Afghan president: Government must be ‘decision-maker’ in any peace deal

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani speaks during a live TV broadcast at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan January 28, 2019. (Presidential Palace office/Handout via Reuters)
Updated 06 February 2019

Afghan president: Government must be ‘decision-maker’ in any peace deal

  • Ghani’s government has so far been shut out of the evolving peace talks between Taliban negotiators and US envoys to end more than 17 years of war
  • US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is due to meet Taliban representatives there again on Feb. 25

KABUL: Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani said on Tuesday no peace deal between the Taliban and the United States could be finalized without involving his government as “the decision-maker.”
Ghani’s government has so far been shut out of the evolving peace talks between Taliban negotiators and US envoys to end more than 17 years of war, with the hard-line Islamist movement branding his government a US puppet.
He made his remarks in a television interview as Afghan opposition politicians, including his predecessor Hamid Karzai, met Taliban representatives in Moscow.
“At the end of any peace deal, the decision-maker will be the government of Afghanistan,” Ghani told TOLO News, the country’s largest private television station.
“No power in the country can dissolve the government,” said Ghani, who added he was ready to “stand and defend our country.”
“Rest assured that no one can push us aside,” he said.
With both sides hailing progress in talks in Qatar last month, US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is due to meet Taliban representatives there again on Feb. 25.
Ghani’s comments were some of the most extensive since he met Khalilzad in Kabul last week after the latest round of talks.
He said on Twitter early on Wednesday he had received assurances by phone from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Washington’s commitment to an “enduring partnership” with Afghanistan.
Their military partnership was “unwavering” and would remain until a lasting and inclusive peace was achieved, he said.
US President Donald Trump referred to the peace talks in his annual State of the Union address on Tuesday, describing the talks as “constructive” and that Washington would be able to reduce the number of US troops and focus on counter-terrorism efforts as they made progress.
“We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement — but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace,” Trump said.
Ceasefire, withdrawal
US officials say any withdrawal is contingent on a cease-fire — something the Taliban insists on happening first — and that the movement must be prepared to enter talks with the Afghan government to help create a durable peace.
After two years of intensified attacks by the Taliban on the Afghan government, military and foreign forces, they now control or contest nearly half of the districts across Afghanistan.
A cease-fire and the withdrawal of thousands of US-led NATO troops is on the table after Washington secured earlier assurances from the Taliban that they would not allow groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State to attack the United States and its allies.
Western diplomats and security advisers believe a swift foreign pullout would put the stretched Afghan forces under severe strain.
“The Taliban said they are ready to sever ties with Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and this is a good development,” Ghani said.
A US general told a Senate hearing shortly before Ghani’s interview was broadcast that the talks were in their early stages and the Afghan government would have to be part of any negotiated solution.
“I would characterise where we are in the process as very, very early in the process,” US General Joseph Votel, head of the US military’s Central Command, told a Senate hearing.
Votel also said the United States would need to continue to support Afghan security forces financially even if US troops withdrew.
The United States has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support mission and a separate counter-terrorism effort largely directed at groups such as Al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
Some 8,000 troops from 38 other countries also participate in Resolute Support.


School trip hijab clash sparks new secularism row in France

Updated 8 min 4 sec ago

School trip hijab clash sparks new secularism row in France

  • Far-right politician Julien Odoul asked a woman accompanying her son and other children on a school trip to a regional parliament to remove her headscarf
  • The issue has divided politicians and citizens in a country that often struggles with finding a balance between individual religious freedom and constitutionally-guaranteed secularism

PARIS: A new row over secularism and the wearing of the Islamic hijab in public buildings has erupted in France after a far-right politician asked a woman accompanying her son and other children on a school trip to remove her headscarf.
The issue has divided politicians and citizens in a country that often struggles with finding a balance between individual religious freedom and constitutionally-guaranteed secularism in the public sector, including schools.
Julien Odoul, a member of Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN) party, caused widespread outrage when he posted a video on Twitter of him confronting a woman who accompanied pupils last Friday to the regional parliament in Bourgogne-Franche-Comte in eastern France.
Citing “secular principles” in the wake of the killings in Paris this month of four police staff by a radicalized convert to Islam, he insisted the woman, whose son was among the group, remove her headscarf.
Members of the RN then walked out of the chamber before issuing a press statement denouncing “an Islamist provocation.”
But many, including regional parliament speaker Marie-Guite Dufay, criticized Odoul’s actions, saying neither the law of the country nor the rules of the chamber prohibited a member of the public wearing a headscarf.
Dufay denounced a “surge of hatred” and what she described as “undignified behavior” on the part of a lawmaker.
With the RN playing up the issue, the controversy has exposed divisions within the centrist ruling party of President Emmanuel Macron which is keenly aware Marine Le Pen’s faction is its chief political foe.
Even the country’s Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer seemed unable to pick a side, stressing Sunday that “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children,” while saying “the headscarf itself is not desirable in our society” because of “what it says about the status of women, what it says about our values.”
Government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye also weighed in, saying it was important to allow space for exchanges between women who wear headscarves and those who do not, as this promoted “inclusivity.”
But Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire came to the defense of “a culture in which religion remains in the intimate, private sphere and does not have a place in (the) public sphere.”
And Budget Minister Gerald Darmanin added: “I would prefer that women in the Republic, in France, do not wear a headscarf.”
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told parliament he was opposed to any kind of new law specifically targeting what should be worn on school trips.
The controversy is the latest in France over face and body-covering garments which many perceive as inappropriate in a secular country while others argue the garments allow Muslim women to be active participants in French society.
The French state and church were officially separated by law in 1905 to give form to the concept of secularism rooted in the 1789 French Revolution.
In 2004, the government prohibited the wearing of conspicuous religions symbols in public schools and banned the hijab — a garment that covers a woman’s hair but leaves her face exposed — from classrooms and government offices.
The country with Europe’s largest Muslim population is also deeply divided over the body-concealing “burkini” swimsuit, with opposition to the garment forcing the closure of some swimming pools earlier this year in the midst of a heatwave.
Also this year, French sports retailer Decathlon was forced by public pressure to back down from a plan to sell a runner’s hijab in France.
An opinion poll released on Monday found that two in three French people are in favor of prohibiting parents accompanying kids on school trips from wearing visible religious symbols.
France does not officially collect data on religious affiliation but is believed to have a Muslim population of just under 10 percent. Not all are observant.
A study published in September by the IFOP polling group found that more than half of Muslim men questioned said they went to the mosque every Friday, compared to about one in five women.
The upper house of parliament, the Senate, will discuss the subject as early as next week, with a committee examining a draft law seeking to “ensure the religious neutrality of people who contribute to the public service of education.”