Taliban weighs using US mass surveillance plan, met with China’s Huawei

Taliban soldiers stand guard at the second-anniversary ceremony of the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban in Kabul, Afghanistan, on August 15, 2023. (REUTERS/File)
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Updated 25 September 2023
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Taliban weighs using US mass surveillance plan, met with China’s Huawei

  • Mass camera rollout is part of a new security strategy that will take four years to be fully implemented
  • Preventing attacks by militant groups is at heart of interaction between Taliban and many foreign nations

KABUL: The Taliban are creating a large-scale camera surveillance network for Afghan cities that could involve repurposing a plan crafted by the Americans before their 2021 pullout, an interior ministry spokesman told Reuters, as authorities seek to supplement thousands of cameras already across the capital, Kabul.

The Taliban administration — which has publicly said it is focused on restoring security and clamping down on Daesh, which has claimed many major attacks in Afghan cities — has also consulted with Chinese telecoms equipment maker Huawei about potential cooperation, the spokesman said.

Preventing attacks by international militant groups — including prominent organizations such as Daesh — is at the heart of the interaction between the Taliban and many foreign nations, including the US and China, according to readouts from those meetings. But some analysts question the cash-strapped regime’s ability to fund the program, and rights groups have expressed concern that any resources will be used to crackdown on protesters.

Details of how the Taliban intend to expand and manage mass surveillance, including obtaining the US plan, have not been previously reported.

The mass camera rollout, which will involve a focus on “important points” in Kabul and elsewhere, is part of a new security strategy that will take four years to be fully implemented, Ministry of Interior spokesman Abdul Mateen Qani told Reuters.

“At the present we are working on a Kabul security map, which is (being completed) by security experts and (is taking) lots of time,” he said. “We already have two maps, one which was made by USA for the previous government and second by Turkiye.”

He did not detail when the Turkish plan was made.

A US State Department spokesperson said Washington was not “partnering” with the Taliban and has “made clear to the Taliban that it is their responsibility to ensure that they give no safe haven to terrorists.”

A Turkish government spokesperson didn’t return a request for comment.

Qani said the Taliban had a “simple chat” about the potential network with Huawei in August, but no contracts or firm plans had been reached.

Bloomberg News reported in August that Huawei had reached “verbal agreement” with the Taliban about a contract to install a surveillance system, citing a person familiar with the discussions.

Huawei told Reuters in September that “no plan was discussed” during the meeting.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said she was not aware of specific discussions but added: “China has always supported the peace and reconstruction process in Afghanistan and supported Chinese enterprises to carry out relevant practical cooperation.”

ELECTRICITY CUTS, RIGHTS CONCERNS

There are over 62,000 cameras in Kabul and other cities that are monitored from a central control room, according to the Taliban. The last major update to Kabul’s camera system occurred in 2008, according to the former government, which relied heavily on Western-led international forces for security.

When NATO-led international forces were gradually withdrawing in January 2021, then-vice president Amrullah Saleh said his government would roll out a huge upgrade of Kabul’s camera surveillance system. He told reporters the $100 million plan was backed by the NATO coalition.

“The arrangement we had planned in early 2021 was different,” Saleh told Reuters in September, adding that the “infrastructure” for the 2021 plan had been destroyed.

It was not clear if the plan Saleh referenced was similar to the ones that the Taliban say they have obtained, nor if the administration would modify them.

Jonathan Schroden, an expert on Afghanistan with the Center for Naval Analyzes, said a surveillance system would be “useful for the Taliban as it seeks to prevent groups like the Islamic State ... from attacking Taliban members or government positions in Kabul.”

The Taliban already closely monitor urban centers with security force vehicles and regular checkpoints.

Rights advocates and opponents of the regime are concerned enhanced surveillance might target civil society members and protesters.

Though the Taliban rarely confirm arrests, the Committee to Protect Journalists says at least 64 journalists have been detained since the takeover. Protests against restrictions on women in Kabul have been broken up forcefully by security forces, according to protesters, videos and Reuters witnesses.

Implementing a mass surveillance system “under the guise of ‘national security’ sets a template for the Taliban to continue its draconian policies that violate fundamental rights,” said Matt Mahmoudi from Amnesty International.

The Taliban strongly denies that an upgraded surveillance system would breach the rights of Afghans. Qani said the system was comparable with what other major cities utilize and that it would be operated in line with Islamic Sharia law, which prevents recording in private spaces.

The plan faces practical challenges, security analysts say.

Intermittent daily power cuts in Afghanistan mean cameras connected to the central grid are unlikely to provide consistent feeds. Only 40 percent of Afghans have access to electricity, according to the state-owned power provider.

The Taliban also have to find funding after a massive economic contraction and the withdrawal of much aid following their takeover.

The administration said in 2022 that it has an annual budget of over $2 billion, of which defense spending is the largest component, according to the Taliban army chief.

MILITANCY RISKS

The discussion with Huawei occurred several months after China met with Pakistan and the Taliban’s acting foreign minister, after which the parties stressed cooperation on counter-terrorism. Tackling militancy is also a key aspect of the 2020 troop-withdrawal deal the United States struck with the Taliban.

China has publicly declared its concern over the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an armed separatist organization in its western Xinjiang region. Security officials and UN reports say ETIM likely has a small number of fighters in Afghanistan. ETIM couldn’t be reached for comment.

Daesh has also threatened foreigners in Afghanistan. Its fighters attacked a hotel popular with Chinese businesspeople last year, which left several Chinese citizens wounded. A Russian diplomat was also killed in one of its attacks.

The Taliban denies that militancy threatens their rule and say Afghan soil will not be used to launch attacks elsewhere. They have publicly announced raids on Daesh cells in Kabul.

“Since early 2023, Taliban raids in Afghanistan have removed at least eight key (Islamic State in Afghanistan) leaders, some responsible for external plotting,” said US Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West at a Sept. 12 public seminar.

A July UN monitoring report said there were up to 6,000 Daesh fighters and their family members in Afghanistan. Analysts say urban surveillance will not fully address their presence.

The Afghan “home base” locations of Daesh fighters are in the eastern mountainous areas, said Schroden. “So, while cameras in the cities may help prevent attacks ... they’re unlikely to contribute much to their ultimate defeat.”


UK Conservative Party to announce new leader Nov 2, Times report says

Updated 27 sec ago
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UK Conservative Party to announce new leader Nov 2, Times report says

LONDON: Britain’s Conservative Party will name its new leader on Nov. 2, the Times reported on Monday, following the party’s worst ever election performance earlier this month that prompted former Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to say he would stand down.
The contest would last almost four months, culminating in a ballot of rank and file members to select one of the final two candidates, Times Political Editor Steven Swinford said in a post on X.
Sunak’s election campaign ended in failure on July 4, when the center-left Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer, won a landslide election victory that ended 14 years of Conservative-led government.
Sunak said in his final speech outside the Prime Minister’s Downing Street office that he would quit as leader of the party once the formal arrangements for his successor were in place.
The Times report came ahead of the formal announcement of those arrangements later this week. The Conservative Party did not respond to a request for comment on the report.
The Times said up to eight candidates were expected to put their name forward.
Conservative Party leadership contests usually involve a series of ballots among its elected lawmakers to whittle down the number of candidates, before the whole party gets to choose between the final two.

Blinken headed to Asia to reaffirm US leadership

Updated 18 min 1 sec ago
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Blinken headed to Asia to reaffirm US leadership

  • Secretary of State will visit Laos, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore and Mongolia
  • Blinken will also travel to Vietnam to attend the funeral of late communist leader Nguyen Phu Trong

WASHINGTON: Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Asia this week in a bid to assert US leadership against the backdrop of China’s rising influence, an official said Monday.
The message of Blinken’s trip, which starts Wednesday, is that “America is all in on the Indo-Pacific from day one of this administration,” said Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
“We have significantly and dramatically stepped up our engagement,” he added.
Blinken will visit Laos, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore and Mongolia.
He will also travel to Vietnam to attend the funeral of late communist leader Nguyen Phu Trong, and will separately meet with government officials in Hanoi in an effort to boost diplomatic relations.
In Laos, he will attend a ministerial meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and is scheduled to meet with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the event.
Blinken will then visit Japan for a four-party meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Japanese counterparts, which will focus on defense deterrence, according to the State Department and Japan’s foreign ministry.
He is also due to take part in a meeting of the so-called Quad — a strategic security dialogue of the United States, Japan, India and Australia.
In the Philippines, Blinken will have talks with the country’s diplomatic and defense chiefs that will center on Chinese behavior in the South China Sea.
Kritenbrink said Monday that the United States welcomed efforts to ease tensions in the South China Sea, after the Philippines and China agreed to a provisional arrangement for resupplying Filipino troops stationed on a disputed shoal.
After a stopover in Singapore focused on strengthening bilateral relations, Blinken will conclude his Asia tour in Mongolia for a meeting with the country’s foreign minister.


France’s Macron praises Biden’s ‘courage’ and ‘sense of duty’

Updated 22 July 2024
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France’s Macron praises Biden’s ‘courage’ and ‘sense of duty’

  • In early June, Biden traveled to France on a state visit and attended commemorations marking the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings
PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday praised US counterpart Joe Biden’s “courage” and “sense of duty,” and called for the “spirit of partnership” between the two countries to continue beyond the next presidential election.
Biden, 81, announced on Sunday that he was dropping out of the US presidential race following intense pressure to step aside after a dismal debate performance last month. He has since endorsed Vice President Kamala Harris as candidate.
“I appreciate the courage, the spirit of responsibility and the sense of duty that led you to this decision,” wrote Macron in a letter to Biden, extracts of which were made public by the Elysee Palace.
“At a time when we have just celebrated the 80th anniversary of D-Day together, I hope that this spirit of partnership between the two sides of the Atlantic will continue to drive the historic relations between our two countries,” Macron said.
In early June, Biden traveled to France on a state visit and attended commemorations marking the 80th anniversary of the D-Day landings that changed the course of World War II.
At that time Macron emphasized unity with the United States under Biden and expressed gratitude for his counterpart’s approach to Europe.
“I thank you, Mr.President, for being the president of the world’s number one power but doing it with the loyalty of a partner who likes and respects the Europeans,” he said in June.

Harris makes first appearance since launching Democratic presidential campaign

US Vice President Kamala Harris arrives to speak from the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Monday, July 22, 2024.
Updated 22 July 2024
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Harris makes first appearance since launching Democratic presidential campaign

  • Harris has moved swiftly to lock up the Democratic presidential nomination, after Biden announced on Sunday he was stepping aside
  • Virtually all of the prominent Democrats who had been seen as potential challengers to Harris have lined up behind her

WASHINGTON: US Vice President Kamala Harris made her first public appearance on Monday since entering the presidential race after President Joe Biden, 81, abruptly abandoned his reelection bid and endorsed her as his successor.
“Joe Biden’s legacy over the last three years is unmatched in modern history,” Harris said, before delivering remarks at a White House event to honor college athletes.
Harris has moved swiftly to lock up the Democratic presidential nomination, after Biden announced on Sunday he was stepping aside, bowing to pressure from fellow Democrats.
Virtually all of the prominent Democrats who had been seen as potential challengers to Harris have lined up behind her, including Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.
Campaign officials and allies have already made hundreds of calls on her behalf, urging delegates to next month’s Democratic Party convention to join in nominating her for president in the Nov. 5 election against Republican Donald Trump.
Biden’s departure was the latest shock to a White House race that included the near-assassination of former President Trump by a gunman during a campaign stop and the nomination of Trump’s fellow hard-liner, US Senator J.D. Vance, as his running mate.
“My intention is to earn and win this nomination,” Harris said in a statement on Sunday. “I will do everything in my power to unite the Democratic Party — and unite our nation — to defeat Donald Trump.”
Harris, who is Black and Asian American, would fashion an entirely new dynamic with Trump, 78, offering a vivid generational and cultural contrast.
The Trump campaign has been preparing for her possible rise for weeks, sources told Reuters. It sent out a detailed critique of her record on immigration and other issues on Monday, accusing her of being liberal than Biden.
The Trump campaign accused Harris of favoring abolishing the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and decriminalizing border crossings, backing the so-called Green New Deal, supporting the administration’s electric vehicle mandates and encouraging “defund the police” efforts.
Some of those were positions Harris adopted as an unsuccessful presidential candidate in the 2020 election when she was running on a more liberal agenda than Biden but were not ones that the administration assumed, particularly with regard to border security and law enforcement issues.
Biden, the oldest person ever to have occupied the Oval Office, said he would remain in the presidency until his term ends on Jan. 20, 2025, while endorsing Harris to run in his place.
Biden’s shaky June 27 debate performance against Trump led the president’s fellow Democrats to urge him to end his run, but senior Republicans have demanded he resign from office, arguing that if he is not fit to campaign, he is not fit to govern.
Harris spent Sunday working the phones, dressed in a Howard University sweatshirt and eating pizza with anchovies as she spoke with Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, a potential vice presidential running mate, House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries, and Congressional Black Caucus chair Representative Steven Horsford, according to sources.
Biden’s withdrawal leaves less than four months to wage a campaign.
Trump, whose false claims that his 2020 loss to Biden was the result of fraud inspired the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol, on Monday questioned Democrats’ right to change candidates.
“They stole the race from Biden after he won it in the primaries,” Trump said on his Truth Social site.
Despite the early show of support for Harris, talk of an open convention when Democrats gather in Chicago on Aug. 19-22 was not totally silenced.
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former President Barack Obama did not announce endorsements, although both praised Biden.
With Democrats wading into uncharted territory, Democratic National Committee Chair Jaime Harrison said the party would soon announce the next steps in its nomination process.
Abortion rights leader
Biden won the party’s nomination in 2020, picked Harris to be his vice president, and went on to beat Trump. She is a former California attorney general and a former US senator.
Harris is expected to stick largely to Biden’s foreign policy playbook on such issues as China, Iran and Ukraine, but could strike a tougher tone with Israel over the Gaza war if she tops the Democratic ticket and wins the November election.
She has been outspoken on abortion rights, an issue that resonates with younger voters and more liberal Democrats.
Proponents argue she would energize those voters, consolidate Black support and bring sharp debating skills to prosecute the political case against the former president.
But some Democrats were concerned about a Harris candidacy, in part because of the weight of a long history of racial and gender discrimination in the United States, which has not elected a woman president in its nearly 250-year history.
Polling shows that Harris performs no better statistically than Biden had done against Trump.
In a head-to-head match-up, Harris and Trump were tied with 44 percent support each in a July 15-16 Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted immediately after the July 13 assassination attempt on Trump.
Trump led Biden 43 percent to 41 percent in that same poll, though the 2 percentage point difference was not meaningful considering the poll’s 3-point margin of error.
Biden’s campaign had $95 million on hand at the end of June, according to a filing with the Federal Election Commission. Trump’s campaign ended the month with $128 million. Campaign finance law experts disagree on how easily that money could be shifted to a Harris-led campaign.
Harris’ campaign had raised $49.6 million in less than 24 hours after Biden’s exit, a campaign spokesperson said on Monday.
More than 44,000 Black women and allies, including Representatives Maxine Waters, Jasmine Crockett and Joyce Beatty, joined a three-hour call on Sunday evening in support of Harris’s bid, raising more than $1.5 million for her presidential campaign, organizers told Reuters.
Biden has not been seen in public since testing positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday. He was isolating at his home in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, and tentatively plans to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday if he has recovered.


Bangladesh continues curfew as students await official notice on government job reforms

Updated 22 July 2024
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Bangladesh continues curfew as students await official notice on government job reforms

  • Bangladesh internet connection has been cut off since Thursday night
  • Main student group says not all of their demands have been met 

DHAKA: Bangladesh remains under curfew and a widespread communications blackout on Monday, a day after the Supreme Court scaled back a controversial job-quota system following deadly clashes that have killed more than 100 people over the past week. 

University students have been demonstrating since the beginning of this month to demand a reformation of the quota system that reserved 30 percent of government jobs for relatives of veterans who fought in Bangladesh’s 1971 liberation war. 

The peaceful protests turned violent last week, with clashes between student protesters and security forces killing 174 people and injuring thousands, according to a count by Bengali daily Prothom Alo, which reported over a dozen deaths on Sunday alone. 

Bangladesh was still under curfew for a third day on Monday, with military personnel patrolling the capital and other areas, while internet connection remained suspended across the country since it was disrupted from Thursday night. 

“Everything is in order today across the country, except a few separate incidents in Dhaka, Narayanganj and Narsingdi,” Biplab Barua, special assistant to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, told Arab News. 

“We hope that in the next 48 hours, the situation will take a better look, and the country will go for normal operations. We are expecting to restore the broadband Internet services tonight (Monday). As soon as the situation takes a normal look, the length of curfew hours will be eased.” 

On Sunday, the Supreme Court ordered for the quota reserved for relatives of veterans to be cut to 5 percent and for 93 percent of jobs to be allocated on merit, while the remaining 2 percent will be reserved for members of ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. 

Bangladesh’s top court was ruling on an appeal. The government had abolished the quotas following student protests in 2018 but they were reinstated by the High Court in June, setting off a fresh round of demonstrations. 

“Our students are not responsible for the anarchy and atrocities on the streets. It’s the opposition parties … which hijacked the movement from the students,” Barua said. 

“Students’ demands have been fulfilled by the court, and the government will issue a circular by Tuesday regarding the quota system in the government job.” 

Students Against Discrimination, the main protest organizing group, said on Monday that some of their demands are still unmet, including the reopening of universities as well as investigations into the deadly crackdown. 

Student protesters are also waiting for the government to issue an official notification on the Supreme Court decision. 

“Since the curfew is underway, we are not on the streets at the moment. It will endanger the lives of our students,” Sarjis Alam, a protest coordinator with Students Against Discrimination, told Arab News.  

“At the moment, we are waiting to see the government circular on the quota system … We demanded reformation of quota systems in all grades of government jobs … It’s very important to us,” he said. “(After) seeing the government’s circular, we can comment whether our demands were addressed or not.”