Tens of thousands of Afghans flee Pakistan as deadline looms

Tens of thousands of Afghans flee Pakistan as deadline looms
More than 100,000 Afghan migrants have already left Pakistan since the start of October, when the government announced a one-month deadline. (Reuters)
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Updated 31 October 2023
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Tens of thousands of Afghans flee Pakistan as deadline looms

Tens of thousands of Afghans flee Pakistan as deadline looms
  • Pakistan government would begin arresting undocumented Afghans and taking them to new holding centers from Wednesday

PESHAWAR: More than 10,000 Afghans living in Pakistan rushed to the borders on Tuesday, just hours before a deadline for 1.7 million people to leave Pakistan voluntarily or face arrest and deportation.
The Pakistan government has said it would begin arresting undocumented Afghans and taking them to new holding centers from Wednesday, from where they will be processed and forcibly returned to Afghanistan.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban government has imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law since seizing power in August 2021, banning girls from secondary and university education and forcing women to stay out of work.
While hundreds of thousands of Afghans are estimated to have fled to Pakistan since the Taliban’s return to power, millions more had already settled there over decades of conflict, making Pakistan the host of one of the world’s largest refugee populations.
Despite a gruelling economic crisis in Afghanistan, coupled with the Taliban government’s edicts on women and girls’ rights, Afghans in Pakistan are being forced to return to their home country.
“Thousands of Afghan refugees are waiting for their turn in vehicles, lorries, and trucks, and the number continues to grow,” Irshad Mohmand, a senior government official at the Torkham border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province said.
“More than 10,000 refugees have gathered since morning.”
In Afghanistan, the Taliban government has qualified Pakistan’s policy as “harassment.”
Thousands more Afghans are waiting at the southern Chaman crossing in Balochistan province, officials said — with numbers at both borders expected to double on Wednesday.
Despite huge pressure at the border, a government official based in Peshawar near the border said the holding centers would still open as planned from November 1.
“This procedure does not require much time as they don’t possess passports and visas and don’t need to pass through immigration. In simple words, they are passing through a procedure of deportation,” he said on condition of anonymity.
But some Afghans are determined to try to find the way to remain in Pakistan, even if it means going under the radar.
A fourteen-year-old Afghan girl, who was not named for security reasons, said she will stay in Pakistan as long as possible, despite not have legal papers.
“We are not going back home, because my education in Afghanistan would come to a grinding halt,” she said in Peshawar.
“Our father has told us that if he is arrested by Pakistani authorities, we should not leave even then. Because we will have no life in Afghanistan.”
Several schools for Afghan students in the capital Islamabad closed from Tuesday as families went into hiding, teachers said.
More than 100,000 Afghan migrants have already left Pakistan since the start of October, when the government announced a one-month deadline for Afghans it says are living illegally in the country.
More than 80 percent have left via the northern Torkham border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, where the majority of Afghan migrants live.
Police in the province said they have not yet begun arrests as families leave voluntarily, but Afghan refugees in Karachi and Islamabad have reported arrests, harassment and extortion.
“To avoid any humiliation by the Pakistani authorities I have decided to leave,” Zulfiqar Khan, who was born to refugee parents in a sprawling Peshawar aid camp, said last week.
Lawyers and activists have said the scale of the crackdown is unprecedented, appealing for more time for Afghans — some of whom have lived for decades in the country — to be given more time to pack up with dignity.
“The Pakistani government is using threats, abuse, and detention to coerce Afghan asylum seekers without legal status to return to Afghanistan or face deportation,” Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
“The situation in Afghanistan remains dangerous for many who fled, and deportation will expose them to significant security risks, including threats to their lives and well-being.”
Pakistan has said the deportations are to protect the “welfare and security” of the country, where anti-Afghan sentiment has been growing amid prolonged economic hardship and a rise in cross-border militancy.


UN peacekeepers begin withdrawing from east DR Congo

UN peacekeepers begin withdrawing from east DR Congo
Updated 23 sec ago
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UN peacekeepers begin withdrawing from east DR Congo

UN peacekeepers begin withdrawing from east DR Congo
KAMANYOLA, DR Congo: The United Nations kicked off the withdrawal of MONUSCO peacekeeping forces from the Democratic Republic of Congo Wednesday by handing over a UN base to national police, an AFP team saw.
During an official ceremony at the Kamanyola base, close to the Rwandan and Burundian borders, the flags of the United Nations and Pakistan, whose peacekeepers were in charge of the base, were replaced by those of the DRC.

Pope Francis skips readings at audience, says he still has a cold

Pope Francis skips readings at audience, says he still has a cold
Updated 28 February 2024
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Pope Francis skips readings at audience, says he still has a cold

Pope Francis skips readings at audience, says he still has a cold
  • The 87-year-old pontiff, who has had a number of health issues recently, canceled appointments on Saturday and Monday

VATICAN CITY, Feb 28 : Pope Francis skipped readings at his Wednesday weekly audience, delegating the task to an aide and telling the faithful he was still not well.
The 87-year-old pontiff, who has had a number of health issues recently, had canceled appointments on Saturday and on Monday due to what the Vatican called a mild flu.
On Sunday, however, he addressed crowds in St. Peter’s Square as normal, to deliver his Angelus message.
“Dear brothers and sisters, I still have a bit of a cold,” Francis said, announcing that someone else would read his catechesis on envy and vainglory, two of the seven deadly sins.
In December, the pope was forced to cancel a planned trip to a COP28 climate meeting in Dubai because of the effects of influenza and lung inflammation.
In January, he was unable to complete a speech owing to “a touch of bronchitis.” Later in the month he said he was doing better despite “some aches and pains.”
As a young man in his native Argentina, Francis had part of a lung removed.
The pope also has difficulty walking, and regularly uses a wheelchair or a cane. On Wednesday, he arrived at his indoor audience in a wheelchair. (Reporting by Alvise Armellini, editing by Miral Fahmy)


Extremism is US voters’ greatest worry, Reuters/Ipsos poll finds

Extremism is US voters’ greatest worry, Reuters/Ipsos poll finds
Updated 28 February 2024
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Extremism is US voters’ greatest worry, Reuters/Ipsos poll finds

Extremism is US voters’ greatest worry, Reuters/Ipsos poll finds
  • Marginally higher than those who picked the economy – 19 percent – and immigration – 18 percent

WASHINGTON: Worries about political extremism or threats to democracy have emerged as a top concern for US voters and an issue where President Joe Biden has a slight advantage over Donald Trump ahead of the November election, a new Reuters/Ipsos poll showed.

Some 21 percent of respondents in the three-day poll, which closed on Sunday, said “political extremism or threats to democracy” was the biggest problem facing the US, a share that was marginally higher than those who picked the economy — 19 percent — and immigration — 18 percent.

Biden’s Democrats considered extremism by far the No. 1 issue while Trump’s Republicans overwhelmingly chose immigration.

Extremism was independents’ top concern, cited by almost a third of independent respondents, followed by immigration, cited by about one in five. The economy ranked third.

During and since his presidency, Trump has kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism of US institutions, claiming the four criminal prosecutions he faces are politically motivated and holding to his false claims that his 2020 election defeat was the result of widespread fraud.

That rhetoric was central to his message to supporters ahead of their Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol.

Overall, 34 percent of respondents said Biden had a better approach for handling extremism, compared to 31 percent who said Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination.

The poll helps show the extent to which Biden’s re-election bid could rely on voters being motivated by their opposition to Trump rather than enthusiasm over Biden’s candidacy.

BIDEN APPROVAL DIPS

Biden’s approval rating in the poll, 37 percent, was close to the lowest level of his presidency and down a percentage point from a month earlier. Nine-out-of-ten Democrats approved of his performance and the same share of Republicans disapproved, while independents were slightly skewed toward disapproval.

But 44 percent of Democrats said extremism was their top issue, compared to 10 percent who said the economy, their second most-picked concern. Prior Reuters/Ipsos polls did not include political extremism as an option for respondents to select as the country’s biggest problem.

Biden’s re-election campaign has focused its messaging on the dangers to democracy posed by Trump, whose many legal problems include criminal charges tied to his efforts to overturn his loss to Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Other Reuters/Ipsos polls have shown Biden’s supporters are more motivated by their opposition to Trump than by their support for  the president.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to all the charges he faces, which he claims are part a conspiracy by Democrats to derail his return to the White House.

Trump has regularly launched verbal attacks against the prosecutors and judges handling his civil and criminal cases, and a Reuters review earlier this month found that serious threats to US federal judges have more than doubled over the past three years.

While 38 percent of Republicans in the poll cited immigration as the top issue for the country, a significant proportion — 13 percent — picked extremism, a sign that Trump’s own claims about the danger to the nation posed by “far left” Democrats also resonate with his base.

The economy, which has suffered under high inflation for most of Biden’s presidency, was the second biggest issue among Republicans, with 22 percent saying it weighed the most.

The economy has long been a sore spot for Biden. Thirty-nine percent of poll respondents said Trump had a better approach to the economy, compared to 33 percent who said Biden did.

Trump led Biden 36 percent to 30 percent when it came to having a better approach to foreign conflicts, though few Democrats or Republicans considered those issues to be top national priorities.

The Reuters/Ipsos poll gathered responses online from 1,020 adults, using a nationally representative sample, and had a margin of error of about 3 percentage points.


US says Iranian operatives in Yemen aiding Houthi attacks

US says Iranian operatives in Yemen aiding Houthi attacks
Updated 28 February 2024
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US says Iranian operatives in Yemen aiding Houthi attacks

US says Iranian operatives in Yemen aiding Houthi attacks

WASHINGTON: Operatives from Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah are working inside Yemen to support Houthi insurgents’ attacks on international shipping, a US official said Tuesday.

Tim Lenderking, the US special envoy for Yemen, told a Senate subcommittee that Iran’s clerical state was “equipping and facilitating” the Houthi attacks, which have triggered retaliatory US and British strikes on Yemen.

“Credible public reports suggest a significant number of Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah operatives are supporting Houthi attacks from inside Yemen,” Lenderking said.

“I can’t imagine the Yemeni people want these Iranians in their country. This must stop,” he said.

The White House said in December that Iran was “deeply involved” in planning the attacks, which the Houthis say are acts of solidarity with the Palestinians in the Israel-Hamas war.

Lenderking, who has dealt with the Houthis since the start of President Joe Biden’s administration as he helped diplomacy to freeze a brutal civil war, acknowledged that the rebels have not been deterred.

“The fact that they continue this, and have said publicly that they will not stop until there’s a ceasefire in Gaza, is an indication that we’re not yet at the point, unfortunately, where they do intend to dial back,” Lenderking said.

The bombing campaign drew skepticism from some senators from Biden’s Democratic Party.

Chris Murphy, who heads the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Middle East, agreed that the United States has “an obligation to respond” to attacks on shipping but added, “I do worry about the efficacy.”

The Houthis, who control war-torn Yemen’s most populated areas, have previously reported the death of 17 fighters in Western strikes targeting their military facilities.

The Houthi attacks have had a significant effect on traffic through the busy Red Sea shipping route, forcing some companies into a two-week detour around southern Africa.

Last week, Egypt said Suez Canal revenues were down by up to 50 percent this year.


US Army is slashing thousands of posts in major revamp to prepare for future wars

US Army is slashing thousands of posts in major revamp to prepare for future wars
Updated 28 February 2024
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US Army is slashing thousands of posts in major revamp to prepare for future wars

US Army is slashing thousands of posts in major revamp to prepare for future wars
  • While the Army as it’s currently structured can have up to 494,000 soldiers, the total number of active-duty soldiers right now is about 445,000

WASHINGTON: The US Army is slashing the size of its force by about 24,000, or almost 5 percent, and restructuring to be better able to fight the next major war, as the service struggles with recruiting shortfalls that made it impossible to bring in enough soldiers to fill all the jobs.
The cuts will mainly be in already-empty posts — not actual soldiers — including in jobs related to counterinsurgency that swelled during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars but are not needed as much today. About 3,000 of the cuts would come from Army special operations forces.
At the same time, however, the plan will add about 7,500 troops in other critical missions, including air-defense and counter-drone units and five new task forces around the world with enhanced cyber, intelligence and long-range strike capabilities.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said she and Gen. Randy George, the Army chief, worked to thin out the number of places where they had empty or excess slots.
“We’re moving away from counterterrorism and counterinsurgency. We want to be postured for large-scale combat operations,” Wormuth told reporters on Tuesday. “So we looked at where were there pieces of force structure that were probably more associated with counterinsurgency, for example, that we don’t need anymore.”
George added that Army leaders did a lot of analysis to choose the places to cut.
“The things that we want to not have in our formation are actually things that we don’t think are going to make us successful on the battlefield going forward,” he said.
According to an Army document, the service is “significantly overstructured” and there aren’t enough soldiers to fill existing units. The cuts, it said, are “spaces” not “faces” and the Army will not be asking soldiers to leave the force.
Instead, the decision reflects the reality that for years the Army hasn’t been able to fill thousands of empty posts. While the Army as it’s currently structured can have up to 494,000 soldiers, the total number of active-duty soldiers right now is about 445,000. Under the new plan, the goal is to bring in enough troops over the next five years to reach a level of 470,000.
The planned overhaul comes after two decades of war in Iraq and Afghanistan that forced the Army to quickly and dramatically expand in order to fill the brigades sent to the battlefront. That included a massive counterinsurgency mission to battle Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the Daesh group.
Over time the military’s focus has shifted to great power competition from adversaries such as China and Russia, and threats from Iran and North Korea. And the war in Ukraine has shown the need for greater emphasis on air-defense systems and high-tech abilities both to use and counter airborne and sea-based drones.
Army leaders said they looked carefully across the board at all the service’s job specialties in search of places to trim. And they examined the ongoing effort to modernize the Army, with new high-tech weapons, to determine where additional forces should be focused.
According to the plan, the Army will cut about 10,000 spaces for engineers and similar jobs that were tied to counter-insurgency missions. An additional 2,700 cuts will come from units that don’t deploy often and can be trimmed, and 6,500 will come from various training and other posts.
There also will be about 10,000 posts cut from cavalry squadrons, Stryker brigade combat teams, infantry brigade combat teams and security force assistance brigades, which are used to train foreign forces.
The changes represent a significant shift for the Army to prepare for large-scale combat operations against more sophisticated enemies. But they also underscore the steep recruiting challenges that all of the military services are facing.
In the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the Navy, Army and Air Force all failed to meet their recruitment goals, while the Marine Corps and the tiny Space Force met their targets. The Army brought in a bit more than 50,000 recruits, falling well short of the publicly stated “stretch goal” of 65,000.
The previous fiscal year, the Army also missed its enlistment goal by 15,000. That year the goal was 60,000.
In response, the service launched a sweeping overhaul of its recruiting last fall to focus more on young people who have spent time in college or are job hunting early in their careers. And it is forming a new professional force of recruiters, rather than relying on soldiers randomly assigned to the task.
In discussing the changes at the time, Wormuth acknowledged that the service hasn’t been recruiting well “for many more years than one would think from just looking at the headlines in the last 18 months.” The service, she said, hasn’t met its annual goal for new enlistment contracts since 2014.