World

Alleged mastermind of Bali bombings on trial in Cuba. China limits online gaming for under 18s. United Nations marks success of global ban on leaded petrol as Algeria runs out. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Biden calls Kabul evacuation an extraordinary success

Ramal Ahmadi, at far right, weeps after his three children were killed by a US drone strike on a vehicle at his Kabul home.
Credit: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

Great power rivalry

Afghanistan: At 11.59pm on Monday, a C-17 aircraft carried the last United States troops out of Kabul, ending a 20-year war that resulted in the deaths of more than 170,000 people, including an estimated 47,000 Afghan civilians.

On Tuesday, the Taliban took journalists on a tour of the abandoned airport. A Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, told the reporters: “We have been fighting for this day for the last 20 years: to end this war and attack of foreigners on us and bring our own Islamic government.”

The American departure ended a rushed evacuation of about 124,000 civilians in the 17 days following the fall of Kabul. Tens – and possibly hundreds – of thousands of Afghans who worked with the international forces remain in the country. They will likely need to try to leave via land borders or civilian flights, but safe passage through Taliban-controlled border posts may prove difficult.

The mass evacuation ended after the Afghan branch of Daesh launched attacks at the airport, killing more than 170 Afghans and 13 American troops. A subsequent US drone strike destroyed a car believed to be carrying a suicide bomber. The strike reportedly killed 10 civilians, including seven children and a man who worked for a US-based charity. Asked about these reports, a Pentagon spokesperson said: “We’re not in a position to dispute it.”

In a national address on Tuesday, Joe Biden defended the evacuation as an “extraordinary success”. He said he ended the US’s longest war to prepare for new challenges such as competition with China.

“I was not going to extend this forever war,” he said. “We must set missions with clear, achievable goals, not ones we will never reach.”

The Taliban now controls a country in tatters. Food supplies are dwindling, unemployment is high, many civil servants have fled, and access to foreign aid and to Afghan foreign reserves has been cut.

Despite the Taliban indicating it will adopt a more moderate approach than when it ruled the country from 1996 to 2001, many residents in cities such as Kabul have been wearing traditional clothing or staying indoors as they wait to see whether the regime will reinstate its brand of brutal punishments.

A poll released by the Pew Research Center this week found 54 per cent of Americans supported the withdrawal from Afghanistan but 42 per cent though the Biden administration handled the situation poorly. Sixty-nine per cent believed the US war in Afghanistan was a failure.

The neighbourhood

Cuba: The trial of Hambali, a 57-year-old Indonesian accused of masterminding the 2002 Bali bombings, began this week, 18 years after he was arrested in Thailand.

Hambali, or Encep Nurjaman, is being tried by a military commission at the US detention centre in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Two alleged Malaysian accomplices, Mohammed Nazir bin Lep and Mohammed Farik bin Amin, are also being tried.

Hambali was a leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesian Islamist extremist group, and is believed to have had close ties to Osama bin Laden. He is accused of plotting various attacks, including the Bali nightclub bombings and the Marriott hotel bombing in Jakarta in 2003, which together killed at least 213 people.

But the trial faces challenges, including questions of whether it is possible to conduct a fair hearing of prisoners who were held for years without being charged and were subject to torture. Hambali was held by the CIA at so-called “black sites” – believed to be in Morocco and Romania – before being transferred to Guantánamo Bay in 2006.

The Biden administration says it plans to close the Guantánamo prison, which still holds 39 prisoners seized in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Democracy in retreat

China: At China’s parliamentary meetings in March, Xi Jinping noted his concern about video game addiction, saying it could impair the mental health of the nation’s youths. His comments followed growing public discussion in China about the effects of gaming. A state-owned media outlet has described the wildly popular game Honour of Kings – which has more than 100 million daily users – as “spiritual opium” and there are concerns addiction is causing poor eyesight and affecting young people’s studies.

On Monday, China announced minors will be limited to playing games for three hours a week – from 8pm to 9pm on Fridays and weekends – as part of a crackdown on gaming addiction. The limit, which began on Thursday, applies to people under the age of 18.

The move prompted an immediate backlash on Chinese social media. A comment on Weibo said: “This group of grandfathers and uncles who make these rules and regulations, have you ever played games?”

Technology companies have come under growing pressure from China’s Communist Party, which appears to be concerned at their size and reach. Tencent, the maker of Honour of Kings, had already imposed limits on gaming for minors.     

A previous attempt to curb gaming in 2019 banned younger users from playing between 10pm and 8am. But many gamers found ways around the rules, such as using their parents’ IDs. This week, authorities said gaming companies will be forced to introduce methods of verifying users, such as facial recognition.

Spotlight: End of leaded petrol

In the 1920s, carmakers began adding lead to petrol despite it being widely known that the substance was highly toxic. Famously, Thomas Midgley Jr, the General Motors engineer who created the additive, was unable to attend the first sale of leaded petrol at a petrol station in 1923 because he was sick with lead poisoning.

The use of leaded petrol resulted in catastrophic public health problems around the world, including heart disease, cancer, stroke and impaired mental development, particularly in children. From the 1970s to the 1990s, advanced countries phased out and banned the use of lead in petrol, resulting in 90 per cent reductions in average blood lead levels. But poorer countries continued to use leaded petrol, prompting a push in 2002 by the United Nations to achieve a global ban.

This week, the UN announced that Algeria, the last country to sell leaded petrol, had depleted its remaining supply, marking a permanent end to the use of “one of the most poisonous, most pollutive substances in the world”. The milestone will help to avoid 1.2 million premature deaths a year.

The UN now plans to push for an end to the use of fossil fuels in cars. But officials say this project may prove more challenging, because countries that impose bans will still suffer if other countries do not. Rob de Jong, of the UN Environment Programme, told NPR: “You’ll still be affected by climate change if we don’t fix the whole global fleet.” 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 4, 2021 as "Biden calls Kabul evacuation an extraordinary success".

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