Taliban torn over reforms one year after seizing power

On a superficial level at least, the Taliban appear to have changed in some respects. (AFP)
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Updated 13 August 2022

Taliban torn over reforms one year after seizing power

  • The group’s hard-line core, composed of battle-hardened veteran fighters, is against any significant ideological change that could be viewed as a sign of capitulation to their enemies in the West

KANDAHAR: One year on from the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, some cracks are opening within their ranks over the crucial question of just how much reform their leaders can tolerate.
Infamous during their first reign for their brutal crackdowns on rights and freedoms, the Islamists vowed to rule differently this time.
On a superficial level at least, they appear to have changed in some respects.
Officials in Kabul have embraced technology, while cricket matches are cheered in full stadiums.
Televisions were banned under the Taliban government’s first incarnation, while Afghans now have access to the Internet and social media.
Girls are allowed to attend primary school and women journalists are interviewing government officials — unthinkable during the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s.
The group’s hard-line core, composed of battle-hardened veteran fighters, is against any significant ideological change that could be viewed as a sign of capitulation to their enemies in the West.
“You have one (Taliban) camp, which is pushing ahead with what they’re seeing as reforms, and another camp that seems to think even these meagre reforms are too much,” said Ibraheem Bahiss, an Afghanistan analyst with International Crisis Group.

The United States and its allies — which had bankrolled Afghanistan for 20 years — have locked the country out of the global banking system and billions in frozen assets abroad, as they hold out for reforms from the Taliban.
Without significant progress, it is the Afghan people who suffer as the country reels under a massive economic crisis that has seen some families choose between selling their organs or their infant daughters.
On whether the Taliban are even capable of reform, analysts are wary that recent policy changes amount to little more than “tokenism.”
“There are some cases where we could point to an evolution in policy, but let’s be very clear... We’re still looking at an organization that has refused to move beyond very retrograde, dogmatic views,” said Michael Kugelman, an Afghanistan specialist with the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank.
Most secondary schools for girls remain closed. Many women have been forced out of government work, while many fear venturing out and being chastised by the Taliban.
Simple joys such as music, shisha and card games are strictly controlled in the most conservative areas, while protests have been crushed and journalists regularly threatened or detained.
Demands from the West for an inclusive government were ignored, and the assassination of Al-Qaeda’s leader in Kabul last week underlined the Taliban’s ongoing ties with jihadist groups.
It is from the Taliban’s power base of southern Kandahar that the secretive supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada gathers his powerful inner circle of veteran fighters and religious clerics to impose a harsh interpretation of sharia.
And for them, ideological concerns outweigh any political or economic drivers to effect change.
“The needs of the Afghans remain the same as 20 years ago,” Mohammad Omar Khitabi, a member of a council of clerics who advise Akhundzada in Kandahar, told AFP.
His thoughts are echoed by Kandahar’s Vice and Virtue Director Abdul Rahman Tayabi, another close aide of the supreme leader.
“Our people do not have too many demands, like people in other countries might have,” he told AFP.
Afghan families were left stunned in March when Akhundzada overturned the education ministry’s decision to reopen secondary schools for girls.
Some analysts believe he felt uneasy over what could be seen by hard-liners as an act of surrender to the West on girls’ rights.
Hopes of restoring international money flows were shattered — to the dismay of many Taliban officials in Kabul, some of whom spoke out against the decision.
Relations with Western diplomats — who meet regularly with Taliban ministers but have no access to Akhundzada — suffered a major setback.
A slew of directives that harked back to the first reign of the Taliban quickly followed.
“The decisions that (Akhundzada) has made so far are all based on the opinions of religious scholars,” said Abdul Hadi Hammad, the head of a madrassa and member of the supreme leader’s advisory council.
Akhundzada has stressed the need for unity in the movement as he carefully seeks to balance several factions — including competing groups that claim the credit for the 2021 victory over US-led forces.
While advisers to Akhundzada claim the Taliban can survive without foreign income, unlocking billions of dollars in frozen assets abroad would be a crucial lifeline.
“We know the Taliban can be transactional, but they cannot appear to be transactional,” a Western diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.
Within the movement, no one dares openly challenge Akhundzada’s power, but discontent is quietly growing among the lower ranks.
“Taliban guards are getting their salaries late, and their salaries are low too. They are unhappy,” said one mid-level Taliban official based in northwestern Pakistan, who asked not to be named.
Many have returned to their villages or traveled to Pakistan to take up different work, another Taliban member added.
Attempts by the movement to shore up revenue through lucrative coal mining have sparked infighting in the north, exacerbated by ethnic divisions and religious sectarianism.
With winter only a few months away, food security and freezing temperatures will put even more pressure on the leaders of one of the world’s poorest countries.
These mounting stresses have the potential to worsen divisions, Kugelman said, though likely not enough to force any dramatic shift in policy.
“If the Taliban leadership start to feel very real threats to their political survival, then could they change?” he asked.
“Given that they are ideologically focused, that may not be the case.”


Putin makes Chechnya’s Kadyrov an army general

Updated 16 sec ago

Putin makes Chechnya’s Kadyrov an army general

MOSCOW: Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, said Wednesday he was granted a top rank in Russia’s army, just as Moscow’s forces suffer a series of defeats in Ukraine.
The 46-year-old Chechen leader — one of the most outspoken voices in Russia backing Putin’s Ukraine offensive — said it was a “huge honor” for him.
Kadyrov, a former warlord who rules Chechnya with widespread violations of human rights, said Putin had “personally” informed him of the decision.
“The President of Russia awarded me the rank of colonel general,” Kadyrov said on Telegram. “This is a promotion for me.”
The rank of colonel general is the third highest command rank in the Russian military hierarchy.
Kadyrov’s appointment to the rank came as the Ukrainian army pushed back Moscow’s forces in areas that the Kremlin proclaimed to be “Russian forever.”
The Chechen leader said he would do “everything to end the special military operation quickly” — using the Kremlin’s term for its Ukraine campaign.
Chechen units — including Kadyrov’s own militia with a sinister reputation, the “Kadyrovtsi” — are fighting alongside regular Russian forces in Ukraine.
Kadyrov has thrown his full backing behind Putin’s campaign, regularly calling for the most drastic tactics to be used in Ukraine.
This week he called on Moscow to use low-yield nuclear weapons in Ukraine after Russian troops were forced to retreat from the town of Lyman.
He then said he was sending three of his teenage sons — aged 14,15 and 16 — to the front.

Bus plunges into gorge in northern India, killing at least 25

Updated 05 October 2022

Bus plunges into gorge in northern India, killing at least 25

  • Over 45 to 50 people, all part of a wedding party, were on bus— police 
  • Police say over 110,000 are killed each year in road accidents across India 

NEW DELHI: A bus in northern India plunged into a gorge, leaving at least 25 dead and over a dozen others injured, officials said. Police told the Press Trust of India news agency there were 45 to 50 people on board the bus, all of whom were part of a wedding party, when it fell Tuesday evening into a gorge in Pauri district in Uttarakhand state. State police and the disaster response force worked alongside locals to rescue 21 people Tuesday night at the site of the crash, police chief Ashok Kumar tweeted. Vijay Kumar Jogdande, a senior government officer, said they would be carrying out an investigation into the incident and will conduct postmortem examinations after retrieving the bodies from the site. Officials were seen clearing the area of bushes and trees to help with the rescue operation as they pulled up an injured person. Rescuers also retrieved a dead body using ropes before they were taken away on a stretcher. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said all possible assistance will be given to those affected. “In this tragic hour my thoughts are with the bereaved families. I hope those who have been injured recover at the earliest,” he tweeted Wednesday. Deadly road accidents are common in India due to reckless driving, poorly maintained roads and aging vehicles. More than 110,000 people are killed every year in road accidents across India, according to police.


Ten dead after Indian Himalayas avalanche hits climbers

Updated 05 October 2022

Ten dead after Indian Himalayas avalanche hits climbers

  • Several dozen climbing trainees caught in Tuesday's snowslide near summit of Mount Draupadi ka Danda-II
  • Indian air force and local disaster agency were assisting with rescue efforts before heavy snow and rainfall

New Delhi: Ten people are confirmed dead after an avalanche struck climbers in the Indian Himalayas, police said Wednesday, with 18 other members of the expedition still missing.

Several dozen climbing trainees were caught in Tuesday morning's snowslide near the summit of Mount Draupadi ka Danda-II in the northern state of Uttarakhand.

The Indian air force and local disaster agency were assisting with rescue efforts before heavy snow and rainfall forced them to abandon the search overnight.

"Rescue teams have recovered 10 bodies," the Uttarakhand state police force said on Twitter after operations resumed in the morning.

Fourteen people have so far been rescued from the site of the avalanche, around 4,900 metres (16,000 feet) above sea level, and police said five were being treated at a district hospital in Uttarkashi.

Police footage showed several rescued climbers arriving in the town and walking unassisted while escorted by officers.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami confirmed on Twitter that accomplished climber Savita Kanswal, who had summited Everest earlier this year, was among the dead.

Kanswal was an instructor with the expedition and had been feted by the climbing community for summiting the world's highest peak and nearby Makalu in just 16 days -- a women's record.

Dhami said the government would provide immediate financial assistance to those injured in the avalanche along with the families of victims.

State disaster agency spokesperson Ridhim Aggarwal told AFP that the climbers had been stuck in a crevasse after the avalanche hit.

The Nehru Institute of Mountaineering said the expedition included 34 of its trainees, seven instructors and a nursing assistant.

Two air force helicopters had been sent to the region to assist with the search, senior disaster management official Devendra Singh Patwal told AFP.

Fatal climbing accidents are common on the treacherous terrain of the Himalayas, home to Everest and several of the world's highest peaks.

In August, the body of a mountaineer was recovered two months after he fell into a crevasse while crossing a glacier in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh.

And last week, renowned US ski mountaineer Hilaree Nelson's body was found on the slopes of Nepal's Manaslu peak after she went missing skiing down the world's eighth-highest mountain.

On the day of Nelson's accident, an avalanche hit on the 8,163-metre (26,781-foot) mountain, killing Nepali climber Anup Rai and injuring a dozen others who were later rescued.

Although no substantial research has been done on the impacts of climate change on mountaineering risks in the Himalayas, climbers have reported crevasses widening, running water on previously snowy slopes, and the increasing formation of glacial lakes.


Taliban report mosque blast at government ministry in Kabul

Updated 05 October 2022

Taliban report mosque blast at government ministry in Kabul

  • Explosion takes place inside Interior Ministry’s mosque, no immediate casualties reported
  • Blast follows last week’s attack on education center in Kabul where 52 people were killed 

KABUL, Afghanistan: A blast struck a mosque at a government ministry building in Kabul Wednesday as workers and visitors were praying, a Taliban official said.
The afternoon explosion went off inside the mosque of the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for security and law enforcement in the country.
A Taliban-appointed spokesman for the Interior Ministry, Abdul Nafi Takor, said in a tweet: “Unfortunately there was an explosion inside a(n) ancillary mosque where some Interior Ministry workers and visitors were praying. Will share the details later.”
He did not say if the mosque was inside the ministry or near it. There was no immediate information about casualties and no immediate claim of responsibility.
The mosque blast follows last week’s suicide bombing at an education center in Kabul that killed as many as 52 people, according to a tally compiled by The Associated Press, more than twice the death toll acknowledged by Taliban officials.
The reason for the lower death toll provided by the Taliban was not immediately clear. In the past, they have at times been slow to confirm casualty figures in the aftermath of attacks.
Taliban security officials initially said 19 people had been killed at the Kaaj Higher Educational Center, then revised the death toll to 25 over the weekend.
However, The Associated Press spoke directly to relatives of 39 of those killed and obtained the names and other information about the remaining 13.


Philippines’ Marcos Jr. open to buying Russian fuel, proposes new Myanmar approach

Updated 05 October 2022

Philippines’ Marcos Jr. open to buying Russian fuel, proposes new Myanmar approach

  • The Philippines, a US defense ally, has not imposed any sanctions on Russia
  • Myanmar’s ruling junta has been barred from regional summits

MANILA: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Wednesday said his nation may need to turn to Russia to fulfil its fuel needs amid rising global energy prices, bucking pressure from Western allies for countries to shun Moscow.
Speaking to the Manila Overseas Press Club, Marcos, who is also agriculture minister, said the Philippines may also deal with Russia for supply of fertilizer.
“We take we take a very balanced view because the truth of the matter is, we may have to deal with Russia for fuel, for fertilizer,” said Marcos.
The Philippines like many countries is grappling with soaring inflation, due to supply woes fanned by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Philippines, a US defense ally, has not imposed any sanctions on Russia.
Marcos, the son and namesake of the ousted late strongman who ruled the Philippines for two decades, also said he wanted his country to play a key role in promoting regional peace, amid challenges posed by North Korea and China-Taiwan tensions.
“We hope to be part of leading, the ones that are leading the effort for peace,” he said.
He said he would propose a new approach to the crisis in Myanmar at an upcoming meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in November, which could involved engaging the military government directly.
Myanmar’s ruling junta has been barred from regional summits over its failure to implement a five-point peace plan it agreed with ASEAN in April last year, after violent turmoil erupted in the country following a military coup.
The generals have been outraged by ASEAN’s unusually tough stand and have said they intend to comply with its plan, but will not agree to its call to hold dialogue with a pro-democracy resistance movement they call “terrorists.” “It’s time to put together, to put forward some concrete proposals on what we can do to at the very least to bring at least representatives of the military government to the table so we can begin to talk about these things,” Marcos said.
On Wednesday, Cambodia, the current ASEAN chair, confirmed that a request had been sent to the State Administrative Council, as the junta is known, that it nominate a non-political figure to represent Myanmar at the upcoming leaders’ summits. “Again, the SAC has refused to send anyone to the summits,” Cambodia Foreign spokesperson Chum Sounry said.