A raging measles outbreak in Afghanistan infected tens of thousands and killed more than 150 people last month alone, the World Health Organization said Friday, warning of more deaths. The UN health agency said the outbreak was particularly concerning since Afghanistan is facing massive food insecurity and malnutrition, leaving children far more vulnerable to the highly contagious disease. "Measles cases have been increasing in all provinces since the end of July 2021," WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva. He said cases had surged recently, ballooning by 18 percent in the week of January 24 and by 40 percent in the last week of the month. In all, 35,319 suspected measles cases were reported in January, including 3,000 that were laboratory confirmed, and 156 deaths. Ninety-one percent of the cases and 97 percent of the deaths were children under the age of five. Lindmeier stressed that the measles-related deaths were likely underreported and the numbers were expected to swell. "The rapid rise in cases in January suggests that the number of deaths due to measles is likely to increase sharply in the coming weeks," Lindmeier said. Measles is a highly-contagious disease caused by a virus that attacks mainly children. The most serious complications include blindness, brain swelling, diarrhoea, and severe respiratory infections. The latest surge in cases comes as Afghanistan is in the grip of a humanitarian disaster, worsened by the Taliban takeover in August -- when Western countries froze international aid and access to assets held abroad. The United Nations has warned that half the country is threatened with food shortages. "Malnutrition weakens immunity, making people more vulnerable to illness and deaths diseases like measles, especially children," Lindmeier said. The best protection against measles is broad vaccination, with the WHO recommending that countries ensure at least 95-percent vaccination coverage -- a difficult goal in the Afghan context. Lindmeier said the WHO and its partners had been working to scale up their measles surveillance capacities and provide support for things like lab testing and immunisation campaigns. Last December, a vaccination campaign in the hardest-hit areas reached 1.5 million children, he said. They have also been providing Vitamin A supplements, which are important to help reduce sickness and death from measles, reaching 8.5 million children in a nationwide campaign last November. The WHO, Lindmeier said, was now working towards a larger measles vaccination drive starting in May, aimed at reaching more than three million children.
Afghanistan’s public universities opened yesterday for the first time since the Taliban took over the country last year, with female students joining their male counterparts heading back to campus. The Taliban administration has not officially announced its plan for female university students, but education officials told Reuters women were permitted to attend classes on the condition that they were separated from male students. A Reuters witness in the eastern city of Jalalabad saw female students entering via a separate door at Nangarhar University, one of the large government universities opening this week. Under their previous rule from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban barred women and girls from education. The group says it has changed since resuming power on August 15 as foreign forces withdrew. But it has been vague on its plans and high school-aged girls in many provinces have still not been allowed to return to school. Some private universities have reopened, but in many cases female students have not been able to return to class. A female medical student at Nangarhar University who asked not be named for security reasons said that classes had already been separated by gender, but it was not clear if they were still able to be taught by male lecturers or interact outside the classroom with male students. “Only our studying shifts are separated, although we have been told not to walk around the university until the boys’ time is complete,” she said. “Despite all the changes and conditions, I still want to continue because my education should not be incomplete,” she added. The international community has made education of girls and women a key part of its demands as the Taliban seek more foreign aid and the unfreezing of overseas assets. Aid groups have raised the alarm that the stalled financial system and a stark drop in foreign funding that used to form the backbone of the economy are creating a humanitarian catastrophe in the country, already battered by decades of war. The United Nations late on Tuesday praised the inclusion of female students at public universities, appearing to indicate official confirmation. “Let’s all support the return of Afghan young female and male students to the universities across Afghanistan,” the UN’s Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, added in a Tweet. “Supporters can consider a range of scholarship programmes and ongoing support to female and male professors,” she said. An education official who asked not be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media said universities had been given different options to keep female students isolated, including separated classes and staggered operating hours. Khalil Ahmad Bihsudwal, the head of Nangarhar University, told Reuters male and female students at the institution would attend separate classes, a practice already in place in many provinces. Only universities in warmer provinces opened on Wednesday. Tertiary institutions in colder areas, including Kabul, are due to resume on February 26.
The first Taliban delegation to visit Europe since returning to power in Afghanistan began talks yesterday in Oslo with Afghan civil society members focused on human rights, ahead of highly-anticipated meetings with Western officials. Headed by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, the delegation is to dedicate the first day of their three-day visit to talks with women activists and journalists, among others. The discussions, which are being facilitated by Norway and are to focus on human rights and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, are taking place behind closed doors at the Soria Moria Hotel on the outskirts of Oslo. The humanitarian situation has deteriorated drastically since August, when the Taliban stormed back to power 20 years after being toppled. International aid came to a sudden halt after their takeover, worsening the plight of millions of people who were already suffering from hunger after several severe droughts. The Islamists were ousted by a US-led coalition in 2001 but took over again amid a hasty withdrawal by international forces. No country has yet recognised the Taliban government, and Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt stressed that the talks would “not represent a legitimisation or recognition of the Taliban”. “But we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country. We cannot allow the political situation to lead to an even worse humanitarian disaster,” Huitfeldt said Friday. A handful of demonstrators protested outside the Norwegian foreign ministry on Saturday. Today, the Taliban will meet with representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy and the European Union, while tomorrow will be dedicated to bilateral talks with Norwegian officials. In an interview with AFP on Saturday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the hardline Islamists hoped the talks would help “transform the atmosphere of war... into a peaceful situation”. Joining the delegation from Kabul is Anas Haqqani, a leader of the most feared and violent faction of the Taliban movement — the Haqqani network, responsible for some of the most devastating attacks in Afghanistan. A senior official with no formal government title, he was jailed for several years at the United States’ Bagram detention centre outside of the capital Kabul before being released in a prisoner swap in 2019.
Afghan businessman Shoaib Barak is struggling to pay his workers and suppliers, unable to access funds from a banking system crippled by the freezing of the nation’s overseas assets. They, in turn, can’t pay their bills — and so the country’s economic woes trickle down and hurt everyone along an unbroken chain of misery. “I feel very ashamed,” said Barak, who until recently employed some 200 people across the country — mostly in his construction business. “For me, for every Afghan, it’s really disgusting. I do not even have the ability to pay salaries for my staff.” To avoid giving the Taliban access to Afghanistan’s reserves, Washington froze an estimated $10bn held by the central bank abroad after the hardline Islamists seized power on August 15. Equating to around half what the country’s economy produced last year, that move in turn starved banks used by Afghan businesses and citizens of access to dollars. Even if limited funds were released, the bulk could be tied up in the American legal system for years while subject to claims by victims of the September 11, 2001, Al Qaeda attacks on the US. Ordinarily, the reserves could be dipped into to pay overdue government bills and development projects, but the freeze has trickled down to the rest of the economy. “Just release the reserves,” Barak pleaded. “If you have a problem with... the Taliban, don’t take revenge on the nation, the people.” Barak’s cash flow crisis illustrates the problems faced by tens of thousands of Afghans who simply can’t access most of their money. He says he has around $3mn tied up in Afghan banks — money earned over the years from lucrative private and government contracts, which were paid in dollars as aid poured into the public purse under the pre-Taliban regime. But with local banks limiting weekly withdrawals to five percent of a business account’s balance — up to a maximum of $5,000 — Barak is months behind on both invoices and salaries to his staff. Ahmad Zia is one of them. The 55-year-old engineer was earning 60,000 Afghanis per month — equivalent to $770 before the Taliban took over and the currency plunged 25%. Four months later, Zia is struggling to make ends meet and fears his once comfortably-off family of six will only “eat one or two times” per day. It isn’t just Barak’s employees who are suffering. Ehsanullah Maroof’s now-defunct law business relied heavily on a monthly retainer from Barak’s construction company. “The kids went to a very good school,” he told AFP, noting proudly that his nine-year-old daughter Rana topped her year. But now he can’t afford the right medicine for an epileptic son, and Rana has been expelled because the family can’t pay school fees. The misery trickles down even further — to the Maroof family maid, who is now jobless. Gulha, 42, earned 8,000 Afghanis a month and was the main breadwinner in her seven-strong family. Now she is two months behind on rent and running out of food. “I have 14kg (30 pounds) of rice, 20-21kg of flour and some oil,” she told AFP in a one-room apartment where she allows neighbours to share the nightly warmth of a wood-burner as winter descends. “It will last 10 days.” Once that is gone she will join millions of her compatriots who are utterly dependent on aid. The United Nations Security Council on Wednesday unanimously adopted a US resolution to help humanitarian aid reach desperate Afghans while seeking to keep funds out of Taliban hands — a move welcomed by the Islamists as a “good step”. But whether enough cash arrives to contain the unfolding humanitarian disaster ultimately still depends on “the viability of the banking system”, said Hanna Luchnikava-Schorsch, Principal Asia Pacific economist at IHS Markit. Many Afghan banks are “pretty close to collapse”, she told AFP, and overseas institutions will probably be “terrified” of falling foul of sanctions despite the UN resolution. For many ordinary Afghans, any relief will come too late. International organisations warn one million Afghan children could die this winter, Barak notes. “Who do you think will be blamed — the Taliban, or the US?”
The Pentagon said Monday that no US troops or officials would face disciplinary action for a drone strike in Kabul in August that killed 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children. Spokesman John Kirby said Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had received a high-level review of the strike that made no recommendation of accountability. "There was not a strong enough case to be made for personal accountability," Kirby said. Aimal Ahmadi, 32, who lost his three-year-old daughter, his brother and six nephews and nieces in the strike, expressed anger at the decision on Tuesday. "God will take revenge," Ahmadi said, adding "what if the US had lost a child? What would the reaction have been?" The Taliban urged Washington to reverse the decision, with a spokesman saying the US should punish the culprits and compensate the victims". The August 29 drone strike took place in the final days of the US-led evacuation of Kabul after the Taliban seized control of the country. US officials said they had intelligence of a possible Islamic State attack on the evacuation operations at Kabul airport, and launched a missile from a drone at a target that was thought to be a car laden with munitions. In fact, they struck a family that included an Afghan man who worked for a US aid group and seven children. In early November, an initial report carried out by the US Air Force inspector general, Lieutenant General Sami Said, called the strike tragic, but "an honest mistake." The review by Central Command head General Kenneth McKenzie Jr. and Special Operations Command chief General Richard Clarke made use of Said's report and detailed recommendations on procedures for future drone strikes. But it made no call for anyone to be punished for the mistake. "What we saw here was a breakdown in process, in execution and procedural events, not the result of negligence, not the result of misconduct, not the result of poor leadership," said Kirby. If Austin "believed... that accountability was warranted, he would certainly support those kinds of efforts," Kirby added. - Compensation payments -The strike killed Zemari Ahmadi, an employee of US-based Nutrition and Education International, and nine members of his family. Last month, NEI founder and president Steve Kwon called the Pentagon's investigation into the incident "deeply disappointing and inadequate." The Pentagon promised to pay compensation and also to help relocate family members and Afghans working for NEI overseas, but that remains stuck on determining just who qualifies, according to officials. Kirby said they are still discussing arrangements with Kwon. "We are working very hard with him and his organization to effect the relocation of the family members," Kirby said. "We want to make sure we do it in the most safe and responsible way, so that we know it's getting to the right people and only to the right people." Afghanistan's Taliban government Tuesday urged the US to reverse its decision not to punish personnel. "If there is any justice and regard for human rights and respect for human dignity, then it's their responsibility to punish the culprits and compensate the victims," said spokesman Bilal Karimi. Kirby refused to comment on a New York Times story Monday that detailed a secret US military unit that launched drone strikes on Islamic State targets in Syria and had a callous attitude toward civilian deaths. "We take issues of civilian harm very seriously," Kirby said. "And when we don't get it right, we want those mistakes investigated."
An Afghan whose daughter was among 10 relatives killed by a wrongly directed US drone strike expressed anger Tuesday at Washington's announcement that nobody would be punished for the deadly mishit. "God will take revenge," said Aimal Ahmadi, 32, who lost his three-year-old daughter Malika and nine other relatives in the August 29 strike, which came as the US military scrambled to complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Pentagon said Monday that no US service member would face disciplinary action for what it called an "honest mistake" in wrongly identifying the family's white Toyota car as an Islamic State target. "There was not a strong enough case to be made for personal accountability," said spokesman John Kirby. The drone hit came three days after an IS suicide bomb attack at Kabul airport killed more than 150 people -- including 13 US troops -- significantly raising tensions in the evacuating force. Asked by AFP if he felt angry, Ahmadi said: "Definitely... What if the US had lost a child? What would the reaction have been?" The Pentagon has promised to pay compensation and help relocate surviving family members but Ahmadi said the family had heard nothing directly from the US government or military. "We have only heard through the media... that they were sorry," he said. Afghanistan's Taliban government on Tuesday urged the United States to reverse the decision not to punish anyone. "If there is any justice and regard for human rights and respect for human dignity, then it's their responsibility to punish the culprits and compensate the victims," said Taliban spokesman Bilal Karimi. Ahmadi's brother Zemari, who also died in the drone strike, had been an employee of US aid group Nutrition and Education International (NEI) at the time. Last month, NEI founder and president Steve Kwon called the Pentagon's investigation into the incident "deeply disappointing and inadequate". Relatives of the family have previously said they want a face-to-face apology from US officials.
The so-called Troika Plus group pledged yesterday to try to ease severe pressure on Afghanistan’s banking system as it warned of possible economic collapse and a humanitarian disaster that could fuel a new refugee crisis. The group, made up of Pakistan, China, Russia and the United States, met in Islamabad against a backdrop of growing alarm over the situation in Afghanistan, where more than half the population is facing severe hunger over the coming winter. “I urge the international community to fulfil its collective responsibility to avert a grave humanitarian crisis,” Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan wrote on Twitter, adding that Pakistan would provide aid including food, emergency medical supplies and winter shelters. The Taliban victory in August saw the billions of dollars in foreign aid that had kept the economy afloat abruptly switched off, with more than $9 billion in central bank reserves frozen outside the country. “Nobody wishes to see a relapse into civil war, no one wants an economic collapse that will spur instability,” Pakistan’s foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said. “Everyone wants terrorist elements operating inside Afghanistan to be tackled effectively and we all want to prevent a new refugee crisis,” he told the envoys, who also met the Taliban acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi. Restrictions on the banking system put in place by international governments since the Taliban took over have deepened the pain for Afghans, prompting growing calls for the freeze on the reserves to be lifted. The troika said it acknowledged concerns about the “serious liquidity challenges and committed to continue focusing on measures to ease access to legitimate banking services.” Pakistan has called on governments, including the United States, to allow development assistance to flow into Afghanistan to prevent collapse. Pakistan has also discussed the idea of Afghanistan joining CPEC, its multi-billion dollar infrastructure project with China, which comes under the banner of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Yesterday’s conference, which reiterated calls on the Taliban to ensure women’s rights are respected and that Afghanistan does not become a base for militant groups to carry out attacks outside the country, is the latest in a series of diplomatic meetings in the region. Muttaqi arrived in Islamabad on Wednesday to discuss trade and other ties, while neighbouring India held a conference for regional countries on Wednesday, though Pakistan did not attend that meeting.
The new US special envoy for Afghanistan will visit Pakistan this week for a meeting with the Taliban foreign minister and senior diplomats from China and Russia, a Pakistani official and the US State Department said. It will be Thomas West's first trip to the region since taking over from Zalmay Khalilzad, the long-serving diplomat who spearheaded the talks that led to the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. The so-called "troika plus" meeting, due to take place on Thursday in Islamabad, will include the Afghan Taliban's new foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, a senior Pakistani government official told AFP on condition of anonymity. The State Department said earlier in the week that West also plans to visit Russia and India. "Together with our partners, he will continue to make clear the expectations that we have of the Taliban and of any future Afghanistan government," State Department spokesman Ned Price told a briefing this week. The senior Pakistani official said the meeting is "primarily aimed at... finding ways to avert a humanitarian crisis and to look into possibilities of setting up an inclusive government in Afghanistan". The United Nations has repeatedly warned that Afghanistan is on the brink of the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with more than half the country facing "acute" food shortages and winter forcing millions to choose between migration and starvation. West, who was in Brussels this week to brief NATO on US engagements with the Taliban, told reporters that the Islamists have "very clearly" voiced their desire to see aid resumed, as well as to normalise international relations and see sanctions relief. He called for unity from allies on those issues, noting that Washington "can deliver none of these things on our own". - Islamic State threat - That includes China, with whom the United States has clashed in recent months over issues including Taiwan. West said Beijing has a "positive role" to play in Afghanistan. He said that while he will visit India, he did not plan to attend a regional security dialogue on Afghanistan there on Wednesday. Indian officials said that meeting involved Russia and Iran as well as Central Asian nations Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Pakistan -- India's arch-rival -- was also invited but declined, as did China, Islamabad's close ally. Indian media cited the foreign ministry in Beijing as blaming "scheduling reasons". India was an enthusiastic supporter of the ousted Western-backed government of Afghanistan. Ajit Doval, the Indian national security advisor, echoed West's call for close cooperation among regional allies as he opened the meeting in New Delhi. "I am confident that our deliberations will be productive, useful and will contribute to help the people of Afghanistan and enhance our collective security," he said. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told a press conference on Wednesday that the group welcomes the various regional meetings. "We have no worries, the meetings will be for Afghanistan's benefit because the entire region believes that the security of Afghanistan is for the benefit of all," he said. West also touched on security in the region, saying the United States is concerned about a recent uptick in attacks by the Islamic State group in Afghanistan. "We want the Taliban to be successful against them," he said. He added that Al-Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan "is an issue of ongoing concern for us in our dialogue with the Taliban".
At least 19 people were killed and 50 others injured in an attack on a military hospital in Kabul on Tuesday, the latest assault to rock Afghanistan since the Taliban seized power. Two blasts struck close to the entrance of the sprawling site followed by reports of shooting inside the hospital, the Taliban and a witness said. "Nineteen dead bodies and about 50 wounded people have been taken to hospitals in Kabul," a health ministry official who asked not to be named told AFP. The Taliban spent 20 years waging an insurgency against the ousted US-backed government. Now they face the struggle of bringing stability to Afghanistan, which has been hit in recent weeks by a series of bloody assaults by the Islamic State group's local chapter. Tuesday's attack has not yet been claimed by any group. "I am inside the hospital. I heard a big explosion coming from the first checkpoint. We were told to go to safe rooms. I also hear guns firing," a doctor at the Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan hospital in Kabul told AFP. "I can still hear gun firing inside the hospital building. I think the attackers are going from room to room... like the first time it was attacked," the doctor added. The hospital, which treats wounded soldiers from both the Taliban and former Afghan security forces, was previously attacked in 2017, when gunmen disguised as medical personnel killed at least 30 people in an hours-long siege. A Taliban media spokesman confirmed two explosions hit the hospital area on Tuesday. "One explosion has happened at the gate of the military hospital and a second somewhere near the hospital, this is our initial information, we will provide more details later," he told AFP. Qari Saeed Khosty, a spokesman for the interior ministry, said Taliban special forces had rushed to the scene to secure the area after "a bomb" exploded. AFP journalists heard a second blast followed by gunfire. Although both IS and the Taliban are hardline Sunni Islamist militants, they have differed on the minutiae of religion and strategy. IS have claimed four mass casualty attacks since the Taliban takeover on August 15, including suicide bomb blasts targeting Shiite Muslim mosques. It regards Shiite Muslims as heretics. In the 2017 attack on the military hospital, militants went room to room killing people, switching to knives when they ran out of ammunition. That attack was claimed by the Islamic State group, and the Taliban denied responsibility. An Italian NGO which runs a separate hospital in the capital tweeted on Tuesday that it has received nine patients with injuries from the blast site. Pictures shared on social media showed black smoke billowing into the air after the explosions, the first of which went off at around 1:00 pm (0830 GMT). AFP journalists saw Taliban fighters racing to the scene in at two armoured personnel carriers (APCs) and pick-up trucks. Roads close to the heavily fortified "Green Zone" where the buildings of several former Western embassies are located were closed off to traffic and Taliban guards scaled up searches. Sirens could be heard in the streets and ambulances were seen speeding towards the blast site, and two helicopters circled above the city throughout the afternoon.
Afghanistan is on the brink of one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, UN agencies warned yesterday, with more than half the country facing “acute” food shortages. More than 22 million Afghans will suffer food insecurity this winter, they said, as a drought driven by climate change adds to the disruption caused by the chaotic Taliban takeover of the country. “This winter, millions of Afghans will be forced to choose between migration and starvation unless we can step up our life-saving assistance,” said David Beasley, executive director of the World Food Programme. The crisis is already bigger in scale than the shortages facing war-torn Yemen or Syria, and worse than any food insecurity emergency apart from the Democratic Republic of Congo, officials told AFP. “Afghanistan is now among the world’s worst humanitarian crises — if not the worst — and food security has all but collapsed,” Beasley said in a statement. “We are on a countdown to catastrophe and if we don’t act now, we will have a total disaster on our hands.” According to the statement issued by the World Food Programme and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, one in two Afghans faces Phase 3 “crisis” or Phase 4 “emergency” food shortages. Phase 4 is one step below a famine, and officials told AFP that Afghanistan — already struggling to emerge from a 20-year civil war — is facing its worst winter in a decade. FAO Director-General Qu Dongyu said: “It is urgent that we act efficiently and effectively to speed up and scale up our delivery in Afghanistan before winter cuts off a large part of the country, with millions of people — including farmers, women, young children and the elderly — going hungry in the freezing winter.” In August, the hardline Taliban overthrew the US-backed regime and declared an interim government, vowing to restore stability. But the Taliban still face a range of international sanctions and a campaign of bloody attacks by rival hardliners the Islamic State — while climate change has made Afghanistan’s droughts more frequent and intense. In the west of the country, thousands of poor families have already sold their flocks and fled, seeking shelter and assistance in packed temporary camps near major cities. A visit by AFP journalists to the provinces of Herat and Badghis found families forced to sell their daughters into early marriage to cover debts and secure enough food to survive. On Sunday, the Taliban announced a plan to pay 40,000 labourers in grain in the Kabul region, employing them to dig holes to trap the winter snow and provide moisture for barren hills. Asked about the humanitarian crisis, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP on Sunday: “We are trying to get our people out of the current situation and help them. Global humanitarian aid has also arrived.” “We are trying to arrange and distribute, including food and clothing. All worries will be resolved,” he added. “Regarding the drought, we hope to have a wet winter. But if the drought continues we will take appropriate measures in the spring.” The UN agencies warned that their humanitarian response plan is only a third funded as it stands. The FAO is seeking $11.4 million in urgent funding and a further $200 million for the agricultural season into 2022. Fearing new refugee outflows from Afghanistan, international donors have pledged hundreds of millions of dollars for the country but they do not want to work with the Taliban directly. “Hunger is rising and children are dying. We can’t feed people on promises — funding commitments must turn into hard cash,” Beasley said. “The international community must come together to address this crisis, which is fast spinning out of control.”
Russia, China and Pakistan are willing to provide aid to Afghanistan, the Russian foreign ministry said yesterday, but Moscow said it was not yet ready to recognise the Taliban government. The promise of humanitarian aid and economic support came after talks between Russian, Chinese and Pakistani officials, who will be joined by representatives of Afghanistan’s Islamist rulers at a meeting in Moscow today. But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia was withholding recognition from the Taliban while waiting for them to fulfil promises they made when they took power, including on the political and ethnic inclusivity of the new government. Critics say the former rebel movement is backtracking on pledges not to sideline women and minorities, or persecute foes. “Official recognition of the Taliban is not under discussion for now,” Lavrov told reporters. “Like most of other influential countries in the region, we are in contact with them. We are prodding them to fulfil the promises they made when they came to power.” In mid-August, the Afghan government collapsed as the United States and allies withdrew troops after 20 years on the ground, leading the Taliban to seize power in a lightning offensive. Russia, which fought its own disastrous war in Afghanistan from 1979-1989, is trying to seize the diplomatic initiative to avoid instability in the wider region that could damage its interests. In particular it is worried by the possibility of militants seeping into the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, a region Moscow views as a defensive buffer. Other Russian officials have tempered expectations for today’s talks. The United States said it would not join this round but planned to do so in the future. Zamir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin’s special representative on Afghanistan, said last week he did not expect any major breakthrough at the talks. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described them as “an attempt to know what will happen in Afghanistan going forward.” US denies access to Afghan central bank reserves Deputy US Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo yesterday said he sees no situation where the Taliban, who regained power in Afghanistan in August, would be allowed access to Afghan central bank reserves, which are largely held in the United States. The Taliban have called for the United States to lift a block on more than $9bn of Afghan central bank reserves held outside the country as the government struggles to contain a deepening economic crisis. “We believe that it’s essential that we maintain our sanctions against the Taliban but at the same time find ways for legitimate humanitarian assistance to get to the Afghan people. That’s exactly what we’re doing,” Adeyemo told the Senate Banking Committee. The Taliban took back power in Afghanistan in August after the United States pulled out its troops, almost 20 years after the Islamists were ousted by US-led forces following the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States. Washington and other Western countries are grappling with difficult choices as a severe humanitarian crisis looms large in Afghanistan. They are trying to work out how to engage with the Taliban without granting them the legitimacy they seek, while ensuring humanitarian aid flows into the country. “Our goal is to make sure that we are implementing our sanctions regime against the Taliban and the Haqqani network, but at the same time allowing for the permissible flow of humanitarian assistance into the country,” Adeyemo said. The Haqqani network is a group affiliated with the Taliban and blamed for some of the worst suicide attacks of the war. Adeyemo said the Treasury was taking every step it could within its sanctions regime to make clear to humanitarian groups that Washington wants to facilitate the flow of aid to the Afghan people, but warned that for humanitarian assistance to flow, the Taliban have to allow it to happen within the country.
Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, who was shot by the Taliban as a schoolgirl, has urged Afghanistan’s new rulers to let girls return to school. It has been one month since the hardline Taliban, which seized power in August, excluded girls from returning to secondary school while ordering boys back to class. The Taliban have claimed they will allow girls to return once they have ensured security and stricter segregation under their interpretation of Islamic law — but many are sceptical. “To the Taliban authorities...reverse the de facto ban on girls’ education and re-open girls’ secondary schools immediately,” Yousafzai and a number of Afghan women’s rights activists said in an open letter published on Sunday. Yousafzai called on the leaders of Muslim nations to make it clear to the Taliban that “religion does not justify preventing girls from going to school”. “Afghanistan is now the only country in the world that forbids girls’ education,” said the writers, who included the head of the Afghan human rights commission under the last US-backed government Shaharzad Akbar. The authors called on G20 world leaders to provide urgent funding for an education plan for Afghan children. A petition alongside the letter had yesterday received more than 640,000 signatures. Education activist Yousafzai was shot by militants from the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, an offshoot of the Afghan Taliban, in her home town in the Swat valley while on a school bus in 2012. Now 24 years old, she advocates for girls’ education, with her non-profit Malala Fund having invested $2mn in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan will kick off its first countrywide polio immunisation campaign in years next month to protect millions of unvaccinated children, the UN said Monday. The United Nations' health and children's agencies said the campaign to vaccinate against the crippling and potentially fatal disease would begin on November 8, with full support from the Taliban leadership. "WHO and UNICEF welcome the decision by the Taliban leadership supporting the resumption of house-to-house polio vaccination across Afghanistan," they said in a statement. Since the Taliban swept back into power two months ago, the UN had been talking with the group's leadership to address the towering health challenges in the country, the statement said. "The Taliban leadership has expressed their commitment for the inclusion of female frontline workers," it said. Afghanistan's new rulers had also committed to "providing security and assuring the safety of all health workers across the country, which is an essential prerequisite for the implementation of polio vaccination campaigns," the agencies said. That marks a dramatic about-face from the Islamists' position during their years of insurgency against the ousted Western-backed government. Due in large part to Taliban opposition to door-to-door vaccination campaigns, which they suspected were being used to spy on their activities, no campaigns with countrywide reach have been carried out in over three years. Taliban leaders often told communities in areas they controlled that vaccines were a Western conspiracy aimed at sterilising Muslim children. - 'Opportunity to eradicate polio' - The UN agencies said next month's campaign would aim to reach 9.9 million children under five — more than a third of them in regions that had long been inaccessible to vaccinators. A second nationwide polio vaccination campaign had also been agreed upon and would be synchronised with a campaign planned in neighbouring Pakistan in December, they said. "This is an extremely important step in the right direction," WHO Representative in Afghanistan Dapeng Luo said in the statement. "Sustained access to all children is essential to end polio for good." In rare cases, polio infections surface in other countries caused by one type of polio vaccine that is no longer used — OPV — which contains small amounts of weakened but live poliovirus. The UN agencies noted that only one case of wild poliovirus had been reported in Afghanistan since the start of the year, providing "an extraordinary opportunity to eradicate polio." "Restarting polio vaccination now is crucial for preventing any significant resurgence of polio within the country and mitigating the risk of cross-border and international transmission," they said. Herve Ludovic De Lys, UNICEF's representative in Afghanistan, stressed that "to eliminate polio completely, every child in every household across Afghanistan must be vaccinated." "With our partners, this is what we are setting out to do." The UN agencies said that children under five would also be provided with an extra dose of Vitamine A during the campaign. The discussions with the Taliban leadership had also resulted in agreement on the need to "immediately start measles and Covid-19 vaccination campaigns", they said.
The Pentagon has offered unspecified condolence payments to the family of 10 civilians who were killed in a botched US drone attack in Afghanistan in August during the final days before American troops withdrew from the country. The US Defense Department said it made a commitment that included offering "ex-gratia condolence payments", in addition to working with the US State Department in support of the family members who were interested in relocation to the United States. Colin Kahl, the US Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, held a virtual meeting on Thursday with Steven Kwon, the founder and president of Nutrition & Education International, the aid organization that employed Zemari Ahmadi, who was killed in the Aug. 29 drone attack, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said late on Friday. Ahmadi and others who were killed in the strike were innocent victims who bore no blame and were not affiliated with Islamic State Khorasan (ISIS-K) or threats to US forces, Kirby said. The drone strike in Kabul killed as many as 10 civilians, including seven children. The Pentagon had said earlier that the Aug. 29 strike targeted an Islamic State suicide bomber who posed an imminent threat to US-led troops at the airport as they completed the last stages of their withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, reports had emerged almost immediately that the drone strike in a neighborhood west of Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport had killed civilians including children. Video from the scene showed the wreckage of a car strewn around the courtyard of a building. The Pentagon later said the strike was a "tragic mistake". The strike came three days after an Islamic State suicide bomber killed 13 US troops and scores of Afghan civilians who had crowded outside the airport gates, desperate to secure seats on evacuation flights, after US-trained Afghan forces melted away and the Taliban swept to power in the capital in mid-August. The killing of civilians also raised questions about the future of US counter-terrorism strikes in Afghanistan.
A large explosion tore through a mosque in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar during Friday prayers, killing at least 15 people and wounding 31, with the casualty toll likely to rise, officials said. Taliban interior ministry spokesman Qari Saeed Khosti said authorities were collecting details of the explosion, which took place days after a suicide bomb attack claimed by Islamic State (ISIS) on a mosque in the northern city of Kunduz that killed scores of people. Photographs and mobile phone footage posted by journalists on social media showed many people apparently dead or seriously wounded on the bloody floor of the Imam Bargah mosque. A health official said 15 dead and 31 wounded had been brought to the city's Mirwais hospital but the total was expected to rise, with ambulances still bringing victims in. Taliban special forces arrived to secure the site and an appeal went out to residents to donate blood for the wounded. There was no immediate claim of responsibility. The blast, coming so soon after the Kunduz attack underlined the increasingly uncertain security in Afghanistan as the Taliban grapple with an escalating economic and humanitarian crisis that threatens millions with hunger. The local affiliate of ISIS, known as Islamic State Khorasan, after an ancient name for the region covering Afghanistan, has stepped up attacks following the Taliban victory over the Western-backed government in Kabul in August.
An explosion targeting a mosque in the northeastern Afghan province of Kunduz killed 50 people and injured 140 others. Taliban officials and medical sources said that an explosion occurred in a Kunduz mosque during Friday prayers, killing and wounding dozens. No group has claimed responsibility for the explosion, but ISIS has previously claimed responsibility for similar explosions in recent weeks, including an attack on a mosque in the capital, Kabul.
The United Nations agencies estimate that 3.2 million children under the age of five are expected to suffer from acute malnutrition by the end of the year and, and at least 1 million of these children are at risk of dying due to severe acute malnutrition without immediate treatment. According to the United Nations (UN), severe food insecurity affects 14 million people in Afghanistan, as they do not have access to water, food and basic health and nutrition services. The alarm was sounded following a two-day visit to the city of Herat by UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Representative in Afghanistan Herve Ludovic De Lys and World Food Programme's (WFP) Afghanistan Representative and Country Director Mary-Ellen McGroarty. "As more families struggle to put food on the table, the nutritional health of mothers and their children is getting worse by the day," said De Lys. "Children are getting sicker and their families are less and less able to get them the treatment they need. Rapidly spreading outbreaks of measles and acute watery diarrhea will only exacerbate the situation," he added. The two UN agencies are adding 100 more mobile health and nutrition teams. Already 168 mobile teams are providing a lifeline for children and mothers in hard-to-reach areas, according to the UN website. Since the beginning of 2021, the World Food Programme has provided lifesaving food and nutrition assistance to 8.7 million people, including treatment and prevention of malnutrition for nearly 400,000 pregnant and breastfeeding women and 790,000 children under-five.
A senior British envoy held talks with top Taliban officials in Kabul yesterday as the country’s new masters seek a path out of international isolation. The Islamist movement declared a new regime in August. But after 20 years of war the aid-reliant country faces economic collapse, with major donors pausing funding and no emergency support in place. The new rulers have been courting hesitant foreign powers in a bid to restart cash flows to the country, where civil servants and healthcare workers have gone months without salaries. Taliban officials tweeted pictures of the first meeting between Simon Gass, Britain’s special representative for Afghanistan, and deputy prime ministers Abdul Ghani Baradar and Abdul Salam Hanafi. The two sides discussed how Britain can help Afghanistan battle terrorism and a deepening humanitarian crisis – and provide safe passage for those who want to leave the country, a UK government spokesperson said. “They also raised the treatment of minorities and the rights of women and girls,” the spokesperson added, adding that Gass was joined by Martin Longden, charge d’affaires at the now evacuated UK mission to Afghanistan. The Taliban, known for their brutal and oppressive rule from 1996 to 2001, have faced a backlash after effectively excluding women and girls from education and work across the country. Abdul Qahar Balkhi, the Taliban’s foreign ministry spokesman, said the meeting “focused on detailed discussions about reviving diplomatic relations between both countries”. But a UK official was more cautious, stressing that the visit did not represent recognition or “legitimacy” for the Taliban, but rather opening a channel of communication and contact building. “We’re being really realistic,” the official said. “It’s good to be able to get in and get out safely. It’s about pragmatic dialogue, securing safe passage, humanitarian assistance and counter-terrorism.” Western governments have warned that the Taliban must form an “inclusive” government and respect human and women’s rights if they are to be formally recognised. Neighbouring Pakistan, however, has been pushing for the international community to engage with the new rulers and help stabilise a country threatened by famine. The Taliban have made some gestures towards international respectability, while insisting on their right to return to a government based on their hardline interpretation of Islamic law. Interior ministry spokesman Qari Sayed Khosti told AFP that all staff of the passport department “including female employees” were asked to return to their offices. The spokesman said the ministry intended to start issuing Afghan passports again after the system broke down with the fall of the previous government. Girls also returned to some secondary schools in a northern province, Taliban officials and teachers said, despite them remaining barred from classrooms in much of the country. A video posted by the group’s spokesman Suhail Shaheen showed dozens of schoolgirls in black, some wearing white head scarves and others with black face veils, sat in chairs waving Taliban flags. Education ministry official Mohamed Abid said there had been no policy change from the interim central government, telling AFP yesterday: “High schools still remain closed for girls.” The Taliban, which have permitted girls to attend primary school, have said girls will return to secondary schools once their security and strict gender segregation under Shariah law can be ensured. Several teachers and a head teacher in Kunduz city, the provincial capital, told AFP that girls at high schools in some districts had gone back to classes.
Taliban supporters and senior figures held their first mass rally near Kabul yesterday, but the show of strength was overshadowed by a bomb blast targeting mourners inside the Afghan capital. No foreign government has yet recognised the Islamist former rebels’ rule, though their hold on power within the country is becoming stronger, seven weeks after they took Kabul. However, in a sign that the Taliban victory has not brought an end to violence after Afghanistan’s 20-year conflict, an explosion killed at least five and wounded several more outside Kabul’s Eid Gah mosque. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid had said on Saturday that a prayer ceremony would be held at the mosque for his mother following her recent death. He made no reference to this yesterday as he tweeted that the blast had killed several civilians in the area. People in bloodied clothing were seen by AFP arriving at the nearby Kabul Emergency Hospital. A cultural commission official, who asked not to be named, told AFP that five people died and 11 were wounded, adding that the casualties included both civilians and Taliban members. “We have also arrested three people in connection with the blast,” he said. According to the official, the explosive device was placed at the entrance to the mosque and detonated as mourners were leaving after offering condolences to Mujahid and his family. Taliban fighters arriving at the hospital handed over their weapons and stripped off their body armour to go in to donate blood, and the hospital said on Twitter that four patients were being treated. The blast, which could be heard across the centre of the capital, came shortly after the new Taliban “interim government” staged a rally in Kohdaman township in the hilly outskirts of Kabul. “This is the day we waited for,” said Khalil Haqqani, the new minister for refugees, who in 2011 was labelled a terrorist by the United States with a $5mn bounty on his head. He is a prominent leader of the Haqqani militant network founded by his brother Jalaluddin. “We have achieved our goal, but it requires protection,” he told the gathering, with his rifle leaning against the lectern. “My advice to the world is that they leave Afghanistan to Afghanistan.” Flanked by armed Taliban fighters in combat gear, leading officials and commanders addressed an audience sat in rows of chairs under awnings, celebrating victory over the United States and praising suicide bombers. The United States, European nations and other powers that were major donors to the former Afghan government before the Taliban takeover have warned they will not recognise the new administration – made up largely of hardliners and no women – unless it becomes more inclusive. Afghanistan’s neighbour Pakistan has urged the world to engage with the Taliban, while stopping short of itself recognising the new regime. US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, who will be in Islamabad next week, has pressed for an inclusive government in Kabul, and said that Washington looks to “Pakistan to play a critical role in enabling that outcome”.
More than 1,500 Taliban supporters attended a rally on Sunday in a vast field to the north of Kabul, in a show of strength as they consolidate their rule of Afghanistan. The crowd, exclusively men and boys, heard speeches by leading Taliban officials and commanders at Kohdaman township in the hilly outskirts of the capital. The rally was the first of its kind in the capital since the group seized control of the country seven weeks ago following a lightning offensive. Flanked by white and black Taliban standards and fighters in combat gear carrying assault rifles, the speakers addressed an audience sat in rows of chairs under awnings. As the event went on, more and more supporters arrived, leaving several hundred sitting to watch from chairs in the midday sun. Mawlawi Muslim Haqqani, the deputy minister of Hajj and Religious Affairs, hailed the hardliners' takeover, saying Christians and Westerners had been defeated. A string of men also railed against the United States, and one told the crowd to "respect elders" because they were the "mujahids who fought against the Soviets" in the 1980s. A speaker introduced as Rahmatullah, from nearby Mir Bacha Kot, said the Taliban's victory was "the result of those youths who stood in queues to register for suicide attacks". To kick off proceedings, a procession of fighters carrying flags and weapons -- including rocket launchers -- paraded around the crowd. Some of the mainly unarmed supporters waved homemade posters, while others sported red or white Taliban headbands. Tribal elders watched on cross-legged from the side of the stage. As people arrived, music honouring the Taliban's victories echoed around the site as dozens of heavily armed fighters in military combat fatigues stood guard. "America is defeated, impossible, impossible -- but possible!" one song said. Some chanted pro-Taliban slogans as they drove down the dusty road on pick-up trucks to the site. At the turn-off towards the township, about 10 armed fighters lined the road beneath a large banner honouring a deceased Taliban commander and professing the "support of the people of Kohdaman for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in the action of liberating the country". Last Thursday, the Taliban had violently cracked down on a small women's rights demonstration in eastern Kabul, firing shots into the air to disperse protesters. Then, gunmen pushed back the women protesters as they tried to continue with the demonstration, while a foreign journalist was hit with a rifle and blocked from filming. Isolated anti-Taliban rallies -- with women at the forefront -- were staged in cities around the country after the group seized power, including in the western city of Herat where two people were shot dead. But protests have dwindled since the government issued an order banning demonstrations that did not have prior authorisation, warning of "severe legal action" for violators. The handful that have gone ahead have been criticised as carefully orchestrated publicity stunts, including a rally at a Kabul university where hundreds of fully veiled women professed support for the new regime.