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Taliban Rebuke Biden for Questioning Afghan Unity, Governance

The Taliban Friday sharply criticized U.S. President Joe Biden for declaring Afghanistan “not susceptible to unity,” and questioning the competence of the Islamist group’s ability to govern, asserting the humanitarian and economic crisis in their country had been precipitated by the U.S. sanctions.

Speaking to reporters during his Wednesday news conference at the White House, Biden said he makes “no apologies” for his August withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan.

“It’s been the graveyard of empires for a solid reason: It is not susceptible to unity,” he said.  

Biden argued that Washington was spending a billion dollars a week in Afghanistan for 20 years and nobody thought U.S. involvement would ever be able to unite Afghanistan.

“Not divided, but only ‘united’ nations cause the fall of invaders and great empires,” the Taliban foreign ministry responded Friday.

“Discord is an external phenomenon instigated by foreign invaders for their survival, however, Afghans defeated them with their shared Islamic beliefs, homeland & celebrated history, & are now taking strong leaps towards becoming an equal nation,” the statement read.  

Suhail Shaheen, the Taliban’s permanent representative-designate to the United Nations, told VOA he concurs with Biden’s view of Afghanistan being the graveyard of empires. However, the rest of the assertions made by the U.S. president are distant from the ground reality, he said.

“Afghanistan has always been and is united. Afghans across the country speak with one voice when it comes to supporting national interests and national unity,” Shaheen argued.  

Biden expressed regret, however, for changes that have taken place in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover five months ago.

“Now, do I feel badly [about] what’s happening as a consequence of the incompetence of the Taliban? Yes, I do,” the U.S. president said on Wednesday.

Michael Kugelman, the deputy Asia program director at the Wilson Center, described Biden’s comments about Afghanistan as “both defensive and defiant, and clearly meant to emphasize that withdrawal was the right decision despite how bad conditions have become in Afghanistan since the completion of the pullout.”   

“What was striking is that the reasons he gave for the withdrawal were different from those – a need to focus on higher priority issues, the achievement of U.S. goals – that he cited when he first announced his decision to depart [Afghanistan],” Kugelman said.

Shaheen said the current economic crisis and other upheavals facing Afghanistan stem not from the Taliban’s governance but from the financial sanctions the United States and other foreign entities have imposed, including the freezing of billions of dollars in Afghan central bank’s assets.

The international withdrawal led to the immediate suspension of the nonhumanitarian funding that made up more than 75% of the deposed Western-backed Afghan government’s national budget.

“The sanctions are hurting ordinary Afghans not our government. Today, if they release our more than $9.6 billion assets, if they lift the sanctions on our banking system to allow our traders to use routine financial channels for imports and exports, and money starts flowing the way it happens in America, it will pave the way for our economic recovery,” Shaheen said.

“If those sanctions are removed and the crisis still persists, it will certainly be our incompetence and inability to govern,” he added.

Since returning to power, the Taliban have reinstated social restrictions on women, barring most female government employees from returning to work, requiring women to wear hijabs and undertake long road trips only with a male relative. While secondary schoolboys were allowed to resume classes in September, most girls’ schools across Afghanistan remained shuttered.

Shaheen defended the Taliban government, saying it has brought peace and stability to the country in a short period and with limited resources.

The economic challenges have deepened an already bad humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, which is blamed on years of conflicts and natural disasters. The United Nations estimates more than 24 million Afghans, or 55% of the country’s population, face acute food shortages, with 9 million people one step away from famine.

Former Afghan diplomat Omar Samad viewed Biden’s assessment of Afghanistan as flawed because of his misreading of the ground situation and competing U.S. domestic and foreign policy agendas.

“The reality is that the U.S. is still responsible for the unfolding humanitarian disaster and needs to do its part to prevent chaos and instability by pushing for a new political arrangement and lifting of sanctions,” Samad, a senior fellow at Washington’s Atlantic Counci, said.

The U.N.  and the United States have pledged to organize, together with partners, the delivery of humanitarian aid to millions of Afghans who aid workers say are threatened with starvation.  

“We see assignment of blame between President Biden and Taliban. Clearly that is rhetorical talk for the political needs of each side,” said Torek Farhadi, a former Afghan official.

“But in all honesty, the people of Afghanistan didn’t have a say in these political games; why would they have to pay the heavy price of crippling sanctions on their livelihoods,” asked Farhadi.

No country has yet recognized the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. Foreign governments have pledged to send urgent relief aid to Afghans but at the same time they want to make sure it does not end up with the Taliban rulers.

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Biden-Kishida Talks to Touch on North Korea, China

President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida began their first formal talks on Friday as they face fresh concerns about North Korea’s nuclear program and China’s growing military assertiveness.

The virtual meeting comes after North Korea earlier this week suggested it might resume nuclear and long-range missile testing that has been paused for more than three years.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un on Thursday presided over a Politburo meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party at which officials set policy goals for “immediately bolstering” military capabilities to counter what were described as the Americans’ “hostile moves,” according to the Korean Central News Agency.

Both the U.S. and Japan also are concerned about China’s increasing aggression toward Taiwan. China claims self-governing Taiwan as its own territory, to be annexed by force if necessary. In recent months, it has stepped up military exercises near the island, frequently sending warplanes near Taiwan’s airspace.

Japan remains concerned about China intentions in the South China Sea, where it has stepped up its military presence in recent years, and the East China Sea, where there is a long-running dispute about a group of uninhabited islets administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.

White House officials said the two leaders were also expected to discuss ongoing efforts in the COVID-19 pandemic and the brewing crisis in eastern Europe, where Russia has massed some 100,000 troops near its border with Ukraine. Biden earlier this week said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely to order a further invasion of Ukrainian territory but he did not think Putin wanted an all-out war.

Japanese officials said Kishida, who is from Hiroshima, on which the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb at the end of the World War II, is eager to discuss a “world without nuclear weapons” during the summit.

Biden and top aides have sought to rally the support of NATO partners and other allies to respond with harsh sanctions against Russia if it moves forward with military action.

On Thursday, in preparation for the leaders’ call, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Japanese counterpart, Takeo Akiba, held their own call to discuss North Korea, China and “the importance of solidarity in signaling to Moscow the strong, united response that would result from any attack” on Ukraine, according to the White House.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also held virtual talks earlier this month with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, where China’s military maneuvering and North Korea’s nuclear program were discussed.

Friday’s virtual meeting is the first substantial exchange between the leaders since Kishida took office in October. The leaders had a brief conversation on the sidelines of a climate summit in Glasgow in November. Biden was the first leader to call Kishida, on the morning of his first full day in office.

Biden, who has sought to put greater focus on the Indo-Pacific amid China’s rise as a world power, had built a warm relationship with Japan’s last prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, and is hoping to build a similar rapport with Kishida.

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Norway Says Taliban Team Expected in Oslo for Aid Talks

A Taliban delegation is expected to hold talks with Norwegian officials and Afghan civil society representatives in Oslo next week, the Norwegian foreign ministry said Friday.

The visit is scheduled from Sunday to Tuesday, and “the Taliban will meet representatives of the Norwegian authorities and officials from a number of allied countries,” for talks on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan and human rights, the ministry said.

The ministry did not specify which allies would attend, but Norwegian newspaper VG said they would include Britain, the European Union, France, Germany, Italy and the United States.

“We are extremely concerned about the grave situation in Afghanistan, where millions of people are facing a full-blown humanitarian disaster,” said Norwegian Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt.

“In order to be able to help the civilian population in Afghanistan, it is essential that both the international community and Afghans from various parts of society engage in dialogue with the Taliban,” Huitfeldt added.

Stressing that Norway would be “clear about our expectations,” particularly on “girls’ education and human rights,” Huitfeldt said the meetings would “not represent a legitimization 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.

The Taliban swept back to power in Afghanistan last summer as international troops withdrew after a two-decade presence. A U.S.-led invasion in late 2001 toppled the Taliban in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated drastically since August. International aid came to a sudden halt and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion (8.4 billion euros) in assets in the Afghan central bank.

Famine now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55% of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $5 billion from donor countries this year to address the humanitarian crisis in the country. 

 

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TotalEnergies to Leave Myanmar Over Human Rights Abuses

French oil giant TotalEnergies on Friday said it would withdraw from Myanmar over “worsening” human rights abuses committed since the country’s military took power in a February 2021 coup.

“The situation, in terms of human rights and more generally the rule of law, which have kept worsening in Myanmar… has led us to reassess the situation and no longer allows TotalEnergies to make a sufficiently positive contribution in the country,” the company said.

Total will withdraw from its Yadana gas field in the Andaman Sea, which provides electricity to the local Burmese and Thai population, six months at the latest after the expiry of its contractual period.

The company said it had not identified any means to sanction the military junta without avoiding stopping gas production and ensuing payments to the military-controlled Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE).

Around 30% of the gas produced at Yadana is sold to the MOGE for domestic use, providing about half of the largest city Yangon’s electricity supply, according to Total.

International diplomatic pressure and sanctions have been building against Myanmar’s military junta since last year’s coup ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The European Union has imposed targeted sanctions on the Myanmar military, its leaders and entities, while Norwegian telecoms operator Telenor this week sold its stake in a Burmese digital payments service over the coup.

More than 1,400 civilians have been killed as the military cracks down on dissent, according to a local monitoring group, and numerous anti-junta militias have sprung up around the country.

Suu Kyi this month was convicted of three criminal charges and sentenced to four years in prison and now faces five new corruption charges. 

 

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‘Bat Out of Hell’ Singer Meat Loaf Dies at 74

Meat Loaf, the U.S. rock star who rose to global fame with his Bat Out of Hell album, has died at the age of 74.

The American singer and actor, otherwise known as Michael Lee Aday, had a career spanning six decades, and sold more than 100 million albums worldwide.

His hits included the near 10-minute-long title track from Bat Out of Hell, Paradise by the Dashboard Light from the same album, and I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That) from 1993 album Bat Out of Hell II: Back into Hell.

“From his heart to your souls … don’t ever stop rocking!” the statement posted on his own Facebook page said.

“Our hearts are broken to announce that the incomparable Meat Loaf passed away tonight with his wife Deborah by his side.” 

 

 

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Blinken to Meet Russian Foreign Minister on Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Geneva, where he meets Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the fourth time in the last week that U.S. and Russian officials have engaged in direct talks.

The West is demanding that Russia pull its troops and weapons away from the Ukraine border while Moscow is pushing for NATO to curtail its operations in eastern and central Europe and insisting that the Western military alliance reject Ukraine’s membership bid.

Blinken vowed Thursday that the United States and its allies would inflict “swift and massive” costs on Russia if it invades Ukraine but said Russian President Vladimir Putin can still opt for a diplomatic solution to rising tensions in eastern Europe.

Blinken said the U.S. has been “very clear throughout” that if any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border “that they will be met with a swift, severe united response from the U.S, and our allies and partners.”

After meeting with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in Berlin, Blinken said Putin has a choice between “dialogue and diplomacy on the one hand and conflict and consequences on the other hand. He has to decide which course to take.”

Blinken said, “We’re at a decisive juncture,” referring to the standoff between Western countries and Moscow over Putin’s massing of 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern flank.

While the U.S. has been resolute in saying that a Russian military invasion of Ukraine would draw swift and significant economic sanctions, but no U.S. or NATO military response, it has been less clear what the West might do in the event of Russian cyberattacks or other actions against the Kyiv government.

 

At his news conference Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden made confusing remarks about the West’s response to what he called a “minor incursion.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki later said Biden “knows from long experience that the Russians have an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action, including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics. And he affirmed today that those acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response.”

Biden’s comment about a “minor incursion” drew a sharp retort from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who said on Twitter, “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the president of a great power.”

Biden hedged on whether Putin will invade Ukraine, saying, “I’m not so sure he [is] certain what he’s going to do. My guess is he will move in. He has to do something.”

The U.S. leader said he does not believe Putin wants a “full-blown war” but does want to test the resolve of the United States and NATO.

Russia has denied it has intentions of invading Ukraine, while it seeks security guarantees, such as Ukraine not joining the NATO, the seven-decade-old military alliance formed after World War II.

On Thursday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova alleged that Ukrainian and Western claims of an imminent Russian attack on Ukraine were a “cover for staging large-scale provocations of their own, including those of military character.”

“They may have extremely tragic consequences for the regional and global security,” Zakharova said.

She pointed to Britain delivering weapons to Ukraine in recent days, claiming that Ukraine perceives Western military assistance as a “carte blanche for a military operation” in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Some material in this report came from the Associated Press.

 

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Biden: Any Russian Troop Movement into Ukraine Would Trigger Severe Action

U.S. President Joe Biden has sought to clear up any misunderstanding surrounding remarks made Wednesday, saying he has made very clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin that any movement of Russian troops across Ukraine’s border will be treated as an invasion and will trigger severe consequences. VOA’s Senior Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports.

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VOA Exclusive: US AFRICOM Commander Says Mercenaries in Mali Among Growing Threats in Africa

The head of the U.S. Africa Command says security threats are growing across the continent. In his first on-camera interview since taking command two years ago, Gen. Stephen Townsend spoke with VOA Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb about his increasing concerns, including the spread of violent extremist groups, the role of Russian mercenaries, military inroads by China and threats from Iran.