Afghan Grand Assembly to be convened despite boycott

President Ashraf Ghani had proposed holding a Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) to draw up a mechanism for dialogue with the insurgents. (AFP)
Updated 16 April 2019

Afghan Grand Assembly to be convened despite boycott

  • Nearly 2,500 people from across Afghanistan will participate in the three-day Loya Jirga
  • The boycott reveals a fresh rift in the already divided government

KABUL: Despite a boycott by prominent politicians and senior government officials, a key assembly to decide the future of peace talks with the Taliban will be held as scheduled on April 29, organizers said on Tuesday.

With the Afghan government excluded from various rounds of peace talks between the Taliban and US representatives, President Ashraf Ghani had proposed holding a Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) to draw up a mechanism for dialogue with the insurgents.

Nearly 2,500 people from across Afghanistan will participate in the three-day Loya Jirga, which has been summoned in the past to debate vital issues such as choosing a president or declaring war.

The first Loya Jirga was held three centuries ago, with the last one convened in 2013 to decide on a time frame for the US troop presence in the country.

Holding a Loya Jirga is a tradition followed by ethnic Pashtuns, who are a majority in Afghanistan and have been the country’s traditional rulers for much of the past three centuries.

But a sizeable number of the Afghan political elite, such as Ghani’s rivals in the upcoming presidential election and several senior figures in his government, have said they will boycott the meeting amid claims that the president had not consulted them.

The boycott reveals a fresh rift in the already divided government, but organizers told Arab News that the event will go ahead as planned.

Sayed Ali Kazimi, a spokesman for the Loya Jirga, said the priority is to form a consensus on a mechanism for talks with the Taliban.

Mohammad Haneef Atmar, Ghani’s arch rival and his former national security adviser, tweeted on Monday that the Loya Jirga would be a “state-managed” gathering that “was not going to further the cause of peace … in any way.”

Atmar added: “In all likelihood it is aimed at sabotaging the critical efforts for peace that are currently underway.”

A few presidential candidates said Ghani plans to use the Loya Jirga to extend his term in office by two years when his tenure ends in May. But Kazimi said: “That won’t be the case.”

Analyst Ahmad Saeedi told Arab News that the Loya Jirga “will be held, but not on a balanced and nationwide basis.”

Lawmaker Lailluma Wali Hakmi said “pro-government individuals” and loyalists of powerful factions have been picked as delegates.

“They’ve picked only very few people who have roots within society and are impartial … Almost all of them are people who have factional power,” she told Arab News.

“I think the result will be negative because people’s hopes and plans for peace won’t be echoed.”

The Taliban, which has made a series of battlefield gains despite a surge in attacks by US and Afghan forces in recent years, were invited to the Loya Jirga but refuse to attend.

But the group, which has resisted including the Afghan government in talks it has held with US diplomats, has accepted to take part in a meeting in Qatar in the coming days that will include government officials.

The Afghan presidential palace said 250 people, including Cabinet ministers, lawmakers, and members of civil society and women’s groups, will attend the meeting in Qatar.

Saeedi said the presence of 250 people versus 15 Taliban delegates will be a challenge for the government because the 250 will express diverse views while “the Taliban will speak with one voice.”

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said women will participate in the Qatar meeting, but did not specify on whose behalf.


Samoa shuts schools, declares emergency as measles kills 6

Updated 11 min 17 sec ago

Samoa shuts schools, declares emergency as measles kills 6

  • Schools were closed from Monday after the government declared an emergency on Saturday
  • The National University of Samoa told students to stay home and said exams scheduled for this week had been indefinitely postponed

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: Samoa has closed all its schools, banned children from public gatherings and mandated that everybody get vaccinated after declaring an emergency due to a measles outbreak that has so far killed six people.

For the past three weeks, the Pacific island nation of 200,000 people has been in the grip of a measles epidemic that has been exacerbated by low immunization rates.

Schools were closed from Monday after the government declared an emergency on Saturday. The National University of Samoa also told students to stay home and said exams scheduled for this week had been indefinitely postponed.

Health authorities said most of those who died were under the age of 2. They counted 716 measles cases reported, with nearly 100 people still hospitalized including 15 in intensive care.

Samoa’s Director General of Health Leausa Take Naseri said in a news conference last week that he expects the epidemic will get worse. He said that only about two-thirds of Samoans had been vaccinated, leaving the others vulnerable to the virus.

But figures from the World Health Organization and UNICEF indicate that measles immunization rates among Samoan infants have fallen steeply from over 70 percent in 2013 to under 30 percent last year.

Helen Petousis-Harris, a vaccine expert at New Zealand’s University of Auckland, said the Samoan government halted its immunization program for several months last year after two infants died from a medical mishap involving a vaccine.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday it was sending 3,000 vaccines to Samoa as well as nurses and medical supplies.
Ardern said Samoan authorities believe the outbreak was started by a traveler from New Zealand.

“We, of course, have an open flow of people,” Ardern said. “But we see our responsibility as supporting Samoa as they deal with the outbreak, and we are doing that actively.”

Petousis-Harris said it was disappointing that people in New Zealand who were carrying the virus had traveled to Samoa. She said New Zealand has for years known it has immunity gaps.

“But we didn’t deal with the problem,” she said.

Tonga, Fiji and New Zealand have also reported outbreaks of measles but on a smaller scale than in Samoa.