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Sensemaker: Aid and terror

Sensemaker: Aid and terror

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Ukraine destroyed a base used by Wagner Group mercenaries after a pro-Kremlin journalist accidentally revealed its location. 
  • The US Justice Department asked a judge not to release an affidavit that allowed the FBI search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, saying it would compromise an ongoing inquiry.
  • The UK became the first country to approve a dual-strain Covid vaccine targeting the Omicron variant.

Aid and terror

When an American missile killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, he wasn’t hiding in the wilderness as might be expected of one of the world’s most wanted men. The al-Qaeda chief was reading on the balcony of an opulent Kabul neighbourhood surrounded by Taliban leaders. His presence there underlined warnings that former insurgents might again turn the country into a terrorist haven. It also froze efforts to release billions in aid, including for the women and girls who have been the most obvious victims of the past year of Taliban misrule:

  • $3.5 billion in funds earmarked for recapitalising the Afghan central bank are being held in the US.
  • Yesterday, Washington’s special representative for Afghanistan said the money would stay frozen because al-Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul reinforced “deep concerns we have regarding diversion of funds to terrorist groups”.
  • Meanwhile the Taliban has acknowledged that a resumption of aid and secondary education for girls – suspended since last August – are linked.

A Taliban spokesman says girls’ right to education “should not be a condition for aid” – indicating it has become precisely that. The result is deadlock: money won’t flow and millions of teenage girls won’t go back to school until the US is satisfied Afghanistan won’t become a launchpad for attacks.

Few believe the Taliban will end the deadlock. A recent United Nations report said “terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom in Afghanistan than at any time in recent history”. So will the US continue to use drones and spies to target their leaders?

The potential kill list is long:

Saif al-Adel – a former Egyptian colonel who is a member of the al-Qaeda old guard and a possible successor to al-Zawahiri, wanted for the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Long associated with Iran, analysts say he also potentially travels to Afghanistan.

Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi – Al-Zawahiri’s son-in-law and another al-Qaeda high-flier, he has been described as al-Qaeda’s general manager in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 2012. For years he took refuge in Iran, but may have ventured to Afghanistan.

Amin Muhammad ul-Haq Saam Khan – Osama bin Laden’s former personal security chief is said to have returned to his home in Afghanistan soon after the Taliban takeover.

Osama Mehmood – chief of the local off-shoot, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, he is thought to command several hundred fighters from inside Afghanistan.

Sanaullah Ghafari aka Shahab al-Muhajir – head of the local branch of Islamic State group, Islamic State – Khorasan Province (IS-K), his group bombed crowds trying to get into Kabul airport during last year’s airlift evacuation. The blast killed 185, including 13 US troops.

American spies admit finding these and others got much more difficult after the US withdrawal. Spy bases were closed, troops pulled out, Afghan allied spy agencies collapsed. Instead, the CIA and Pentagon have been forced to adopt an “over the horizon” strategy to find and strike at a distance:

Spies in the sky. America has formidable electronic eavesdropping capabilities and satellite surveillance. Drones and spy aircraft can fly over the country almost with impunity.

Neighbourhood watch. Regional countries including Pakistan and India have their own intelligence gathering operations and may trade findings with Washington. Pakistan is likely to open its airspace for US spy flights. But its history of ties to the Taliban and previous double-dealing will mean its intelligence is treated with caution.

My enemy’s enemy. US officials have said they may consider sharing intelligence with the Taliban to tackle their common foe, IS-K.

Eyes on the ground. The CIA and MI6 trained and worked alongside the Afghan intelligence service for 20 years. They have close ties with warlords and political factions going back decades. Afghan remnants of these networks could still be collecting intelligence on the ground.

Washington says the killing of al-Zawahiri shows that “over the horizon” works. But identifying America’s next wave of enemies will be its toughest challenge. “Threats that might emerge in the future will be hatched by people we just don’t know about,” says Asfandyar Mir of the United States Institute of Peace.

And Afghanistan’s girls’ schools, as things stand, will stay closed.

Must read: Lyse Doucet for the BBC on a year of Taliban rule.

Ben Farmer has been reporting from Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2018.


Great British pay squeeze
Inflation is outpacing wage growth in the UK by such a wide margin that real wages have fallen faster than at any time in 20 years. Inflation is currently at 9.4 per cent. Average wages grew in the second quarter by 4.7 per cent, for an effective pay cut – per the Office of National Statistics – of 3 per cent. The public sector is hurting more than the private. They posted average pay rises of 1.8 per cent and 5.9 per cent respectively. The result is growing pressure from public sector unions for strike action, and increasingly anxious pleas from ministers for pay restraint all round lest wages join energy prices as a principal driver of inflation. That would lead to a wage-price spiral that could put the Bank of England’s target of 2 per cent inflation out of reach for months or even years. This is not an easy time to be governor of the BoE, nor to be chancellor. Whoever gets the job under the next PM will almost certainly have to increase borrowing, at the highest rate since the crash.


Leap seconds
The hours often seem to stretch during hot August days, and sure enough, Earth’s planetary spin is slowing down. When Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago, its day was around six hours long. Six hundred million years ago, this increased to 22 hours as the moon slowed Earth’s rotation through tidal flows. But there are fluctuations – the shortest day in history, at 23 hours 59 minutes and 59.99841 seconds long was recorded by the National Physical Laboratory in England on 29 June 2022. Natural variation and extreme weather events are possible explanations for the variations: scientists have also pointed to the “Chandler wobble”, an irregularity in the Earth’s axis of rotation. One result is the addition of leap seconds to the day to catch up: there’ve been 27 of them since the advent of atomic clocks. Some are now suggesting using a negative leap second for the first time if the Earth’s rotation speeds up. Tech giants including Meta are campaigning against all leap seconds because of the huge software disruption they create. But even Zuckerberg might struggle to control time.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Trapped in Ikea
Being trapped in Ikea is the stuff of dreams or nightmares, depending on whom you ask. Shoppers in Shanghai were not given a choice: chaos erupted over the weekend as health authorities imposed a “flash” Covid lockdown after someone who visited the store that day was identified as a close contact of a confirmed Covid case. Videos on Twitter and Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, show frantic crowds forcing their way past security guards before the store’s doors were locked. People who didn’t make it out were held in the store for four hours before being transferred to quarantine facilities, where they must now quarantine for two days and then complete five days of health surveillance. Over the past month, people in China have been forced to quarantine unexpectedly in locations ranging from offices to travel resorts as part of the country’s hardline “zero Covid” strategy that the WHO says is unsustainable – and which is also sedating an economy that used to be the most reliable engine of global economic growth.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Cooler air con
Using propane instead of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) in air conditioners could prevent 0.1 degrees C of warming and significantly help the world keep overall global warming within safe limits. Air conditioning accounts for a staggering 7 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, according to the New Scientist. It presumably also feeds a spiral of complacency in which the energy use and external warming it entails is forgotten about by those lucky enough to be cool indoors. In any case, propane is less potent as a greenhouse gas than the HFCs that replaced CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) as refrigerants in most of the cooling sector after CFCs were banned in 1987. Climate change means there are expected to be 37 billion air conditioners in use by 2050, meaning more climate change – and more air conditioners.


Channel crossings
In April, alongside the announcement of the UK’s Rwanda deportation policy, the government deployed the Royal Navy in the English Channel to assist Border Force agents in managing the “small boat crisis”. Four months later, the Telegraph reports that the Ministry of Defence is ending the deployment in January unless “ministerial actions” are taken, amid criticism from MPs that it has failed to stop crossings and is a distraction from other navy duties. When Boris Johnson announced the policy in Dover, he claimed it would “send a clear message” to those piloting the boats. It isn’t working. More than 20,000 migrants have crossed the channel in small boats this year, up from 11,300 crossings at this point last year. A Home Affairs committee report found the Rwanda policy may be contributing to the surge, as migrants try to cross before it is fully enforced. Notably absent from the discussions is the Home Secretary, Priti Patel. She avoided a select committee appearance last month, which included scrutiny of immigration policy, with the excuse of “recent changes in government”. Further listening: this week’s Slow Newscast, which goes inside the Home Office. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what you think. Send an email to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Ben Farmer

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell, Jessica Winch, Phoebe Davis, Asha Mior and Laoise Murray.

Photograph: Getty Images

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