Taliban, US form joint working groups on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

The Taliban and the US have formed joint working groups to finalize details of a draft agreement, including the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. (File/Reuters)
Updated 09 February 2019
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Taliban, US form joint working groups on troop withdrawal from Afghanistan

  • Peace negotiations between the US and the Taliban in Qatar last month ended with signs of progress toward the withdrawal of thousands of foreign troops from Afghanistan and an end to more than 17 years of war
  • Russia hosted peace talks in Moscow between the Taliban and opposition Afghan politicians

ISLAMABAD: The Taliban and the US have formed joint working groups to finalize details of a draft agreement, including the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and a guarantee that Afghanistan will not be used as a base for terror attacks against the US and its allies, a senior Taliban official told Arab News on Saturday.
Peace negotiations between the US and the Taliban in Qatar last month ended with signs of progress toward the withdrawal of thousands of foreign troops from Afghanistan and an end to more than 17 years of war.
Russia hosted peace talks in Moscow between the Taliban and opposition Afghan politicians.
Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Taliban’s political office in Qatar, told Arab News that the working groups would meet in a week or two to prepare reports for the next round of talks in Doha, to be held later this month. The outgoing head of the Taliban political office, Sher Abbas Stanikzai, said the next meeting was scheduled for Feb. 25.
“We have been demanding complete withdrawal of all foreign forces, which was an important issue for us,” he told Arab News. “The second issue was related to American concerns that Afghan soil should not be used for terrorism against them in the future.
“Both sides agreed to form joint working groups. So we are satisfied about the outcome of the talks in the sense as we will be working on the two issues – troops withdrawal and to counter the terrorism threat in the future – and the committees will draft the agreement and explore ways for implementation of the agreements.”
The Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan from 1996 until late 2001 but were ousted by US-backed Afghan forces for harboring Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
The group has since been fighting to drive out foreign forces and defeat what it considers a foreign-backed government in Kabul.
But the fighting has spread to most Afghan regions, with thousands of people killed every year.
Shaheen was asked why the Taliban was not yielding to calls for a cease-fire, and replied that other matters needed to be resolved first.
“We are now discussing withdrawal of foreign troops. We have not yet reached any understanding on this issue. Other issues will be discussed after we reached agreement on the withdrawal of the foreign troops. When we decide the external aspect of the problem, then we will focus on other issues.”
The Taliban last week rejected a suggestion from US President Donald Trump of a US focus on counter-terrorism after the troop drawdown.
“We have clearly stated in our meetings that all troops, which means all categories and under any name, stationed in Afghanistan, will leave,” Shaheen said.
The Taliban spokesman also clarified remarks by senior Taliban negotiator Abdul Salam Hanafi that the US had agreed to call back half of its 14,000 troops by the end of April, saying there was no agreed time frame.
He said Hanafi had been referring to US media reports which suggested that half of the troops would be gone by May.
“There is no agreed timetable for the withdrawal of the American forces. It depends on the US side whether it withdraws or not ... we are working on options to agree on a timetable. We will work on it in the near future and we will determine a timetable.”
Shaheen also said the Taliban did not intend to abolish Afghan security forces, like the national army or police, but would reform them so they could defend and protect the nation.
When asked about the remarks by the Taliban chief negotiator to abolish the constitution, Shaheen said: “Our opinion is that the constitution was drafted and approved under the shadow of the American B-52 bomber planes. So we want a constitution drafted in an environment of freedom. All Afghan ulema and scholars should debate and finalize a draft and the constitution should be Islamic as we are 100 percent Muslim in Afghanistan, so we will keep in mind its Islamic and Afghan values which reflect the values of our society.
“We do not say that we do not accept the constitution. Our opinion is that the constitution is a necessity for the society and we accept its importance and it should be [drafted] in an environment of freedom.”
He said all participants in Moscow had unanimously called for the withdrawal of foreign forces and agreed the system in Afghanistan should be Islamic.
“The conference was important in the sense that the participants collectively made these two demands so I consider it an important development. This is also important, that all Afghans agreed on important issues only in two days.”


Scans on US diplomats in Cuba show ‘something happened to the brains’

Dr. Mitchell Valdes-Sosa, General Director of the Cuban Neuroscience Center, speaks during a press conference in Havana, Cuba, on July 23, 2019. (AFP)
Updated 21 min 19 sec ago
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Scans on US diplomats in Cuba show ‘something happened to the brains’

  • Tablada urged the White House to stop using the issue “as a pretext to impose increasingly aggressive new sanctions” against the Cuban people

WASHINGTON: Brain scans of about 40 US diplomats injured in mysterious circumstances in Cuba reveal visible differences compared to those in a control group, researchers who analyzed them said Tuesday.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and led by professors at the University of Pennsylvania, does not draw any conclusions about the cause of the symptoms suffered by the diplomats from late 2016 into May 2018.
But the MRIs of the patients confirm that “something happened to the brains of these people,” Ragini Verma, a professor of radiology at UPenn and co-author of the study, told AFP.
“It’s not imagined,” she said. “All I can say is that there is a truth to be found.”
Verma added: “Whatever happened was not due to a pre-existing condition, because we test for that.”
From late 2016, diplomats posted in Havana and some of their family members suffered unexplained symptoms ranging from poor balance and vertigo to lack of coordination, unusual eye movements, anxiety and what victims called a “cognitive fog.”
The United States recalled most of its diplomatic personnel from the Cuban capital in September 2017.
Some of them have recovered and returned to work, but others are still undergoing rehab, according to Verma.
The US government never publicly explained the cause of the mysterious illnesses. It neither confirmed nor denied the possibility of attacks using some sort of acoustic weapon, as some US media reported, without offering proof.
Cuba has denied all responsibility for the incidents, which also affected at least 14 Canadian citizens. Ottawa also ended up recalling most of its diplomats from Havana in January.
At the request of the State Department, 44 diplomats and family members were sent from mid-2017 to UPenn’s brain trauma center to undergo MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) exams.
Researchers compared those results with scans from 48 comparable subjects in two control groups. The differences are statistically significant and relate to the brain’s white matter as well as the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls movement.
A State Department spokesman welcomed “the medical community’s discussion on this incredibly complex issue. The Department’s top priority remains the safety, security, and well-being of its staff.”
Verma said it was vital to follow the diplomats and their families over time “to see whether these changes evolve or change.”

Responding to the report, Havana again denied all responsibility in the affair.
The study by the UPenn professors “does not allow clear and final scientific conclusions to be reached,” said Mitchell Valdes-Sosa, head of the Neuroscience Center of Cuba.
Valdes-Sosa told reporters that the study “does not show, contrary to what has been speculated... that the group of diplomats suffered brain damage during their stay in Cuba.”
A senior foreign ministry official in charge of US affairs, Johana Tablada, said that as of now “no evidence exists of any type of attack” against the US diplomats, and called on Washington to stop using that term in such an “irresponsible” way.
Tablada urged the White House to stop using the issue “as a pretext to impose increasingly aggressive new sanctions” against the Cuban people.