Another Provincial Governor Defies Dismissal Orders from Afghan President

FILE - Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a panel discussion at the Asia Society in New York City, Sept. 20, 2017.

 

Afghanistan’s political crisis deepened Sunday when a second provincial governor defied a presidential order for his removal.

On Saturday, President Ashraf Ghani’s office approved and announced the appointment of new heads for five provinces, including Samangan in the north, as part of efforts to improve local Afghan governance.

But Abdul Karim Khedam, who has been governing Samangan for about a year, denounced and dismissed his ouster by the president as unacceptable.

“I condemn this unfair decision and consider it against the wishes of people of Samangan," he said.

The central government appointed Abdul Latif Ibrahimi as the new governor of the northern Afghan province. He is a former member of the Hezb-e-Islami party of ethnic Pashtun former jihadi commander, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Map of Afghanistan provinces.
Map of Afghanistan provinces.

Ousted governor vows to stay

Addressing a news conference in the provincial capital Sunday, the ousted governor vowed to continue to work as the governor of Samangan.

Khedam defended his decision to remain in office and said the final authority to determine his political fate rested with the Turkemen tribe he represents in the province as well as with his political party, Jamiat-e-Islami, which shares power with Ghani’s national unity government.

Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah represents Jamiat-e-Islami along with other party leaders in the ruling coalition and the party largely comprises ethnic Tajiks. President Ghani’s support comes from the majority ethnic Pashtun community.

Khedam is the second provincial governor to have contested his firing order.

Earlier governor defied order

Atta Mohammad Noor, who has governed neighboring Balkh province for more than 13 years, was fired by Ghani in December. But Noor refused to accept his dismissal until the central government meets certain demands and continues to govern the relatively peaceful and prosperous Afghan province.

He, like Khedam, belongs to the Jamiat-e-Islami party and has also accused Ghani of appointing officials to key government posts on ethnic grounds, charges the president and his aides reject as baseless.

Noor has vowed to lead a rally of about 20,000 vehicles packed with his supporters for a three-day protest in Kabul, starting Feb. 27, to press the central government to deliver on commitments Ghani made when he formed the coalition government with Abdullah in 2014.

The planned protest coincides with an international conference the Afghan capital will host Feb. 28 where the government says it will present a plan to promote peace and reconciliation with Taliban-led armed opposition groups.

The U.S. mediated a political deal between rival presidential candidates, Ghani and Abdullah, and established the unity government, ending months of political turmoil in the aftermath of the controversy-marred 2014 presidential as both men claimed victory.

Political rift troubling

However, Washington, while pledging support for the Ghani government, has emphasized “internal matters” needed to be resolved by Afghan leaders themselves.

The deepening political troubles are seen as detrimental to the internationally backed efforts of the Kabul government to promote a political settlement with the Taliban insurgency to end the deadly conflict in Afghanistan.

The crisis also is likely to undermine efforts to organize long-delayed parliamentary elections later this year and presidential polls due next year.

Jamiat leaders, including Abdullah, have raised concerns over a multi-million dollar plan to issue new electronic identity cards ahead of the elections.

The controversy stems from the use on the new card of the term “Afghan” for nationality. The term in the past used to refer to Pashtuns in Afghanistan and members of other ethnic groups believe that since the cards will carry the person’s tribal identity the use of “Afghan” is redundant.

The tensions underscore deeply rooted ethnic-based sensitivities in the Afghan society and unless resolved will likely delay the parliamentary polls, officials warn.

The United Nations said last week war-relative civilian casualties stood at over 10,000 in 2017 and anticipated more bloodshed in the coming fighting season.

Macron’s Ideas on Reform of Islam Draw Fire

FILE - French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech prior to attend a dinner organised by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) to break the fast of Ramadan, in Paris, June 20, 2017.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech prior to attend a dinner organised by the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) to break the fast of Ramadan, in Paris, June 20, 2017.

 

Six months ago after a string of jihadist-inspired attacks in London and Manchester, British Prime Minister Theresa May said the time had come to have “embarrassing conversations” about Islam’s place in Britain.

Her comment was sparked by claims that the country’s Muslims weren’t doing enough to counter extremism and jihadist propaganda.

FILE - British Prime Minister Theresa May is seen during a meeting at 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, Nov. 27, 2017.
FILE - British Prime Minister Theresa May is seen during a meeting at 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, Nov. 27, 2017.

So far, mired in Brexit controversy, the British government hasn’t started a debate in earnest. But on the other side of the English Channel, French President Emmanuel Macron is proposing a root-and-branch reform of Islam in France — a project being closed watched by the British and by other Europeans.

Macron’s goals, he said, are to preserve “national cohesion” and to counter Islamic fundamentalism. Another key reform goal is to halt the influence of Arab states on France’s 6 million Muslims by way of the funding of mosques and paying clerics.

French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux told reporters last week that although they have not finalized reform plans, the training of Islamic clerics and their funding “are at the heart of the manner in which we are rethinking the relationship between the Republic and Islam.”

FILE - A woman wearing a headscarf walks down a street in Paris, France, July 22, 2013.
FILE - A woman wearing a headscarf walks down a street in Paris, France, July 22, 2013.

“Why is the question of funding of Islam central for us? Because today, we know that the funding comes from foreign countries, and it is not desirable to have a religion in France funded by foreign countries who in fact will be defending their interests. And so, it’s a political Islam,” he said.

The plans being considered by the French president — including requiring imams to pass courses on secularism, civil liberties and theology, and the appointment of a chief imam as the sole religious authority over French Muslims — are drawing fire from some socialist politicians and Muslim leaders.

They argue government meddling in the training of Muslim clerics and interference in Islamic religious affairs would undermine the principles of freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state, underpinnings of the French state’s strict brand of secularism known as laïcité, which is enshrined in a1905 law.

Macron has been rebuked by some key Muslim leaders, including the head of an organization set up more than a decade ago to encourage the development of a homegrown form of Islam more in tune with traditional French values.

“The Muslim faith is a religion, and as such, takes care of its own household affairs. The last thing you want is the state to act as guardian,” Ahmet Ogras, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), told Reuters.

FILE - (LtoR) Vice President of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) Chems-Eddine Hafiz, French President Macron, CFCM President Anouar Kbibech and CFM Vice President Ahmet Ogras, arrive to attend a dinner organized by CFCM, June 20, 2017.
FILE - (LtoR) Vice President of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) Chems-Eddine Hafiz, French President Macron, CFCM President Anouar Kbibech and CFM Vice President Ahmet Ogras, arrive to attend a dinner organized by CFCM, June 20, 2017.

Macron has said he won't unveil a detailed reform proposal until wide consultations take place, but left-wing critics say his ideas risk undermining the state’s religious neutrality and will pull the French government into the management of religion.

"The president’s plans to restructure Islam in France call into question the 1905 law separating church and state,” said Benoît Schenckenburger, an adviser to left-wing leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a challenger in last year’s presidential elections. “The state cannot influence the organization of Islamic institutions, cannot meddle in the training of imams and cannot weigh in on how Islam in France is to be financed."

Critics point out that Macron never talks about the state managing Catholic and Protestant churches or overseeing how Judaism is exercised. But those supporting Macron say French Catholics, Protestants and Jews accept laïcité and that no threats to the state are being mounted from within their communities.

And Griveaux said the state has no alternative but to get more involved — “because you have at the same time preaching that is completely incompatible with the values of the Republic, and you have mosques that are places of radicalization.”

On the right of the political spectrum, some resistance is also emerging. National Front critics of the reform idea fear, too, that Macron risks undermining the very idea of laïcité and will be forced to amend the 1905 law underpinning it. National Front leader Marine Le Pen has called the idea of doing that “unbearable, inadmissible.”

FILE - Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party candidate for French 2017 presidential election, concedes defeat at the Chalet du Lac in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris after the second round of 2017 presidential election, May 7, 2017.
FILE - Marine Le Pen, French National Front (FN) political party candidate for French 2017 presidential election, concedes defeat at the Chalet du Lac in the Bois de Vincennes in Paris after the second round of 2017 presidential election, May 7, 2017.

In a television interview she argued the influence of mainly Gulf states on French Muslims could be curtailed by imposing a “total cessation of foreign financing of mosques.”

Macron first announced his intention to reform French Islam in an interview a week ago with the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche.

“What I’d like to get done in the first half of 2018 is set down markers on the entire way in which Islam is organized in France,” he said.

France isn’t alone among European states in struggling to formulate ideas about how to counter jihadists, harmonize Islam with Western ideals and to come up with ways of encouraging greater integration of Muslims.

He has drawn praise from British conservatives frustrated with what they argue is a muddled approach by the May government.

Last month, the British government withheld its support of an elementary school’s decision to ban young Muslim girls wearing the hijab to class, prompting an outcry from conservative lawmakers. Comparing May and Macron, historian Gavin Mortimer argued in the conservative Spectator magazine that Britain’s approach is “one of confusion.”

Spain Has Pivotal Role in Pressuring Venezuela’s Maduro

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 15, 2018.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro gestures as he talks to the media during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 15, 2018.

 

Spain has assumed a pivotal role in pressuring Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to change his regime’s “barbaric” course, according to Spanish diplomats who spoke to VOA on condition of anonymity.

Venezuela’s crisis reached major dimensions last week as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans made an exodus to neighboring countries, escaping the hyperinflation, food shortages and rampant violence prevailing over what used to be South America’s wealthiest oil producer.

Spain has openly pushed for sanctions by the European Union that target Maduro and his top officials in a move that led to the expulsion of the Spanish ambassador and insults against Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Maduro called him a U.S. lackey.

Venezuelan state media reported that the measures restricting travel and business in Europe by seven top Venezuelan officials were hatched in discussions Rajoy held with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington last September.

FILE - Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy attends a press conference at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Dec. 22, 2017.
FILE - Spain's Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy attends a press conference at the Moncloa Palace in Madrid, Dec. 22, 2017.

The U.S. has placed sanctions on more than 20 individuals in Venezuela, including politicians and government contractors, since repression of opponents to the Maduro government intensified last July.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson brought up the possibility of placing an embargo on Venezuelan oil sales during a recent swing through Latin America. He even hinted the U.S. might welcome a military coup.

Coup denials

Rajoy’s predecessor, Jose Maria Aznar, backed a coup against Maduro’s mentor, Hugo Chavez, when he was in power. But Spanish officials deny that anything similar is taking place now.

“Spain’s support for sanctions did not result from any consultation with Washington,” a Spanish foreign ministry official told VOA. “It’s strictly between Spain and the EU. Our main concern is the Venezuelan people and standing up for democratic principles.”

Spain will lobby for expanding the sanctions at an EU foreign ministers meeting Monday in Brussels where Venezuela is on the agenda, according to a Spanish diplomatic expert on Venezuela.

The source also said Spain has worked to isolate Venezuela among some Latin American governments, which excluded Maduro from a regional summit last week in Lima, Peru.

FILE - Former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, left, talks next to Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro after their meeting at Miraflores Palace, in Caracas, Venezuela, Nov. 23, 2016.
FILE - Former Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, left, talks next to Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro after their meeting at Miraflores Palace, in Caracas, Venezuela, Nov. 23, 2016.

When EU sanctions were adopted in January, Spanish Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis said they were an “incentive to help negotiations” between Maduro and the opposition party, which were mediated by former socialist Spanish Prime Minister Rodriguez Zapatero.

Zapatero’s eagerness to seal an agreement has been criticized by opponents of Maduro, who say he tried to pressure them into participating in presidential elections scheduled for next April that are seen as loaded in Maduro’s favor.

“Zapatero went from being an impartial arbiter to acting as a lawyer for the regime,” said Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who escaped from his Venezuelan house arrest to Spain last December. He was personally received by Rajoy.

FILE - Men work at an oil pump in Lagunillas, Ciudad Ojeda, in the state of Zulia, Venezuela, March 20, 2015.
FILE - Men work at an oil pump in Lagunillas, Ciudad Ojeda, in the state of Zulia, Venezuela, March 20, 2015.

Deep ties

Spain’s ties with Venezuela run deep. Spaniards compose one of the country’s largest expatriate communities, numbering about 300,000. The Spanish oil company Repsol has invested more than $2 billion in Venezuela, and it continues operating oil and gas fields there.

But the leverage could go both ways. Venezuela appears to have some political influence with Spain’s mainstream socialist party PSOE, whose spokesmen criticized the news media for giving “too much” coverage to opposition protests at the time that Zapatero assumed his mediation role.

Venezuela also has contributed money to the far left group Podemos, which has been Spain’s third-largest political force and blocked a congressional resolution condemning Maduro’s power grab.

Podemos was joined in opposing the motion by the Catalan Leftist Republic party (ERC), one of the main pro-independence groups in Catalonia that may head the next regional government.

In an apparent tit for tat, Maduro has demanded the release of jailed ERC leader Oriol Junqueras and attacked Spain for trying to block an Oct. 1 referendum on Catalan independence.

Cyberoffensive

Venezuelan state channels joined a Russian cyberoffensive promoting Catalan separatism through social media.

According to Spanish Defense Minister Maria Dolores de Cospedal, 32 percent of robot social media accounts used to amplify the separatist movement were based in Venezuela and connected with Maduro’s ruling PSUV.

The head of the radical separatist Catalan Unity Party (CUP), Ana Gabriel, who is to appear in court next week to answer charges of rebellion, has been in Venezuela campaigning for Maduro.

The Spanish government is investigating funds linked to members of the Venezuelan government that were deposited in Andorra, an independent archdiocese bordering northern Spain.

But experts don’t expect relations between Madrid and Caracas to be radically altered by the growing tensions.

“We know that Maduro is taking Venezuela toward being another Cuba and is very close to achieving it,” a Spanish diplomatic analyst said. “But we will keep talking to Maduro the same way that we keep talking to Putin.”

Ledezma said he asked Rajoy to use his influence with Venezuela to open a corridor for humanitarian aid proposed by Venezuela’s neighbors.

Iran's Zarif says Israel's 'Myth of Invincibility' has Crumbled

 

Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaks at the Security Conference in Munich, Feb. 18, 2018.

Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, speaks at the Security Conference in Munich, Feb. 18, 2018.

 

Iran's Foreign Minister said on Sunday the shooting down of an Israeli jet after it bombed an Iranian site in Syria had shattered Israel's "so-called invincibility", reacting to a critical speech delivered earlier by Israel's premier.

"Israel uses aggression as a policy against its neighbors," Mohammad Javad Zarif told the Munich Security Conference, accusing Israel of "mass reprisals against its neighbors and daily incursions into Syria, Lebanon."

Israeli security forces walk next to the remains of an F-16 Israeli warplane near the Israeli village of Harduf, Israel, Feb. 10, 2018.
Israeli security forces walk next to the remains of an F-16 Israeli warplane near the Israeli village of Harduf, Israel, Feb. 10, 2018.


"Once the Syrians have the guts to down one of its planes it's as if a disaster has happened," Zarif said.

He was responding to Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the conference hours before, in which the Israeli prime minister, holding a piece of what he said was an Iranian drone, accused Iran of trying to impose an "empire" across the Middle East.

"What has happened in the past several days is the so-called invincibility [of Israel] has crumbled," Zarif said of Netanyahu's remarks, which followed the Feb. 10 downing of an Israeli F-16 jet.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a remnant of what he said was a piece of Iranian drone which was shot down in Israeli airspace during his speech at the Munich Security Conference, Germany, Feb. 18, 2018.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds up a remnant of what he said was a piece of Iranian drone which was shot down in Israeli airspace during his speech at the Munich Security Conference, Germany, Feb. 18, 2018.

David Ivry, a former Israeli Air Force chief, told Reuters earlier this month he believed it was the first time an Israeli F-16 was brought down since Israel began using the jets in the 1980s.

Anti-aircraft fire downed the jet as it was returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

It was one of at least eight Israeli planes dispatched in response to what Israel said was an Iranian drone's incursion into its airspace earlier on that day.

The jet was hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile and crashed in northern Israel, according to an Israeli official.

Aung San Suu Kyi Scores 1st Win in Myanmar's Crumbling Peace Process

 

Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during the signing ceremony of "Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement" at Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Feb. 13, 2018.

Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during the signing ceremony of "Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement" at Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Feb. 13, 2018.

 

Two ethnic armed groups added their signatures to a "nationwide" cease-fire pact with the Myanmar government, marking Aung San Suu Kyi'sfirst concrete win in a peace process undermined by recurrent conflict and stalled dialogue.

In a televised ceremony in the capital Naypyidaw on Tuesday, the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and the Lahu Democratic Union (LDU) assented to a document the government insists is key to resolving more than 50 years of civil war between the military, dominated by the ethnic Bamar majority, and minority ethnic groups.

Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a ceasefire agreement at the Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Feb. 13, 2018.
Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi speaks during a ceasefire agreement at the Myanmar International Convention Center in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, Feb. 13, 2018.

The NMSP, representing the Mon ethnic group, has been a prominent player in peace negotiations and for decades has run parallel government structures, including schools and law courts, in southeastern Myanmar. However, the LDU, representing the Lahu of northeastern Myanmar, is a small group that lacks military or organizational clout.

The U.S. Embassy called Tuesday's signing "but one of the many steps on a long road to sustainable peace." Western governments consistently have backed Myanmar's peace process, offering advice and helping finance negotiations via a Joint Peace Fund.

Entering government in early 2016, Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) inherited a process begun by a military-backed administration whose crowning achievement was the signing of a Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement with eight, out of close to 20, ethnic armed groups in Myanmar in October 2015.

The NLD, whose landslide election victory extended to most ethnic minority areas, pushed peace to the top of its governing agenda.

Northern problem

FILE - A Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldier sits inside the bomb shelter along the bunker at the front line of Alen Bum near Laiza, the headquarters of KIA in Kachin State, Myanmar, Nov. 30, 2016.
FILE - A Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldier sits inside the bomb shelter along the bunker at the front line of Alen Bum near Laiza, the headquarters of KIA in Kachin State, Myanmar, Nov. 30, 2016.

Shunning the back-channel approach favored by the previous government, Aung San Suu Kyi has tried to spark public enthusiasm with a series of grand-scale peace conferences.

At the last conference, held in May of last year, the government and military reached agreement with the eight signatory armed groups on a number of vague "principles" that would form the core of a peace deal and, in turn, a new federal system.

Myanmar's constitution, drafted under military rule, centralizes government and control of resources to the exclusion of minority ethnic groups. It also grants the military control of all security agencies, allowing them to pursue brutal objectives without civilian oversight.

The autonomy retained by the military has proved fatal to Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts to build trust with the majority of armed groups that remain outside of the Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement.

The military has been laying siege to one of these groups, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Myanmar's far north. In January, several thousand civilians were trapped in an amber-mining region while shells rained down on nearby KIA bases. Agencies bearing relief for displaced communities run up against tightening military blockades.

Several embattled groups ranging along Myanmar's long border with China, including the KIA, have formed a Northern Alliance that rejects the government's current cease-fire deal.

Together, the alliance commands the most significant firepower in Myanmar outside of the military. Seeking leverage, it has tried to draw China into a peace process that has so far avoided international mediation.

Ethnic Shan analyst Sai Wansai explained to VOA that, ultimately, the participation of this northern bloc is "the key to resolve the conflict."

Tuesday's singing ceremony with the NMSP and LDU, he said, "will give Aung San Suu Kyi a temporary boost. But in the long run it will not have real impact on the peace process."

Military at odds

FILE - Myanmar military troops take part in a military exercise at Ayeyarwaddy delta region in Myanmar, Feb. 3, 2018.
FILE - Myanmar military troops take part in a military exercise at Ayeyarwaddy delta region in Myanmar, Feb. 3, 2018.

Deliberately or otherwise, military actions have also undermined Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts to win over groups outside of this more hardline Northern Alliance.

The Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) was tipped to sign the nationwide cease-fire agreement alongside the NMSP, but the December killing of three KNPP soldiers and one civilian in disputed circumstances in Kayah State has severely antagonized ethnic Karenni civil society and put off KNPP participation indefinitely.

The military also has obstructed the holding of community consultations by signatory armed groups. In December and January, the Restoration Council of Shan State was summarily blocked from hosting a number of public meetings.

Min Zaw Oo, executive director of the Myanmar Institute for Peace and Security, told VOA this has chilled cooperation on national-level political dialogues between signatory armed groups and the government. "When one side proposes a meeting, the other now rejects it," he said.

Ethnic armed groups and the military also find themselves at increasingly bitter odds over a section of the Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement on "security reintegration."

This was kept deliberately vague, after the military and the ethnic armed groups advanced competing definitions. The former pushes a doctrine of Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR), while the latter urges Security Sector Reform — the integration of minority ethnic forces into what is now an overwhelmingly Bamar army.

Since last May's conference, however, the military has doubled-down on its call for ethnic armed group disarmament as part of a peace deal.

Kim Jolliffe, an independent researcher on conflict in Myanmar, said that, besides the recent blocking of public consultations, "the main block on progress in the peace process has been the [military] insisting security reintegration' simply means DDR of ethnic armed organizations rather than holistic reform of the entire security sector."

Min Zaw Oo said security reintegration, though, was not a "make or break" issue: there had simply been "too little interaction around this topic."

"Once they have decided to sit down together, and explore ways, there could be some solution," he said.

Min Zaw Oo said the peace process wasn't on the verge of collapse. "We are currently at the stalling point," he said, projecting progress to pick up in the middle of this year.

"If the military were totally stubborn, it would never have signed the Nationwide Cease-fire Agreement."

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