Game of thrones: Moscow ‘aiding Taliban to undermine US role’

In this file photo, American soldiers wait on the tarmac in Logar province, Afghanistan. (AP)
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Updated 04 July 2020

Game of thrones: Moscow ‘aiding Taliban to undermine US role’

  • Russia financed and supplied weapons to insurgents, Afghan officials claim

KABUL: Russia has aided the Taliban for years to force a US withdrawal from Kabul and undermine American influence in the war-ravaged country, a governor and several former Afghan officials told Arab News on Saturday.

Rahmatullah Nabil, director of Afghanistan’s intelligence until 2015, said: “Moscow initiated contact with the Taliban through Iran before 2014, just as Daesh emerged in Afghanistan. Russia believed that the Taliban, unlike Daesh, only had a local agenda and no external ambition.”

He added that Russian engagement with the Taliban began with a “covert meeting in a central Asian country in 2014/2015.”

Nabil’s claims follow news reports last week that allege Moscow offered bounties to the Taliban for the killing of US soldiers in Afghanistan.

The reports, based on US intelligence, were established from intercepted electronic data which showed financial transactions between Russia’s military intelligence agency and a Taliban-linked account. US officials have also named an Afghan contractor who acted as a key middleman in the relationship.

Afghanistan is seen as an important area of Russian foreign policy. Moscow has long regarded Kabul as a key part of its sphere of influence in Central Asia.

Nabil said Russia built ties with the Taliban by investing in key areas and supplying weapons.

“Russia invested in four layers in Afghanistan — high-ranking government officials, politicians, Taliban and local warlords in the north. To the first two categories, it sent financial support through Hawala (a traditional tool for money transfers) through some Afghan businessmen, and a top-up in fuel which was exported to Afghanistan,” he said.

He added that weapons “were given at some borders and crossing points.”

“In 2016, Moscow also handed over 10,000 AK-47s to government forces. Even the government does not know where the rifles are,” he said.

Moscow welcomed the toppling of the Taliban in the 2001 US-led invasion, but over the years it has — like its regional ally Iran — spoken against an extended US presence in the country.

Experts say Russia’s complaints have been long in the making.

It began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s, with Russia accusing the US and other Western countries of supplying weapons to Mujahideen factions who fought against Soviet troops.

Russia was eventually forced to retreat from Kabul after nearly 10 years of bloody occupation, creating a deep mistrust between Moscow and Washington, which eventually lead to Russia aiding the Taliban in its bid to force a US withdrawal.

Ghulam Rabbani Rabbani, a member of Kunduz’s provincial council, said he was “not surprised” to learn that Russia was using the Taliban. He added that Rahmatullah Azizi, an Afghan businessman, had acted as a middleman between the two groups.

“Azizi has disappeared all of a sudden, but the intelligence agency has arrested four people close to him,” Rabbani told Arab News.

Others said the war in Afghanistan had both “regional and international dimensions,” and that Russia was just one of the players in the “great game.”

“The war here is not between the government and the Taliban, otherwise you would have already seen a winner,” Dawlat Waziri, a retired defense ministry general, told Arab News, adding that Moscow was tending to old wounds.

“Russia wants the US to suffer a defeat like it did. It wants America to lose soldiers and see the downfall of its economy so that it is forced to leave Afghanistan,” he said.

Anwar Jigdalak, a former governor of Kunduz province, agreed.

Citing locals in northern Kunduz, 335 km north of Kabul, he said the Taliban had once sent one of its shadow governors, Mawlavi Abdul Salaam, to Tajikistan to hold talks with Russian officials and strengthen their relationship.

Kunduz is a strategic province which lies close to Tajikistan, and was the first city seized by the Taliban in 2015 “with the help of Russian intelligence,” Jigdalak said.

“But when Salaam returned to Afghanistan, an American killed him in an air strike. When Moscow wants to be present in Syria, which is very far, why not have influence in Afghanistan which is close,” he added, referring in part to the Russian support of Syria’s Assad regime.

Experts say other issues are at stake, too.

Aimal Faizi, an analyst, said the allegations of Russian bounties are “part of an effort by some to keep troops in Afghanistan.”

He tweeted: “They have been trying to prolong the US war and occupation in Afghanistan by different means.”

Both Moscow and the Taliban have repeatedly denied the allegations. Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News on Thursday that the reports were “false,” and spread “to keep US troops in Afghanistan to confront its enemies.”

He added: “Our contacts with Russia have been all the time for political and diplomatic goals only.”

Last week’s report comes amid a push by several current and former US generals to keep US troops in Afghanistan, an important condition for a historic peace deal signed with the Taliban in late February this year.

If it happens, it could throw the spotlight on President Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to withdraw all troops from the country.

Trump, who is standing for re-election in November, said all soldiers would leave by next spring based on the February agreement.

Huge COVID-19 protests erupt in China’s Xinjiang after deadly fire

Updated 26 November 2022

Huge COVID-19 protests erupt in China’s Xinjiang after deadly fire

  • China has put the vast Xinjiang region under some of the country’s longest lockdowns
  • Urumqi protests followed a fire in a high-rise building there that killed 10 on Thursday night

Rare protests broke out in China’s far western Xinjiang region, with crowds shouting at hazmat-suited guards after a deadly fire triggered anger over their prolonged COVID-19 lockdown as nationwide infections set another record.
Crowds chanted “End the lockdown!,” pumping their fists in the air as they walked down a street, according to videos circulated on Chinese social media on Friday night. Reuters verified the footage was published from the Xinjiang capital Urumqi.
Videos showed people in a plaza singing China’s national anthem with its lyric, “Rise up, those who refuse to be slaves!” while others shouted that they wanted to be released from lockdowns.
China has put the vast Xinjiang region under some of the country’s longest lockdowns, with many of Urumqi’s 4 million residents barred from leaving their homes for as long as 100 days. The city reported about 100 new cases each of the past two days.
Xinjiang is home to 10 million Uyghurs. Rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against the mainly Muslim ethnic minority, including forced labor in internment camps. China strongly rejects such claims.
The Urumqi protests followed a fire in a high-rise building there that killed 10 on Thursday night.
Authorities have said the building’s residents had been able to go downstairs, but videos of emergency crews’ efforts, shared on Chinese social media, led many Internet users to surmise that residents could not escape in time because the building was partially locked down.
Urumqi officials abruptly held a news conference in the early hours of Saturday, denying that COVID-19 measures had hampered escape and rescue but saying they would investigate further. One said residents could have escaped faster if they had better understood fire safety.
Dali Yang, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, said such a “blame-the-victim” attitude would make people angrier. “Public trust will just sink lower,” he told Reuters.
Users on China’s Weibo platform described the incident as a tragedy that sprang out of China’s insistence on sticking to its zero COVID-19 policy and something that could happen to anyone. Some lamented its similarities to the deadly September crash of a COVID-19 quarantine bus.
“Is there not something we can reflect on to make some changes,” said an essay that went viral on WeChat on Friday, questioning the official narrative on the Urumqi apartment fire.
China defends President Xi Jinping’s signature zero COVID-19 policy as life-saving and necessary to prevent overwhelming the health care system. Officials have vowed to continue with it despite the growing public pushback and its mounting toll on the world’s second-biggest economy.
While the country recently tweaked its measures, shortening quarantines and taking other targeted steps, this coupled with rising cases has caused widespread confusion and uncertainty in big cities, including Beijing, where many residents are locked down at home.
China recorded 34,909 daily local cases, low by global standards but the third record in a row, with infections spreading numerous cities, prompting widespread lockdowns and other curbs on movement and business.
Shanghai, China’s most populous city and financial hub, tightened testing requirements on Saturday for entering cultural venues such as museums and libraries, requiring people to present a negative COVID-19 test taken within 48 hours, down from 72 hours earlier.
Beijing’s Chaoyang Park, popular with runners and picnickers, shut again after having briefly reopened.

Former Pakistan PM Imran Khan to address first rally since being shot

Updated 26 November 2022

Former Pakistan PM Imran Khan to address first rally since being shot

  • The shooting was the latest twist in months of political turmoil that began in April when Iman Khan was ousted
  • The rally will take place on a vast open ground between the capital, Islamabad, and neighboring Rawalpindi

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan: Former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan is expected on Saturday to address thousands of supporters at his first public appearance since being shot earlier this month in an assassination attempt he blamed on his successor.
The shooting was the latest twist in months of political turmoil that began in April when Khan was ousted by a vote of no confidence in parliament.
Saturday’s rally is the climax of a so-called “long march” by Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), to press the government to call a snap election before parliament’s term expires in October next year.
“My life is in danger, and despite being injured I am going to Rawalpindi for the nation,” PTI quoted Khan as saying in a morning tweet.
“My nation will come to Rawalpindi for me.”
On Saturday, a video was circulating of aides posing with a now-removed blue cast that Khan wore on his right leg after the shooting.
The rally will take place on a vast open ground between the capital, Islamabad, and neighboring Rawalpindi — the garrison city that is home to the headquarters of the country’s powerful military.
Authorities have thrown a ring of steel around Islamabad to prevent Khan’s supporters from marching on government buildings, with thousands of security personnel deployed and roads blocked by shipping containers.
Khan-led protests in May spiraled into 24 hours of chaos, with the capital blockaded and running clashes across Pakistan between police and protesters.
Police said any attempt by PTI supporters to enter Islamabad this time would be firmly dealt with.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah — who Khan says was involved in the assassination plot — issued a “red alert” Friday warning of security threats to the rally.
“PTI still has the time (to cancel),” he said, listing Pakistan’s Taliban and Al Qaeda among the extremist groups that could harm Khan.
The government says the assassination attempt was the work of a lone wolf now in custody, with police leaking a “confession” video by the junk-shop owner saying he acted because Khan was against Islam.
But Khan, a former international cricket star with a playboy reputation before he married, said he has long warned the government would blame a religious fanatic for any attempt to kill him.
Saturday’s rally takes place two days after the government named a former spymaster as the next military chief.
General Syed Asim Munir’s appointment ended months of speculation over a position long considered the real power in the nuclear-armed Islamic nation of 220 million people.
Munir served as chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency under Khan, but his stint ended after just eight months following a reported falling out.
Pakistan’s military, the world’s sixth-largest, is hugely influential in the country and has staged at least three coups since independence in 1947, ruling for more than three decades.
Since being ousted, Khan has staged a series of mass rallies across the country, drawing huge crowds.
Saturday’s gathering is expected to be one of the biggest yet.
Convoys of PTI supporters were streaming in from around Pakistan, with buses, trucks and cars bearing party flags.

Taliban’s treatment of women may be crime against humanity: UN experts

Updated 26 November 2022

Taliban’s treatment of women may be crime against humanity: UN experts

  • Treatment of women and girls may amount to ‘gender persecution’ under the Rome Statute to which Afghanistan is a party

GENEVA: The Taliban’s treatment of Afghan women and girls, including their exclusion from parks and gyms as well as schools and universities, may amount to a crime against humanity, a group of UN experts said on Friday.
The assessment by the UN Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan Richard Bennett and nine other UN experts says the treatment of women and girls may amount to “gender persecution” under the Rome Statute to which Afghanistan is a party.
Responding to the assessment, Taliban Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesperson Abdul Qahar Balkhi said: “The current collective punishment of innocent Afghans by the UN sanctions regime all in the name of women rights and equality amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
The UN experts said in a statement that women’s confinement to their homes was “tantamount to imprisonment,” adding that it was likely to lead to increased levels of domestic violence and mental health problems. The experts cited the arrest this month of female activist Zarifa Yaqobi and four male colleagues.
They remain in detention, the experts said.
The Taliban took over from a Western-backed government in August 2021. They say they respect women’s rights in accordance with their interpretation of Islamic law.
Western governments have said the Taliban needs to reverse its course on women’s rights, including their U-turn on signals they would open girls’ high schools, for any path toward formal recognition of the Taliban government.
Separately, a spokesperson for the UN human rights office called for the Taliban authorities to immediately halt the use of public floggings in Afghanistan.
Ravina Shamdasani said the office had documented numerous such incidents this month, including a woman and a man lashed 39 times each for spending time alone together outside of marriage. Balkhi said the Taliban administration considered the statement by the United Nations and others by Western officials were “an insult toward Islam and violation of international principals.”

EU ministers endorse new migrant plan after France-Italy spat

Updated 26 November 2022

EU ministers endorse new migrant plan after France-Italy spat

BRUSSELS: European interior ministers welcomed Friday an EU plan to better coordinate the handling of migrant arrivals, after a furious row over a refugee rescue boat erupted between Italy and France.
France has accused Italy of failing to respect the law of the sea by turning away the NGO vessel earlier this month, triggering crisis talks in Brussels to head off a new EU dispute over the politically fraught issue.
All sides described the meeting as productive, although Czech interior minister Vit Rakusan, whose country holds the EU presidency, later said all participants had agreed that “more can and must be done” to find a lasting solution.
The ministers will gather again at a pre-planned December 8 meeting to pursue the “difficult discussion,” he said.
European Commission vice president Margaritis Schinas, the commissioner charged with “promoting our European way of life,” said Europe could no longer settle for just another ad hoc solution.
“We cannot continue working event-by-event, ship-by-ship, incident-by-incident, route-by-route,” he said, recalling that previous crises had been seized upon by “populistic and europhobe forces.”
Numbers of asylum seekers are still far lower than the levels of 2015 and 2016, but the dispute has already undermined a stop-gap pact to redistribute arrivals more evenly around the 27-nation bloc.
Brussels has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers but the ugly row has brought the issue to the fore.
Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.
The Ocean Viking eventually continued on to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.
The row undermined the EU’s interim solution and led to Paris calling Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.
“The Ocean Viking crisis was a bit of improvization,” Schinas admitted, defending the new plan from his commission to better coordinate rescues and migrant and refugee arrivals.
“We have twenty specific actions, we have an important political agreement, everyone is committed to working so as not to reproduce this kind of situation.”
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said there was no reason for France to accept migrants relocated from Italy if Rome “does not take the boats, does not accept the law of the sea.”
Darmanin’s Italian opposite number Matteo Piantedosi played down the Ocean Viking incident, saying the meeting was “not dealing with individual cases or operational management.”
He said he had shaken hands with the French minister and that there was a “convergence of positions” allowing the ministers to resume discussion at the December 8 meeting.
Belgian counterpart Nicole De Moor called for “solidarity,” saying that Belgium was taking in more than its fair share of migrants leaving its reception facilities overwhelmed.
The previous plan was drawn up after Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores, like Italy and Greece, complained that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants.
A dozen EU members agreed to take in 8,000 asylum seekers — with France and Germany accepting 3,500 each — but so far just 117 relocations have actually happened.
On Monday, the European Commission unveiled a new action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean sea route.
It was not well-received by aid agencies. Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work.”
And a European diplomat said that plan “contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”
The ministers nevertheless accepted it and Schinas said it should prevent more crises as Europe once again attempts to negotiate a global migration plan that would have the force of EU law.
The plan would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.
While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic sea rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.
Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.
Greek Interior Minister Notis Mitarachi, meanwhile, complained that Turkiye is not complying with a 2016 migration agreement that includes taking back migrants who are not entitled to asylum.

Freezing Ukraine tries to restore power after Russian strikes on grid

Updated 25 November 2022

Freezing Ukraine tries to restore power after Russian strikes on grid

  • Moscow says the attacks on Ukraine's basic infrastructure are militarily legitimate
  • Ukraine says attacks intended to cause civilian misery are a war crime

KYIV: Millions of Ukrainians were still without heat or power on Friday after the most devastating Russian air strikes on its energy grid so far.
Residents have been warned to brace for further attacks and stock up on water, food and warm clothing.
Moscow says the attacks on Ukraine’s basic infrastructure are militarily legitimate, and that Kyiv can end the suffering of its people if it yields to Russian demands. Ukraine says attacks intended to cause civilian misery are a war crime.
“Together we endured nine months of full-scale war and Russia has not found a way to break us, and will not find one,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address overnight.
Russia has been striking Ukrainian energy network far from the frontlines of the nine-month old war with barrages of long-range missiles around once a week since early October.
Attacks on Wednesday caused the worst damage so far, leaving millions of people with no light, water or heat even as temperatures around the country have fallen below zero.
Nearly 48 hours after the strikes, national grid operator Ukrenergo said the power system was still 30 percent short of meeting demand.
“Priority was given to critical infrastructure facilities in all regions: boiler houses, gas distribution stations, water supply, sewage treatment facilities, public electric transport operates in some regions,” it said.
The three nuclear power stations on Ukrainian-held territory were now working, it said, two days after the attacks had forced Ukraine to shut them all down for the first time in 40 years, creating what Kyiv had called a risk of atomic catastrophe.
Zelensky also accused Russia of incessantly shelling Kherson, the southern Ukrainian city that it abandoned earlier this month. Seven people were killed and 21 wounded in a Russian attack on Thursday, local authorities said.
Viewed from space, Ukraine has become a dark patch on the globe at night.
Russia insists it does not target civilians in the “special military operation” it launched in late February. International human rights officials say that is difficult to reconcile with the countrywide attacks on civil infrastructure.
“Millions are being plunged into extreme hardship and appalling conditions of life by these strikes,” UN human rights chief Volker Turk said in a statement.
“Taken as a whole, this raises serious problems under international humanitarian law, which requires a concrete and direct military advantage for each object attacked.”
Nigel Povoas, lead prosecutor with a team of international experts assisting Ukrainian war crimes investigators, said the strikes were “focused on eliminating infrastructure crucial to means of civilian survival such as heat, water, power and medical facilities.”
“Each wave of attacks tends to reinforce the strength of the allegations of grave criminality being levelled against the Kremlin. That these attacks have very little, if anything, to do with military objectives,” he told Reuters.
“Rather, that they reflect a criminal intent to inflict widespread terror, large-scale humanitarian suffering and death, particularly on the vulnerable, so as to coerce the Ukrainian people into submission.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who ordered the invasion and has called up hundreds of thousands of reservists in Russia’s first mobilization since World War Two, held a televised meeting with mothers of soldiers on Friday, praising them for the sacrifices of their sons.
“I would like you to know that, that I personally, and the whole leadership of the country — we share your pain,” Putin said in the pre-recorded meeting, sitting with the mothers around a table with tea, cakes and bowls of fresh berries.
British Foreign Minister James Cleverly visited Ukraine and pledged millions of pounds in further support, his office said on Friday. Cleverly, who met Zelensky on the trip, condemned Russia for its “brutal attacks” on civilians, hospitals and energy infrastructure.
More than 15,000 people have gone missing during the war, an official in the Kyiv office of the Hague-based International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) said.
The ICMP’s program director for Europe, Matthew Holliday, said it was unclear how many people had been forcibly transferred, were being held in detention in Russia, were alive and separated from family members, or had died and been buried in makeshift graves.
In Kherson, recaptured from Russian forces this month, Anna Voskoboinik, a one-legged woman in a wheelchair, was clutching aid she received at a crowded humanitarian distribution point. She has been searching for three months for her son, Oleksii, 38, who vanished after being arrested at a Russian checkpoint.
“Where is he now? I don’t know. I would go to the end of the world to find out. He’s my only son. He was always nearby. Now...” she said.
Russia says it launched its operation in Ukraine to protect Russian speakers in what Putin has called an artificial country carved from Russian territory. Kyiv calls it an unprovoked war of aggression, reflecting what it sees as malice toward Ukrainians dating back to Soviet and imperial days.
This week, Ukrainians will observe the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor, a man-made famine in which millions of Ukrainians starved to death while the Soviet Union was exporting food.
Germany’s Bundestag parliament is expected to vote overwhelmingly to recognize it as a genocide, following similar moves this week by Romania, Moldova and Ireland. Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba praised the move, thanking Germany “for honoring the Ukrainian people.”
In November 1932, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin dispatched police to seize all grain and livestock from newly collectivised Ukrainian farms, including the seed needed to plant the next crop. Yale University historian Timothy Snyder described the death by starvation of millions of Ukrainians that followed as “clearly premeditated mass murder.”