Current Affairs 4th July

Covaxin demonstrated 77.8% efficacy against symptomatic COVID-19’ #GS3 #SnT

Hyderabad-based Bharat Biotech India Ltd (BBIL) publicised the long-awaited results of the Phase-3 trial of Covaxin that involved nearly 25,800 volunteers spanning 25 hospitals across the country. Along with partner scientists at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the company said the vaccine had an overall efficacy of 77.8% against symptomatic COVID-19.

This is higher than the overall 70.4% efficacy reported from the Phase-3 trial results of the AstraZeneca (Covishield) vaccine published in Lancet in January.

Yet to be peer-reviewed

The latest Covaxin study is yet to be peer-reviewed and appears on a pre-print server. While Covishield is the most widely administered vaccine in India, data from a bridging trial on Indians (extrapolating the vaccine’s potency into Indians from international recipients) has not been published.

The two-dose vaccine was also 93.4% effective against severe disease and 63% protective against asymptomatic COVID-19. Moreover, it was 65% protective against the Delta variant of the coronavirus, the most widespread in India and linked to a rising number of cases in Europe as well as the United States. The pre-print reveals that in those 60 years and older, the vaccine was 67.8% effective and 79.4% effective in younger people.

“Safety analysis demonstrates adverse events reported were similar to placebo (or those who got a dummy dose), with 12% of subjects experiencing commonly known side-effects and less than 0.5% of subjects feeling serious adverse events. Medical professionals welcomed the results.

“These results give all of us a lot of reassurance that Covaxin is an excellent option to prevent COVID in India. S.P. Kalantri, Director, Professor of Medicine, Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Wardha, said the pre-print was rich in detail and, on preliminary reading, revealed a trial that was “well-conducted” and presented people with an informed choice on the vaccine’s efficacy.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/covaxin-demonstrated-778-efficacy-against-symptomatic-covid-19/article35129313.ece

French judge to probe Rafale deal #GS2 #IR

A French judge has been tasked with investigating the controversial 2016 multi-billion-dollar sale of Rafale fighter jets to India on “corruption” suspicions, the national financial prosecutors’ office (PNF).

The decision once again puts the spotlight on the role of the Anil Ambani-headed Reliance Group which is an offset partner to Dassault Aviation, manufacturer of the Rafale, in the €7.8-billion deal. According to French investigative website Mediapart, the judicial investigation was formally opened into the Inter-Governmental Agreement on June 14 following a decision by the financial crimes branch of PNF.

The deal has faced several questions in the past pertaining to allegations of corruption, favouritism and deviations in procedure.

Mediapart ’s investigation has also made new revelations regarding Reliance Group’s role in the deal. The report states that the first MOU between Dassault and Reliance was signed just weeks before the surprise announcement on the direct purchase of 36 jets was made. The PNF had initially refused to investigate the sale, prompting Mediapart to accuse it and the French Anti-corruption Agency of “burying” suspicions surrounding the deal.

In April, Mediapart claimed “millions of euros of hidden commissions” were given to a go-between who helped Dassault conclude the sale, of which “some… could have been given as bribes” to Indian officials.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/french-judge-to-probe-rafale-deal/article35129307.ece

Pregnant women eligible for vaccination: Health Ministry #GS3 #SnT

Pregnant women in India are now eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19 with the Union Health Ministry giving the approval based on recommendations of the National Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (NTAGI).

The decision empowers pregnant women to make an informed choice on taking the COVID-19 vaccination, the Ministry said, adding these women can now register on CoWIN or walk into the nearest vaccination centre to get themselves inoculated. The decision has been communicated to all the States and Union Territories.

Studies have shown that COVID infection during pregnancy may result in rapid deterioration of health of pregnant women and they are at an increased risk of severe diseases and it might affect the foetus too, a statement from the Ministry said.

Preventing disease

“Further, pregnant women with COVID-19 infection are at an increased risk for preterm birth and other adverse pregnancy outcomes, including higher chances of neonatal morbidity. Additionally, the experts have also highlighted pre-existing co-morbidities, advanced maternal age, and high body mass index as factors for severe COVID-19 in pregnancy,” the statement said.

The Ministry has accepted recommendations made by the NTAGI and the National Expert Group on Vaccine Administration.

It has prepared operational guidelines for vaccination of pregnant women, counselling kit for medical officers and frontline workers, and informative material for the public to equip the States and Union Territories to carry out the vaccination of pregnant women.

A national-level consultation with representatives of State governments, non-government organisations, the development sector and professional bodies was held to build a consensus on vaccination for pregnant women. Pregnant women can opt for any COVID-19 vaccine available in the country any time during their pregnancy.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/pregnant-women-in-india-are-eligible-for-vaccination-centre/article35129250.ece

We are complying with guidelines, says Twitter #GS3 #SnT

Twitter has told the Delhi High Court that it is in the “final stages” of appointing an interim chief compliance officer and an interim resident grievance officer under the new Information Technology (IT) Rules.

In the meantime, grievances raised by Indian users are being looked into by a grievance officer, it said in an affidavit submitted in response to a plea by lawyer Amit Acharya, in which he alleged non-compliance of the Centre’s new IT Rules by the platform.

The micro-blogging site has also said it may fall within the definition of a “significant social media intermediary” under the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Ethics Code) Rules, 2021.

The rules seek to regulate dissemination and publication of content in cyber space, including social media platforms, and were notified in February by the Union government. Twitter said in “substantial compliance” with Rule 3(2) and Rule 4(1)(c) of the new IT Rules, it did appoint an interim resident grievance officer.

However, even before steps could be taken to completely formalise the arrangement, the interim resident grievance officer withdrew his candidature on June 21, it said and denied that it has not complied with the intermediary guidelines.

In his plea, filed through advocates Akash Vajpai and Manish Kumar, Mr. Acharya said that he came to know about the alleged non-compliance when he tried to lodge a complaint against a couple of tweets.

Twitter has argued that the plea is not maintainable as a writ petition and that Mr. Acharya moved the court “prematurely” without waiting for the redress of his grievance under the rules. It said Mr. Acharya had no locus standi to raise a complaint with respect to the tweets in question and added it has informed that the complaint has now been considered and disposed of.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/we-are-complying-with-guidelines-says-twitter/article35129248.ece

China goes malaria-free with multi-pronged health strategy #GS2 #IR #GS3 #SnT

The World Health Organization (WHO) declaring that China was “malaria-free” followed a seven decade-long, multi-pronged health strategy that was able to entirely eliminate indigenous cases for four straight years. The “malaria-free” certification from the WHO this week followed a visit in May from an independent panel to verify China’s malaria-free status, which requires four consecutive years of reporting no local cases.

The number of malaria cases worldwide in 2019 was around 229 million, according to the World Malaria Report in 2020, with 409,000 lives lost to the mosquito-borne disease. The 2020 report said the majority of cases were reported in Africa, while India and Southeast Asia recorded a significant drop. Cases in India fell from approximately 20 million to 6 million, according to the 2020 report.

The WHO said China is the first country in the Western Pacific region to be declared malaria-free in more than 30 years, following Australia in 1981, Singapore in 1982 and Brunei in 1987. Takeshi Kasai, Regional Director of the WHO Western Pacific Regional Office, attributed its success to “strong political commitment and strengthening national health systems” allowing it to “eliminate a disease that once was a major public health problem”.

The effort began in the early 1950s, a time when China was reporting millions of cases annually, starting with a multi-pronged approach of providing anti-malarial medicines while targeting mosquito breeding grounds and using insecticide spraying.

A national effort called ‘the 523 Project’ was launched in 1967 involving more than 500 scientists from 60 institutes, the WHO noted, leading to the discovery of artemisinin in the 1970s, which is “the core compound of artemisinin-based combination therapies, the most effective antimalarial drugs available today”.

In the 1980s, China began using insecticide-treated nets widely, distributing 2.4 million nets by 1988. Cases began to drop, down to 117,000 in 1990. The number would fall to 5,000 annually by the end of the following decade. With assistance from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria starting in 2003, China “stepped up training, staffing, laboratory equipment, medicines and mosquito control, an effort that led to a further reduction in cases.

‘1-3-7 strategy’

It credited China’s public health system offering free of charge diagnosis and treatment of malaria in bringing down cases to zero, as well as a “1-3-7 strategy” referring to a one-day deadline to report a malaria diagnosis, confirming a case and determining the spread by the third day, and measures taken to stop the spread by the seventh day, along with continued surveillance in high-risk areas.

At the same time, concern over imported cases remains, particularly from Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, which share a border with the southwestern Yunnan province. The “malaria-free” certification was welcomed by public health experts in China and was welcome news for its health authorities, amid an intense global debate over how they handled the COVID-19 pandemic and scrutiny facing its disease control agencies.

China has been widely criticised for the delays in initial reporting of an unknown pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan that was suppressed by local authorities in late December 2019 and early January 2020, including by silencing doctors, later leading to the sacking of city and provincial officials.

Subsequently, a sweeping nationwide lockdown ordered by the central authorities, along with a massive testing and tracing strategy, allowed China to control the outbreak by the summer of 2020 and avoid a second wave unlike most countries, with continuing travel restrictions as well as test-and-trace strategies successfully squashing subsequent local outbreaks linked to imported cases.

The COVID-19 response showed the duality of the Chinese system, according to Dali Yang, professor of Chinese politics at the University of Chicago, who told The Hindu earlier the system can see “shirking” at the local level and a tendency to cover-up problems when they emerge, combined with a top-down approach that is “capable of decisive action when things get big”.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-international/china-goes-malaria-free-with-multi-pronged-health-strategy/article35129208.ece

New source of gravitational waves detected #GS3 #SnT

Scientists have for the first time detected gravitational waves produced by the collision of a neutron star and a black hole. This finding confirms that there are neutron star-black hole systems and will help answer many questions about the cosmos, from star formation to the expansion rate of our universe.

The reverberations from the two celestial objects were picked up using a global network of gravitational wave detectors, the most sensitive scientific instruments ever built, according to the researchers from UK’s Strathclyde University. The university is part of the international network of scientists, the LIGO Scientific Collaboration. In future the team hopes to detect cases where the black hole tearing apart the neutron star is observed in both gravitational waves and light.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sci-tech-and-agri/new-source-of-gravitational-waves-detected/article35129262.ece

Time to tackle COVID-19 vaccine delivery bottlenecks #GS3 #SnT

On June 21, India administered 8.6 million shots of COVID-19 vaccines, the highest daily doses since the start of the drive on January 16. With an officially projected supply of around 210 million doses of COVID-19 in the period from June 21 to July 31, India should be able to administer 5 million shots a day (6 million shots a day, if we exclude holidays) and sustain the tempo for the coming weeks. Yet, this would not be enough to achieve the stated target of jabs for the entire adult population by the end of 2021. To achieve that, India needs to conduct at least 10 million jabs a day, now onwards.

Even with the ongoing vaccination drive, there are many ground reports about two challenges, which demand urgent attention and intervention.

The first is vaccine inequity. There is low uptake of COVID-19 vaccine among groups such as slum dwellers and urban poor as well as in rural population. Some of these inequities have their origin in supply side aspects, as most vaccination centres are in urban settings, and the need for prior and, for some, mandatory, registration on the digital platform.

The second challenge is vaccine hesitancy. However, we need to remember that this is not an India-specific or COVID-19 vaccine specific phenomenon.

Way back in 2014, World Health Organization (WHO) constituted an expert group to study vaccine hesitancy. The group recognised that there is a spectrum from people who accept all vaccines at one end to those who refuse all vaccines, and the majority falling in between. The expert group suggested the need for a timely, transparent and effective communication strategy to tackle vaccine hesitancy. In 2019, WHO had identified vaccine hesitancy as top 10 global public health challenges.

Telephonic survey

In India, a telephonic survey amongst over 3,000 urban and rural respondents from Delhi-NCR (Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh), done by National Council for Applied Economic Research, between December 23, 2020 and January 4, 2021, noted that while 61% were willing, there was hesitancy among 39%.

In April 2021, another survey in 14 slum clusters of Delhi and Ghaziabad, amongst 2,097 families and 4,774 respondents, only 7% of respondents were willing to get COVID-19 vaccine. Many thought that since they were healthy they did not need vaccines and nearly one-third of respondents were afraid of vaccines.

In Madhya Pradesh State, reportedly, 270 COVID-19 vaccination sessions in rural areas ended up as zero sessions.

In the four months since the opening up of COVID-19 vaccination for 45+ populations; only 48% of the 60+ population has received at least one dose. That is a reminder that merely availability of vaccines does not translate into increased coverage. Vaccine hesitancy seems to be playing a role in keeping the coverage low.

In the last few weeks, the Indian government has taken some corrective measures to rejig the COVID-19 vaccination strategy, resolve a few policy issues, streamline vaccine procurement and supply. However, there seems relatively less attention on the challenges related to implementation and delivery.

By end of June, India’s vaccination drive is at an early stage with nearly 4.5% of the total population receiving both shots. The demand seems high, however, once India achieves approximately 50% to 60% coverage of adult vaccination with at least a single dose, hopefully by early October 2021, then there could be a situation of sufficient vaccine supply but not enough takers due to vaccine hesitancy. Also, there is risk that while aggregate coverage may appear high, some population groups, especially the most vulnerable, may have relatively low coverage.

Therefore, early identification of the excluded population sub-groups and the vaccine hesitant group is an urgent need. We need to plan and prepare for such eventualities to achieve coverage as close to 100%, to halt the march of the virus.

Addressing inequity

First, analyse vaccine coverage data by every possible equity stratifiers such as rural urban, rich and poor, religion, deprivation status, tribal and other population sub-groups. The government needs to use more granular data by equity stratifiers and develop appropriate strategies to scale vaccination coverage in those settings and areas. Special mobile-based vaccination sessions should be conducted in those areas and population groups.

Second, generate scientific evidence to understand vaccine hesitancy. The government needs to engage academic institutions to conduct primary research to understand the concerns of people who have any form of hesitancy. Alongside, professional agencies, with experience in social marketing should be engaged in developing vaccine communication campaigns.

Instead of newspaper advertisement, science and evidence-based communication for vaccination drives need to be implemented. In rural and urban slums and tribal areas, the communication strategy should be done with the help of frontline workers, Panchayat and local influencers.

Third, implement the evidence informed COVID-19 vaccine communication strategy adapted for local context: the Indian ministry of health & family welfare had formulated a COVID-19 vaccine communication strategy, in Dec 2020. However, many of the health functionaries are not even aware about various communication strategies. Some of the good practices including financial and non-financial incentives (both at individual and community/village levels) implemented by various districts and Indian states should be explored for further expansion.

Science-based strategies

The Indian government aims to achieve COVID-19 vaccination of the entire adult population in India by end of 2021. However, it will be a naive to assume vaccine coverage is simply a function of vaccine availability. It is sine-qua-non that the challenges of vaccine inequity and hesitancy are identified in advance and evidence and science-based strategies and communication plans are drafted and implemented to tackle this with immediate priority.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sci-tech-and-agri/time-to-tackle-covid-19-vaccine-delivery-bottlenecks/article35129265.ece

EU’s ‘Green Passport’ #GS2 #IR

The story so far: On July 1, the European Union implemented the EU Digital COVID Certificate (EUDCC) or the “Green Passport”, which allows ease of intra-European travel for passengers who have taken one of four vaccines ‘recognised’ by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) that excludes Indian-made Covishield and Covaxin, among others.

The move led to a sharp protest from India, as well as the African Union, as concerns grow over vaccine passports that discriminate against travellers from developing countries with limited access to vaccines. Some European countries have since relented, with a third of the 27-nation EU agreeing to include Covishield in the list of approved vaccines.

What does the EUDCC entitle passengers to?

The EUDCC, or the Green Passport, which is in the form of a digital QR code, attests that a person has been vaccinated against COVID-19, and also if they have had a recent negative test and/or are considered immune having previously contracted the illness. It is recognised by all 27 EU countries, as well as Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Norway for passengers within Europe, who are bound not to need separate documentation for intra-EU travel.

How will it impact Indian travellers?

The EUDCC will impact Indians notionally at present, as only essential travel is allowed into EU countries and special permission has to be taken for those travelling from India. With global concerns over the Delta variant, which was first detected in India, more restrictions are in place for Indians travelling abroad.

The European Union has pointed out that the EUDCC is only meant for passengers within the EU, and that most, if not all, residents would have received one of the four vaccines that have been cleared by the EMA — Comirnaty (Pfizer/BioNTech), Vaccine Janssen (Johnson & Johnson), Spikevax (Moderna) and Vaxzevria (AstraZeneca Europe).

According to the EU, the Serum Institute of India’s (SII) Covishield was a “biologically” different product and it hence needs to apply separately for EMA clearance. Both SII and AstraZeneca have since clarified that they are in the process of seeking clearances. Meanwhile, the road seems harder for Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin, as unlike Covishield, it has not received recognition from even the World Health Organization (WHO) and is in the process of completing its application there.

How did India register its protests?

During his visit to Italy for the G20 ministerial conference last week, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar registered a strong protest in his meetings with European counterparts as well as EU High Representative Josep Borrell Fontelles, as government sources indicated that India was prepared to initiate reciprocal harsh quarantine measures against countries that discriminated against Indians.

India’s concerns are three-fold. It feels vaccine passports will restrict passengers from countries that don’t have the same access to vaccines and will increase vaccine inequality. It also argues that the EU should recognise Covishield as it is no different from other AstraZeneca-licensed vaccines, and more broadly that all Indian-approved vaccines should be given recognition worldwide, and that passengers can be certified via the Co-WIN website.

Furthermore, officials point out that Covishield was distributed to 95 countries, mainly low- and middle-income countries of the global South, and the EU action discriminates against all of them. There is a hint of racism, they claim, in the fact that all vaccines cleared by the EMA are those that have been taken by residents in Europe and North America, whereas the ones excluded are those made and distributed far and wide in the rest of the world by Russia, India and China.

Backing India’s stand, the African Union and Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention issued a statement raising concerns over the Green Passport, pointing out that the Covishield vaccine was the “backbone” of the EU-supported international COVAX alliance’s programme in Africa, along with the AstraZeneca-SkBio vaccine produced in South Korea.

What is the WHO’s stand?

In its interim guidance released on July 2, a day after the EUDCC was launched and implemented, the WHO published its ‘Policy considerations for implementing a risk-based approach to travel in the context of COVID-19’. In it, the WHO held categorically that vaccine passports should not be made mandatory for travel and should be optional, stating that proof of COVID-19 vaccination should not be required as a condition of entry and exit from a country.

Will the EU relent?

By bringing in the EUDCC, the European Union has made it clear that it intends to use these vaccine passports in some measure to differentiate between those who are vaccinated and those who aren’t or have taken ‘unrecognised’ vaccines. However, with at least nine countries, including Austria, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and Switzerland, agreeing to independently make exemptions for Covishield, and Estonia accepting both Covishield and Covaxin, there is hope that enough pressure will build on the EMA to include exemptions for Indian vaccines as well.

https://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-miscellaneous/tp-others/eus-green-passport/article35129206.ece

Can reducing cess levies ease high fuel prices? #GS3 #Economy

The story so far: Ratings agency ICRA recently postulated that the government had room to cut cess levies on retail prices of petrol and diesel, thereby easing prices. Lower fuel prices will likely help cool inflation levels, which are currently beyond the 6% upper limit specified by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).

Why has the ICRA said that there is room to cut cess levies?

The ICRA anticipates an increase in the mobility of the population and economic recovery after the easing of curbs and accelerating pace of COVID-19 vaccinations. It forecasts that consumption of petrol and diesel would hence grow at about 14% and 10%, respectively, in the financial year 2021-22 (from the low base in a national lockdown-hit 2020-21).

The agency projects aggregate revenue from such taxes on these two fuels to expand by about 13% in FY22 from the previous year, assuming that the total cesses on unbranded petrol and diesel remain unchanged at ₹32.9/litre and ₹31.8/litre, respectively. That is, the forecast for government revenue from the cesses imposed on these two fuels is ₹3.6 lakh crore this fiscal, or about ₹40,000 crore more than in the last financial year.

The ICRA argues that if the government decides to forgo the additional revenue that could accrue with higher fuel consumption, it would be able to cut up to ₹4.50 per litre for petrol and diesel each.

How much tax do we pay on a litre of petrol?

As of June this year, taxes accounted for close to 58% of the price of petrol in Delhi. Between May 2014 and June 2021, the Centre’s share of taxes on the retail price of petrol rose 216%, even though the base price of the fuel declined 24%. As per an analysis by The Hindu, if one had bought a litre in New Delhi for ₹94.49 on June 01, 2021 (as per the latest data available from the government’s Petroleum Planning and Analysis cell), ₹32.90 would have accrued to the Centre as tax. Compare this with the Centre’s tax of ₹10.39 when the total price of the fuel was ₹ 71.41 per litre in May 2014.

In its June analysis, the ICRA highlighted that the current fuel prices reflect the higher cesses that have been imposed by the Centre since March 2020 and an increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) rates by more than three-fourths of the State governments.

Its estimates showed that on average, the prices of petrol and diesel rose to ₹98/litre and ₹90.7/litre, respectively, in June 2021, from ₹75.5/litre and ₹68.4/litre, respectively, in April 2019, despite the U.S. dollar price of the Indian crude oil basket being at similar levels (about $72 on average in June in Indian basket terms) at these two points in time.

Would a reduction in fuel cesses affect the government’s ability to pay interest and principal on oil bonds issued to public oil marketing companies (OMCs) as compensation for subsidies?

The agency has estimated that the Centre needs ₹20,000 crore in the current financial year to service the interest and principal related to special oil bonds issued to oil marketing companies (OMCs) in the period 2005-2010. If this debt servicing obligation is to be offset through additional revenues collected from fuel cesses, then the potential duty cut could be to the tune of ₹2 per litre for both fuels, it said. The government had serviced interest of close to ₹10,000 crore related to the oil bonds in each of the financial years FY20 and FY21.

The last principal payment was made in March 2015, of ₹3,500 crore. The total current outstanding is about ₹1.30 lakh crore, out of which ₹10,000-crore principal and an equal amount as interest is payable this year, the report said, citing official data. These bonds are interest-bearing, having a fixed coupon rate and paid on a half-yearly basis. The annual interest due of around ₹10,000 crore has been provided for in the Budget.

How can lower fuel prices make it easier for the RBI to balance economic growth and inflation?

Retail inflation based on the consumer price index (CPI) has been persistently higher than the RBI’s medium-term target of 4%, which, however, allows for a range of 2%-6%. For May 2021, the provisional inflation reading was 6.3%, owing to persistent price pressures in the transport and communication category, which includes the automotive fuels of petrol and diesel and has a weight of 8.59% in the CPI. The transport and communication category saw price gains accelerate to 12.38% in May, from 11.04% in April.

While the RBI has been trying to maintain a growth-supportive stance by retaining an accommodative monetary stance that includes keeping benchmark interest rates substantially low and unchanged in response to the pandemic, its monetary policy committee (MPC) has been repeatedly warning of upside risks to the inflation trajectory from “international commodity prices, especially of crude, together with logistics costs”. The MPC’s prescription to address this reads: “Excise duties, cess and taxes imposed by the Centre and States need to be adjusted in a coordinated manner to contain input cost pressures emanating from petrol and diesel prices.”

Lower pump prices of the transport fuels would ease some pressure on retail inflation and thus allow the RBI a little more elbow room to continue to keep the cost of borrowings lower. This, in turn, could facilitate more demand for credit to both consume and invest in new business activity, spurring growth.

https://www.thehindu.com/business/Economy/can-reducing-cess-levies-ease-high-fuel-prices/article35126349.ece

What lies ahead for Afghanistan after U.S. exit? #GS2 #IR

The story so far: On July 2, U.S. troops departed from the Bagram Air Base that coordinated the 20-year-long war in Afghanistan, effectively ending their military operations in the country. The exit is part of President Joe Biden’s plan to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by September 11, the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Ever since the remaining U.S. troops began pulling out on May 1, the Taliban have made rapid territorial advances.

If the Taliban had controlled 73 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts before May 1, the number of districts went up to 157 in two months as of June 29, according to the Long War Journal. They contest another 151 districts, which leaves 79 districts firmly in the hands of the government.The Taliban’s military offensive is focussed on the northern districts, far away from their southern strongholds, and several provincial capitals are under threat.

Why did the U.S. invade Afghanistan?

Weeks after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush declared war on Afghanistan, which was then ruled by the Taliban. Mr. Bush said the Taliban regime had turned down his demand to hand over al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, who plotted the attacks. Inside Afghanistan, the NATO coalition troops led by the U.S. quickly dislodged the Taliban regime and established a transitional government. Al-Qaeda’s leaders and key operatives fled to safe havens in Pakistan.

The U.S. rejected an offer from the Taliban to surrender and vowed to defeat the insurgents in every corner of Afghanistan. In May 2003, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that major military operations in the country were over. The U.S. focus shifted to the Iraq invasion, while in Afghanistan, western powers helped build a centralised democratic system and institutions. But that neither ended the war nor stabilised the country.

Why is the U.S. pulling back?

The U.S. had reached the conclusion long ago that the war was unwinnable. Presidents, starting with Barack Obama, had promised to bring American troops back home from Afghanistan. But the U.S. wanted a face-saving exit. In July 2015, the Obama administration had sent a representative to the first-ever meeting between the Taliban and the Afghan government that was hosted by Pakistan in Murree. The Murree talks did not progress as the Afghan government disclosed after the first round that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had died two years earlier.

Later, President Donald Trump appointed a special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, with a mandate to directly negotiate with the Taliban. Mr. Khalilzad and his team held talks with Taliban representatives in Doha that led to the February 2020 agreement between the U.S. and the insurgents. In the agreement, the Trump administration promised that it would withdraw all American troops from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. President Joe Biden endorsed the Trump-Taliban deal, but pushed the deadline for withdrawal to September 11. Mr. Biden said on Friday, “We’re on track, exactly where we expected to be.”

What are the terms of the Trump-Taliban deal?

Before the Doha talks started, the Taliban had maintained that they would hold direct talks only with the U.S., and not with the Kabul government, which they did not recognise. The U.S. effectively accepted this demand when they cut the Afghan government off the process and entered direct talks with the insurgents.

The February deal dealt with four aspects of the conflict — violence, foreign troops, intra-Afghan peace talks and the use of Afghan soil by terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (the IS has an Afghan unit, the Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISKP, which largely operates from Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan). According to the agreement, the Taliban promised to reduce violence, join intra-Afghan peace talks and cut all ties with foreign terrorist groups, while the U.S. pledged to withdraw all its troops, roughly 12,000 at the time of the signing of the agreement in February 2020, by May 1, 2021.

After the agreement was signed, the U.S. put pressure on the Afghan government to release thousands of Taliban prisoners — a key Taliban precondition for starting intra-Afghan talks. Talks between Taliban representatives and the Afghan government began in Doha in September 2020 but did not reach any breakthrough. At present, the peace process is frozen.

The Taliban reduced hostilities against foreign troops but continued to attack Afghan forces even after the agreement was signed. Afghanistan also saw a series of targeted killings of journalists, activists and other civil society figures over the past many months, which the Afghan government says is a Taliban act. Kabul maintains that the Pakistan support for the Taliban is allowing the insurgents to overcome military pressure and carry forward with their agenda.

What does Pakistan want?

Pakistan was one of the three countries that had recognised the Taliban regime in the 1990s. The Taliban captured much of the country with help from Pakistan’s ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence.) After the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan’s military dictator Pervez Musharraf, under pressure from the Bush administration, cut formal ties with the Taliban and joined America’s war on terror.

But Pakistan played a double game. It provided shelter to the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura, a group composed of their top leaders. In Pakistan, the Taliban regrouped, raised money and recruits, planned military strategy and staged a comeback in Afghanistan. The fractious Kabul government, faced with corruption allegations, incompetence, and the excesses of the invading forces, made matters easier for the Taliban.

Now, when the U.S. is leaving and the Taliban are advancing, Pakistan is again in the spotlight. A violent military takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban may not serve Pakistan’s core interests. Pakistan wants to check India’s influence in Afghanistan and bring the Taliban to Kabul. But a violent takeover, like in the 1990s, would lack international acceptability, leaving Afghanistan unstable for a foreseeable future. In such a scenario, Pakistan could face another influx of refugees from Afghanistan and a strengthening of anti-Pakistan terror groups, such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban.

From a strategic point of view, Pakistan would prefer the Taliban being accommodated in power through negotiations and a peaceful settlement, which would also allow Rawalpindi to stabilise its conflict-ridden western border. But it’s not clear whether Pakistan has the capacity to shape the post-American outcome in Afghanistan.

Why is India reaching out to the Taliban?

The Hindu reported in June, quoting a Qatari official, that India made contacts with the Taliban in Doha. New Delhi has not denied reports of its outreach to the Taliban. This signals a late but realist acknowledgement from the Indian side that the Taliban would play a critical role in Afghanistan in the coming years. India has three critical areas in dealing with the Taliban.

One, protecting its investments, which run into billions of rupees, in Afghanistan; two, preventing a future Taliban regime from being a pawn of Rawalpindi; three, making sure that the Pakistan-backed anti-India terrorist groups do not get support from the Taliban. In the past, India chose not to engage the Taliban (New Delhi had backed the Northern Alliance) and the costs were dear when the Taliban was in power. This time, New Delhi seems to be testing another policy.

Is the Afghanistan government doomed?

The American intelligence community has concluded, according to The Wall Street Journal, that Kabul could fall within six months. None of the American leaders, from General Austin Miller to President Biden, is certain about the survival of the Afghan government. When Mr. Biden was asked this question on Friday, he didn’t say that the government would survive, but said, “They have the capacity to sustain the government”.

One thing is certain — the American withdrawal has turned the balance of power in the battleground in favour of the Taliban. They are already making rapid advances, and could launch a major offensive targeting the city centres and provincial capitals once the Americans are out.

So, there could be three scenarios, according to experts. One, there could be a political settlement in which the Taliban and the government agree to some power-sharing mechanism and jointly shape the future of Afghanistan. As of now, this looks like a remote possibility.

Two, an all-out civil war may be possible, in which the government, economically backed and militarily trained by the West, holds on to its positions in key cities and the Taliban expand its reach in the countryside, while other ethnic militias fight for their fiefs. This is already unfolding. A third scenario would be of the Taliban taking over the country.

Any nation planning to deal with Afghanistan should be prepared for all three scenarios.

https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/what-lies-ahead-for-afghanistan-after-us-exit/article35125897.ece