The UN’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, on Thursday highlighted the importance of including women at upcoming peace talks in Doha with the Taliban.
“Human rights and women’s rights are never negotiable,” Lyons, who is Canadian, told the Security Council, adding that she expected a “rough road ahead” for the talks.
“This issue of women’s rights will be more central in the Afghan peace process than we have ever seen in any other peace negotiation in recent memory,” she said.
The government in Kabul said Thursday that it had freed 400 Taliban prisoners under an exchange deal with the militants and expected talks to begin soon in Qatar.
Lyons welcomed the “energetic outreach and substantive preparations” of the women on the Afghan government’s negotiating team.
“We are not yet aware of any women’s representation on the Taliban side, but we remain hopeful that they, too, will find a way of meaningfully including women,” she told the council.
For Lyons, having women at the negotiating table “offers the best opportunity to ensure that their own rights are upheld, and that their vision for elements of a peaceful Afghanistan is reflected in all aspects of the talks.”
Five Afghan women who endured the Taliban’s oppressive rule are on Kabul’s negotiating team.
Washington’s ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, warned that “no current nor future Afghan government should count on international donor support” if the rights of women and girls are repressed in any way.
Intra-Afghan peace negotiations were initially supposed to begin in March as agreed in a deal between the Taliban and Washington in February, from which Kabul had been excluded.
But repeated squabbles over the prisoner exchange delayed the start of talks, aimed at bringing an end to nearly 19 years of war.
Two policemen and four other people were killed in Afghanistan on Saturday after a deadly clash at a public food donation in central Ghor province, officials said.
Hundreds of people had gathered outside the governor’s office in the provincial capital Firozkoh, where a Qatari group was distributing aid.
It was not immediately clear why the gathering turned violent, but officials blamed armed men in the crowd.
“The protesters opened fire on the police,” the provincial governor’s spokesman Aref Haber said.
“Four civilians, including an employee of a local radio and two policemen were killed,” he said, adding that 19 people were also wounded.
He said the protesters also beat security personnel and an investigation into the incident was underway.
The interior ministry confirmed the death toll in a statement, saying “some illegal armed men in the mob attacked the government building”, which prompted police to fire into the air to disperse the crowd.
Abdul Rahman Akshan, the deputy head of Ghor’s provincial council, also confirmed the incident and the death toll.
Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh said the attack was “shocking” and announced that the “government was seriously investigating the incident” in a Facebook post.
The aid group was distributing food to about 1,000 local families. Food drives are a common practice in the country during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Afghanistan is battling a growing coronavirus outbreak that has exacerbated problems with food access in the impoverished country.
The Taliban have killed about two dozen Afghan police and pro-government fighters, officials said Monday, in two attacks that come as the foes are supposed to be preparing for peace talks.
In one of the incidents late Sunday, the insurgents killed at least six soldiers and 13 police and pro-government militiamen at several outposts near a police headquarters building in northeastern Takhar province, provincial police spokesman Khalil Assir told AFP.
A wedding party was being held in the building at the time, but the attackers did not reach the headquarters.
“The police bravely defended and prevented the Taliban from entering the celebration,” Assir said.
Mohammad Azam Afzali, a member of Takhar’s provincial council, gave a slightly lower toll, saying 17 police and pro-government militiamen were killed in the fighting that lasted at least seven hours.
The Taliban did not immediately comment.
Meanwhile, a Taliban attack on an army outpost in southern Zabul province on Sunday night left at least six soldiers dead, the defence ministry said in a statement.
Four people were also wounded when a sticky bomb attached to a small truck went off in Kabul city on Monday morning, the interior ministry said.
No one immediately claimed that attack.
The latest bloodshed comes during diplomatic efforts to kickstart talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
The insurgents had agreed to speak to the government under a deal with the United States signed in Doha last month, but the dialogue has been derailed by a dispute over a prisoner exchange and the Taliban are also grumbling about the composition of Kabul’s negotiating team.
The talks were supposed to start in Oslo on March 10. Now it is unclear when they might begin.
Afghanistan has ordered the release of up to 10,000 prisoners — mostly women, juveniles and sick people — in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, officials said Thursday.
The move comes after an increase in local COVID-19 cases and as tens of thousands of Afghans return from neighbouring Iran, one of the countries hit hardest by the pandemic.
President Ashraf Ghani’s decree was directed at women, young offenders, critically ill patients and inmates aged over 55, said Attorney General Farid Hamidi.
“This is a responsible decision to safeguard the health of the people,” Hamidi told a news conference.
“The decree is not for those who have committed crimes against national and international security.”
Prisons chief Ahmad Rashed Totakhail said between 9,000 and 10,000 inmates would be released over the coming 10 days.
UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet has urged countries to protect people held in overcrowded prisons and other enclosed facilities by releasing vulnerable detainees, saying COVID-19 “risks rampaging through such institutions”.
Sudan and Ethiopia have recently ordered the release of thousands of prisoners in an effort to slow their own outbreaks.
Afghanistan has officially recorded two deaths and 80 cases of coronavirus, but the true figure is feared to be many times higher as the war-torn country struggles to administer tests and screen the influx of people returning from Iran.
The upcoming prisoner release is unrelated to a prisoner exchange the Kabul government is currently negotiating with the Taliban as part of an effort to start peace talks.
Pakistan is closing one of its two border crossings with Afghanistan for a week to prevent the spread of coronavirus, officials said Sunday.
The announcement comes a day after Pakistan detected two new cases of the virus bringing the total number of infected patients to four.
Officials said the Chaman/Spinboldak crossing point would close from Monday, but the second point at Torkhum in the northwest would remain open.
Pakistan is sandwiched between China and Iran — which are both fighting major outbreaks — sparking fears about the country’s ability to cope with an epidemic of its own.
The country has suspended all flights to Iran and closed land borders.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are divided by the “Durand Line”, a 2,400-kilometre (1,500-mile) frontier with Villages straddling the border and mosques and houses having one door in Pakistan and another in Afghanistan.
The virus has now killed more than 2,900 people and infected over 83,000 worldwide, with an increasing number of new cases being reported each day.
The United States signed a landmark deal with the Taliban on Saturday, laying out a timetable for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan within 14 months as it seeks an exit from its longest-ever war.
The agreement is expected to lead to a dialogue between the Taliban and the Kabul government that, if successful, could ultimately see an end to the grinding 18-year conflict.
Taliban fighter-turned-dealmaker Mullah Baradar signed the accord alongside Washington’s chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad, at a gilded desk in a conference room in a luxury Doha hotel.
The pair then shook hands, as people in the room shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest).
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looked on as the two inked the deal, after urging the insurgents to “keep your promises to cut ties with Al-Qaeda”.
On the eve of the signing, President Donald Trump urged the Afghan people to embrace the chance for a new future.
“If the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan live up to these commitments, we will have a powerful path forward to end the war in Afghanistan and bring our troops home,” he said.
But the position of the Afghan government, which has been excluded from direct US-Taliban talks, remains unclear and the country is gripped by a fresh political crisis amid contested election results.
‘Important first step’
The Doha accord was drafted over a tempestuous year of dialogue marked by the abrupt cancellation of the effort by Trump in September.
The signing comes after a week-long, partial truce that has mostly held across Afghanistan, aimed at building confidence between the warring parties and showing the Taliban can control their forces.
The United States and its allies will withdraw all their forces from Afghanistan within 14 months if the Taliban abide by the terms of the accord.
After an initial reduction of troops to 8,600 within 135 days of Saturday’s signing, the US and its partners “will complete withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan” within 14 months.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg heralded the agreement as a “first step to lasting peace”.
“The way to peace is long and hard. We have to be prepared for setbacks, spoilers, there is no easy way to peace but this is an important first step,” the Norwegian former prime minister told reporters in Kabul.
Since the US-led invasion that ousted the Taliban after the September 11, 2001 attacks, America has spent more than $1 trillion in fighting and rebuilding in Afghanistan.
About 2,400 US soldiers have been killed, along with unknown tens of thousands of Afghan troops, Taliban fighters and Afghan civilians.
‘Happy and celebrating’
The insurgents said they had halted all hostilities Saturday in honour of the agreement.
“Since the deal is being signed today, and our people are happy and celebrating it, we have halted all our military operations across the country,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP.
Any insurgent pledge to guarantee Afghanistan is never again used by jihadist movements such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group to plot attacks abroad will be key to the deal’s viability.
The Taliban’s sheltering of Al-Qaeda was the main reason for the US invasion following the 9/11 attacks.
The group, which had risen to power in the 1990s in the chaos of civil war, suffered a swift defeat at the hands of the US and its allies. They retreated before re-emerging to lead a deadly insurgency against the new government in Kabul.
After the NATO combat mission ended in December 2014, the bulk of Western forces withdrew from the country, leaving it in an increasingly precarious position.
While Afghans are eager to see an end to the violence, experts say any prospective peace will depend on the outcome of talks between the Taliban and the Kabul government.
But with President Ashraf Ghani and rival Abdullah Abdullah at loggerheads over contested election results, few expect the pair to present a united front, unlike the Taliban, who would then be in a position to take the upper hand in negotiations.
With porous borders, creaking hospitals and large illiterate populations, Afghanistan and Pakistan face a potentially devastating health crisis after the new coronavirus erupted in neighbouring Iran.
Islamabad has closed official border crossings while Kabul has suspended all travel to the Islamic republic, which has reported 15 deaths out of nearly 100 infections — making it one of the hardest hit countries outside the virus epicentre China.
But experts fear the measures could prove ineffective with thousands of people — refugees fleeing violence, Shiite pilgrims, smugglers and migrants looking for work — likely crossing the long, poorly patrolled frontiers every day.
The virus has spread to more than 25 countries, killing over 2,700 and infecting 80,000, mostly in China. But new outbreaks in Europe, the Middle East and in Asia have fanned fears of the contagion taking hold in poor nations which lack the healthcare infrastructure to cope.
Afghanistan announced Monday its first virus infection involving a patient who had recently been in Iran where millions of Afghans live.
Afghan television and radio broadcasts have begun advising people on how to prevent transmission of the virus, while residents have rushed to buy face masks — straining supplies and sparking a tenfold increase in the cost of a single mask at some pharmacies in the capital Kabul.
“We are worried, we don’t have a proper functioning health system and the borders are open. All we can do is take some preventive measures and pray to God to help us,” said Ihsanul Haq, a government employee.
Afghanistan’s healthcare system is in tatters after more than four decades of war, with the few available hospitals focused mainly on basic care and trauma. They lack the expertise to deal with infectious diseases.
“It could be a disaster if the virus really spreads all over the country. There aren’t that many health centres,” said Wali, a Kabul-based physician, who specialises in viral infectious diseases.
“The government is doing what they can to contain the spread of the virus. But it is very difficult.”
Adding to the challenge of limiting the spread of the virus is the Afghan tradition of greeting family and friends with handshakes, hugs and kisses.
A largely illiterate population also makes it difficult to educate people about ways to stop the transmission.
“People are illiterate, you can’t get the message through to them,” Wali said.
– Unprepared –
Across the border in Pakistan there are growing fears over how the country would deal with a potential outbreak.
Islamabad has a history of failing to contain infectious diseases such as polio, tuberculosis and hepatitis.
Adding to the challenge, hundreds of thousands of quack doctors are thought to be working across the country and scandals involving the use of dirty needles in healthcare settings have eroded public trust in the system.
“If such a contagious illness were to enter the country, one can only imagine the toll it would take on the already overburdened and under-resourced healthcare system,” read an editorial in the English daily Dawn.
Indeed, some Pakistani students trapped in the Chinese city of Wuhan — where the virus was first detected in December — told AFP recently they were nervous about returning to their country if authorities were to evacuate them.
“We are worried about how the authorities are going to treat us when we go back to Pakistan — some students who went back told us the officials treated them very badly,” Ruqia Shaikh said.
While Pakistan has closed land borders with Iran, it has maintained air travel to and from China — increasingly a source of trade and commerce for the country.
“There is a limited concept of prevention unfortunately. I fear it’s not well prepared at all for any health emergency,” Pakistani public health expert Arshad Altaf told AFP.
Pakistan this week moved quickly to quarantine at least 270 people near the Iranian border after a group of pilgrims returned and briefly mixed with other residents.
That came hours after Pakistan sealed off its frontier with Iran in southwestern Balochistan province, which remains vulnerable to a public health emergency.
Decades of fighting a separatist insurgency and militant violence, along with neglect from the central government, have left the impoverished area with little infrastructure.
Ziaullah Langove, Balochistan’s home minister, said there were nearly 10,000 Pakistanis still in Iran, mostly students and pilgrims that Iranian officials were planning to send back in small groups.
At the Taftan border crossing long queues of trucks waited in hope of being allowed into Iran, as residents and officials donned surgical masks.
“There is no information sharing whatsoever,” said resident Khuda Baksh, chiding officials for failing to keep locals informed about the situation.
“There is fear and panic among the public, our business and lives are at risk.”
The US and the Taliban are set to sign a historic agreement that would pave the way to ending America’s longest war, the bitter foes announced on Friday, hours after Kabul said a week-long partial truce across Afghanistan would kick off this weekend.
If that so-called “reduction in violence” holds, it would mark a major turning point in the gruelling conflict and set the conditions for a deal that could, ultimately, pull US troops out after more than 18 years and launch Afghanistan into an uncertain future.
Both US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Taliban issued statements saying they had agreed to sign the accord on February 29 in Doha, following the one-week partial truce.
“Upon successful implementation of this understanding, signing of the US-Taliban agreement is expected to move forward,” Pompeo said, adding negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government would “start soon thereafter”.
Afghanistan’s National Security Council spokesman Javed Faisal and Taliban sources earlier said the “reduction in violence” between the US, Taliban, and Afghan security forces would begin Saturday.
The United States has been in talks with the Taliban for more than a year to secure a deal in which it would pull out thousands of troops in return for Taliban security guarantees and a promise to hold peace talks with the government in Kabul.
A reduction in violence would show the Taliban can control their forces and demonstrate good faith ahead of any signing, which would see the Pentagon withdraw about half of the 12,000-13,000 troops currently in Afghanistan.
In a statement, the Taliban said warring parties would “create a suitable security situation” ahead of a deal signing.
One Taliban source in Pakistan said that if an agreement is signed on February 29, talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, needed to cement a broader peace deal, are slated to start March 10.
In Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar, which is seen as the Taliban’s heartland, one insurgent told AFP he had received orders to stand down.
However, another Taliban commander based in Kandahar, Hafiz Saeed Hedayat, said he had only been ordered to refrain from attacking major cities and highways.
“This means maybe the violence will continue in the districts,” Hedayat said.
Taliban expert Rahimullah Yusufzai said the move signalled a wider change in thinking for both the Taliban and the US after years of fighting.
“Both sides have shown their commitment to sign the peace deal, and it’s a big development — a significant one,” he said.
The US and the Taliban have been tantalisingly close to a deal before, only to see President Donald Trump nix it at the eleventh hour in September amid continued insurgent violence.
Any truce comes fraught with danger, and analysts warn the attempt to stem Afghanistan’s bloodshed is laced with complications and could fail at any time.
Worse still, they say warring parties could exploit a lull to reconfigure their forces and secure a battlefield advantage.
The reduction in violence is “still just the first step to get to intra-Afghan negotiations,” Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, told AFP.
“Those talks will be a tough road of their own, but are the best avenue to a peaceful settlement to Afghanistan’s conflict.”
On Thursday, the deputy leader of the Taliban said the insurgents are “fully committed” to a deal with Washington.
“That we stuck with such turbulent talks with the enemy we have fought bitterly for two decades, even as death rained from the sky, testifies to our commitment to ending the hostilities and bringing peace to our country,” Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote in an opinion piece in the New York Times.
Haqqani is also head of the Haqqani network, a US-designated terror group that is one of the most dangerous factions fighting Afghan and US-led NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 attacks, America has spent more than $1 trillion in fighting and rebuilding in Afghanistan.
About 2,400 US soldiers have been killed, along with unknown tens of thousands of Afghan troops, Taliban fighters and Afghan civilians.
Avalanches, flooding and harsh winter weather has killed more than 110 people across Pakistan and Afghanistan in recent days, officials said Tuesday, as authorities struggled to reach people stranded by heavy snowfall.
At least 75 people died and 64 were injured across Pakistan, with several still missing, while a further 39 people were killed in Afghanistan, according to officials in both countries.
Forecasts suggest more harsh weather is on the way.
Pakistani Kashmir was the worst-hit area, with 55 people killed and 10 others missing, the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) said in a statement.
In the picturesque but conflict-riven Neelum Valley in Kashmir, heavy snowfall triggered several avalanches, including one that killed at least 19 people.
“An avalanche hit their village, 10 people are still missing,” the NDMA said.
Frequent avalanches and landslides occur in Kashmir during the winter, often blocking roads and leaving communities isolated.
Authorities have shuttered schools, while several highways and roads were closed across the country’s northern mountainous areas, according to officials.
To the southeast in Balochistan province, at least 20 people had been killed in separate weather-related incidents.
“Most of those who died were women and children,” said Mohammad Younus, an official with the provincial disaster management authority, adding that hundreds remained stranded.
Across the border in Afghanistan, more than 300 houses were either destroyed or partially damaged throughout the country, said Ahmad Tamim Azimi a spokesman for the Natural Disaster Management Authority.
“A cold snap, heavy snowfall and rains that started two weeks ago have caused damage,” he said, adding that most casualties were caused after roofs collapsed under thick snow.
Hardest hit were southern Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul and western Herat provinces.
In Herat, seven people — all members of the same family and including children — died when their roof caved in, Azimi added.
Harsh winters often take a heavy toll in mountainous Afghanistan, and the country remains poor despite billions of dollars in aid from the international community.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, with spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid saying on Twitter that the blast destroyed the vehicle, killing all on board.
Violence in Afghanistan usually recedes as the cold winter sets in but this year the Taliban have pushed forward with their operations despite heavy snowfall in the mountains — and despite their negotiations with the US for a deal that would see American troops leave the country.
According to parts of the deal made public so far, the Pentagon would pull about 5,000 of its 13,000 or so troops from five bases across Afghanistan, provided the Taliban sticks to its security pledges.
The insurgents have said they will renounce Al-Qaeda, fight the Islamic State group and stop jihadists using Afghanistan as a safe haven.
Last year was the deadliest for US forces in Afghanistan since combat operations officially finished at the end of 2014, highlighting the challenging security situation that persists.
More than 2,400 US troops have been killed in combat in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in October 2001.