The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal

One year after the Taliban took over the country, Afghans are paying a high cost for the militants’ return to power in Afghanistan. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 14 August 2022

The Afghanistan disaster movie continues to roll, one year after US withdrawal

  • Aid-dependent economy remains in free fall since the Taliban takeover of the war-ravaged country
  • Prices of food and other essentials have soared as drought compounds financial collapse

KABUL: When the Taliban captured Kabul on Aug. 15, 2021, amid the withdrawal of US-led forces from Afghanistan, the group’s stunning return to power marked the end of two decades of warfare, which had killed tens of thousands of Afghans on their own soil. 

One year on, with the country pauperized and isolated on the world stage under its new leadership, life for ordinary Afghans has changed — largely for the worse.

During their first stint in power, from 1996 until late-2001, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, enforced with brutal public punishments and executions. 

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Women and girls were removed from public life, prevented from working or receiving an education, and even barred from leaving the house without the all-enveloping niqab and a male relative to chaperone them.

In Oct. 2001, US-led forces invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power, accusing the group of sheltering Osama bin Laden, the Al-Qaeda leader deemed responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US that killed almost 3,000 people.




Edi Maa holding her baby receiving treatment for malnutrition at a Doctors Without Borders (MSF) nutrition centre in Herat. (AFP)

What followed were 20 blood-soaked years of fighting between the NATO-backed Afghan national forces and Taliban guerrilla fighters intent on retaking power.

While under the Western-backed administration, Afghanistan made progress with the emergence of independent media and a growing number of girls going to school and university. 

However, in many regions beyond the big cities, Afghans knew only war, depriving them of the many development projects implemented elsewhere by foreign donors.

Now that US-led forces have withdrawn and the Taliban has traded guerrilla warfare for the day-to-day running of the country, security has greatly improved.




During their first stint in power, from 1996 until late-2001, the Taliban declared an Islamic emirate, imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic law, enforced with brutal public punishments and executions. (AFP)

“We only saw war in the past several years. Every day, we lived in fear. Now it’s calm and we feel safe,” Mohammad Khalil, a 69-year-old farmer in northwest Balkh province, told Arab News. “We can finally breathe.”

But the uneasy peace has come at a cost.

Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy has been in free fall since the Taliban returned to power. Billions of dollars in foreign assistance have been suspended and some $9.5 billion in Afghan central bank assets parked overseas have been frozen.

Denied international recognition, with aid suspended and the financial system in paralysis, the UN says that Afghanistan faces humanitarian catastrophe. About 20 percent of the country’s 38 million population are already on the brink of famine.

Afghanistan: One year since the Taliban takeover

Aug. 15, 2021 - Taliban campaign culminates with the fall of Kabul.

Aug. 30 - The last US troops depart Kabul airport after evacuating more than 120,000 people over 17 days.

September - A new interim government is unveiled. The Taliban bring back the feared religious police.

October - More than 120 people are killed in two Daesh-claimed mosque blasts in Kandahar and Kunduz.

Jan. 2022 - Deprived of aid, Afghanistan is plunged into a deep economic and humanitarian crisis.

March - The Taliban block secondary school girls from returning to class. Government employees must grow beards.

May - Women and girls are ordered to wear the hijab and cover their faces when in public. Women are banned from making long-distance journeys alone.

June - More than 1,000 people killed and thousands left homeless in a massive earthquake.

August - The US announces the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri in a drone strike on his Kabul hideout.

The price of essential commodities has soared as the value of the Afghan currency has plummeted. A continuing drought has further aggravated the situation in rural areas.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies estimates about 70 percent of Afghan families are unable to meet their basic food needs.

“Most of the time we eat bread and drink tea or just water. We can’t get meat, fruit or even vegetables for the children. Only a few people have goats or cows to feed the children with milk,” Khalil said.

In the capital, Kabul, food is widely available, but few can afford a vaied and nutritious diet.

“There are plenty of food items in the market, but we don’t have the money to buy them,” Mohammad Barat, a 52-year-old daily wage earner, told Arab News.

The looming catastrophe is not only one of shocking levels of poverty, but also lost hope and opportunities.

Tens of thousands of Afghans fled the country over several chaotic days last August, when US forces and their coalition partners hastily airlifted Afghans from Kabul airport. Many others, including professionals, have since followed in their footsteps.

“Doctors are leaving, engineers are leaving, professors and experts are also leaving the country,” Abdul Hamid, a student at Kabul University, told Arab News. “There’s no hope for a better future.”

Those who worked for the deposed Western-backed administration have been removed from public life, particularly women, who are now forced to wear face coverings, banned from making long-distance journeys alone, and prevented from working in most sectors beyond health and education.




Women face a growing number of restrictions in their daily lives; right, Taliban fighters in Kandahar celebrate the US withdrawal. (AFP)

Education, too, has been strictly limited for women, even though allowing girls into schools and colleges has been one of the international community’s core demands since the Taliban retook control of the country.

In mid-March, after months of uncertainty, the Taliban said that they would allow girls to return to school. However, when they arrived at schools around the country to resume studies, those above the age of 13 were ordered to return home.

In a last-minute decision, the Taliban had announced that high schools would remain closed for girls until a plan was ready to receive them in accordance with Islamic law.

Almost half a year later, teenage girls fear they will not return to the classroom anytime soon.

“There’s no reason for banning girls from school,” Amal, an 11th grade student at Rabia Balkhi High School in Kabul, told Arab News. “They just don’t want us to get an education.”




Now that US-led forces have withdrawn and the Taliban has traded guerrilla warfare for the day-to-day running of the country, security has greatly improved. (AFP)

Despite repeated hints by the predominantly Pashtun, Islamic fundamentalist group that experience and the passage of time have softened its rough edges, the streets of Kabul increasingly resemble the Taliban-governed pre-2002 era.

Since the restoration of the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which enforces the group’s austere interpretation of Islam, traditional clothing, turbans and burqas have replaced suits and jeans, which only a year ago had been considered normal attire in the Afghan capital.

Key symbols of the nation’s identity are also changing, with the white and black banner of the Taliban now appearing on government buildings and in public spaces, gradually replacing Afghanistan’s tricolor, despite earlier pledges it would not be changed.  

For some, the replacement of the old national flag is more than symbolic, and is indicative of the Taliban’s hijacking of the country. 

“It doesn’t represent any government or regime. The Taliban could keep both,” Shah Rahim, a 43-year-old resident of Kabul, told Arab News. 

“The flag is a representation of our nation, our values and our history.”

 

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

Updated 7 sec ago

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 13 min 56 sec ago

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 38 min 49 sec ago

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 29 min 46 sec ago

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.


Blast hits Kabul mosque in vicinity of interior ministry, kills 2

Updated 31 min 39 sec ago

Blast hits Kabul mosque in vicinity of interior ministry, kills 2

KABUL: A blast hit a mosque in Afghanistan’s capital in the vicinity of the heavily fortified interior ministry compound on Wednesday, officials said, killing at least two people and wounding 18, according to medics.
The government did not immediately say what caused the explosion in Kabul, where militants have carried out a number of attacks in recent months.
“The mosque was used by visitors and sometimes by interior ministry employees,” interior ministry spokesman Abdul Nafi Takor said.
Italian NGO aid group Emergency, which runs a hospital in Kabul, said on Twitter it received 20 patients from the blast, two of whom were dead on arrival.
The interior ministry compound is in a secure area next to Kabul international airport.
The ruling Taliban have said they have secured the country since taking over in 2021. But though widespread fighting has ended, a series of blasts have hit urban centers in recent months.
An explosion at an education center in West Kabul on Friday killed 53 people, most of them young women, according to the United Nations’ Mission to Afghanistan.