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.”


Migrants dying in unprecedented numbers on Canary Islands route, NGO says

Updated 5 sec ago
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Migrants dying in unprecedented numbers on Canary Islands route, NGO says

  • Nearly 5,000 migrants have died at sea in first five months of 2024 trying to reach Spanish Canary Islands
  • Victims came from 17 different countries, mostly from African mainland but also Comoros Islands as well as Pakistan

ARGUINEGUIN, Spain: An unprecedented nearly 5,000 migrants have died at sea in the first five months of 2024 trying to reach the Spanish Canary Islands, according to a report released by migration rights group Walking Borders on Wednesday.

Between Jan. 1 and May 31, 4,808 people died on the Atlantic voyage to the Canaries after departing from Morocco, Mauritania, Senegal and Gambia, making it the deadliest route between Africa and Spain, with 95 percent of migrant deaths, according to the group.

Arrivals to the archipelago in that period soared five times to over 16,500 from a year ago, Interior Ministry data showed.

The Mediterranean route was the second deadliest, with 175 deaths on the crossing from Algeria to Spain’s southeastern shores. Another 71 people died on the Strait of Gibraltar and Alboran Sea that separate Spain from Morocco, bringing the total of victims on routes to Spain to 5,054 — an average of 33 per day.

“We cannot normalize these figures. We must demand that the various countries put the protocols of duty of care at sea and the defense of the right to life above migration control measures,” said the NGO’s coordinator, Helena Maleno.

The victims came from 17 different countries, mostly from the African mainland but also the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean, as well as Pakistan. They included 154 women and 50 children, the report said.

The head of the Red Cross in the Canary Islands, Jose Antonio Rodriguez Verona, said the Atlantic route was the most dangerous as the ocean’s rough weather conditions could easily cause the precarious vessels used by most migrants to capsize.

Migration expert and journalist Txema Santana said there were the political and economic ingredients of a “perfect storm” in West Africa that would likely see more mass arrivals to the Canaries in the upcoming summer and autumn seasons.

Last year, a record 39,910 migrants reached the Canary Islands and over 6,000 people died while attempting the perilous crossing. Rights groups expect that figure to be surpassed this year.


French President Macron urges moderate politicians to regroup to defeat the far right in elections

Updated 12 June 2024
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French President Macron urges moderate politicians to regroup to defeat the far right in elections

  • His move triggered an early legislative election that will take place in two rounds on June 30 and July 7
  • Macron said he decided on the risky move because he could not ignore the new political reality after his pro-European party was handed a chastening defeat

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday urged moderate politicians from the left and the right to regroup to defeat the far right in the upcoming national legislative elections he had called for after his party’s crushing defeat in the European parliamentary vote.
A somber-looking Macron addressed French voters for the first time since his stunning decision on Sunday to dissolve the National Assembly, France’s lower house of parliament.
His move triggered an early legislative election that will take place in two rounds on June 30 and July 7, three weeks after the far-right National Rally party of Marine Le Pen triumphed at the vote for the European Union Parliament.
During a press conference on Wednesday, Macron said he decided on the risky move because he could not ignore the new political reality after his pro-European party was handed a chastening defeat and garnered less than half the support of the National Rally with its star leader, Jordan Bardella.
Unlike in his recent national addresses in which Macron focused on Russia’s war in Ukraine and ways Europe should forge a common defense policy, independent of the United States, and shore up trade protections against China, the French president stuck to his country’s internal issues favored by the surging right, including curbing immigration, fighting crime and Islamic separatism in France.
Macron, who has three years left of his second presidential term, hopes voters will band together to contain the far right in national elections in a way they didn’t in European ones. He called on “men and women of goodwill who were able to say ‘no’ to extremes on the left and the right to join together to be able to build a joint project” for the country.
“Things are simple today: we have unnatural alliances at both extremes, who quite agree on nothing except the jobs to be shared, and who will not be able to implement any program,” Macron said during a press conference in Paris.
While he seemed to project the kind of enthusiasm that helped bring him to the presidency in 2017, analysts say French voters are more pessimistic about their future, and see Macron as increasingly out of touch with real life and pocketbook problems.
Macron acknowledged some faults committed by his pro-business centrist party while harshly criticizing parties on the right for teaming up with Le Pen’s National Rally, which has a history of racism and xenophobia. He scathingly called an alliance formed by parties on the left as “unusual and incoherent” after they included the hard-left France Unbowed of Jean-Luc Mélenchon who, Macon said “justified anti-Semitic policies” in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war.
“We’re not perfect, we haven’t done everything right, but we have results... and above all, we know how to act,” Macron said of his Renaissance party, adding that the “far right (is) the main danger” in the upcoming election.
“The question is who will govern the country tomorrow?” he asked. “The far right and a few associates, or the democratic, progressive bloc? That’s the fundamental question.”
The decision to send to the polls voters who just expressed their discontent with Macron’s politics was a risky move that could result in the French far-right leading a government for the first time since World War II.
Potential alliances and France’s two-round voting system in national elections make the outcome of the vote highly uncertain. Macron was adamant in his faith in the French voters’ intent to refuse to choose the extremes of both sides of the political spectrum. He assured that he was not falling into defeatism and said he would serve out his second presidential term regardless of the outcome of the legislative vote.
“I think the French are intelligent, they see what’s being done, what’s coherent and what’s not, and they know what to do,” Macron said. He added: “I don’t believe at all that the worst can happen. You see, I’m an indefatigable optimist.”
He rebuffed accusations that his move to call snap elections would help the far-right take power in France.
“It’s about allowing political forces chosen by the French to be able to govern,” he said, He added that it’s “awkward to think it has to be the extreme right or political extremes. Or maybe you’ve got the spirit of defeat spread everywhere.”
“If that’s what people are afraid of, it’s time now to take action,” he said.
Opposition parties on the left and right have been scrambling to form alliances and field candidates in the early legislative balloting.
While sharp differences between parties remain on either side of the political spectrum, prominent figures calling for a united front appear to have one thing in common: They don’t want to cooperate with Macron.
Despite their divisions, left-wing parties agreed late Monday to form an alliance that includes the Greens, the Socialists, the Communists and the far-left France Unbowed.
National Rally leader Marine Le Pen is working to consolidate power on the right in efforts to translate the European triumph into a national win and come closer to claiming power. Her party is expected to win the most French seats in the European Parliament, potentially as many as 30 of France’s 81.


Ship meant to house police for G7 summit seized over poor conditions

Updated 12 June 2024
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Ship meant to house police for G7 summit seized over poor conditions

  • Officers were meant to be accommodated on the Mykonos Magic ship – renamed Goddess of the Night – docked in the city of Brindisi
  • Initial investigations showed ‘significant hygienic-sanitary criticalities and serious accommodation deficiencies’

BARI, Italy: A ship that had been set to host more than 2,000 police officers providing security at this week’s Group of Seven leaders’ summit was impounded on Wednesday after complaints over poor conditions aboard, police said.
The officers were meant to be accommodated on the Mykonos Magic ship — renamed Goddess of the Night — docked in the city of Brindisi, some 60 kilometers (37.28 miles) from Borgo Egnazia, a luxury resort in the southern Puglia region which will host the G7 meeting on June 13-15.
Earlier this week, unions bemoaned poor sanitary conditions aboard, saying many cabins could not be used, that there were water leaks, unusable toilets and broken air conditioning, forcing those onboard to be moved to hotels and another ship.
Initial investigations showed “significant hygienic-sanitary criticalities and serious accommodation deficiencies,” which could amount to the crime of fraud in public supply, a police statement said.
Police said the vessel had been seized following an order from prosecutors in Brindisi to allow further investigations.
In an earlier statement, police also said they were considering taking legal action against the owner of the ship. Italian media reported the government had paid around 6 million euros ($6.46 million) to rent it for the duration of the G7.
Reuters was unable to locate contact information for the company identified by police as owners of the ship.


Azerbaijan says Russian peacekeepers have completed withdrawal

Updated 12 June 2024
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Azerbaijan says Russian peacekeepers have completed withdrawal

  • The withdrawal has been agreed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev
  • The territory is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan despite historically being home to a majority Armenian population

BAKU: Russian peacekeepers on Wednesday completed their withdrawal from Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region, which Baku recaptured last year from Armenian separatists, officials in Baku said.
Azerbaijan and Armenia had fought two wars — in 2020 and in the 1990s — for control of the then-breakaway enclave.
“The process of the full withdrawal of the manpower, weapons, and equipment of Russia’s peacekeeping contingent (in Karabakh) from Azerbaijan was completed on June 12,” the defense ministry in Baku said in a statement.
The withdrawal, which began in April, has been agreed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev.
Last September, Baku took over the territory in a lightning one-day offensive that triggered a refugee crisis. Almost the entire local population of around 100,000 ethnic Armenians left for Armenia, fearing reprisals and repression.
The territory is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan despite historically being home to a majority Armenian population. It was controlled by pro-Yerevan separatists for nearly three decades.
The conflict has seen ties sour between traditional allies Russia and Armenia, with Yerevan accusing the Kremlin of failing to protect it in the face of a security threat from Azerbaijan.
After the loss of Karabakh, Yerevan has sought to forge new security alliances by deepening ties with the West.
On Tuesday, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan and the United States Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia James O’Brien issued a joint statement saying Washington and Yerevan have agreed to “upgrade the status of our bilateral dialogue to a Strategic Partnership Commission.”
Last month, Yerevan returned to Azerbaijan four frontier villages which it had captured in the 1990s.
The move, which Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan has defended as aimed at securing a definitive peace deal with Baku, sparked a wave of mass protests in Armenia.


Russian warships and aircraft enter the Caribbean for military exercises

Updated 12 June 2024
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Russian warships and aircraft enter the Caribbean for military exercises

  • Russia is a longtime ally of Venezuela and Cuba, and its warships and aircraft have periodically made forays into the Caribbean
  • This mission comes less than two weeks after President Joe Biden authorized Ukraine to use US-provided weapons to strike inside Russia to protect Kharkiv

CARACAS: A fleet of Russian warships and aircraft on Wednesday entered the Caribbean in what some see as a projection of strength as tensions grow over Western support for Ukraine.
The US military expects the exercises will involve a handful of Russian ships and support vessels, which may also stop in Venezuela.
Russia is a longtime ally of Venezuela and Cuba, and its warships and aircraft have periodically made forays into the Caribbean. But this mission comes less than two weeks after President Joe Biden authorized Ukraine to use US-provided weapons to strike inside Russia to protect Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, prompting President Vladimir Putin to suggest his military could respond with “asymmetrical steps” elsewhere in the world.
“Most of all, the warships are a reminder to Washington that it is unpleasant when an adversary meddles in your near abroad,” said Benjamin Gedan, director of the Latin America Program at the Washington-based Wilson Center think tank, referring to the Western involvement in Russia’s war in Ukraine. “It also reminds Russia’s friends in the region, including US antagonists Cuba and Venezuela, that Moscow is on their side.”
Although the fleet includes a nuclear-powered submarine, a senior US administration official told The Associated Press that the intelligence community has determined no vessel is carrying nuclear weapons. The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details that had not been announced publicly, said Russia’s deployments “pose no direct threat to the United States.”
US officials last week said the Russian ships were expected to remain in the region through the summer.
In December 2018, a pair of Russian nuclear-capable Tu-160 strategic bombers visited Venezuela in what the Russian military described as a training mission. Russia also sent Tu-160s and a missile cruiser to Venezuela in 2008 amid tensions with the US after Russia’s brief war with Georgia. A pair of Tu-160s also visited Venezuela in 2013.
Russian ships have occasionally docked in Havana since 2008, when a group of Russian vessels entered Cuban waters in what state media described as the first such visit in almost two decades. In 2015, a reconnaissance and communications ship arrived unannounced in Havana a day before the start of discussions between US and Cuban officials on the reopening of diplomatic relations.
A State Department spokesperson told the AP that Russia’s port calls in Cuba are “routine naval visits,” while acknowledging its military exercises “have ratcheted up because of US support to Ukraine and exercise activity in support of our NATO allies.”
Russian military and defense doctrine holds Latin America and the Caribbean in an important position, with the sphere seen as under US influence acting as a counterweight to Washington’s activities in Europe, said Ryan Berg, director of the Americas Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“While this is likely little more than provocation from Moscow, it sends a message about Russia’s ability to project power into the Western Hemisphere with the help of its allies, and it will certainly keep the US military on high alert while they are in theater,” Berg said.
The timing of this year’s mission may serve Russia’s purposes, but it is also raising questions of whether Venezuela’s government may use it as an opportunity to shore up President Nicolás Maduro’s bid for a third term in the July 28 election.
Venezuela’s chief opposition coalition is threatening the ruling party’s decadeslong grip on power, and engineering a crisis built on simmering tensions with Guyana is among the scenarios that analysts believe Maduro’s government could use to delay or cancel the vote.
“It is almost unthinkable that Maduro will risk actually losing power,” said Evan Ellis, Latin America research professor with the US Army War College.
“The most obvious alternative, consistent with Venezuelan military’s recent moves ... is to fabricate an international crisis that would provide an excuse for ‘postponing’ Venezuela’s election,” he continued. “The presence of Russian warships in the vicinity would greatly add to the escalation risk of any such crisis that Maduro would fabricate, which is possibly the point.”
Venezuelan voters approved a referendum in December to claim sovereignty over the Essequibo territory, which accounts for two-thirds of Guyana and lies near big offshore oil deposits. Venezuela argues it was stolen when the border was drawn more than a century ago.
Guyana is awaiting a decision regarding Venezuela’s claim from the International Court of Justice, but Maduro’s government does not recognize its authority.
The US supports Guyana in the ongoing dispute and assisted it with surveillance flights late last year when Venezuela had threatened to invade the country. Guyana’s government last month gave permission for the US military to fly two powerful F/A-18F Super Hornet jets over its capital in a demonstration of close cooperation.
Guyana’s Vice President Bharrat Jagdeo on June 6 acknowledged that the Russian fleet does not represent “a direct threat.”
“Nevertheless, we’re vigilant, and we’re keeping this issue firmly in our policy radar,” Jagdeo said in a press conference.