World

The Taliban begin second Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Papua New Guinea struggles with vaccine rollout due to misinformation. El Salvador adopts bitcoin as legal tender.

By Jonathan Pearlman.

Women swept aside as Afghanistan renamed

A curtain separates male and female students at a private university in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul this week.
Credit: Aamir Qureshi / AFP

Great power rivalry

Afghanistan: On Tuesday, the Taliban announced that Afghanistan will again be an Islamic emirate, as it was during the Taliban’s rule from 1996 to 2001. The nation will be led by an acting cabinet that includes 33 men and no women.

Mohammad Hasan Akhund, a senior figure in the Taliban and a former deputy foreign minister who is subject to United Nations sanctions, will be the interim leader. The Taliban’s supreme leader is Hibatullah Akhundzada, who has never appeared in public. On Tuesday, in his first statement since the Taliban took control of the country last month, he said: “All matters of governance and life in Afghanistan will be regulated by the laws of the holy Sharia.”

Despite the Taliban’s insistence that it will promote an inclusive government, the cabinet consists entirely of Taliban members and has no former government officials. The ministry of women’s affairs appears to have been abolished, but a ministry for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice – which previously policed the Taliban’s stringent interpretation of Islamic law – has been reinstated. The cabinet is dominated by Pashtuns, who make up an estimated 40 per cent of the population of 38 million.

The Taliban cemented its control of the country this week after seizing the capital of the province of Panjshir, the last pocket of resistance.

Some fighters fled to the mountains and pledged to continue their struggle. One of the resistance leaders, Ahmad Massoud, the son of an anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban commander who was assassinated in 2001, this week urged people across the country to rise up against the Taliban.

“For those who want to take up arms, we are with you,” he said in a statement.

In Kabul, hundreds of protesters called for “freedom” and women’s rights and an end to Pakistan’s meddling in Afghanistan’s affairs. The Taliban fired shots in the air and beat some of the protesters. In the city of Herat, a small protest ended with two people dead.

Universities have begun reopening, but women have been taught separately to men or segregated by curtains. A 21-year-old female student at Kabul University, Anjila, told Reuters this week: “We are gradually going back to 20 years ago.”

The neighbourhood

Papua New Guinea: Local cases of the Delta strain of Covid-19 have been detected in Papua New Guinea, where less than 2 per cent of the population has received a vaccine dose.

Authorities have struggled to extend the vaccination rollout beyond essential workers, leaving the country with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world. About 135,000 people out of a population of about 7.4 million have received at least one dose.

The low vaccination rate is believed to be due to widespread misinformation spread through social media, as well as inadequate health services and difficulties reaching remote populations. The country is rolling out a variety of vaccines, supplied by Australia, China and other countries, which may also have contributed to vaccine hesitancy.

Before the pandemic, Papua New Guinea already had some of the world’s lowest immunisation rates for measles and other diseases. Recent analysis by Stephen Howes and Kingtau Mambon, published on the Devpolicy blog, found immunisation rates collapsed between 2013 and 2017, possibly due to a weakening of the health system and a lack of funding for health service delivery.

Local cases of Covid-19 remain low, though data is unreliable. In the 28 days to Tuesday, the government recorded 152 cases and zero deaths.

But authorities have detected recent cases in Western Province, near the border with Papua in Indonesia. Papua and West Papua have suffered severe outbreaks of the Delta strain.

Democracy in retreat

Guinea: The commander of a special forces group in Guinea, Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, pledged to restore democracy this week after seizing power from Alpha Condé, the president.

“Our action is not a coup d’état,” Doumbouya told state media.

Doumbouya, who trained and was educated in France, said the takeover was necessary to address corruption, mismanagement, poverty and the “trampling of citizens’ rights”.

Condé became president in 2010, when the West African nation, which has 13 million residents, held its first democratic election since gaining independence from France in 1958. Last year, Condé, who is 83 years old, won a disputed election after overseeing changes to the constitution to allow him to run for a third term.

The removal of Condé appeared to have popular support.

On Tuesday, the main opposition leader, Cellou Dalein Diallo, backed the coup, saying he would support efforts by the military to restore democracy.

But the UN, the United States, France and West African nations condemned the coup and called for Condé’s immediate release.

The takeover follows a series of recent coups in Africa, including two in neighbouring Mali. Recent analysis by two American researchers found the number of coup attempts in Africa has dropped in the past 20 years to about two a year, down from four a year during the preceding four decades.

Spotlight: El Salvador adopts bitcoin

On Tuesday, El Salvador became the first country to accept bitcoin as legal tender.

The move was announced earlier this year by the president, Nayib Bukele, a 40-year-old former marketing executive who claims that adopting cryptocurrency will boost jobs and promote innovation and tourism.

The government has installed bitcoin ATMs and will give $US30 worth of bitcoin to those who use a new wallet app named Chivo, or “cool”. Bitcoin joined US dollars as the country’s legal tender, though businesses can continue to accept cash only.

On Monday, Bukele told his 2.8 million Twitter followers (the country only has 6.5 million residents): “Tomorrow, for the first time in history, all the eyes of the world will be on El Salvador.”

Bukele has claimed that adopting bitcoin will enable cheaper and easier transfers of remittances, which are often sent from family members in the US. Remittances to El Salvador last year were worth $US6 billion, or 23 per cent of its gross domestic product. But some economists say bitcoin’s value is volatile and that transferring them can be complex.

The International Monetary Fund has warned that adopting bitcoin as legal tender could destabilise prices and endanger the financial system. But other countries, such as Panama, plan to follow El Salvador’s move.

In the past year, the price of bitcoin has increased from about $US10,000 to almost $US50,000. Hours after it became legal tender, its value dropped by as much as 18 per cent.

A poll in August by the Central American University in El Salvador found 70 per cent of people did not understand what bitcoin was. About 20 per cent had never heard of it. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "Women swept aside as Afghanistan renamed".

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