World

The Taliban are on the rise as Bagram base is left under Afghan control. Indonesia imports oxygen in battle against Delta variant. Canada appoints its first Indigenous governor-general.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

The United States sneaks out of Afghanistan

An Afghan National Army soldier takes a selfie this week inside the Bagram US air base, north of Kabul, after all US and NATO troops left.
Credit: Wakil Kohsar / AFP

Great power rivalry

Afghanistan: Last Friday, Afghan soldiers woke to discover that the last American forces had slipped out of Bagram Airfield, a sprawling military base that formerly held thousands of international troops. For years, the base, which had a Pizza Hut and Burger King, was used by the US military to co-ordinate the war.

The American troops left Bagram and shut off its electricity at about 3am, but had not notified the Afghans who now control the base, its runways and its jail, which has about 5000 prisoners.

“We [heard] some rumour that the Americans had left Bagram,” the base’s new commander, General Mir Asadullah Kohistani, told Associated Press.

“Finally by seven o’clock in the morning, we understood that it was confirmed that they had already left.”

US officials said the withdrawal from Afghanistan will be completed by the end of August, ahead of the scheduled date – set by US President Joe Biden – of September 11.

But the departure of the US and international troops has allowed the Taliban to seize control of dozens of districts in the country’s north. In recent weeks, more than 1000 Afghan soldiers have fled to neighbouring Tajikistan to “save their own lives”, according to Tajikistan’s border guard.

The Taliban, which was ousted after international forces invaded in 2001, now holds between a third and a half of Afghanistan. In areas under its control, it has reverted to its notoriously brutal rule, including public floggings, beatings of women who leave the house alone and bans on girls attending school.

The US has backed peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

A Taliban spokesperson told Reuters it was committed to reaching a deal “although we have the upper hand on the battlefield”.

The neighbourhood

Indonesia: As it struggled to cope with a worsening Covid-19 outbreak that has forced hospitals to turn away patients, Indonesia began importing oxygen this week.

The government has ordered all oxygen supplies be sent to hospitals dealing with infected patients. An emergency supply of 10,000 concentrators – a device that generates oxygen – is being sent from Singapore, as authorities said they were also trying to secure oxygen devices from China and other countries.

On Wednesday, the country reported a record 34,379 new cases and 1040 deaths, although actual figures are believed to be much higher.

In Jakarta, hospital occupancies were more than 90 per cent. In Surabaya, which has almost three million residents, and in Bandung, which has 2.6 million residents, hospitals were full and unable to accept new patients, leaving families urgently trying to find oxygen tanks to treat relatives at home. Some patients set up tents outside hospitals.

“We’re overwhelmed,” a Surabaya hospital spokesperson told AFP. “Many of our health workers have collapsed from exhaustion and some are also infected.”

Lockdowns have been imposed across Java and Bali, requiring offices, shops and mosques to shut. But authorities have been struggling to force people to comply. In Surabaya, the mayor ordered that vaccine-rule violators must tour a local cemetery.

Case numbers have been soaring due to the spread of the contagious Delta strain. But vaccination rates are low, partly due to the proliferation of fake news about vaccines. About 5 per cent of the country’s 270 million residents have been fully vaccinated.

Democracy in retreat

Brazil: Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, is facing calls for his impeachment following a series of corruption scandals, including allegations that his staff were forced to
give him kickbacks from their salaries.

On Monday, Brazil’s UOL website reported that Bolsonaro, during his almost 30 years as a member of the lower house, employed close associates and then demanded a cut of their salaries – a well-known practice in Brazilian politics. The president’s son, Flávio Bolsonaro, a senator, faces criminal charges related to similar claims.

In a story headlined “The secret life of Jair”, UOL included audio recordings in which the sister of Bolsonaro’s former wife says her brother was sacked from his job in Bolsonaro’s congressional chambers because he failed to give the president enough money.

The report followed a series of mass protests over Bolsonaro’s handling of the Covid-19 outbreak. The president, a far-right populist, famously described the virus as a “little flu” but has since overseen a national public health catastrophe that has caused, as of Wednesday, the deaths of more than 528,000 people.

Before the UOL recordings emerged, the president was already facing impeachment calls over allegations that members of his government profited from the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines. Last week, a judge ordered an investigation into Bolsonaro’s handling of the allegations.

Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential elections in 2018 after presenting himself as an outsider who would tackle widespread political corruption. Opinion polls indicate his popularity has been plunging ahead of next year’s election.

Spotlight: Canadian reckoning

For more than a century, Canada’s government funded a series of church-run boarding schools that aimed to assimilate Indigenous children by removing them from their families – a practice that, according to an official commission in 2015, “can best be described as ‘cultural genocide’ ”.

An estimated 6000 students died while attending the schools, where conditions were often squalid and abuse was widespread. The program ended in 1996.     

In May, graves containing the remains of 215 children were discovered on the grounds of the largest of these schools, Kamloops, after the local Indigenous community conducted a search using ground-penetrating radar. Since then, a further 933 unmarked graves have been found at two other schools.

The discoveries have prompted a reckoning with the shame of the country’s past and have led to nationwide protests. Statues of Queen Victoria, Queen Elizabeth and Captain Cook have been torn down, and Catholic churches have been burnt and vandalised.

Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who is Catholic, has apologised for the assimilation policy and has urged the Pope to make a formal apology. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.

On Tuesday, Trudeau signed a historic agreement to transfer child welfare responsibilities to the Cowessess First Nation, the site of a former school where 751 unmarked graves were found last month.

“Never again should kids be taken from their homes, families and communities,” he said.

Trudeau later announced the appointment of Mary Simon, an Inuk leader and former diplomat, as Canada’s first Indigenous governor-general. She said her appointment was a sign of progress on the “long path towards reconciliation”. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 10, 2021 as "The US sneaks out of Afghanistan".

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Jonathan Pearlman is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.