In US pursuit of peace talks, perilous rift opens with Afghan leader

In US pursuit of peace talks, perilous rift opens with Afghan leader
US officials said they believe President Ashraf Ghani, above, might try to undermine the negotiations. (AFP/File)
Updated 27 March 2019

In US pursuit of peace talks, perilous rift opens with Afghan leader

In US pursuit of peace talks, perilous rift opens with Afghan leader
  • Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani is unhappy the government is left out of the US-Taliban peace talks
  • The US-Taliban talks are led by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad

WASHINGTON/KABUL: Washington’s relationship with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani appears increasingly at risk of permanent damage, the consequence of a US policy shift that has so far excluded his government from talks with the Taliban and of his own determination to retain power and manage peace efforts himself.
The feud threatens to undermine the already narrow chances for a peace accord that President Donald Trump hopes would end America’s longest war.
Current and former US officials tell Reuters they believe Ghani is positioning himself to perhaps be a spoiler in still-fragile negotiations, angry that the Afghan government has been kept out of talks and worried about the implications for his presidency.
But from Ghani’s perspective, the negotiations themselves, led by US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, feel like a personal betrayal and a capitulation by the United States that could return the Taliban to power, Afghan officials say.
“Khalilzad wants to show that he is the champion of peace and President Ghani does not want to be the villain. The president believes he is being betrayed,” an Afghan government official said.
The growing rift between Kabul and Washington over the peace negotiations erupted in public view on March 14 when Ghani’s national security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib, slammed Khalilzad and accused the Afghan-born veteran US diplomat of perhaps trying to steal the Afghan presidency for himself.
“(Ghani’s worried) there could be some agreement for an interim government and he’ll be on the outside looking in,” said one US official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official added that Washington should expect Ghani will act like a politician in an election year, saying: “We shouldn’t expect that Ghani is going to be Ghani the statesman, where he says: ‘The best thing would be for me to step aside’.”
The blow-up over Mohib’s attack has had serious repercussions. The following day, the State Department decreed that US officials should have no further contact with Mohib and his presence at a meeting on Monday between Ghani and NATO diplomats prompted the US delegation to walk out of the presidential palace, Afghan sources said on condition of anonymity. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
The discord carries echoes of tensions under Ghani’s predecessor, Hamid Karzai, who became an intense critic of the United States during his 13 years in power.
But the acrimony is still largely behind closed doors. Ghani is dependent on US support, as Afghanistan’s main economic, diplomatic and security backer, and there are signs that he will move to limit the fallout on ties.
In a nod to Washington’s outrage over Mohib’s remarks, Ghani is considering replacing Mohib with the Afghan envoy to London, a second Afghan official said.
Ghani’s office did not immediately comment.
Latest round disappoints Ghani
Since his 2016 election campaign, Trump has made the case to end the Afghan conflict that began in 2001 and has tied the prospect of troop drawdowns in Afghanistan to success in peace talks. But it is unclear if Trump will accept a deal at any cost — something that Ghani and other Afghans increasingly fear.
“The president has indicated that he hopes for the best in these peace talks but he also will not accept a bad deal,” a senior Trump administration official said.
The Taliban, which sees Ghani as an Afghan puppet of the United States, has refused to meet with him.
Although the United States had historically balked at the prospect of unilateral talks with the Taliban, the Trump administration made a decision to move ahead with them, something that veteran US officials sharply criticized.
“By acceding to this Taliban demand, we have ourselves delegitimized the government we claim to support,” Ryan Crocker, former US ambassador to Afghanistan, wrote in a Washington Post column, adding that the US move signaled “we were surrendering.”
The second round of US-Taliban talks lasting 16 days ended this month in Doha, Qatar, with discussions including potential US troop withdrawals and Taliban assurances on counter-terrorism.
But those talks disappointed Ghani, who had hoped Khalilzad would make some progress on negotiating a cease-fire for Afghanistan and convincing the Taliban to negotiate with Ghani’s government, several Afghan officials said.
Instead, Khalilzad flew to Washington without such progress and without discussing the details of the talks with Ghani, which made the Afghan president paranoid, they said.
“The two sides discussed and agreed on issues concerning them but it did not change anything for the (Afghan) people or the government,” the first Afghan official said.
Some current and former US officials are sympathetic to Ghani and believe the United States must find a way to reassure him — and fast.
Acknowledging Kabul’s frustration, the senior Trump administration official said: “It’s urgent that we convince the Taliban to sit down with the Afghan government and other Afghans and engage in a political process.”
Afghan election complication
The Afghan election is shaping up as a major challenge for Ghani’s government, with speculation that the poll may not be held at all if a peace deal is first reached with the Taliban. Delayed twice already, it is now slated for Sept. 28.
One former US official said Ghani hoped that the United States would fail to reach an agreement before the vote so the ballot can move forward.
Ghani “thinks that if the peace process goes through and the election doesn’t take place, he loses everything,” said a former senior Afghan official.
With so much in play politically, Ghani is seen as trying to tightly control the process — something experts fear could exclude opposition elements that would be crucial for any lasting agreement between the Taliban and Afghan society.
A former US official said Ghani’s controlling personality was one reason Washington long worried he could prove to be “more an obstacle than a help on the peace process.”
“It’s not because his heart isn’t in the right place in wanting peace in Afghanistan. It’s because of his disposition and his controlling nature and his desire to hold on to more control in a closed circle than is realistic,” the former official said.


Bangladeshi COVID-19 vaccine gets conditional clearance for human trials

Bangladeshi COVID-19 vaccine gets conditional clearance for human trials
Updated 18 June 2021

Bangladeshi COVID-19 vaccine gets conditional clearance for human trials

Bangladeshi COVID-19 vaccine gets conditional clearance for human trials
  • Bangavax is a new generation mRNA vaccine, like the Pfizer and Moderna ones, but is expected to be cheaper
  • Bangladesh Medical Research Council requires Bangavax producer to first conduct trials on monkeys or chimpanzees

DHAKA: Bangladeshi authorities have conditionally cleared the country’s first coronavirus vaccine for clinical trials, which the producer expects to complete in the next few months.

The vaccine, Bangavax, is a new generation mRNA vaccine that, like the Pfizer and Moderna ones, teaches our cells how to make a protein that triggers an immune response inside our bodies. Developed by Dhaka-based Globe Biotech Ltd. (GBL), the vaccine was approved for production by the country’s drug regulator in late December.

On Wednesday, the Bangladesh Medical Research Council (BMRC) approved clinical trials of Bangavax under the condition that “before starting any human trial, the vaccine producing company needs to conduct an animal trial on monkeys or chimpanzees,” BMRC director Prof. Dr Ruhul Amin said.

GBL has been waiting for the trial approval since January.

“It’s a lengthy process,” Amin said. “However, we are doing our best to facilitate the trials of Bangavax.”

Dr. Mohammed Mohiuddin, head of quality at GBL, said that while the company is now waiting for the BMRC’s written recommendations, it is preparing to start the trials.

“It will take us eight to nine months to complete the whole process,” he said. “Since we are using pure mRNA technology in Bangavax and no virus is used in this process, we are supposedly not required to make an animal trial.” He said that GBL was in touch with organizations abroad as there is no institution conducting animal trials in Bangladesh.

“To run an animal trial, some foreign companies are asking for a G2G — government to government contract. We hope the government should extend help to us in this case,” Dr. Mohiuddin said.

As Bangavax is estimated to cost $10-$15, several dollars cheaper than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, it may help Bangladesh with its immunization drive, in which only 2.6 percent of the country’s 166 million people has been vaccinated so far, mainly due to a shortage of COVID-19 jabs.

FASTFACT

Dr. Mohammed Mushtuq Husain, an adviser at the state-run Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), said if Bangavax trials prove successful they would position Bangladesh ‘ahead in the vaccine race amid this global crisis period.’

GBL says it has the capacity to produce 10 million doses a month, and its lab tests on mice suggest that one dose would suffice.

“We are expecting that it will be a single dose vaccine as we found about 100 percent efficacy rate during lab trial on mice,” Dr. Mohiuddin said.

Dr. Mohammad Mushtuq Husain, an adviser at the state-run Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), said if Bangavax trials prove successful they would position Bangladesh “ahead in the vaccine race amid this global crisis period.”

“They (GBL) should be provided with necessary administrative and financial support as and when required. But the highest level of precaution is a must at every stage of the trials,” he said.

“If we become successful in this endeavor, Bangladesh may consider exporting vaccine to other developing countries after meeting local demand.”


Pakistani artist employs rare Chinese technique to create portrait of Saudi crown prince

Pakistani artist employs rare Chinese technique to create portrait of Saudi crown prince
Updated 18 June 2021

Pakistani artist employs rare Chinese technique to create portrait of Saudi crown prince

Pakistani artist employs rare Chinese technique to create portrait of Saudi crown prince
  • Syed Abid Shah has for decades practiced straw painting, a Chinese folk art that dates back 2,000 years to Han dynasty
  • The laborious technique requires artists to trim, dye and polish dried wheat stalks and weave them into images on a canvas

PESHAWAR: Known for his calligraphy and Mughal imagery, a master craftsman from northwestern Pakistan has recently turned to an ancient technique rarely used in portraiture to create an image of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

For decades, Syed Abid Shah from Peshawar has been practicing and developing straw painting — a Chinese folk art that dates back at least 2,000 years to the Han dynasty. The laborious technique, which today has few practitioners, requires the artist to trim, dye and polish dried wheat stalks and then weave them into an image on a canvas.

Shah learned the art in Karachi at the age of 12 when he was introduced to a straw painter by an artistically inclined uncle.

After serving for two years as the artist’s apprentice, he started introducing innovations to the art, focusing mostly on architecture, Islamic ornaments or stories from the Mughal era. He did not venture into portraiture as the straw medium was rarely used for that.

But for the Saudi crown prince, Shah, now 60, says he has decided to create a detailed straw portrait.

“I had long wanted to sketch a Saudi royal, but it was only recently that I decided to draw the image of the prince who rose to fame across the world,” Shah told Arab News at his home in the village of Achar, on the outskirts of Peshawar.

It takes more than 3,000 straws and at least two weeks to create a 30-by-24-inch portrait of a human face. The straws are flattened, made smooth, cut into extremely tiny pieces and glued one by one to the canvas.

“I pray the prince accepts my gift,” Shah said.

Shah’s highest-profile work to date was making the family tree of Pakistani Religious Affairs Minister Noor-ul-Haq Qadri, commissioned by the official’s father in 2012. It was also his most expensive piece, selling for Rs50,000 ($320).

But such orders are rare. Shah normally sells small, 8-by-12-inch paintings on the footpaths of Peshawar’s bustling Saddar market.

“On a lucky day, I manage to sell four or five pieces, which earns the bread and butter for my family,” he said.

One painting costs about Rs450 and takes him six hours to complete. Preparing the straw takes at least three days.

While Shah says he always knew there would not be big money in straw painting, his 23-year-old son, Shah Fahad, has bigger dreams. He wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and one day open a gallery to display his father’s work, as well as his own.

Fahad has been patiently learning the craft for the past four years.

“It is a slow learning process,” he said, “but I am lucky to spend more time with my father.”

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Gulf buyers snap up properties in iconic London development

Gulf buyers snap up properties in iconic London development
Updated 17 June 2021

Gulf buyers snap up properties in iconic London development

Gulf buyers snap up properties in iconic London development
  • Battersea Power Station has long been a staple of the British capital’s skyline
  • 20% of homes in the complex are being sold to Mideast investors, mostly from the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia

LONDON: The redevelopment of one of London’s most iconic buildings has piqued the interest of Gulf buyers, who have snapped up millions of dollars’ worth of properties in what will soon be one of the British capital’s trendiest commercial, residential and cultural quarters.

Completed in 1935, Battersea Power Station has long held a special place in the British psyche.

It dominated the London skyline and powered the UK economy for decades. Plumes of smoke from its iconic four chimneys even guided British fighter planes home after bombing runs during World War II.

Now the building, with its coal-burning past firmly behind it, is taking on a new role as one of the capital’s hottest commercial developments — and Arab buyers have taken notice.

Simon Murphy, CEO of the Battersea Power Station Development Co. — which is redeveloping the unused site into luxury living spaces, retail quarters and offices — told Arab News that around 20 percent of homes in the complex are being sold to Middle Eastern investors.

“Within this, the majority have been from the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. We’ve recently received over 100 enquiries mainly from buyers from Saudi and the UAE in the last month,” he said.

“There are a number of reasons why Battersea Power Station appeals to buyers from the Gulf,” he added, including its lucrative financial opportunities, its prime location next to the River Thames, and the abundance of green space provided in neighboring Battersea Park.

“Gulf buyers are also attracted to the project’s mix of uses, which includes homes, offices — including Apple’s new UK campus — shops, restaurants, cafes, bars, cinemas, theaters, a hotel and more. This genuine mix of uses is something that resonates with buyers from the Middle East,” he said. 

“The unique history and heritage of the power station building itself, which welcomed its first residents last month, is of course another point of attraction. The opportunity to buy a slice of British history is greatly appealing.”

Grahame Clist, a consultant at property investment firm Spot Blue, told Arab News that people’s expectation that the London property market would be crippled by the coronavirus pandemic turned out to be unfounded.

“If you’re taking a medium-term view for properties in London, especially for places like Battersea Power Station, then you’ve got a sound investment and something that not just Saudis but everyone in the world wants,” he said.

The pandemic stalled the property market and held back transactions, but when the ability to conduct viewings resumed there was a “massive uptake” of people looking to re-enter the market, he added.

“There’s been, to a certain degree, a property shortage that has held the market up,” Clist said. “In the Greater London area, prices have increased by at least 10 percent in the last six months — and that’s if you can find a property.”

Developments such as Battersea Power Station, he said, are among the first to capitalize on this surge in demand.

He echoed Murphy’s emphasis on the importance of British history in the development’s popularity. 

“It’s an iconic London building,” Clist said. “It’s almost as if Buckingham Palace was turned into apartments and put on the market — people would be rushing in to buy them from all over the world.”


Protestor, 69, scales London crane to unfurl Palestine flag

Protestor, 69, scales London crane to unfurl Palestine flag
Updated 17 June 2021

Protestor, 69, scales London crane to unfurl Palestine flag

Protestor, 69, scales London crane to unfurl Palestine flag
  • Nick Georges: ‘We should all be doing more to promote the cause of peace and freedom for the Palestinians’
  • ‘The Palestinians have no rights. As a Christian who cares, I can’t just stand by and let this go on’

LONDON: A pro-Palestine protestor scaled a 300-foot crane in central London to unveil a Palestinian flag, and spent 30 hours there before being removed by police.

Nick Georges, 69, took two hours to scale the crane, and recorded and released a heartfelt message about the plight of Palestinians from the top of the structure on Tuesday.

 

 

“I’ve climbed this 300-foot tower crane in the middle of London to tell the world about Palestine,” Georges said in the message.

“For three months I was sent to Palestine as a humanitarian witness and protected presence. For three months, on a daily basis, I witnessed the atrocities and the horrors of the illegal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian homeland,” he added.

“I’ve seen a house where a family of four were burnt alive by Jewish settlers with incendiary bombs. I’ve seen land desecrated, olive plantations burned. I’ve seen so many demolitions of homes and houses by JCB machines, British-built machines, in Israel,” said Georges, who is a member of activist group Palestine Action.

“Every day … they’re demolishing more Palestinian homes. The Palestinians have no rights. Even their electricity and their water is taken from them,” he added.

“Israel is the fourth-largest nuclear military power in the world. The Palestinians have nothing.

“As a Christian who cares, I can’t just stand by and let this go on. We should all be doing more to promote the cause of peace and freedom for the Palestinians and stop the horrors that Israel is visiting upon these people.”
Georges used bolt cutters and a portable ladder to break into the building site — which will one day be home to a 650-foot skyscraper — at 4 a.m.
He said the crane stunt was “the most terrifying thing I’ve done in my 69 years of being on this planet — the heights, the fear of falling and breaking into the building site.”

This marks his second arrest by police in a year. In February, he and a team of activists scaled and vandalized a British factory producing drones for the Israeli military.

There has been a flurry of pro-Palestinian activism globally in recent weeks following nearly two weeks of Israeli bombardment of Gaza that claimed the lives of around 250 Palestinians, injured thousands and left tens of thousands homeless.


Security should have confronted Manchester bomber: inquiry

Security should have confronted Manchester bomber: inquiry
Updated 17 June 2021

Security should have confronted Manchester bomber: inquiry

Security should have confronted Manchester bomber: inquiry
  • The attack, as concert-goers were leaving the show, was perpetrated by 22-year-old Salman Abedi
  • Inquiry heard that an officer from British Transport Police was supposed to be present in the foyer of the arena at the show’s end

LONDON: Security teams at Britain’s Manchester Arena “should have prevented or minimized” the impact of the 2017 terror attack at an Ariana Grande concert that killed 22 people, a public inquiry found Thursday.
The attack, as concert-goers were leaving the show, was perpetrated by 22-year-old Salman Abedi, a Mancunian of Libyan descent.
In a report examining security measures at the venue in northwest England, inquiry chairman John Saunders said Arena operator SMG, security provider Showsec and British Transport Police all missed opportunities to either prevent or mitigate the attack, which took place on May 22, 2017.
“The security arrangements for the Manchester Arena should have prevented or minimized the devastating impact of the attack,” he wrote.
“Salman Abedi should have been identified on 22nd May 2017 as a threat by those responsible for the security of Arena and a disruptive intervention undertaken.
“Had that occurred, I consider it likely that Salman Abedi would still have detonated his device, but the loss of life and injury is highly likely to have been less,” he added.
The inquiry had heard that an officer from British Transport Police was supposed to be present in the foyer of the arena at the end of the show, where the bomb was detonated, but nobody was there.
A Showsec security guard also told the inquiry that he had a “bad feeling” when he saw Abedi around five minutes before the attack, but did not approach him for fear of being called a racist.
“I felt unsure about what to do,” said Kyle Lawler, who was aged 18 at the time of the attack.
“I did not want people to think I am stereotyping him because of his race.”
Lawler said he had tried to radio the control room, but that he gave up as he could not get through due to radio traffic.
A member of the public had reported Abedi, who was dressed in black and carrying a large rucksack, to security 15 minutes before he detonated the bomb, packed with 3,000 nuts and bolts.
Abedi’s brother was last year jailed for life for playing an “integral part” in the attack, that also injured hundreds.
The Daesh group-inspired suicide bombing targeted crowds of mostly young people.
The youngest victim was aged just eight. Others included parents who had come to pick up their children.