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MIDDLE EAST

To reach a peace deal, Taliban say Afghan president must go Kandahar Islamic State Nato Washington Pentagon

To reach a peace deal, Taliban say Afghan president must go Kandahar Islamic State Nato Washington Pentagon

The Taliban say they don’t want to monopolize power, but they insist there won’t be peace in Afghanistan until there is a new negotiated government in Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani is removed.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, who is also a member of the group’s negotiating team, laid out the insurgents’ stance on what should come next in a country on the precipice.

The Taliban have swiftly captured territory in recent weeks, seized strategic border crossings and are threatening a number of provincial capitals, as the last U.S. and NATO soldiers leave Afghanistan. This week, the top U.S. military officer, Gen. Mark Milley told a Pentagon press conference that the Taliban have “strategic momentum,” and he did not rule out a complete Taliban takeover. But he said it is not inevitable. “I don’t think the end game is yet written,” he said.

Memories of the Taliban’s last time in power some 20 years ago, when they enforced a harsh brand of Islam that denied girls an education and barred women from work, have stoked fears of their return among many. Afghans who can afford it are applying by the thousands for visas to leave Afghanistan, fearing a violent descent into chaos. The U.S.-NATO withdrawal is more than 95% complete and due to be finished by Aug. 31.

Shaheen said the Taliban will lay down their weapons when a negotiated government acceptable to all sides in the conflict is installed in Kabul and Ghani’s government is gone.

“I want to make it clear that we do not believe in the monopoly of power because any governments who (sought) to monopolize power in Afghanistan in the past, were not successful governments,” said Shaheen, apparently including the Taliban’s own five-year rule in that assessment. “So we do not want to repeat that same formula.”

But he was also uncompromising on the continued rule of Ghani, calling him a war monger and accusing him of using his Tuesday speech on the Islamic holy day of Eid-al-Adha to promise an offensive against the Taliban. Shaheen dismissed Ghani’s right to govern, resurrecting allegations of widespread fraud that surrounded Ghani’s 2019 election win. After that vote, both Ghani and his rival Abdullah Abdullah declared themselves president. After a compromise deal, Abdullah is now No. 2 in the government and heads the reconciliation council.

Ghani has often said he will remain in office until new elections can determine the next government. His critics — including ones outside the Taliban — accuse him of seeking only to keep power, causing splits among government supporters.

 

Last weekend, Abdullah headed a high-level delegation to the Qatari capital Doha for talks with Taliban leaders. It ended with promises of more talks, as well as greater attention to the protection of civilians and infrastructure.

Shaheen called the talks a good beginning. But he said the government’s repeated demands for a ceasefire while Ghani stayed in power were tantamount to demanding a Taliban surrender.

“They don’t want reconciliation, but they want surrendering,” he said.

Before any ceasefire, there must be an agreement on a new government “acceptable to us and to other Afghans,” he said. Then “there will be no war.”

Shaheen said under this new government, women will be allowed to work, go to school, and participate in politics, but will have to wear the hijab, or headscarf. He said women won’t be required to have a male relative with them to leave their home, and that Taliban commanders in newly occupied districts have orders that universities, schools and markets operate as before, including with the participation of women and girls.

However, there have been repeated reports from captured districts of Taliban imposing harsh restrictions on women, even setting fire to schools. One gruesome video that emerged appeared to show Taliban killing captured commandos in northern Afghanistan.

Shaheen said some Taliban commanders had ignored the leadership’s orders against repressive and drastic behavior and that several have been put before a Taliban military tribunal and punished, though he did provide specifics. He contended the video was fake, a splicing of separate footage.

Shaheen said there are no plans to make a military push on Kabul and that the Taliban have so far “restrained” themselves from taking provincial capitals. But he warned they could, given the weapons and equipment they have acquired in newly captured districts. He contended that the majority of the Taliban’s battlefield successes came through negotiations, not fighting.

“Those districts which have fallen to us and the military forces who have joined us … were through mediation of the people, through talks,” he said. “They (did not fall) through fighting … it would have been very hard for us to take 194 districts in just eight weeks.”

The Taliban control about half of Afghanistan’s 419 district centers, and while they have yet to capture any of the 34 provincial capitals, they are pressuring about half of them, Milley said. In recent days, the U.S. has carried out airstrikes in support of beleaguered Afghan government troops in the southern city of Kandahar, around which the Taliban have been amassing, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said Thursday.

The rapid fall of districts and the seemingly disheartened response by Afghan government forces have prompted U.S.-allied warlords to resurrect militias with a violent history. For many Afghans weary of more than four decades of war, that raises fears of a repeat of the brutal civil war in the early 1990s in which those same warlords battled for power.

“You know, no one no one wants a civil war, including me,” said Shaheen.

Shaheen also repeated Taliban promises aimed at reassuring Afghans who fear the group.

Washington has promised to relocate thousands of U.S. military interpreters. Shaheen said they had nothing to fear from the Taliban and denied threatening them. But, he added, if some want to take asylum in the West because Afghanistan’s economy is so poor, “that is up to them.”

He also denied that the Taliban have threatened journalists and Afghanistan’s nascent civil society, which has been targeted by dozens of killings over the past year. The Islamic State group has taken responsibility for some, but the Afghan government has blamed the Taliban for most of the killings while the Taliban in turn accuse the Afghan government of carrying out the killings to defame them. Rarely has the government made arrests into the killings or revealed the findings of its investigations.

Shaheen said journalists, including those working for Western media outlets, have nothing to fear from a government that includes the Taliban.

“We have not issued letters to journalists (threatening them), especially to those who are working for foreign media outlets. They can continue their work even in the future,” he said.

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Taliban take over radio station after capturing Afghan city

Taliban take over radio station after capturing Afghan city
Shops are damaged after fighting between Taliban and Afghan security forces in the city of Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, Aug. 8, 2021. (AP PHOTO)

The Taliban seized a radio station in Kandahar and took to the airwaves on Saturday (Aug 14) after capturing much of southern Afghanistan in a rapid offensive that has raised fears of a full takeover less than three weeks before the US is set to withdraw its last troops.

The Taliban have captured much of northern, western and southern Afghanistan in recent weeks, leaving the Western-backed government in control of a smattering of provinces in the center and east, as well as the capital, Kabul, and the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The withdrawal of foreign forces and the swift retreat of Afghanistan’s own troops – despite hundreds of billions of dollars in US aid over the years – has raised fears the Taliban could return to power or the country could be plunged into civil war.

The first Marines from a contingent of 3,000 arrived on Friday to help partially evacuate the US Embassy. The rest are set to arrive by Sunday, and their deployment has raised questions about whether the administration will meet its Aug 31 withdrawal deadline.

The Taliban released a video in which an unnamed insurgent announced the takeover of the city’s main radio station, which has been renamed the Voice of Sharia, or Islamic law. He said all employees were present and would broadcast news, political analysis and recitations of the Quran, the Islamic holy book. It appears the station will no longer play music.

It was not clear if the Taliban had purged the previous employees or allowed them to return to work. Most residents of Kandahar sport the traditional dress favoured by the Taliban. The man in the video congratulated the people of Kandahar on the Taliban’s victory.

The Taliban have operated mobile radio stations over the years, but have not operated a station inside a major city since they ruled the country from 1996-2001. At that time, they also ran a station called Voice of Sharia out of Kandahar, the birthplace of the militant group. Music was banned.

The US invaded shortly after the 9/11 attacks, which al-Qaida planned and carried out while being sheltered by Taliban. After rapidly ousting the Taliban, the US shifted toward nation-building, hoping to create a modern Afghan state after decades of war and unrest.

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden announced a timeline for the withdrawal of all US troops by the end of August, pledging to end America’s longest war. His predecessor, President Donald Trump, had reached an agreement with the Taliban to pave the way for a US pullout.

Biden’s announcement set the latest offensive in motion. The Taliban, who have long controlled large parts of the Afghan countryside, moved quickly to seize provincial capitals, border crossings and other key infrastructure.

Tens of thousands of Afghans have fled their homes, with many fearing a return to the Taliban’s oppressive rule. The group had previously governed Afghanistan under a harsh version of Islamic law in which women were largely confined to the home. AP

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Taliban near gates of Kabul as embassies prepare for evacuations

Taliban near gates of Kabul as embassies prepare for evacuations
Smoke rises after fighting between the Taliban and Afghan security personnel in the city of Kandahar, southwest of Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Sidiqullah Khan)

The Taliban seized more major cities on Friday (Aug 13) as they raced to take full control of Afghanistan and inched closer to Kabul, with the United States and Britain deploying thousands of troops to evacuate their citizens from the capital.

The evacuation orders came as the Taliban took control of Kandahar – the nation’s second-biggest city – in the insurgency’s heartland, leaving only Kabul and pockets of other territories in government hands.

The Taliban also captured the capital of Logar province, just 50km from Kabul, with a local lawmaker saying the insurgents were in complete control of Pul-e-Alam city.

Earlier Friday, officials and residents in Kandahar told AFP that government forces had withdrawn en masse to a military facility outside the southern city.

“Kandahar is completely conquered. The Mujahideen reached Martyrs’ Square,” a Taliban spokesman tweeted, referring to a city landmark.

Hours later, the Taliban said they had also taken control of Lashkar Gah, the capital of neighbouring Helmand province.

A security source confirmed the fall of the city, telling AFP that the Afghan military and government officials had evacuated Lashkar Gah after striking a local ceasefire deal with the militants.

The government has now effectively lost most of the country following an eight-day blitz into urban centres by the Taliban that has also stunned Kabul’s American backers.

The first wave of the offensive was launched in early May after the United States and its allies all but withdrew their forces from Afghanistan, with President Joe Biden determined to end two decades of war by September 11.

‘NOT ABANDONMENT’

Biden insists he does not regret his decision, but the speed and ease of the Taliban’s urban victories in recent days has been a surprise and forced new calculations.

Washington and London announced plans late Thursday to pull out their embassy staff and citizens from the capital.

“We are further reducing our civilian footprint in Kabul in light of the evolving security situation,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters, while noting the embassy would remain open.

“This is not abandonment. This is not an evacuation. This is not the wholesale withdrawal.”

The Pentagon said 3,000 US troops would be deployed to Kabul within the next 24 to 48 hours, underscoring they would not be used to launch attacks against the Taliban.

NATO was also set to hold an urgent meeting later on Friday about the deteriorating situation, diplomatic and official sources told AFP.

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will lead discussions with envoys from the 30 allies, with one source saying it would focus on evacuation planning.

TALIBAN FLAGS ACROSS KANDAHAR

The conflict has escalated dramatically since May, when US-led forces began the final stage of their troop withdrawal.

After months of taking what were considered less strategically important rural areas, the Taliban zeroed in on the cities.

The insurgents have taken over more than a dozen provincial capitals in the past week and encircled the biggest city in the north, the traditional anti-Taliban bastion of Mazar-i-Sharif, which is now one of the few holdouts remaining.

In Kandahar, resident Abdul Nafi told AFP the city was calm after the government forces pulled out early Friday.

“I came out this morning, I saw Taliban white flags in most squares of the city… I thought it might be the first day of Eid.”

HERAT STRONGMAN CAPTURED

And in Herat on Friday, the Taliban said they had captured the city’s long-time strongman Ismail Khan, who helped lead the defence of the provincial capital along with his militia fighters.

The warlord’s spokesman later confirmed Khan had been allowed to return to his residence following negotiations with the insurgents.

Pro-Taliban social media accounts have boasted of the vast spoils of war captured by the insurgents, posting photos of armoured vehicles, heavy weapons, and even a drone seized by their fighters at abandoned military bases.

After being under siege for weeks, government forces on Thursday pulled out of Herat – an ancient Silk Road city near the Iranian border – and retreated to a district army barracks.

On Thursday, the interior ministry also confirmed the fall of Ghazni, opening a corridor along the major highway to Kabul from the Taliban heartlands in the south.

As the rout unravelled, three days of meetings between key international players on Afghanistan ended in Qatar without significant progress Thursday.

In a joint statement, the international community, including the United States, Pakistan, the European Union, and China, said they would not recognise any government in Afghanistan “imposed through the use of military force”. AFP

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Taliban capture tenth Afghan provincial capital over weeklong blitz

Taliban capture tenth Afghan provincial capital over weeklong blitz
A member of the Afghan security forces stands guard in the Enjil district of Herat province on July 30, 2021. © Hoshang Hashimi, AFP

The Taliban captured a provincial capital near Kabul on Thursday, the tenth the insurgents have taken over a weeklong blitz across Afghanistan as the US and NATO prepare to withdraw entirely from the country after decades of war.

The militants raised their white flags imprinted with a famous Islamic proclamation of faith over the city of Ghazni, just 150 kilometres (93 miles) southwest of Kabul. Sporadic fighting continued at an intelligence base and an army installation outside the city, two local officials told The Associated Press (AP).

The Taliban published videos and images online showing them in Ghazni, the capital of Ghazni province.

Afghan security forces and the government have not responded to AP’s repeated requests for comment over the days of fighting. However, President Ashraf Ghani is trying to rally a counteroffensive relying on his country’s special forces, the militias of warlords and American airpower ahead of the US and NATO withdrawal at the end of the month.

While the capital of Kabul itself has not been directly threatened in the advance, the stunning speed of the offensive raises questions of how long the Afghan government can maintain control of the slivers of the country it has left. The government may eventually be forced to pull back to defend the capital and just a few other cities as thousands displaced by the fighting have fled to Kabul and now live in open fields and parks.

Ghazni provincial council member Amanullah Kamrani told AP that the two bases outside of the city remain held by government forces. Mohammad Arif Rahmani, a lawmaker from Ghazni, similarly said the city had collapsed to the insurgents.

The loss of Ghazni marks yet another strategic setback for Afghan government forces. Ghazni sits along the Kabul-Kandahar Highway, a major road that connects the Afghan capital to the country’s southern provinces. That could complicate resupply and movement for government forces, as well as squeeze the capital from the south.

Already, the Taliban’s weeklong blitz has seen the militants seize nine other provincial capitals around the country. Many are in the country’s northeast corner, pressuring Kabul from that direction as well.

Air strikes in Lashkar Gah

Fighting meanwhile raged in Lashkar Gah, one of Afghanistan’s largest cities in the Taliban heartland of Helmand province, where surrounded government forces hoped to hold onto that provincial capital.

A suicide car bombing Wednesday marked the latest wave to target the capital’s regional police headquarters. By Thursday, the Taliban had taken the building, with some police officers surrendering to the militants and others retreating to the nearby governor’s office that’s still held by government forces, said Nasima Niazi, a lawmaker from Helmand.

Niazi said she believed the Taliban attack killed and wounded security force members, but she had no casualty breakdown. Another suicide car bombing targeted the provincial prison, but the government still held it, she said. The Taliban’s other advances have seen the militants free hundreds of their members over the last week, bolstering their ranks while seizing US-supplied weapons and vehicles.

Niazi criticised ongoing air strikes targeting the area, saying civilians likely had been wounded and killed.

“The Taliban used civilian houses to protect themselves, and the government, without paying any attention to civilians, carried out air strikes,” she said.

With Afghan air power limited and in disarray, the US Air Force is believed to be carrying out some series of strikes to support Afghan forces. Aviation tracking data suggested US Air Force B-52 bombers, F-15 fighter jets, drones and other aircraft were involved in the fighting overnight across Afghanistan, according to Australia-based security firm The Cavell Group.

It’s unclear what casualties the US bombing campaign has caused. The US Air Force’s Central Command, based in Qatar, did not immediately respond to an AP request for comment Thursday.

The success of the Taliban offensive also calls into question whether the insurgents would ever rejoin long-stalled peace talks in Qatar aimed at moving Afghanistan toward an inclusive interim administration as the West has hoped. Instead, the Taliban could come to power by force – or the country could splinter into factional fighting like it did after the Soviet Union withdrew its forces in 1989.

In Doha, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has met with diplomats from China, Pakistan and Russia in an effort to jointly warn the Taliban they could again be considered international pariahs if they continue their offensive, State Department spokesman Ned Price said. Khalilzad also plans to meet with Afghan government and Taliban officials as the fighting goes on without a sign of it abating.

The multiple battle fronts have stretched the government’s special operations forces – while regular troops have often fled the battlefield – and the violence has pushed thousands of civilians to seek safety in the capital.

The latest US military intelligence assessment is that Kabul could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days and that if current trends hold, the Taliban could gain full control of the country within a couple of months. AP

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Taliban Controls 65% of Afghanistan as Rapid Advance Continues: E.U. Official

Taliban Controls 65% of Afghanistan as Rapid Advance Continues: E.U. Official
Taliban Soldiers. GETTY IMAGES

Taliban insurgents tightened their grip on captured Afghan territory on Tuesday as civilians hid in their homes, and a European Union official said the militants now control 65 per cent of the country after a string of gains as foreign forces pull out.

President Ashraf Ghani called on regional strongmen to support his government, while a U.N. official said advances made in human rights in the 20 years since the hardline Islamists were ousted from power were in danger of being erased.

In the capital Kabul, Ghani’s aides said he was seeking help from regional militias he has squabbled with over the years to rally to the defense of his government. He had also appealed to civilians to defend Afghanistan’s “democratic fabric.”

Click to play video: 'White House says Taliban won’t gain international legitimacy following capture of Afghanistan’s provincial capital' White House says Taliban won’t gain international legitimacy following capture of Afghanistan’s provincial capital

White House says Taliban won’t gain international legitimacy following capture of Afghanistan’s provincial capital

In the town of Aibak, capital of Samangan province on the main road between the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, Taliban fighters were consolidating their control, moving into government buildings, residents said.

In the town of Aibak, capital of Samangan province on the main road between the northern town of Mazar-i-Sharif and Kabul, Taliban fighters were consolidating their control, moving into government buildings, residents said.

Most government security forces appeared to have withdrawn.

“The only way is self-imposed house arrest or to find a way to leave for Kabul,” said Sher Mohamed Abbas, a provincial tax officer, when asked about living conditions in Aibak.

“But then even Kabul is not a safe option anymore,” said Abbas, the sole bread winner for a family of nine.

Abbas said the Taliban had arrived at his office and told workers to go home. He and other residents said they had neither seen nor heard fighting on Tuesday.

For years, the north was the most peaceful part of the country with an only minimal Taliban presence.

The militants’ strategy appears to be to take the north, as well as the main border crossings in the north, west and south, and then close in on Kabul.

The Taliban, battling to defeat the U.S-backed government and reimpose strict Islamic law, swept into Aibak on Monday meeting little resistance.

Taliban forces now control 65 per cent of Afghan territory, are threatening to take 11 provincial capitals and are trying to deprive Kabul of its traditional support from national forces in the north, a senior EU official said on Tuesday.

The government has withdrawn forces from hard-to-defend rural districts to focus on holding major population centers, while officials have appealed for pressure on neighboring Pakistan to stop Taliban reinforcements and supplies flowing over the porous border. Pakistan denies backing the Taliban.

The United States has been carrying out air strikes in support of government troops but said it was up to Afghan forces to defend their country. “It’s their struggle,” John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesperson, told reporters on Monday.

‘DEEPLY DISTURBING REPORTS’

Taliban and government officials have confirmed that the Islamists have overrun six provincial capitals in recent days in the north, west and south.

Security forces in Pul-e-Khumri, capital of Baghlan province, to the southeast of Aibak, were surrounded as the Taliban closed in on the town at a main junction on the road to Kabul, a security official said.

Gulam Bahauddin Jailani, head of the national disaster authority, told Reuters there was fighting in 25 of the 34 provinces and 60,000 families had been displaced over the past two months, with most seeking refuge in Kabul.

Click to play video: 'Mendicino says feds will ‘fully support’ Afghan refugees for one year' Mendicino says feds will ‘fully support’ Afghan refugees for one year

About 400,000 Afghans have been displaced in recent months and there has been an increase in numbers of people fleeing to Iran over the past 10 days, the EU official said.

Six EU member states warned the bloc’s executive against halting deportations of rejected Afghan asylum seekers arriving in Europe despite major Taliban advances, fearing a possible replay of a 2015-16 crisis over the chaotic arrival of more than one million migrants, mainly from the Middle East.

A resident of Farah, the capital and largest city of Farah province in western Afghanistan near the border with Iran, said the Taliban had taken the governor’s compound and there was heavy fighting between Taliban and government forces.

Click to play video: 'UN warns Afghanistan will see ‘unprecedented’ civilian casualties as NATO departs' UN warns Afghanistan will see ‘unprecedented’ civilian casualties as NATO departs

UN warns Afghanistan will see ‘unprecedented’ civilian casualties as NATO departs – Jul 26, 2021

Civilians said the Taliban had captured all key government buildings in the city.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said reports of violations that could amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity were emerging, including “deeply disturbing reports” of the summary execution of surrendering government troops.

“People rightly fear that a seizure of power by the Taliban will erase the human rights gains of the past two decades,” she said.

The Taliban, ousted in the weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, appeared to be in a position to advance from different directions on Mazar-i-Sharif. Its fall would deal a devastating blow to Ghani’s government.

Atta Mohammad Noor, a northern militia commander, vowed to fight to the end, saying there would be “resistance until the last drop of my blood.”

“I prefer dying in dignity than dying in despair,” he said on Twitter.

India sent a flight to northern Afghanistan to take its citizens home, officials said, asking Indians to leave. The United States and Britain have already advised their citizens to leave Afghanistan.

The United States will complete the withdrawal of its forces at the end of this month under a deal with the Taliban, which included the withdrawal of foreign forces in exchange for Taliban promises to prevent Afghanistan being used for international terrorism.

The Taliban promised not to attack foreign forces as they withdraw but did not agree to a ceasefire with the government.

(Reporting by Afganistan bureau, additional reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Sabine Siebold and John Chalmers in Brussels; Editing by Nick Macfie and Mark Heinrich)

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Resurgent Taliban take provincial capital, kill Afghan govt spokesman

Resurgent Taliban take provincial capital, kill Afghan govt spokesman
Afghan security forces keep watch at a checkpoint in the Guzara district of Herat province, Afghanistan July 9, 2021. REUTERS/Jalil Ahmad/File Photo

Taliban insurgents captured an Afghan provincial capital and killed the government’s senior media officer in Kabul on Friday amid a deteriorating security situation as U.S. and other foreign troops withdraw.

A police spokesman in southern Nimroz province said the capital Zaranj had fallen to the hardline Islamists because of a lack of reinforcements from the Western-backed government.

A Taliban spokesman said on Twitter that the insurgents had “completely liberated” the province and had taken control of the governor’s house, police headquarters and other official buildings.

Later, a top Afghan general leading the counter-offensive in the south of the country said Afghan air force airstrikes had killed the Taliban’s top official for Nimroz along with 14 of his men. Reuters was unable to immediately verify the claim by General Sami Sadat, commander of the 215 Maiwand Afghan Army Corps, on Twitter.

Fighting to reimpose a strict Islamic regime 20 years after they were ousted from power by U.S.-led forces, the Taliban have intensified their campaign to defeat the government.

The insurgents have taken dozens of districts and border crossings in recent months and put pressure on several provincial capitals, including Herat in the west and Kandahar in the south, as foreign forces pull out.

In New York, U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons questioned the Taliban’s commitment to a political settlement, telling the U.N. Security Council the war had entered a deadlier and more destructive phase “reminiscent of Syria, recently, or Sarajevo, in the not-so-distant past”.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the prospect of Afghanistan slipping into full-scale and protracted civil war “is a stark reality”.

The insurgents have taken dozens of districts and border crossings in recent months and put pressure on several provincial capitals, including Herat in the west and Kandahar in the south, as foreign forces pull out.

In New York, U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan Deborah Lyons questioned the Taliban’s commitment to a political settlement, telling the U.N. Security Council the war had entered a deadlier and more destructive phase “reminiscent of Syria, recently, or Sarajevo, in the not-so-distant past”.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the prospect of Afghanistan slipping into full-scale and protracted civil war “is a stark reality”.

Senior U.S. diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis urged the Taliban to halt their offensive, pursue a political settlement and protect Afghanistan’s infrastructure and people.

Zaranj was the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban since the United States reached a deal with it in February 2020 for a U.S. troop pullout.

A local source said the Taliban had seized the governor’s office, the police headquarters and an encampment near the Iranian border.

Taliban sources said the group was celebrating and Zaranj’s fall would lift the morale of their fighters. A Taliban commander, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Zaranj has strategic importance as it is on the border with Iran.

In Kabul, Taliban attackers killed Dawa Khan Menapal, head of the Government Media and Information Centre, in the latest in a series of killings aimed at weakening President Ashraf Ghani’s democratically elected government.

‘AN AFFRONT’

U.S. Charge d’Affaires Ross Wilson said he was saddened and disgusted by the killing of Menapal, whom he said provided truthful information to all Afghans.

“These murders are an affront to Afghans’ human rights & freedom of speech,” he said on Twitter.

The White House said the Taliban’s actions would not win the group the international legitimacy it seeks.

“They do not have to stay on this trajectory. They can choose to devote the same energy to the peace process as they are to their military campaign,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington.

Scores of social activists, journalists, bureaucrats, judges and public figures fighting to sustain a liberal Islamic administration have been killed by Taliban fighters in a bid to silence dissent.

An official in the federal interior ministry said “savage terrorists” killed Menapal during Friday prayers.

“He (Menapal) was a young man who stood like a mountain in the face of enemy propaganda, and who was always a major supporter of the (Afghan) regime,” said Mirwais Stanikzai, an Interior Ministry spokesperson.

Elsewhere Taliban fighters stepped up clashes with Afghan forces and attacked militias allied with the government, officials said, stretching their dominance of border towns.

At least 10 Afghan soldiers and a commander of armed members belonging to the Abdul Rashid Dostum militia group in the northern province of Jowzjan were killed.

The deputy governor of Jowzjan, Abdul Qader Malia, said the Taliban attacked the outskirts of provincial capital Sheberghan this week.

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Leaderless Lebanon headed down a road to ruin

Leaderless Lebanon headed down a road to ruin

For the past two years, while Lebanon has been dealing with a deep economic crisis, a deadly pandemic and a ruinous explosion at Beirut port, its rulers have failed to solve their ongoing power struggle and, if anything, have made matters worse.

In October 2019, thousands of protesters swept the country demanding an end to sectarian politics, incessant backdoor dealing and corruption. None of the demands have been met so far. The failures cast doubt on the assumption behind foreign suggestions around how to solve Lebanon’s multiple crises and receive foreign aid.

Crucially, those who have been in power for the past several years cannot make the necessary changes. As a recent report by the International Crisis Group succinctly put it: “Lebanon’s political leaders are fiddling while the country smolders, threatening a multi-level crisis from which it will be increasingly difficult to recover.”

Even outside powers who provide humanitarian aid have run into a dilemma. Although they don’t want Lebanon to become a failed state and sink into social unrest, neither do they want to rescue a political class whose track record reflects its inadequacy.

For the past several months, the country’s President Michel Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri have been squabbling over the formation of a new cabinet.

In the meantime, the few efforts aimed at showing that Lebanon is turning a new page have been sabotaged. The investigation into last year’s blast at Beirut’s port – that killed 200 people and damaged large parts of the capital – is a case in point.

Caretaker Interior Minister Mohamed Fehmi rejected the new lead investigator’s request to lift immunity and allow questioning of a senior security official, Major General Abbas Ibrahim.

Victims and survivors of the August 4, 2020, tragedy called Fehmi’s action obstruction. Last Tuesday, demonstrators held hours-long protests outside the minister’s residence.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun delivers a televised speech at the presidential palace in Baabda on February 26, 2020. Photo: AFP / Dalati and Nohra

No one held to account

Adding insult to injury, the following day Aoun insisted the investigation is ongoing and that “there will be no political cover for anyone who was negligent or guilty.” But he stopped short of ordering Ibrahim to be questioned.

Amnesty International complained and urged Lebanese authorities to lift immunity from criminal prosecution from all officials. The organization pointed out that impartial investigations are essential not only for the port case, but for the future of a country with a history of “entrenched impunity” too.

“Lebanese authorities have failed to hold anyone to account for the August 2020 blast,” Amnesty said. “They have also, in effect, been obstructing the course of justice, by claiming immunity rights for high-level officials.”

The Fehmi scandal was followed by the removal of an investigative judge, Fadi Sawan, who was also looking into the port blast. Sawan was fired by the Court of Cassation after he brought criminal charges against the acting President of the Cabinet and other former ministers.

His removal happened after two ministers, who happen to face criminal charges themselves, filed a complaint with the General Prosecutor requesting Sawan’s removal from the case.

Unsurprisingly, an end to Lebanon’s chronic corruption has been one of the protesters’ persistent demands. Nonetheless, on April 15, Lebanon’s Prosecutor General removed Ghada Aoun, a public prosecutor, from directing investigations into high-profile corruption cases.

Prosecutor Aoun – not related to the president – had charged the governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank, Riad Salameh, with dereliction of duty and breach of trust, and accused former Prime Minister Najib Mikati of “illicit gains” through subsidized housing loans. She had also been issuing arrest warrants in other alleged crimes.

 In the meantime, Hariri has been at odds with Aoun over the size of a new cabinet and distribution of ministries. On Wednesday, Hariri proposed a 24-minister government which – according to local media – provided Aoun eight ministers of his choosing, including the defense and foreign ministries.

Saad Hariri, who was charged with forming the government in October, holds a press conference after meeting with President Michel Aoun to present his cabinet list consisting of 24 technocrats at Baabda Palace in Beirut on July 14, 2021. Photo: AFP / Lebanese Presidency / Anadolu Agency

Hezbollah’s key role

This would give Aoun a chance to nominate part of the cabinet with the approval of one of his allies, Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and party.

In an interview with Al-Jadeed television, Hariri claimed he selected his candidates based on their expertise and ability to reform the economy.

Hariri, however, asserted the opposite: “I resigned in 2019 because I wanted a government of experts, and if we formed Michel Aoun’s government then the country won’t be saved.”

Hariri also said Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed group, dominates Aoun and – by extension –Lebanese politics. “The main problem of this country is Michel Aoun, who is allied with Hezbollah, who in turn protects him. This is the equation in the country and if someone can’t see it then they’re blind,” he said.

Aoun accused Hariri of failing to keep faith with the country’s sectarian-based, power-sharing system. In return, Hariri accused Aoun of wanting too large a share of cabinet seats.

Last week, Hariri gave up efforts to form a new government after a months-long deadlock with President Aoun. “I withdrew from forming a government,” Hariri told reporters following a 20-minute meeting with President Aoun at Baabda Palace. “May God save this country.”

The way things are going, saving Lebanon may indeed take divine intervention. After 21 months of dithering, it’s clear Lebanon’s traditional ruling class is incapable of making fundamental changes.

This was the flaw in last year’s anti-crisis initiative formulated by French President Emmanuel Macron. It relied on a host of failed politicians to fix what ails Lebanon – ending wasteful sectarian politics, ensuring government accountability and weeding out corruption.

To that end, pressure was applied by France, Saudi Arabia and the United States – all of whom have declined to provide fundamental aid until reforms are forthcoming. For its part, the European Union threatened to sanction Lebanese officials who prevent government reforms.

However, sanctioning officialdom leaves ordinary Lebanese in the lurch. Lebanon is suffering an economic depression qualified by the World Bank as one of the most severe in modern history.

A volunteer gives out food handouts to people in need at the Lebanese Grassroots organization in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district, which was hard hit by last year’s port explosion, on March 24, 2021. Photo: AFP / Anwar Amro

Economy in freefall

In fact, according to the latest World Bank’s Lebanon Economic Monitor released in June, Beirut’s economic and financial crisis is likely to rank in the top 10 – possibly the top three – of the world’s most severe crises since the mid-19th century.

The country’s currency has lost more than 90% of its value in less than two years, leading to spiraling poverty and crippling shortages of nearly everything – notably fuel and food.

Images and videos circulating on social media paint a dire picture. Taxi drivers sleep at gas stations, desperate to refuel their cabs. More than three-quarters of women and girls in Lebanon can’t afford menstrual products due to the sharp rise in prices.

Individuals beg for medicines online. “The first case needs 10 boxes,” reads one message. “While the second needs eight. (Written) Prescription available upon request.”

Just how far can Lebanon fall? Following Hariri’s resignation, the Lebanese pound hit a new all-time-low, exceeding 21,000 to the US dollar. The economy contracted by more than 20% in 2020. More than 55% of the population lives below the poverty line.

Breast-beating from abroad has followed the usual pattern. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken described Hariri’s resignation as a “disappointing development … Leaders in Beirut must urgently put aside partisan differences and form a government that serves the Lebanese people.”

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was harsher. “Lebanon is witnessing its self-destruction and the political class is to blame,” he said. “Lebanon’s rulers appear unable to find a solution to the crisis they created.”

What solution might work? The most plausible yet improvisational solution would be for foreign donors to provide strictly humanitarian aid while awaiting next year’s parliamentary elections. It would at least give the Lebanese people, fed up with their condition, a chance to organize and perhaps elect new leadership.

It may be a narrow window through which to effect wide change, but it is the only window available.

Antonia Williams is a Rome-based journalist and researcher for the Italian Institute for International Studies, which first published this article. She previously worked in Beirut as regional editor for the Daily Star newspaper. In addition to Asia Times, her articles have appeared in the Washington Post, Open Democracy, Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and Beirut Today.

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