Stories from across the world as viewed through the lens of our Foreign Editor David Pratt
Whenever I’ve visited the Panjshir Valley it’s always been its stunning location that strikes me first. Even at the height of war back in the 1980’s during the Soviet intervention and Afghan resistance against it which saw fierce battles in the valley, it was always impossible to ignore the Panjshir’s natural beauty.
Surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Hindu-Kush mountain range the 60-mile valley with its clean air and crystal-clear waters rushing through gorges would make it a must see on any tourist’s itinerary.
But then again, the Panjshir has rarely known times of peace these past four decades and in those terms at least, it occupies near mythical status. It was here that resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, known as “the Lion of Panjshir” fought off numerous attempts by the Soviet Red Army to take the valley in the 1980s.
It was from here too that the same Massoud and his famed Panjshiris launched their fightback against the Taliban in the 1990’s before his assassination just days before the 9/11 attacks on the US. To this day many believe Massoud’s killing was carried out on the orders of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Twenty years on it has fallen to Massoud’s son, Ahmad Massoud and his National Resistance Front (NRF), comprising anti-Taliban militia fighters and former Afghan security forces to uphold the Panjshir with its network of 21 sub-valleys and bottleneck entrance as the “unconquerable” stronghold.
To date it is the only place in Afghanistan holding out against the Taliban since they swept across the country and into power in Kabul on August 15.
Outgunned by the Taliban forces now awash with weapons captured during their retaking of the country, Massoud the younger along with Afghanistan’s die-hard vice-president Amrullah Saleh, now find themselves holed up in this predominately ethnic Tajik enclave.
Alongside them are several thousand members of local militias, ethnic Hazaras and remnants of Afghan army and special forces units that have been keeping the Taliban at bay.
As author and historian Ben Macintyre recently observed; “as so often in the past, Afghanistan’s future, and its impact on the world, will be decided in this valley.”
So just what then are the chances of Massoud’s fighters getting through the onslaught against them and even perhaps helping encourage or galvanising anti-Taliban resistance in other parts of Afghanistan?
The short answer is that their chances look slim. While for now geography is on the side of the Panjshiris, military analysts and guerrilla warfare specialists point to a number of factors working against the NRF’s hopes.
The first is that they are cut off and surrounded by the Taliban and while the entrance to the Panjshir is notoriously difficult for any attacking force to breach, the Taliban have launched a multi-sided offensive.
They there is the question of resupply, for even though Massoud’s fighters have reputedly been stockpiling weapons, ammunition and supplies for months in anticipation of the Taliban advance, ultimately, they only have finite resources.
And even if resupply to this cut-off rugged mountain redoubt were possible, just who would be willing to supply Massoud’s forces? While in the past his father when fighting against the Soviets could rely on neighbouring Pakistan, CIA, MI6 and other Western backers, the times now have changed.
So too have the interests of such supporters, notably Pakistan whose spy agency the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI) is widely recognised to have assisted the Taliban and not averse to seeing a government in Kabul they can manipulate.
Another crucial factor too is that having borne the brunt of so much war over the years there is a war weariness among many Panjshiris, with some willing to talk to the Taliban as part of a negotiated settlement.
That said, fighting has escalated over the past days and for the moment once again it’s the Panjshir’s reputation for determined resistance making news. This could all change were a deal to be struck. But for now though, both Afghans and many others across the world continue to watch closely at the outcome of this bitter struggle in the Panjshir. Either way it will have profound implications for the future of Afghanistan.
Middle East: US unreliability making region’s leaders nervous
It always irritates me a little me when some commentators refer to Afghanistan as being in the Middle East. Most definitions are consistent with it being in South Asia.
Having said that, Afghanistan’s geopolitical fate has for many years now been inextricably linked to the nearby region of the Middle East.
Right now, is no exception, for across the Middle East the events of the past few weeks in Kabul have set alarm bells ringing.
Long before Washington accepted defeat in Afghanistan, the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq showed the limits to America’s power and its inability to shape geopolitics in the region.
That very thought has focused the minds of a number of Middle East leaders of late who find themselves wondering what this all might now mean for their own countries.
Nowhere more so that in Iraq. What, I can’t help wondering for example, will Iraqis have made of Joe Biden’s speech 24 hours after the last American soldier left Kabul?
“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” the US president was at pains to point out in what he described as a new era in US foreign policy.
For those Iraqis listening to such remarks, it will not have passed their notice that despite trillions of dollars spent in Iraq training and equipping their armed forces, an Iraqi army hollowed-out by corruption and sectarianism collapsed before the onslaught of the Islamic State (IS) group from Syria in 2014, just as the Afghan military, left to its own devices by the US, imploded against the Taliban.
With US forces scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of this year, is history about to repeat itself many Iraqis, especially Kurds, must be asking themselves? With the Biden administration signalling that it’s China and Russia that will be Washington’s centre of attention and that America will no longer be there in the same way for the security needs of some allies in the Middle East, the geopolitical dynamics of the region could be about to change.
Some Middle East watchers point to how some Arab leaders are already trying to factor in the wave of recent events in Afghanistan before it impacts on their own states. There are signs for example of long-time enemies sitting down to talk such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both might be at loggerheads everywhere from Yemen to Syria but started meeting in April.
Just last week too, Iraq plagued by issues of disunity and security threats, hosted a summit bringing together the region’s adversaries.
US reliability after its Afghanistan departure is clearly of concern among many. There seems a growing awareness that Biden means what he says and gone perhaps are the days when America would throw its military weight behind rescuing regional “allies”.
There are those who will argue that this is long overdue and no bad thing. Then again, it’s perhaps still a little premature to declare that America’s “forever wars” are well and truly ended. As history has repeatedly shown the West, the Middle East has a habit of springing unforeseen and often unwelcome surprises.
Japan: PM’s exit makes for more political volatility
“If only certain other leaders would do the decent thing having messed up the Covid-19 response,” a friend commented to me on Friday after reading that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga was standing down.
Suga’s decision to go after only a one-year tenure is widely recognised to have been motivated by an unpopular response to the pandemic and sinking public support despite him citing ill health as the reason for his resignation.
Suga’s abrupt resignation ended a tumultuous week in Japanese politics in which he pulled out all the stops to save his job, including suggestions he would sack his long-term party ally, as well as plans to dissolve parliament and reshuffle the party executive and his cabinet.
In a nutshell Suga, who failed to capitalise on his last major achievement – hosting the Olympics – has seen his approval ratings drop below 30% as Japan struggles with its worst wave of COVID-19 infections ahead of a general election this year.
As Robin Harding, Tokyo bureau chief of the Financial Time observed in the wake of the resignation news, Suga, who won the race to succeed Shinzo Abe as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LPD) and prime minister of Japan in a landslide last year, “was always viewed as the continuity candidate, vowing to carry on Abe’s policies; the competence candidate, known for his powerplays behind scenes; and the consensus candidate, unaligned with any of the party’s large organised factions.”
Critics say Suga’s main problem was his failure as a communicator and he was a dry bureaucratic politician that many Japanese right now find difficult to relate to. What’s needed critics add is a politician who in times of crisis people want to feel a sense of sympathy from. Whether Japanese voters get such a leader in the future remains to be seen with political commentators saying that there is no obvious alternative inside the LDP, and Japan’s opposition parties are weak.
Despite the turmoil the ruling party is still set to win this autumn’s general election. That said in order to establish a strong premiership the next leader of the LDP will need to get past COVID and lay out a policy vision that persuades the public and gives the leader leverage to tame the party’s internal factions. Frankly, it all sounds very familiar given what’s happening right here on our own political doorstep.
Colombia: Organised crime activities accelerating Amazon destruction.
Some years ago, while in Colombia’s Choco Province I was to see for myself the terrible impact of illegal gold mining on the environment and lives of indigenous people who lived along the banks of the Rio Andagueda sometimes known as the River of Butterflies.
Silent and fleeting, the butterflies’ delicate presence in the region hovered in marked contrast to the giant lumbering steel diggers that trundled back and forward along the banks of the river hewing out chunks of rainforest.
The ‘miners’ use of chemicals notably mercury flooding into the river poisoned the water with catastrophic impact on the wildlife and the indigenous Embera people who lived there. Last week a report by the Igarapé Institute, a think tank, and the investigation group InSight Crime, revealed the extent to which criminal gangs in Colombia are accelerating the destruction of the Amazon rainforest with illegal mining, cocaine production, trafficking in wild animals and logging.
The report, which was funded by the government of Norway, details how 10% of the Amazon rainforest is in Colombia and the region has never been controlled by the central government.
Instead, this swathe of territory as I witnessed myself was the hiding place for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc).
But since FARC was demobilised in 2016 as part of a peace deal to end South America’s longest-running armed conflict, several gangs have moved into the area and deforestation has accelerated to record levels.
Along with illegal gold mining, logging and cocaine production, millions of dollars too in illegal income are being generated through an international trafficking of birds, reptiles, amphibians, felines and monkeys often taken from their natural habitats and made available to global collectors.
“Environmental crime is attacking the Amazon from all sides. In Colombia it is driven by a dangerous criminal cocktail involving guerrillas, drug trafficking organisations, gold mafias and some of the most violent and sophisticated organised crime syndicates on the planet,” says Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight Crime.
These criminal networks and entrepreneurs at the top of the chain, finance and orchestrate environmental crimes from start to end, says the report.
“They possess the most influence and economic power in each activity and often act from the shadows as “invisibles,” explains McDermott.
That almost all these different facets of environmental crime rely heavily on corruption, including that of security forces, local officials, environmental officials, and then border and customs agents, only makes for a complex problem the response to which must be collective action. All the more reason why invaluable reports like this, bleak reading as they are, must find their way into the hands and consciences of us all.