Experts at Abu Dhabi forum unpack the lessons of COVID-19 pandemic

Patients breath with the help of oxygen masks inside a banquet hall temporarily converted into a COVID-19 ward in New Delhi on April 27, 2021. (AFP)
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Patients breath with the help of oxygen masks inside a banquet hall temporarily converted into a COVID-19 ward in New Delhi on April 27, 2021. (AFP)
A patient rests inside a banquet hall temporarily converted into a Covid-19 coronavirus ward in New Delhi on April 27, 2021. (AFP)
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A patient rests inside a banquet hall temporarily converted into a COVID-19 coronavirus ward in New Delhi on April 27, 2021. (AFP)
A COVID-19 coronavirus patient is moved out of a hospital to recover at home in New Delhi on April 24, 2021. (AFP)
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A COVID-19 coronavirus patient is moved out of a hospital to recover at home in New Delhi on April 24, 2021. (AFP)
A COVID-19 coronavirus patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, under a tent installed along a roadside in Ghaziabad on April 28, 2021. (AFP)
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A COVID-19 coronavirus patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, under a tent installed along a roadside in Ghaziabad on April 28, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 04 October 2021

Experts at Abu Dhabi forum unpack the lessons of COVID-19 pandemic

Experts at Abu Dhabi forum unpack the lessons of COVID-19 pandemic
  • World Policy Conference panel calls out governments for being underprepared for COVID-19 havoc
  • Recommendations made to ensure future pandemics are better handled or stopped in their tracks

ABU DHABI, UAE / BOGOTA, Colombia: The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted societies the world over, exposing not only the vulnerabilities of national economies, supply chains and health infrastructure, but also the deep social inequities within and among nations.

Experts had long warned the world was woefully underprepared for a pandemic, lacking the necessary preparedness, surveillance, alert systems, early response infrastructure and leadership to prevent a global outbreak.

“The world was not prepared,” Michel Kazatchkine, former executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, said at the World Policy Conference (WPC) in Abu Dhabi on Saturday.

“All the public health officials, experts, previous international commissions and review committees had warned of the potential of a new pandemic and urged for robust preparations since the first outbreak of SARS.




Relatives carry the body of a person killed by COVID-19 amid burning pyres of other victims at a cremation ground in New Delhi on April 26, 2021. (AFP file photo)

Instead, governments have spent the past year and a half playing catch-up, squabbling over limited supplies of medical and protective equipment, implementing inconsistent containment measures, and jealously guarding their health data.

During that time, more than 235 million cases of the novel coronavirus have been reported worldwide and nearly 5 million people have died. At its peak in 2020, half of the world was in lockdown and 90 percent of children were missing out on their education.

Economists estimate that the pandemic will have cost the world economy roughly $10 trillion in output by the end of 2021 — just a fraction of which could have been spent on containing or preventing the pandemic from happening in the first place.

“COVID-19 took large parts of the world by surprise,” Kazatchkine said. “National pandemic preparedness has been vastly underfunded despite the clear evidence that the cost is a fraction of the cost of responses and losses incurred when a pandemic actually occurs.”

In May this year, the Independent Panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response identified weak links at every link in the chain. It found that preparation was inconsistent and underfunded, while the alert system “was too slow and too meek.”

It said that governments failed to deliver a rapid or coordinated response when the World Health Organization declared that the outbreak constituted a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on Jan. 30, 2020. Indeed, most only responded when infections began to rise.

INNUMBERS

4.81 million: Worldwide COVID-19 deaths as of Oct. 3, 2021.

$4 trillion: Global GDP loss (2020 & 2021) due to COVID-19 (UNCTAD).

$2.4 trillion: Tourism sector’s loss in 2020 alone (UNCTAD).

The IPPR report also concluded that the WHO had not been granted sufficient powers to respond to the crisis — a disaster that was further exacerbated by a distinct lack of political leadership.

To explore whether governments could have handled the pandemic better and what lessons might be drawn to help prevent future outbreaks, Kazatchkine chaired a WPC panel discussion titled “Health as a Global Governance Issue: Lessons from COVID-19 Pandemic.”

During the session, the panelists laid out four key recommendations for governments and multilateral organizations to take on board to ensure future pandemics are better handled or stopped in their tracks. Their conclusions will be discussed at a special session of the World Health Assembly in November.




An expert panel at the World Policy Conference in Abu Dhabi has provided four key recommendations to boost global health equality and preparedness as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to claim lives. AFP

Their first recommendation concerned the establishment of a new financing mechanism to invest in preparedness and inject funds immediately at the onset of a potential pandemic. This would help to prevent a repeat of the widespread dithering seen among governments in late 2019 and early 2020.

Their second recommendation called for a standing, pre-negotiated, multilateral platform to produce vaccines, medical diagnostic tools and supplies for rapid and equitable delivery as essential common global goods.

This would help address the shocking inequalities seen in the world’s supply chains, whereby whole regions suffered extreme shortages of cleaning chemicals, personal protection equipment and medical oxygen for hospitals, and has led to a situation where many rich countries are approaching full vaccination while several of the poorest have inoculated barely 5 percent of their populations.




A traditional chief in Ivory Coast receives a vaccine against COVID-19 at a mobile vaccination center in Abidjan on Sept.23, 2021. (REUTERS/File Photo)

“When the COVID-19 pandemic began, two things became very obvious to those of us on the African continent,” Juliette Tuakli, CEO of CHILDAccra Medical and chair of the board of trustees at United Way Worldwide, told the WPS panel.

“One was that the West had huge capacity but little strategy, and we in Africa had a lot of strategy and little capacity. The second thing that was obvious was the importance of health as a national strategic asset within our economies.

“The pandemic highlighted health inequities that are ongoing, (plus) weaknesses in our systems such as (shortages). As well as the weak regional and domestic financing systems for procuring appropriate medications and vaccines, (not to speak of the prevalence) of very insidious health regulatory policies throughout the continent.

“Looking at the global stage, it’s important that we not just partner with other groups and agencies but that we have equal status within those relationships. There has to be some equity in our partnerships, here on, in terms of health and health governance, for us to be part of the solution, not just part of the problem.”




A woman prepares to receive a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine at a school in Pattani, Thailand, on August 10, 2021. (AFP photo)

The WPC panel’s third recommendation called for strengthening and empowering the WHO to oversee and even grade nations on their preparedness for future outbreaks, to have greater control over vaccination campaigns, and to assume more overall leadership.

“Too many governments lacked solid preparedness plans, core public health capacities, organized multi-sectoral coordination and clear commitment from leadership. And this is not a matter of wealth,” Kazatchkine said.

“I believe that COVID-19 has shaken some of our standard assumptions that a country’s wealth will secure its health. Actually, leadership and competence may have counted for more than cash when it comes to responding to COVID-19.”

Finally, the experts recommended the establishment of global health-threat councils at the level of heads of state and government to ensure both political commitment and accountability in fighting and preventing pandemics, elevating such threats to the level of terrorism, climate change and nuclear proliferation.




Governments should look at health strategically, invest in the right equipment, have the right drugs, and secure their supply chain, says WPC forum panelist Jean Kramarz. (AFP file photo)

“It should be treated like a military topic — to invest in health well in advance to face a crisis,” said Jean Kramarz, director of healthcare activities at AXA Partners Group.

“If health is strategic, it means that governments should overinvest in health to make sure that they have the right equipment, they have the right drugs, they have secured their supply chain, and it should be done permanently. It should be a topic of national interest.”

While experts in health and good governance ponder the lessons of the pandemic with a view to improving readiness for the next major outbreak, medical professionals are still fighting the crisis at hand. An array of aggressive virus variants, overstretched ICU facilities and sluggish vaccination campaigns are keeping the rate of infection stubbornly high.

“The pandemic is not yet over,” Kazatchkine said. “As we speak, over 400,000 new cases and 10,000 deaths are reported globally every day. Current hotspots are the US, Brazil, India, followed by the UK, Turkey, the Philippines and Russia.

“National responses across the world span from the complete lifting of restrictions in Denmark to new statewide lockdowns in Australia and a growing political and public-health crisis in the US.

“Where the number of infections increases, we see again unsustainable pressure on the health care system and on health care workers. So, the bottom line here is that the pandemic remains a global emergency and the future remains uncertain.”


World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant
Updated 28 November 2021

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant

World races to contain new COVID threat, the omicron variant
  • Scientists are still learning about the variant, first identified at the start of this week
  • Several countries, including in the Gulf, institute travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa

JEDDAH: Fears mounted on Saturday that a highly infectious new COVID-19 strain was pushing its way into Europe as the world brought the shutters down to contain the new
omicron variant.

Britain confirmed its first two infections and suspected new cases emerged in Germany and the Czech Republic, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for COVID-19.

South Africa complained it was being “punished” with air travel bans for first detecting the strain, which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern.”

South Korea, Australia, and Thailand joined the US, Brazil, Canada, and a host of other countries around the world restricting travel from the region, fearing a major setback to global efforts against the pandemic.

Saudi Arabia was among countries in the Middle East and North Africa to ban travelers from several African nations.

The Saudi Interior Ministry and authorities in the UAE said visitors from seven African countries were barred from entry.

They listed the countries as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Eswatini.

The Saudi ban comprises flights to and from those countries. But foreign nationals from the seven countries could enter the Kingdom if they had spent the previous 14 days in another country and comply with Saudi health protocols.

In a separate announcement on Saturday, the Interior Ministry said the Kingdom will allow direct entry to travelers from all countries who have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine starting next Saturday. The ministry added the travelers would need to quarantine for three days.

Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant, and whether it can evade existing vaccines.

Anxious travelers thronged Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. Many had cut holidays and rushed back from South African safaris and vineyards.

“It’s ridiculous, we will always be having new variants,” British tourist David Good said, passport in hand. “South Africa found it but it’s probably all over the world already.”

The WHO on Friday declared the recently discovered B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19 to be a variant of concern, renaming it omicron.

Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the omicron variant.

He said most of the mutations appear to be in similar regions as those in other variants.

South Africa is worried that the curbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the Foreign Ministry said, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider.

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, and some have re-introduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lockdowns.


Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron
Updated 28 November 2021

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron

Philippines tourism reopening in doubt after omicron
  • Manila imposes new travel curbs over omicron variant fears

MANILA: The Philippines has imposed new restrictions and is considering expanding its travel ban to include new countries, officials said on Saturday, amid concerns over the emergence of the new omicron COVID-19 strain.
The new variant was reported to the World Heath Organization from South Africa earlier this week. It has already been detected in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. The organization on Friday declared the new variant, dubbed omicron, as being “of concern” — the most serious category the agency uses for tracking outbreaks.
The announcement came as the Philippines said that it would start accepting vaccinated foreign tourists from low-risk countries from Dec. 1, after more than 20 months of having its borders shut to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Soon after the update, Manila moved to ban inbound travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique. On Saturday, acting presidential spokesperson Karlo Nograles said in a statement the ban “shall take effect immediately and until Dec. 15.”
Dr. Beverly Ho, director at the health promotion and control bureau, told reporters the list of banned destinations may be expanded further.
“There is already an ongoing discussion, and expect that there will be developments,” she said in a press briefing.
“The decision will be based on the data that we will get,” she added, saying that the response to any infectious disease “always starts with strict border controls.”
As the omicron variant has been reported in Hong Kong, home to more than 232,000 Filipino expats, many of whom will be heading home for Christmas holidays, Ho said that restrictions on travel from the region are now under discussion.
Since the WHO’s preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of infection with the omicron strain, Philippines media have been quoting health experts as urging caution to keep the country’s caseload in check.
“If omicron has many mutations, we presume that the behavior of this virus is more transmissible compared to the delta variant,” Dr. Rontgene Solante from the Philippine College of Physicians said, as quoted by the local media.
The number of COVID-19 infections in the Philippines has been steadily falling since mid-September, when the country was recording more than 26,000 new cases per day due to the spread of the highly infectious delta variant.
For the past few days, the country has been recording fewer than 1,000 new cases a day, with 899 reported on Saturday.


Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears
Updated 28 November 2021

Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

Indian PM orders review of COVID-19 response amid new variant fears

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi directed local authorities on Saturday to increase their COVID-19 preparedness and review the country’s reopening for foreign arrivals, amid global concerns over the emergence of a new coronavirus strain.
The emergence of the omicron variant comes as India has managed to control the outbreak after facing a deadly COVID-19 wave which, fueled by the highly transmissible delta variant, killed over 450,000 people between March and May.
The South Asian nation announced on Friday it would reopen for international flights from Dec. 15, after more than 20 months of having its borders shut to stop the spread of COVID-19. On Saturday, Modi requested that the reopening plan be reviewed.
“PM asks officials to review plans for easing of international travel restrictions in light of the emerging new evidence,” his office said in a statement.
Modi also requested that technical support be provided to regions reporting high numbers of new infections and ordered coordination to ensure the proper functioning of oxygen plants and ventilators.
As India has so far fully vaccinated some 35 percent of its 1.3 billion population, the prime minister’s office said he had told officials to accelerate second-dose coverage.
Authorities in Mumbai, the financial center and industrial hub of India, have already announced that inbound passengers from South Africa will be quarantined on arrival and those who test positive for COVID-19 will have their samples sent for genome sequencing.
“There are concerns in Mumbai about the new variant of coronavirus,” Mumbai mayor Kishori Pednekar told reporters on Saturday. “There is an increased risk of COVID-19 in other nations, so those coming from abroad will have to undergo genome test.”
Prof. Rama V. Baru, epidemiologist at the Center of Social Medicine and Community Health at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, said genomic sequencing may prove crucial in containing the spread and that a strategy to implement it should be introduced by the Indian Council of Medical Research — the country’s top medical research body.
“Testing can be done, but after testing you need to know what is the variant. For that you need genomic sequencing,” she told Arab News. “There has to be a design by which the ICMR comes up with a protocol because they have a network of institutions in different parts of the country. We need to be proactive and quick before the number of patients increases. Once the number increases, our capacity for genomic sequencing is very limited.”


Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia
Updated 27 November 2021

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

Top US diplomat calls for speedy negotiations over Ethiopia

NAIROBI: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is greatly concerned about Ethiopia’s military escalation and called for urgent negotiations over the crisis, a US State Department spokesperson said.
The comments came hours after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed appeared on the frontline with the national army.
“Secretary Blinken expressed grave concern about worrying signs of military escalation in Ethiopia and emphasised the need to urgently move to negotiations,” Ned Price said in a statement late on Friday.
Price released the statement after a phone call between Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and Blinken.
On Friday, Ethiopia’s state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting reported that Abiy was on the frontline with the army fighting rebellious Tigrayan forces in the northeastern Afar region. Abiy posted the same video on his Twitter account.
Abiy’s government has been fighting Tigrayan forces for more than a year, in a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced millions in Africa’s second-most populous nation.
Ethiopia has announced new restrictions on the sharing of information about the war in the north of the country which stipulate that battlefront updates can only come from the government.
“Disseminating information on military maneuvers, war front updates and results via any medium is forbidden,” except for information provided by a joint civilian-military command set up to oversee a state of emergency, the government’s communication service said late on Thursday.
The statement did not specify the implications of the new rules for journalists or media outlets covering the war, which broke out last November between the government and rebellious forces from the northern region of Tigray.
It did not, for instance, address the consequence of publishing information provided by unauthorized sources. Ethiopia’s media regulator did not return calls from Reuters seeking clarification on the matter.
The Prime Minister’s spokeswoman, Billene Seyoum, told Reuters on Friday, “The state of emergency prohibits unauthorized entities from disseminating activities from the front via various channels including media.” She did not elaborate.
Ethiopia’s parliament designated the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the party that controls most of Tigray, a terrorist group earlier this year. In its statement, the government’s communication service instructed “those using freedom of speech as a pretext ... to support the terrorist group” to refrain from doing so.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed oversaw sweeping reforms when he took office in 2018, including the unbanning of more than 250 media outlets, the release of dozens of journalists and the repeal of some widely criticized media laws.
However, some rights groups say press freedom has eroded since then as the government has faced outbreaks of deadly violence, including the conflict in Tigray and neighbouring regions.
At least 38 journalists and media workers have been detained since early 2020, most of them since the conflict began, according to a Reuters tally.
Asked about the arrests in May, Ethiopia’s media regulator said “freedom of expression and the protection of the press are sacred values that are enshrined in the Ethiopian constitution.”


US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say
Updated 27 November 2021

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say

US, Turkey to step up war on financial roots of Daesh-K, experts say
  • Analysts refute Taliban claim that Afghanistan branch of terror group poses no threat to country
  • Ismatullah Khalozai’s property and interests in property under US jurisdiction are now blocked, while American citizens are barred from engaging in any transactions with him

ANKARA / KABUL: The US State Department on Monday imposed new sanctions on three leaders of the Afghanistan affiliate of Daesh, widely known as Daesh-K, and another man accused of operating a Turkey-based informal financial network.

The group’s leader, Sanaullah Ghafari, spokesperson Sultan Aziz Azam and Kabul province leader Maulawi Rajab were all named as Specially Designated Global Terrorists, while Ismatullah Khalozai, who is blamed for operating an informal money-moving network, known as a hawala, that has financially supported Daesh-K for the last two years, was also designated.

Khalozai is known as the financial facilitator for the group and has operated a financial scheme that involved the international resale of luxury items, whose earnings were used to finance Daesh-K. The US also accuses him of engaging in human smuggling operations, including bringing a Daesh-K courier from Afghanistan to Turkey.

Last year, Washington identified another critical financial facilitator for Daesh, the Turkey-based Adnan Mohammed Amin Al-Rawi.

Andrea Gacki, director of the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said of this week’s action against Khalozai: “(The) designation underscores the United States’ determination to prevent (Daesh-K) and its members from exploiting the international financial system to support terrorist acts in Afghanistan and beyond… The Biden administration is committed to rooting out terrorist financing networks around the world.”

All Khalozai’s property and interests in property under US jurisdiction are now blocked, while American citizens are barred from engaging in any transactions with him.

Following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August and rapid Taliban takeover, Daesh-K has gained a wide presence in 34 provinces and has stepped up its bloody attacks. The group most recently claimed responsibility for a double bomb attack in the Afghan capital Kabul this month.

Turkey’s Financial Crimes Investigation Board has been regularly going after Daesh’s illegal money transfer system and it cooperates with the US to track the hawala chain system.

Colin Clarke, a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, a nonprofit organization focusing on violent extremism, said: “Turkey needs to open the books to the US Treasury Department and share intelligence on any terrorist networks known to operate on Turkish soil.”

He added that Turkey and the US should cooperate further to crack down on the financial roots of terror groups, regardless of any powerbroker that may benefit from the current arrangement. “So cracking down on this activity will cause some tensions,” Clarke told Arab News.

“After 9/11, the international community fell into the analytic trap of thinking that failed states like Afghanistan are the ideal safe haven for terrorist groups. However, countries like Turkey are far more valuable because they are connected to the trappings of globalization, from communications to transportation to global finance,” he added.

In 2019, Turkey disrupted another of Daesh’s illegal money transfer systems, which used Turkish and Syrian-based jewelry firms and foreign exchange offices as front companies.

Nihat Ali Ozcan, a security policy analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey in Ankara, said the illegal mobility of Daesh money did not appear as a result of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, but was ongoing before then.

“As the US began publicly tracking and announcing the origins of these money transfers, (it) means that there is ongoing cooperation between authorities in Ankara and Washington behind the scenes to cope with global financial crimes, because both countries are obliged to respect the relevant international commitments on this issue,” Ozcan told Arab News.

Ozcan said that, when the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in August, half of the country’s parliamentarians had Turkish citizenship because of the assets and investments they had previously had in Turkey.

“Therefore, there are great legal and illegal financial flows in Turkey that also eventually involve human smuggling and drug trafficking. It is not a surprise that some illegal groups use the hawala system through Turkey to finance (Daesh-K) because of this global ecosystem of money and human mobility that goes across borders,” he added.

During the course of the summer, hundreds of Afghans crossed from Iran into Turkey every day. Experts underline that such human flows resulted in uncontrollable money movements within the country.

Ozcan expects that, from now on, the US and Turkey, both victims of terrorism, will step up their efforts to track the roots of the illegal transactions that have fed back to terror cells.

“This latest announcement by the US Treasury is just the beginning of a new process and this bilateral cooperation against global financial crimes will not be restricted to Afghanistan but will probably spread to the regions where Daesh is gaining presence,” he said.

An official Taliban spokesperson in Kabul said Daesh-K does not pose a threat to the country. Bilal Karimi, of the Taliban prime minister’s office, said: “They (Daesh-K) don’t have any adverse effect on Afghanistan. Those names in the list are the unknown faces, and one of them has already been killed two or three years ago. So they are not familiar to anyone; overall, Daesh is not a threat for Afghanistan’s Islamic emirate government or the Afghanistan people.”

He added: “You know that this type of criminal activity happens all over the world, but the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan arrested several people involved in those cases, and many of them were killed. Also, we have dismantled many groups of Daesh in Kabul and other provinces. This group (Daesh-K) doesn’t have any support from the people or any other organization. All of these actions are just show-offs for the Daesh group; they are not a threat. So they cannot do anything to Afghanistan’s Islamic emirate.”

However, Ahmad Sayeedi, an international relations expert, told Arab News that Daesh-K was a significant threat to Afghanistan because it has international support. “What I mean is that they have a lot of money and financial support. Daesh will be the most significant danger for Afghanistan. They will be based mainly in Jalalabad (in Nangarhar Province), the main base of Daesh; and in the cities of Sheberghan and Baghlan.”

Qais Zaheer, another international relations analyst, agreed. “Daesh is a potential threat to Afghan peace; they are the ugly face of terrorism in Afghanistan,” he said. “I think the reemergence of this group can provide an opportunity for the intervention of regional and international powers in Afghanistan.

“Unfortunately, due to the (return) of the group and also Taliban mistakes, the group has turned to action and, with the available financial resources of the group, it can pose threats to the Taliban regime. So putting their officials in US sanction lists can help Afghanistan and also the Taliban regime to fight and weaken Daesh-K in Afghanistan,” Zaheer added.