslim unity, the RSS advocated for transforming India — by force, if necessary — into a Hindu nation. (A former RSS worker would fire three bullets into Gandhi’s chest in 1948, killing him months after India gained independence.)

Modi’s spiritual and political upbringing from the RSS is the driving force, experts say, in everything he’s done as prime minister over the past 10 years, a period that has seen India become a global power and the world’s fifth-largest economy.

At the same time, his rule has seen brazen attacks against minorities — particularly Muslims — from hate speech to lynchings. India’s democracy, critics say, is faltering as the press, political opponents and courts face growing threats. And Modi has increasingly blurred the line between religion and state.

At 73, Modi is campaigning for a third term in a general election, which starts Friday. He and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are expected to win. He’s challenged by a broad but divided alliance of regional parties.

Supporters and critics agree on one thing: Modi has achieved staying power by making Hindu nationalism acceptable — desirable, even — to a nation of 1.4 billion that for decades prided itself on pluralism and secularism. With that comes an immense vote bank: 80 percent of Indians are Hindu.

“He is 100 percent an ideological product of the RSS,“in said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who wrote a Modi biography. “He has delivered their goals.”

Mohanlal Gupta, a scrap trader, worships a statue of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a temple he has built on the third floor of his residential building at Gadkhol village near Ankleshwar in Baruch district of Gujarat state, India, on February 5, 2024. (AP)

UNITING HINDUS

Between deep breaths under the night sky in western India a few weeks ago, a group of boys recited an RSS prayer in Sanskrit: “All Hindus are the children of Mother India ... we have taken a vow to be equals and a promise to save our religion.”

More than 65 years ago, Modi was one of them. Born in 1950 to a lower-caste family, his first exposure to the RSS was through shakhas — local units — that induct boys by combining religious education with self-defense skills and games.

By the 1970s, Modi was a full-time campaigner, canvassing neighborhoods on bicycle to raise RSS support.

“At that time, Hindus were scared to come together,” Koshti said. “We were trying to unite them.”

Supporters of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wear Indian prime Minister Narendra Modi masks during an election campaign in Ghaziabad, India, on April 6, 2024. (AP)

The RSS — formed in 1925, with the stated intent to strengthen the Hindu community — was hardly mainstream. It was tainted by links to Gandhi’s assassination and accused of stoking hatred against Muslims as periodic riots roiled India.

For the group, Indian civilization is inseparable from Hinduism, while critics say its philosophy is rooted in Hindu supremacy.

Today, the RSS has spawned a network of affiliated groups, from student and farmer unions to nonprofits and vigilante organizations often accused of violence. Their power — and legitimacy — ultimately comes from the BJP, which emerged from the RSS.

“Until Modi, the BJP had never won a majority on their own in India’s Parliament,” said Christophe Jaffrelot, an expert on Modi and the Hindu right. “For the RSS, it is unprecedented.”

SCALING HIS POLITICS

Modi got his first big political break in 2001, becoming chief minister of home state Gujarat. A few months in, anti-Muslim riots ripped through the region, killing at least 1,000 people.

There were suspicions that Modi quietly supported the riots, but he denied the allegations and India’s top court absolved him over lack of evidence.

Instead of crushing his political career, the riots boosted it.

Modi doubled down on Hindu nationalism, Jaffrelot said, capitalizing on religious tensions for political gain. Gujarat’s reputation suffered from the riots, so he turned to big businesses to build factories, create jobs and spur development.

“This created a political economy — he built close relations with capitalists who in turn backed him,” Jaffrelot said.

Modi became increasingly authoritarian, Jaffrelot described, consolidating power over police and courts and bypassing the media to connect directly with voters.

The “Gujarat Model,” as Modi coined it, portended what he would do as a prime minister.

“He gave Hindu nationalism a populist flavor,” Jaffrelot said. “Modi invented it in Gujarat, and today he has scaled it across the country.”

BIG PLANS

In June, Modi aims not just to win a third time — he’s set a target of receiving two-thirds of the vote. And he’s touted big plans.

“I’m working every moment to make India a developed nation by 2047,” Modi said at a rally. He also wants to abolish poverty and make the economy the world’s third-largest.

If Modi wins, he’ll be the second Indian leader, after Jawaharlal Nehru, to retain power for a third term.

With approval ratings over 70 percent, Modi’s popularity has eclipsed that of his party. Supporters see him as a strongman leader, unafraid to take on India’s enemies, from Pakistan to the liberal elite. He’s backed by the rich, whose wealth has surged under him. For the poor, a slew of free programs, from food to housing, deflect the pain of high unemployment and inflation. Western leaders and companies line up to court him, turning to India as a counterweight against China.

He’s meticulously built his reputation. In a nod to his Hinduism, he practices yoga in front of TV crews and the UN, extols the virtues of a vegetarian diet, and preaches about reclaiming India’s glory. He refers to himself in the third person.

P.K. Laheri, a former senior bureaucrat in Gujarat, said Modi “does not risk anything” when it comes to winning — he goes into the election thinking the party won’t miss a single seat.

The common thread of Modi’s rise, analysts say, is that his most consequential policies are ambitions of the RSS.

In 2019, his government revoked the special status of disputed Kashmir, the country’s only Muslim-majority region. His government passed a citizenship law excluding Muslim migrants. In January, Modi delivered on a longstanding demand from the RSS — and millions of Hindus — when he opened a temple on the site of a razed mosque.

The BJP has denied enacting discriminatory policies and says its work benefits all Indians.

Last week, the BJP said it would pass a common legal code for all Indians — another RSS desire — to replace religious personal laws. Muslim leaders and others oppose it.

But Modi’s politics are appealing to those well beyond right-wing nationalists — the issues have resonated deeply with regular Hindus. Unlike those before him, Modi paints a picture of a rising India as a Hindu one.

Satish Ahlani, a school principal, said he’ll vote for Modi. Today, Ahlani said, Gujarat is thriving — as is India.

“Wherever our name hadn’t reached, it is now there,” he said. “Being Hindu is our identity; that is why we want a Hindu country. ... For the progress of the country, Muslims will have to be with us. They should accept this and come along.”