Long stories short
- Boris Johnson faced fresh anger after reports that his wife arranged a surprise birthday party for him during the first Covid lockdown (more below).
- Burkina Faso’s military said it had removed the country’s president, suspended its constitution, and dissolved its government and parliament to control jihadist violence.
- The US placed 8,500 troops on “heightened preparedness to deploy” to Eastern Europe in case NATO activates its rapid-response force to counter Russian pressure on Ukraine.
On a snowy hilltop outside Oslo, at the Soria Moria Hotel, the Taliban are in talks with Western diplomats about Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis.
- About 24 million people, more than half the country, are facing severe hunger.
- People are selling their children and kidneys to buy food, and burning their furniture to keep warm.
- There are now outbreaks of cholera and polio among children, and Covid is spreading fast among the 90 per cent of adults who are still unvaccinated.
The crisis is rooted in one of the biggest failures of the two-decade-long American effort to rebuild the country. It failed to create a self-sustaining economy.
Aid financed around 80 per cent of the Afghan budget, but the international community suspended it in August when the Taliban returned to power. Its continuation is contingent on the Taliban’s respect for human rights, which remains weak to non-existent, especially for women:
- Afghan women are still largely excluded from the country’s public sector.
- Most secondary schools for girls are closed.
- Two women activists were disappeared this week in Kabul.
The all-male delegation the Taliban sent to Oslo is headed by Amir Khan Muttaqi, Afghanistan’s foreign minister. It includes Anas Haqqani, a leader of the Haqqani network, a faction of the Taliban that is responsible for some of the worst violence of the past 20 years including kidnappings, suicide bombings and assassinations.
Although diplomats from the US, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, the EU, and Norway are meeting the delegation, none of their countries recognises the Taliban government. Norway’s foreign minister said the talks do “not represent a legitimisation 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”.
The UN says Afghanistan needs $4.4 billion in aid this year alone. Rich countries have so far provided a quarter of it.
In Oslo, where the talks are happening behind closed doors, the Taliban will make the right noises about human rights – as they have already done to some extent with civil society groups that have also been invited – and they will argue that the aid must be paid to avert a famine. Tomorrow, expect coordinated tweets from supportive western diplomats. They are right, but it’s an ugly bargain.
Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity
Investors pulled their money out of risky assets because of tensions in Ukraine and the prospect of interest rate rises by the Federal Reserve, leading to a sharp fall in European stocks. The FTSE 100 fell by 2.6 per cent, its biggest one-day decline since the end of November, and Italian stocks fell by 4 per cent. The main French and German stock indices also fell. The Fed is expected to raise rates in March for the first time since the start of the pandemic to fight inflation, tightening the availability of credit that’s often used to invest in stocks. As for Ukraine, Joe Biden had a long call with European leaders in which they agreed on a concerted response to Russia if it sends in the tanks. What that response will be, remains unclear. 8,500 US troops are on standby for deployment to Nato members, not Ukraine. If the toughest direct response is economic, will Putin care?
belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries
The Metropolitan police apologised and paid compensation to Dr Koshka Duff, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Nottingham, for “sexist, derogatory and unacceptable language” used by officers when she was strip-searched at a north-east London police station. Duff was held down on the floor and had her clothes cut off. She had been arrested on 5 May 2013 on suspicion of obstructing and assaulting a police officer after she tried giving a legal advice card to a 15-year-old caught in a stop-and-search sweep in Hackney. She was later cleared in court. Duff had complained about their behaviour for years before finally getting hold of CCTV footage that supported her account in a civil action she filed against the force. It has taken nearly nine years for the Met to apologise.
New things technology, science, engineering
IRS facial recognition
The US Internal Revenue Service will soon require taxpayers to provide a third-party – a private company called ID.me – with documents and a video selfie to verify their identity before some of the agency’s online services. The IRS quietly announced the move in November, but it was only when a security expert, Brian Krebs, highlighted it in his blog that people became concerned. Some are worried that the information the IRS collects through facial recognition could be reused in other ways, without users’ knowledge. ID.me’s terms of service gives the company the right to share people’s data with the police, government, and “select partners”.
The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY
Downing Street admitted staff gathered inside No. 10 during the first Covid lockdown to mark Boris Johnson’s birthday. ITV News said up to 30 people attended the June 2020 event, where cake was served and Happy Birthday was sung. The PM’s staff have pushed back on the numbers, but not the cake or singing. At the time, rules banned most indoor gatherings of more than two people. Sue Gray, the senior civil servant tasked with investigating Downing Street parties during the pandemic, is said to be aware of the birthday party. The Guardian has heard she uncovered “appalling evidence of mismanagement” at the heart of government. Cressida Dick, the Metropolitan Police commissioner, said her force has launched a criminal investigation into allegations surrounding parties at Downing Street and in Whitehall as a result of information provided by the Cabinet Office. Gray is due to report this week.
covid by numbers
40 days – at the end of 2021 saw more doses shipped to countries in need through the Covax program than in the rest of last year combined.
Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics
The chief scientist at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre, Jim Garvin, said the 15 January eruption of Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai, an underwater volcano near Tonga, released “hundreds of times the equivalent mechanical energy of the Hiroshima nuclear explosion”. In other words, its explosive force was the equivalent of up to 30 million tonnes of TNT. Tonga is still coming to terms with the scale of destruction caused by tsunami waves triggered by the eruption. Its government estimates that four-fifths of its population of 100,000 people have been affected. Aid flights can land and unload but personal contact with inbound aid workers is banned for fear of spreading Covid, which so far has spared Tonga altogether.
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Paul Caruana Galizia
Edited by Giles Whittell and produced by Phoebe Davis.
Photographs Getty Images, AP/Shutterstock, PA/Alamy
in the tortoise app today
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