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.


Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

Updated 11 July 2020

Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

  • Officials say a majority are under lockdown or afraid to perform last rites

NEW DELHI: Pratamesh Walavalker was always proud of living in a well-connected area with neighbors and relatives who look out for each other.

However, the resident of Dombivali East, nearly 70 kilometers from India’s financial capital Mumbai, experienced a harsh reality check on Thursday.

None of his neighbors or more than 100 relatives responded to his calls for help when his 57-year-old father died of coronavirus-related complications.

Help, he said, finally arrived in the form of Iqbal Mamdani and his group of Muslim volunteers, who took his father’s body to a cremation ground for his last rites.

“No one came to our help, not even my close neighbor. There is so much panic among people about COVID-19 that our own don’t come near us. The Muslim volunteers helped us in this hour of crisis,” Walavalker, 28, told Arab News.

That same night, 50-year-old Mamdani and his group of volunteers helped another family perform the last rites of an 80-year-old Hindu woman who had also fallen victim to the disease.

The group was formed in late March after a local civic body said: “All dead bodies of COVID-19 patients should be cremated at the nearest crematorium irrespective of religion.”

After reports of a Muslim man being cremated in the Malwani area of the city angered the community, several members met with the authorities and managed to revise the order.

Since then, Mamdani said members of Mumbai’s Bada Qabrastan — the largest cemetery in the city — have extended their services to other communities as well.

“We get calls from different hospitals and people, and they seek our help in taking bodies to their final resting place. We decided to help the victims at this hour of crisis when there was chaos and panic in the city with the number of coronavirus cases increasing every day,” he told Arab News.

So far, the group has buried 450 Muslim bodies and cremated over 250 Hindu bodies.

He said their efforts would have been impossible without the Jama Masjid Trust, which oversees the Bada Qabrastan.

“On our request, the government allowed us to bury the dead bodies in seven burial grounds in the city,” he said.

There was one problem, however.

“No one was willing to come forward to collect dead bodies from the hospital and bring them to the cemetery,” Mamdani said.

Through word of mouth, Mamdani said seven Muslim volunteers quickly offered to help out.

The first challenge the group faced was a lack of ambulances, due to a shortage in supply as a result of the pandemic.

At first, they tried renting a private ambulance, “but the owner would not rent their vehicles for carrying COVID-19 victims,” Mamdani said.

With no other option left, the group decided to pool their resources and buy abandoned ambulances.

Mamdani said: “We managed to get 10 such vehicles from different parts of the city. With the help of mechanics and other resources, within eight days we managed to roll out the ambulances on the road.”

When the volunteers began gathering Muslim bodies from the hospital, they realized that several Hindu bodies had been left unclaimed, as their relatives “were too scared to perform the last rites.”

Mamdani said another factor behind unclaimed Hindu bodies was quarantine. The lockdown forced relatives to stay indoors and avoid the cremation grounds.

Experts have praised the efforts of the group.

“The Muslim volunteers have been really great support. They started working at a time when there was total chaos and panic in Mumbai,” Dr. Sulbha Sadaphule of Cooper Hospital, Mumbai, told Arab News.

Of the 820,000 COVID-19 cases in India, 100,000 are in Mumbai, where around 5,500 people have lost their lives from the nationwide fatality count of around 22,500.

“The morgue was overflowing with bodies because of a lack of ambulances and staff. When hospital staff and health workers were short in numbers they were helping us and the people,” added Dr. Sadaphule.

Mamdani said they would not have done it any other way.

“India is a country of religious harmony and we believe there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion. With this motto we decided to perform the last rites on behalf of the Hindu families with the support of the police and relatives,” he said.