Russia launches new offensive in eastern Ukraine. China’s aid to Pacific states falls. US reins in artificial intelligence. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Pakistan sets deadline for expulsion of Afghan refugees

Afghan refugees wait in a queue to cross the Pakistan–Afghanistan border in Torkham.
Afghan refugees wait in a queue to cross the Pakistan–Afghanistan border in Torkham.
Credit: Abdul Majeed / AFP

Great power rivalry

Russia launched a new military offensive in the devastated city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine as the Kremlin accused the West of escalating the war and blamed Ukrainian agents for an anti-Semitic riot in the Russian region of Dagestan.

As Ukraine claimed that Russia on Tuesday conducted its most intensive 24-hour shelling of the war, Moscow appeared to focus its ground attacks on Bakhmut, which has experienced some of the most intense fighting of the war. Ukraine has been trying to retake the city.

On Monday, Russia’s defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, attended a military forum in China and warned that Western and United States support for Ukraine risked leading to a “direct military clash between nuclear powers”.

A leading Chinese military official, Zhang Youxia, also appeared to criticise the US, saying: “Some countries deliberately create turbulence and interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.” But Zhang separately signalled that he was open to cooperation and developing military ties with Washington.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin blamed the West and Ukraine for a riot last weekend in the Muslim-majority Dagestan region in which hundreds of people stormed an airport and chanted anti-Semitic slogans as they ran onto the runway and tried to encircle a flight from Tel Aviv to “catch” Jewish passengers. About 80 people were detained in connection with the riots.

At a televised meeting of security officials on Monday, Putin said the US was attempting to promote instability in Russia and the Middle East. “The events in Makhachkala [in Dagestan] last night were instigated through social networks, not least from Ukraine, by the hands of agents of Western special services,” he said.

Washington labelled the claim “absurd”.

A Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesperson, Oleg Nikolenko, wrote on Facebook: “The events in Makhachkala reflect the deep-rooted anti-Semitism of Russian elites and society.”

The neighbourhood

Australia: China’s aid to Pacific states has been falling as it focuses on cementing political ties and avoiding risk, according to Lowy Institute analysis that showed Australia remained easily the largest source of aid to the region.

Australia provided about $17 billion in funding to the Pacific from 2008 to 2021, accounting for 40 per cent of overall aid. China, which provided $3.9 billion, was the second largest, followed by Japan, New Zealand and the US. According to a report by the Lowy Institute, the region received more than $40 billion during these years in development assistance, which plays a larger role in the Pacific than any other part of the world. The largest recipients were Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu.

“The Covid-19 pandemic response has been a significant component of the [development finance] increase over the past few years,” the report said. “Geopolitical dynamics and competition for influence have also contributed to a surge in development financing in the region.”

Australia has boosted aid as part of its “Pacific step-up” since 2018 – a move seen as aimed at countering China’s growing reach in the region.

But Australia’s funding includes a growing amount of loans, which has raised concerns about the capacity of Pacific nations to make repayments as they face mounting debt and rising interest rates as well as high vulnerability to climate change and natural disasters.

China’s annual funding to the region fell to $241 million in 2021, below its pre-pandemic average of $285 million a year. The report said China had shifted from supporting large-scale “loud and brash” projects to smaller projects as it sought to reduce risk, enhance returns and shore up ties with countries such as Solomon Islands and Kiribati, which switched their diplomatic support from Taiwan to China in 2019.

“Despite its growing geopolitical clout in the Pacific Islands region, China’s share of total [development finance] to the Pacific remains relatively small,” the report said.

Democracy in retreat

Pakistan: Authorities in Pakistan have been rounding up refugees as part of its plan to expel an estimated 1.7 million Afghans, including about 700,000 who, having fled Afghanistan after the Taliban’s return to power in 2021, are at risk of persecution if they return.

Pakistan’s interior ministry announced on October 3 that all undocumented migrants had to leave by November 1 or face deportation. The measure was clearly targeted at Afghans, who make up 95 per cent of all refugees in Pakistan. The government has blamed Afghan migrants for an increase in violence, claiming 14 out of 24 suicide bombings this year were committed by Afghans. The bombings of two mosques in late September, days before the deportation announcement, killed about 60 people.

Pakistan has blamed much of the violence on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a collection of hardline Sunni Islamist groups that has links to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and on an Islamic State affiliate based in Afghanistan. Both groups believe Pakistan’s religious laws are not strict enough.

The Taliban has criticised Pakistan’s deportation order, saying Afghan refugees are not responsible for the violence and should be “tolerated”.

Pakistani authorities have reportedly introduced rewards for turning in Afghan refugees and told landlords they will face action if they do not evict “illegal Afghans”.

In 2016, Pakistan conducted a similar mass expulsion – involving 600,000 Afghans – which was described by Human Rights Watch as the “world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times”.

Spotlight: US reins in AI

The United States this week took its first significant steps to rein in artificial intelligence (AI), introducing measures to counter fraud, deepfakes and disinformation and to force companies to report on technological advances that pose a security risk.

US President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Monday that included guidelines on watermarking photos, videos and audio to help ensure online content could be verified. The order also required companies to share test results of technology that could pose risks such as enabling the creation of weapons of mass destruction. New standards will also aim to prevent the development of dangerous biological materials.

“Much of [AI] is making our lives better,” Biden said, adding that in some cases “AI is making life worse”.

The order was largely seen as a welcome step towards ensuring AI does not lead to harm or unduly threaten personal privacy, but some experts called for outright bans on invasive technology such as facial recognition software.

While the US is seen as a leader in the development of AI technology, any attempt to restrict harms will require international cooperation. Some moves are under way elsewhere. The European Union is close to introducing an extensive AI law that will fine or ban companies that develop tools that can be used to create biohazards or serious safety threats. The law is also expected to target the use of AI for “social scoring” – classifying people based on their social behaviour or personal characteristics – or biometric categorisation based on characteristics such as gender, race or ethnicity.

Warning of the risks of deepfakes, Biden described an experiment in which his staff showed him making a falsified statement. “I’ve watched one of me,” he said. “I said, ‘When the hell did I say that?’ ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 4, 2023 as "Pakistan sets deadline for expulsion of Afghan refugees".

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