US: Taliban Should Meet Promises Before Seeking Legitimacy 

The United States Friday renewed criticism of Afghanistan’s Islamist Taliban for reneging on promises they would govern the country in a responsible way and respect the rights of all Afghans, including women.

John Kirby, the U.S. National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told VOA the Taliban will continue to isolate itself from the international community unless they reverse restrictions on women.

“So, if the Taliban wants to be considered legitimate, if they want the recognition of the international community, if they want financial aid and investment in their country, then they should meet their promises, meet their obligations, and behave accordingly,” Kirby stressed.

Takeover

The Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August 2021 and have since implemented harsh restrictions that severely curtail the rights of women and girls to participate in social, economic and political life.

The hardline rulers have turned Afghanistan into the only country in the world where girls are banned from attending secondary schools and universities.

The Taliban also have banned Afghan women from working for national and international nongovernmental organizations that provide humanitarian aid to millions of people in the conflict-ravaged country. Women also have been ordered to stop using parks, gyms and public bathhouses.

The human rights concerns have deterred the global community from formally recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.

The Taliban reject criticism of their polices, saying they are governing the country in line with Afghan culture and their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law — though scholars in Muslim-majority countries dispute those assertions, saying Islam gives full rights to women to work and seek education.

ISIS threat

Kirby also questioned the de facto rulers’ counterterrorism operations against Islamic State militants in Afghanistan.

“[The Taliban] are constantly under threat by ISIS in Afghanistan.  … We know that ISIS remains still a viable threat, a credible threat, not just in Afghanistan, but in other parts of the world too,” Kirby said, using an acronym for the Islamic State terrorist group, which is also known as ISIL or IS.

The Afghan affiliate of the militant outfit, known as Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K, has routinely carried out high-profile attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul, and elsewhere in the country in recent months, killing scores of people.

Neighboring Pakistan also increasingly alleged in recent days that fugitive leaders of the outlawed Pakistani Taliban, also called Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), have increased cross-border terrorist attacks.

The latest attack occurred Monday when a suicide bombing ripped through a packed mosque in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, killing more than 100 people and wounding 225 others. The victims were mostly police officers.

Pakistani officials in Islamabad again pointed fingers at authorities in Kabul for not preventing TTP from launching cross border attacks and raising bilateral tensions. Taliban leaders reject the charges, saying they are not allowing any group to use Afghan soil for such activities.

Kirby noted Friday that the people of Pakistan remain under threat of terrorism from the Pakistani Taliban.

“There’s no question about that. And sadly, we’ve seen that borne out in recent days in a bloody, bloody way,” he said.

“We obviously will continue to stay in touch with Islamabad to see what we could do, what might be possible,” Kirby added when asked whether Washington would support Islamabad in countering the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan. He did not elaborate.

Detained teacher

Meanwhile, the United Nations demanded Friday that the Taliban release a university lecturer and education activist recently detained by security forces in the Afghan capital.

The detainee in question, Ismail Mashal, had reportedly been distributing academic and other books on Kabul’s streets after tearing up his own diploma on live television in protest of the Taliban’s decision to ban female students from higher education.

“It’s a very concerning development. The professor should be released immediately,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told a daily briefing in New York. “This is just yet another sign of the backsliding, shall we say, that we are seeing in Afghanistan with the de facto authorities, especially on issues of education for women and girls.”

A senior Taliban official claimed in a statement that Mashal had been arrested by security forces for gathering a crowd of journalists and for launching “propaganda against the government.”

Abdul Haq Hammad, head of media monitoring at the Taliban information ministry, claimed that he had visited the detained lecturer and found he was being held in good conditions and had been able to contact his family.

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Victims of Pakistan Mosque Suicide Bombing Were Mostly Police, Officials Say

Pakistani authorities say most of the victims of the January 30 deadly suicide attack on a mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan, were local policemen. Over 100 people were killed and dozens more were injured in the attack. Iftikhar Hussain narrates this report from VOA’s Deewa Service. Videographer: Riaz Hussain and Usman Khan

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Indian Police Arrest 1,800 Men in Crackdown on Underage Marriage

Police in Assam have arrested more than 1,800 men for marrying or arranging marriages to underage girls, launching what the eastern Indian state’s chief minister said on Friday was the start of a sustained crackdown on the practice.

Police began the arrests Thursday night, and more were likely, including of people helping to register such marriages in temples and mosques, Himanta Biswa Sarma told Reuters.

“Child marriage is the primary reason behind child pregnancy, which in turn is responsible for high maternal and infant mortality rates,” he said.

Marriage under 18 is illegal in India, but the law is openly flouted.

The United Nations estimates that the country is home to the largest number of child brides in the world at around 223 million. Nearly 1.5 million underage girls get married there every year, U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said in a 2020 report.

“From Muslims to Hindus, Christians, tribal people to those belonging to the tea garden communities [tribal tea garden workers], there are men from all faiths and communities who got arrested for this heinous social crime,” Sarma said.

The Assam government has registered cases related to child marriage against 4,004 people, he added. 

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Pakistan ‘Will Have to Agree’ to IMF Conditions for Bailout, PM Says

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said Friday the government would have to agree to IMF bailout conditions that are “beyond imagination.”

An International Monetary Fund delegation landed in Pakistan on Tuesday for last-ditch talks to revive vital financial aid that has stalled for months.

The government has held out against tax rises and subsidy slashing demanded by the IMF, fearful of backlash ahead of elections due in October.

“I will not go into the details but will only say that our economic challenge is unimaginable. The conditions we will have to agree to with the IMF are beyond imagination. But we will have to agree with the conditions,” Sharif said in televised comments.

Pakistan’s economy is in dire straits, stricken by a balance of payments crisis as it attempts to service high levels of external debt, amid political chaos and deteriorating security.

The country’s central bank said Thursday its foreign exchange reserves had dropped again to $3.1 billion, which analysts said was enough for less than three weeks of imports.

Data on Wednesday showed year-on-year inflation had risen to a 48-year high, leaving Pakistanis struggling to afford basic food items.

Bowing to pressure

Ahead of the IMF visit, Islamabad began to bow to pressure with the prospect of national bankruptcy looming.

The government loosened controls on the rupee to rein in a rampant black market in U.S. dollars, a step that caused the currency to plunge to a record low. Artificially cheap petrol prices have also been hiked.

The world’s fifth-biggest population is no longer issuing letters of credit, except for essential food and medicines, causing a backlog of thousands of shipping containers at Karachi port stuffed with stock the country can no longer afford.

“Accepting IMF conditions will definitely increase prices, but Pakistan has no other choice,” analyst Abid Hasan told AFP. “Otherwise, there is a fear of a situation like Sri Lanka and Lebanon.”

Rejecting conditions and pushing Pakistan to the brink would have “political consequences” for the ruling parties, but so will agreeing to IMF measures raising the cost of living, he said.

Political chaos

The tumbling economy mirrors Pakistan’s political chaos, with former prime minister Imran Khan heaping pressure on the ruling coalition in his bid for early elections while his popularity remains high.

Khan, who was ousted last year in a no-confidence motion, negotiated a multibillion-dollar loan package from the IMF in 2019.

But he reneged on promises to cut subsidies and market interventions that had cushioned the cost-of-living crisis, causing the program to stall.

It is a common pattern in Pakistan, where most people live in rural poverty, with more than two dozen IMF deals brokered and then broken over the decades. 

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UN Says Its Aid Agencies Will Not Quit Afghanistan Despite Taliban Restrictions

The United Nations says its humanitarians will not leave Afghanistan and will continue delivering lifesaving aid despite Taliban restrictions on Afghan women’s work for nongovernmental organizations.

“The humanitarian community does not go on strike,” Martin Griffiths, a top U.N. official for humanitarian affairs, told representatives of member states on Wednesday.

The announcement comes as some international aid agencies have suspended their operations in Afghanistan to protest a December 24, 2022, order by the de facto Taliban government banning local women from working for NGOs.

The Taliban say the restrictions on women’s work and education are temporary until they figure out how this can be done within religious confines.

The Organization of Islamic Cooperation, an intergovernmental body of 48 majority Muslim countries, and many Muslim scholars have condemned the Taliban’s restrictions on women as inherently against Islamic values.

Griffiths, who traveled to Afghanistan last week urging Taliban officials to reverse the ban, said some immediate exceptions have been offered for women to work in the health and education sectors.

“Where exceptions exist, we will work,” he added. “This year, the U.N. has appealed for $4.6 billion in humanitarian response to the crisis in Afghanistan.

The funding, if provided by donors, will be used to assist 28 million Afghans, 6 million of whom are close to famine, Griffiths said.

Last year, donors met nearly 60% of the $4.4 billion the U.N. requested for the Afghanistan appeal.

Despite the U.N.’s readiness to continue operating in the country, it is unclear how donors will respond to providing funding to a country under a system that women’s rights groups have called gender apartheid.

Donors’ dilemma

The United States, European countries and other donors have refused to recognize the Taliban government. They have imposed sanctions and have warned that there would be costs for the group’s misogynistic policies.

Over the past 18 months, the United States has given about $2 billion in humanitarian assistance to U.N. agencies and other relief organizations to feed and assist millions of Afghans who have been pushed to extreme poverty.

“The Taliban regime’s institutionalized abuse of women raises the important question for policymakers of whether the United States can continue providing aid to Afghanistan without benefiting or propping up the Taliban,” the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction said in a report on Thursday.

Taliban authorities extract revenue from aid money to Afghanistan in the form of tax, license fees and administrative expenses, SIGAR said.

Germany, another major humanitarian donor to Afghanistan, has voiced concerns about whether aid can be delivered without violating humanitarian principles.

“It is clear to us that if women cannot continue to work and cannot participate in the implementation of humanitarian aid, then very fundamental humanitarian principles are being violated, principles that must be adhered to in the allocation of humanitarian aid,” German Foreign Ministry spokesperson Andrea Sasse told reporters in Berlin on Wednesday.

“The measures by the Taliban violate all of these principles. As the federal government, we are discussing how to respond to this behavior on the part of the Taliban,” Sasse said.

Sweden, which gave roughly $32 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan in 2022, may provide a similar amount this year but a decision will be made in March.

“We still hope that the edict will be rescinded, since it presents a serious obstacle to the delivery of principled humanitarian aid,” Rebecca Hedlund, a spokesperson for Swedish representation at the U.N., told VOA.

The State Department did not respond to written questions about whether Washington is considering reducing or ending humanitarian aid to a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

Condemning the Taliban’s ban on women, the United States this week announced additional visa restrictions on unnamed Taliban officials and members of their families.

“We continue to coordinate closely with allies and partners around the world on an approach that makes clear to the Taliban that their actions will carry significant costs and close the path to improved relations with the international community,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement on Wednesday.

Activists have questioned the effectiveness of U.S. visa restrictions on Taliban leaders, saying most Taliban officials are already under a U.N. travel ban.

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US Transfers Pakistani Guantanamo Bay Detainee to Belize

Majid Khan, a Pakistani man who has disclosed how he was tortured by the Central Intelligence Agency after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, has been transferred from the Guantanamo Bay U.S. detention facility in Cuba to Belize, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

Khan, 42, admitted in 2012 to conspiring with members of the al-Qaida Islamist militant organization responsible for the 2001 attacks to commit murder as well as providing material support for terrorism and spying and had been serving as a government witness since, according to U.S. officials.

He was captured in Pakistan and previously held at an unidentified CIA “black site” from 2003 to 2006.

Thirty-four detainees — down from a peak population of 800 — remain at the Guantanamo Bay facility, with 20 already eligible for transfer, according to U.S. officials.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin notified U.S. lawmakers about his intent to transfer Khan last year, the Pentagon said in a statement.

“The United States appreciates the willingness of the government of Belize and other partners to support ongoing U.S. efforts focused on responsibly reducing the detainee population and ultimately closing the Guantanamo Bay facility,” the Pentagon added.

In a 39-page statement that Khan read aloud to a military sentencing commission in 2021, he described being hanged from a beam by his hands for days, naked except for a hood over his head at the CIA site. Guards would “throw ice water on my naked body every hour or two and placed a fan to blow directly on me,” Khan said.

Khan told of being beaten, subjected to the simulated drowning technique called waterboarding and raped anally by objects. He also said he had been deprived of sleep and food, kept isolated and shackled in a cell with music blaring 24 hours a day. This went on for three years, from the time of his arrest in Karachi, Pakistan, in 2003 until he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Khan said.

The detention camp at the Guantanamo Bay U.S. naval base was opened under Republican President George W. Bush in 2002. President Barack Obama, a Democrat who succeeded Bush, whittled down the number, but his effort to close the prison was stymied largely by Republican opposition in Congress.

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