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Taliban supreme leader makes first public appearance

Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada addressed supporters in the southern city of Kandahar, officials announced Sunday, his first public appearance since taking control of the group in 2016.

Akhundzada has been the spiritual chief of the Islamist movement since 2016 but has remained a reclusive figure, even after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan.

His low profile has fed speculation about his role in the new Taliban government, formed after the group took control of Kabul in mid-August — and even rumours of his death.

On Saturday, he visited the Darul Uloom Hakimah madrassa to “speak to his brave soldiers and disciples”, according to the introduction to an audio recording circulated by Taliban social media accounts.

“May God reward the oppressed people of Afghanistan who fought the infidels and the oppressors for 20 years,” Akhundzada said, in the recording. “My intention here is to pray for you and you pray for me”.

In the 10-minute recording, he prays for the Taliban martyrs, wounded fighters and the success of officials involved in the “big test” of rebuilding what they call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

“Let’s pray that we come out of this big test successfully. May Allah help us stay strong,” he said.

There was tight security at the event and no photographs or video have emerged.

Akhundzada is referred to as “Amirul Momineen”, commander of the faithful, the rank conferred on the late Taliban founder Mullah Omar by his supporters.

Akhundzada is thought to have been selected to serve more as a spiritual figurehead than a military commander, but his unusually public statements will fuel speculation that he now plans to take a more central role in leading the new government.

— Unifying figure — Akhundzada rose from low-profile religious figure to leader of the Taliban in a swift transition of power after a 2016 US drone strike killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour.

After being appointed leader, he secured the backing of Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri, who showered the cleric with praise — calling him “the emir of the faithful”.

This endorsement by Osama bin Laden’s heir helped seal his jihadist credentials with the Taliban’s long-time allies.

Akhundzada was tasked with unifying a Taliban movement that briefly fractured during the bitter power struggle after Akhtar’s assassination, and the revelation that the leadership had hidden the death of their founder Mullah Omar for years.

His public profile has largely been limited to the release of messages during Islamic holidays, and Akhundzada is believed to spend most of his time in Kandahar, the main city in the Taliban’s southern Afghan heartland.

His last message was on September 7, when he told the newly appointed Taliban government in Kabul to uphold sharia law as they govern Afghanistan.

Last week, Mullah Yussef Wafa, the Taliban governor of Kandahar and a close ally of Akhundzada, told AFP he was in regular contact with his mysterious chief.

“We have regular meetings with him about the control of the situation in Afghanistan and how to make a good government,” he said in an interview.

“As he is our teacher, and everyone’s teacher, we are trying to learn something from him,” he added.

“He gives advice to every leader of Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and we are following his rules, advice, and if we have a progressive government in the future it’s because of his advice.”

Withdrawal from Afghanistan best decision for America: Joe Biden

United States President Joe Biden said withdrawing the troops from Afghanistan to end the 20-year war was the “best” and the “right” decision for America.

He said there was no reason to continue in a war that was no longer in the service of the “vital national interest” of the American people.

“I give you my word: With all of my heart, I believe this is the right decision, a wise decision, and the best decision for America,” Biden said in his address to the nation from the White House on Tuesday.

“We’ve been a nation too long at war. If you’re 20 years old today, you have never known an America at peace. So, when I hear that we could’ve, should’ve continued the so-called low-grade effort in Afghanistan, at low risk to our service members, at low cost, I don’t think enough people understand how much we have asked of the 1 percent of this country who put that uniform on, who are willing to put their lives on the line in defense of our nation,” he said.

Telling his fellow Americans that the war in Afghanistan is now over, Biden said he is the fourth President who has faced the issue of whether and when to end this war.

“When I was running for President, I made a commitment to the American people that I would end this war. And today, I’ve honored that commitment. It was time to be honest with the American people again. We no longer had a clear purpose in an open-ended mission in Afghanistan,” he said.

“After 20 years of war in Afghanistan, I refused to send another generation of America’s sons and daughters to fight a war that should have ended long ago,” Biden added.

After more than USD 2 trillion spent in Afghanistan — a cost that researchers at Brown University estimated would be over USD 300 million a day for 20 years in Afghanistan — for two decades, he said.

“If you take the number of USD 1 trillion, as many say, that’s still USD 150 million a day for two decades. And what have we lost as a consequence in terms of opportunities? I refused to continue in a war that was no longer in the service of the vital national interest of our people,” he added.

“As Commander-in-Chief, I firmly believe the best path to guard our safety and our security lies in a tough, unforgiving, targeted, precise strategy that goes after terror where it is today, not where it was two decades ago. That’s what’s in our national interest,” the President said.

Biden said that the world is changing and the US is confronted with new challenges.

“We’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia. We’re confronted with cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation,” he said.

“We have to shore up America’s competitive[ness] to meet these new challenges in the competition for the 21st century. And we can do both: fight terrorism and take on new threats that are here now and will continue to be here in the future,” he added.

Biden said, “There’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan. As we turn the page on the foreign policy that has guided our nation the last two decades, we’ve got to learn from our mistakes.”

He said the terror threat has spread across the world, well beyond Afghanistan.

“We face threats from al-Shabaab in Somalia; al Qaeda affiliates in Syria and the Arabian Peninsula; and ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and establishing affiliates across Africa and Asia,” he added.

“The fundamental obligation of a President, in my opinion, is to defend and protect America — not against threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow. That is the guiding principle behind my decisions about Afghanistan. I simply do not believe that the safety and security of America is enhanced by continuing to deploy thousands of American troops and spending billions of dollars a year in Afghanistan,” Biden said.

“But I also know that the threat from terrorism continues in its pernicious and evil nature. But it’s changed, expanded to other countries. Our strategy has to change too,” he added.

The United States, he said, will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries.

“We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it. We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed,” he said.

“We’ve shown that capacity just in the last week. We struck ISIS-K remotely, days after they murdered 13 of our servicemembers and dozens of innocent Afghans. And to ISIS-K: We are not done with you yet,” Biden said.

In Video: Joe Biden defends US withdrawal from Afghan ‘forever war’, declares an end to nation-building

Want ties with all countries, particularly with US: Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar

Taliban on Saturday declared that they intend to have economic and trade ties with all countries around the world, including the US.

“The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan wants diplomatic and trade ties with all countries, particularly with the United States of America,” the group’s co-founder and deputy leader Mullah Abdul GhBaradar said in a Twitter posting today, according to Xinhua News Agency.

Refuting media reports that Taliban has not intended to have diplomatic and trade ties with the United States, he said: “We never talk about cut of trade ties with any countries. Rumor about this news has been a propaganda. It is not true,” he said, reported Xinhua News Agency.

Taliban leader Baradar is in Kabul to initiate a formal discussion with Afghan political leaders on setting up a government, a senior leader of the group, which has taken control over Afghanistan said.

The developments came soon after Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) leader Gulbadin Hekmatyar informed that formal talks between the group and Afghan leaders will begin once the Taliban leaders reach Kabul, Pajhwok Afghan News reported.

The Taliban have been attempting to convince the world that they will sever ties with terror groups like al-Qaeda after they are back in power in Afghanistan after 20 years and needs the world’s recognition and approbation, a media report said.

The Taliban’s long history of association with terror groups and their family-based relations with terrorists of other groups have raised severe questions about the Taliban’s commitment during the Doha agreement that they would not provide safe heavens to any terrorist in Afghanistan.