‘Signs’ Pakistan pushing Taliban for direct contact with Kabul — Daudzai 

‘Signs’ Pakistan pushing Taliban for direct contact with Kabul — Daudzai 
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Umar Daudzai, President Ashraf Ghani’s special adviser on reconciliation affairs and the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council talking to Arab News in Islamabad on Jan. 9, 2019. (AN photo)
‘Signs’ Pakistan pushing Taliban for direct contact with Kabul — Daudzai 
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Umar Daudzai, left, President Ashraf Ghani’s special adviser on reconciliation affairs and the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council talking to Arab News in Islamabad on Jan. 9, 2019. (AN photo)
Updated 10 January 2019

‘Signs’ Pakistan pushing Taliban for direct contact with Kabul — Daudzai 

‘Signs’ Pakistan pushing Taliban for direct contact with Kabul — Daudzai 
  • Says Kabul in “informal, indirect” contact with Taliban
  • Denies US troop withdrawal would have “great impact” on security situation

ISLAMABAD: There are indications Pakistan was pushing the Taliban to enter into direct talks with the Kabul government to resolve a conflict in Afghanistan now dragging into its seventeenth year, the head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council said on Wednesday in comments that marked a break from long-time accusations Islamabad was not doing enough to advance peace in the neighboring country. 
US and Afghan officials have long been pushing Pakistan to lean on Taliban leaders, who they say are based inside Pakistan, to bring them to the table for talks. Pakistani officials deny offering safe havens to the Afghan Taliban and say their influence on the group has waned over the years. 
The Taliban have so far refused direct talks with the Kabul government which they see as an illegitimate, foreign-appointed regime, and consider their main adversary to be the US, which invaded the country in 2001 and toppled their rule.
When asked if Pakistan was playing its role to push the Taliban to establish contact with the Kabul government, Umar Daudzai, who holds additional charge as President Ashraf Ghani’s special adviser on reconciliation affairs, told Arab News in an exclusive interview: “They [Pakistan] say that and there are signs that they are doing it.”
Daudzai landed in Islamabad for wide-ranging talks on Tuesday amid an intensification of peace efforts by the US and other regional powers to seek a negotiated settled to the conflict between the Afghan government and the insurgency. 
The urgency of the latest round of peace efforts comes partly out of panic generated by reports last month that US President Donald Trump’s planned to withdraw 5,000 of the 14,000 troops from Afghanistan, triggering uncertainty over how the US would carry on training Afghan forces and waging an air campaign against militant groups, in the absence of which a resurgent Taliban would get an opportunity to expand its offensives across Afghanistan.
But Daudzai denied that the withdrawal of US troops would have a serious impact on the security situation.
“I don’t think it has great impact because we have now fully developed the Afghan National Security Forces that is between 350, 000 to 400, 000 [troops],” he said. “If President Trump had made such announcement in 2012, it might have caused some worries but now we have well-trained Afghan National Security Forces. The only thing that is still needed to be developed is our air power.”
The Taliban have strengthened their grip over Afghanistan in the past three years and according to one US government report, the government in Kabul controls just 56 percent of the country’s territory, down from 72 percent in 2015.
US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has recently held three rounds of peace talks with the Taliban. A fourth round of talks with US officials in Qatar this week was called off by the Taliban due to an “agenda disagreement” over the involvement of Afghan officials.
“They don’t talk to us directly; we want to talk to them directly,” Daudzai said. 
When asked if his government was in touch with the Taliban, he said: “Indirectly. Informal, indirect yes,” adding that due to changes within the thinking of the Taliban, mostly due to international exposure and the impact of social media, he was hopeful that the prospects for peace were stronger than ever before.
“There are layers [within the Taliban] that are rethinking the whole situation,” Daudzai said. “Still there are people that are fanatics, that want to continue fighting but there is also a positive thinking between them … They are more exposed to the world outside by and through media. Social media has [had a] great impact on Taliban thinking.”
When asked if a meeting this week between US officials and the Taliban in Saudi Arabia would take place, Daudzai said: “Unless they [Taliban] agree to meet with the Afghan government face to face, that kind of meetings may be difficult to be continued.”
But the special envoy was hopeful of a breakthrough in talks this year: “We have declared that 2019 should be the year of peace in Afghanistan. Within 2019, InshAllah (god willing), we will reach to a final peace deal.”
The State Department has announced that Khalilzad would lead an interagency delegation to India, China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan in January to meet senior government officials in each country “to facilitate an intra-Afghan political settlement”.
It said Khalilzad continued to coordinate his efforts with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, and other Afghan stakeholders.
Other than the United States, China, Russia and Iran have also engaged in talks with the insurgency. The Taliban attended landmark peace talks in Moscow last November while Taliban representatives from Afghanistan negotiated with Iranian officials in Tehran in December. Several rounds of meetings have also been held in Beijing. 
Daudzai welcomed the “multiplicity” of the peace effort but said all parties needed better coordination to create consensus at the national, regional and international levels. He denied that Kabul was being marginalized in the peace process and said all countries pursuing negotiations were briefing the government every step of the way. 
“They are coordinating with us and they are taking our permission,” he said, referring to meetings between the Taliban and representatives from the US, Russia and Iran.
“All initiatives should be done in consultation, in conjunction, with the legitimate state of Afghanistan. So if we have that driving seat, then okay, that’s not a problem,” Daudzai said. “Somebody can sit in the front row and somebody can sit in the back row but they all are on the same bus with one driver. But if that leadership of the Afghan state is not recognized and is not given value, then we may face a serious challenge.”


UK imams mobilize to counter COVID-19 vaccine disinformation

UK imams mobilize to counter COVID-19 vaccine disinformation
Updated 10 min 40 sec ago

UK imams mobilize to counter COVID-19 vaccine disinformation

UK imams mobilize to counter COVID-19 vaccine disinformation
  • A report from the scientific committee advising the government showed stronger mistrust of vaccines among ethnic minorities than the rest of the UK population
  • Imams are pushing back in particular at fears among Britain’s estimated 2.8 million Muslims that the vaccines contain pork gelatin or alcohol

LONDON: Imams across Britain are helping a drive to dispel coronavirus disinformation, using Friday sermons and their influential standing within Muslim communities to argue that Covid-19 vaccines are safe.
Qari Asim, chairman of the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board (MINAB) which is leading a campaign to reassure its faithful, is among those publically advocating that the inoculations are compatible with Islamic practices.
“We are confident that the two vaccines that have been used in the UK, Oxford AstraZeneca and Pfizer, are permissible from an Islamic perspective,” he told AFP.
“The hesitancy, the anxiety (and) concern is driven by misinformation, conspiracy theories, fake news and rumors.”
Britain, the hardest-hit country in Europe by the virus after registering nearly 95,000 deaths, is relying on its biggest-ever vaccination effort to end repeated cycles of lockdowns and restrictions.
However, a report from the scientific committee advising the government showed stronger mistrust of vaccines among ethnic minorities than the rest of the UK population.
It highlighted that 72 percent of Black survey respondents were unlikely or very unlikely to get the vaccine.
Among those from Pakistani or Bangladeshi backgrounds, the figure was 42 percent.
Imams are pushing back in particular at fears among Britain’s estimated 2.8 million Muslims that the vaccines contain pork gelatin or alcohol, which are banned by Islam.
Asim said it was “legitimate” to question whether things were permissible under Islam but without paying attention to unfounded claims.
Among the falsehoods spread about the vaccine are that it can modify DNA, make recipients sterile, or even involve inserting a microchip in the body.
Misinformation around the coronavirus is all the more dangerous given several studies have shown that it can impact minorities disproportionately.
“These are precisely the communities we should be trying to target,” said Nighat Arif, a general practitioner based in Chesham, near London.
When she received her vaccination, she posted a video in Urdu on social media aimed at the language’s speakers living in Britain.
“I’m hoping that because they see someone who looks like them, who is a practicing Muslim, wears a hijab, someone who is Asian who speaks their language, that’s more relatable than something that’s coming through from the government,” she added.
Arif is still surprised by the refusal of certain patients to be inoculated, noting they will often get vaccinated to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabi, or to visit Pakistan or India.
She blames conspiracy theories spread online, which contribute to the science behind the process “being lost.”
Samara Afzal, 34, a general practitioner at Netherton Health Center in Dudley in the West Midlands, also shared a video in Urdu with her 35,000 Twitter followers to “debunk some myths.”
She said some people had asked her to send the video directly to them so they could forward it to skeptical loved ones via social tools like WhatsApp.
At her medical center, Afzal estimates that around 40 to 50 people out of 1,000 have refused to be vaccinated when she had expected only one or two.
“It’s still a fair amount of people that are saying no and obviously we haven’t even addressed the younger ones, so this is just the elderly,” she added.
“So I’m sure when it comes down to the younger ones, there’ll be a lot more that say no.”
Around five million people, almost entirely the elderly and caregivers, have already received a first dose of the vaccine in the UK, the highest rate in Europe.
In a sign of officials’ concerns about minority take-up of the jabs, the state-run health service is mobilizing “influencers” in communities to convince the skeptics.
“There’s a big piece of work happening where we’re translating information, we’re making sure the look and feel of it reaches the populations that matter,” Harpreet Sood, a doctor who is leading the anti-disinformation campaign, told the BBC.
A vaccination center has even been set up in a mosque in Birmingham, Britain’s second biggest city, which has a large south Asian population.
Imam Nuru Mohammed said the move sent “a big ‘no to fake news’” message to his 2,000-strong religious community and beyond.
He shared the video of his own vaccination on social media.
For Asim, the MINAB chairman whose mosque is in Leeds, in northern England, their efforts also help counter far-right claims.
“If there was a lower take-up of vaccines in Muslim communities in comparison to all other communities, then potentially, it could fan the flames of Islamophobia,” he noted.
“And in this pandemic, no one should be scapegoated.”