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Taliban lifts ban on WHO vaccine operations in occupied Afghan territories

Girl receiving oral polio vaccine (CDC Global/Flickr)
September 26, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Taliban militants in Afghanistan have lifted a ban on World Health Organization (WHO) activities in areas they control, another apparent move by the extremist group to improve their image following the collapse of peace talks with the United States.

The move announced on September 25 reversed a decision made in April when the extremist group barred the WHO and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) from operating in its occupied territories, accusing the groups of carrying out “suspicious” activities associated with polio-vaccination campaigns.

“After realizing its shortcomings and following constant contact and meetings with our representatives, the WHO received permission for their activities,” Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, said in a statement.

The ban had threatened to intensify a major humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, one of three countries in the world where the disease is endemic.

The Taliban on September 15 revoked its ban on the ICRC and restored its guarantee for the security of Red Cross staff doing humanitarian work in Afghanistan, but it did not mention the WHO.

At the time, Schaerer Juan-Pedro, who leads the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan, wrote on Twitter that “we welcome the acknowledgment of our humanitarian principles and renewal of security guarantees to enable us [to] work in Afghanistan.”

In its September 25 statement, the Taliban offered a guarantee of safety for WHO staff. But the group also insisted that the WHO conduct only health-related work, get the extremists’ permission before hiring workers, and carry out vaccine campaigns only in health centers.

The UN health agency did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.

The Taliban controls or is active in more than half of Afghanistan’s 410 districts.

The Western-backed central government in Kabul is battling the resurgent Taliban for control of the country.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, has conducted at least nine rounds of talks in Qatar with the Taliban, which has so far refused to negotiate directly with the government in Kabul, calling them “puppets.”

Khalilzad reported that he had reached an agreement in principle with the Taliban in which Washington would pull out troops and the militants would promise to break with Al-Qaeda and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for terrorists.

However, the peace talks collapsed in early September after President Donald Trump cited an attack that killed an American soldier as his reason for calling off negotiations.

Trump proclaimed the negotiations “dead” and he scrapped planned secret talks with the group at Camp David.

The Taliban on September 18 said “doors are open” to resuming talks with the United States despite continuing violence ahead of a presidential election on September 28.

The Taliban’s chief negotiator, Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, made the statement after two recent attacks claimed by the militants killed at least 48 people in Afghanistan.