Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government

US Special Representative for Afghanistan's Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad (C) sits in a coffee shop ahead of a session of the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar on July 17, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 05 August 2021

Taliban reject US envoy’s claims of seeking ‘lion’s share’ in future government

  • Group aims for accord that ‘observes Islamic aspirations’ of Afghans, spokesman says

KABUL: The Taliban on Wednesday refuted US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad’s assertions that it was seeking a “lion’s share of power” in a future government, terming it as a “personal view,” as fighting worsens across Afghanistan and foreign troops inch closer to completing a withdrawal mission by month-end.

“That is his personal view. We heard Khalilzad’s comments, but our stance is that we want an accord that can observe the Islamic aspirations of the people,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told Arab News, adding that the group was “not after a monopoly of power or eyeing a key share.”

“We do not want anything for ourselves; we have given lofty sacrifices for Islam. The nation is exhausted. There will definitely be a complete Islamic government, and all sides will have to accept this … All Afghans will be given a share in it,” he added.

The comments follow Khalilzad’s remarks during a virtual conference of the Aspen Security Forum on Tuesday when he said: “At this point, (the Taliban) are demanding that they take the lion’s share of power in the next government given the military situation as they see it.”

He added that the Taliban and the Kabul government “are far apart” in US-backed peace negotiations, which began in Doha, Qatar, nearly a year ago.

The intra-Afghan talks were the first formal step to politically settle a decades-old conflict that began after the Taliban were toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Khalilzad was the chief architect of the controversial, behind-the-door negotiations between the US and the Taliban, which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his administration were excluded from.

They led to the signing of a conditional agreement on Feb. 29 in Qatar between former US President Donald Trump’s administration and Taliban representatives based on which US and NATO troops were to pull out of Afghanistan as part of a 14-month process that began on May 1 and is scheduled to complete on Aug. 31.

Since then, Khalilzad has played a crucial role in facilitating the talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government in Doha and, in March, proposed the formation of an inclusive interim government to replace Ghani, whose term ends in 2024.

Both groups have failed to make headway in the Doha talks, which was the subject of a phone call on Tuesday between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Ghani, who agreed on the need to accelerate the peace process.

This comes a day after Ghani, during a special parliamentary session, called for a nationwide war against the Taliban, who have made significant gains in several parts of Afghanistan and after an overnight attack in Kabul on the defense minister’s home.

“Eight non-combatants, including a woman, were killed in the attack on the home of Defense Minister Gen. Besmillah Khan in Kabul,” Interior Ministry Spokesman Mirwais Stanekzai told reporters on Wednesday.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the strike.

“We were behind the strike,” Mujahid said. “The attack was in response to the airstrikes by the defense ministry.” 

Ghani blamed the country’s deteriorating security on Washington’s “abrupt” decision to withdraw its troops.

Presenting his security plan before parliament on Monday, Ghani said the situation in the war-torn nation would be “under control within six months,” adding that the US has pledged its full support.

The gap left by departing troops has emboldened the Taliban, who have intensified their insurgency since early May, targeting Afghan government forces and stepping up attacks on Herat in the west, Kandahar, and the adjacent Helmand province in the south — three major regions — since last week.

Helmand’s provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, has taken the brunt of the fighting.

Both Taliban and government officials said fighting was “intense” on Wednesday in various parts of Lashkar Gah, where the group has made significant inroads.

A lawmaker from Helmand, Mirwais Khadem, said the Taliban were “in control of all parts of the city,” except for a series of government buildings, such as the governor’s compound, police and intelligence headquarters and the central prison.

“I can say that there is street-to-street fighting in Lashkar Gah now. The Taliban have taken shelter in people’s homes. Afghan troops fire back on them, and there are bombardments both by the government and US forces,” Khadem told Arab News.

He chided the army’s move asking residents to “flee from their homes” in Taliban-held areas.

“This decision of the government is not appropriate. We urged the government to go instead to a desert where there are no residential homes. Both the Taliban and the government can fight there and decide who will be the winner and will be defeated,” he said.

“But the government did not accept it. Asking civilians in the middle of the war to leave their homes, without arrangements for shelter, food and other necessities in this hot weather is not fair,” Khadem added.

He explained that “there were casualties among civilians both from shelling and air raids in Lashkar Gah” but could not provide the exact fatality count.

Medical charity Doctors Without Borders said casualties were “mounting” in Lashkar Gah.

“There has been relentless gunfire, airstrikes and mortars in densely populated areas. Houses are being bombed, and many people are suffering severe injuries,” Sarah Leahy, the aid group’s coordinator for Helmand, said in a statement.

The loss of Lashkar Gah to the Taliban would be a massive blow for Kabul, which has pledged to safeguard provincial capitals “at all costs” after losing much of the countryside to the insurgent group over the summer.

US-led troops have stepped up aerial attacks on suspected Taliban positions to support Afghan forces and block Taliban advances.

Experts say the measures are too little, too late.

“American forces do not want to see the fall of any major city to the Taliban before their exit. That is why they continue providing air support for national forces,” Torek Farhadi, an analyst and former adviser to former President Hamid Karzai, told Arab News.

“But these attacks cause civilian casualties, such as the ones we saw in Helmand. This is not good for the Kabul government,” he added.

Nearly 2,400 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured in May and June amid an uptick in violence between the Taliban and Afghan security forces, the highest number for those two months since records started in 2009, the UN’s Assistance Mission to Afghanistan said in a July report.

By then, it had documented 5,183 civilian casualties between January and June, of which 1,659 were deaths. The number was up 47 percent from the same period last year.


Afghan survivors of US drone strike: Sorry ‘is not enough’

Updated 56 min 32 sec ago

Afghan survivors of US drone strike: Sorry ‘is not enough’

  • The driver of the targeted vehicle, Zemerai Ahmadi, was a longtime employee at an American humanitarian organization
  • US Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, called the strike a ‘tragic mistake’

KABUL, Afghanistan: Sorry is not enough for the Afghan survivors of an errant US drone strike that killed 10 members of their family, including seven children.
Emal Ahmadi, whose 3-year-old daughter Malika was killed on Aug. 29, when the US hellfire missile struck his elder brother’s car, told The Associated Press on Saturday that the family demands Washington investigate who fired the drone and punish the military personnel responsible for the strike.
“That is not enough for us to say sorry,” said Ahmadi. “The USA. should find the person who did this.”
Ahmadi said the family is also seeking financial compensation for their losses and demanded that several members of the family be relocated to a third country, without specifying which country.
The AP and other news organizations in Kabul reported after the strike that the driver of the targeted vehicle, Zemerai Ahmadi, was a longtime employee at an American humanitarian organization and cited an absence of evidence to support the Pentagon’s assertion that the vehicle contained explosives.
The missile struck as the car was pulling into the family’s driveway and the children ran to greet Zemerai.
On Friday, US Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, called the strike a “tragic mistake,” and after weeks of denials, said that innocent civilians were indeed killed in the attack and not a Daesh extremist as was announced earlier.
The drone strike followed a devastating suicide bombing by the Daesh group — a rival of the Taliban — that killed 169 Afghans and 13 US military personnel at one of the gates to the Kabul airport. For days, desperate Afghans had swarmed the checkpoints outside the airport, trying to leave the country amid the chaotic US and NATO troops pullout, fearing for their future under the Taliban.
McKenzie apologized for the error and said the United States is considering making reparation payments to the family of the victims.
Emal Ahmadi, who said he heard of the apology from friends in America, insisted that it won’t bring back members of his family and while he expressed relief for the US apology and recognition that his family were innocent victims, he said he was frustrated that it took weeks of pleading with Washington to at least make a call to the family.
Even as evidence mounted to the contrary, Pentagon officials asserted that the strike had been conducted correctly, to protect the US troops remaining at Kabul’s airport ahead of the final pullout the following day, on Aug. 30.
Looking exhausted, sitting in front of the charred ruins of Zemarai’s car, Ahmadi said he wanted more than an apology form the United States — he wanted justice, including an investigation into who carried out the strike “and I want him punished by the USA.”
In the days before the Pentagon’s apology, accounts from the family, documents from colleagues seen by The AP and the scene at the family home — where Zemerai’s car was struck by the missile — all sharply contradicted the accounts by the US military. Instead, they painted the picture of a family that had worked for Americans and were trying to gain visas to the US, fearing for their lives under the Taliban.
Zemerai was the family’s breadwinner had looked after his three brothers, including Emal, and their children.
“Now I am then one who is responsible for all my family and I am jobless,” said Emal Ahmadi. The situation “is not good,” said Ahmadi of life under the Taliban. International aid groups and the United Nations have warned of a looming humanitarian crisis that could drive most Afghans below the poverty level.
McKenzie said the decision to strike a white Toyota Corolla sedan, after having tracked it for about eight hours, was made in an “earnest belief” — based on a standard of “reasonable certainty” — that it posed an imminent threat to American forces at the Kabul airport. The car was believed to have been carrying explosives in its trunk, he said.
But Ahmadi wondered how the his family’s home could have been mistaken for a Daesh hideout.
“The USA. can see from everywhere,” he said of US drone capabilities. “They can see that there were innocent children near the car and in the car. Whoever did this should be punished.”
“It isn’t right,” he added.


At least 2 dead in blasts in Afghanistan’s Jalalabad: health official, media

Updated 18 September 2021

At least 2 dead in blasts in Afghanistan’s Jalalabad: health official, media

JALALABAD: At least two people were killed and 19 more were wounded in separate explosions in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad on Saturday, according to a health official and local media.
The attacks, which targeted Taliban vehicles, are the first deadly blasts since the new government was established in Afghanistan.
A health official at a hospital in the city confirmed the death toll to AFP.


France says Australia-US submarine deal ‘huge mistake’

Updated 18 September 2021

France says Australia-US submarine deal ‘huge mistake’

  • The deal scraps a 90 billion Australian dollar contract with French majority state-owned Naval Group,

CANBERRA, Australia: France’s ambassador to Australia has described as a “huge mistake” Australia’s surprise cancelation of a major submarine contract in favor of a US deal, as the diplomat prepared to leave the country in an unprecedented show of anger among the allies.
French envoy Jean-Pierre Thebault delivered his comments Saturday as he left his residence in the capital of Canberra.
“This has been a huge mistake, a very, very bad handling of the partnership,” Thebault said, explaining that the arms agreement between Paris and Canberra was supposed to be based “on trust, mutual understanding and sincerity.”
Paris recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the United States on Friday to protest a deal among the United States, Australia and Britain to supply Australia with a fleet of at least eight nuclear-power submarines.
The deal scraps a 90 billion Australian dollar ($66 billion) contract with French majority state-owned Naval Group, signed in 2016, to build 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines.
“I would like to be able to run into a time machine and be in a situation where we don’t end up in such an incredible, clumsy, inadequate, un-Australian situation,” the French ambassador added.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s office earlier had issued a statement responding to the diplomat’s recall and noting Canberra’s “regret” over its ally’s withdrawal of its representative.
“Australia understands France’s deep disappointment with our decision, which was taken in accordance with our clear and communicated national security interests,” the statement said. It added that Australia values its relationship with France and looked forward to future engagements together.
Payne and Defense Minister Peter Dutton are currently in the United States for annual talks with their US counterparts and their first with President Joe Biden’s administration.
Before he was recalled, French envoy Thebault said on Friday he found out about the US submarine deal: “Like everybody, thanks to the Australian press.”
“We never were informed about any substantial changes,” Thebault said. “There were many opportunities and many channels. Never was such a change mentioned.”
After the US deal was made public this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he told French President Emanuel Macron in June that there were “very real issues about whether a conventional submarine capability” would address Australia’s strategic security needs in the Indo-Pacific.
Morrison has not specifically referred to China’s massive military buildup which had gained pace in recent years.
Morrison was in Paris on his way home from a Group of Seven nations summit in Britain where he had talks with soon-to-be-alliance partners Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Thebault said he had also been at the meeting with Macron and Morrison.
Morrison mentioned “there were changes in the regional situation,” but gave no indication that Australia was considering changing to nuclear propulsion, Thebault said.
“Everything was supposed to be done in full transparency between the two partners,” he added.
Thebault said difficulties the project had encountered were normal for its scale and large transfers of technologies.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said in a statement on Friday that recalling the two ambassadors, on request from Macron, “is justified by the exceptional seriousness of the announcements” made by Australia and the United States.
Le Drian said Australia’s decision to scrap the submarine purchase in favor of nuclear subs built with US technology is “unacceptable behavior between allies and partners.”
Senior opposition lawmaker Mark Dreyfus called on the Australian government to fix its relationship with France.
“The impact on our relationship with France is a concern, particularly as a country with important interests in our region,” Dreyfus said.
“The French were blindsided by this decision and Mr. Morrison should have done much more to protect the relationship,” he added.


Australian police clash with anti-lockdown protesters, arrest nearly 270

Updated 18 September 2021

Australian police clash with anti-lockdown protesters, arrest nearly 270

  • In Sydney, riot squad officers, highway patrol, detectives and general duties police were deployed

MELBOURNE: Australia’s police arrested 235 people in Melbourne and 32 in Sydney on Saturday at unsanctioned anti-lockdown rallies and several police officers were injured in clashes with protesters.
Victoria police said six officers required hospitalization. Several officers were knocked to the ground and trampled, the police said and television footage showed.
About 700 people managed to gather in parts of Melbourne, as 2,000 officers made the city center virtually a no-go zone, setting up checkpoints and barricades. Public transport and ride shares into the city were suspended.
In Sydney, riot squad officers, highway patrol, detectives and general duties police were also deployed to the streets, preventing large gatherings.
Australia has been grappling with an outbreak of the Delta variant of the coronavirus since mid-June, with both Sydney and Melbourne, and the capital Canberra, in strict lockdowns for weeks now. On Saturday, there were 1,882 new coronavirus cases reported, most of them in Sydney.
Most of the restrictions in Victoria, New South Wales and Canberra are to remain until at least 70 percent of those 16 and older are fully vaccinated, which based on the current pace of inoculations could be in late October or early November.
A high rate of compliance with public health orders has helped Australia keep the number of infections relatively low, with just under 85,000 total cases and 1,145 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
The vast majority of Australians support vaccinations and the public health measures, but there have been sporadic and sometimes violent protests against the management of the pandemic.
“It was extremely disappointing to see another example of a small minority of the community showing a complete disregard for the health and safety of not only police, but each and every other Victorian,” Victoria Police said in a statement.


Girls excluded from returning to secondary school in Afghanistan

Updated 18 September 2021

Girls excluded from returning to secondary school in Afghanistan

  • The United Nations said it was “deeply worried” for the future of girls’ schooling in Afghanistan

KABUL: Girls were excluded from returning to secondary school in Afghanistan on Saturday, after the country’s new Taliban rulers ordered only boys and male teachers back to the classroom.
The hard-line Islamist group ousted the US-backed government last month, promising a softer brand of rule than their repressive reign in the 1990s, when women were mostly banned from education and work.
But the diktat from the education ministry was the latest move from the new government to threaten women’s rights.
“All male teachers and students should attend their educational institutions,” a statement said ahead of classes resuming Saturday.
The statement, issued late Friday, made no mention of women teachers or girl pupils.
Secondary schools, with students typically between the ages of 13 and 18, are often segregated by sex in Afghanistan. During the Covid-19 pandemic, they have faced repeated closures and have been shut since the Taliban seized power.
Since a US-led invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001, significant progress has been made in girls’ education, with the number of schools tripling and female literacy nearly doubling to 30 percent — however, the change was largely limited to the cities.
The United Nations said it was “deeply worried” for the future of girls’ schooling in Afghanistan.
“It is critical that all girls, including older girls, are able to resume their education without any further delays. For that, we need female teachers to resume teaching,” the UN’s children’s agency UNICEF said.
Primary schools have already reopened, with boys and girls mostly attending separate classes and some women teachers returning to work.
The new regime has also permitted women to go to private universities, though with tough restrictions on their clothes and movement.
In a further sign that the Taliban’s approach to women and girls had not softened, they appeared to have shut down the government’s ministry of women’s affairs and replaced it with a department notorious for enforcing strict religious doctrine during their first rule.
In Kabul on Friday, workers were seen raising a sign for the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice at the old Women’s Affairs building in the capital.
Videos posted to social media showed women workers from the ministry protesting outside after losing their jobs.
No official from the Taliban responded to requests for comment.
Although still marginalized, Afghan women have fought for and gained basic rights in the past 20 years, becoming lawmakers, judges, pilots and police officers.
Hundreds of thousands have entered the workforce — a necessity in some cases as many women were widowed or now support invalid husbands as a result of decades of conflict.
The Taliban have shown little inclination to honor those rights — no women have been included in the government and many have been stopped from returning to work.
Meanwhile, a top United States general admitted it had made a “mistake” when it launched a drone strike against suspected Daesh militants in Kabul last month, instead killing 10 civilians, including children.
The strike during the final days of the US pullout was meant to target a suspected Daesh operation that US intelligence believed with “reasonable certainty” was planning to attack Kabul airport, said US Central Command commander General Kenneth McKenzie.
“The strike was a tragic mistake,” McKenzie told reporters after an investigation.
McKenzie said the government was looking into how payments for damages could be made to the families of those killed.
“I offer my deepest condolences to surviving family members of those who were killed,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement.
The UN Security Council voted Friday to extend the UN political mission in Afghanistan for six months, with a focus on development issues but not peacekeeping.