Afghan Taliban ‘not excluding Pakistan from peace talks’

Afghan Taliban ‘not excluding Pakistan from peace talks’
Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor said Pakistan has fulfilled its task of coaxing the Taliban to the table for dialogue. (Supplied photo)
Updated 27 January 2019

Afghan Taliban ‘not excluding Pakistan from peace talks’

Afghan Taliban ‘not excluding Pakistan from peace talks’
  • Pakistan ‘has done its job of bringing insurgents to the negotiating table’, says Pakistan general
  • This week the Taliban resumed stalled peace talks with US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, Qatar

RAWALPINDI, Paklistan: The head of the Pakistan army’s media wing has said that the Afghan Taliban are not excluding Pakistan from US-led talks in Doha seeking a negotiated end to the Afghan war. 

Maj. Gen. Asif Ghafoor, in an interview with Arab News, said that Pakistan was a facilitator and had fulfilled its task of coaxing the Taliban to the table for dialogue. 

This week the Taliban resumed stalled peace talks with US special peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, where they have long maintained an office. The dialogue, originally meant to run over two days, entered its sixth day on Saturday, raising hopes that the latest efforts to find a mechanism to end the 17-year Afghan war might be the most serious yet. 

Hopes of a settlement also increased due to a recent reshuffle in the Taliban team, with senior leaders including Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar put into key positions.

The US has long pressured Pakistan to use its influence over the Taliban to bring them to the negotiating table. 

“The Taliban are not excluding Pakistan from the peace process,” Ghafoor said during the interview on Friday evening. “We are a facilitator. We have done our job of bringing them to the negotiating table. What is discussed and how the process moves forward will depend on progress during every meeting.”

Asked if the Taliban had refused to meet Khalilzad in Islamabad, Ghafoor said: “There are so many factions and stakeholders involved in the process. Coordination takes time. One faction or party gets out of coordination, (which) can result in changes in schedule or place.”

He said that Pakistan had pushed for the dialogue to restart but had “no preference for time or place.”

Taliban sources have told the media that the Doha talks have focused on a road map for the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and a guarantee that the country will not be used for hostile acts against the US and its allies.

The Taliban have so far refused direct talks with the Kabul government, which it views as an illegitimate, foreign-appointed force. Ghafoor said that there was as yet no certainty about whether the insurgents could be persuaded to engage with the Afghan government but added that progress from the meetings would determine all outcomes. 

He also discussed fears about how Afghan government forces would withstand the Taliban threat without US military support if US President Donald Trump acted on his desire to bring home half of the 14,000 US troops deployed in Afghanistan.

“Afghanistan should not go into turmoil” when US forces leave, the army’s media chief said: “The US should leave Afghanistan as friends of the region, with a commitment to assist Afghanistan in becoming self-sustaining and help in socio-economic development.”

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan: Islamabad also fears that increased turmoil in Afghanistan would mean more sanctuaries there for Pakistani Taliban (TTP) militants who have lost control of all territory in Pakistan since a major counter-terrorism operation was launched after a 2014 attack on an army school.

Pakistan has also fenced off part of its porous 2,500 km border with Afghanistan to prevent incursions by the Pakistan Taliban who have waged a decade-long insurgency in the South Asian nation.

Ghafoor said that the Afghan government did not currently have the capacity to eliminate all sanctuaries given that it was embroiled in fighting an insurgency, but once the Taliban entered the political mainstream, Kabul would be in a better position to tackle groups such as the Pakistan Taliban and the Middle Eastern Daesh. 

“If there is peace in Afghanistan and greater control of the area by Afghan forces, it will be difficult for TTP to continue their sanctuaries there,” the military spokesman said. 

The general dismissed fears that the US would lose interest in Pakistan once it exited Afghanistan, or be free to take harsh actions when it no longer needed Islamabad’s help to end the conflict.

“Pakistan has always remained relevant and will continue to be relevant,” Ghafoor said. “And when the US leaves Afghanistan, it will leave acknowledging Pakistan’s role in ending the conflict. Our relationship shall further strengthen.”

But as Pakistan’s ties with the US have soured in recent years over the war in Afghanistan, Islamabad has turned to neighboring China. The countries are partners in the $60 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) of infrastructure and energy projects that Beijing touts as the flagship program in its vast Belt and Road Initiative.

Responding to media reports that Pakistan was building military jets, weapons and other hardware with funds received under the CPEC umbrella, Ghafoor said that the corridor was “purely an economic project.”

“We have separate defense cooperation with China but that has nothing to do with CPEC,” he said. “We had F-16 deals with the US. That was our requirement. Later, we have jointly made the JF-17 Thunder with China. Like any sovereign country, Pakistan takes decisions suiting its national interest.”

Speaking about a growing protest movement by Pakistan’s ethnic Pashtuns who want the army to remove land mines and check-posts from the country’s northwest where most Pashtuns live, and who allege extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions and “disappearances” of young Pashtun men — which the army denies — Ghafoor said: “Till such time that the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) is peaceful and they stick to their genuine demands, which are natural in a post-conflict environment, the state is committed to taking care of them.”

Asked about PTM leaders Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar who, along with the movement’s founder Manzoor Pashteen, have emerged as the strongest voices against alleged military high-handedness, Ghafoor said that the demands of the Pahstun people were genuine and the state was committed to addressing them.

“But instigating people against institutions is neither within the law nor a public sentiment,” he said. “Once we have fulfilled the genuine demands which are already in the overall plan, then we will see how to deal with anyone who still tries to exploit.”

Ghafoor said that the movement was being exploited by Pakistan’s enemies, in a veiled reference possibly to arch-rival India and neighboring Afghanistan: “When there are fault lines, then enemies will always try to exploit them. So there is an effort to exploit PTM, whether with their connivance or not.”

The general warned that India needed to “stop using proxies against us,” adding that “just as we are concerned that an unstable Afghanistan is not in our interest, India should also know that an unstable Pakistan is not in its interest. They need to change their behavior.”

Responding to a question about an extension in military courts set up by Parliament in 2015, and criticized for their lack of transparency, Ghafoor said that the courts were a “national requirement” because the country’s civilian judicial infrastructure was ill-equipped to deal with terrorism cases.

Ghafoor said that verdicts could be appealed at several levels, including in military appellate and civilian courts, and those on death row had the right to file mercy petitions with the army chief and the president of Pakistan. 

“Military courts proceed as per law; there is a laid-down legal process with full transparency. Courts decide on evidence and not emotions,” the army’s media chief said. However, he added, “should the Parliament decide that military courts are not needed, then they will not be renewed.”

Talks have resumed between Greece and Turkey but the friction remains

Talks have resumed between Greece and Turkey but the friction remains
Updated 02 March 2021

Talks have resumed between Greece and Turkey but the friction remains

Talks have resumed between Greece and Turkey but the friction remains
  • Athens pledges not to sabotage negotiations by withdrawing but adds that it not being naive about the process
  • Ankara has faced criticism from some quarters that it is acting provocatively on a number of fronts

ATHENS: Greek authorities are not being naive about their exploratory talks with Turkey but they “will not fall in the trap to undermine the dialogue” by withdrawing from it, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias said last week.

His comments came as Ankara faced criticism from some quarters that it was acting provocatively toward Athens on a number of fronts.

The Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs had proposed to Ankara that the next round of exploratory talks on the maritime boundary dispute between the two countries take place between March 1 and 5. However, Turkey failed to reply to the invitation.

If the meeting does eventually go ahead it will be the 62nd round of the talks, which began 2002 but broke down in 2016 when Ankara froze discussions. Negotiations resumed in January this year amid pressure from the EU, and Germany in particular, to defuse escalating tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.

In the meantime, Ankara last month sent out a notice advising that the research vessel Cesme would be carrying out a hydrographic survey in international waters in the central Aegean from Feb. 18 to March 2. This prompted protests from Greek authorities and claims that Turkey was acting illegally.

Last week, Ankara accused Athens of sending F-16 fighter jets to harass the Cesme and published a video to support its claims. However, the Greeks said the Hellenic Air Force aircraft did not violate the “protection bubble” around the vessel. Additionally, the Turkish video did not prove that Greek jets flew directly over the ship.

During the first half of this month, Ankara will also conduct a major military exercise in the Aegean Sea. Called Mavi Vatan (Blue Homeland), it will involve about 80 ships.

Ankara is enraged by the growing military cooperation between the US and Greece. Athens and Washington are also in talks to update their Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement. The Americans are requesting a five-year extension of the agreement, and propose the addition of more military bases on Greek soil to a list of those that are available for US forces to use.

Turkish officials and media have also complained about the presence of US forces in the port city of Alexandroupolis. The US plans to send soldiers and equipment from there to take part in NATO’s upcoming Defender Europe 2021 military exercise.

Alexandroupolis is in Western Thrace, a region that is home to a Muslim community that is the only officially recognized minority in Greece. It includes people of Turkish, Roma and Pomakh backgrounds, but Ankara characterizes it as an ethnic Turkish minority. Recently, the Federation of Western Thrace Turks in Europe submitted a written statement to the UN Human Rights Council about the attitude of Greek authorities toward those of Turkish origin.

Additionally, Ankara complained to Greece over the handling of the discovery of an Ottoman cemetery at a construction site in Greek northern region of Chalkidiki. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Feb. 23 that Turkey should have been informed when about 200 tombs were found.

Greek diplomatic sources dismissed the complaint as another effort by Ankara to push a neo-Ottoman narrative of being the protector of Muslims abroad.

Ankara is also focusing part of its public diplomacy on efforts to discredit Athens on the issue of migration. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sunday accused Greece of illegally turning away migrants trying to cross the border from Turkey.

“Push-backs and unlawful practices that Greece has been carrying out in a systematic policy — where in some cases the EU Border and Coast Guard Agency/Frontex has also been involved — have been continuing for years,” it said. “In the past four years, more than 80,000 asylum-seekers were pushed back to our country.”

The Turkish reaction came exactly one year after thousands of migrants, encouraged by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, tried to forcibly cross the border into Greece at the Evros river.

Relations between the EU and Turkey will be the focus of the next European Council Summit in Brussels on March 25 and 26, as Brussels examines a renewal of the March 2016 EU-Turkey Statement on migration.

Philippines kicks off vaccination campaign

Philippines kicks off vaccination campaign
Updated 02 March 2021

Philippines kicks off vaccination campaign

Philippines kicks off vaccination campaign
  • Health officials volunteer to take first jabs to tackle low confidence in China drug

MANILA: Filipino officials have expressed optimism that the country would gradually return to its progressive track in curbing the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as the Philippines launched a nationwide vaccination program on Monday.

“No one will be left behind,” said Carlito Galvez Jr., chief implementor of the National Task Force Against COVID-19, during the launch of the campaign at the state-run University of the Philippines-Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH).

The government aims to inoculate at least 1.4 million health workers this month. It is working to secure 161 million doses of vaccines from various manufacturers.

Besides the 600,000 doses of Sinovac vaccines donated by China on Sunday, Galvez said the country expects to receive 3.5 million doses of AstraZeneca and Pfizer vaccines from the COVAX facility within the first quarter of this year.

Another 1.5 million doses of the Sinovac vaccines, which are part of the 25 million doses procured by the government, are also expected to be delivered in March.

The vaccination campaign is expected to gather steam in the third and fourth quarter of this year.

Dr. Gerardo Legaspi, head of UP-PGH, was the first Filipino to be vaccinated on Monday, with the event broadcast live via government network PTV-4.

Legaspi expressed hope that by getting inoculated in public, he would encourage other health workers to follow suit. Recent surveys have shown low confidence levels among UP-PGH personnel for the Sinovac vaccine.

Legaspi stressed that the “Sinovac vaccine was safe” and assured his fellow frontliners that the Food and Drug Administration and the Vaccine Expert Panel “will not approve a vaccine for use unless it has been proven safe and effective.”

In a press briefing soon after his vaccination, Legaspi said he “felt like crying as he remembered his friends and colleagues who died of COVID-19.”

He added: “This is not the best vaccine for many, but if you look closely, one will understand why I was the first to volunteer to receive this vaccine.”

Meanwhile, Dr Ma. Dominga Padilla, clinical associate professor at the UP College of Medicine, said several fellow doctors had “turned emotional at the event.”

She added: “There is a lot of false news (about the vaccines), but when it’s the director who gets vaccinated first, that is a very, very strong statement.”

Padilla added that the reason she had volunteered to get vaccinated was “to erase fears of the adverse effects of COVID-19 vaccines,” which would not be possible “unless they see their doctors get vaccinated first.”

Galvez emphasized the importance of vaccinations for the country to return to normalcy.

“We will not return to our normal life if we don’t get ourselves vaccinated. It’s a moral obligation of each of us,” Galvez said.

“Let’s not wait for the best vaccine. There is no such vaccine because the best vaccine is the one that is effective and efficient and has already arrived,” he added.

Simultaneous programs in select hospitals across the capital region, Metro Manila, followed the UP-PGH vaccine rollout.

Meanwhile, several Filipinos welcomed the vaccine initiative as a step in the right direction.

“Finally, the government has started the vaccination program. It is something that should have been done before so that we can return to normal,” Leonard Postrado, a senior PR manager, told Arab News.

“I’m willing to be vaccinated as long as I know that the drug is effective. So yes to vaccination, but no to the Chinese drug that is less effective,” he added.

Roy Gascon, a trader whose business was disrupted by the pandemic, agreed: “As a small business owner, we are definitely excited about the vaccine. This will give the local government units and the national government the go signal to reopen all establishments and allow customers to come in and buy our products once again.”

Another businessman, Robert Cua, said he was willing to be inoculated with the Chinese vaccine.

However, he pointed out that for everything to return to normal, the government needed to procure 200 million doses of vaccines for its population of more than 100 million.

Duterte on Sunday said that he would begin easing community quarantine restrictions across the country once the campaign was launched.

“The earlier we can hasten the (vaccination) the better, and the only way to do it is to open the economy and for businesses to regroup,” he said.

Kashmiris say identity under attack after ‘pheran’ crackdown

Kashmiris say identity under attack after ‘pheran’ crackdown
Updated 02 March 2021

Kashmiris say identity under attack after ‘pheran’ crackdown

Kashmiris say identity under attack after ‘pheran’ crackdown
  • The pheran is worn by Kashmiris as an extra layer of protective clothing during the harsh winter month

NEW DELHI: There is no crackdown on a traditional Kashmiri robe, officials told Arab News on Monday, amid claims that people wearing it are being rounded up and frisked in response to two policemen being killed by someone alleged to have hidden a gun under his robe.

The pheran is worn by Kashmiris as an extra layer of protective clothing during the harsh winter months, and residents of the valley have said that security forces are discouraging them from wearing the garment.

The unarmed officers were killed in a busy market in Srinagar on Feb. 19, and the attack came two days after the owner of a popular eatery was murdered in the city. The assailant in this incident was also wearing a pheran.

Police and paramilitary troops have been carrying out checks in the market, with similar exercises reported from other parts of the valley.

However, Divisional Commissioner Pandurang K. Pole denied there was a crackdown or ban on Kashmiri item of clothing.

“There is no written order from any government authorities to ban the pheran,” he told Arab News. “See the markets and tourist places. They are full of the public, and there is no crackdown as such. What crackdown are you referring to?” 

But residents said security forces were asking people to “keep the pheran in hand.”

“The pheran is our traditional dress, and it protects us from winter,” Srinagar-based businessman Aijaz Ahmad told Arab News. “By asking people not to wear the pheran and keep it in hand, the government expresses distrust toward people. How can you expect to normalize the region by constantly attacking people’s sensitivities?”

Everything came to a standstill and people got stuck for hours when security forces launched a crackdown, said Khurshid Ahmed Shah, who is president of the Maharaj Market Association of Srinagar.

“Market is already down, and such moves further drive people away from the market,” he told Arab News. “They hesitate to come out. You understand how hurt people feel when you ask them not to carry pheran, or you suspect pheran-wearing people. It’s like we are going back to the old days of the 1990s, when such crackdowns and disapproval for wearing the pheran were pervasive.”

People’s worries about an anti-pheran campaign have increased since a right-wing group associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) called on the government to ban the garment.

“The militants have carried out most of the attacks in Kashmir while wearing phiran, which should be banned in public places and government functions,” Rakesh Bajrangi, a leader of the Bajrang Dal group in the Hindu-dominated Jammu region, said on Feb. 21.

Bajrangi did not deny his statement when contacted by Arab News, but refused to elaborate on the topic.

However Srinagar-based BJP spokesperson Manzoor Bhat justified the security response. “Who invited the crackdown?” he told Arab News. “Who killed the policemen? If you don’t allow the situation to stabilize, then the crackdown is bound to happen to bring peace in the region.” 

He said that Kashmiri police were trained and kept people’s sensitivities in mind but, when someone was frisked, security personnel would also check pherans.

Student activist Nasir Khuehani was last week travelling from Bandipora district to Sopore town in the valley when he was stopped at eight places in the 40-kilometer long journey.

He was asked to step out of the car, remove his pheran and walk a distance at each stop.

“I had all the identity cards,” he told Arab News. “I have good contacts in the region. Still, I was frisked this way. Imagine what would have been happening to local people.”

The valley’s top security officials were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News.

The situation in Kashmir has been volatile since Aug. 5 2019, when New Delhi scrapped the region’s constitutional autonomy and withdrew exclusive territorial rights for Kashmiris.

Despite the lifting of the lockdown that followed for several months and the restoration of internet services in the region, the area remains heavily militarized. Daily activities are curtailed due to security restrictions.

“Post-August 5, there has been a massive crackdown on life as a whole,” a spokesperson for the valley-based pro-India People’s Democratic Party, Syed Suhail Bukhari, told Arab News. “The recent crackdown in the valley goes back to the old days of the 1990s, when such a crackdown was normal in the name of curbing militancy. The larger question is not about the pheran, but the pervasive sense of distrust that Kashmiris have developed toward the government. The distrust keeps on multiplying with each order of the government. People see that they are being disempowered every day.”

Srinagar-based political analyst Zareef Ahmad Zareef said the government was not making “any efforts” to win people’s trust. “You cannot have peace unless you reach out to the people,” he added.

First coronavirus vaccine dose can reduce hospitalization risk by over 90%: Report

First coronavirus vaccine dose can reduce hospitalization risk by over 90%: Report
Updated 01 March 2021

First coronavirus vaccine dose can reduce hospitalization risk by over 90%: Report

First coronavirus vaccine dose can reduce hospitalization risk by over 90%: Report
  • English study comes amid fall in hospital admissions, deaths in country
  • Findings back those of Scottish study released last week

LONDON: A single coronavirus jab can reduce the risk of hospital admission by more than 90 percent, according to a new study.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was shown to be more effective at reducing hospitalization than the Pfizer-BioNTech one.

The report, which is the result of a large-scale English trial, is due to be released this month. It revealed that the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine is effective at preventing serious illnesses that can result from coronavirus.

The results show that even those aged over 70 are less likely to need hospital treatment after receiving just a single jab.

Health officials created up-to-date efficacy figures by comparing coronavirus hospital admission rates across England in people who have received a first dose in the country’s vaccine rollout, with those who have not.

The new report draws similar conclusions to a study of coronavirus hospital admission rates in Scotland released last week.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that four weeks after an injection, the Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca jabs reduced the risk of hospital admission by up to 85 percent and 94 percent, respectively.

For people aged over 80 —  the group most at risk of being admitted to hospital —  a single jab can reduce hospitalization risk by 81 percent after four weeks, according to the combined results of the English and Scottish studies.

The head of Oxford University’s vaccine project, Prof. Sarah Gilbert, praised the importance of the real-world data used in the new English study.

“It provides evidence of the high effectiveness of both the Oxford-AstraZeneca and BioNTech-Pfizer vaccines in preventing hospitalization in people over the age of 80 after a single dose, supporting our confidence in using this vaccine in adults of all ages,” she said.

The UK’s world-leading vaccine program has delivered initial jabs to about 20 million people, resulting in rapidly falling hospital admissions and virus deaths across all age groups in the country.

UK urged to reverse huge cuts to Yemen aid

UK urged to reverse huge cuts to Yemen aid
Updated 01 March 2021

UK urged to reverse huge cuts to Yemen aid

UK urged to reverse huge cuts to Yemen aid
  • Plea comes amid UN pledging conference to avert famine
  • Save the Children ‘beyond dismayed’ by reports of Britain’s decision

LONDON: Yemenis and major charities have urged the British government to reconsider reported cuts of up to 50 percent of its support for humanitarian efforts in the war-torn country.

The plea comes as the UN is looking to raise some $3.85 billion from more than 100 governments and donors at a major virtual pledging conference on Monday to avert Yemen’s growing famine.

The British government has signaled that it is expected to cut its international aid budget as the country reckons with its biggest-ever recession amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The UK is expected to slash its current 0.7 percent of national income spending on foreign aid projects.

Former International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell told the BBC on Monday that cutting aid to Yemen would be “very serious indeed,” and would lead to the “slow, agonizing and obscene process of starving to death” for millions.

A Yemeni aid worker told The Guardian newspaper: “It is hard to describe how heartbreaking the situation in Yemen is right now … Children are dying every day here. It is not a moral decision to abandon Yemen.”

The country’s civil war kicked off in 2014 when Iran-backed Houthi militias seized the capital, leading the internationally recognized government to flee to neighboring Saudi Arabia.

“We are beyond dismayed by reports that the government intends to cut aid to Yemen by a staggering 50 percent. To slash food and medicine to these children as they stand on the brink of famine and a second COVID-19 wave risks many thousands of deaths,” said Kevin Watkins, CEO of Save the Children UK.

“This is one of the first illustrations of the devastating real-life consequences of the UK’s decision to abandon its commitment to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income on aid, and we hope the government will urgently rethink this move in time to avoid tragic consequences for the world’s most vulnerable children.”