Coercion and threats will not work on the Taliban, says Pakistani envoy

Munir Akram’s road map for responding to the challenges in Afghanistan includes an immediate relief effort to address the severe humanitarian crisis in the country. (AN photo)
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Updated 21 September 2021

Coercion and threats will not work on the Taliban, says Pakistani envoy

  • In an exclusive interview, Munir Akram says we must engage with Afghanistan’s new leaders and convince them of the benefits of an open society
  • He warns that stoking a “climate of fear” will only help to fuel a refugee crisis on a scale the international community is desperate to avoid

NEW YORK: As nations scramble to find ways to deal with the unfolding crisis in Afghanistan, a leading Pakistani diplomat on Monday warned that threats and coercion do not sit well with the Afghan mentality and are not an effective strategy.
To get the country “back to normality,” Munir Akram, Pakistan’s permanent representative to the UN, called for engagement with the Taliban in an effort to show them the “benefits of modernity, technology, education and the values of an open society.”
The situation in Afghanistan is likely to dominate high-level discussions during the 76th session of the UN General Assembly, which began on Sept. 14 and continues until the end of the month.
In an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Arab News ahead of this week’s annual General Assembly gathering of world leaders, Akram urged the international community to avoid “an attitude of coercion and threats, of attempting to leverage money in order to get a certain conduct.”

Instead he called for a better understanding of the complexities of Afghanistan, its culture, and the beliefs and character of its people.
Akram’s US counterpart, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, was asked recently how US authorities intend to champion the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan now that American troops have withdrawn from the country and leverage has therefore been lost.
“I would argue the opposite,” she said. “We are one of the largest contributors to humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan and that gives us tremendous leverage.”
Understanding the reality of the situation in Afghanistan is increasingly important as the world witnesses the fallout from the crisis affecting not only neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran, but also Europe and even the US.
Pakistan has been hosting Afghan refugees for more than 40 years, since the Soviet invasion drove millions to flee across the border. The close relationship between the two countries goes back hundreds of years, during which marriages and migrations created “a natural affinity” between two peoples who share similar ethnic and tribal identities.
“Afghanistan is a multi-ethnic state,” said Akram. “Unless there is peace within all the sections of Afghanistan there will continue to be some form of conflict. And if there is a conflict or a humanitarian crisis, there’s likely to be more outflows of refugees (engulfing) not only Pakistan and Iran as neighboring countries but also Europe and maybe even the US.

“It is not very clear whether they will be welcomed. It has been said that (other countries) are willing to take many of those Afghan people who worked with US and NATO in the past 20 years, but what about the rest of the Afghan people? People who really need assistance, really are destitute, really are hungry and poor? We must not forget them.”
Akram’s road map for responding to the challenges in Afghanistan includes an immediate relief effort to address the severe humanitarian crisis in the country. Levels of poverty and hunger have risen since the Taliban took over last month, and foreign aid has dwindled, raising fears of a mass exodus. According to the UN, 18 million Afghans, half of the population, are food insecure.
During a UN conference last week, organized to galvanize an international aid effort, donors pledged more than $1.1 billion to Afghanistan.
Akram described this as “a positive” and added: “I hope that those pledges will be fulfilled as quickly as possible.”
Any lasting peace in Afghanistan will also require the formation of an inclusive government in Kabul. However the post-takeover authority excludes women and minorities, fueling fears of a return to the hard-line Taliban attitudes and practices of the past.
Last Friday, the UN Security Council unanimously approved a resolution calling for Taliban leaders to establish an inclusive government that guarantees the “full, equal and meaningful participation of women” and upholds human rights.
Akram believes that the current interim government is only “a first step,” talks are continuing among Afghans, and the Taliban’s desire to establish an inclusive government “is still there.” He also cautioned against failing to take into account what he called “ground realities.”
“The Taliban have fought a war for 20 years and they have been successful in that war, therefore they will wish to have adequate representation,” he said. “But this should also include other groups so that there is peace throughout Afghanistan.”
Deborah Lyons, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special representative for Afghanistan, has warned of the deteriorating humanitarian situation. She called for a “modus vivendi,” or compromise agreement, to prevent a total breakdown by allowing money to continue to flow into the country.
Some members of the new government are on the Security Council’s sanctions list, and therefore subject to economic, trading and diplomatic restrictions.
Akram said the Taliban expect the Security Council to begin the process of lifting these sanctions. This was part of the agreement the group reached with Washington in February, in return for which it pledged not to attack US or NATO forces during their withdrawal from Afghanistan.
In the weeks since the Taliban took over, there have been increasing reports from Kabul of grave human rights abuses. According to Human Rights Watch, the new authorities have raided the homes of journalists and activists, apparently searching for individuals who criticized them. In addition, restrictions have been imposed on the education of girls and the right of women to work.
Akram acknowledged these concerns but warned of the danger of what he called the “fake news” that is circulating. In particular he highlighted reports of a crackdown on a demonstration by Afghan women, saying that the very fact such a protest was allowed to go ahead reveals a change of behavior by the Taliban.
The envoy said he understands why some Afghans fear for their personal safety, and that Pakistani authorities have arranged for 12,000 Afghans and foreign nationals who felt threatened to leave country.
But he denounced what he described as attempts to create “a climate of fear” that might push Afghans to flee their country at a time when it needs them to “stay and build.”
“Creating a climate of fear will (lead to) the very results that we fear, which is an outflow of refugees,” he added.

Another concern among many people is that Afghanistan might once again become a haven for terrorists. Akram responded to this fear by considering the lessons he believes have been learned in the past 20 years.
“What we needed to do against Al-Qaeda was to use a pick to find them and extract them from where they were,” he said. “Instead, we used a hammer. We went in and invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and killed hundreds of thousands of people.
“When you bomb people and kill their children, you recruit people into terrorism. And that is what has happened.”
As a result, he added, the threat of terrorism has spread and become much more complex.
“It is no longer in Afghanistan alone; it is in Yemen, Syria, the Western Sahara and all over the world,” said Akram.
“At the same time, because of the equation of terrorists with Muslims, Islamophobia rose and today you have terrorist organizations that target Muslims. So we have to learn from those mistakes.”
Taking all of this into account, Akram urged the international community to adopt a comprehensive, coordinated strategy and work with the Taliban in an effort to address all forms of terrorism.
“If we adopt competitive strategies — ‘I can deal only with my terrorist threat but not yours’ — I think we will lose,” he added.


Hundreds more migrants leave Belarus on Iraq-bound flight

Updated 04 December 2021

Hundreds more migrants leave Belarus on Iraq-bound flight

  • The EU imposed sanctions on Belarus on Thursday after accusing it of flying in migrants

MOSCOW: More than 400 migrants who had traveled to Belarus seeking to cross the border into the EU flew home on Saturday on an Iraqi Airways plane bound for the city of Irbil in northern Iraq, Minsk’s airport said.
The EU imposed sanctions on Belarus on Thursday after accusing it of flying in migrants, mostly from the Middle East, and pushing them to illegally cross the Polish border to manufacture a crisis, something Minsk denies.
Minsk airport authorities said in a statement a Boeing 747-400 would fly 415 adults and four children on Saturday to Irbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. The airport’s website later listed the flight as having departed.
Iraqis who fled seeking economic opportunity and in some cases political asylum began returning to their country last month having failed to get into the EU via a route that people smugglers promised them would work.
Russia, which supported Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko’s government during mass street protests last year, on Saturday criticized the new EU sanctions as illegal, and said the issue should be settled through dialogue.


Pope Francis hits out at EU migration divisions at start of Greek visit

Updated 04 December 2021

Pope Francis hits out at EU migration divisions at start of Greek visit

  • Pope Francis said that Europe was “torn by nationalist egoism” on migration
  • He has long championed refugees, calling them "protagonists of a terrible modern Odyssey"

ATHENS: Pope Francis on Saturday blamed the EU’s nationalist divisions for a lack of coordination on migration as he began a landmark trip to Greece, aiming to improve complicated relations with the country’s Orthodox Church.
Francis said that Europe was “torn by nationalist egoism” on migration during a meeting with EU vice president Margaritis Schinas, Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, among other officials.
The European community “continues to temporize” and “appears at times blocked and uncoordinated” instead of being an “engine of solidarity” on migration, the pope said.
“Today, and not only in Europe, we are witnessing a retreat from democracy,” he said, warning against populism’s “easy answers.”
Francis has long championed refugees, calling them “protagonists of a terrible modern Odyssey.”
On Sunday, he will return to the island of Lesbos which he visited in 2016 during the early years of the migration crisis.
The 84-year-old’s visit to the Greek capital is the first by a pope since John Paul II in 2001, which in turn was the first papal visit to Athens since the 1054 Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Flying in after a two-day trip to Cyprus, the pope landed shortly after 0900 GMT in the Greek capital, where security was heightened over expected protests by Orthodox hard-liners among whom anti-papal sentiment remains strong.
Strong wind offered an unexpected challenge, with Francis coming down the stairs of the plane skullcap in hand.
Francis is scheduled to see the head of the Church of Greece Archbishop Ieronymos later Saturday, followed by members of Greece’s small Catholic community, which represent just 1.2 percent of the majority-Orthodox population.
Francis flies back to Rome on Monday.
Up to 2,000 police are deployed in Athens to monitor possible disruptions by Orthodox hard-liners, who blame the Catholics for the Schism and the 1204 sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.
Reciprocal excommunications exchanged between the two churches after the Schism were only lifted in 1965.
Authorities banned protests in the Athens center, and many Greeks have expressed apathy over the visit.
“Perhaps it is important to migrants in Greece who are in need. We the Orthodox expect nothing in particular,” said Periklis, owner of a religious icon shop in Athens.
Relations with the Church of Greece are much better than they were ahead of John Paul’s visit, Pierre Salembier, head of the Jesuit Catholic community in Greece, told AFP.
But he said there were still some “known anti-Catholic fanatics” within the Church’s governing body.
The bishop of Piraeus called the pope’s visit “immoral,” according to the union of Orthodox journalists.
During his visit to Cyprus, Francis condemned “slavery” and “torture” in migrant camps, drawing parallels with World War II.
The Cyprus government said Friday that 50 migrants, including two Cameroonians stuck for months in the divided island’s buffer zone, will be relocated to Italy thanks to Francis.
On Sunday the pope will again visit Greece’s Lesbos, a flashpoint of the 2015 refugee crisis and thereafter, “as a pilgrim to the wellsprings of humanity” to call for the integration of refugees.
The island’s sprawling Moria migrant camp, which the pontiff visited in 2016, burnt down last year and has been replaced by the temporary facility of Mavrovouni.
With EU funds, Greece is building a series of “closed” facilities on Greek islands with barbed wire fencing, surveillance cameras, X-ray scanners and magnetic gates that are closed at night.
Three such camps have opened on the islands of Samos, Leros and Kos, with Lesbos and Chios to follow next year.
NGOs and aid groups have raised concerns about the new camps, arguing that people’s movements should not be restricted.
Thirty-six groups active in Greece this week wrote to Francis raising the plight of people in the camps and requesting his help to halt illegal pushbacks of migrants allegedly by Greek border officers.
Greece vehemently denies the claims, insisting its coast guard saves lives at sea.
Addressing Francis on Saturday, President Sakellaropoulou insisted Athens “is making every possible effort to prevent the illegal traffic of people and their political exploitation.”
The pontiff is expected to visit the camp and will meet two “randomly chosen” families, an official said.
“We await him with open arms,” said Berthe, a Cameroonian asylum seeker at the camp.
She said she hoped the pope “will pray for us to help us overcome the insecurities we have lived, through faith.”
On Wednesday, nearly 30 asylum seekers landed near the camp. On Friday, two migrants died when a speedboat overturned near the Greek island of Kos.


Thousands protest over Dutch coronavirus restrictions

Updated 04 December 2021

Thousands protest over Dutch coronavirus restrictions

  • Protesters walked through the streets of the town carrying banners saying "Medical Freedom Now!"

UTRECHT, Netherlands: Several thousand people gathered in the central Dutch town of Utrecht on Saturday to protest against new coronavirus restrictions that came into force last weekend.
Protesters walked through the streets of the town carrying banners saying “Medical Freedom Now!” and waving Dutch flags. A heavy police presence was visible along the route of the march.
It is the first major demonstration in the Netherlands against the measures, which include a nighttime closure of bars, restaurants and most stores to stem a record-breaking wave of COVID-19 cases that is threatening to overwhelm the country’s health care system.
The Netherlands saw violent protests two weeks ago after the government announced plans to ban most people who have not been vaccinated from public places. Those plans face widespread opposition in parliament, including from parties in the governing coalition and have not been put into place yet.


Merkel: Virus death toll ‘so bitter because it is avoidable’

Updated 04 December 2021

Merkel: Virus death toll ‘so bitter because it is avoidable’

  • Merkel gave what is expected to be her last weekly video message
  • The measures include excluding unvaccinated people across the country from nonessential stores

BERLIN: Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel on Saturday made what is likely her final appeal before leaving office next week for Germans to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
Merkel gave what is expected to be her last weekly video message two days after federal and state leaders decided on a series of measures meant to break a wave of coronavirus infections.
The measures include excluding unvaccinated people across the country from nonessential stores, restaurants and sports and cultural venues. In a longer-term move, parliament will consider a general vaccine mandate.
At least 68.9 percent of Germans are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, short of the government’s aim of a minimum 75 percent vaccination rate. The number of unvaccinated residents has been blamed as a key factor in a surge of new virus cases in recent weeks.
Official figures suggest that the infection rate may now be stabilizing, but at too high a level.
The national disease control center on Saturday reported 64,510 new daily cases and a 7-day infection rate of 442.7 new cases per 100,000 residents. Another 378 deaths in 24 hours brought Germany’s total in the pandemic to 102,946.
“Every one of them leaves behind families or friends, stunned, speechless and helpless,” Merkel said in her video message. “This is so bitter because it is avoidable. With the effective and safe vaccines, we have the key to this in our hands.”
She renewed a plea to Germans to take the virus seriously, adding that the new omicron variant “appears to be even more contagious than the previous ones.”
“Get vaccinated, no matter whether it’s a first vaccination or a booster,” Merkel said. “Every vaccination helps.”
Merkel is expected to leave office on Wednesday and be replaced by Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democratic Party, who is currently vice chancellor. Scholz said Saturday that his government’s “most important first task” is to “fight the corona pandemic with all the strength that we have.”
“There would be a different situation now if just a few more citizens had also made the decision to get vaccination,” he said at a convention of the Social Democrats. “We must again make a whole new effort, set in motion a whole new campaign” to get more shots in arms, Scholz said.
Senior members of the party denounced a Friday evening protest outside the home of Saxony state’s health minister, Petra Koepping, a Social Democrat. About 30 people gathered with torches and placards outside the home in the eastern town of Grimma.
The demonstrators chanted against coronavirus policies before fleeing in cars when police arrived.


Francis begins first papal visit to Athens in two decades

Updated 04 December 2021

Francis begins first papal visit to Athens in two decades

  • The pope’s trip will see him return on Sunday to the island of Lesbos, which he last visited in 2016 during the early years of the migration crisis

Athens: Pope Francis on Saturday began a landmark trip to Greece with the first visit to Athens by a pontiff in two decades, aiming to improve relations with the Orthodox Church of Greece and highlight the plight of refugees.
Flying in after a two-day trip to Cyprus, the pope landed shortly after 0900 GMT and was greeted at Athens airport by Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias and senior officials from the Greek Catholic community.
The pope’s trip will see him return on Sunday to the island of Lesbos, which he last visited in 2016 during the early years of the migration crisis.
The 84-year-old’s visit to the Greek capital is the first by a Pope since John Paul II in 2001, which in turn was the first papal visit to Athens since the 1054 Schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Francis is seeking to improve historically difficult relations with the Orthodox Church — strained by the Schism and the 1204 sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade — while also highlighting the plight of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers in Greece.
“I ardently long to meet you all, all, not only Catholics, but all of you,” he said in a message before embarking on his 35th international trip, which began on Thursday with the visit to Cyprus.
“By meeting you, I will quench my thirst at the springs of fraternity.”
Francis on Saturday will meet Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the head of the Church of Greece Archbishop Ieronymos.
He is then scheduled to see members of Greece’s small Catholic community, which represents just 1.2 percent of the majority-Orthodox population.