Latest news and happenings of Afghanistan and region…
Soldiers from 2 SCOTS, Scotland’s infantry regiment, have begun training for their upcoming tour of Afghanistan in October this year as part of Operation Toral in Kabul. The troops will be taking over from sister battalion 4SCOTS.
The soldiers, who had been involved in Scotland’s Coronavirus response, have returned to their home base for training while following the required health advisories.
An outbreak of Coronavirus would be disastrous with just five months to go before the battalion’s deployment, said senior military officers. If they had to isolate the cases, the battalion would not be combat ready.
The special measures include socially distancing as much as possible and regular handwashing. Safety guidelines have also been implemented in the barracks.
Major Matt Alder, Officer Commanding of A Company, 2 SCOTS, told Forces News the soldiers are following “quite a few social distancing and hygiene measures” during the training.
He added: “It’s really important that we continue to train, not least to support the Government’s counter COVID strategy…but also to allow us to go on to conduct operations that were scheduled before the COVID crisis.”
As part of the Scottish government’s Coronavirus efforts, personnel from the 2 SCOTS had been running mobile testing units for the public.
Nearly 1,000 U.K. troops are in Afghanistan, according to the British Army’s website. There are part of the NATO/ISAF-led military intervention.
“We will give all the help we can to the people of Afghanistan because the stability of Afghanistan affects the security of Iran, the region and ultimately global security,” said Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister for Legal and International Affairs Mohsen Baharvand on Wednesday.
Baharvand is currently in Kabul as part of an Iranian delegation. In his interview with the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), he recounted his meeting with Abdullah Abdullah, head of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation.
“First of all, there was a bilateral discussion with the Afghan government, which as a neighboring country will have a great impact on Iran’s security, so Iran is actively talking to the Afghan parties and politicians inside Afghanistan,” he told IRNA
Tehran has always stressed on the importance of the intra-Afghan talks is bringing stability to the region.
Baharvand’s delegation is part of the joint-investigation looking into the deadly Harirud Incident from early May. Iran has condemned the drowning of Afghan migrants along the border and said the incident took place on the Afghan side of the border.
In the early meetings, Baharvand stressed on need for cooperation of both countries to probe the case.
Flight service has resumed between the city of Kabul in Afghanistan to Mashhad in Iran, after Coronavirus border restrictions were eased. The first flight, carrying 146 passengers landed on Wednesday.
The managing director of Razavi Khorasan airport in Masshad told Islamic Republic News Agency that foreign flights, including those from Afghanistan, had been cancelled for the last three months due to the virus outbreak.
Iran currently has 22,851 active cases and has confirmed a total of 141,591 positive cases since the start of the pandemic. It has taken numerous lockdown and protective measures to stop the spread of the disease, resulting in a drop in the number of new cases – it still reports around 1,800 new cases every day.
Experts have raised doubts about the country’s official figures and indicated they could be much higher.
The country has eased lockdown measures and has started a phased reopening of its economy since early April. It reopened major shrines like the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad and the Shah Abdol Azim shrine in Tehran this week.
The WHO has continuously cautioned against reopening too quickly while the rest of the world was still battling the first phase of the virus.
The Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) said the conditions in Afghanistan have worsened with the country reporting 580 new Coronavirus cases in the past 24 hours, bringing the tally to 13,036 cases.
Wahid Majrooh, deputy of the MoPH, said eight patients had died and 65 others had recovered over the past day. This brought the Afghan total to 235 dead and 1,209 recovered cases. Currently there are 11,572 active COVID-19 cases in the country.
Of the new reported cases, 322 were in Kabul, 139 in Herat, 27 in Panjshir, 22 in Balkh, 21 in Farah, 20 in Paktia and 15 in Faryab.
Laboratories across the country have tested 1,722 suspected samples, of which 580 were positive. So far, the Ministry has tested 34,936 samples.
Reason for increasing cases
Afghanistan has been reporting close to 600 new cases every day, rapidly moving from 10,000 cases to 12,000 within five days.
At the press conference, Majrooh said, 40% of total new cases were recorded in the past 10 days.
He pointed that in the last 12 days people have flouted quarantine norms and visited markets and travelled by road. Crowds in public places were especially noted in the major cities, including Kabul, in the days of Eid Al-Fitr.
Majroh said the MoPH is running out of medical facilities and there is a dire shortage of masks and ventilators.
He reiterated the need for people to stay at home, keep social distancing, wear face masks and to wash their hands regularly.
On their return from Afghanistan, 46 Pakistani citizens tested positive for COVID-19 yesterday. The citizens had returned to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province last week and had been isolated in various centres.
Pakistan has seen an influx of returnees since the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak.
Of the returnees from Afghanistan, who were quarantined in the town of Landi Kotal, 278 were suspected cases who had been sent for testing. Health officials announced that 46 samples had tested positive. The infected patients were then moved to isolation wards while the others were allowed to travel domestically to their hometowns.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has so far recorded 159 Coronavirus cases with three deaths and 39 recoveries.
Kabul provincial officials said the Emergency Committee for Prevention of COVID-19 will pay the utility bills for more than 350,000 families.
Mohammad Yaqoob Haidari, governor of Kabul and chairman of the Emergency Committee, told a press conference on Thursday, that the money for paying the electricity and water bills had been provided by the Emergency Committee and already deposited with the relevant authorities – Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat (DABS) for power and the Water Supply department.
The decision was made by the Emergency Committee members, Haidari added, after a large number of Kabul residents went to the Emergency Committee meetings and then approached the Kabul governor’s office. They all demanded an exemption from paying their electricity and water bills as they were facing a cash-crunch due to a closure of their employment places.
The 350,000 families make up about 50% of utility users in Kabul. Haidari stressed that the decision would benefit more than 1.5 million Kabul residents and bring them some fiscal relief.
Status of Coronavirus in Afghanistan
Afghanistan has 13,036 confirmed Coronavirus cases with 235 deaths and 1,209 recovered. Kabul province has 4,771 Coronavirus cases – the highest number of confirmed positive cases in Afghanistan. The rising level of new cases in Kabul has affected the lives of the residents who have been under quarantine since March 28.
There is country-wide concern about poor health facilities and people breaking lockdown. Officials have warned that restrictions would be seriously imposed with security officials stepping in, if needed.
Minister of Public Health Firuzuddin Firuz told health officials on Thursday that several Central Laboratory staff members had been fired for negligence.
New measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Bamiyan province include imposing a full lockdown in Saighan district and the mandatory wearing of masks in cities. The province currently has 60 confirmed cases of Coronavirus with one dead.
The Bamiyan governor’s office said they had decided to take measures to prevent the spread of Coronavirus in the province, to transfer the public health department’s infected patients from their homes to COVID-19 hospitals, and to provide an awareness plan.
According to the governor’s office, the public health department will increase its sampling rate as soon as possible and contact tracing will be taken seriously. The provincial police command has been told to strictly enforce quarantine in Bamiyan city and other major locations.
governor’s office noted the use of a face mask was mandatory for those entering the city and the bazaar, as well as the tourist and recreational areas of Bamiyan. Tourism facilities such as hotels and centres that provide services to tourists will remain closed.
The government of Bamiyan has asked domestic travellers and foreigners to refrain from visiting or asking for further information on tourism, and to post-pone recreational and non-essential travel to the province.
At least seven Afghan security force members have been killed in a Taliban attack at a local army checkpoint in Parwan province, local officials said. In the wake of the Taliban-initiated Eid ceasefire coming to an end, this is the first reported attack by the group.
A spokesperson for the Parwan governor, Wahida Shahkar, said the Taliban had attacked a local army checkpoint in a remote area of Seyagerd district at around 2 am on Thursday.
Shahkar added that one soldier had also been wounded in the Taliban attack, while two others had been captured and taken back.
The Taliban has not commented on the attacks.
The fate of the ceasefire
The three-day ceasefire was announced by the Taliban and accepted by the Afghan government on the occasion of Eid al-Fitr. Although it has ended, BBC Farsi cited sources within the Afghan government and the Taliban who said the unexpected ceasefire will continue, unofficially, for another week.
During the three days of the ceasefire, no attacks were carried out by the government forces, the Taliban, and the U.S.-led allied troops. However, reports have come in of small attacks yesterday that are being attributed to the Taliban. A large number of government forces have been killed.
However, neither side has officially announced the end of the ceasefire. At the same time, the Afghan security and defence forces are in a defensive mode, and no order has been issued to attack. The Eid ceasefire and its continuation has raised hopes for the success of the intra-Afghan peace process.
Senior representatives from the U.S., Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, convened a virtual meeting on Wednesday to talk about the situation in Afghanistan and work on issues of mutual political, economic, security and development concern. This was their first-ever trilateral meeting.
The meeting’s participants were US Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale, Afghan Acting Foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar, and Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov.
The three later issued a joint statement, where they pledged greater cooperation among themselves, and called on countries of the region and the broader international community “to promote the Afghanistan peace process and to support the goal of a durable political settlement preserving the gains of the past 18 years to end the war in that country.”
They also welcomed the power-sharing agreement between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, now Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah who is also chair of the High Council for National Reconciliation. Both these steps “should help move the peace process forward” the envoys said.
They also affirmed the urgency of starting the intra-Afghan negotiations to discuss a comprehensive ceasefire and a political roadmap for Afghanistan’s future. The statement said they “welcomed the historic Eid ceasefire and the decision by Afghan leadership this week to expedite the release of Taliban prisoners.” They also encouraged the continuation of the Eid ceasefire.
The statement noted, “the necessity of Afghanistan not returning to pre-ceasefire levels of violence and noted the urgency of eliminating civilian casualties in order to create an environment conducive for peace and delivery of essential life-saving services to fight the COVID-19 pandemic…”
They also “took note of the US-Afghanistan Joint Declaration and the US-Taliban agreement of February 29… to this end, the sacrifices of the Afghan National Security Forces and its international partners are greatly appreciated.”
Through the trilateral format, the participants intend to deepen cooperation by addressing cross-border security issues: “Developing security cooperation and intensifying joint efforts to combat cross-border threats along the frontier between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, and to address issues such as terrorism, drug and precursor trafficking, smuggling, illegal migration, human trafficking, and wildlife trafficking throughout the region.”
Improving connectivity: “Improving rail connectivity, including increasing the volume of freight transit traffic between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan and beyond, with a view to the uninterrupted delivery of food, essential goods, medications, especially in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, and improving regional transit integration… Discussing the construction of railways linking Uzbekistan with ports in Pakistan and beyond, in particular, discussion of the feasibility of construction of railways along the Mazar-e-Sharif-Herat-Bahramcha and Mazar-e-Sharif-Kabul-Torkham routes.”
Promoting trade: “… between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan by reviewing and improving legal frameworks, policy reforms, sharing of information, use of appropriate technology, risk management, investment in infrastructure and human resources and removing constraints and bottlenecks, including through the development of the Free Economic Zone at the Termez border crossing.”
Supporting regional energy projects: “… such as CASA-1000 (the Central Asia South Asia Electricity Transmission and Trade Project), Central Asia Regional Electricity Market (CAREM), multi-lateral development bank electricity transmission projects, the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Pipeline, and the construction of the 500 kilovolt Surkhan-Puli-Khumri (Khoja-Alvan) power transmission line.”
The statement also mentioned that one of the important things they wanted to explore were ways to mitigate the consequences of COVID-19 on food security. They reaffirmed their goal of promoting women’s equality and economic empowerment so that women can serve as drivers of the response to and recovery from the impacts COVID-19.
Other issues covered at the meeting were expanding people-to-people military exchanges, and humanitarian engagement to address future pandemics and natural disasters.
They promised to establish a working group to implement the decisions made at the trilateral summit.
The NATO-led Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan has upgraded its COVID-19 testing facilities with the addition of a new GeneXpert 16 COVID-19 testing laboratory, along with three technicians. This will lead to quicker test results, limit the spread of the disease, and lead to prompt medical action for the infected person.
NATO began testing Coronavirus samples on April 23. Before that, samples had to be sent outside Afghanistan for analysis, leading to more than a week’s lag due to travel restrictions.
The NATO Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) also delivered a (Thermo Fisher) TaqPath COVID-19 Combo Kit, six BioFire machines, and four additional GeneXpert machines. Testing is now available for all personnel serving under the 38-nation mission, including service-members, civilians, contractors and Afghan workers living on Resolute Support bases.
The funds for the upgradation were provided by Austria, Norway and the U.S.