Despite a spike in insurgent attacks, the Afghan government is optimistic of peace talks with Taliban militants, a presidential spokesman says.
In an interview, Shah Hussain Murtazawi said the government’s optimism stemmed from a brief Eid truce by the Taliban and peace calls from the Imam of Makkah and the Saudi monarch.
“A new chapter has been opened and the broad support for a ceasefire and an end to the war offer cause for optimism,” he told Arab News.
Taliban commanders’ arrival in towns and their celebration of Eid with government officials suggested their willingness for dialogue with the government, he argued.
However, Murtazawi explained, no contact had been established yet with leaders of the militants group since the end to the truce.
Some Wolesi Jirga members, citing sources at the Independent Election Commission (IEC), claimed on Saturday the upcoming elections might be delayed owing to the fresh impetus in the peace process.
The lower house members also claimed the government had decided to recede some areas to the Taliban as part of the peace process.
Government officials have not spoken in this regard.
Peace process and possible delay in elections
Efforts have been intensified to jump-start peace talks with the Taliban, whose three days ceasefire increased hopes for peace after years of bloodshed.
The elections of Wolesi Jirga and district councils are scheduled for October 20.
Shekaba Hashami, a lawmaker from Kandahar province, said an IEC member had on the condition of anonymity told media persons that the upcoming elections “may be further delayed” due to the ongoing push for peace talks with the Taliban.
She, however, stressed that the Wolesi Jirga elections should not held as per schedule.
Her remarks were echoed by lawmaker Ghulam Hussain Nasari from central Wardak province. He stressed the elections should be conducted on the given date and the national process should not be delayed.
Speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi said deferring the elections was not acceptable, asking the government to come up with reason if it intended to postpone the ballot.
IEC Commissioner Syed Hafeezullah Hashami said the government was responsible to deal with issues relating to the Taliban, but as far as a delay was concerned, both the government and the IEC were committing to holding the elections on time.
“I have heard these rumors but politicians and lawmakers should not spread such rumors which may hurt the trust of the more than seven million voters who want to exercise their right,” he said.
Hashami assured no IEC member had shared views regarding a delay in elections and rejected all media reports in this regard.
Claim of handing over some areas to Taliban
Lawmaker Nasari, without providing details, claimed the government wanted to hand over some areas to the Taliban, a process which had already begun in Jalrez district of Wardak province.
Abdul Latif Pedram, a lawmaker from Badakhshan province, said giving areas to the rebels was against the Constitution.
Speaker Ibrahimi termed peace ‘a dire need’ and said: “The peace process is ambiguous and hiding details from the masses is not acceptable. Suggestions from both the sides should be revealed to the people,” he said.
Pajhwok tried to seek comment from defense and interior ministries’ officials in this regard, but not contact could be established.
Billions of dollars have been wasted in Afghanistan as Americans have failed to eradicate corruption and built infrastructure without consulting local leaders, a US watchdog says.
Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko said in an interview the cost of the US-funded reconstruction effort exceeded the cost of the Marshall Plan.
He told The Hill’s new morning show the reconstruction campaign had suffered from a misguided belief that Afghans had the same needs as Americans.
“We can't rebuild it into a little America. I think that was one of the problems. We wanted to turn this into Kansas…We funded a lot of programs that the Afghans did not even know about it until we turned it over to them."
Sopko also blamed the US government for pouring a lot of money into the country without dealing with the inherent problem of corruption in the Afghan government.
Since 2002, Washington has spent $117.2 billion on Afghanistan’s reconstruction, compared with $103 billion spent on rebuilding in 16 Western European countries after World War II.
Hundreds of tribal elders, religious scholars and youth on Sunday staged a rally in southern Helmand province, urging negotiations between the government and Taliban.
Amir Hafizullah Khan, a tribal leader, told Pajhwok Afghan News on behalf of the rally participants that Afghans themselves should work for peace and stability in their country.
“Foreigners can never bring peace; we should come together to stabilize our homeland,” he said, adding some of Helmand residents would ask Taliban to join the reconciliation process.
Akhtar Mohammad Badizai, another protestor, said Afghans had been rendering sacrifices for the past 40 years for the sake of others. “We have just tasted ceasefire benefits are trying for a longer truce...”
Nazar Mohammad Rodai, civil society’s coordination director, said many Afghan citizens wanted peace; so the government and Taliban should begin peace talks at the earliest possible.
Others held similar views. They also issued a resolution, calling for the early resumption of peace negotiations and release of political prisoners.
Last Monday, peace activists from Helmand province arrived in capital Kabul on foot after 38 days of walking.
Leaders of 16 European Union members are meeting in Brussels to discuss possible ways forward in a political crisis over migration which is causing deep rifts within the bloc.
Sunday's mini-summit was called by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker who billed it as an "informal working meeting" ahead of an important EU summit on migration policy scheduled for June 28 and 29.
The emergency meeting will be an opportunity for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to find possible solutions as she faces a domestic crisis, which is posing an existential threat to her three-months-old coalition government.
Merkel came under pressure last week when her interior minister Horst Seehofer threatened to unilaterally implement an immigration "master plan" the chancellor is opposed to.
She believes a measure in the policy to send migrants who have already registered elsewhere in the EU away at the German border goes against Europe's open border agreement.
Last Monday, Seehofer said he would give Merkel until after the EU summit later this week to come up with a European solution.
Merkel on Friday played down the importance of Sunday's meeting, calling it "no more and no less than a working and consultative meeting".
She was also pessimistic about the prospects of finding consensus among all EU members.
"We know that no solution will be reached on Thursday and Friday at the level of the 28 member states ... on the overall issue of migration" she told a press conference during a visit to Beirut, Lebanon.
Instead, the German chancellor expressed hope "bilateral, trilateral and multilateral" deals would be reached.
Disagreement over how to reform European migration policy was rife among leaders in the days leading up to the summit.
A main priority is reform of the Dublin regulation that determines that the state through which an asylum seeker enters the EU is the state responsible for their asylum application.
Redistribution of migrants through quotas received fierce opposition from some countries after it was first proposed in 2015.
Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini on Friday reiterated his hard line on immigration.
"We cannot take in one more person," he told German magazine Der Spiegel. "On the contrary; we want to send away a few."
In recent weeks, Italy's new government has prohibited ships carrying migrants rescued in the Mediterranean from docking in the country's ports.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte agreed to attend Sunday's meeting only after Merkel had assured him a draft leaders' statement prepared by the European Commission and circulated on Wednesday would be put aside.
There was tension between Italy and France too.
On Saturday, Salvini called French President Emmanuel Macron "arrogant" and warned that France would not "transform Italy into Europe's refugee camp".
The statement came after Macron had said he supported the idea of imposing financial sanctions on EU countries refusing to take in refugees and migrants with proven asylum status.
Speaking alongside Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, Macron told a press conference "You can't have countries that massively benefit from the solidarity of the European Union and that massively voice their national selfishness when it comes to migrant issues."
On Thursday, Macron had said nationalism and anti-migrant sentiments were spreading in Europe like "leprosy".
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Saturday said he would reinstate border controls if Seehofer goes ahead with rejecting migrants at the German border.
The 31-year-old leader has been pushing for stronger European borders. He is set to take over the EU presidency, which is rotated every six months, on July 1.
The leaders of the Visegrad group countries, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, announced on Thursday they would be boycotting Sunday's summit altogether.
"We understand there are domestic political difficulties in some countries but that cannot lead to pan-European haste," Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said in an apparent dig at Merkel.
'Crisis of political will'
Europe has struggled to formulate a joint migration policy since the 2015 refugee crisis saw the arrival of more than one million people.
But the current crisis comes amid a significant drop in the number of migrants and refugees arriving on Europe's shores.
The United Nations' refugee agency has said it expects about 80,000 people to arrive by sea this year, which is about half the number from 2017.
"We do not have a crisis of numbers. We continue to have a crisis of political will," AP news agency quoted UNHCR Europe chief Sophie Magennis as saying.
Yemen’s Houthis deployed additional forces in the main port city of Hodeidah on Sunday as a Saudi-led military coalition moved closer to the city center in the largest offensive of the war, raising UN fears of a humanitarian catastrophe.
The alliance led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates launched its assault on the heavily defended Red Sea city on June 12 to try to weaken the Iran-aligned Houthi movement by cutting off a key supply line for the group which controls the capital Sanaa and most populated areas.
“There is a heavy deployment of armed Houthis in the city and new check points have been set up in neighborhoods where there are supporters of the Tehama brigades,” said one resident, referring to a Yemeni faction from the Red Sea coastal plain that is fighting with coalition forces.
Fierce clashes broke out after midnight near Hodeidah University, around 3 km (1.9 miles) west of the city center, on the coastal road linking the airport to the port, added the resident, who requested anonymity.
Coalition forces seized the airport on Wednesday and have been consolidating their hold in the area as UN efforts continued to reach a political deal that would avert an assault on the port, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis.
The United Nations fears the escalation in fighting could exacerbate what is already the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid and an estimated 8.4 million believed to be on the verge of starvation.
The Western-backed coalition intervened in Yemen in 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government in exile, but since then neither side has made much progress in the war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The World Food Program said the fighting could result in up to 1.1 million people being either displaced or trapped within the city and in need of emergency food assistance.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths has visited Sanaa and Saudi Arabia to try to negotiate a solution.
The Houthis have indicated they would be willing to hand over management of the port to the United Nations, sources told Reuters. A US official said Washington was urging the Saudis and Emiratis to accept the deal.
“The coalition will achieve its goal of liberating Hodeida, city & port. Yet we will support all efforts to achieve an unconditional peaceful withdrawal of Houthi gangs,” UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said in a Twitter post on Saturday.
The Arab states say they must recapture Hodeidah to deprive the Houthis of their main source of income and prevent them from smuggling in Iranian-made missiles, which have been launched at Saudi cities. The group and Tehran deny the accusations.
The coalition has pledged a swift military operation to take over the airport and seaport without entering the city center, to minimize civilian casualties and maintain the flow of goods.
“The battle for Hodeida is reaching the point of no return,” the International Crisis Group said in a conflict alert.
“This is the final, fragile moment in which it may still be possible for UN-led negotiations to prevent a destructive fight that is likely to exacerbate dire humanitarian conditions and further delay broader negotiations to end the war.”
Women in Saudi Arabia are now allowed to drive for the first time since the religiously conservative kingdom overturned the world's only ban on female motorists.
The lifting of the prohibition on Sunday, which follows a sweeping crackdown on prominent women's rights activists who staunchly advocated for the right to drive, was first announced last year as part of the then newly-appointed Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's plans to reform the country.
"Now every woman has the right to drive a car anywhere in the kingdom," state broadcaster al-Ekhbariya quoted traffic authorities spokesman Colonel Samy bin Mohammad as saying on Sunday.
Saudi Arabia, which has some of the world's tightest restrictions on women, started issuing its first driving licences for female motorists earlier this month.
On Thursday, it launched a three-day campaign called "place your trust in God and drive" to educate women on driving and raise awareness about safety regulations.
Activists in the region welcomed the lifting on the ban but cautioned that there were still many hurdles for women wanting to get behind the wheel.
"This is a very good step, but of course there are so many challenges that women are facing now with the lifting of the ban," said Suad Abu-Dayyeh, Middle East consultant for the Equality Now non-governmental organization.
"The fees for having lessons are six times more than men," she told Al Jazeera from Jordan's capital, Amman. "This is one of the restrictions and this makes women not being able to access driving licenses in a fast way, in addition to the limited driving schools in Saudi Arabia."
Women's efforts to overturn the ban in the country go back decades.
In 1990, more than 40 women drove their cars in the capital, Riyadh - the first public demonstration against the prohibition.
In 2007, activists submitted a petition to the then-King Abdullah, asking for the right to drive. The next year, one of those activists - Wajeha al-Huwaider - made a film of herself driving and posted it online.
Dozens of women followed suit over the next few years.
In a reversal of the long-standing rule, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud signed a royal decree in September 2017 that said women would be allowed to drive "in accordance with Islamic laws".
The move was described as being part of the crown prince's reform drive.
But the arrest of women's rights activists over the past few weeks has dampened the mood among observers and citizens alike and cast doubt over Riyadh's commitment to effecting change as part of its so-called Vision 2030 economic reform program.
The prominent activists had long been advocating an end to the ban on Saudi women driving and the abolishment of the male guardianship system.
They were branded threats to national security and accused of being foreign agents. They face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
The Pakistani Taliban has appointed a religious scholar as their new leader to replace Mullah Fazlullah, who was killed in a US air strike in Afghanistan earlier this month.
Mohammad Khurasani, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, said in a statement on June 23 that the group had chosen Noor Wali Mehsud as its new chief and Mufti Mazhim, also known as Mufti Hafizullah, as his deputy.
Khurasani also said for the first time that Mullah Fazlullah was killed in a US air strike in Afghanistan's Kunar Province, near the border with Pakistan. US and Afghan officials said the strike occurred on June 13.
Mehsud, 40, is a religious scholar who studied at several religious seminaries in Pakistan. He served as a deputy to former Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud, blamed for the 2007 assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.
Mehsud is also believed to have fought for the Afghan Taliban in the 1990s against the Northern Alliance and took part in attacks against Pakistani security forces.
The new leader comes from the Mehsud tribe that dominates the tribal districts of North and South Waziristan in northwest Pakistan.
The two tribal districts are a stronghold of the Afghan Taliban-allied Haqqani network and the Pakistani Taliban, before the latter was pushed across the border into Afghanistan after a 2014 Pakistani Army offensive.
Mehsud is believed to have close links with the Haqqani network, which has carried out deadly attacks in Afghanistan since the US-led invasion in 2001.
Under Mullah Fazlullah, the Pakistani Taliban massacred 150 people -- mainly children -- at an army school in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar in December 2014.
The group was also deemed responsible for the October 2012 shooting of Malala Yousafzai, who later won the Nobel Prize and became a global symbol of the fight for the education of girls.
The United States also accused the group of attempting to stage a car-bomb attack in Times Square in New York in 2010.
In March, the United States offered a $5 million reward for information on Mullah Fazlullah, saying his group has "demonstrated a close alliance with Al-Qaeda" and gave explosives training to Faisal Shahzad, the would-be Times Square bomber.
The local authorities in eastern Nangarhar province are saying that the construction of a major fish hatchery will be completed in the near future.
The provincial government media office in a statement said the provincial agriculture director Rafiullah Rahimzai visited Surkh Rod district, accompanying a delegation of government officials, to inspect the construction work of the hatchery.
The statement further added that the hatchery will have a capacity to produce up to 2 million fish eggs which is being built with the support of the National Horticulture and livestock Project.
According to Nangarhar governor’s office, the hatchery will produce enough fish to respond to the requirements of the eastern provinces as well as other parts of the country.
The statement also added that the development of the hatchery will help the expansion of fish farming in Nangarhar and other parts of the country.
The process of fish cultivation has already begun in the hatchery and currently hundreds of thousands of small fishes have been produced in the hatchery, the statement said, adding that the process will continue until millions of small fishes have been cultivated which will then be sent to other areas for the farming.
At least twenty water pools have been established in Behsud and Surkh districts to experiment fish farming, the statement said, adding that the experiments have proven that the weather and atmospheric condition for fish farming is suitable in Nangarhar province.
There is a saying in Pashto that “A good medical practitioner is one who has gone through an illness.” Afghans, particularly those who have fallen victim to the imposed war, can better feel and heal the pain of the destructive war ongoing in their country for decades than anyone else can, and it will be their efforts that will bring an end to the war one day. The anti-war movements of people, who have suffered the most from war, have more chances of success. The Helmand peace march bears that hallmark. The majority of members of the march have either lost their family members or witnessed the miseries the war has brought about on people in southern Helmand province in particular and in Afghanistan in general.
The Helmand Peace Convoy is a grassroots movement, and is the voice of the entire war-battered Afghan nation. All sides of the Afghan conflict that describe themselves as the sympathizers of Afghan people should welcome the struggle of the movement, because its only aspiration is the restoration of peace and stability in the country. So far, the participants of the march have not done anything that a party to the conflict may consider against itself. Their neutrality is their strength indeed.
While there are proposals on social media that the convoy should be entrusted with the mandate of the High Peace Council, experience has shown that any movements launched with the aim to bring peace have deviated from their mission of bringing peace and stability when they have turned into “income sources”. The High Peace Council of Afghanistan is the textbook example. Even after spending millions of dollars, the Council has not been able to establish “reliable channels of talks” with the Taliban, let alone to facilitate direct peace talks between Afghan government and the militants.
The first requirement for Helmand Peace Convoy to remain neutral is not to accept any financial assistance from any party to the conflict and foreign embassy. Shall they do so, all sides of the conflict will lose faith in their impartiality, even if they embrace a neutral stance. Moreover, they should also refrain from getting involved in day-to-day politics, and not allow others to use them as pawns for their political purposes. For time being, the Helmand Peace Convoy is a window of hope for peace that has a chance of success, and should therefore be supported by people.