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.


Jakarta residents win landmark air pollution case against Indonesian president

Updated 14 sec ago

Jakarta residents win landmark air pollution case against Indonesian president

  • Jakarta, home to over 10 million people, is one the world's most-polluted cities with the concentration of PM2.5 regularly exceeding WHO norms
  • Citizen lawsuit was filed by Jakarta residents in July 2019 against the president and six other top government officials

JAKARTA: A Jakarta court on Thursday found Indonesian President Joko Widodo and government officials guilty of neglecting their obligation to fulfill citizens' rights to clean air, in a landmark lawsuit residents hope will force authorities to act on the capital city's notorious pollution.

Jakarta, home to over 10 million people, is one the world's most-polluted cities with the concentration of PM2.5 — inhalable microscopic pollution particularly harmful to human health — regularly exceeding World Health Organization norms, often manifold.

The citizen lawsuit was filed in July 2019 by 32 plaintiffs against the president, ministers of environment, home affairs and health, as well as the governor of Jakarta and two leaders of neighboring provinces. The plaintiffs, including activists and people suffering from pollution-related diseases, did not request compensation but tighter air quality checks.

In a hearing that took place after being adjourned eight times since May, the court ruled the officials had violated environmental protection laws and failed to combat air pollution in the capital and its satellite cities that fall under jurisdiction of Banten and West Java provinces.

“We ordered the first defendant (the president) to tighten the national air quality standard that is sufficient based on science and technology to protect humans’ health, the environment, the ecosystem, including the health of the sensitive population,” presiding judge Saifuddin Zuhri said.

The court also ordered the second defendant, the environment minister, to supervise the governors of Jakarta, Banten, and West Java in tightening transboundary emissions.

Transboundary pollution from Banten and West Java contributes to the poor and deteriorating quality of Jakarta's air. In 2018, national capital witnessed 101 days with unhealthy air, and 172 in 2019, according to the Center on Energy and Clean Air (CREA). The main contributors to PM2.5 pollution are dozens of industrial facilities and coal power plants located less than 100 kilometers from the city.

Jeanny Sirait, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs said they welcomed the verdict, even though the court did not explicitly rule the government had violated the right to clean but only contravened the law by failing to fulfill it.

"This is a breakthrough verdict," she said. "It is very rare to find judges that have environmental and public interest perspectives."
 

A train moves down its track as the hazy city skyline is seen in the background in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Sept. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana) 

One of the plaintiffs, Istu Prayogi, a 56-year-old tourism lecturer who health has suffered due to air pollution told Arab News he was glad for the victory, although slightly disappointed that the officials' negligence was not classified as a human rights violation.

“We now have a hope for all people to get their rights to clean air fulfilled," he said. "We have a legal standing to oblige the government to do that, even though they should have fulfilled that in the first place, but this is a court ruling and as a rule-based country, it’s the highest order.”

Another plaintiff and environmental activist Khalisah Khalid said the verdict was also an example that court can be an avenue for citizens who seek justice.

“As plaintiffs and regular citizens, we will continue to monitor the defendants to make changes in the government policies as mandated by the verdict," she said. "It is for everyone’s interests, health, and safety including our future generations to have a good quality of life."


’Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy

Updated 18 min 21 sec ago

’Great power rivalry’ fuels Pacific arms race frenzy

  • China accounts for about half of Asia’s total and has increased defense spending every year for the last 26 years
  • But defense spending in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere is also gathering pace

SYDNEY, Australia: A quick barrage of missile tests and bumper defense deals in the Pacific have highlighted a regional arms race that is intensifying as the China-US rivalry grows.
“There’s a little frenzy in the Indo-Pacific of arming up,” said Yonsei University professor John Delury. “There’s a sense of everyone’s doing it.”
Within 24 hours this week, North Korea fired off two railway-borne weapons, South Korea successfully tested its first submarine-launched ballistic missile, and Australia announced the unprecedented purchase of state-of-the-art US nuclear-powered submarines and cruise missiles.
A remarkable flurry, but indicative of a region spending apace on the latest wonders of modern weaponry, experts say.
Last year alone, the Asia and Oceania region lavished more than half a trillion US dollars on its militaries, according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“You’ve really seen an upward trend for the last 20 years,” the institute’s Lucie Beraud-Sudreau told AFP. “Asia is really the region where the uptick trend is the most noticeable.”
She points to a perfect storm of rapid economic growth — which puts more money in the government kitties — and changing “threat perceptions” in the region.

China accounts for about half of Asia’s total and has increased defense spending every year for the last 26 years, turning the People’s Liberation Army into a modern fighting force.
Beijing now spends an estimated $252 billion a year — up 76 percent since 2011 — allowing it to project power across the region and directly challenge US primacy.
But defense spending in Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere is also gathering pace.
Michael Shoebridge, a former Australian defense intelligence official, now with the Australia Strategic Policy Institute, believes that spending is a direct reaction to China.
“The actual military competition is between China and other partners that are wanting to deter China from using force,” he said.
“That reaction has just grown, particularly since Xi (Jinping) has become leader. He’s clearly interested in using all the power that China gains fairly coercively and aggressively.”
Today around 20 percent of the region’s defense spending is on procurement, notably on maritime assets and long-range deterrence designed to convince Beijing — or any another adversary — that the cost of attack is too high.

File photo showing the USS Florida Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine launching a Tomahawk cruise missile during Giant Shadow in the waters off the coast of the Bahamas. (US Navy photo via AFP))

Shoebridge points to Australia’s landmark decision Thursday to acquire at least eight US nuclear-powered submarines and an unspecified number of Tomahawk cruise missiles.
“They’re all focused on raising the cost to China of engaging in military conflict. They’re a pretty effective counter to the kinds of capabilities the PLA has been building.”
But even South Korean spending “is as much driven by China as North Korea,” he said. “There’s no explanation for (Seoul’s decision to build) an aircraft carrier that involves North Korea.”
Similarly, “India’s military modernization is clearly driven by China’s growing military power,” Shoebridge added.
For its part China — fond of describing its relationship with the United States as “great power rivalry” — accuses the United States of fueling the arms race.
In the words of state-backed tabloid the Global Times, Washington is “hysterically polarizing its alliance system.”
If fear of China is the driving force behind regional defense spending, then the United States has appeared happy to speed the process along, actively helping regional allies to beef up.
As China and Japan were “blazing forward” with defense programs, Delury says Washington has been “aiding and abetting” allies “in the name of deterring China.”
“We’re not seeing arms control here, we’re seeing the opposite,” he said.


Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave

Updated 18 min 1 sec ago

Florida surpasses 50,000 COVID deaths after battling delta wave

  • Florida has the 11th worst per-capita death rate among the 50 states

MIAMI: Florida surpassed 50,000 coronavirus deaths since the pandemic began, health officials reported Thursday, with more than one fourth of those succumbing this summer as the state battled a fierce surge in infections fueled by the delta variant.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tallied 50,811 deaths after adding more than 1,500 COVID-19 deaths provided Thursday by the state’s health department. Those reported deaths occurred over various dates in recent weeks.
Florida has the 11th worst per-capita death rate among the 50 states, the CDC says. New Jersey, Mississippi and New York have had the worst, but Florida has risen from the 17th spot in the past two weeks.
Overall, about one in every 400 Florida residents who were alive in March 2020 has since died of COVID-19. Only cancer and heart disease have killed more Floridians during that period, according to state health department statistics. Those have each killed about 70,000 Floridians.
Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke somberly when asked about surpassing 50,000 COVID-19 deaths during a Fort Lauderdale news conference promoting the use of monoclonal antibodies, a treatment for people infected with the disease that reduces death and hospitalization if given early.
“It has been a really tough year and a half,” DeSantis said.
The Republican governor, who has advocated against mask and vaccine mandates, said the most recent wave, which began in June, has struck younger and healthier people. Numerous police officers and firefighters have died from the disease.
“It is affecting families in ways that we are not used to, so it has been really, really rough,” DeSantis said. Out of about 50 people present at the news conference, DeSantis was the only one who did not wear a mask when not speaking. He has promoted vaccination and has been inoculated, but did not receive his shot publicly as many elected officials did.
Epidemiologists say the state’s rates of vaccination outpaced the national average, but it was not enough to keep the highly contagious variant at bay because of its outsized population of elderly people and low vaccination rates among younger groups they interact with.
On a per-capita basis, rural and semi-rural counties in central and north Florida were hit the hardest. Most of those counties have vaccination rates that are at or below the statewide average of 63 percent of residents 12 and older. Florida counts someone as vaccinated if they have received at least one dose, even though both the Pfizer and Moderna versions both require two doses to be fully effective.
Monroe County, which consists mostly of the Florida Keys, has seen the fewest deaths per capita — one for every 1,115 residents and one of the highest vaccination rates. Another tourist mecca, Orange County, home to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando, had the third-lowest per capita death count.
Alachua County, home to the University of Florida, and Leon County, home to the state capital Tallahassee and Florida State University, have been the second- and fourth-least deadly places.
Now, weeks since infections peaked, the state has seen steep drops in hospitalizations and infections. The number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals finally dropped below the 10,000 mark on Thursday with 9,917 patients, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. That number reached more than 17,000 COVID-19 people on Aug. 23.
The number of new cases per day is now averaging 12,200, down from 21,700 in mid August.
Deaths are expected to continue to climb for late August and early September because of the way they are logged in Florida and the lags in reporting.


France says Biden acted like Trump to sink Australia defense deal

Updated 31 min 5 sec ago

France says Biden acted like Trump to sink Australia defense deal

  • “It’s a stab in the back”: French FM Jean-Yves Le Drian
  • Diplomats say there have been concerns in recent months that Biden is not being forthright with his European allies

PARIS: France accused US President Joe Biden on Thursday of stabbing it in the back and acting like his predecessor Donald Trump after Paris was pushed aside from a historic defense export contract to supply Australia with submarines.

The United States, Britain and Australia announced they would establish a security partnership for the Indo-Pacific that will help Australia acquire US nuclear-powered submarines and scrap the $40 billion French-designed submarine deal.

“This brutal, unilateral and unpredictable decision reminds me a lot of what Mr.Trump used to do,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told franceinfo radio. “I am angry and bitter. This isn’t done between allies.”

It is the latest dramatic twist in a contest that has seen naval shipbuilding powers battle for years over what many observers called the world’s largest single arms export deal.

In 2016, Australia had selected French shipbuilder Naval Group to build a new submarine fleet worth $40 billion to replace its more than two-decades-old Collins submarines.

Just two weeks ago, the Australian defense and foreign ministers had reconfirmed the deal to France, and French President Emmanuel Macron lauded decades of future cooperation when hosting Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in June.

“It’s a stab in the back. We created a relationship of trust with Australia and that trust has been broken,” Le Drian said.

French relations with the United States soured during the presidency of Trump, who often irritated European allies by demanding they increase their defense spending to help NATO while reaching out to adversaries like Russia and North Korea.

Diplomats say there have been concerns in recent months that Biden is not being forthright with his European allies.

The French Embassy in Washington said it was canceling a gala event related to French-US ties on Friday following the day’s events.

France’s ties with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have also soured over the UK’s exit from the European Union.

Washington’s actions in Australia are likely to further strain transatlantic ties, political analysts said. The European Union was due to roll out its Indo-Pacific strategy on Thursday and Paris is poised to take on the EU presidency.

“This is a clap of thunder and for many in Paris a Trafalgar moment,” Bruno Tertrais, Deputy Director of the Paris-based think tank the Foundation of Strategic Research said on Twitter, referring to a French naval defeat in 1805 that was followed by a long period of British naval supremacy.

He said it would “complicate the transatlantic cooperation in and about the region. Beijing will benefit.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday said France was a “vital partner” in the Indo-Pacific region and that Washington would continue to cooperate with Paris, comments that appeared aimed at calming French anger.

Those comments are likely to fall on deaf ears in the immediate term.

A French official said they had not been informed of the deal until a few hours before it was announced and that Paris would not fooled by platitudes.

Morrison said Australia looked forward to continuing to work “closely and positively” with France, adding: “France is a key friend and partner to Australia and the Indo-Pacific.”

‘JAW-DROPPING’

It is the second setback to French defense exports in three months after Switzerland spurned Dassault’s Rafale to buy US-made Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters.

Analysts said the loss of the much bigger submarine contract was a significant blow to France, whose experienced arms sales machine had gone all out to wrest the submarine deal from likely winner Japan under then defense minister Le Drian in 2016.

Germany had also been in the race.

The 2016 win came a decade after France radically overhauled the way it handled arms sales following Paris’ embarrassment over the loss of a contest to sell fighters to Morocco.

Word of its cancelation dominated Europe’s largest arms fair in London where one delegate called it “jaw-dropping.”

France’s Thales, which analysts say stood to gain about $1 billion from sales of sonars and optronics — the eyes and ears of the French submarines — swiftly reassured investors its 2021 finances would not be hit.

But some analysts warned France’s furious reaction over the Australian contract could backfire and noted there had been reports of Australian doubts over the pace of implementation.

Thales, which owns 35 percent of Naval Group, remains Australia’s biggest local defense contractor through a subsidiary.

“Betrayal is the wrong language and hurts France’s position in Australia; it can poison the well,” said UK-based defense analyst Francis Tusa, adding France would now be more reliant on selling Rafales to secure its place in the global arms market.


British study to test mixed COVID-19 vaccine dose schedules in children

Updated 17 September 2021

British study to test mixed COVID-19 vaccine dose schedules in children

  • The study, called Com-COV3, will test different vaccine schedules in 12- to 16-year-olds, looking at the immune responses and milder side-effects

LONDON: A British study will look into the immune responses of children to mixed schedules of different COVID-19 vaccines as officials try to determine the best approach to second doses in adolescents given a small risk of heart inflammation.
Children aged 12-15 in Britain will be vaccinated from next week, while those aged 16-17 have been eligible for shots since August.
However, while the children will be offered a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, officials have said that advice about second doses will be given at a later date, while more data is gathered.
Britain’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) initially declined to recommend shots for all 12- to 15-year-olds, citing uncertainty over the long-term impact of myocarditis, a rare side effect of mRNA-based vaccines such as Pfizer’s. The heart condition typically resolves itself with mild short-term consequences, health experts have said.
Hong Kong has advised children only get one shot, owing to similar concerns over heart inflammation.
The study, called Com-COV3, will test different vaccine schedules in 12- to 16-year-olds, looking at the immune responses and milder side-effects.
“The concern here is about the risks of myocarditis, particularly with the second dose with Pfizer vaccine in young men,” the trial’s lead researcher, Matthew Snape of the Oxford Vaccine Group, told reporters.
“This will provide the JCVI with information crucial to informing their advice about immunizing teenagers in the UK,” he said.
The trial will give all participants a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That will be followed eight weeks later by either a second full dose or a half dose of the Pfizer shot, a full dose of Novavax’s vaccine or a half dose of Moderna’s shot.
The trial is recruiting 360 volunteers, not large enough to directly assess the myocarditis risk of the different combinations, which Snape said was 1 in 15,000 after two doses of the Pfizer shot in young men.
But, he added, it “would be reassuring to see if there was a lower inflammatory response after one of these changes compared to Pfizer (followed by) Pfizer,” and that it might be “reasonable to infer that the risks of myocarditis might be lower” in such an instance.
Snape is running another arm of the trial in adults, giving mixed vaccine schedules both four and 12 weeks apart, and comparing the responses. He said the results of that would be coming “very shortly.”