On Doha deal anniversary, Taliban pushing US for total troop withdrawal

On Doha deal anniversary, Taliban pushing US for total troop withdrawal
In this file photo birds flyover the city of Kabul, Afghanistan. The Taliban further termed the Doha deal as a “historic accord,” and one that had created a practical framework for bringing peace and security to Afghanistan. (AP)
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Updated 28 February 2021

On Doha deal anniversary, Taliban pushing US for total troop withdrawal

On Doha deal anniversary, Taliban pushing US for total troop withdrawal
  • Any move to replace historic accord is ‘doomed to fail,’ militant group warns
  • Demands follow rumors Biden administration looking to ‘review’ deal

KABUL: The Taliban on Sunday demanded that the US complete its troop withdrawal process from Afghanistan by May 1, in line with a historic agreement signed between the two sides in Doha last year

The militant group warned that any move to replace the deal was “doomed to fail.”

“The Islamic Emirate (the name of the Taliban’s former government) is committed on its part to all contents of the agreement and views its implementation as the sole effective tool for resolving the Afghan issue and establishing peace, that shall be realized under the shade of an Islamic system,” it said in a statement.

The demands were issued on the anniversary of the controversial deal that followed almost a year and half of secret talks between the Taliban and US delegates. The insurgent group has said that its fighters had not attacked foreign troops and major Afghan cities since signing the agreement.

“The Islamic Emirate also calls on the other party to the agreement to honor its own commitments towards security and stability in Afghanistan by implementing all parts of the agreement,” the group said.

The Taliban further termed the Doha deal as a “historic accord,” and one that had “created a practical framework for bringing peace and security to Afghanistan.”

It added: “If any other pathway is pursued as a replacement, then it is already doomed to fail.”

The Taliban’s statement follows repeated comments by officials in US President Joe Biden’s administration that Washington will review the deal signed under former President Donald Trump’s watch.

In addition, NATO delivered a recent announcement saying that it would withdraw foreign troops from Afghanistan “when the time was right,” suggesting that the Taliban had not abided by the accord.

Besides US and NATO officials, the Afghan government has also insisted that the Taliban have not severed their relationship with Al-Qaeda, nor reduced violence — two critical components of the Doha deal — allegations that the Taliban have vehemently denied.

While the militant group pushed for the total departure of all foreign troops and overseas contractors by May 1, 2021, the Doha deal also served as a catalyst for the Taliban and President Ashraf Ghani’s government to begin intra-Afghan peace talks in Qatar by March 10 last year.

The talks finally began six months later, amid an intensification of violence that both Kabul and the Taliban have blamed on one another.

The crucial negotiations have faced several setbacks — the latest being a plan by Washington to review the deal.

Rahmatuallah Andar, a spokesman for the office of Ghani’s national security advisor, said that the Doha talks had failed to meet expectations.

“Afghans have not gained the expectations they had from Doha deal for peace and security. This agreement so far only has ensured the Taliban’s cease-fire with the US,” he told Arab News.

He added that the Taliban’s relationship with Afghans was “still confined to killing, terror and horror.”

Andar said: “So far, there is no hope for Afghans in this deal. Even the intra-Afghan talks have been stopped because of the Taliban. If seen from the perspective of Afghanistan, the time has been wasted in the hope of peace, while heavy material and heavy casualties have been inflicted on Afghans.”

Taliban representatives were unavailable for comment when contacted by Arab News on Sunday.

However, despite the government blaming the Taliban for a surge in violence and failing to pursue negotiations, Feraidoon Khawzoon, a spokesman for the government-appointed High Council of Peace, said that officials are “still hopeful for the peace process.”

He said: “A year on since the Doha deal, we are still hopeful that the opportunity created for peace is not wasted, and that the war ends in Afghanistan and talks are pursued earnestly, so that a political compromise acceptable to all is created.”

On the other hand, Afghan, US and NATO officials have warned that any resumption of serious intra-Afghan talks will require foreign troops to remain in the country until the Taliban end their violent attacks.

The UN said last week that 3,035 Afghan civilians had been killed in 2020 due to a surge in violence since the signing of the Doha deal a year ago — a 15 percent spike from the previous year.

“Since the Doha deal, more than 350,000 Afghans have been internally displaced by the violence,” Abdul Basit Ansari, an advisor for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, told Arab News.

Meanwhile, with the fate of the Doha deal in limbo, some fear an imminent escalation of violence in Afghanistan.

“The US may want to extend the presence of the troops, and the Taliban may oppose it altogether. This will mean fighting and a serious drop in the trust both sides have built in recent years, with so much difficulty,” Taj Mohammad, an Afghan analyst and former journalist, told Arab News.

Tameem Bahiss, an analyst and expert on Afghanistan and Pakistan, agreed, adding that while the US and Taliban have blamed each other for breaching the Doha deal, neither side has come forward to nullify the agreement.

“The Biden administration is ‘reviewing’ the Doha agreement. In the meantime, experts are calling for an extension to the May 1 deadline,” he said.

“It seems very unlikely that the Taliban will agree to an extension. If Biden unilaterally decides to stay past the deadline, this could propel the Taliban to walk away from the negotiation table and pursue power through violent means.”

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Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists
Updated 18 April 2021

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists

Coronavirus likely to keep mutating: Scientists
  • Warning comes amid fears that new, India variant could become dominant
  • Virologist: “We’re still early on in the lifetime of this virus as a human pathogen”

LONDON: Humanity is engaged in an “arms race” with the coronavirus Sars-CoV-2, and its capacity to adapt and evolve remains unknown and should not be underestimated, scientists have warned.
“I think it’d be a brave person to say that the virus is nearing the end of its evolutionary route and can’t go any further,” Prof. Deenan Pillay, a virologist at University College London, told The Independent.
“We’re still early on in the lifetime of this virus as a human pathogen. It normally takes many years for viruses, once they cross the species barrier, to really optimize themselves to be able to replicate well within humans.”
Pillay’s warning comes amid fears that a new strain of Sars-CoV-2, known as the India variant — which has caused a surge in the number of cases of COVID-19 — could become a dominant global strain in the coming weeks.
The India variant is known to carry two mutations that could reduce the efficacy of a number of COVID-19 vaccines.
Whilst that has not yet occurred, the nature and speed at which the virus has mutated thus far, including in the form of the South African and UK variants, has caused alarm among the scientific community that the positive impact of vaccine rollouts could be undone in the near future.
Specifically, scientists worry about Sars-CoV-2’s ability to alter spike proteins, used to attach onto human cells, through mutations.
The spike proteins, referred to by Pillay as “keys” to entering human receptor cells, are the mechanism through which most of the world’s successful COVID-19 vaccines look to attack the virus, by training various immune system responses to identify them. 
One such mutation, E484K, has been found in the South Africa and UK variants. The India variant carries a similar mutation, E484Q.
The fear is that by altering their proteins, these variants could render them less visible to the immune system of vaccinated people, making it harder to ward off infection.
Aris Katzourakis, professor of evolution and genomics at Oxford University, said beyond altering the spike protein, mutations such as E484K could “unlock a whole load of other mutations elsewhere in the spike” that have not yet been identified by scientists, with unknown repercussions for the severity of the virus.
“E484K took about 12 months before it became something we cared about. Presumably, 12 months from now, there’ll be another one or two that are just as important,” he told The Independent. 
Prof. Stephen Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, said he believes that rather than continue to mutate indefinitely, there “will be a limit on how far the spike protein can evolve. But I’m not sure we can accurately determine what that limit may be at this point.”


Pakistan police and rangers taken hostage in anti-France protests

Pakistan police and rangers taken hostage in anti-France protests
Updated 18 April 2021

Pakistan police and rangers taken hostage in anti-France protests

Pakistan police and rangers taken hostage in anti-France protests
  • Rioting has rocked the country since Monday, when the leader of the now-banned TLP was detained in Lahore
  • The protests have paralyzed cities and led to the deaths of six policemen

LAHORE: At least seven Pakistan police officers and special rangers were taken hostage Sunday by supporters of a radical party, officials said, after days of violent anti-France protests.
Rioting has rocked the country since Monday, when the leader of the now-banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) was detained in the second biggest city Lahore after calling for the expulsion of the French ambassador.
The protests have paralyzed cities and led to the deaths of six policemen, prompting the French embassy to recommend all its nationals temporarily leave the country.
“The TLP members are holding five police officers and two rangers hostage,” said Rana Arif, a police spokesman in Lahore told AFP, referring to the country’s paramilitary force.
Firdous Ashiq Awan, a spokeswoman for the Punjab provincial government, said 12 policemen had been abducted and taken to a TLP mosque in Lahore, where hundreds of supporters were gathered.
“Violent groups armed with petrol bombs and acid bottles stormed the Nawankot police station this morning,” she tweeted, adding that six police officers have now died in clashes this week.
TLP leaders say several of the party’s supporters were killed in Sunday’s clashes.
“We won’t bury them until the French ambassador is kicked out,” Allama Muhammad Shafiq Amini, a TLP leader in the city, said in a video statement.
The police would not comment on the reported TLP deaths.
An oil truck was seized and petrol bombs thrown at officers, both Arif and Awan said.
An AFP reporter at the scene said police used tear gas against stone-throwing protesters.
The TLP has been behind an anti-France campaign for months since President Emmanuel Macron defended the right of Charlie Hebdo magazine to republish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad — an act deemed blasphemous by many Muslims.
Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said party supporters had blocked 191 sites over the past week, with the mosque in Lahore now a gathering point.
“No negotiations are taking place, tried for two-three months but they are not ready to backtrack from their agenda and the government has no other choice but to establish its writ,” he said at a press conference.
Khan’s government has struggled to bring TLP to heel over the years, but this week announced an outright ban against the group — effectively labelling it a terrorist outfit.
Still, on Saturday he suggested the party hadn’t been banned for its ideology, but rather its methods.
“Let me make clear to people here & abroad: Our govt only took action against TLP under our anti-terrorist law when they challenged the writ of the state and used street violence & attacking the public & law enforcers,” he tweeted.
Khan said insulting the prophet hurt Muslims around the world.
“We cannot tolerate any such disrespect & abuse,” he added.
He also said Western governments should treat people who insult the Prophet Muhammad the same as those who deny the Holocaust.
“I... call on Western govts who have outlawed any negative comment on the holocaust to use the same standards to penalize those deliberately spreading their message of hate against Muslims by abusing our Prophet,” Khan tweeted.
Pakistan on Friday blocked social media and instant messaging platforms for several hours to head off major protests.
Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in conservative Pakistan, where laws allow for the death penalty to be used on anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Islamic figures.
The French embassy’s call for its nationals to leave Pakistan appears to have gone largely unheeded so far.

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Violence, insecurity threaten Afghan economy as investors flee war-torn country

Violence, insecurity threaten Afghan economy as investors flee war-torn country
Updated 18 April 2021

Violence, insecurity threaten Afghan economy as investors flee war-torn country

Violence, insecurity threaten Afghan economy as investors flee war-torn country
  • Official says capital flight last year led to almost $1.5 billion in losses

KABUL: Growing insecurity, political instability, and a lack of confidence in Afghanistan’s future has driven hundreds of businessmen out of the country, leading to almost $1.5 billion in losses last year for the already fragile economy, the deputy head of Afghanistan’s Chamber of Commerce and Investment (ACCI) told Arab News on Sunday.
“In 2020 alone, unfortunately, based on our estimates, 1,500 small-scale traders, investors and businessmen left the country because of infighting among government leaders, rising insecurity and corruption,” Khan Jan Alokozai said.
“Our unofficial estimates indicate that there was capital flight of at least $1.5 billion that was sent or taken overseas for investment last year,” he added.
Alokozai traced the investors’ exit to late 2014, when Afghanistan saw a drastic drawdown of US-led troops, resulting in infighting between President Ashraf Ghani and the then chief executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah following allegedly fraudulent elections where both claimed victory.
The power struggle between the two leaders was further exacerbated during the 2019 polls that allowed the Taliban to gain ground, even as regional commanders and self-proclaimed ethnic leaders “pushed for their type of future government.”
It also follows a deadlock in the intra-Afghan peace talks between Ghani’s government and Taliban representatives. The talks began in September last year and have failed to make any progress in the peace process.
Fearing a repeat of events due to internal divisions within the government — which led to the fall of the Moscow-backed communist regime in the 1990s, following the departure of the former Soviet Union’s troops — Alokozai said that a majority of investors had opted to settle in Turkey instead, with “60 percent of the private sector shutting down their activities in Afghanistan in recent years.”
He added: “These traders have bitter experiences from the fall of Dr. Najib (communist-era president), which happened as a result of an internal war, and they want to leave now.
“About 60 percent of the private sector has ended activities in recent years. Factories have closed, and only those involved in businesses such as food and fuel items operate. We had some $15 billion in our annual circulation, but it has dropped to $6 or $7 billion now,” he added.
The losses have trickled down to the tertiary level as well, since most Afghan investors and traders “spend 25 percent of their income on bodyguards and armored vehicles, apart from the losses they incur due to daily violence across the country and the payment of bribes,” Alokozai said.
He cited the example of a leaked video of Minister of Finance Khalid Payenda telling officials that “$1 million is looted from the customs division in the western city of Herat alone every day.”
Alokozai added that recent developments surrounding the deadline for the complete withdrawal of US-led troops from Afghanistan has also affected the market, “not because of the possibility of the return of the Taliban,” but due to fears that the departure could push the country “back into a civil war.”
He said: “There is a big mistrust among leaders and people about the future of the country and anarchy in government. The traders are not afraid of the return of the Taliban. There will be some social restrictions, but overall the Taliban have treated the business community well, because they do not allow corruption and mafia activities.”
Saifuddin Saihoon, a Kabul-based economic expert, agreed, and said that the loss of capital and investors would have a “long-term impact on the economy of Afghanistan,” which has relied on foreign funds since the Taliban’s ouster in the US-led invasion of 2001.
“This causes the economy to slow down, closure of factories and joblessness, and gradually an economic crisis, as well as psychological fears about the future of the country,” Saihoon told Arab News.


India in crisis as hospitals run out of beds and oxygen for COVID-19 patients

India in crisis as hospitals run out of beds and oxygen for COVID-19 patients
Updated 18 April 2021

India in crisis as hospitals run out of beds and oxygen for COVID-19 patients

India in crisis as hospitals run out of beds and oxygen for COVID-19 patients
  • More than 260,000 new cases and more than 1,500 deaths recorded on Sunday, setting a new national record

NEW DELHI: An alarming spike in COVID-19 cases has created a crisis across India, particularly in the capital, New Delhi, recording more than 25,000 cases — about one in three of those tested — in the past 24 hours, according to official data.
The situation in New Delhi, which has a population of more than 20 million people, forced Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal to write to the federal government seeking more hospital beds. Several health care facilities have said they can no longer accommodate patients, leading to a rise in fatalities due to lack of space, oxygen cylinders and drugs.
“The situation in Delhi is very grim,” Kejriwal wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
He asked the PM to “earmark 7,000 beds out of 10,000 in the federal government-run hospitals in Delhi” for COVID-19 patients to “tide over the crisis.”
“There is an acute dearth of oxygen in Delhi, and it should be supplied immediately,” Kejriwal added.
On Sunday, India registered a record single-day rise of 261,500 coronavirus infections taking the nationwide case total to almost 1.48 million.
More than 1,500 people died from the coronavirus disease on Sunday alone, another record for the nation of 1.39 billion, bringing the national toll to 177,168 deaths.
Several residents in New Delhi said that most private and government hospitals had run out of beds with many patients desperate to get admitted to hospital.
“Since yesterday evening I have been trying to admit my sister in a hospital but seven or eight hospitals I reached refused admission,” Tabish Jamal, a Delhi resident, told Arab News on Sunday.
“My sister’s oxygen level is dipping, and she needs immediate medical intervention, but it’s a grim scenario. We are so helpless,” she said, adding that “a small nursing home with basic facilities” had admitted her sister, but “we are getting desperate.”
Lucknow, the capital of the eastern state of Uttar Pradesh, is also facing a bleak scenario with media reports saying that people were “waiting in hordes to be admitted to hospitals,” with at least 50 seen queueing outside the King George’s Medical University, the city’s main facility.
“It’s a grim scenario in the city and around Lucknow,” Kulsum Mustafa, a senior journalist in Lucknow, said on Sunday.
She accused the government of “hiding the exact figures and not showing the true picture.”
“The fact is that there is not only an acute shortage of beds and oxygen, but the testing facilities are minimal too,” Mustafa said.
India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh reported close to 27,550 cases on Sunday making it the second-worst affected area, after the western state of Maharashtra, which had registered more than 67,000 patients in the past 24 hours.
Meanwhile, in the western state of Gujarat, which is PM Modi’s home state, officials reported scenes of “chaos at most hospitals” in the capital city of Ahmedabad.
“Ahmedabad city, like other places in India, is facing a shortage of oxygen, hospital beds and important medicines such as Remdesivir,” Dr. Mona Desai, chief of Ahmedabad Medical Association, said on Sunday.
“With the new variant of coronavirus, the oxygen level starts to dip very soon, and the state is not prepared to supply oxygen to all. The timely intervention of oxygen is important; otherwise, vital organs fail,” she added.
On Sunday, Gujarat registered nearly 10,000 cases, which Desai said is “not the real figure.”
“The death toll is high this time, but the government data is not showing that. I don’t know why they hide the data.”
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said that the “oxygen production is being doubled.”
“Oxygen production is being diverted from industrial to medical use. The center is providing additional ventilators to the states,” he told a press conference on Sunday.
He said that Maharashtra, with Mumbai as its capital, would get 1,121 ventilators, Uttar Pradesh 1,700, Jharkhand 1,500, Gujarat 1,600, Madhya Pradesh 152 and Chhattisgarh 230.
Experts and medical practitioners, however, questioned the “sincerity of the government” in fighting the pandemic.”
“It’s more than one year, and the government is not ready to face the challenges posed by a coronavirus,” Mustafa said, adding before questioning the “rationale of allowing the Hindu festival Kumbh to take place in this year.”
The Kumbh Mela is a month-long festival that takes place once every 12 years, with organizers expecting a footfall of 150 million Hindus — equivalent to the population of Russia — to converge on the northern state of Uttarakhand for a ritual dip in holy waters at four dedicated sites this year.
So far, 5 million people have visited the sacred sites since the festival began on April 1.


Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 

Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 
Updated 18 April 2021

Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 

Trials of HIV vaccines set to begin 
  • Oxford-AstraZeneca, Moderna jabs based on technologies used to develop COVID-19 vaccines
  • HIV estimated to have killed 32m people since it was identified in 1981

LONDON: Two teams of scientists are set to begin trials of HIV vaccines based on technologies used to develop COVID-19 jabs.
Oxford University’s Jenner Institute, which was behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, and US pharmaceutical giant Moderna in partnership with Scripps Research, will use different techniques.
The Oxford team’s HIV vaccine utilizes a modified adenovirus taken from chimpanzees, while the Moderna one is based on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA).
Both methods have been used successfully to stimulate the human immune system against COVID-19 in the past year.
It is hoped that they can be applied to HIV, the disease that leads to AIDS, which has killed an estimated 32 million people since it was identified in 1981 and currently affects 38 million worldwide, with almost 690,000 dying annually.
The Oxford team is set to start the first phase of trials this month on 101 HIV-negative volunteers aged 18-50 from the UK, Kenya, Uganda and Zambia. Moderna will launch two mRNA trials later this year.
The location of the trials in Africa is significant; in recent years, treatments have been discovered to allow many people with HIV to live relatively normal lives, but can cost upward of $500,000 in developed countries.
Despite lower prices in developing countries, treatment is still often unaffordable for many African patients.
It is thought that up to half of the infected population on the continent are not even aware of their condition.
Despite the success in developing various COVID-19 vaccines, HIV remains far harder to treat than coronaviruses given its propensity to lie dormant for long periods, mutate more quickly than any other known disease, and imbed itself in patients’ DNA, making it all but impossible to permanently cure.
Oxford University’s Prof. Tomas Hanke told The Times: “The moment you’re infected with a single virus, it diversifies in your body. For the coronavirus there are four main variants we are worrying about around the world. For HIV we have to deal with 80,000.” 
The team at the Jenner Institute will aim to stimulate the production of T-cells — which destroy other human cells already infected with a virus — through its modified adenovirus, ChAdOx-1, designed to train the cells to specifically recognize HIV. 
Hanke said the T-cells could prove HIV’s “Achilles heel,” targeting areas “essential for the virus to survive and, importantly, common to most virus variants around the globe.”
The team hopes that if successful, the vaccine could be used to treat HIV-positive patients as early as August this year.
The Moderna team, meanwhile, believes that mRNA technology might be able to trigger enough B-cells — the part of the immune system that makes antibodies — to prevent HIV from adapting to its host.
This belief is based on a trial by Scripps Research, which found that in a small sample of 48 people given a similar vaccine, 97 percent showed a strong immune reaction against HIV. 
Moderna’s European head Dan Staner told The Times: “I believe that mRNA technology is going to be revolutionary. It could be something spectacular if we were able, in the coming years, to bring a vaccine to treat HIV. Let’s let the science speak in the coming months and years, but I do think the sky’s the limit.”
Scripps Prof. William Schief said: “The rapid development and high efficacy of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine bodes really well for our work on HIV.”