Taliban hail Oslo meet as success ‘in itself’

OSLO: On their first visit to Europe since returning to power, the Taliban held landmark talks with Western diplomats in Oslo on Monday over the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, a meeting the Islamist regime’s delegation called an “achievement in itself”.

The international community has however insisted the Taliban must respect human rights before aid can be resumed to Afghanistan, where hunger threatens more than half the population.

Having accepted a controversial invitation from Norway, the Taliban were holding talks on Monday with representatives of the United States, France, Britain, Germany, Italy, the European Union, and Norway.

The closed-door discussions were taking place at the Soria Moria Hotel, on a snowy hilltop outside Oslo, with the Taliban delegation led by Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi, who hailed the fact that the meeting took place as a success in its own right.

“Norway providing us this opportunity is an achievement in itself because we shared the stage with the world,” Muttaqi told reporters.

“From these meetings, we are sure of getting support for Afghanistan’s humanitarian, health and education sectors,” he added.

Afghanistan’s humanitarian situation has deteriorated drastically since last August when the fundamentalists stormed back to power 20 years after being toppled.

International aid came to a sudden halt, worsening the plight of millions of people already suffering from hunger after several severe droughts.

Thomas West, the US special representative for Afghanistan, tweeted on Sunday: “As we seek to address humanitarian crisis together with allies, partners, and relief orgs, we will continue clear-eyed diplomacy with the Taliban regarding our concerns and our abiding interest in a stable, rights-respecting and inclusive Afghanistan..

No country has yet recognized the Taliban regime which hopes that meetings of this kind will help legitimize their government.

Norway’s Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt has stressed the talks would “not represent a legitimization or recognition of the Taliban”, but because of the humanitarian emergency “we must talk to the de facto authorities in the country”.

Experts and members of the Afghan diaspora have criticized the Norwegian invitation to the Taliban, and protests have been held outside the foreign ministry in the capital.

In Kabul, Wahida Amiri, an activist who has protested regularly in Kabul since the Taliban’s return said she was “sorry for such a country as Norway for organizing this summit, sitting with terrorists, and making deals”.

Since August, international aid, which financed around 80 percent of the Afghan budget, has been suspended and the United States has frozen $9.5 billion in assets in the Afghan central bank.

Unemployment has skyrocketed and civil servants’ salaries have not been paid for months in the country.

Hunger now threatens 23 million Afghans, or 55 percent of the population, according to the United Nations, which says it needs $4.4 billion from donor countries this year to address the crisis.

But the international community is waiting to see how the Taliban intend to govern after being accused of trampling on human rights during their first stint in power between 1996 and 2001.

While the Islamists claim to have modernised, women are still largely excluded from public-sector employment and most secondary schools for girls remain closed.

Two women activists disappeared last week in Kabul. The Taliban have denied responsibility.

Before meeting with the Taliban, the Western diplomats held talks early Monday with members of Afghanistan’s civil society, including women activists and journalists, who had themselves held talks the day before with the hardline Islamists on human rights.

One of those in attendance, women’s rights activist Jamila Afghani, said “it was a positive icebreaking meeting” where the Taliban “displayed goodwill”, but it remained to be seen “what their actions will be”.

On Monday, another woman activist who took part in Oslo, Mahbouba Seraj, said the Taliban “acknowledged us and they heard us”. “I’m hopeful. I’m hoping for some kind of an understanding of each other”, she told reporters.

‘Off to Canada’: India’s jobs crisis exasperates its youth

Srijan Upadhyay supplied fried snacks to small eateries and roadside stalls in the poor eastern Indian state of Bihar before Covid-19 lockdowns forced most of his customers to close down, many without paying what they owed him.

With his business crippled, the 31-year-old IT undergraduate this month travelled to Rajpura town in Punjab state to meet with consultants who promised him a work visa for Canada. He brought along his neighbour who also wants a Canadian visa because his commerce degree has not helped him get a job.

“There are not enough jobs for us here, and whenever government vacancies come up, we hear of cheating, leaking of test papers,” Upadhyay said, waiting in the lounge of Blue Line consultants. “I am sure we will get a job in Canada, whatever it is initially.”

India’s unemployment is estimated to have exceeded the global rate in five of the last six years, data from Mumbai-based the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) and International Labour Organisation show, due to an economic slowdown that was exacerbated by the pandemic.

Having peaked at 23.5 per cent in April 2020, India’s joblessness rate dropped to 7.9pc last month, according to CMIE.

The rate in Canada fell to a multi-month-low of 5.9pc in December, while members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development — mostly rich countries — reported a sixth straight month of decline in October, with countries including the United States suffering labor shortages as economic activity picks up.

What’s worse for India, its economic growth is producing fewer jobs than it used to, and as disheartened job seekers instead take menial roles or look to move overseas, the country’s already low rate of workforce participation — those aged 15 and above in work or looking for it — is falling.

“The situation is worse than what the unemployment rate shows,” CMIE Managing Director Mahesh Vyas told Reuters. “The unemployment rate only measures the proportion who do not find jobs of those who are actively seeking jobs. The problem is the proportion seeking jobs itself is shrinking.”

Vocal for local

Critics say such hopelessness among India’s youth is one of the biggest failures of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who first came to power in 2014 with his as yet unfulfilled promise of creating millions of jobs.

It also risks India wasting its demographic advantage of having more than two-thirds of its 1.35 billion people of working age.

The ministries of labor and finance did not respond to requests for comment. The labor ministry’s career website had more than 13 million active job seekers as of last month, with only 220,000 vacancies.

The ministry told parliament in December that “employment generation coupled with improving employability is the priority of the government”, highlighting its focus on small businesses.

Modi’s rivals are now trying to tap into the crisis ahead of elections in five states, including Punjab and most populous Uttar Pradesh, in February and March.

“Because of a lack of employment opportunities here, every kid looks at Canada. Parents hope to somehow send their kids to Canada,” Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, whose Aam Admi Party is a front-runner in Punjab elections, told a recent public function there.

“I assure you, within five years they will start returning because we will create so many opportunities for them here.”

He did not explain, but party workers said their policies would attract job-creating businesses.

Punjab’s neighbor Haryana, home to local offices of many global IT companies and an automobiles hub, has already ordered that most jobs there be reserved for locals. A political party in Punjab has promised something similar if voted to power.

“To an extent, if a particular sector is doing well, then some arrangements can be made to ensure that local youth get opportunities,” said Amit Basole, head of the Centre for Sustainable Employment in Azim Premji University in Bengaluru.

“But if overall job creation is weak, then such policies do not solve the underlying problem. And they may also make things worse by reducing investment.”

CMIE’s Vyas said India needs more investment in labor-intensive industries and should bring more women into the labor force as Bangladesh has done through its garments factories.

‘No one delivers’

Between 2018 and 2021, India suffered its longest period of a slowdown since 1991, with unemployment averaging 7.2pc, CMIE data shows. Global unemployment averaged around 5.7pc in that period.

The jobs shortage is particularly problematic for a country like India where annually 12m people reach employment age. The economy has not grown fast enough to absorb so many people, economists say.

Also, the increase in the workforce for every percent rise in the gross domestic product has shrunk: the economy will have to grow at 10pc to raise employment by 1pc, said Basole of Azim Premji University.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when GDP growth was 3pc to 4pc, employment grew around 2pc, Basole has found.

Back in Punjab, Blue Line counsellor Lovepreet said business was booming, with his agency handling some 40 clients a day.

“I have been doing this for four years,” said the 27-year-old, who gave only one name. “I am off to Canada myself, this year or next year. Politicians keep promising us government jobs, but no one delivers.”

‘Stupid SOB’: Joe Biden caught insulting Fox News journalist over inflation question

US President Joe Biden was caught on a live microphone Monday calling a Fox News journalist a “stupid son of a bi*ch” on the sidelines of a White House photo op.

As journalists were leaving the room after the event, a reporter from Fox News, the favourite channel of conservatives, asked whether inflation is a political liability.

The Democratic leader, possibly unaware that his microphone was still on, began by deadpanning: “It’s a great asset. More inflation.” And then muttered, “What a stupid son of a bi*ch,” before glancing briefly down.

A pool reporter who was in the room at the time admitted to not being able to hear what Biden actually said over the noise.

But he added that he would “direct your attention to the video of the event if you are curious how the president really feels about being asked about inflation from Fox’s Peter Doocy.” Doocy shrugged the insult off in a later interview on Fox.

“Yeah nobody has fact-checked him yet and said it’s not true,” he said, nonchalantly.

When Biden has gaffed before the White House has rushed to explain or roll back his comments.

But this time, the White House appeared to have no qualms about owning it, putting out a transcript of the event that included the comment — thereby ensuring it passes into the official historical record.

“Just adds a certain something,” tweeted Katie Rogers, White House correspondent for the New York Times, with a screengrab of the transcript.