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Book Review: Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan by Ashley Jackson

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 03/05/2022 - 8:52pm in

In Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan, Ashley Jackson provides fascinating insight into the relationship civilians have with both insurgencies and governments, focusing particularly on the experiences of civilians in Afghanistan. This engaging book makes a vital contribution to reimagining civilian-insurgent relations, writes Christopher Featherstone.

Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan. Ashley Jackson. Hurst. 2021. 

Negotiating Survival book coverIn this timely book, Ashley Jackson provides fascinating insight into the relations that civilians have with insurgents and governments, using the conflict in Afghanistan to demonstrate the negotiations that characterise these relationships. Jackson gives the reader an in-depth overview of the experiences of civilians in Afghanistan, taking a bottom-up approach to paint a rich picture of those navigating life in the conflict between the Taliban insurgents and the Afghan government. Written before the chaotic scenes of the 2021 US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Jackson provides timely insights into the relations between the Taliban and Afghan civilians. Whilst the context has changed and the Taliban are no longer an insurgency, understanding civilian-Taliban negotiations may offer crucial understandings of the Taliban’s future conduct.

Negotiating Survival is a useful introduction to civilian-insurgent relations, explaining concepts and its theoretical framework clearly. The book is both accessible to the general reader and of equal use to academics. After an initial introduction to the situation for civilians in the conflict in Afghanistan, the purpose and objectives of the book’s research are laid out for the reader.

The reader is led through the reasoning behind the research methodology and data collection methods. Jackson conducted 418 interviews with civilians and members of the Taliban in fifteen of the 34 provinces of Afghanistan (11). Access was, unsurprisingly, a huge challenge for Jackson’s research. Jackson points out that the conflict in Afghanistan is one of the most studied conflicts in history, and yet much of this research is not based on fieldwork. In critiquing this over-reliance on at-a-distance analysis, Jackson explains her decision to pursue the extensive programme of interviews. The argument here is well-informed, with the research interviews throughout the book giving rich insight into the experiences of Afghan civilians.

Person on bicycle, Kabul, Afghanistan

Image Credit: Photo by Mohammad Husaini on Unsplash

Jackson highlights the research puzzle of her work. Despite most books on insurgency agreeing that insurgent-civilian relations are crucial to the insurgency’s success, ‘civilians are rarely constructed as full-fledged or meaningful actors within a conflict. Combatants are actors, non-combatants are acted upon.’ As Jackson highlights in striking detail with an anecdote about one of her first interviews for the research, civilians in Afghanistan were not allowed the option of remaining neutral in the conflict nor of avoiding engagement with the Taliban.

In response to this research puzzle, Jackson advances a theory of insurgent-civilian relations, arguing that the relationship is interdependent. Civilian interests and leverage combine, and from these civilians draw their options and strategies for interaction and negotiation with insurgents. Violence and coercion, persuasion, incentives and social capital all influence the options and strategies that are available to civilians. Similarly, insurgents combine their interests and leverage to determine their options and strategies in their negotiations with the civilian population. Jackson’s argument is persuasively made. The agency of civilians in these interactions, often disregarded in the literature, is convincingly laid out with examples from the Afghanistan case study but also from other conflicts.

Building on this, Jackson outlines the spectrum of civilian options for negotiations with insurgents, which range from joining the opposition to the insurgency, fleeing, negotiating, complying or joining the insurgency. Insurgents have a less complex range of options available to them for their interactions with civilians, ranging from rejecting civilian demands, to negotiating or accepting civilian demands.

In the opening pages of the book, Jackson outlines the experience of an Afghan villager, Hajj Aman, recounting his negotiations with the Taliban. The villager dropped his negotiations on an NGO hydropower project to avoid accusations of aligning with the Taliban’s enemies, demonstrating a move from negotiating to complying in Jackson’s framework. Yet on the issue of reopening schools in the area, Hajj Aman continued his negotiations, even after his request was initially rejected. He pursued this goal, negotiating further and persuading the Taliban of the change in circumstances since his last request, even going so far as to level a threat in negotiations with his Taliban interlocutors. Through this, he managed to achieve his aim of reopening the schools in his local district.

The central chapters of the book provide further fascinating insight into life for civilians in the heart of the conflict in Afghanistan. The empirical accounts of the experiences of individuals interviewed for the research give this book the personal touch, bringing the argument to life and demonstrating the real-world implications. The spectrum of civilian options for interaction with insurgents and insurgent options for interaction with civilians is developed and explained in a rich narrative drawing on the extensive interview data.

This book makes a timely argument at a particularly opportune moment. As Jackson outlines in the conclusion, when she first started to work in Afghanistan, she was told how the security issues with the Taliban could unfold. In an interesting demonstration of how the context of her research developed, Jackson recounts her disbelief at an analyst’s security briefing on the position of the Taliban in 2009. The analyst informed the meeting that the Taliban had learned lessons from the Mujahadeen, and that the Taliban’s expansion of their areas of control would not occur overnight, but that they would eventually come back. As Jackson outlines, ‘few understood […] how things could go so badly wrong’, but part of the answer, for Jackson, lies in the Taliban’s relations with civilians.

Jackson certainly provides a thought-provoking and theoretically developed explanation of civilian-insurgent relations in Afghanistan. It particularly questions established understandings of civilian agency in negotiations with insurgents in the literature in an informed and articulate way. The book is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand the situation in Afghanistan and the relationship between civilians and insurgents during conflict.

Negotiating Survival is a fascinating book, engaging the reader from the opening pages and bringing to life the experiences of Afghan civilians in the longest conflict in which the US has ever been involved. The general reader will be engaged, while the academic reader will find that the research addresses a gap in the literature and presents a well-explained and tested theoretical framework. As Jackson concludes: ‘If there is one major argument this book hopes to make about civil war, it is that the way we think about civilians and insurgents needs to be thoroughly interrogated and reimagined.’ Jackson’s book offers a brilliant first step towards reimagining this relationship.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

 

25 Afghan Men Claiming Asylum in UK on Sexuality Grounds Refused Since 2017

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 03/05/2022 - 6:00pm in

An investigation by Sian Norris with the Byline Intelligence Team explores the vulnerability of LGBTIQ people looking for a safe home in Britain

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A total of 25 men seeking asylum in the UK from Afghanistan on the grounds of sexuality had their claims refused after the Home Office updated its guidance in 2017 to say it was safe for LGBTIQ people to live in the country if they did not “seek to cause public outrage”.

A Freedom of Information request by the Byline Intelligence Team found that, while 25 people were refused asylum, none had been subsequently deported. 

The data provided covered refusals between 1 February 2017 and 31 December 2020, and returns between 1 February 2017 and 30 June 2021. 

The revelation comes as LGBTIQ and migrant rights activists have expressed concerns about the Government’s plan to send people seeking asylum in the UK who travel via 'irregular' routes to Rwanda, where they will be able to claim asylum.

Rwanda’s record on LGBTIQ rights has been criticised. The Government’s own record on LGBTIQ rights has also been under fire in recent months, with it having to cancel the first ever global Safe To Be Me conference after 100 rights organisations announced that they would boycott the event. 

In 2017, then Home Secretary Amber Rudd announced that gay Afghans could be returned to their home country, despite the LGBTIQ community facing legal and social discrimination. 

Even after the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, Home Office guidance from October 2021 said that deporting LGBTIQ Afghans presents “no real risk of harm”, although the Government stopped enforcing returns to the country following the UK’s withdrawal. 

Previous Home Office guidance recognised that while LGBTIQ Afghan people were at risk from their families, the country’s laws and insurgent Taliban forces, “a practising gay man who, on return to Kabul, would not attract or seek to cause public outrage, would not face a real risk of persecution”.

This suggested an expectation that gay people should hide their sexuality in order to survive in Afghanistan – and appeared to contradict a 2010 Supreme Court ruling which stated that "to compel a homosexual person to pretend that his sexuality does not exist or suppress the behaviour by which to manifest itself is to deny his fundamental right to be who he is”.

Sarah Cope, who runs a support group for LGBTIQ women seeking asylum called Rainbow Sisters, told Byline Times that refusals for people claiming asylum on the basis of sexuality are often linked to a lack of understanding of LGBTIQ people’s experiences.  

“Many of the women we work with are from countries where being gay or transgender is criminalised, and so they have not had a chance to live openly, to have a relationship and so on,” Cope said. “They might not even have told anyone about their sexuality. But the Home Office expects everyone to be out and proud and going to gay bars and on dating apps, and that people will come to court to testify they have been in a relationship with the claimant.”

Cope also said that sexuality is not dependent on being in a relationship, and yet LGBTIQ people seeking asylum are often disbelieved because they are single or have had a partner.

“It seems like if you’re not in a relationship with a person of the same sex, then your identity isn’t really valid, you’re not really gay,” she told Byline Times. “If someone was straight, you wouldn’t say they don’t have a sexuality because they aren’t in a relationship.”

Last October, 29 LGBTIQ Afghans arrived in the UK. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office stated: “The UK is playing a world-leading role in supporting the departure of persecuted Afghans from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.”

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The Global Picture

Between 2015 and 2020, a total of 10,230 people claimed asylum in the UK on the basis of sexuality. Of these, more than half (6,078) were refused. 

Appeals were lodged in 5,379 of the decisions, and 3,045 appeals were dismissed. 

“People are told they can relocate, go and live in a different part of the country from where they came from to avoid discrimination,” said Sarah Cope, explaining what happens when a claim is refused. “But first of all, if there are no safe places in your home country, the same issues are going to rise up again and again.”

LGBTIQ women experience specific barriers, Cope added.

“They may be from countries where women don’t have a lot of power," she said. "A female stranger who arrives in a new part of a country may face questions about why she is there and where she came from before. She may be questioned about being single. There’s a real cultural blindness about the issues LGBTIQ women may experience when forcibly returned.”

She also warned how a lack of understanding of trauma from the Home Office can lead to people having their claim refused. 

“If a claimant’s story has any inconsistencies then that becomes a reason to reject them,” she told this newspaper. “If you’re recovering from trauma, which many of these women are, then you might struggle to recall or express certain things that have happened.

"A lot of people claiming asylum on the basis of their sexuality may also have had bad experiences with state forces and the police in the home country, meaning they find the Home Office interviews very difficult.”

The majority of people claiming asylum on the basis of sexuality were from Pakistan (2,450) and Nigeria (898). A total of 624 people claimed asylum on the basis of sexuality from Uganda, along with 1,084 people from Bangladesh, and 511 from Iran. 

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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‘Boys are Going to School and we Are Not – It’s Injustice’: The Taliban’s Impact on Afghan Women’s Education

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 13/04/2022 - 9:05pm in

Aaquib Khan pays another visit to a women's education institute in Kandahar and learns about the reversal in rights and empowerment girls are facing living in the country under Taliban rule

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"Sometimes it's very hard, but I want to live here and change everything," said Fariha. "I want to change the world."

She still sounds motivated and resilient, just like she did last year. "We are getting along in the new circumstance," Fariha added with a cryptic smile.

I met Fariha in 2021 in the Kandahar Institute of Modern Studies (KIMS), just before the Taliban took over control of Afghanistan once again.

A private higher education centre, KIMS emphasises Afghan women's education and employment. Educators from America and Canada provide free English and management classes via video.

Though everything looks the same, a lot has changed since my last visit.

Afghanistan's Government was called the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan until mid-August last year, with an elected president a​s the country's ​head. When the Taliban took control, the​y ​renamed it the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan – as it was called in the 1990s during the Taliban's first stint in power, with an emir as its head.

Fariha was a non-hijabi last year, but now wears a veil. Her freedom of movement is also now under scrutiny.

"Whenever we come out of our house, (the Talibs) are staring at us, from head to toe. Like wondering: 'what are we wearing? What are we doing? Where are we going?' They also often ask 'can you please tell us where you are going?' So, it's hard for us. We are nervous about it."

The ambience of KIMS has profoundly changed. Gone is the laughter of female students in their classes, loud discussions in American English accents in the courtyard, or classes under the mulberry tree. Now, the atmosphere is gloomy. The students whisper to each other.

Afghan women's rights have suffered a devastating impact with the return of the Taliban, and there is a great deal of uncertainty. There is also a generational divide within the Taliban leadership: the older members like to follow traditional and tribal customs, while the younger ones wish to engage with the international community.

"There is no education and freedom like we have before," said Banafsha, 17, from behind her blue veil. "Although there is some freedom, there is fear in the people's hearts."

Despite the US and its allies pouring hundreds of billions of dollars in to train and equip Afghan security forces, the insurgent group seized all major cities in a matter of days when the Western countries withdrew last year. ​

The corrupt Kabul Government, which in recent years has gradually lost its control over the country, collapsed. Nationwide confusion, a suicide bombing at Kabul airport, desperate people clinging to plane wheels, and chaotic scenes followed in the hasty evacuation of foreigners and Afghans that were witnessed by the world with shock.

"It took Afghans almost two decades to build their future and careers, but we ended up with zero gains," disheartened Nida said.

In September, KIMS resumed classes when some stability returned to Kandahar. It had 100 male students in the three months that followed and only 20 female. Now, the centre has a total of 150 female students – a drop from the more than 450 it had before the change in government.

Many students and teachers have left the city or the country with their families. The enthusiasm to learn English and then go to other countries for higher studies and employment has waned.

The centre's deputy director Shafiullah Omari encourages students to be optimistic and study hard to achieve their dreams. He counts three reasons for the dwindling numbers of students in his institute.

"First, students are hopeless and depressed at the moment," he said. "They are worried about their future, that they won't find a job as here in Government departments they are only hiring those who have Islamic education and not modern education.

"Second, the female students are sceptical that the present Government will allow them to study further, and that's why they are staying at home. 

"Third, because of the economic crisis, their families don't have enough money to pay for their education. For example, we charge ؋200 per month as fees from the female students, but they can't even pay that much."

Falling numbers means financial instability for KIMS and the people dependent on it. The centre cannot pay its teachers on time because most students cannot pay their fees on time. 

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"Many female teachers support their families from the money they get here," said Shafiullah. "Most of the time, we are ​late​ in paying their salaries for 10 to 15 days.

Civilian casualties have sharply decreased, but Afghans face a devastating humanitarian and economic crisis because of the international sanctions on their country.

The financial crisis has brought an already poor and aid-dependent population to the brink of starvation. More than 20 million – half of the Afghan population – suffer from acute hunger, which has led to an increase in child labour, scenes of women begging on the streets, and child marriages. Pictures of children in skeletal frames and with bulging stomachs have been seen around the world.

"Since the beginning of the year, roughly 13,000 newborns have died from malnutrition and hunger-related diseases in Afghanistan," Birgit Schwarz, a senior official at Human Rights Watch, recently tweeted. "That is, on average more than 170 babies every single day."

The classes run in two shifts in KIMS, with female students studying in the morning and male students in the afternoon. It provides transport services for the female students to come to the centre without facing any trouble. The buses now have their windows covered with curtains.

Some girls at the institute point to positive change – teasing and harassment of females on the streets have declined since Taliban control returned.

Before, male teachers took computer and management classes and trained both male and female students in public speaking. This has now changed, and male teachers are not allowed to teach girls in the institute.

"(The Taliban) have come here and requested equal opportunities to both the genders and asked us to hire more female teachers for female students," said Shafiullah.

KIMS does not have the money to hire new teachers and, because of a lack of qualified female teachers, students who had finished their education were trained and employed as new teaching staff. Now, only female teachers are allowed to teach female students. Due to these shake-ups, dozens of students have stopped attending KIMS because of the lack of qualified teachers.

Shafiullah does not believe that the Taliban's request to hire more female staff was to balance the gender gap. She said: "It's a religious issue – they just give this excuse that we have to give equal opportunities to males and females."

Since the Taliban swept to power, few provinces allowed education to all. Only boys' schools and girls' primary schools have remained open in most parts of the country. While universities could remain open, women were only able to attend classes if they were gender-segregated. At the end of last month, the Ministry of Education announced that​ girls' high schools would be kept closed – just hours after it reopened them. The last-minute backtracking disappointed many students, including Fariha. "Boys are going to schools, and we are not, it's injustice with us," she said.

Mette Knudsen, the deputy special envoy of the UN for Afghanistan, recently called the ban "discriminatory", saying that its impact will affect the future generations of Afghanistan in "terms of literacy and numeracy and will contribute to the cycle of poverty".

During its previous stint in power, from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban banned female education and most female employment. But the country has changed and the Taliban now faces a different Afghanistan where people have different opinions. The group understands that and has repeatedly promised that education for girls and employment for women will be allowed under its rule. However, its U-turn does not bode well.

"We need to eliminate the difference between genders," Fariha said. "We need gender equality in this country."

Like other modern Afghan women, Fariha is aware of her rights and is not afraid to raise her voice for them. The Taliban will have to learn to adjust to this new generation of Afghans.

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Selling Smoke: The Forgotten Child Victims of Taliban Rule

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 04/04/2022 - 9:46pm in

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A cruel new era of Taliban rule is turning the clock back in Afghanistan. Angelo Calianno reports from Bamiyan, where more than the world-famous giant Buddhas were destroyed

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The news last month that women between the ages of 12 and 19 in Afghanistan will no longer be allowed to go to school was a disastrous step back towards what the Taliban regime was 20 years ago and a far cry from the modern image the Taliban had previously wanted to show to the West.

However, for those who had never believed in the Taliban's claims to have changed, the news was less surprising. Across the country, there are people who have never stopped being persecuted and who have been cut off from the new society that the Taliban have claimed to be building.

These are people who do not even have access to aid from the West, as it is filtered out by the regime. They are the Shiites, the Hazaras, the internally displaced people (IDPs), the rural poor and all those who have not had, and will never have, the means to escape or seek asylum in other countries. They are people who have been forced to live under an extreme regime, without even the faint hope of escape.

The Mountain where the Buddhas used to be, Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Photo: Angelo Calianno

Bamiyan is the city with the highest concentration of Hazara people in Afghanistan. The Hazaras, Shiites, are one of the most historically peaceful ethnic groups in this area. Victims of a real genocide perpetrated since 1880 by the Sunnis, the Hazaras have always been the main target of the Taliban because they don’t belong to the Sunni current of Islam.

The events of March 2, 2001, when a group of Taliban arrived in Bamiyan and blew up the giant Buddhas, a UNESCO heritage site, linger long in the memory here.

On the same day, in front of those ruins, 20 Hazaras were executed as a warning to the rest of the city. Even after the fall of the Taliban regime, the attacks against the Hazaras have never stopped. Almost all the targets of terrorist attacks in these years have been against them and Shiite schools, mosques, hospitals and markets.

Bamiyan. Photo: Angelo Calianno

So now that the Taliban are in power, what can these people expect?

In Dasht-e-Barchi, the Shia neighbourhood of Kabul, I met with Faiz (not his real name). Faiz previously had a business in Bamiyan, which the Taliban had shut down. He told me his story: 

The ruins of Vamiyan Market, destroyed by the Taliban. Photo: Angelo Calianno

They closed my shop because, on the sign outside, I had a word written in English. Of course, it was just an excuse. Any excuse is good to persecute Hazaras. As soon as the Taliban came back, in August, with all that they have done to us over the years, we were terrified. The neighbourhood completely shut down. For weeks we didn't open shops or markets, we didn't go out of our homes for fear of being exterminated.

Now, especially in the evening and at night, the Taliban patrol around our neighbourhood, looking for dissidents, they say. I was also arrested for three days; I was filming one of the queues outside the banks. Not even aid from the West can get in here. Most of what is sent by the NGOs has to be processed by the Taliban and according to them; we should disappear from the face of the earth. Killing us all has been their intention for centuries, they were slaughtering us up until last August, I don't know how this could change now.

It is not only the Hazaras who have been forgotten here in Afghanistan. About 600,000 are IDPs - people who have lost their homes because they were destroyed by the Taliban, or because they were in the middle of the battlefields of the drug wars.

Internally Displaced People in Village Number 52. Photo: Angelo Calianno

They have built makeshift, self-managed villages on the outskirts of large cities. These villages don't even have names, only numbers.

In village number 52 I talked to Sayed, who is a teacher. He told me:

Education is the only thing they cannot steal from you. As you can see here, we have nothing; these kids have nothing but the desire to learn. That is why I teach everyone, anyone who wants to learn at any age. The families, until recently, gave me what they could, often food. Now, in the village, almost no one works anymore, and even the aid doesn't arrive here. Not even the Taliban have ever been seen around here

Sayed, a teacher in Afghanistan. Photo: Angelo Calianno

There is still no real economic and social plan for Afghanistan. The Taliban is focusing on reopening the mines, especially copper mines. However, for all those people who no longer have a job and cannot leave, there is no plan. In the last six months, the number of children suffering from malnutrition has risen to 3.3 million. 98% don't have enough to eat. Hundreds of people stand in line every day for a sack of flour.

hWomen waiting to get flour donated by the World Food Program. Photo: Angelo Calianno

Most of the people living in rural areas feed themselves on farinaceous food, the only thing they can get through aid. The diets of almost everyone are completely lacking in proteins and vitamins. The hospitals, especially pediatric ones, are so crowded that the children are forced to share a bed. 

Children sharing a bed at the Kandahar Hospital. Photo: Angelo Caklianno

On the streets, more and more people are begging, especially children. Often one sees many of them with a smoking jar in their hand, containing dried seeds of Syrian rue. They are the Esfandi.

A young Esfandi boy selling smoke. Photo: Angelo Calianno

These children go around the streets of Kabul blowing smoke on people, smoke that, traditionally, would help protect them from evil. They do this for pennies, almost always living on the street.

These, like millions of others, are the forgotten children of Afghanistan.

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Russian-Led Attacks More Deadly for Civilians

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 24/03/2022 - 8:30pm in

Although US forces have killed more civilians in conflicts over the past decade, Russian-led attacks using explosive violence are more lethal per incident to civilians, Sian Norris reports

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Russian-led attacks using explosive weapons over the past decade are more deadly per incident to civilians than those committed by the US, new data from the research charity Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) reveals today. 

Data exclusively shared with Byline Times shows that, between March 2012 and February 2022, there have been at least 1,360 Russian or Russian-backed incidents involving explosive weapons, killing 4,390 civilians and injuring 5,062 more. 

This means that, on average, each Russian-led incident led to 6.95 civilians harmed. The incidents killed or injured 13,887 people in total.

In the same time period, US-led attacks using explosive weapons killed 5,812 civilians and injured 2,171, with 22,608 people killed or injured in total.

Although the number of civilian and military casualties are higher, each US-led incident led to 4.2 civilians being harmed. As a result, Russian-led attacks are 65% more injurious to civilians than US attacks.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, there have been further civilian casualties caused by explosive violence deployed by Russian forces, which are not included in the dataset.

Up until 22 March 2022, AOAV’s data, gathered from reputable English language media sources, has reported 493 civilians killed with a further 346 injured. Of these, 55 are children. 

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Civilian Targets

Vladimir Putin’s approach to warfare has long involved the targeting of civilian infrastructure. The investigative journalist organisation Bellingcat has recorded 64 events targeting civilian spaces in Ukraine between 8 March and 22 March. 

Shopping centres, theatres and apartment blocks have all been shelled in that time period, with the Kremlin claiming these are legitimate military targets. At least four civilians were injured in Kherson, after Russian forces fired snipers at a crowd of protesters. 

In the besieged city of Mariupol, hospitals have also been considered a legitimate military target, with three pregnant women killed in the recent attack on a maternity hospital in the city. A heavily pregnant woman who was photographed while being carried out on a stretcher to safety was one of those who lost their lives, along with her child. The doctors tried to save her baby by performing a caesarean section. When it was clear the child would not survive, the mother reportedly said “kill me now”. She died not long after. 

The tactics deployed against civilians in Ukraine are familiar to people in Syria, where Russian forces have assisted the dictator Bashir al-Assad with a bombing campaign since 2015.

At least nine hospitals in Syria were targeted by explosive violence between 2015 and 2020, killing 37 civilians including medical staff. Schools, residential neighbourhoods, a prison and markets have also been the focus of attacks, with the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure amounting to war crimes, according to Human Rights Watch

Russian-led explosive violence was also instrumental in the siege of Aleppo in 2016, with the treatment of that city offering a disturbing playbook for the current scenes in Mariupol.

Syrian Government forces sealed off Aleppo’s rebel-held eastern half, depriving citizens of basic necessities. At the same time, Russian forces conducted a brutal bombing campaign against the population. In the entire course of Syria’s war, 51,731 named individuals have been killed in Aleppo. These are not all casualties from Russian-led attacks, and they are not all civilians. 

People in Mariupol are now facing the same trauma – under siege and under bombardment. The fear among the Ukrainian people is that Putin will repeat his Syria strategy in their country, besieging and bombarding town after town. 

US Killings

The US shares a poor record on killing civilians, not least in Iraq and Afghanistan which it invaded in 2003 and 2001 respectively, and in the campaign against ISIS. 

AOAV’s data shows that 5,812 civilians have been killed and 2,171 injured in US-led explosive violence attacks since March 2012. 

Most recently, a drone strike by US forces in Kabul led to the killing of 10 civilians. Seven of those killed were children. 

In 2017, the US military admitted that 105 civilians were killed in an airstrike carried out against the Iraqi city of Mosul, while days earlier a US-led airstrike killed 35 civilians in Syria.  

According to the US military’s own numbers, 1,417 civilians have died in airstrikes in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Since 2018 in Afghanistan, US air operations have killed at least 188 civilians. This may be an underestimate, as analysis from The New York Times found that “many allegations of civilian casualties had been summarily discounted”.

During the Iraq War, the battle between US forces and Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah saw 600 civilian casualties, of which half were women and children. Not all the civilians were killed by US personnel or through explosive violence. 

AOAV’s data is based on English language media reports of explosive violence. There may be more incidents from Russian-backed forces in Syria that have not been included, having instead been reported as attacks from the Assad regime, but as their methodology is consistent across the world it means comparing nation states such as the US and Russia is possible.

Iain Overton, executive director of AOAV, also leads the Byline Intelligence Team

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‘Girls in Afghanistan Have Power’

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 02/03/2022 - 8:54pm in

‘Girls in Afghanistan HAVE POWER’

In an exclusive interview with a member of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team who fled the country in the summer, Byline Times can reveal how an inspiring new project that will help Afghan girls achieve their dreams

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“My dream is to take the hands of girls still in Afghanistan and help them access that most basic of rights – education,” says Saghar. “If we can help even one girl, then we need to go for it”.

When the Taliban started to advance across Afghanistan in 2021, 17-year-old Saghar knew she would soon have to leave her country. The teenager was part of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team – an international sensation that attended the World Summit AI in Amsterdam and competed in AI contests around the world, flying the flag for girls’ education and girls in STEM. 

But for the incoming regime, Saghar’s incredible success was not something to celebrate. The Taliban believes that girls should be denied the right to education. Since they took over Afghanistan in August, they have banned girls from attending secondary school. Families of girls like Saghar – families who encouraged their daughters to go after their dreams – face threats, intimidation and even real life violence. 

“The situation is catastrophic for women and girls,” said Sarah Porter, CEO and Founder of InspiredMinds – a global community of 200,000 of the world’s leading scientists, technologists and academics – and the InspiredMinds Foundation to support girls in STEM in emerging democracies. “Girls like Saghar grew up going to high school in Afghanistan. To have that right taken away is such a cruel blow”.

With the help of the InspiredMinds Foundation, Saghar and her fellow Girls Robotic teammates fled Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover was complete – travelling first to Pakistan, then to Mexico City and finally to Europe. She is separated from her family, although they were thankfully able to leave Kabul during the evacuation in August with the help of the InspiredMinds community.

The Afghan girls Robotics Team arrive to safety. Photo: InspiredMinds

It’s not easy being a teenage girl alone in a new country. But Saghar’s determination and vision to build a better future for Afghan girls is unshakeable. 

That determination is helping her to launch a project with the InspiredMinds Foundation that will offer scholarships to Afghan girls to study a foundation course in STEM subjects. “We want to give girls the opportunity to study and have the basic right that everyone should have, the right to education,” she explained. “The situation right now is not good for every girl in Afghanistan who is dreaming of their future. I am dreaming to do this – to have this ability to help other girls in Afghanistan”.

To get the project – the details of which Saghar has exclusively shared with Byline Times – off the ground, she and InspiredMinds are hoping that elite educational institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, Yale and many more will support her ambition by reserving places for Afghan girls to come and study STEM at their campuses. “We need the international community to hold out a helping hand, too,” she says. 

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‘We Need Help To Achieve What We Always Dreamed’

Robotics and AI have fascinated Saghar since she was a little girl, playing on her brother’s computer. She first discovered her love of computer science when she realised she could draw and paint pictures on a desktop programme much more easily than with pen and paper. 

“I was always really curious about how technology works,” Saghar told Byline Times. Her interest was encouraged by her family and her teachers, and she joined up with other girls who demonstrated a talent for computers and maths to form the Afghan Girls Robotics Team. 

“My family has always been very supportive,” Saghar explained. “I am so proud of them and I am so happy they have given me this chance even when it caused trouble from the regime”.

Because of the girls’ high profile, it quickly became apparent that it was too dangerous for them to remain in Afghanistan once it was controlled by an oppressive regime. “They do not have a good perspective of girls travelling, or going to school,” said Saghar. “Our families were worried for us.”


‘It is Dangerous for Us to Remain in Afghanistan’
Sian Norris

The journey to safety was not easy. Saghar had to leave her family, her friends and her country behind. “Because of the high profile we had in Afghanistan, our families were in danger as well,” she explained. “The perspective is that if you are a woman doing something that is against the regime’s laws, then they will punish the father or the brother. 

Chaotic scenes as families fled Afghanistan in summer 2021. Photo: InspiredMinds

“Leaving my home, my family, my friends and all my loved ones was a very hard experience, being only 17-years-old,” Saghar told Byline Times. “But that is why I want to stand for our friends, for the thousands of other girls in Afghanistan who have been through this situation, to help them do the things they dream of doing. That is the thing that is healing my heart”.

Saghar also takes strength from those like InspiredMinds Foundation which are supporting her ambition to set up a fund that will provide scholarships to Afghan girls to study. “The kindness that people bring to you can heal your heart too,” she said. “When you see people supporting you with what you dream of doing, that can heal the challenges you have been through”.

An Ongoing Crisis

Today, Saghar is doing an internship at an artificial intelligence firm, and hopes to secure a place to study computer science at an elite university. She told Byline Times how when people realise she is from Afghanistan, they can be surprised she is studying robotics. 

“But it’s not a surprise,” she insists. “Every girl in Afghanistan has dreams and talent. Girls in Afghanistan have power. The difference is whether opportunities are given to every girl in Afghanistan”. Her scholarship fund, she hopes, will deliver those opportunities.

“Afghanistan is now facing a grave humanitarian crisis with economic collapse, famine and Taliban violence against women and girls, their families, religious minorities and LGBTIQ people,” Porter told Byline Times. 

The UK Government evacuated 15,000 people – including British citizens – during Operation Pitting in August, and has pledged to resettle 20,000 more Afghan refugees in the coming years. 

Porter is concerned however, that these efforts don’t go far enough. “We need to see more international coordination,” she explained. “An international refugee coalition could mean more people are able to reach safety. We obviously want to see more girls in educational institutions, but the first thing that needs to happen is coordination and safeguarding on resettlement programmes”.

“I have bore witness to both the very best and the very worst of human nature throughout this process,” Porter added. The InspiredMinds community has acted towards the girls with “collaboration and goodwill,” she explained. But unfortunately, some individuals have chosen instead to show “an immoral and repugnant streak of exploitation surrounding these girls”.

Saghar doesn’t know when she will be reunited with her family. She misses her home. “I have spent my whole life in Afghanistan, 17 years of my life,” she told Byline Times. “I can never forget the memories, the friends, and every single day I spent in my country”. 

The threats she and her family endured when in Afghanistan have followed them across borders, but her strength and determination remain undiminished. So does her hope for Afghanistan. “I believe every person has hope for their country,” she explained. “The only difference for us is this situation that is currently in Afghanistan”.

Her hope also lies in her dream of funding scholarships and her aim to hold out her hand to girls across the world and support them to follow their dreams of an education. “I, as a girl in Afghanistan, was doing robotics and going for what I was dreaming,” she said. “That was my goal and I faced many challenges. I hope that the future generations in Afghanistan don’t face these challenges, and that education becomes a very basic right for people in Afghanistan, as it is for any other person around the world”.

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Stuck in Limbo: UK Asylum and Immigration System in Post-Brexit Turmoil

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 01/03/2022 - 10:28pm in

Stuck in LimboUK Asylum and Immigration System In Post-Brexit Turmoil

The UK’s floundering border arrangements offer little solace to desperate Ukrainians fleeing war, reports Sam Bright

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The Home Office is experiencing significant delays in processing both visa and asylum applications, amid calls for the UK to offer a more generous scheme for Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression.

Government data shows that, as of 1 January, 100,564 people were awaiting a decision on their asylum application – with 61,864 having waited more than six months for a decision.

There have been dramatic increases in asylum applications and those awaiting a decision in recent years. There were 17,916 asylum applications lodged in the UK in 2010, rising to 32,733 in 2015 and to 48,540 in 2021.

Meanwhile, the number of asylum seekers awaiting a decision has increased from 14,882 at the end of 2010 to 33,990 at the end of 2015 and more than 100,000 at the end of 2021.

The proportion of asylum seekers waiting more than six months for a decision has also steadily increased over time, as shown below:

Proportion of people waiting six months or more for a decision on their asylum application

2010: 27.4%
2011: 19.1%
2012: 31%
2013: 36.8%
2014: 36.9%
2015: 14.3%
2016: 34.8%
2017: 43.7%
2018: 43.3%
2019: 52%
2020: 66.8%
2021: 61.5%

“The delays are terrible for refugees, who are forced to endure prolonged destitution and inactivity as a form of deliberate punishment for claiming asylum in our country. The justification given is that this will somehow deter others from doing likewise. But it doesn’t. And well over half of those penalised in this way will be granted asylum,” says the immigration publication Free Movement.

Moreover, as reported previously by Byline Times, the Government has suffered acute delays in granting visa sponsorship applications since the UK left the EU. New statistics show that the average time taken to approve a visa sponsorship application in the final quarter of 2021 was more than 52 days – up from 25.4 days on average in 2019 and 28.2 days in the first three quarters of 2020.

“The Home Office is starting to look like it is in meltdown,” immigration expert Colin Yeo posted on Twitter in December 2021, referencing our reporting.

The UK’s new, post-Brexit immigration system came into effect at the beginning of 2021 – implementing more stringent rules for immigrants, including the requirement that workers must be officially sponsored by their prospective employer.

Therefore, unsurprisingly, sponsorship applications have increased dramatically – almost trebling from 2019 to 2021.

According to employer solutions law firm DavidsonMorris, Home Office staff have also been diverted “away from sponsorship applications to handle EU settlement scheme applications from EEA nationals” – the process through which EU residents have gained the temporary or permanent right to remain in the UK.

“This drop in resources has coincided with the number of sponsorship applications increasing from 200 per day to 450 per day,” the firm told Byline Times.

“One year on, our new system is making it easier for businesses to hire the skills and talent they need, while incentivising investment in our domestic workforce,” a Home Office spokesperson told Byline Times. “Valid and complete applications for visas are processed within the published timescales despite a sustained rise in demand.”

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Escaping Ukraine

This Home Office turmoil comes as the Government scrambles to define a new resettlement route for Ukrainians fleeing the country.

The EU has proposed allowing Ukrainians to work and live in the 27-nation bloc for three years without requiring asylum checks – and there have been cross-party calls in the UK for a similar scheme to be established. However, so far, the Government has simply widened existing immigration routes – allowing Ukrainian nationals on its existing points-based system to extend their leave in the UK, and for people with settled status in the UK to bring their close relatives from Ukraine.

Immigration Minister Kevin Foster has received special criticism for suggesting that Ukrainians could apply to the UK’s “seasonal worker scheme” which – among other jobs – can involve picking fruit.

According to polling by YouGov, two-thirds (63%) of the British public support introducing a scheme to resettle Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion, while just 18% oppose. It is expected that millions of people will flee Ukraine due to the Russian invasion.

Geopolitical instability has fuelled an increase in asylum applications across Europe in recent years – not least the civil war in Syria, that prompted more than 1 million asylum seekers to travel to Europe in 2015 alone.


Only 30 SuccessfulUK Asylum ApplicationsGranted from Ukraine Since 2014
Sian Norris

However, despite recent increases in asylum applications, the UK takes relatively fewer asylum seekers than its European neighbours. Germany received more than 122,015 asylum applications in 2020, and France 93,474, compared to 36,041 lodged in the UK.

Even despite these facts, Home Secretary Priti Patel has maintained an uncompromising stance towards asylum seekers – proposing new laws that would criminalise incomers on the basis of how they arrived in the UK. Patel’s proposals, according to various experts, potentially breach of domestic and international human rights law.

The UK has also been denounced for its approach towards asylum seekers from Afghanistan, after the Taliban took control of the country in August last year. The Government’s flagship Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme eventually opened on 6 January 2022, five months after the fall of Kabul. The scheme will resettle more than 5,000 people in the first year and up to 20,000 “over the coming years”.

Speaking to the Home Affairs Select Committee in October, Patel said: “we have a scheme, the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, which is one of the most ambitious in the world. We are not able to operationalise that scheme. We simply do not have the infrastructure or the accommodation.”

Similar problems may yet affect any scheme designed to give refuge to desperate Ukrainians seeking safety in the UK.

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Biden’s $7 Billion Afghan Heist

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 17/02/2022 - 4:40am in

MINNEAPOLIS (Responsible Statecraft) With his Executive Order redefining Afghanistan’s Fiscal Reserve as a slush fund to be disbursed on his whim and with the stroke of his pen, President Biden has taken what may well be the final step in an experiment gone amok. The U.S. first attempted to make Afghanistan into a Western democracy, instead installed a kleptocracy, made Afghans endure 20 years of violence and then left in a whirlwind of chaos. With Biden’s latest move to deprive Afghanistan of its monetary reserves, the nation is likely to come full circle, turning once again into a failed state that, in the absence of economic recovery, will become a breeding ground for extremism and the recruitment of terrorists.

Of the country’s reserves, $7 billion were “parked” in U.S. financial institutions. This is normal procedure for developing countries, with the, now in retrospect, very ironic purpose of keeping funds in a secure place. Watching this latest Biden debacle, Central Banks of multiple countries are now surely contemplating pulling their monies out of U.S. financial institutions to protect them against arbitrary dictatorial disposal.

After the Executive Order was issued, Da Afghanistan Bank — Afghanistan’s U.S.-built Central Bank — issued a statement that was both judicious and, to an American reader, embarrassing. It offered a measured, dumbed down 101 on what a monetary reserve is and what a Central Bank does. One might have hoped that a U.S. president, or at least his advisers, would know this, but evidently not.

From their tutorial: “As per the law and relevant regulations, Federal Exchange Reserves…are used to implement monetary policy, facilitate international trade and stabilize the financial sector. The real owners of these reserves are the people of Afghanistan. These reserves were not and are not the property of governments, parties or groups and are never used as per their demand and decisions…The Foreign Exchange Reserves are managed based on international practices.”

President Biden, however, announced that he was assigning half of the money, $3.5 billion, to settle ongoing claims by 9/11 families against the Taliban for hosting Al Qaeda. The other half will go to international NGOs that provide aid to Afghanistan, a move that was pitched as an act of amazing generosity. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted that it shows America will always stand by Afghanistan.

But a closer look shows America is not standing by Afghanistan, but instead draining Afghan’s coffers. The current situation in Afghanistan is as follows. When the Taliban took power in August 2021, after the calamitous U.S. withdrawal and the instant caving of President Ghani and the Afghan National Army, Biden ordered the freezing of Afghan assets and accounts. Instead of experiencing a “peace dividend” now that active warfare had ceased, and being able to start slowly rebuilding houses, homes, businesses and lives, the Afghan economy went into freefall.

With no cash in the Central Bank, savings could not be withdrawn and salaries could not be paid. Most trade ground to a halt. International agencies and NGOs were unable to help very much, because they, too, could not transfer money into the country and could not withdraw their deposits since there was not enough currency in circulation. The UN and humanitarian groups began to issue dire warnings about the severity of this year’s winter, the depleted food supplies as a result of an unusually long drought, and the inability to import food and fuel due to sanctions and frozen assets. While pledges were made by donors, almost always, the pledges fell well short of the enormous needs and only a fraction of pledges end up being fulfilled. Besides, delivery of aid by international institutions with their enormous overhead is a wasteful, expensive and inefficient method that does nothing to make recipients self-sufficient or give them hope for their future.

Once the United States decided to withdraw and leave Afghans to their fate, the right thing to do was to at least give them back their property and with it, a fighting chance. To allay concerns about possible Taliban misuse of the funds, banking professionals have proposed releasing the money in monthly tranches. Monitors would check exactly where that money goes and what is done with it. The moment anything seems improper, a freeze could instantly be reinstituted.

If their Central Bank could stabilize the currency and the exchange rate, inject liquidity into the system and get the banking system as a whole back on an even keel, organic economic recovery could commence.

But as it stands now, this man-made economic collapse is crushing a vulnerable population at the most vulnerable moment in its recent history. More than 40 percent of Afghans are below the age of 14. If there is no work to be had, their older brothers will be open to recruitment by ISIS, or will make their way across the borders into neighboring countries and from there, join the refugee stream towards Western Europe.

It may satisfy the vindictive impulses of some to see the Taliban preside over a population sinking into misery and disorder, but let’s examine what we are actually doing here. We are punishing 40 million people because we don’t like the Taliban. We are holding responsible for 9/11 a population whose majority was not even born in 2001 and who certainly bear no blame. In the name of benefiting 9/11 families, we are seeding the ground for the next 9/11 and disgracing our own principles of justice.

After World War II, the United States was remarkably generous towards a population that arguably could have been held more to blame for elevating, electing, and cheering for a genocidal dictator. A Marshall Plan allowed for Germany and Austria to rebuild their industries and economies, repair their devastated cities and bring their families back to good health. The Biden Plan, by contrast, aims to turn Afghanistan into a failed state and to turn its population into a nation of beggars.

After the humiliating U.S. exit from Afghanistan, Biden’s decision to freeze and then redistribute the nation’s reserves was a political move designed to show his Republican opponents how tough he can be on the Taliban. But a political move that will lead to more starvation and chaos cannot be allowed to stand. Already, legal teams are looking at how to block the $3.5 billion from being awarded to 9/11 families.

The NGO Unfreeze Afghanistan has issued a call urging all NGOs not to accept any of the other $3.5 billion allocated for “humanitarian aid.” And people in both Afghanistan and the United States are organizing protests and petitions to rescind this order. Even 9/11 family members are weighing in. Barry Admunson, who lost his brother in the 9/11 attack and is part of the group called 9/11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, is advocating against Biden’s decision. “We can’t bring our loved ones back,” he told us, “but we can save the lives of people in Afghanistan by advocating that the Biden Administration release this money to its rightful owners: the Afghan people.”

Feature photo | Afghan protesters hold placards and shout slogans against U.S. during a protest condemning President Joe Biden’s decision to split $7 billion in Afghan assets frozen in the U.S. to fund humanitarian relief in Afghanistan and to create a trust fund to compensate Sept. 11 victims, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 12, 2022. Hussein Malla | AP

Dr. Cheryl Benard (former program director in the RAND National Security Research Division), Medea Benjamin (co-founder of CODEPINK), and Masuda Sultan (Afghan-American women’s rights activist) are all co-founders of Unfreeze Afghanistan.

The post Biden’s $7 Billion Afghan Heist appeared first on MintPress News.

Biden’s Afghanistan Counsel Left the White House in January. Now He’s Poised to Reap Financial Windfall From Billions in Seized Afghan Assets.

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/02/2022 - 3:25pm in

A lead attorney for some families of 9/11 victims who sued the Taliban — plaintiffs who could receive billions of dollars as a result of the Biden administration’s decision to seize the reserves of the Afghanistan central bank — also worked until January at the Biden White House on Afghanistan issues. Lee Wolosky, co-chair of the litigation department at the law firm Jenner & Block LLP, was appointed to aid with Afghan evacuees in September 2021 and returned to his firm last month.

After the fall of Kabul, the U.S. government seized the assets of the country’s central bank, and last week the administration announced it would hold half of the roughly $7 billion for families who had brought suit against the Taliban, and deploy the other half at some undetermined point in time “for the benefit of the Afghan people.”

On Monday, Wolosky himself signed a brief asking the judges in the families’ case against the Taliban to move forward with enforcing the settlement. The long-running lawsuit stands to be a lucrative payday for the high-powered attorneys working on the once long-shot case. Lawyers often take a percentage of damages awarded, which in this case easily puts the payout into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Neither Jenner & Block nor Wiggins Childs Quinn & Pantazis LLC, two of the lead law firms representing the victims seeking compensation from the Afghanistan government, responded to a request for comment on the role of Wolosky or the firms’ fee structure for the decision. A representative of Wolosky referred questions to the White House.

In September, when Wolosky joined the administration, Axios reported he would be involved in resettlement of refugees “as well as other issues related to the U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan.” Wolosky was reportedly hired as a “special government employee,” a role that allows temporary appointments for up to 130 days in a year. Wolosky officially signed onto the 9/11 victims’ case on January 13, 2021, according to his filing with the court.

The White House said that Wolosky recused himself from discussions over whether the Afghan central bank reserves should be seized and handed over to him and his clients. “Lee Wolosky’s service as an SGE at the White House Counsel’s Office ended on January 6, 2022. Lee was formally recused from all matters related to Jenner & Block during his time as an SGE,” a White House spokesperson said. “Given his past representation of the victims of 9/11, he was specifically recused and walled off from any and all discussions related to any litigation related to the victims of 9/11, including but not limited to the disposition of the Afghan reserves at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.”

Prior to his role at Jenner & Block, Wolosky was a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner, where he also represented the families of 9/11 victims in an effort to seize funds from the Iranian central bank held in Luxembourg, arguing that Iran had aided Al Qaeda. Luxembourg ultimately ruled that the sovereign immunity of Iran took precedence over the plaintiff’s claim. Before that, Wolosky was appointed by former President Barack Obama to lead the ultimately failed effort to close the Guantánamo Bay prison.

The Afghanistan central bank was designed largely by the United States during the occupation and was modeled on the Federal Reserve. It remains in operation today, and two members of its board are Afghan American. By law, it is independent of the government and can’t be raided for pet government projects or to patch deficits. Its mandate is limited to price and currency stability. President Joe Biden’s use of the reserves to pay off a legal judgment for the clients of a recent senior administration official puts the administration’s criticism of the previous Afghan government as hopelessly corrupt in a new light.

The consequences of seizing the reserves of the central bank have been similar in Afghanistan to what would happen to the U.S. economy if the Federal Reserve was suddenly shut down. Businesses have been unable to secure loans, depositors have been unable to access money held in banks, importers have been unable to fund imports, the currency has collapsed, and prices have soared. More than a million refugees have fled starvation since the fall.

“The administration’s executive order on the frozen funds is tantamount to brazen theft and a death sentence for countless Afghans,” said Arash Azizzada, co-founder of Afghans for a Better Tomorrow, in a written statement. “It’s shortsight[ed], cruel and will serve to worsen the catastrophe currently unfolding in Afghanistan.”

“Taking money which rightfully belongs to the Afghan people,” he added, “will not bring justice but ensure more misery and death in Afghanistan.”

The post Biden’s Afghanistan Counsel Left the White House in January. Now He’s Poised to Reap Financial Windfall From Billions in Seized Afghan Assets. appeared first on The Intercept.

Of Hope, Turmoil and Beyond: My Afghanistan

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 11/02/2022 - 1:00am in

Of Hope, Turmoil & BeyondMy Afghanistan

The same ‘faith’ that allowed the poor terrorists to kill, gave me the strength to continue, writes Shandana Khan

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There had been a downpour that day in May: balmy Kabul weather. I had opened my windows and watched the shower. Across me was a large, old pine tree – singular, standing tall and strong. I wondered what all this tree had seen.

I invited a friend to dinner. Life was restricted due to safety concerns. Work was cut into bits and pieces with curfews, lockdowns and text messages asking us to stay away from this place or that, following distant booms, almost every day. Bomb blasts, IEDs, complex attacks. Sometimes the booms were closer, rattling our windows and our peace of mind – yes, till this day there was some peace of mind. Little did we know what was to come.

This was 2015 in Kabul.

As we ate, a shot rang out. I stopped and looked at my friend. “No, it’s not a gun shot,” she said. She had barely said it when a burst of Kalashnikov fire tore into the night. It was very, very close. I ran to lock my door and we started putting off the lights. We crouched near my bed, for we couldn’t get under it. This was the start of a five-hour ordeal in a Kabul guesthouse, during which about twenty people were killed. We lay there, holding hands, praying. Talking in low tones to those responsible for our security, messaging those concerned. At one point I said to my friend, “We are not going to make it.”

“Don’t say that,” she responded, “we have much to live for.”

My Afghan friends messaged me non-stop. One contacted the security forces responsible for the ensuing operation, which started about halfway through the attack. Another wanted to come to us, but obviously couldn’t as the roads were blocked with military vehicles: Norwegian, American, Afghan and maybe other forces.

We lay silent on the ground, waiting for whatever was in store, as a few bullets came through the window. We were lucky. Then came the sound of explosions. I was sure the building would collapse on us.

All the while, I wondered what I would say if the terrorists came into my room. He would be a young Pashtun Talib, no doubt. Would it make a difference that I am Pashtun? Of course not. So, what could I say to shame him before he shot us? What curses would I use? A parting shot – literally.

The consistency of the shooting, the darkness, the total lack of human sounds. A fear gripped us. Somehow, we remained calm. A text message from an Afghan friend: “Are the terrorists inside?”

Photo: The Friday Times

“Yes, they are.”

A message from my cousin in Mardan: “Is everything OK?”

“Yes, all well,” I responded.

Soon, my family would see it on TV, but now it was pointless to say anything. Whatever happens, they will find out. I either live to tell the story or go home in a box.

Having been put in touch with the security forces by an Afghan friend, they finally came to my room after four hours. We heard footsteps, crushing glass. And there they appeared, like a child’s video game. Large men with night-vision goggles and huge guns. “Get up. Lift your shirt!” came the command. “Excuse me!” I instantly replied. Then came an apology “Sorry, lift it a little.” I lifted my shirt till my knees. “Ok that’s enough.” English, they spoke English. “Who are you?”

“What?” he said.

“Who are you, where are you from?”

“Oh! We are Norwegian Special Forces.”

In the corridor were the Afghan forces. I asked them how many people were dead. “None,” they said. Obviously, what else were they meant to say? It was still going on. There was a long, deathly silence. No shots, no human sounds. We spoke in low voices. How would we get out?

“Stand in the middle,” they said. “We will form a circle around you. You walk in the middle. Right! That’s it.”

We had to pass by the dining room where the terror started. I had visions of us running helter skelter as we got shot at. “Let’s go!” – we started. We got out. Downstairs a young Afghan security man was carried out, shot in the leg. The balmy night had become a night of terror. For some reason, God saved us.

Every day is a question: did he save me for this day?

It took many weeks to get over this incident. A break at home and then we were back. People were shocked. “You came back? You are very brave, Khanum.”

All the while, I wondered what I would say if the terrorists came into my room. He would be a young Pashtun Talib, no doubt. Would it make a difference that I am Pashtun? Of course not! So, what could I say to shame him before he shot us? What curses would I use? A parting shot – literally!

No, I was not brave, I simply knew this was our collective life and our collective resistance. I had come across the border where the same things happened. The terror is one and its perpetrators are one. The resistance to terror and violence is to keep going. Life was now in God’s hands – I was free. Whatever happens, happens.

The same ‘faith’ that allowed the poor terrorists to kill, gave me the strength to continue. An Afghan colleague walked into my room when I returned to office and was having a panic attack: “Hey, we have a lot of work to do. Let’s go out there and do it!” Always, he gave me strength and hope. His gentle soul always showed on his face, smiling, soft-spoken like so many Afghans are.

This was life for the Afghans: let’s continue living.

In the northern mountains of Takhar, the mist formed a haze. Chakhchashma village was enveloped in a cold that chilled the bones as we walked up the mountain. A dialogue with a village. My colleague joked: “If they come through this mist, we will not see them till they are near us!” We laughed. The group of handsome Uzbeks sat in a long, narrow room. Red carpets covered the floor. We sat down. Which language do I speak in? Pashto, certainly not Urdu, and certainly not English – my Dari was non-existent. “OK – Pashto,” they said. Here I was, a Pashtun, Pakistani woman, talking to Uzbeks in Pashto about community work. It’s an experience I will never forget – simply fabulous.

People are the same everywhere. People respond positively everywhere.

“What can you do to improve your lives – something you already do but which you can improve upon? How can you improve it? Because you have the potential – but you also know your constraints. It’s up to you, really.”

They listened carefully.

“So many things we can do but we need money.”

“OK, so, you are already organised into small savings groups. If you cluster your groups, we can give you a fund to revolve and lend it interest-free to each other. Islamic lending. And since this will be your fund, you will have to decide, collectively, who will use it and for what – and you will have to catch those who default. Because if people run off with your money, you will all suffer.”

Questions were asked. Back and forth. The dialogue proceeded. A Qari spoke up. He had understood. “Where is he from?” I had asked earlier. He looked like someone out of a Peshawar madrassah. Yes, he actually was. Every nook and corner of Afghanistan has them. I hoped he was OK to deal with. I wondered about his history. But he seemed ‘ok.’ After all, most Afghan refugees in Pakistan had been taught in madrassahs.

Then came a meeting with women: sprightly, noisy, but when we started there was silence. Curiosity. The dialogue was translated from Pashto to Uzbek by a colleague. The same responses: “Of course we can do this work. We will start.”

The process began. I went to this village after a four-month lapse. This was the life of an expat in Afghanistan: go to a village and then disappear for months and then re-appear. I was an expat who felt quite at home. None of it made sense to me. My family laughed at me often: “You are a Pashtun and an expat in Afghanistan?”

In January 2022, I found out that many of these community groups still exist, that they are using the fund. I was amazed. Because nothing else existed now. And that is why it was done like this: remote areas, conflict areas, small communities, huge distances, huge mountains, lack of access in winter – this is the only way development can take place.

You organise locally and work through self-help, with the least external support. Lending was happening to target household needs. These were small loans, but at least there was money at a time when banking had stopped, donors had frozen funds, staff was laid off and sanctions descended Afghanistan into starvation.

On 15 August 2021, as I watched the news, I was broken. Key districts had fallen to the Taliban like dominoes and now they had taken Kabul.

Today, I realise that this was indeed always the plan. The plan of the Americans, and of their regional rentier states. Of the world, really. The people who saved me, my friends, my colleagues, are now uprooted, their dreams shattered. One by one I called them.

The days stretched into weeks and months: a grief that tears at my stomach. The women, the proud women friends, committed, professional, capable – hiding in the homes of others. Soon they would have no jobs. Yes, these were friends in Kabul. But Takhar was not Kabul. There were professional women there, there were educated women. They made huge strides as opportunities came their way for two decades. They had grown up during those two decades – only having heard stories of the atrocities of the Taliban. Now the Taliban were back.

They had breathed freely, they travelled, they worked for their people. Now, each day is a nightmare for those who remain. But I know few who remain. Everyday I watched the news of flights taking off from Kabul, of the mayhem at the airport. I wondered which friend would be on it. Before they took off, a silence – and I would know they did not want to say anything, yet.

“I have reached Qatar now, on my way to America.” “I have reached Australia.” “I have reached the UK.” “I am in Turkey, but I don’t know where I go next.” “I am in a huge military facility in the US – dormitories with thousands of Afghans.”

Beautiful homes left behind. Maybe one relative stayed behind to look after the homes, as the looting started.

Photo: The Friday Times

Many came to Pakistan. Some across Chaman, some across Torkham. Some with visas, some having paid the Taliban and the Pakistani border forces to cross at Chaman. Some hid with relatives, some booked guesthouses, rented places. Most were in transit, having filled various asylum papers to various countries.

They are living in cold space with only mattresses, some blankets and a few dishes. “We are sorry, we cannot be more hospitable,” they said, as they placed the green tea and toffees before me. “We didn’t live like this you know, we had a proper house – but we had to run.”

“They came and insulted me for making coats which kafirs wear.” “They came and asked why I gave women legal advice because it broke up families.” “They said my daughter should be shot, because she wore jeans under her long shirt.” “I am hiding because I play the rabab.” “They burnt musical instruments, they blackened posters with women, they shut secondary schools for girls.”

Messages came pouring in: “We have lost our dreams, we have lost hope.”

And then came the honesty from a few – an honesty that exists only between good friends.

“You have done this to us, it is your country that has done this.”

I cannot respond. I am silent.

This article was originally published by Friday Times, Pakistan 

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