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Russia goes to the polls amid crackdown on political dissent

 

Millions of Russians are expected to head to the polls over a three-day period starting Friday in elections taking place against the backdrop of an unprecedented assault on democracy over the past year.

Voters will choose members of the State Duma — the lower house of the Russian Parliament — as well as several regional and municipal heads.

 

The ruling United Russia party, which backs President Vladimir Putin, is widely expected to win a majority. And country’s embattled opposition — which has backed tactical voting efforts to chip away at Putin’s monopoly on power — appears to have the slimmest of chances to reverse the country’s slide into authoritarian rule.

Two opposition activists who spoke to CNN allege that Russian authorities have gone to extreme lengths to prevent them from winning office, as part of a concerted attempt to quash electoral competition.

The head of Russia’s Central Election Commission, Ella Pamfilova, has dismissed criticism of the vote, saying the “entire political and social spectrum” of Russia is represented in the elections. But political observers say the vote leaves little room for genuine opposition to Putin and independent political activism is confined to an increasingly tight space.

The latest crackdown on political dissent was signaled when Kremlin critic and opposition politician Alexey Navalny was poisoned with the nerve agent Novichok in Siberia in August 2020. Navalny blames Russian security services for the attempt on his life, which the Russian government has repeatedly denied. The US and European Union largely agree and have sanctioned Russian officials for their involvement.

After undergoing lengthy treatment in Germany, a defiant Navalny returned to Moscow in January 2021 — and was promptly detained. Navalny’s outraged supporters, including his wife Yulia Navalnaya, took to the streets and nationwide protests followed. But the following month, Navalny was sentenced to prison after a Moscow court ruled that he had violated his parole conditions in a 2014 case.

His sentencing prompted more demonstrations, but while tensions were high, with thousands of detentions and accounts of heavy handedness by police, Russia didn’t descend into the kind of mass unrest seen following the contested election in neighboring Belarus in 2020.
Nonetheless, Russian authorities responded robustly by outlawing Navalny’s political movement in April — labeling it “extremist,” forcing it to shut down and rendering its members ineligible to run in the elections.
Many of Navalny’s allies fled the country as a result, while others who stayed have been subjected to ongoing court cases — accused of violating sanitary rules during the pandemic by calling for protests — and have faced restrictions on their freedoms.

‘They are afraid of new leaders’

One Navalny ally, Violetta Grudina, told CNN that authorities went to extreme lengths to prevent her from standing in the elections at a regional level.
Grudina, who used to run Navalny’s Murmansk regional office, alleges that she was forcibly hospitalized for coronavirus in July in what she believes was an attempt to make her miss the deadline to submit the relevant election documents. Despite finally submitting her application, the local electoral commission didn’t register her as a candidate because of her “extremist” association with Navalny, she said.
“Putin does not like any kind of competition and he destroys all his political competitors. They [the authorities] are afraid of new leaders,” Grudina said, as she vowed to continue her efforts to implement political change.
Grudina posted an official response to her appeal to stay on the ballot on her Facebook page. The document — which CNN was not able to verify independently — said there was no evidence of violation of elections law.
Kremlin ‘clearing out the electoral field’
On May 31, Andrei Pivovarov, the former executive direction of Open Russia — an opposition group linked to once-imprisoned Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky — was planning to go on vacation when law enforcement officers boarded his plane in St. Petersburg and arrested him. He has been in jail since then accused of leading an “undesirable organization,” and a Facebook post he shared in August 2020 has been cited as reason for opening a criminal case. Pivovarov answered in writing from a jail in Krasnodar to questions CNN sent to him.

“The main reason for my arrest was my plans to participate in elections to the State Duma,” he said in his written reply, adding that had concealed nothing and that he was ready to start campaigning when he was detained.

Pivovarov was not struck from the ballot. But his chances of winning from jail — as a candidate with the liberal Yabloko party — have clearly diminished.

“In these elections, the Kremlin has set itself the task of completely clearing out the electoral field … In the context of the falling ratings of United Russia and the growth of protest sentiments, strong independent candidates, due to their bright campaigns, could significantly affect the situation,” Pivovarov said.
“The Kremlin could not allow this on the eve of the 2024 elections and decided to completely clear up [the political ground] from all living things.”

Monitor: First big test for ‘Smart Voting’
Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst of Carnegie Moscow and founder of R.Politik, told CNN that the Duma elections were merely one factor contributing to the crackdown on dissent and that a referendum last summer which saw Putin’s constitutional terms essentially reset — paving the way from him to run again in 2024 — was a key turning point, and resulted in a “new regime.”

In her view, Russia’s siloviki — veterans of the security services who occupy key positions in the government — don’t care about the local elections. Rather, the harsh response to any civil disobedience is part of a “long term process” to maintain control in Russia, she said.
Pointing to low polling for Navalny across the country, Stanovaya said that with little resistance from society, authorities choose to go with the harshest approach they can.

But polling from state funded pollster VTsIOM also indicates that support for United Russia is low, at around 29%.
Stanislav Andreichuk is the co-chairman of Golos, an independent Russian vote monitor which was labeled a foreign agent last month. He believes this was done to make it more difficult for the group to monitor the elections, and says he believes authorities are concerned about flagging numbers and the possible influence of an initiative being encouraged by Navalny’s team, known as “Smart Voting.”

Smart Voting urges Russians to vote tactically in support of a candidate most capable of unseating an incumbent from United Russia. Navalny’s team published its list on Wednesday with very few opposition candidates standing; most of the candidates it recommends are members of the Communist Party.
“Authorities are not entirely sure what results they will get due to civil activities and the influence of Smart Voting. This election is the first big [national] test for Smart Voting,” Andreichuk said.
Andreichuk concedes that United Russia is likely to gain a majority, as expected, but says the question is how large that is.
Russia’s internet watchdog Roskomnadzor blocked access to the Smart Voting website due to its connection to an “extremist organization,” a reference to Navalny’s now outlawed political movement.
And Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov suggested that smart-voting efforts were, in fact, a campaign designed to cast doubt about the legitimacy of the Russian elections.
“We have a negative view of it,” he said in a conference call with reporters Friday. “We think they are provocation attempts that actually harm the voters.”
‘We can’t give up’

Anastasia Bryukhanova is one of the few opposition candidates who is running for a seat in the Duma elections, in a wealthy Moscow constituency. She has been backed in Navalny’s Smart Voting list and says she hopes it will increase her share of the vote by 7 to 12%.
Despite the uphill battle for the opposition, she thinks it’s important to keep going.

“I believe that we should always participate,” Bryukhanova told CNN. “We can’t give up.”

Despite the pressure, Bryukhanova feels optimistic about the future of Russian politics. “Someday this regime will end anyway, for whatever reason. And by this time, I would like us to have this liberal force of people with experience in campaigning, politics and speaking,” she said.

Pivovarov told CNN that he thinks Russia will continue to see a further “tightening of the screws.” But he, too, remains optimistic, he said, because he believes from the number of letters he receives from across the country that the “majority” want change.

“They cannot yet be called oppositionists, but the demand for change is growing, and the composition of the State Duma that will be offered to them will clearly not satisfy them,” he said.

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COVID-19: Italy makes vaccine passport compulsory – workers can be fined and suspended without pay

t’s hoped the move will lead to more Italians getting vaccinated and the government says it’s expecting an “enormous” jump in people getting jabbed.

Italy is to become the first European country to make a vaccine passport system compulsory for all workers.

Proof of vaccination, a negative test or recent recovery from infection must be provided or staff will be suspended without pay and face a fine.

The law set to apply to both public and private employees from 15 October after the Italian government approved the measures on Thursday.

“Nothing like this has been done in Europe… we are putting ourselves in the forefront internationally,” said public administration minister Renato Brunetta.

It’s hoped the move will lead to more people getting vaccinated and the minister said the government expected an “enormous” jump in people getting jabbed.

Some European Union countries have made it mandatory for health workers to get vaccinated, but none have made its so-called Green Pass a requirement for all employees.

It was originally intended to ease European travel, but Italy was one of a few countries that made it a requirement for entering venues such as indoor dining, gyms and museums.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi faced resistance from right-wing leader Matteo Salvini on extending the reach of the country’s COVID pass.

However, Mr Salvini’s party is split on the issue and the cabinet unanimously approved the change.

The main employers’ federations have also backed the move in the hope it will prevent any more lockdowns.

Unions said tests should be free for workers who don’t want to be vaccinated, but the government said they would be capped at 15 euros.

Italy’s COVID-19 death toll is the highest in Europe after the UK, with more than 130,000 deaths, and it was the first country on the continent to go into lockdown.

About 74% of people have had one vaccine dose and 68% are fully vaccinated.

In the UK, the government rowed back on plans to bring in a vaccine certificate system for access to large and crowded venues such as nightclubs, but has kept the option on the table as part of its “Plan B” for winter.

Care home workers will also need to be fully vaccinated by 11 November in order to be employed, while Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said the requirement is “highly likely” to be extended to all frontline NHS staff.

On Thursday, the French government said about 3,000 workers in hospitals, care homes and health centres have been suspended for failing to comply with mandatory COVID vaccination.

 

 

 

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North Korea fires two ballistic missiles into sea, South Korea military says

North Korea fired two ballistic missiles into the sea off its east coast on Wednesday, South Korea’s military has said, two days after the North claimed to have tested a new missile in its first weapons test in six months.

 

South Korea’s joint chiefs of staff (JCS) said the missiles flew from a central inland area towards the waters off the Korean Peninsula’s east coast and that further analysis with US officials was under way. “Our military maintains a full readiness posture in close cooperation with the US,” the JCS said.

 

Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga called the missile launch “outrageous”, and strongly condemned the action as a threat to peace and security of the region.

The latest launch came as the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, was in Seoul for meetings with the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, and other senior officials to discuss the stalled nuclear diplomacy with the North.

On Monday, North Korea said it had tested a newly developed cruise missile over the weekend. North Korea’s state media described the missile as a “strategic weapon of great significance”, implying they were developed with the intent to arm them with nuclear warheads.

UN atomic watchdog says North Korea appears to have restarted nuclear reactor. Pictures in the Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Monday showed a missile exiting one of five tubes on a launch vehicle in a ball of flame, and a missile in horizontal flight.

Such a weapon would represent a marked advance in North Korea’s weapons technology, analysts said, better able to avoid defence systems to deliver a warhead across the South or Japan – both of them US allies.

The missiles fired at the weekend travelled 1,500km (about 930 miles), on two-hour flight paths – including figure-of-eight patterns – above North Korea and its territorial waters to hit their targets, according to KCNA.

Many experts say the North Korean test suggested it was pushing to bolster its weapons arsenal amid a deadlock in nuclear diplomacy between Pyongyang and Washington.

Talks between the United States and North Korea have stalled since 2019, when the Americans rejected the North’s demand for major sanctions relief in exchange for dismantling an ageing nuclear facility.

Kim’s government has so far rejected the Biden administration’s overtures for dialogue, demanding that Washington abandon its “hostile” policies first.

The North’s resumption of testing activity is likely an attempt at pressuring the Biden administration over the diplomatic freeze after Kim failed to leverage his arsenal for economic benefits during the the presidency of Donald Trump.

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Will Afghan Taliban honor its promise to China to make clean break with ETIM?

“Where have the members of the ‘East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM)’ gone after leaving Afghanistan? How many of them are staying in the country?” These are the questions people are asking after the Afghan Taliban spokesperson said in an exclusive interview with the Global Times that many ETIM members had been told to leave Afghanistan. The topic has drawn broad attention in both China and overseas. The Chinese government has reiterated its concerns over the terrorist group as it has been posing a direct threat to China’s national security.

 

As one of the most dangerous and extremist terrorist groups that aim to split the Xinjiang region from China, the ETIM has been accountable for hundreds of terror attacks in China, especially in Northwest China’s Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. And its members are developing close ties with international terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, and they are working to solicit Uygur people or people of other ethnic groups from Xinjiang to join the “global jihad.”

 

Over the past few decades, ETIM militants have scattered across Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and other countries in the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia. Their presence has posed a threat to the global anti-terrorism work. Experts on security reached by the Global Times said that there might be several hundreds of ETIM members staying in Afghanistan right now and whether the Afghan Taliban will keep its promise to crack down on the ETIM remains uncertain.

 

Moreover, given the possibility that terrorist forces in the Middle East and Central Asia may be stimulated by the Afghan Taliban takeover and the US withdrawal, the pressure on Afghanistan’s neighboring countries has greatly increased. This calls for more cooperation from regional countries.

 

Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which also focuses on anti-terrorism, were scheduled to meet on Thursday in Tajikistan for a summit that would grapple with the region’s increasingly uncertain security situation.

 

Some ETIM members have whitewashed themselves as activists or set up NGOs with support from Western forces, attempting to cover up their ties with terrorist organizations including ISIS and Al Qaeda. Graphic: Feng Qingyin/GT
Some ETIM members have whitewashed themselves as activists or set up NGOs with support from Western forces, attempting to cover up their ties with terrorist organizations including ISIS and Al Qaeda. Graphic: Feng Qingyin/GT

 

Complicated relations

In an exclusive interview with the Global Times on September 9, the Afghan Taliban’s spokesperson Suhail Shaheen said that many ETIM members had left Afghanistan because the Taliban had categorically told them that Afghanistan can’t be used to launch attacks against other countries.

However, Shaheen did not mention the exact number of ETIM members that had left and number of those who are still in the country. Chinese security experts have warned that even a small number of them will still pose a threat to China’s security.

According to a report from the UN Security Council released in May 2020, the ETIM is located mainly in Afghan provinces of Badakhshan, Kunduz and Takhar. “Approximately 500 fighters of the group operate in the north and north-east of Afghanistan, primarily in Raghistan and Warduj districts, Badakhshan, with financing based in Raghistan.”

According to data from Pakistan, there may be around 200 to 300 ETIM members in Afghanistan currently. “Although they are paramilitary forces, as long as they exist, the unstable factor for terrorist activities exist,” Li Wei, an expert on national security and anti-terrorism at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, told the Global Times.

As they have been squeezed in Afghanistan, ETIM members are moving to neighboring countries including Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Shu Hongshui, a professor from the Northwest University of Political Science and Law, told the Global Times.

The Badakhshan province, which shares a border with Tajikistan, is the major place for the ETIM members in Afghanistan. Reuters reported in February 2018 that the US strikes in northern Badakhshan province destroyed Taliban training camps which supported militant operations by the ETIM at the border with China and Tajikistan.

Shu also noted that in June, around 200 ETIM militants fought with the Taliban in Khash and Jorm of Badakhsha. Currently, a small group of ETIM militants live in the Takhar province near the Baharak town.

In recent years, as the power of the Islamic State (IS) and other international terrorist organizations waned, the ETIM also changed its living areas overseas. The exact number of ETIM members is hard to know but “its core members are living in countries including Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey. More of them stay in Syria than in Afghanistan and have been keeping a low profile in recent years,” Zhang Jiadong, a professor with the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Global Times.

Zhang noted that Afghan Taliban spokesperson Shaheen’s interview with the Global Times revealed that the Afghan Taliban knows who the ETIM members are, where they are located, and that it has contacts with them.

In response to Shaheen’s remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian told a press conference on September 10 that China has expressed serious concerns over the ETIM to the Afghan Taliban on multiple occasions. The Afghan Taliban attaches importance to this and has made solemn pledges. We hope they will honor their words, make a clean break with the ETIM and other terrorist groups, and take effective measures to resolutely crack down on these terrorist organizations within its territory. In the meantime, they should step up coordination and cooperation with neighboring countries to forestall spillover effects, and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a hotbed, harbor or source of terrorist forces.

Many experts expressed their concerns and said that whether the Afghan Taliban will cut its ties with the ETIM remains to be seen, given their complicated relations.

Shu noted that the ETIM may have cooperation with the Afghan Taliban. Since its establishment, the ETIM has used Afghanistan as a training base. The Afghan Taliban used to offer support – money, vehicles and arms – to the ETIM leader Hasan Mahsum and members who joined the “global jihad.”

During its previous ruling of Afghanistan, among the Taliban militants were a group of around 320 ETIM members from China’s Xinjiang region. The Afghan Taliban also helped train the ETIM members, including on how to execute suicide bombs and make explosive devices. In return, the ETIM militants would fight with the Taliban when needed.

Shu also noted that in June, around 200 ETIM militants fought with the Taliban in Khash and Jorm of Badakhsha. In August, around 100 ETIM militants went into the Takhar province to cooperate with the Taliban and they now live in the area near the Baharak town.

Although the ETIM has cooperation with the Taliban, it’s unstable. Shu noted that there are a few differences between the two: The Afghan Taliban’s political goal is to build a country while the ETIM seeks regime changes; the Afghan Taliban has no relationship with the US, but the ETIM gets support from the US; and the Afghan Taliban hopes to get China’s support while the ETIM is anti-China.

After the Afghan Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, their divergence with the ETIM has widened but “it does not mean they are in the same boat. We need to make further observations of their complicated relations and interactions,” said Shu.

Will the Afghan Taliban fulfill its promise to China?

Zhang of Fudan University says given that ETIM has a limited sphere of influence in Afghanistan, it is hard to be eliminated. “Even if the Taliban wanted to make good on their promise, it’s hard since it’s unable for the Taliban to fully control the grass-roots militants and tribe leaders. We cannot rule out the possibility that the ETIM may find better soil to grow in the country ruled by Sharia law.”

Zhu Yongbiao, director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at Lanzhou University, thinks that ETIM members in Afghanistan still have some influence. It may not be easy for the Taliban to fully cut ties with all ETIM members in Afghanistan as it may hurt other military militants that used to support it.

However, despite the complicated relationship between the Afghan Taliban and the ETIM, one thing is clear: As the ETIM issue relates to China’s core interests, without proper handling, it may cast obstacles for future relations between China and the Afghan Taliban.

Besides inciting violence and organizing terror attacks in China’s Xinjiang, the ETIM, a terrorist organization on the UN security sanction list over ties with Al Qaeda, also planned attacks on the US Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, posing a threat to all. Graphic: Feng Qingyin/GT
Besides inciting violence and organizing terror attacks in China’s Xinjiang, the ETIM, a terrorist organization on the UN security sanction list over ties with Al Qaeda, also planned attacks on the US Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, posing a threat to all. Graphic: Feng Qingyin/GT

 

Terrorism in essence

Listed as a terrorist group by the UN Security Council on September 11, 2002, the ETIM, also known as “Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP),” is an organization that used violence to further its aim of setting up a so-called independent “East Turkistan” within China. Since its establishment, it has formed close ties with international terrorist organizations which pose a threat not only to China’s national security but also to the global anti-terrorism work.

According to a document released by the Information Office of China’s State Council in January 2002, from 1990 to 2001, domestic and overseas “East Turkistan” forces conducted at least 200 terror attacks in China, causing 162 deaths of residents of different ethnic groups, government officials and religious figures, and injured more than 440.

In recent years, the ETIM has set up bases outside China to train terrorists and has dispatched its members to China’s Xinjiang region to plot and execute terrorist acts. There is also evidence that ETIM members took steps to plan attacks against the interests of the US, including the United States Embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, according to the UN Security Council.

“The ETIM, by virtue of its nature and activities, is definitely a terrorist group. It has plotted and committed terrorist attacks in China and the neighboring countries,” Li Wei said, noting that when the IS was rampant, the number of people solicited by the ETIM to leave China to join the “global jihad” reached around 5,000.

Li Wei’s words echoed the information given by Li Jun, an official from China’s state counter-terrorism bureau in May 2015 at a forum with ASEAN countries. Li Jun noted that encouraged by online propaganda and arranged by the ETIM, some extremists illegally crossed the border from China’s Yunnan and Guangxi, entering countries in Southeast Asia with the help of local gangs, then flew to Turkey with fake identities under the help of the ETIM members and went into Syria using the Syria-Turkey border to join wars.

After two to three months’ training, they returned to Turkey, Li Jun noted. He said that according to the information China had gathered, around 300 Chinese extremists fight in Syria and most of them were affiliated to the ETIM branch and some joined other terrorist organizations.

The ETIM is one of the most dangerous terrorist organizations among the “East Turkistan” terrorist forces. In 2003, China identified a list of terrorist organizations, including the ETIM, the “East Turkistan Islamic Party,” “World Uyghur Youth Congress,” and “the East Turkistan Information Center.”

Moreover, many of the “East Turkistan” terrorist organizations have sought “transformation” since 2001, and the ETIM members whitewashed themselves as activists by setting up NGOs with support from the US and the West. They incite confrontations among ethnic groups in Xinjiang to stir up violence, smear China’s policies in Xinjiang as “suppressing ethnic groups” and cater to US’ geopolitics to hype “human rights” issues relating to Xinjiang, Li noted.

For example, the World Uyghur Congress (WUC), a US-based anti-China organization established in 2004, was transformed from the World Uyghur Youth Congress (WUYC), a terrorist organization categorized as such by Chinese authorities. Dolkun Isa, leader of the WUC, was also from the WUYC.

The ETIM militants are scattered across Iraq and Syria. Some of them have whitewashed their identities and become members of NGOs or “human rights” activists living in Western countries, including Germany and Turkey, as well as some Southeast Asian countries, Zhu told the Global Times.

No matter where these members are, they pose a threat to China’s national security. Although they are incapable of splitting the Xinjiang region from China, they may still incite domestic extremists to conduct terror attacks, Zhu said.

Given its damage, why is the ETIM terrorist organization so hard to eliminate? Many experts say that one major reason is the double standards adopted by the West and the US.

Li Wei noted that influenced by the changes of US polices toward China and the US’ double standards on anti-terrorism, the ETIM changed itself after 2001. After their overseas living space was temporarily squeezed by the US-led war on terror following the 9/11 attacks, ETIM members began to shift their focus on China to earn support from the West.

Due to their double standards, the US and the West deliberately misinterpret China’s anti-terrorism efforts. They accuse China of targeting a certain group of people.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the banner of anti-terrorism exposed its “fighting against terrorism” as just an excuse to promote US-style democracy and values – all of these gave hope to the ETIM terrorists as they believed that as long as they are targeting the Chinese government, they can earn support from the West, Li said.

No matter what the US does, it can’t change ETIM’s nature of terrorism or the practical threat the terrorist organization poses to China and the world.

Experts noted that the US withdrew from Afghanistan abruptly but left a messy situation in the country and increasing terrorist threats to regional countries. In order to avoid terrorism spillover from Afghanistan, regional countries, including China, need to work more closely.

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Afghanistan, its future, and why China matters

By John Simpson

 

The Khyber Pass is one of the world’s great invasion routes – forbidding, steep and treacherous, stretching from the Afghan border to the Valley of Peshawar, 20 miles (32 km) below, in Afghanistan.

For three thousand years, armies have struggled through these rocky defiles and camped in its valleys. You can still see the insignia of regiments from the British and British Indian armies, which continue to be carefully maintained, along the sides of the road, overlooked by the forts they once built and guarded. From the rocks above, Pashtun tribesmen armed with ancient jezails, or flintlock rifles, would snipe at passing soldiers with amazing accuracy.

Nowadays trucks laden with agricultural produce from Afghanistan labour round the sharp bends, sometimes with men and boys clinging to the side of them for the ride. On the pathways beside the road, old men trudge along, bent double under boxes of smuggled goods.

The Khyber Pass ends at Torkham – Afghanistan’s busiest border crossing with Pakistan.

 

Several years ago the Pakistani authorities completely revamped it. Now the crowds waiting there are better marshalled than they used to be, but there’s an atmosphere of fear and urgency as people try to escape from Afghanistan’s new rulers, the Taliban. You can see them from the Pakistani side, crowding together behind the wire in the midday heat, waving their documents and begging to be allowed through. For the most part, only people who have permission to leave Afghanistan on medical grounds can cross, together with their families.

 

The long line, cluttered with wheelchairs and suitcases, shuffles slowly forward through the various checkpoints.

On the road, where the actual border runs, a couple of Pakistani soldiers stand face to face with Taliban guards wearing makeshift uniforms.

 

The Taliban had no objection to talking to me. I asked one of them, a big man with a bushy beard covered by a face-mask, why the national green and red flag of Afghanistan wasn’t flying over the border post. It has been replaced by the white flag of the Taliban, inscribed with the Shahada, the basic statement of the Muslim faith: “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is His messenger.”

“Our country is now an Islamic Caliphate,” the border guard answered proudly, “and this is the correct flag for the whole country.”

There are occasional moments of tension, but for the most part the Pakistani and Taliban border guards face each other without hostility.

 

There is no question of fraternising, though. Many Afghans blame Pakistan for the Taliban’s success. They believe implicitly that the militants were founded and promoted by Pakistan, and especially by the ISI, its notorious spy agency. In fact Pakistan’s relations with the Taliban have not been nearly as close since Imran Khan became Pakistan’s prime minister in 2018, and its influence over the Taliban has been noticeably on the decline.

 

The power of China
To most governments, a relationship with the Taliban is distinctly embarrassing right now. The militant group has links with Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states, though not close ones.
The country which has the closest relationship with the Taliban is China, which doesn’t show the slightest sign of embarrassment at all. With so many ordinary Afghans trying to flee their country, its economy seems certain to crash, as it did when the Taliban were last in power, from 1996 to 2001. Therefore, Chinese economic support will be needed to keep Afghanistan afloat, and that will give Beijing a sizeable degree of control over Taliban policy.

 

We can also be pretty certain that the Taliban won’t challenge China on awkward issues like the treatment of its Muslim and Uighur population.
The Taliban take-over of power has been disastrous for the United States, Britain, Germany, France and other countries which have helped Afghanistan over the past 20 years. It has also brought India’s policy to a dead halt. India injected large amounts of money and expertise into Afghanistan, and had a good deal of influence with the governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani – both of whom wanted India as a counter-balance to Pakistan. That is all finished now.

 

Last time they were in control, the Taliban were treated as international pariahs. The economy got so bad that by 2001 there was no money to buy fuel. The few cars that were left were forced off the road. Most people couldn’t afford generators, and power cuts were widespread. The streets were dark and silent at night, and in the daytime most people preferred to stay indoors as much as they could, fearful of the gangs of Taliban vigilantes.

Will it be the same now?
The difference is China. If Beijing decides that it will gain sufficient economic and political advantage, it will save the Taliban from going under. If not, they’ll be on their own.

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Recent events in Afghanistan: Quick lessons for Nigeria

Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Zabi Karimi)
On Monday 16 August 2021, the sight on CNN of an American military aircraft C-17 taxing on the tarmac of Kabul Airport with several Afghans, some hanging, clinging, and running alongside for a possible boarding out of the country, is one that will linger for years to come.
Of course, examples abound of such historic and memorable sights on television; the killing of 12 US soldiers and dragging of their bodies through the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia in October 1993 and the toppling down of Saddam Hussein’s effigy in Firdos Square in Baghdad after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 drew global attention and remains indelible in our memory.
Not a few watchers of events in Afghanistan were surprised at the turn of events that led to the fall of Kabul, Afghanistan’s political capital back into the hands of the Taliban.
The blitzkrieg fashion with which the Taliban seized every important town around the capital was no doubt exacerbated by the actions and inactions of some of the global powers, particularly the US.
Observers would recall that in his remarks on the drawdown plans on 8 July 2021, President Joe Biden was emphatic that the US mission in Afghanistan will conclude on 31 August 2021.
On that occasion, Biden stated clearly that “we did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build, ….it is the right and responsibility of the Afghan people alone to decide their future and how they want to run their country.”
This statement was obviously not lost on the Taliban as events after that would reveal. By the second week of August, Taliban fighters have surrounded Kabul and claimed key towns of Aybak, Kunduz, Taluqan, Faizabad, Maidan, and Jalalabad, the fifth largest city in Afghanistan just about 130 km from the capital Kabul.
Suddenly, all the foreign intervention has come to nought, and truly Afghanistan has been left in the hands of not the legitimate government but the Taliban who have fought for nearly 20 years since it was ousted in 2001. As of now, there is great uncertainty in the country and no one is sure of the future.
One question that keeps begging for an answer is, what has been the impact of all the assistance offered to the Afghan government by the US and its NATO Allies for the past two decades?
From account, the US and NATO Allies including their partners have trained and equipped over 300,000 current serving members of the Afghan National Security Force, not including hundreds of thousands trained in the past two decades who are no longer serving.
Apart from this, the Afghan security forces have had the opportunity of training and operating with the US and its Allies providing them with intelligence and many of their military officers trained in some of the best military institutions in the US and UK.
There is no doubt that the Taliban takeover will have some global implications. Firstly, it will present some human rights problems going by their antecedents while it held sway from 1996-2001.
In the past, the Taliban has been known for carrying out public executions of its perceived opponents, denying education to women and persecuting minorities. There is also the issue of Afghanistan becoming a safe haven for extremists and a likely astronomical increase in the growth and trade of illicit and hard drugs.
Afghanistan currently stands as the third-largest producer of opium in the world. Worst of these fears is the likely domino effect on other extremist groups in Asia, the Middle East and Africa and the spillover of weapons through illegal means to countries with extremist networks such as Al Qaeda, ISIS and ISWAP.
What lessons, therefore, are there for Nigeria to learn putting into context the activities of ISWAP and the Boko Haram Terrorists in the North East and also the incessant calls for the government to seek international assistance in the counter-insurgency operations and other threats across the country?
Events in Afghanistan have zoomed home to all Nigerians that as a nation, our destiny is in our own hands. Now and then, Nigerians are quick to call on the government to seek international assistance anytime there is a little setback in the military’s campaign.
Of course, the government has never shied away from seeking assistance but the divergent point remains the extent of such assistance. Since 2015, there has been a renewed synergy among countries around the Lake Chad Basin.
The Armed Forces of Nigeria has continued to operate with forces from Chad, Niger and Cameroon, all Nigeria’s neighbours along the North East under the Multi-National Joint Task Force.
Outside the region, it continues to receive assistance from countries such as the US, UK, France, and Germany in areas of training, provision of equipment, logistics support and intelligence sharing.
The notion of having international forces coming to operate in Nigeria is an illusion that would be inimical to Nigeria’s national security and the events in Afghanistan should discourage it now and in future.
The collapse of the Afghan’s security forces like a pack of cards in the face of the advancing Taliban fighters reflects a serious lack of popular support. Many Afghans have always perceived the foreign-backed Afghan security forces as appendages of the invading western forces.
In spite of the foreign support in training, operational vehicles, equipment, logistics and intelligence assets, the foreign-backed Afghan security forces could still not sustain the legitimate government of Ashraf Ghani in place as they do not enjoy the popular support of the people.
Securing and gaining local support is a critical success factor in counter-insurgency operations such as we have in Nigeria’s North East. This factor underscores the efforts placed by the Armed Forces of Nigeria at winning the hearts and minds of the people.
It thus beholds the populace to reciprocate the efforts of the military by providing useful information to security forces and shun any assistance of any means to insurgents. The act of using social media to denigrate and disparage the military only serves to embolden the insurgents.
The Armed Forces of Nigeria deserve all the support it could get. It has shown courage and resilience and has never failed in its constitutional role of ensuring the territorial integrity of the country.
Since it fled Kabul in 2001, the Taliban regime’s use of vast mass of ungoverned areas across Afghanistan provided it with the enabling conditions to sustain its military activities. It continued to expand its control such that by July 2021, the Taliban controlled an estimated 54 per cent of Afghan districts.
Thankfully enough, the military has identified the importance of this given the recent decision of the Nigerian Army to conduct exercises in Falgore Forest, a game reserve located about 150 km from Kano city. Similar uninhabited areas exist in some parts of North West which provides safe haven for bandits.
We also have the wide space between Shaki and Nigeria’s border with Republic of Benin running up North through West of Kwara and Niger States, as well as several others within the states which could offer abode for bandits.
Leveraging the efforts of the military, the government may need to design a comprehensive strategy to integrate all the relevant MDAs responsible for border security and forest/game reserves, the military, police, and other security and paramilitary agencies for the sole task of ensuring presence and monitoring of all remote uninhabited spaces across Nigeria.
Johnson Olawumi, a retired officer of the Nigerian Army, writes from Abuja.
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