In a shocking turn of events, the Taliban have taken the vast majority of Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul, in just over a week and are now the de facto government.
Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban on Sunday after an offensive that lasted a little over a week saw the group capture every major city and provincial capital.
Taliban leadership posed for interviews from the presidential palace, and in a later statement to Al Jazeera, spokesperson Mohammad Naeem said, “Today is a great day for the Afghan people and the mujahideen [Taliban]. They have witnessed the fruits of their efforts and their sacrifices for 20 years.”
“Thanks to God, the war is over in the country.”
Just before the Taliban arrived, Afghanistan’s former President fled and resigned to avoid “a flood of bloodshed,” and he is reported to have taken massive amounts of cash and luxury vehicles with him. For many, the move serves as an example of why some Afghans didn’t mind the Taliban over the central government due to the latter’s rampant corruption. President Ashraf Ghani first tried to land in Tajikistan but was denied. He is now in Oma with the possibility of counting onto the United States.
In the meantime, there won’t be any kind of interim government, according to the Taliban, which instead opted to become the government with little input from those governed.
While the Taliban control the vast majority of the country and are now the de facto government, there are still small pockets held by Afghan National Army troops, including one just 100 miles northwest of Kabul. It’s believed that Vice President Amrullah Saleh fled there. He announced on Twitter that he would continue the fight for the country and that he was the “legitimate caretaker President.”
How successful that fight will be is unclear, as most encounters over the last month between National Army troops and the Taliban have ended quickly with a Taliban victory.
For many Afghans, that’s a minor issue right now because they’re trying to flee the country. Thousands rushed to Kabul airport Monday morning, the last lifeline out of the country after border crossings were closed. In various videos from the scene, gunshots can be heard either from Taliban fighters taking aim at fleeing aircraft or from American forces at the airport shooting over the crowds to slow them.
People are desperately trying to get on flights, which has led to scenes of some waiting in lines or forcefully making their way onto planes. In some of the most dramatic and tragic footage, people are seen attempting to hold onto the wheels and exterior of a plane, only to fall off once it takes off.
At least seven deaths were reported at the airport, most likely from stampeding, people falling off of planes, or possibly even from gunfire by Taliban or security forces.
Currently, American forces have taken over the airport, along with air traffic control, and are directing flights to and from Kabul’s airport. Throughout Monday, evacuations were halted amid the chaos, but they have since resumed. Multiple outlets report that all 10,000 members of the U.S. embassy staff have been evacuated and that 6,000 troops in total will be deployed to secure the location. Yet, the Taliban hasn’t made any serious efforts to interfere with the evacuations.
American authorities plan to evacuate at least 5,000 people a day, including not just Americans but also Afghans who are eligible for a special visa because they worked with U.S. forces. Around 88,000 Afghans qualify for the Special Immigrant Visa, though it’s unclear how many will be able to get out or how long the U.S. will be able to maintain control at the airport. The Pentagon is preparing plans to relocate 30,000 applicants to the U.S. despite not having their paperwork done or vetted, something President Joe Biden said was against the law just a month ago before seemingly reversing course as the situation deteriorated.
What happens next in Afghanistan remains a mystery. There are fears that the Taliban will return to their strict adherence to Sharia Law as they did before being ousted in 2001. However, the group has made claims to say that they’ve softened their views.
Spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters on Monday via a press conference that women in the country “are going to be working with us, shoulder to shoulder with us, and the international community – if they have concerns – we would like to assure them that there is not going to be any discrimination against women, but of course within the frameworks that we have.”
While they may say that, there are mixed reports that say some areas under Taliban control have already returned to its more strict interpretation of Islamic law and scripture, which probits such behaviors.
Mujahid also went on to urge government officials to return to work, as they will be given a general amnesty.
For many, there was one statement that was keenly missing for over 36 hours, that of President Biden. By Monday afternoon he finally addressed the public about the situation in Afghanistan and assured the world that the decision for American troops to pull out of the country was the correct one, adding that he didn’t want to pass the problem onto the next president.
The U.S. has also moved to block billions in Afghan reserve funds, effectively cutting off the Taliban from liquid assets. The Biden administration hasn’t closed the possibility of recognizing the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan, depending on how the group acts in the coming months.
However, the Taliban will likely receive some international recognition from major powers such as Russia and China, neither of which abandoned their embassies and have continued their diplomatic missions in the nation.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (CNN) (Politico)
U.K. Court Rules Julian Assange Can Be Extradited to U.S.
The judgment overrules a lower court decision that blocked the WikiLeaks founder’s extradition on the grounds that his mental health was not stable enough to weather harsh conditions in the American prison system if convicted.
New Developments in Assange Extradition Battle
A British court ruled Friday that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange can be extradited to the United States to face charges of violating the Espionage Act that could land him in prison for decades.
Prosecutors in the U.S. have accused Assange of conspiring with former army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning in 2010 to hack into a Department of Defense computer network and access thousands of military and diplomatic records on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The information obtained in the hack was later published by WikiLeaks in 2010 and 2011, a move U.S. authorities allege put lives in danger.
In addition to a charge of computer misuse, Assange has also been indicted on 17 espionage charges. Collectively, the charges carry a maximum prison sentence of 175 years.
The Friday decision from the High Court overturns a lower court ruling in January, which found that Assange’s mental health was too fragile for the harsh environment he could face in the U.S. prison system if convicted.
Notably, the January ruling did not determine whether or not Assange was guilty. In fact, District Judge Vanessa Baraitser explicitly rejected the defense’s arguments that the charges against him were politically motivated and that he should be protected under freedom of press.
However, she agreed that the defense had provided compelling evidence that Assange suffers from severe depression and that the conditions he could face in the U.S. prison system were “such that it would be oppressive to extradite him to the United States of America.”
The U.S. appealed the ruling, arguing that Assange’s mental health should not be a barrier to extradition and that the psychiatrist who examined him had been biased.
In October, the Biden administration vowed that if Assange were to be convicted, he would not be placed in the highest-security U.S. prison or immediately sent to solitary confinement. Officials also said that the native Australian would be eligible to serve his sentence in his home country.
High Court Ruling
The High Court agreed with the administration’s arguments in its ruling, arguing that the American’s assurances regarding the conditions of Assange’s potential incarceration were “sufficient.”
“There is no reason why this court should not accept the assurances as meaning what they say,” the ruling stated. “There is no basis for assuming that the USA has not given the assurances in good faith.”
Assange’s fiancé, Stella Moris, said in a statement that his legal team would appeal the decision to the British Supreme Court at the “earliest possible moment,” referring to the judgment as a “grave miscarriage of justice.”
The Supreme Court will now decide whether or not to hear the case based on if it believes the matter involves a point of law “of general public importance.” That decision may take weeks or even months.
If the U.K. Supreme Court court objects to hearing Assange’s appeal, he could ask the European Court of Human Rights to stay the extradition — a move that could set in motion another lengthy legal battle in the already drawn-out process.
Assange and his supporters claim he was acting as an investigative journalist when he published the classified military cables. They argue that the possibility of his extradition and prosecution represent serious threats to press freedoms in the U.S.
U.S. prosecutors dispute that Assange acted as a journalist, claiming that he encouraged illegal hacking for personal reasons.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (NPR) (The Washington Post)
Early Data Indicates Omicron is More Transmissible But Less Severe
The studies come as Pfizer and BioNTech claim that preliminary research shows a third shot of their COVID vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the new variant, but two doses alone may not.
More Information About Omicron
Several preliminary studies published in recent days appear to show that the new omicron COVID-19 variant may be more transmissible but less severe than previous strains.
One recent, un-peer-reviewed study by a Japanese scientist who advises the country’s health ministry found that omicron is four times more transmissible in its initial stage than delta was.
Preliminary information in countries hit hard by omicron also indicates high transmissibility. In South Africa — where the variant was first detected and is already the dominant strain — new COVID cases have more than doubled over the last week.
Health officials in the U.K. said omicron cases are doubling every two or three days, and they expect the strain to become dominant in the country in a matter of weeks.
In a statement Wednesday, World Health Organization Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that while early data does seem to show high transmissibility, it also indicates that omicron causes more mild cases than delta.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevent Director Rochelle Walensky echoed that sentiment, telling reporters that of the 40 known omicron cases in the U.S. as of Wednesday, nearly all of them were mild. One person has been hospitalized so far and none have died.
Studies on Vaccine Efficacy
Other recent studies have shown that current COVID vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness and death in omicron patients, and boosters provide at least some added protection.
On Wednesday, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that laboratory tests have shown a third dose of their COVID-19 vaccine appears to provide sufficient protection against the omicron variant, though two doses may not.
According to the companies, researchers saw a 25-fold reduction in neutralizing antibodies for omicron compared to other strains of the virus for people who had just two Pfizer doses.
By contrast, samples from people one month after they had received a Pfizer booster presented neutralizing antibodies against omicron that were comparable to those seen against previous variants after two doses.
Still, Pfizer’s chief executive also told reporters later in the day that omicron could increase the likelihood that people might need a fourth dose earlier than previously expected, which he had initially said was 12 months after the third shot.
Notably, the Pfizer research has not yet been peer-reviewed, and it remains unclear how omicron will operate outside a lab, but other studies have had similar findings.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Bloomberg) (NBC News)
40 Camels Disqualified From Beauty Contest After Breeders Inject Their Faces With Botox
The animals were barred from competing for $66 million in prizes at this year’s King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Saudi Arabia.
Camels Booted From Beauty Contest
More than 40 camels were disqualified from a beauty contest in Saudi Arabia this week after judges found artificial enhancements in their faces, marking the biggest crackdown on contestants in the competition to date.
The animals were competing for $66 million in prizes at the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, a month-long event that is estimated to include around 33,000 camels.
However, according to The Guardian, they were forced out of the contest when authorities found that breeders had “stretched out the lips and noses of the camels, used hormones to boost the animals’ muscles, injected heads and lips with Botox to make them bigger, inflated body parts with rubber bands, and used fillers to relax their faces.”
Those types of alterations are banned since judges look at the contestant’s heads, necks, humps, posture, and other features when evaluating them.
An announcement from the state-linked Saudi Press Agency said officials used “specialized and advanced” technology to detect tampering.
“The club is keen to halt all acts of tampering and deception in the beautification of camels,” the SPA report added before warning that organizers would “impose strict penalties on manipulators.”
While it’s unclear what that actually entails, this isn’t the first time people have tried to cheat in this way.
In 2018, 12 camels were similarly disqualified from the competition for injections in their noses, lips, and jaw.