BY SHASHI MALLA
• Afghanistan: Rise of a Charismatic New Leader *
Taliban Attack Kunduz Again
Even as the United States and the extremist militant Taliban seem close to finalizing a deal for the withdrawal of American troops from the war-torn South/West Asian country, forces of the hardline Islamist group have attacked the northern Afghan city of Kunduz.
After the Taliban insurgents mounted attacks from several directions last Friday night, heavy fighting has been going on in Kunduz city. The government forces have had to retaliate and secure reinforcement to prevent the Taliban from gaining control over parts of the city. The Taliban have used their usual tactic of seeking shelter inside private homes and hospitals and taken positions in civilian areas. This makes it impossible for Afghan and U.S. forces to conduct air strikes.
The fighting in Kunduz, a strategic northern city that the Taliban came close to capturing in recent years, came as expectations have risen that U.S. and Taliban negotiators in Doha, Qatar were close to securing an agreement that would see a timetable for the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops.
ZalmayKhalilzad, the Afghan-born U.S. diplomat leading the talks for Washington, is expected in Kabul soon to outline the terms of a settlement to the Afghan president Ashraf Ghani ahead of meetings with NATO partners. However, Khalilzad seems hell bent on forging ahead, although first, the Taliban have rejected talks with the internationally recognized government in Kabul [which they term a U.S. puppet] for a wider, comprehensive peace agreement.
Second, they have also rejected out of hand the U.S. continuing to maintain a force in Afghanistan, even after such a deal [until now illusory] had been struck. They demand a complete pullout of all foreign forces from the country.
A New Charismatic Leader?
Eighteen years after the assassination of revered anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, his only son, 30-year old Ahmad Massoud, wants to galvanise anti-Taliban groups and stop the resurgent insurgents from ushering in a new wave of hardline Islam.
Following in the steps of his father, who rallied various groups under the banner of the “United Front” – also known as the “Northern Alliance” – the younger Massoud wants to build a grand coalition of anti-Taliban elements that can oppose the radical militants, politically at first, and militarily if necessary. Massoud plans to officially launch his political movement on September 5 in Panjshir, his family’s original home valley north of Kabul that neither the Soviets nor the Taliban ever subjugated.
The elder Massoud was acclaimed as the “Lion of Panjshir” and “In a fractious country where a grim gallery of brutal warlords and squabbling grifters is woven into the political tapestry, Afghans still cling to Ahmad Shah Massoud as a unifying figure who could have led the country to a Taliban-free future, were it not for his murder by Al-Qaeda operatives” (AFP). He was assassinated two days before the seismic events of 9/11 that would ever shape the country’s history and trigger the US-led invasion to hunt Osama bin Laden and topple his Taliban hosts.
After his father’s death, the younger Massoud finished his schooling in Iran then moved to England to train as a military officer at the exclusive “Royal Military Academy” in Sandhurst and then completed two university degrees in London. He returned home in 2016 to lead his family foundation.
Massoud II has immersed himself completely in the politics of his suffering country and demonstrates true sagacity. As he sees it, the planned US-Taliban deal fails to comprehend the shortcomings of Afghanistan’s political apparatus “a vicious, winner-takes-all system where absolute power is always the goal – and instead rewards an extremist movement [the Taliban] for their tenacity” (AFP).
Instead, he pleads for a visionary undertaking: “Unless we go to a process which distributes power to everyone which decentralizes power in Afghanistan, we cannot solve any problems,” and continues prescient: “It’s going to give a sense of triumph and victory to the Taliban …That’s the real fear, that we are legitimizing, we are giving hope for the terrorist groups across the world.”
Massoud unerringly deduces that the US has been too quick to grant concessions to the Taliban while excluding other Afghans in the peace talks, leaving the militants poised to expand their influence into any void left by the departing American and NATO forces. It’s all happening between America and the Taliban, between the regional powers [above all Pakistan with inexplicable connections to the Taliban]. He vehemently emphasized: “It’s not an Afghan-led process.”
• Hong Kong: No Let-up of Protests
In a continuation of the standoff with the police and defying a police ban, tens of thousands of people last Saturday gathered around Hong Kong island’s central business and government districts.
The main protest was organized to mark the fifth anniversary of China’s rejection of a call for universal suffrage [fully democratic elections] in Hong Kong, the decision that sparked the emblematic “Umbrella Movement”.
Hong Kong riot police and protesters faced off during the 13th weekend of anti-government protests [in which some protesters threw Molotov cocktails (petrol bombs) and bricks at police], and which saw tear gas, pepper spray and water cannon used by police. The water cannon unleashed blue-dyed water, a method that is traditionally used elsewhere to make it easier for police to identify protesters later.
Saturday’s protests took place a day after several leading activists, including two of the “Umbrella Movement’s” leaders, Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, were arrested in a sweeping crackdown. They stand accused of “inciting others to take part in unauthorized assembly” among other charges. Three lawmakers were also detained for their roles in “obstructing” riot police from clearing protesters from the streets. As coordination has been affected by the arrest of its leaders, protest movement organizers have promoted the slogan “be like water”, encouraging protesters to be flexible during demonstrations.
To date, more than 900 people have been arrested in connection with protests since they first broke out in June. Protesters are demanding more democratic freedoms and for embattled Beijing-backed chief executive – who has bungled everything from the start – to resign. However, the Hong Kong government – with the brute force of Beijing behind it – has remained adamant and refused to budge an inch, despite the fact that the protest movement has mobilized millions of people.
In an interesting twist, the “Economist” of London has highlighted how China is using the formidable conqueror Kublai Khan’s [grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan dynasty in China/and doting patron of ARNIKO, Nepal’s greatest architect, sculptor, painter] methods to quell protests in Hong Kong: “At the peak of Kublai Khan’s empire-building career his reputation for ferocity was such that Mongol armies conquered some cities with handwritten notes, wrapped around arrows and fired over the walls”…urging “inhabitants to submit at once to avoid a siege that was sure to end in mass slaughter.” Allegedly, China’s Communist Party leaders are trying similar tactics in their confrontation with Hong Kong: “Not all conquests require invasion” (Economist, August 29, 2019).
• Germany: Far-Right Surge Thwarted in the East *
The far-right party “Alternative fuer Deutschland” (AfD) made strong gains in two state elections in eastern Germany [part of the former Communist “German Democratic Republic”/GDR and the Soviet empire] on Sunday, but mainstream parties could salvage their positions as the strongest parties in both states.
Voters in Saxony, a region of around 4.1 million people bordering Poland and the Czech Republic, and neighbouring Brandenburg which has 2.5 million inhabitants and completely surrounds the capital city-state Berlin, elected new state legislatures.
All eyes were on the performance of the far-right AfD, which is strongest in the ex-Communist east, and on how badly Germany’s governing parties – the centre-right Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU in Bavaria) and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) – would do after a rough 18 months for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s grand coalition in Berlin. A symbolically important AfD win in either state could have further destabilized the national government.
AfD co-leader JoergMeuthen declared himself “highly satisfied” with the outcome, saying that “things can’t go much better than this.” But mainstream parties voiced relief that this party was held to second place in both states of the federation. The governing parties performed better than pre-election polling predicted. However, both lost ground compared with the last state elections in 2014, before Frau Merkel allowed the massive migrant influx in 2015 that boosted AfD’s support and helped itcatapult into the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament in 2017.
Merkel’s CDU won 32.1 % percent of the vote in Saxony, which it has governed since German reunification in 1991, down from 39 % percent five years ago. AfD took second place with 27.5 % percent, which was its best performance yet in any state and compares very favourably with 9.7 % percent five years ago. The SPD was down to miserable fourth place with only 7.7 % percent, after The Left (10.4 % percent) and the Greens (8.6 % percent).
In Brandenburg, the Social Democrats did better, winning 26.2 % percent of the vote, but down from 31.9 % percent five years ago. Like the CDU’s showing in Saxony, it was their worst performance there in 29 years of democracy and the end of Communism. The SPD have led in Brandenburg since reunification. AfD won 23.5 % percent up from 12.2 % percent, nearly doubling their share since the 2014 state election. The CDU came in third with 15.6 % percent.
The Greens, who have traditionally struggled in the east but surged in national polls in recent months, made only fairly modest gains on Sunday, achieving 8.6 % percent in Saxony and 10.8 % percent in Brandenburg. However, the environmentalist party may be needed to govern in both states.
In both Saxony and Brandenburg, Merkel’s CDU and the SPD face the daunting task of putting together unwieldy new governing alliances, as the previous coalitions both led have now lost their majorities. In Saxony, the CDU had previously governed with the SPD as its junior partner. The Social Democrats had led in Brandenburg in a coalition with the Left Party, which is even further to their left.
Merkel’s CDU, the Bavarian CSU and the SPD govern together in a fractious national coalition and both are weak in national polls. All mainstream parties have pledged not to form coalitions with the six-year old AfD, which has nevertheless thrived in the opposition. It took 11 % percent of the vote nationwide in the election to the European Parliament in May this year.
The AfD has successfully tapped into disillusionment in the east, particularly in rural areas, among people who feel abandoned after nearly three decades of German unity. Promises of equal living standards have proved illusory, salaries in the east still lag behind those in the west and many young people have left for greener pastures.
Bottom Line: The success of the AfD was a “double slap in the face” to Angela Merkel, but not the “earthquake everyone feared” [Reactions quoted by DW, September 3, 2019].
• UK: PM Johnson suspends Parliament, causing Uproar *
The British people took to the streets of London to vent their anger at PM Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue Parliament. It is set to be closed down from mid-September and re-opened on October 14, just over two weeks ahead of Britain’s scheduled exit from the European Union. MPs have also reacted with indignation comparing the move to a coup d’etat. In addition, a petition against Johnson’s plan had already exceeded one million signatures [likely to fall on deaf ears], as the public outrage rumbled on. UK Labour MP Hilary Benn commented: “The only way out of this [the Brexit impasse] is to go back to the British people. Let [them] take the final decision as they did in the referendum in 2016” (DW/Deutsche Welle).
George Young, the chief whip [of the Conservatives] in the House of Lords resigned, saying that he was very unhappy at the timing and length of the prorogation and its motivation: “I have been unpersuaded by the reasons given for that decision, which I believe risks undermining the fundamental role of Parliament at a critical time in our history and reinforces the view that the Government may not have the confidence of the House for its Brexit policy.”
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described the suspension as a “constitutional outrage”, while Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson said Johnson’s move was “dangerous and unacceptable. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also condemned Johnson’s decision: “It’s not democracy, it’s dictatorship. And if MPs don’t find a way of coming together to stop Boris Johnson in his tracks then today will go down in history as the day any semblance of U.K. democracy died.”
The Labour party announced it would seek an emergency debate on Brexit this week, hoping to introduce legislation that would block a no-deal Brexit.
Boris Johnson is expected to call a general election on 14 October to thwart themif his government is defeated by MPs to a no-deal Brexit.
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