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Initial Taliban moves fail to convince Afghanistan’s neighbours

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The Taliban’s record in recent weeks on making good on promises to respect human and women’s rights as well as uphold freedom of the press is mixed at best. Afghanistan’s neighbours and near-neighbours are not holding their breath even if some are willing to give the Central Asian country’s new rulers the benefit of the doubt.

A litmus test of Taliban willingness to compromise may come sooner than later.

It’s most likely only a matter of time before China knocks on newly appointed Afghan acting interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani’s door demanding the extradition of Uighur fighters.

The Chinese demand would be challenging not only because of the Taliban’s consistent rejection, no matter the cost, of requests for the expulsion of militants who have helped them in their battles.

The Taliban already made that clear two decades ago when they accepted the risk of a US invasion of Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 by refusing for the umpteenth time to hand over Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. There is little in Taliban 2.0 that suggests that this has changed.

If Haneef Atamar, the foreign minister in the US-backed Afghan government of former president Ashraf Ghani, is to be believed, Uighurs, including one-time fighters in Syria, contributed significantly to the Taliban’s most recent battlefield successes in northern Afghanistan.

A demand to extradite Uighurs to China would also be challenging because Mr Haqqani himself, the Afghan official in charge of internal security, is a wanted man with a $5 million US bounty on his head. Moreover, the United Nations has sanctioned Mr Haqqani’s prime minister, Mullah Hasan Akhund, and several other members of the caretaker government.

“It’s hard to see a wanted man turning over someone who is wanted for similar reasons,” said a Western diplomat.

Moreover, honouring extradition requests could threaten unity within the Taliban’s ranks. “Taliban actions against foreign jihadist groups to appease neighbouring countries would be especially controversial, because there is quite a widespread sense of solidarity and comradeship with those who fought alongside the Taliban for so long,” said Afghanistan scholar Antonio Giustozzi.

Unanswered is the question of whether China would go along with what seems to be an unspoken international consensus that it may be best not to seek extraditions if the Taliban keep their word and prevent militants from striking at targets beyond Afghanistan.

Counterterrorism experts and diplomats argue that if forced, the Taliban would quietly let foreign militants leave their country rather than hand them over. That would make it difficult to monitor these individuals.

China has in recent years successfully demanded the extradition of its Turkish Muslim citizens from countries like Egypt, Malaysia, and Thailand and has pressured many more to do so even though they were not suspected of being foreign fighters and/or members of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP). The United Nations Security Council has designated TIP’s predecessor, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a terrorist organisation.

There is little reason to assume that China would make Afghanistan, a refuge from Syria for Uighur fighters, the exception. 

Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi made that clear when he hinted at possible extradition requests during talks in July in China with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban and the new government’s first deputy prime minister. Mr Wang demanded that the Taliban break relations with all militant groups and take resolute action against the TIP.

Moreover, the Taliban may have destroyed any chance of Chinese reliance on them by demonstrating early on that they and the international community may be speaking different languages even if they use the same words.

The Taliban made clear that their definition of inclusivity, a term the group and the international community, including China, Russia and India, appeared to agree on, was very different. The Taliban formed an overwhelming ethnic, all-male government that was anything but inclusive by the universally agreed meaning of the word.

Similarly, Mr Haqqani and his colleagues, including Qari Fasihuddin Badakhshani, the Afghan military’s new Taliban chief of staff, a Tajik and one of only three non-Pashtuns in the new 33-member government structure, is believed to have close ties to Uighur, Pakistani and other militants

As a result, they are likely to be equally reticent about entertaining Chinese-backed Pakistan requests for the transfer of members of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), more commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban.

The TTP is a coalition of Pashtun Islamist groups with close ties to the Afghan Taliban that last year joined forces with several other militant Pakistani groups, including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a violently anti-Shiite Sunni Muslim supremacist organization. 

Hazara Shiites, who account for 20 per cent of the Afghan population were not included in the newly appointed Afghan government even though the Taliban made a point of last month protecting Shiite religious celebrations. Nonetheless, the Taliban’s notion of inclusivity has already troubled relations with Iran and could persuade the Islamic republic to covertly support resistance to the group’s rule.

China fears that the fallout of the Taliban’s sweep across Afghanistan could affect China beyond Afghanistan’s borders, perhaps no more so than in Pakistan, a major focus of the People’s Republic’s single largest Belt-and Road (BRI)-related investment.

The killing in July of nine Chinese nationals in an attack on a bus transporting Chinese workers to the construction site of a dam in the northern mountains of Pakistan raised the spectre of Afghanistan-based religious militants jihadists targeting China. Until now, it was mainly Baloch nationalists who targeted the Chinese in Pakistan.

The attack occurred amid fears that the Taliban victory would bolster ultra-conservative religious sentiment in Pakistan where many celebrated the group’s success in the hope that it would boost chances for austere religious rule in the world’s second-most populous Muslim-majority state.

“Our jihadis will be emboldened. They will say that ‘if America can be beaten, what is the Pakistan army to stand in our way?’” said a senior Pakistani official.

Indicating concern in Beijing, China has delayed the signing of a framework agreement on industrial cooperation that would have accelerated the implementation of projects that are part of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a crown jewel of the People’s Republic’s transportation, telecommunications and energy-driven BRI.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently kept the Taliban’s relationship with the TTP ambiguous.

“The issue of the TTP is one that Pakistan will have to deal with, not Afghanistan. It is up to Pakistan, and Pakistani Islamic scholars and religious figures, not the Taliban, to decide on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of their war and to formulate a strategy in response,” Mr Mujahid said during an interview on a Pakistani television program. The spokesman stopped short of saying the Taliban would abide by a decision of the scholars.

Afghan sources suggest that the Taliban advised the TTP to restrict their fight to Pakistani soil and have offered to negotiate with the Pakistan government an amnesty and the return of the Pakistani militants to the South Asian nation.   

Uncertainty about where the Taliban may be taking Afghanistan has also cast a shadow over Indian hopes that the Iranian port of Chabahar would facilitate trade with Afghanistan and Central Asia and counterbalance the Chinese-supported Pakistani port of Gwadar.

Eager to maintain leverage in its relations with Pakistan as well as China, Taliban official Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai chose his words carefully by stressing that economics should be at the centre of Afghan-Indian relations. “We give due importance to our political, economic and trade ties with India and we want these ties to continue. We are looking forward to working with India in this regard,” Mr Stanekzai said.

Mr. Stanekzai’s business-focused approach coupled with the pressure on Taliban to police militants on Afghan soil, some of whom have attacked India in the past, dovetails with Islamic scholars in the Deobandi alma mater in the Uttar Pradesh town of Deoband stressing the divide between themselves and their Afghan and Pakistani brethren. 

The Indian Deobandi posture created an opportunity that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to grasp to involve them in India’s backchannel and direct contacts with the Taliban. India invested US$3 billion over the last 20 years in building Afghan roads, girls’ schools and health clinics. Mr. Stanekzai’s remarks indicate that the Taliban would like India to continue its investments in the country.

The Taliban as well as a significant number of Pakistani ultra-conservatives root their worldview in Deobandism, a strand of Islam that emerged in India in the mid-19th century to oppose British colonial rule by propagating an austere interpretation of the faith. Deobandism became prevalent among Pashtuns even if Deobandis in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India went their separate ways after the 1947 partition of the subcontinent.

Arshad Madani, the principal of the Darul Uloom Deoband, the original Deobandi madrassa established in 1886, recently welcomed a decision by India’s Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) to set up a training centre in Deoband.

“There is nothing wrong with what we teach, and we welcome the ATS staff to be a part of our classes whenever they like,” Mr. Madani said. A spokesman for the madrassa added that “we are a religious school, but we are also Indians. To doubt our integrity every time the Taliban spread terror is shameful.”

Mr. Madani’s posture should serve as an incentive for the Modi government to work with Indian Deobandis in the hope that the Taliban may be more willing to listen to religious figures with whom they share a history.

Mr. Madani has never had contact with the Taliban nor has he ever visited Afghanistan. “I’m weak and old,” says the 80-year-old cleric. “But if given the chance, I would go to Afghanistan.”

Author’s note: This article was first published by the China India Brief of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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South Asia

Saudi-Chinese Friendship: Should India be Concerned?

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Image source: Xinhua/Xie Huanchi

Saudi Arabia hosted the grand China-Arab summit in December last year and leaders of the two nations deliberated on future trade ties and regional security. The summit happened at a time when USA and Saudi ties are at an all time low. There lies massive uncertainty on global energy markets after the West forced a price cap on Russian oil and Washington is looking guardedly at China’s rising influence in the Middle East.

In Oil trade, China is Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partner, with bilateral trade more than $87 billion in 2021. Saudi Arabia is China’s top oil supplier, making up 18% of China’s total crude oil purchases. The two countries have deals in refineries, power and military & security.

 Africa’s natural resources have long been a Chinese favourite. Every year, China doles out billions in grants and loans to African governments as an inducement to secure raw material deals or to finance the infrastructure projects which are ultimately going to benefit its own companies.

What is India’s position on the China- Arab summit that intends to boost development and cooperation among the two? India would be in a bit of a quandary one may assume as Arabs are their good friends, as they claim; while the Chinese are not. The trio of the China, Arabs and Pakistan (being used as a mere proxy), uniting is bound to be a slight source of worry for India. What is India’s take on this friendship?

From a diplomatic perspective, if their friendship and goodwill is promoted, it’s a good thing but one hopes that this does not undermine Indian interest, as any bilateral relation must not  destabilize a third relation. In general when one talks of the Arab world, one thinks of its gargantuan energy power and energy crisis and its management is a global issue right now. With the Ukraine Russia war hanging around the energy crisis, it could be an ‘Energy Security’ thing they are trying to do bilaterally. If a big country like China enters the domain of energy, food etc it could turn out into a fairly big movement in the markets, in terms of prices and availability. India has to reckon by the fact that China is large and when you take out a large chunk of something that is available, that can create a pressure situation for others.

Also the union of China, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan may have certain repercussions on India, as China and India already have problems and those are huge problems, there’s no denying that. Sachin Sawant, Senior leader of the Indian National Congress leader, the country’s main opposition party states that they are already over-exerting their power on India. The Chinese are going on building roads, tunnels and bridges nonstop along the border. India needs to develop stronger guiding principles, when dealing with China and its global intentions are concerned. It is a huge point of worry for India.

India definitely cannot do or say much if two good friends decide to meet, but it does have its  set of concerns. If China forges more business alliances with the Arabs in the energy and other sectors, India foresees instability in the markets which may be against its economic interest. It also is wary of the Chinese and Arabs getting together as this is a powerful alliance and its outcome may have a negative impact on Indian interest.

What could be the intentions of China to promote this friendship further and strengthen their relations with the Arabs. How does India look at this union of two economic superpowers? Every country wants to have good friends. They both have global ambitions and one goes about a decade back or lesser, they had invested heavily in Africa. They went there and tried to get hold of all the mines that were of strategic importance to them. They need nickel, gallium etc which are crucial for smart phone manufacturing. So, yes! They would be eyeing many such opportunities in their bilateral ventures.

China is known for its expansionism and they use their financial strength to arm-twist many countries, especially the economically weaker ones. “They are the Shylock kind of money lenders; they keep on lending money at exorbitant rates and then the poorer countries like Pakistan get into that vicious cycle where China takes hold of all their resources at very cheap rates. India is not at all bothered about their befriending the Arabs, because Chinese intentions are well known to the world,” says a concerned Sawant.

India says it is well aware that the Chinese mean business when they talk of befriending the Arabs. Together the two may explore many more avenues of business which strengthen their respective economies. Would their friendship affect India’s foreign policy in anyway? How affected or concerned is the Indian Government with this strategic partnership of China and the Arab nations?

Both Saudi Arabia and China are also part of G-20, and they must work in some areas of convergence that emerge from this global exercise. India closely follows whatever they are doing in terms of multilateral regional matters which impact the well being of all people, and also other matters that are taken up in G20, like climate change, green development and digital economy. India has sufficiently strong relations with the Arabs and its foreign policy will only be affected if China does something that is out of line of its interest.

Sawant reiterates that it is a matter of concern for India. The leader says that the alliance of China with the Arabs is definitely rooted in more trade and greater geo-political ambition. It can harm India. He says that China has this habit of deliberately targeting India’s neighbours, antagonizing them like it has been doing with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, all in a bid to weaken India. It has been their strategy and India should be worried about that. “India needs to revamp its foreign policy in dealing with China. On one hand we ban their apps but then our imports from them are also growing multi-fold, this has to stop. Even on the Bhutan front India needs to be more proactive in protecting the interests of people in that region,” argues Sawant.

If India looks at the China-Arab partnership through the prism of G20 then, it will jointly work on pressing global issues and is confident of a positive outcome. However, it would expect  China to cooperate with it in its G20 endeavours. Does the Indian Government have any certain policy to enhance cooperation and influence in the Mid East Region? Yes, the Middle East is India’s immediate neighbourhood. India has an authentic historical and cultural relationship with them which is now nicely developing into a stronger and closer economic partnership. Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is India’s major economic partner; most of its energy comes from there. Also, it has huge Diasporas in the Arab countries who are emerging as investors in India’s growth and infrastructural development.     

“Any foreign policy is good until is serves the interest of the country. Just on the basis of how you are welcomed by foreign countries and how we welcome them cannot help determine foreign policy; this is a holistic issue. The Chinese President comes here and enjoys a resplendent welcome but that doesn’t stop their army from attacking us. What exactly we do in the interest of the country will help shape up strong foreign policy with any country. The Arabs, though our good friends will obviously be happy with the trade agreements with China, but we must be wary that it does not harm us or our economy inadvertently,” says Sawant.

In the end, India must be confident of its faith and friendship with the Middle East. Being a long time economic partner of theirs, they also benefit from the fact that Indians living in the Arab nations are a huge plus point for them. While there seems to be a bit of skepticism about the China- Arab ties, India should be confident that this will not come in the way of their strong relations with the other 7 GCC countries.

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Taliban and the crisis in Afghanistan

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In 2021, the Afghan Taliban took back control of Afghanistan after fighting a rebellion for twenty years. The Taliban reformed and began regaining territory less than 10 years after the American-led invasion that overthrew the previous regime in 2001. In line with a 2020 peace agreement with the Taliban, they staged a swift assault as the US started to evacuate its last forces from Afghanistan.

Even though they promised to preserve the rights of women and communities of religious and racial minorities, the Taliban have enforced a strict interpretation of Islamic law. The Taliban have failed to provide Afghans with sufficient food supplies and economic possibilities as they have evolved from an insurgent organization to a functioning administration.

Numerous instances of human rights violations have been documented by the UN mission in Afghanistan. Because the Taliban scared off journalists and put limits on press freedom, more than 200 news outlets had to close. Activists and protesters have been tracked and forcefully disappeared, and their government has ruthlessly suppressed protests. They also reinstated the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, which was previously in place, and enforced laws against actions judged to be contrary to Islam. They instructed judges to apply their version of sharia in November 2022; in the following weeks, authorities resumed public hangings and floggings.

Women’s rights have been undermined. Due to restrictions put in place by the Taliban, girls are not allowed to go to high school, and women are not allowed to go to college or teach there. The group banned women from working for local and international voluntary groups in December 2022. According to estimates from the UN Development Program (UNDP), limiting women’s employment might cost Afghanistan’s GDP up to 5%. Amnesty International reports a substantial increase in the number of women jailed for defying discriminatory rules, such as those requiring women to cover their whole bodies while in public and to only appear with male chaperones. In addition, there are now more child marriages.

The UNDP says that the Taliban’s rule has also taken away the gains that Afghans made in their living conditions in the 20 years after the US invasion. In a study from October 2022, the organization claimed that practically all Afghans were living in poverty. Since the takeover, the economy has contracted by up to 30%, and there have been an estimated 700,000 job losses. More than 90% of individuals are impacted by food insecurity. The problem is getting worse because several countries and international groups have stopped giving aid, which is vital to the economy and public health.

International observers are nonetheless worried that the Taliban pose a danger to national and international security through their funding of terrorist groups, especially Al-Qaeda. Taliban leadership might convert Afghanistan into a haven for terrorists who could launch attacks against the US and its allies, despite Taliban pledges that the country’s territory wouldn’t be used against the security of any other country. The violence has also increased along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan, which has always supported the Taliban. Tehrik-e-Taliban, a terrorist organization commonly referred to as the Pakistani Taliban, has gained strength due to the Taliban’s ascent to power. The organization broke off a cease-fire with the Pakistani government in 2022 and began carrying out assaults throughout the nation. Officials from Pakistan have charged the Afghan Taliban with giving the extremists a safe harbor in their country.

For many years, the Afghan government relied on help from a number of countries; according to 2019 World Bank research, contributions from foreign partners funded 75% of the government’s public expenditures. Many of these countries stopped off aid when the Taliban took control, fueling concerns about potential future economic turmoil. Nevertheless, aid rose in 2022 as donors sent more than $2.6 billion. The US has donated more than $1.1 billion in help since the coup. However, according to UN authorities, the pledges fell short of the nation’s humanitarian requirements.

Many Western countries, most notably the US, shut down their diplomatic posts in Afghanistan when the Taliban took power. Diplomatic relations and recognition have been withheld from the Taliban regime, which refers to Afghanistan as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The UN General Assembly has also postponed a decision on who would indefinitely represent Afghanistan at the UN. The Taliban are now being investigated by the International Criminal Court for suspected atrocities, including crimes against humanity, committed against Afghans.

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Decoding Donald Lu’s Visit: A Positive Upward in US-Bangladesh Relations?

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The U.S Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu paid a visit from January 12 to 15. During his brief but swarming itinerary the two parties discussed various issues ranging from diplomatic to political. Interestingly, this is the 11th visit of any U.S high-official in the past two years. The frequent swapping of delegations from the both sides pose a critical juncture between the U.S-Bangladesh relationship. Experts believe that recurrent visits from US high-ups are definitely an auspicious sign between the relationship of the two nations. Therefore, the visit of Donald Lu is an offshoot of the “growing reciprocity and renewed engagement” between Dhaka and Washington.

Needless to say, Bangladesh has a long standing and steady relationship with the US since the latter recognized the former shortly after independence on April 04, 1972. Recently the US-Bangladesh celebrated the completion of 50 years of bilateral relationship and US President Joe Biden termed this as “robust partnership”. Amid such backdrop, it goes without saying that the recent visits signal to a significant positive tie-up between the two parties and the visit can be interpreted in the context of international and domestic backdrop of international politics.

The US is the largest market for Bangladesh’s RMG export. Naturally, the issue of GSP reinstatement plays a key role in bilateral camaraderie. Under such circumstances, Lu’s visit is important to hold talks of economic in the context of Bangladesh’s growing needs, especially after the LDC graduation. Moreover, in the annual Global Firepower 2023 Military Strength Ranking, Bangladesh is placed 40th out of 145 nations. On the other hand, Bangladesh came in 12th place on the GFP review’s list of ‘Strengths on the Rise,’ which emphasizes national military powers based on strong growth patterns until 2023. In this context, the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) and Acquisition and Cross-servicing Agreement (ACSA) agreement indicates to a deeper and strategic engagement from the US rationale.

Bangladesh’s stands at the heart of a strategic position of the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, which aims to counter the increasing footprint of China in the Indo-Pacific region. However, Bangladesh maintains a neutral position in terms of its foreign relations and has been carefully helming without taking any side of any major powers. Washington’s focus on free and fair election is important to maintain a stability in the greater Bay of Bengal neighborhood- an important feat in it’s IPS. Conversely, Bangladesh values economic partnership to sustain her ongoing upward trend. However, at the same time Bangladesh should be careful not to succumb to any pressure, a case in point when the Foreign Minister announced that the US proposed strategy is being vetted under the lens of economic opportunity.

On the domestic fore, arguably, the U.S has been advocating for a free and fair election, upholding democratic values, and condemning extra judicial excesses. However, continuous engagement between the two parties resulted helping to mitigate tensions and create a more positive atmosphere. The crux of Donald Lu’s visit is to reaffirm democratic ideals in state mechanism, rule based international system and Bangladesh to be part of the Indo-Pacific Strategy. Accordingly, Bangladesh has committed to hold a fair election and the recent decline of the controversial RAB’s extrajudicial excesses reported by Human Rights Watch as well as peaceful demonstrations of the opposition have been markedly praised by Donald Lu. From Bangladesh’s perspective rescinding of sanctions, reinstatement of GSP, and more support for Rohingya Refugees were reiterated. More importantly, Dhaka’s impartial foreign policy goals align with Washington’s interest in the South Asian region and it will be of American interest to consider Bangladesh as an important ally in the geopolitical chessboard of the Indo-Pacific region.  

However, the visit is also crucial for Donald Lu who is accused of meddling with the internal affairs of Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. But, Donald Lu manifested his diplomatic acumen to “manage the fissures of the diplomatic ties’ and “highlight on the areas of convergence” in the recent visit. Evidently, the past year has been tumultuous for South Asian nations, following the collapse of Colombo, the Pakistani Economic Crisis and the revolving debt crisis around the region. Amongst her neighbors, Bangladesh has endured relatively steady political and economic pursuit. Therefore, US needs to formulate a comprehensive South Asian policy to accommodate the interests of the respective nations on its own merit.

Bangladesh’s relationship with the U.S is vital in both economic and political stance. Continued engagement and partnership between the two states is critical for the security of South Asia as well as Bangladesh’s ongoing economic prosperity. On a pragmatic tone, it would take more than just this one visit for Bangladesh to solve these complex geopolitical issues. For now, the visit has symbolized strengthening of U.S-Bangladesh relationship going forward by exonerating the mutual interests to diplomatically resolve pressing bilateral issues and elevation of continuous engagement.

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