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Afghan-owned peace process only solution to war in Afghanistan

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America’s top military commander in Afghanistan, John Nicholson, sent regional observers into a tizzy with his comments on Monday that the United States was ready to join direct negotiations with the Taliban. He later retracted his statement, apparently under pressure, saying his words were “mischaracterized.”

So what does the US actually want in Afghanistan? Is it in favor of direct talks with the Taliban or does it want the process to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned? Is Trump frantically looking for an escape route from the 17-year-old war that has been a complete disaster or he wants to inflict more misery on the poor, hapless, and war-weary Afghans?

Just a few days ago, on an unannounced trip to Kabul, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Trump administration was prepared to “support, facilitate and participate” in peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. However, he hastened to add that the process will be Afghan-led.

Did the position of US on Afghan peace process change so dramatically in less than a week or was Nicholson simply not aware of it when his tongue apparently slipped? “Our Secretary of State, Mr. Pompeo, has said that we, the United States, are ready to talk to the Taliban and discuss the role of international forces,” he said during a visit to southern province of Kandahar.

Taliban, who refuse to recognize the legitimacy of government in Kabul, have always insisted on holding direct deliberations with Washington. And Washington has insisted that the Afghan government should directly engage with the Taliban. Nicholson’s statement, which he said was ‘mischaracterized’,marks a significant shift in the US policy in Afghanistan. It shows respect to the Taliban leadership and disrespect to the elected government in Kabul.

As expected, a spokesperson for Taliban’s political office in Qatar was in a celebratory mood. “This is what we wanted and were waiting for – to sit with the US directly and discuss the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan” he was quoting saying. The group has repeatedly demanded lifting of travel embargo on Taliban leaders by UN and unconditional withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. So will the US-led coalition concede to the demand that foreign forces must withdraw from the battle-scarred country?

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who has faced blistering criticism at home and abroad for failing to contain violence, has been desperately wooing the Taliban to join Afghan-led and Afghan-owned talks. A breakthrough was expected when the two parties observed an unprecedented three-day ceasefire on the festival of Eid this year. But, all hopes were dashed when the insurgent group refused to extend the ceasefire and went back to the frontlines of war.

Ghani, however, has not given up. On Monday, in an interview with RFE/RL, he dismissed the Taliban’s rejection of his offer of peace talks, suggesting that the insurgent group can still be persuaded to come to the negotiating table. “It’s like when you ask someone’s hand in marriage and the family of the bride says no several times [before relenting],” said the economist-turned-president, sounding clearly over-optimistic. He strongly favors talks that are Afghan-led and Afghan-owned.

The government in Kabul, which depends heavily on the funding from its international partners, has been rendered weak and inefficient. Critics believe that the Ashraf Ghani government, which was formed as a result of power-sharing dealbrokered by then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014, does not take its own decisions. A shadow of Washington hangs overhead.

So, although Nicholson has retracted his statement, if the US actually plans to hold direct talks with the Taliban, the legitimacy of the Ashraf Ghani-led government in Kabul, which is already under fire, will be further eroded. The general sense in Afghanistan is that the peace process should be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned. Americans cannot talk to the Taliban on behalf of the people of Afghanistan.

Why Afghans cannot trust Americans is pretty clear. America has never been the well-wisher of Afghanistan. It invaded Afghanistan in 2001 not to overthrow the Taliban regime and bring peace to the war-torn country, but it basically sought to neutralize the masterminds of 9-11 attack, who the hawks in Washington believed were hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan. Then, on the pretext of ‘war against terrorism’, Americans turned Afghanistan into another Iraq, another killing field, another failed experiment. And the innocent blood continues to flow in the streets of Afghanistan.

Today, after 17 years of war and trillions of dollars, the government in Kabul controls 229 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, and the Taliban controls and yields influence in 59. The remaining 119 districts are contested, according the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). This is the legacy of America and its allies in Afghanistan.

But, importantly, the involvement of America in Afghanistan did not begin in 2001. They fought against Russians in Afghanistan in 1980s and played a key role in the birth of the Taliban. Most of the top-notch Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders were on the payroll of CIA before the tables turned.

Since 2001, Americans have been fighting against the same ‘warriors’ they once patronized. They did same in Iraq, supporting Saddam Hussain in all his horrendous war crimes and eventually getting him killed. They did exactly the same to Osama Bin Laden, who was once a close ally of CIA in Afghanistan.

So, the idea of America-led direct talks with the Taliban inspires no hope. The devil cannot be trusted. For the final political settlement, the peace process has to be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned and important regional players like India, Pakistan, Iran, Russia and China must be roped in. Otherwise, it is an exercise in futility.

First published in our partner MNA

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Bhashan Char Relocation: Bangladesh’s Effort Appreciated by UN

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Bhashan Char. Image source: dhakatribune.com

Bhashan Char, situated in the district of Noakhali, is one of the 75 islands of Bangladesh. To ease the pressure on the digested camps in Cox’s Bazar and to maintain law and order, Bangladesh has relocated about 18,500 Rohingya refugees from the overcrowded camps to the island since December last year. The Rohingya relocation plan to Bhashan Char aligns with the Bangladesh government’s all-encompassing efforts towards repatriation. The initial plan was to relocate 100,000 of the more than a million refugees from the clogged camps to the island. From the onset of the relocation process, the UN and some other human rights organizations criticized the decision pointing to remoteness and sustainability. UNHCR showed their concern over the island’s susceptibility to seasonal storm and flood. They proposed for a “technical assessment” of the Bhashan Char facilities.

An 18-member UN delegation visited Bhashan Char Island on March 17 this year to have a first-hand assessment of the housing facility for the Rohingya forcibly displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMNs). Shortly after the UN’s visit, a team with 10 diplomats including heads of missions of embassies and delegations from Turkey, the EU, US, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands also went to the island on April 3 to appraise the facilities. All the members of the technical team opined that they are ‘satisfied’ with the facilities in Bhashan Char. The experts of the UN told, they will hand over a 10-page report of their annotations and they have already submitted a two-page abridgment. On April 16, they released the two-page synopsis after a month of the visit.  After the three-day study of Bhashan Char by the UN delegates, they recommended the Bangladesh government to continue the relocation process to the island in a ‘phased manner’. The team twigged three points – education for Rohingya children, increasing heights of the embankments and better communication system. The Foreign Minister of Bangladesh A. K. Abdul Momen concerted to take the necessary measures to create a safe and secure environment for the Rohingya refugees until the repatriation takes place. The relocation is not the solution of the Rohingya crisis rather the over emphasis of the relocation and facilities inside Bangladesh is protracting the crisis and distracting the attention from the broader emphasis on the repatriation to Myanmar.

The UNHCR and other concerned parties should plan for a long run repatriation process. Repatriation is the only durable solution, not the relocation of the Rohingya refugees. For the time being, resettlement under the Asrayan-3 project is an ease for the FDMNs but in the long run the Rohingya crisis is going to turn as a tremendous threat for regional peace and stability. Besides, resentment in the host community in Bangladesh due to the scarce resources may emerge as a critical security and socio-economic concern for Bangladesh.  It is not new that the Rohingyas are repatriated in Myanmar during the Military rule. Around 20,000 Rohingya refugees were repatriated to Myanmar in the 2000s. The focus of the world community should be creating favourable conditions for the Rohingyas to return safely regardless who is in the power seat of Myanmar-civilian or military government. The UN should largely focus on repatriating the Rohingya refugees in a “phased manner”, let alone deciding their concern in the camps and the Bhashan Char. After the praiseworthy relocation plan, they should now concentrate on implementing speedy and durable repatriation. Proactive initiatives are essential from all walks for a safe and dignified return of the FDMNs. To be specific, the relocation is a part of the repatriation, not the solution of the problem. 

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Afghan peace options

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President Biden’s decision to withdraw unconditionally all foreign forces from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021 will leave behind an uncertain and genuine security concerns that ramifications will be born by Afghanistan as well as the region.

The Taliban seems least interested in peace talks with the Afghan government and appear determined to take control of the entire afghan government territory by force during post-withdrawal of American forces. Short of the total surrender, Afghan government has no possible influence to force the Taliban to prefer talks over violence. Resultantly, the apprehensions that Afghanistan could plunge into another civil war runs very high.

The consequences of yet another civil war will be deadly for Afghanistan and the whole region as well. Among the neighboring countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan will bear the severe burnt of an escalation of violence in particular. A civil war or possible Taliban takeover will surely upsurge and reinvigorate the Islamic militancy in Pakistan, thus threatening to lose the hard won gains made against militancy over the past decade.

The afghan and Pakistani Taliban, nevertheless, are the two sides of the same coin. Coming back to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan is surely emboldened and revives Pakistani Taliban and other militant outfits. Moreover, spread of violence not only reduce all chances of repatriation of refugees but possibly increase the inflow of refugees from Afghanistan to Pakistan.

Furthermore, worsening of the security situation in Afghanistan will jeopardize the prospects of  trade, foreign investment and economic development initiatives such as china-Pakistan economic corridor. The chances of Gawadar and Karachi port to become a transit trade route for the region and link the energy rich region of central asia will become bleak until a sustainable peace and stability is achieved in Afghanistan.

It is against this background that the successful end of the intra-afghan talk is highly required for Pakistan, for its own sake.  Officially, Islamabad stated policy is to ensure the afghan-led and afghan-owned peace solution of the afghan conflict. It helped in bringing the Taliban on the negotiation table, which finally resulted in the signing of the Doha deal between US and Taliban. Further, Pakistan has time and again pressurized the Taliban to resume the dialogue. Moreover, Islamabad holds that, unlike in the past when it wanted a friendly regime in Kabul, it aims to develop a friendly and diplomatic relation whoever is on the power in Kabul.

Notwithstanding the stated policy and position of the Islamabad, the afghan government and the many in the US remains dubious of Pakistan’s commitment. Against these concerns, Islamabad categorically stated that it does not have complete control over the Taliban.

The success of the peace process will require coordination and cooperation among the all regional actors and the US and afghan government. Pakistan’s role is of an immense significance because of its past relation with the Taliban. There is no denying of the fact that Pakistan has not complete control over the Taliban. Despite, it has more leverage than the other actors in the region.

The Islamabad’s willingness to use its influence over the Taliban is her real test in the achievement of peace process. However, Pakistan has successfully used its leverage and brought the Taliban on negotiations table. Although, history is the testimony of the fact that mere cajoling won’t dissuade the Taliban from unleashing violence.

The prospects of intra-afghan talks will develop in success when the cajoling strategy is backed up by with credible threats of crackdown which may involve denial of safe heaven to militant leaders and their families, stopping medical treatment, and disruption of finance etc. on the other hand, strong arm tactics fail to bring the Taliban to the table, then Pakistan should make sure that its territory is not used to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

The afghan peace process has an opportunity for Pakistan to bury its hatchets with Afghanistan and start its diplomatic journey with a new vigor. While Kabul every time attach its failure with the Pakistan and shun away from its responsibility of providing peace to people of Afghanistan, it has a fair point about our pro Taliban afghan policy. Now that the US is leaving Afghanistan, it is high time that Pakistan bring forth a shift in its Afghanistan policy. Sustainable peace in Pakistan, especially Balochistan and ex-fata region is unlikely to achieve without Pakistan contributing to peace in Afghanistan.    

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Pakistani Fanatics and their Foreign Policy Overtures

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A prudent leader ought to have regard not only for present troubles but also for future ones. They must prepare with every energy because, when foreseen, it is easy to remedy them; but if you wait until they approach, the medicine is no longer in time. Through not having been foreseen, they have been permitted to grow in a way that everyone can see them, there is no longer a remedy. These words are famously attributed to 16th-century Italian Philosopher Machiavelli, advising the ruler about statecraft, in his Magnus Opus, The Prince.

A similar kind of ignorance and obliviousness against which Machiavelli was warning to the ruler of the state was reflected by the government of Imran Khan when protests by a radical religious organization (TLP) shook the country from 11-20 April. Previous to this latest episode, TLP has also staged various sit-in and violent protests by which they effectively froze all life in twin cities as well as in various cities of Punjab.

2017 Faizabad interchange protest was the zenith of its anarchical behavior. In that protest, TLP demanded the resignation of the law minister altering the oath declaration in the election bill 2017. Preceding, the court heard a plea on the stated matter. Justice Qazi Faiz Essa while hearing a plea on the case, remarked; “The ambitious leadership of a fledgling political party [TLP] projected itself as the defender of the Muslim faith. They provoked religious sentiment, stoked the flames of hatred, abused, resorted to violence, and destroyed property worth Rs.163 million.”  Another takeaway from the ruling of the Supreme Court goes like, “Protestors who obstruct people’s right to use roads and damage or destroy property must be proceeded against by the law and held accountable.”

Qazi Faiz Essa’s observation is enough to make a viewpoint on the organization. It is recommended that steps must be taken to curtail the reach of TLP. But allowing its leaders to further myth-spin bogus and inflammatory narratives, catch the attention of masses, effect normalcy in the country, and take hostage federal and provincial capitals many times after that shows sheer incapability on behalf of the state.

Moreover, the recent episode is also another criticism of religiosity interwoven within Pakistani society that has been exploited by opportunists to gain the support of the masses since its birth. TLP, an amalgamation of religio-political narrative, first appeared on the scene when it demanded the release of Mumtaz Qadri, the person who assassinated Governor Punjab Salman Taseer for criticizing blasphemy laws. After the execution of Qadri, Rizvi laid the foundation of Tehreek-E-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR) for the purpose to protect the Blasphemy laws of Pakistan under the banner of protecting Honor for Prophet (PBUH). TLP is the political wing of TLYR which emerged as the 5th most popular political group in the electoral race of 2018. These numbers are a barometer to show that the party has gained considerable support among the masses for its narrative

Though the rise of TLP is attributed to fault lines within the domestic political culture of Pakistan and cultural cleavages that exist in the society. The recent protests were the result of its activeness in international affairs relevant to its narrative. The group tried to dictate the foreign relations of Pakistan. In the latest episode, TLP took on the streets again and demanded severing diplomatic ties with France. In the short aftermaths of TLP protests, European Parliament has adopted a resolution calling the review of the GSP+ status of Pakistan for abuse of blasphemy laws and expressed deep concerns over prevailing anti-French sentiments.

To add insult to injury, all of this is happening at a time when Pakistan is looking to create a soft image for herself, seeking an effective role in regional and international organizations for political and economic benefits, lobbying to move out of FATF grey list, and initiating an international campaign to unmask Indian state-sponsored terrorism in Kashmir, etcetera. Unfortunately, this has seriously jeopardized our pursuit of national interests and can nullify progress.

Disrespect for the Holy Prophet (PBUH) is an issue sensitive to all Muslims but there is always a better way of doing things. The goal should be to stop disrespect and blasphemy and not forging further cause of hatred. On the other hand, the French president defended the acts as Freedom of Expression – a value so dear to the west – so even if Pakistan sends the French Ambassador back and suffers all the losses, is there any assurance for improvement in a situation regarding blasphemous content? What will be the next step of TLP if this continues? What will be the alternatives for Pakistan after that? Surely, this calls for some reflection on self-proclaimed defenders of religion. Government, on its part, must opt for softer and diplomatic ways in reaching out to France and making them realize the severity of the issue for Muslims.

To sum up, State ought not to be bogged down by religious pressure groups and fanatics like TLP for the reason being that they have not understood long-term national interests. Pledging to Khadim Rizvi on moving the parliament about French ambassador was never a wise act. One should have been vigilant enough to access the Omens. Furthermore, the government must impart this to such groups that they must not test the nerves of the state. It is in the interest of the state as well as government to not let things slip out of hand and go this further hereafter where one more episode similar to this makes international isolation inevitable.

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