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Crisis in the Maldives: A geopolitical chess game

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The outcome of a power struggle in the Maldives that has sparked declaration of an emergency, military control of parliament, and arrests of senior figures, is likely to shape the geopolitical designs of China, India, the United States and Saudi Arabia at a strategic interface of the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea.

The struggle between authoritarian president Abdulla Yameen and exiled former president and onetime political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed, a staunch critic of Chinese and Saudi interests, has a direct bearing on the future of the two countries’ significant investment that has already reshaped the archipelago’s social and political life.

The struggle also involves Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the politician who served longest as the country’s leader, Mr. Gayoom’s son-in-law, Mohamed Nadheem, and senior figures in the judiciary, including Chief Justice Abdulla Saeed. All were detained last week on charges of corruption and attempting to overthrow the government.

Mr. Yameen, in what United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein dubbed an “all-out assault on democracy,” declared the state of emergency after the Supreme Court ordered the release from prison of opposition politicians and their retrial. The state emergency, gives the government sweeping powers to make arrests, search and seize property, and restrict freedom of assembly.

The court ruling appeared to enhance Mr. Nasheed’s chances of challenging Mr. Yameen in elections scheduled for later this year by giving the opposition a majority in the country’s legislative assembly.

Politics in the Maldives, a strategically located 820-kilometre-long chain of atolls with a population of 420,000 that is best known as a tourism hotspot threatened with demise by climate change, are convoluted. Mr. Gayoom is Mr. Yameen’s half-brother and opposed to the president together with Mr. Nasheed, who unseated Mr. Gayoom in the country’s first democratic elections in 2008.

Mr. Yameen, who came to power in 2013 in a disputed election that opponents say was rigged and has since been accused of eroding democracy, allowing Islamic militancy to flourish, cracking down on dissent and jailing opposition leaders, has been amenable to Chinese and Saudi interests that analysts believe could lead to the establishment of military bases in the archipelago.

China sees the islands as a node in its “string of pearls” – a row of ports on key trade and oil routes linking the Middle Kingdom to the Middle East – while for Saudi Arabia, the atolls also have the advantage of lying a straight three-hour shot from the coast of regional rival and arch-foe, Iran.

The possible building of Chinese and/or Saudi military bases in the Maldives would complement the independent development of both nations’ military outposts in Djibouti, an East African nation on a key energy export route at the mouth of the Red Sea.

They “want to have a base in the Maldives that would safeguard trade routes – their oil routes – to their new markets. To have strategic installations, infrastructure,” Mr. Nasheed charged last year.

The United States. through its Sri Lanka-based ambassador, and India have primarily sought to counter China’s growing influence by pressuring on Mr. Yameen to adhere to democratic principles. Mr. Nasheed was in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo when the state of emergency was declared and like incarcerated Judge Saeed, who was appointed by Mr. Nasheed, has maintained contact with Indian authorities.

Mr. Yameen’s election in 2013 derailed negotiations with the United States for a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), that would have tightened military cooperation with the Maldives and given the US military greater access to the archipelago. A return to power by Mr. Nasheed, who in 2009 became the Maldives’ first democratically elected president, would have likely revived the negotiations.

Mr. Yameen, in a further turn towards China, in 2016 withdrew the Maldives from the Commonwealth of Nations after the association of former British colonies threatened to suspend it for chipping away at democratic institutions.

Saudi Arabia sees its soft power in the Maldives as a way of convincing China it is the kingdom rather than Iran that is the key link in China’s Belt and Road initiative that aims to link Eurasia to the People’s Republic through Chinese-funded infrastructure.

Saudi Arabia, to lay the ground for the investment, has in recent years funded religious institutions in the Maldives and offered scholarships for students wanting to pursue religious studies at the kingdom’s ultra-conservative universities in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

The funding has pushed the Maldives towards greater intolerance and public piety. Public partying, mixed dancing and Western beach garb have become acceptable only within expensive tourist resorts.

The Maldives is, moreover, believed to have contributed more Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq on a per-capita basis than any other country that was not a party to the conflicts.

The Saudis, despite being bitterly opposed to the Islamic State, have had, according to Mr. Nasheed, “a good run of propagating their world view to the people of the Maldives and they’ve done that for the last three decades. They’ve now, I think, come to the view that they have enough sympathy to get a foothold.”

Messrs. Nasheed and Gayoom have urged India to intervene to force Mr. Yameen to release the judges and other political prisoners. Mr. Nasheed went a step further by calling on India to deploy a “physical presence” in the archipelago. India, which rarely intervenes in the affairs of foreign countries, helped put down an attempted coup in the Maldives in the 1980s.

In a statement, India advised Mr. Yameen to abide by the rule of law. “In the spirit of democracy and rule of law, it is imperative for all organs of the Government of Maldives to respect and abide by the order of the court,” the statement said.

The US State Department charged that “President Yameen has systematically alienated his coalition, jailed or exiled every major opposition political figure, deprived elected members of parliament of their right to represent their voters in the legislature, revised laws to erode human rights… and weakened the institutions of government.”

Mr. Yameen, backed by China and Saudi Arabia, and in the absence of more strident Indian and/or US action, is likely to maintain the upper hand. He appears to enjoy the support of his military and police despite the sacking of the police commission immediately after the declaration of the state of emergency. To drive the point home, state television showed pictures of military and police officers pledging to sacrifice their lives “in the defense of the lawful government.”

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Afghanistan between an Inclusive Government and Instability

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Source: Twitter

The political processes around Afghanistan persist in active development. Although the attention of the world media has fairly reduced, diplomatic activity regarding the Afghan issue does not decrease. Obviously, despite considerable pressure from the world powers, the leadership of the radical Taliban movement ruling Afghanistan still refused to create an inclusive government and continues its policy of tightening the regime. 

On the eve,  the former US special representative of Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, drew attention to the probable worth of the situation in the country. The diplomat did not rule out the possibility of a civil war in this country. In a recent interview, he called on the Taliban to respect the view of a significant part of society to prevent a new war. Apparently, the American diplomat is rather overstating the situation since the opposition to the Taliban, at least for now, does not have sufficient resource base and support for a full-scale confrontation with the radicals. However, Khalilzad’s statement indicates an increasing irritation towards the Taliban from the great powers.

An Indian diplomat and counsellor of the Permanent Representative of India to the UN, Madhu Sudan, also spoke on this matter earlier. He stated that to ensure Afghanistan’s economic stability and development, it is vital to create an inclusive government. The Indian representative called peace and security in Afghanistan the most important aspect of the global community and called on all countries to join efforts to achieve it. According to the diplomat, despite the changes in the political system of Afghanistan, India’s attitude towards its people has not changed. That is why New Delhi previously sent 50,000 tons of wheat, coronavirus vaccines, other medicines and convenience goods to Afghanistan as humanitarian aid. At the same time, the Indian side stresses the need to create an inclusive government in Afghanistan.

The significance of the presence of representatives of all ethnic and political groups in the government of Afghanistan is also stated in the Russian government. Thus, speaking at the CSTO summit in Armenia, the Russian president called for creating an inclusive government in Afghanistan. “The priority at this stage is to ensure the formation of a truly inclusive Afghan government, which will include representatives of all ethnic groups at the necessary level,” Vladimir Putin said. It should be noted that the CSTO summit was a failure and actually launched the processes for the final disintegration of this inefficient organization. In turn, Russia’s position in the post-Soviet space has weakened so much that we can discuss the impending loss of regional power status. Moscow is no longer a hegemon in the South Caucasus, Central Asia and the former USSR as a whole.

However, the Taliban’s policy is increasingly annoying in world capitals, especially in the Global West, India and Iran. Thus, these cases were previously discussed in a conversation between the Presidents of Tajikistan and France. Emomali Rahmon and Emmanuel Macron highlighted the need to develop joint approaches to preserve Afghanistan’s peace and stability. Both leaders also stressed the necessity for an inclusive government.

Meanwhile, all political messages addressed to Afghanistan were denied by the Taliban leadership. Thus, it was stated that “the arguments about the creation of an inclusive government by foreign states are interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan.” “The creation of the government and state institutions is a matter of domestic policy,” said deputy Taliban spokesman Billal Karimi. He called on the international community to abstain from interfering in his country’s internal affairs.

A particular setback is also kept in the struggle against the drug trade. Mohammad Masoud Zahidian, Deputy head of the Iranian Counter-Narcotics Headquarters, says drug trafficking from Afghanistan has risen. According to him, the cause for the growth in drug trafficking was the activation of the southern route (Pakistani) from Afghanistan. According to the official, in 2022, more than 220,000 hectares of agricultural land in Afghanistan were allocated for poppy, with 76% of these crops in the provinces bordering Iran. It should be mentioned that the southern route is one of the main logistics routes under the control of the Taliban and Pakistani security forces. This route passes through the southern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan and then the territory of Pakistan. It is known that Islamabad provides comprehensive assistance, sponsors and counsels the Taliban movement.

The tightening of the domestic policy of the Taliban is indicated by some strange and illogical laws that the Taliban have recently introduced. Thus, the Ministry of Prohibition of Evil and Coercion to the good of the Taliban banned listening to music, explaining that music damages the morality of young people and leads them astray. In a video published by the Ministry, a person introduced as a psychotherapist says that some words that cause inebriation are used in music. Taliban officials also say that listening to music causes heart disorders.

Thus, the situation in Afghanistan is staining. The support for the Taliban, provided by Pakistan, China and partly Russia, has failed. The policy of the leading Western countries is also not entirely clear, which actually left Afghanistan in a power vacuum, which led to an increase in the influence of the Taliban, Pakistan and China. Seemingly, the insight of this is slowly coming to the world capitals.

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The Taliban Finally Granted Permission to the Former President Karzai to leave Afghanistan

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Former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai. (Express photo by Nirupama Subramanian)

Based on the information, the former president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, was permitted to leave the country. At a time, when online meetings between Sohail Shaheen and American representatives are going on in connection with the start of intra-Afghan talks in Doha, The former president of the country, Hamid Karzai, was allowed to exit the country for the first time after August 15, 2021, when the Taliban took over. Nevertheless, it is not yet known when he will start his overseas trip, but his only purpose is to get preparation for the start of Intra-Afghan talks in Doha and to meet with American officials and foreign Afghan politicians. Since the end of October and the beginning of November, there are reports narrating that telephone calls are being made between President Hamid Karzai, and the US special representative for Afghanistan, Thomas West.

Besides, the persons are preparing for future negotiations, the re-established relationship between the former president Karzai and the CIA took place, when a CIA undercover intelligence officer met Karzai sometimes back, when he represented himself as an International media reporter. Sources suspect that the undercover agent interviewed the president under the auspices of a well-known German based Der Spiegel Magazine.

According to the information, former President Hamid Karzai will fly to Germany, while meeting with the CIA officials at the US Ramstein Air Base in Germany. Meantime, the former President Hamid Karzai will meet with some high-ranking officials of Germany and then have separate meetings with Western politicians and intelligence officers. Furthermore, after that, President Hamid Karzai will meet with the American ambassador to lay out the strategy for the potential negotiations.

 Currently, there is a lot of confusion in the Mandigak palace in Kandahar province, where Taliban Spiritual leader and the decision making hub located and it is said that there have been serious discrepancies  regarding allowing him to go abroad. However, Sheikh Haibatullah’s position is still neutral about his exit, while negotiating with his advisors to make a final decision in the upcoming days.

Nonetheless, there are no other specific differences regarding the permission. It is only the low-ranking Taliban fighters, who demand the precise judgement of the Taliban’s leader in this concern; In addition, some Taliban leaders are also unhappy about the whole process, especially the former members of the Quita Council of Taliban.

Now the ball is in the Taliban’s ground, whether they are ready to comply with the demands of the international community, by transferring the power to a transitional government or not, and to get along with the United States and get onboard the international community support. Definitely, it causes further splintering among Taliban groups and ISKP will use it as an opportunity to recruit Taliban fighters, while paving the way for regrouping in Khorasan Province the IS so-called territory.

The ISKP long before blamed Taliban for being ‘’ Rafeda’’, while simultaneously cooperating with the US, Russia, China and Iran for their political ambitions.  To conclude, the Afghan people will not accomplish a lasting peace and sustainable economic developments, since the country will turn into a new battle filed among countries, which have stake in Afghanistan.

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The Charisma and Chaos of Imran Khan

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PTI Chairman Imran Khan gestures at the march participants as his convoy arrives in Gujranwala on November 1, 2022. — Instagram

The chances of Imran Khan winning the elections of 2018 were quite murky. Despite his unparalleled fan base and populist rhetoric appeals to the young, and labor class of Pakistan, the legitimacy of his government is marred with allegations of fraud, rigging, and exploitation.

Some argue that his candidacy was a marketing tactic used by the ‘Establishment’ in Pakistan to form a government that is rather weak and dependent so that the ‘Establishment’ can continue its control over domestic security issues including the Nuclear escalation and relations with India.

But by and large, Khan won the elections.

Maybe it was the stardom attached to the name ‘Imran Khan’ and Pakistanis not wanting to confide in the same faces ruling them for centuries.

Maybe it was the mismanagement and violence that marred election day with unfathomable delays in result declaration in metropolis cities, coupled with post-poll manipulation.

Maybe it was the judicial-military nexus, that placed all the votes in the right places by not allowing voters to use their will during elections.

Maybe it was the 7 years-old narcotics case hearing moving forward against the stalwart of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, Hanif Abbasi, giving him a life sentence in a rare late-night session of court, four days ahead of the elections that effectively knocked PML-N out of the race.

But the deal was done and can’t be undone and Imran Khan became the Prime Minister of Pakistan, for better or worse.

Khan the Celebrity

Pakistani nationals were victims of the financial crisis, unemployed people, those who lost their homes, and who were in debt; these people felt like the two parties ruling Pakistan for centuries had destroyed their country’s economy.

Imran Khan, with his humongous stardom as an athlete and philanthropist, seemed like the only ‘Messiah’ that could save them from all the atrocities they were facing.

Though, a significant number of votes were cast in favor of PML-N but not in the places that would have locked the win. So Imran Khan, persuaded the angry Pakistanis, the youth, and the labor class who were fed up with being handed over in trade deals with other nations.

Khan, a socialite that he was, knew how to connect with these agitated masses. Their grievances were clear as a day and so he gave them pretty promises wrapped up in his vibrant rallies filled with catchy songs. His huge social media presence along with the ‘Naya Pakistan’ slogan further amplified his staunch.

But there lies a challenge as to why Khan became the top highlight of this era. To many who were tired of politicians filling their own pockets, and amid the corruption charges on Nawaz Sharif, Khan’s celebrity status, his colorful personality, his promise of a corruption-free Pakistan, and his unconventional ‘Don’t Panic’ attitude – all of this made Khan seem like the only option who would deliver a better life and nation and, if not that, then at least would be the eradicator of what Pakistan had become.

Khan the Totalitarian

The other side of the coin sees Imran Khan as a narcissist, self-centered, and power-hungry mogul. After achieving his eternal craving of becoming the Prime Minister, he hardly showed any respect for the institutions of the country. More often than not he refused to attend the sessions of Parliament, with his excuse being the presence of members of the opposition party whom he referred to as ‘Crooks’ and ‘Chors’ (thieves).

This resulted in laws, instead of passing through an ordinary law-making process, being passed through presidential ordinances, with very limited power. We can clearly say that these laws were passed without debate, consensus, and thorough examination, negating the very foundation of constitutional requirements.

Additionally, Khan likes to fabricate stories in his speeches, a lot. In this vein, he brings down any democratic provision that proves him wrong, including targeting political parties on concocted charges of corruption; sustained attacks on the media; undermining law authorities, even the Supreme Court is not exempted from his allegations.

Through the abrogation of rule of law, irresponsible remarks about institutions, and disdain toward democracy, Khan himself created a fragile parliamentary system, which then collapsed on him. Not only this, but he has fractured the already dwindling democracy of Pakistan into a whole new level.

Khan the Leader

Khan came onto the political scene when Pakistan was facing a volatile situation both at home and abroad, coupled with the tensions going on with the Americas, and the rampant inflation, he was still able to take some impressive measures. His work related to health, relief programs, house loans, the environment, entrepreneurship, and the COVID response is admirable.

In addition, his billion tree tsunami and the building of several small dams initiated an environment-friendly drive in the climate change-affected country. But was he able to deliver on the ‘Promises’ made to the nation? Absolutely Not.

Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the cabinet as the abrupt changes in the system dwindled the confidence of investors in Pakistan’s economic machinery. His careless handling of some important economic programs including the CPEC decelerated the capital influx that caused the GDP to drop considerably.

To top it all off, Pakistan, in 2021 dropped from 124th place to 140th place according to Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), leaving an ugly mark on Khan’s corruption eradication promises on which he has led the foundation of his political career. Maybe he should have abided by the agenda of progression in order to gear up his performance instead of getting involved in blame and shame politics.

Khan the funambulist

The important reason why Khan has a cult following in Pakistan is his unfiltered and raw opinions about topics like the Americas, and Afghanistan which he keeps casting in his speeches. And, the audience, mostly the social media-induced young generation eats it all up like a sweet concoction, without paying heed to the implications it will bring to the foreign policy of Pakistan.

Khan’s decision to appoint Usman Buzdar, an underqualified and inexperienced newcomer to a vital position in the key city of Punjab pretty much sums up his political foresight. Perhaps, the most interesting yet debatable contrivance of his regime is his relentless attitude toward the United States, no previous Prime Minister of Pakistan was able to say ‘Absolutely No’ to the US as it had many allies in the domestic political platform of Pakistan. This stance of Khan was admired a lot in the country, with the phrase being trending in Pakistan. But the remarks came with ramifications for Pakistan on the international forum. This whole scenario further makes people question his political sanity.

Imran Khan possesses all the characteristics of a populist leader and in Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Cas Mudde says: “Populists are dividers, not uniters” they split society into “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other.” True to this narration, Khan has divided the nation into two groups of ‘Evil and Good’ people, and the consequences are detrimental to the stability of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

Conclusion

To sum it all up, Imran Khan, despite his misgivings, his warts, his narcissism, and his unhinged political views, is still able to reach a class of people that have seen Pakistan erode for centuries and consider him the last hope for the country. But he certainly is not the best choice for democracy as his political understanding is ruined by his self-righteous approach. In this manner, he is no better than former US President Trump who incited his supporters to pass on the U.S. Capitol to forestall the peaceful transition of power after his electoral defeat. It is precise to say that Pakistan has fallen into a deep cauldron and only a Magic Wand can heal it at this point. Though Khan has not singularly created this cauldron, he most definitely is exploiting and feeding on it.

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