Afghan government unveils negotiating team for Taliban talks

Outgoing Commander of Resolute Support forces and United States forces in Afghanistan, US Army General John Campbell, right, and head of Afghan government peace negotiating team Mohammad Masoom Stanikzai, left, March 2, 2016 file photo. (AP)
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Updated 27 March 2020

Afghan government unveils negotiating team for Taliban talks

  • Move a crucial step in bringing the warring parties to the table and getting a floundering, US-led peace process back on track

KABUL: The Afghan government has finalized a 21-member team — including five women — who will negotiate with the Taliban in upcoming talks aimed at ending Afghanistan’s 18-year-old conflict, officials said Friday.
The move is a crucial step in bringing the warring parties to the table and getting a floundering, US-led peace process back on track.
Under a deal signed by the US and the Taliban last month, the insurgents agreed to commit to starting talks with the Afghan government and discuss a possible cease-fire.
Up until now, the Taliban has refused to meet with the administration of President Ashraf Ghani, calling him an American stooge.
In return for starting talks and other commitments, the US and foreign partner forces will withdraw from Afghanistan over the next 14 months.
The negotiating team was supposed to be unveiled weeks ago, with the “intra-Afghan” talks with the Taliban meant to get underway March 10 in Oslo.
But Kabul has been gripped by a fresh political crisis, with Ghani’s legitimacy being challenged by his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who has also proclaimed himself president.
The negotiating team will be led by former Afghan intelligence chief Masoom Stanekzai, who as a Pashtun shares a tribal identity with the Taliban.
While there was no immediate indication of whether Abdullah supports the team’s composition, it includes Batur Dostum whose father Abdul Rashid Dostum — a notorious former warlord — is a staunch Abdullah ally.
In a statement, Afghanistan’s peace ministry said Ghani “wishes the delegation success and calls on them to consider, at all stages of negotiations, the best interest of the country, the shared values of the Afghan people, and the principle stand of the country for a united Afghanistan.”
Among the five women delegates is Habiba Sarabi, deputy leader of the government’s High Peace Council. Sarabi is a Hazara, the predominantly Shiite ethnic group that the Taliban have repeatedly targeted.
Another woman delegate is Fawzia Koofi, an ethnic Tajik and a woman’s rights activist who has been a vocal Taliban critic.
During their reign across much of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, the Taliban forced women to stay at home, banned female education and frequently executed women on flimsy allegations of adultery.
It is not clear when or where the “intra-Afghan” talks will start. Given the coronavirus pandemic, officials say there is a chance they could begin via videoconference.
On Wednesday, the government said it would meet directly with Taliban members to discuss a massive prisoner swap that would see the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 from the government side.
That exchange had also been agreed in the US-Taliban deal, even though Ghani is not a signatory.
The US has left Ghani little choice but to get on board with the deal, and this week Washington cut $1 billion in US aid amid continued bickering between Ghani and Abdullah, and has threatened deeper cuts if Kabul does not resolve its political infighting.


UK scientists to test extent of airborne COVID-19 transmission

Updated 5 min 18 sec ago

UK scientists to test extent of airborne COVID-19 transmission

  • COVID-19 is known to be present in droplets produced from the mouth and nose from people coughing, sneezing, talking or just breathing
  • Findings could affect governments’ safety measures based on climate, air quality

LONDON: A team of UK scientists is set to discover how long COVID-19 can survive in airborne particles.
In an experiment slated to commence on Monday, researchers at the University of Bristol will test whether the virus is at its most virulent in respiratory droplets, or whether it remains active over significant periods in tiny aerosol particles.
COVID-19 is known to be present in droplets produced from the mouth and nose from people coughing, sneezing, talking or just breathing.
But these remain airborne, and therefore active, for a much shorter period of time than aerosol particles before dropping to the floor.
This is the reasoning behind multiple governments’ enforcing social-distancing measures of 2 meters, among other things. 
But were the virus able to survive in much smaller aerosol particles, it is possible that it could travel greater distances — carried by air currents and ventilation systems — and infect more people, rendering social-distancing measures less effective. 
The theory has gained traction as examples from across the world of groups of people being infected despite observing social-distancing measures, or doing so in poorly ventilated spaces.
Prof. Jonathan Reid, who is leading the Bristol team, told The Guardian newspaper: “We know that when bacteria or viruses become airborne in respiratory droplets they very quickly dry down and can lose viability, so that’s an important step to understand when assessing the role of airborne transmission in COVID-19.”
Allen Haddrell, a scientist at the University of Bristol, said: “We can effectively mimic a cold, wet British winter — or even a hot, dry summer in Saudi Arabia — to look at how these dramatic differences in environmental conditions affect how long the virus remains infectious while suspended in air.”
Results will possibly ready by the end of the week for external scrutiny by the broader scientific community.
Despite excitement surrounding the experiment, some scientists have urged caution, especially regarding the scope of practical applications that could result from it.
“I think the science is fine, and will show the principal that you can modify the environment to reduce the survivability of the virus,” said Dr. Julian Tang, a consultant virologist at Leicester Royal Infirmary.
“But the applicability might be tricky, depending on the environmental factors they identify. You’re not going to sit in a theater or cinema if the temperature is 35 degrees and the humidity is 80 percent.”