UK forum discusses ‘new reality’ of Afghanistan under Taliban - The Daily Guardian
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UK forum discusses ‘new reality’ of Afghanistan under Taliban

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As US and NATO forces concluded military withdrawal from Afghanistan after 20 years of presence in the country, a new reality now exists for the country, under the Taliban’s regime.

As fresh challenges arise for Afghanistan’s neighbours to step into the breach, London-based NGO The Democracy Forum hosted a virtual seminar on September 14 — titled ‘Afghanistan: Filling the Void’. This debate was moderated by former BBC Asia Correspondent Humphrey Hawksley. “What can we anticipate from the new regime?” wondered TDF President Lord Bruce in his opening address, given that the Taliban is embarking on a campaign to win hearts and minds and offer a credible alternative to the Ghani administration.

But, with the new cabinet in Kabul dominated by Taliban hardliners and appearing to opt for ‘diplomatic non-engagement’, Lord Bruce believed the international community would struggle to find meaningful leverage.

He also cast doubt over any immediate advantage Afghanistan’s neighbours might hope to gain from US withdrawal, saying that China and Pakistan have “a real problem with the Taliban”, as do Russia and Iran. Pakistan’s predicament, in particular, as a “supplicant of both China and the US, would surely determine its response to the change of regime in Kabul, with possible repercussions including renewed tension with India.”

Addressing the security situation and the Taliban’s ability to govern Afghanistan, Dr Weeda Mehran, a Lecturer at the University of Exeter’s Dept. of Politics, considered key challenges facing the new government.

The expert highlighted challenges like brain drain, and depreciating currency. Moreover, the current caretaker cabinet’s problematic lack of inclusivity, with no Hazaras, Shia or women representatives.

As many as 17 of the 33 cabinet members, including the new minister of the interior, are on UN and FBI terrorist lists, while the Taliban has released thousands of IS, al-Qaeda, TTP and other prisoners, which could cause huge security challenges in Afghanistan if they decide to confront the regime.

UN Consultant Dr Shahriar Tadjbakhsh, a Professor at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po, looked at how the region can engage with the Taliban, offering an analysis of the security concerns and interests of regional countries, and what regionalism can do.

She spoke of the September 8 meeting of foreign ministers from Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries to make a joint statement — a meeting tellingly convened by the foreign minister of Pakistan, the country with the most leverage in Afghanistan.

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‘I started at the age of 4’: Harini Nilakantan, Dance Content Creator

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Harini Nilakantan, Dance Content Creator, recently joined NewsX for a fun conversation as part of NewsX Influencer A-List. In the interview, she opens about her classical roots and how she combines modern temporary dance with classical journey. Read excerpts:

Speaking about her classical roots and how long has she been practicing, she said, “I started at the age of four under guru Shrimati Sujatha Raghuvendra, when we were living in Bangalore. We had to move to Pune around 2005, that’s when I switched gurus but I kept learning it.”

Talking about how Bharatnatyam can be performed as modern dance and the fusion of both, she said, “I have been thinking about it for a long time. It started when I first came to the States. I was about 14 and there was a talent show. we had to present something like singing, dancing whatever, just a jolly thing in high school. I noticed that all of them whenever they talked about dance, they only spoke about Ballet as classical. I was like no, when I say Indian classical dance, I don’t mean ballet/ I mean Bharatnatyam. To start with, it is a temple art form. It was done by Devraj. They said “Oh so, no one does it anymore.” I responded that that’s not true. We still do it. I thought I need to show them rather than just talk about it.”

When asked how she represents Indian culture properly and suitably, she responded, “I am studying museum and exhibition studies for my masters. This involves representation in, what you can call a museum. A colonial artefact in museums in the states, at least in western museums. When it comes to South Asian art and representations, usually either just statues or ancient artefacts that have been acquired or taken or bequeathed through a lot of colonial trade and does not really have any context to why it is here. For example, the Met museum had some pieces of jewellery from South Asia and South India specifically. It was like a Jalan Nagam, some nut, some bangles and you would see this everyday in Sokra jewellers back home in India in a dance performance or a bridal journey, but there’s no context to why this was there, even if they gave the context.”

She added, “It was really at a superficial and surface level and doesn’t really talk about the art history, where its come from. Like the tombstone, we call the text box in the museum at tombstone. It wasn’t really well-informed and the labelling I was just not happy with. The more I did research, the more I spent times in museums. When I saw South Asian art, why is it always either ancient art and it’s always the same type of ancient art statues temple statues Buddha, Ganesha’s, Nataraja’s nothing else. South Asia is not just India, South Asia is a lot of countries.”

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CHINA’S MISSILE TEST CAUSES CONCERN

The trajectory of an FOBS is very different to that of a ballistic missile, which follows a parabolic curve with its apogee in space. FOBS are more maneuverable and have a flatter trajectory, making them difficult to track.

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Revelations about an advanced Chinese missile test in August have startled many by the technological know-how displayed by China. In the test, a space rocket boosted a hypersonic glide vehicle, one capable of carrying a nuclear device, which circled the globe before impacting.

The startling news, presented in a story written by Demetri Sevasopolu and Kathrin Hille, was broken by the Financial Times on 17 October. The hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) was launched atop a Long March 2C rocket, and it flew through space in a low orbit before impacting about 24 miles from its target. China failed to divulge this 78th launch of a Long March 2C rocket, which occurred between other launches on 19 July and 24 August.

This underscores how China’s space program falls under the aegis of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This project is led by the China Academy of Aerospace Aerodynamics, a subdivision of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).

CASC’s achievement was certainly astounding. It was the first time China has conducted such a feat, and the pace at which Beijing is developing such technologies is stunning US officials.

This capability bears all the hallmarks of a fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS). Russia was the first country to develop one in the mid-1960s, before fielding multiple-warhead missiles made its FOBS redundant. What is a fractional orbital bombardment system? It comprises an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that launches a warhead into low Earth orbit. When the payload approaches its target, an onboard retro rocket detaches the payload and causes it to return to Earth.

The trajectory of an FOBS is very different to that of a ballistic missile, which follows a parabolic curve with its apogee in space. FOBS, on the other hand, are more maneuverable and have a flatter trajectory, making them more difficult to track and hit.

Frank Kendall, the US Air Force Secretary, dropped hints last month that China was developing such a weapon. He noted China was making huge advances, including the “potential for global strikes…from space”. He said about FOBS: “If you use that kind of an approach, you don’t have to use a traditional ICBM trajectory. It’s a way to avoid defenses and missile warning systems.”

Indeed, a fielded FOBS-type missile and HGV would bypass existing American ballistic missile defenses (BMD).

Its early-warning radars are in Alaska, California, Greenland, Massachusetts and the UK, pointing north, east and south. Most interceptor missiles are based in Alaska, ready to face an attack coming from the north via the North Pole.

The problem for American BMD is that Chinese FOBS can perform strikes from unexpected directions and vectors – via the South Pole, for example. Furthermore, they would have virtually no limit to their range, and would be highly challenging for US midcourse interceptors to counter since they are designed for parabolic ballistic trajectories that have a known range for each flight stage. Thus, an FOBS would be the most formidable target for a BMD network.

In other words, this Chinese innovation will completely upset the apple cart of American missile defense if it becomes operational. Derek J. Grossman, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, tweeted, “China may have just achieved its own Sputnik moment against the US military. Hard to exaggerate how much of a game-changer this space-based capability might be if perfected. US missile defenses could become negated or even obsolete.”

It must be stressed that this was a test, rather than deployment of a fully developed FOBS. The fact that China used a space rocket rather than an ICBM showed it is still some time away from developing a militarized launch-and-delivery package. Presumably, this is not China’s final form of the weapon, and the August launch was an opportunity to test combinations and capabilities. China refused to comment on the test, merely saying, “We don’t have a global strategy and plans of military operations like the US does. And we are not at all interested in having an arms race with other countries. In contrast, the US has in recent years been fabricating excuses like ‘the China threat’ to justify its arms expansion and development of hypersonic weapons. This has directly intensified arms race in this category and severely undermined global strategic stability.”

Beijing insisted its military policy is purely “defensive in nature”, but this does not jibe with development of an offensive FOBS system. Normally an FOBS would carry a nuclear-armed re-entry vehicle, but China went one step further by using a hypersonic glide vehicle. This hybrid combination possesses great kinetic energy and allows a long, maneuvering, high-speed flight as it closes on a target.

China is not the only country to develop hypersonic weapons, but there is alarm over China’s stiffening nuclear posture. For example, three massive fields of siloes for ICBMs are under construction deep in China’s interior, and more might be uncovered. These three fields could hold more than 250 ICBMs if each silo were filled, perhaps some with such FOBS.

China had actually toyed with the idea of an FOBS in the 1960s. A feasibility study led to proposals for a three-stage DF-6 missile that was supposed to be operational by 1974.

However, a chain of technical problems forced its cancellation in late 1973. China’s August test also raises questions over China’s commitments as a party to the Outer Space Treaty. One principle enshrined in the treaty is that “states shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner”. A Chinese nuclear warhead orbiting the earth would represent a violation.

Joshua Pollack, Editor of the Nonproliferation Review, and Senior Research Associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, observed: “What’s a bit puzzling about this account is the use of a glider as an FOBS payload.

A glider can also evade defenses, but putting one in orbit a la FOBS renders that advantage moot. An intercontinental glider is designed to travel through the atmosphere, ‘under-flying’ exo- atmospheric intercept systems like the USA’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense. There seems like no good reason to put one into space.”

However, Pollack discerned a possible reason. “…Here’s a hypothesis. The weapon reportedly tested by China in August may be multifunctional, like Russia’s Sarmat, capable of delivering weapons via different trajectories.” That would mean it can carry various warheads, including HGVs, and attack the USA, or anyone else, over either the North or South Pole.

Pollack noted, however, “That seems like an over-engineered weapon: why not just have one glider-type missile and one FOBS-type missile, rather than a ‘Swiss Army knife’ missile?”

He mused, “Perhaps the idea is to have the flexibility to evade defenses in an unpredictable manner. After all, the US has begun testing its sea-based Aegis defense system against ICBM-class threats. Boats move around, and the US is always upgrading the interceptors. An over-designed missile with both glider and FOBS capabilities could be the PLA’s way of staying ahead of diversifying, improving defense systems.”

Pollack referred to the Russian 200+-tonne Sarmat multiple-warhead (e.g. HGVs) ICBM that can attack over either the North or South Poles. President Vladimir Putin said, “Sarmat is a formidable missile and, owing to its characteristics, is untroubled by even the most advanced missile defense systems.” One wonders whether North Korea might be trying to develop such an FOBS too.

It should not be surprising that Beijing is seeking to circumvent American BMD systems, even though they are designed more to counter small-scale attacks and rogue nations, rather than a mass attack by someone like Beijing. Nonetheless, this Chinese revelation shows that the more defense the US builds, the more creative a hostile nation will be to circumvent it.

China is currently not bound by any arms control treaty, and it is extremely reluctant to engage with Washington DC on the topic. Unfortunately, the risk of miscalculation between the two protagonists is growing.

Drew Thompson, a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, warned, “The US and China are not talking about their respective perceptions, concepts and investment at official, authoritative senior levels, despite considerable strategic nuclear developments on both sides.”

Indeed, the last military-to-military strategic nuclear dialogue was in 2008, while the most recent State Department-Ministry of Foreign Affairs talks were held ten years ago. Thompson lamented, “The two governments are not talking today, and do not understand one another. The risk of misperception is high, particularly in the midst of a security dilemma. Beijing feels that diverging interests in other sectors – political, economic, technological, as well as diverging interests in Taiwan – preclude strategic talks, which require a better political environment.”

“There is no trust in the bilateral relationship,” Thompson noted, “and I see no pathway to building trust. No pathway to a future bilateral arms control agreement (forget trilateral), or even military confidence-building measures. Neither side is interested in going down that path right now. The senior-most officers in the US military have little to no experience engaging Chinese counterparts, and virtually no understanding of Chinese strategic thought or nuclear concepts. China’s strategic posture is changing, its concepts are changing, and I don’t think US leaders understand what is happening, or how US actions affect China’s calculations.”

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PAK, IRAN DISCUSS REGIONAL SECURITY SITUATION SINCE TALIBAN TAKEOVER OF AFGHANISTAN

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Pakistan and Iran reviewed the entire spectrum of bilateral relations and discussed the regional security situation since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

Iran Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Bagheri Kani led a delegation that held talks with a team led by Pakistani Foreign Minister Sohail Mahmood in Islamabad on Tuesday, Al Jazeera reported. “During the session, the two sides reviewed the entire spectrum of bilateral relations in all areas including political, economic, trade, connectivity, security, energy, education, and people-to-people exchanges,” said a Pakistani statement on the meeting.

Iran’s foreign ministry did not release a statement on the meeting, and the official news agency IRNA quoted from the Pakistani statement. The Pakistani statement said talks were also held on the regional situation, in particular developments in Afghanistan.

“The current situation [in Afghanistan] demanded positive engagement of the international community, urgent provision of humanitarian assistance to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people, and measures to help build a sustainable economy,” said the Pakistani statement.

The two countries affirmed that they would “coordinate closely at bilateral and regional” forums on Afghanistan, the statement said. Separately, the Iranian deputy foreign minister also met with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in Islamabad on Tuesday, Pakistan’s foreign office said. “[Qureshi] said that Afghanistan required immediate provision of humanitarian assistance and that the international community should fully support the Afghan people at this critical juncture,” a statement said.

“He stressed the importance of continued economic engagement with Afghanistan to avert economic collapse, which could lead to refugee influx and regional instability,” it added.

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CHINESE GENERAL, WHO COMMANDED WESTERN THEATRE ALONG INDIAN BORDER, DIES DUE TO GASTROINTESTINAL PROBLEMS

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Senior Chinese General Zhang Xudong who stepped down as head of Western Theatre Command (bordered with India) in June died aged 58. Citing military sources, Minnie Chan, wrote in South China Morning Post (SCMP) that Zhang, who was replaced as head of the country’s biggest military theatre, had been suffering from cancer and gastrointestinal problems. He was responsible for security along China’s border with India. He was replaced as head of the Western Theatre Command after just six months as part of a series of leadership changes.

His replacement, Xu Qiling, stepped down after just two months and is also said to be in poor health amid a spate of illnesses among commanders and troops posted in the region, reported SCMP.

Zhang had been suffering from cancer and problems with his gastrointestinal tract before his death on October 1, according to two military sources.

Zhang was promoted to full general in late December last year, replacing Zhao Zongqi as head of the country’s largest theatre command, an area that includes Xinjiang and Tibet, as well as China’s border with India in the Himalayas, said Minnie.

In June he stepped down without giving any reason and was replaced by General Xu Qiling, previously head of the Eastern Theatre Command.

“Zhang and Xu were rising stars in the military as President Xi Jinping seemed to think highly of them,” said a military source who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation. Zhang was given a role on the CMC’s Strategic Planning Committee, but it is not known what Xu’s current role is, reported SCMP.

However, one military source said there were broader concerns for the health and well-being of commanders and troops in the Western Theatre Command, adding that Xu was also suffering from health problems. “[Xu] also has some problems linked to his gastrointestinal tract,” the source said. “That’s why he left his post just two months after the appointment to the Western Theatre Command.”

Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology institute in Beijing, said many senior officers and commanders on the front line were suffering from gastrointestinal disease and other health problems, wrote Minnie.

“Working conditions in the low-oxygen, low-temperature, high-altitude Western Theatre Command are tough, with coronary heart disease becoming a common problem among officers and soldiers,” Zhou said. The Western Theatre Command was established as part of a major military overhaul five years ago, which divided the country into five theatre commands as part of the drive to modernise the military and make it combat-ready, reported SCMP.

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HUNDREDS OF DISPLACED FAMILIES ORDERED TO LEAVE KABUL BY THE TALIBAN

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Hundreds of displaced families who were living in Kabul amid countrywide fighting that preceded the Taliban takeover in August, have now been ordered to return to their homes.

Taliban-led government’s Deputy Minister of refugees and repatriation said, “This process began today and will continue, thus all (displaced) families in Kabul will go back to their provinces,” TOLOnews reported. Over 2,000 families have been displaced and are living in Kabul, the Taliban said.

The evacuation of displaced families is being done in cooperation with the donor organisations. Mihruddin, who is a resident of Baghlan, is struggling to receive aid as he is specially-abled.

“I haven’t received any aid. The little aid that is provided, the able-bodied take it,” he said, TOLOnews reported. Abdul Baseer, who is a resident of Kunduz said, “We have a demand to immediately move the people, the people have become sick, it has been over a month that we are here.”

Hundreds of displaced families in Kabul are living in tents or in open areas and the situation is dire as winter is approaching. The World Food Program (WFP) said that the country is facing severe economic conditions and also warned of an economic crisis in the upcoming weeks.

Mary-Ellen McGroarty, WFP representative and country director for Afghanistan said, “The economy is on the brink of collapse here in Afghanistan. There is a cash crisis. Banks had closed their doors, but they are now opened. You can only take out 200 dollars. Savings are inaccessible for the people that have a little bit of money in the bank. The Afghan currency has decreased significantly,” TOLOnews reported,

Various donor organisations and countries have provided humanitarian support to Afghanistan in form of aid, but still, a large number of people remain out of the reach of this aid and remain in need of support.

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Maria Ressa, Dmitry Muratov win 2021 Nobel Peace Prize

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The 2021 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia.

“Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov – awarded 2021 #NobelPeacePrize – are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions,” tweeted The Nobel Prize Committee. Committee chair, Berit Reiss-Andersen on Friday said the awards have been made for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

The 2021 peace prize laureates are representative of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.

Dmitry Muratov, a Russian journalist and the editor-in-chief of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize who has for decades defended freedom of speech in Russia under increasingly challenging conditions.

In 1993, he was one of the founders of the independent newspaper Novaja Gazeta. Maria Ressa, co-founder and CEO of the Philippines-based news website Rappler. She uses freedom of expression to expose abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism in her native country, the Philippines.

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