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Taliban talks: Dialogue and violence can’t go together

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Dialogue and violence cannot go hand in hand. The first cardinal principle of ‘peace negotiations’ is an unconditional ceasefire. That is how the two warring parties build trust, bury the hatchet and make peace with each other. You cannot extend an olive branch and point the barrel of gun at the same time. That renders the whole exercise futile.

Over the past few weeks, Afghan Taliban has been actively involved in so-called ‘peace talks’ with the US government, even though the group has intransigently refused to engage with the Ashraf Ghani government in Kabul, calling it a “puppet government”. What makes the US government a credible ‘stakeholder’ in this whole peace exercise is something only the Taliban leadership can explain.

US government recently appointed seasoned diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad as its ‘peace emissary’ to facilitate talks with the insurgent group. According to reports, he held first round of talks with the group, which however did not yield anything except a few handshakes. Before Khalilzad, a few senior Trump administration officials had held secret parleys with representatives from Taliban’s political office in Doha, during which Taliban were reportedly offered a role in Kabul government too, much to the chagrin of anti-Taliban political stalwarts in Afghanistan.

Not to be left behind, America’s traditional rival Russia has also jumped the bandwagon, offering to facilitate ‘peace talks’ between the Taliban and Afghan government. Pertinently, the present day Taliban leaders, backed by the US, had once fought against Russians in Afghanistan. How the political dynamics change is evident from the manner in which both the US and Russia are now playing ‘mediators’ between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

On Friday, Moscow hosted a landmark ‘peace’ conference on Afghanistan, which saw the participation of representatives from the Taliban, Afghan government and many regional countries. The ‘talks’ aimed at reviving the ‘peace dialogue’ after 17 years of mindless war is the first time Moscow has invited the Afghan Taliban to the table. The talks were scheduled to be held earlier but were postponed after the Afghan government refused to take part, saying the talks should be Afghan-led only.

The US government, which has been holding ‘peace talks’ with the insurgent group separately, is not in favor of Russia leading the initiative. That obviously hurts the ego of Uncle Sam. It is a different matter that the US government has already admitted defeat in the war-ravaged country after 18 years of wasted effort. And it is still a mystery whether the US is fighting the Taliban or fighting alongside the Taliban against the people of Afghanistan.

The US invasion of Afghanistan has not only destroyed the country but led to thousands of civilian casualties and incalculable collateral damage. The men they have been claiming to fight are now sitting across the table with them, while the poor and hapless people of Afghanistan continue to pay the heavy price of the war they didn’t ask for. It’s a dirty war and America’s biggest shame.

While the US and Russia hold ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban, the insurgent group continues to launch attacks on civilian population across the country. In the last few weeks, the group has again chosen the soft target – Hazara Shias – in multiple provinces. There has been a spate of attacks on Hazara Shias in Urzugan and Ghazni provinces, resulting in casualties and displacement of people.

In Ghazni, the twin districts of Jaghori and Malistan came under attack last week, and local inhabitants had to come out themselves to repel the attack in the absence of Afghan security forces. Afghan government has come under blistering criticism for failing to send reinforcements in time to thwart the Taliban offensive. Rohullah Yakobi, a researcher with Human Security Centre, who belongs to Jaghori, said hours after the multi-pronged attack on Jaghori, people were “resisting on their own” against a “well-armed terrorist group” and there was “no sign of support” from the Kabul government.

Till Sunday, all roads leading to Jaghori remained closed as the fighting raged on. People, according to a source, have taken shelter in mosques and makeshift tents far away from Hotqol – where around a dozen security personnel were killed couple of days ago.  Reports said that insurgents have ransacked and burned private properties in the area.

So, under these circumstances, it makes no sense why ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban should continue while they commit horrendous war crimes in Afghanistan? Why not call for a ceasefire before resuming talks? Why allow the insurgent group to negotiate from a position of strength? Do Afghan lives matter?

It appears, for the US government, Afghan lives don’t matter. As per latest reports, a notorious Taliban leader has been released by Pakistan at the request of the US apparently to give push to ‘peace efforts’, thereby putting Afghan lives at more risk.

It is just another political maneuver on part of the US to keep the pot boiling and to strengthen the invasion. That is precisely why these ‘peace talks’ are an exercise in futility and why they would produce no desirable results. Peaceful Afghanistan, it goes without saying, is not in America’s interest.

First published in our partner MNA

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South Asia

Accusations to Acknowledgement: The Battle of Article 63 A

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The weather is heating up. As the May is ending, Political temperatures are soaring. The fate regarding the country’s political and economic stability will be measured in the upcoming days. Earlier, PDM built momentum by taking on institutions. Maryam Nawaz raised the temperature by targeting key personalities and institutions. Allegations were bursting against the institutions in all dimensions. Today, we witness reversal of roles. Accusations have been outflowing in every Jalsa by PTI. But now suddenly, the “accusations” turned into “acknowledgment”. “Complaints” started transforming into “Compliments”. Is it the change of narrative? Is it another U-turn? Or is it the restoration of confidence in the institutions? Where will this chaos end?

The Supreme Court’s “decision” or as they say “opinion” or “binding” on Article 63 A has raised some pertinent questions on the status of CM Punjab election? In the interpretation of Article 63 A of the constitution, the Supreme court categorically condemns the practice of horse trading by calling it “a cancer afflicting the body politic”. Supreme Court in its decision of 3-2 rejected the vote count of these dissident members against the party directives. So the future of the Chief Executive of Punjab is now under threat because it is contrary to what happened in National Assembly. The political instability continues and the situation is messy.

In light of this verdict, Hamza has a support of 172 MPAs in Punjab assembly but at the same time, he also has 4 dissenting members which draws the figure to 168. Now further moving ahead, PTI and alliance also has a collective figure of 168 votes minus 21 dissenting members. The situation here in Punjab is way too complex now. A support of 186 members is required for a clear majority in Punjab assembly to formulate a government. This current Punjab government can either fall through a governor led vote of no confidence or a Supreme court order. The governor even has a right to dissolve the assembly with his discretionary powers according to Article 112 (2) of the constitution. Supreme Court has already made its decision on cross voting against Party fiat.  Now legal experts are interpreting the decision in their own dictionaries. What will happen in Punjab? What will happen on the federal level? Will there be an election call? If so, what will be the care taker setup? Will there be a fresh mandate? Who will make the hard economic decisions?  Lot needs to be answered in these crucial times.

From “My judges disappointed me” to “Thankyou Supreme Court”, a lot has happened and a lot is ready to take place. Islamabad is full of gossips, interpretations, whispers and predictions these days. There is something seething under this political turmoil. The Red zone is under a lot of pressure whether politically or economically. Pre – Elections, Elections and then Post elections, we have a lot of consequences of a lot of hard decisions. But hard decisions need to be taken. Question is who is ready to make the hard choices? Be Afraid!!

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The sizzling “Political Matrix”; What will happen now?

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Politics in Pakistan is unfortunately leaving scars that will fade away not that easily. Islamabad today is wrapped in thick political clouds since past few weeks. These last few weeks have altered all assumptions and calculations in the national political matrix.  While the political landscape today is sizzling with intensity, aggression and strain the economy is shattering every day.  Who is to blame for? What will happen now? And will sanity prevail?

The entire edifice of the “conspiracy mantra” which even made PTI commit violation of the constitution stands demolished today. It was one of the worst advices Imran khan could ever get from his party among the list of many others. Sadly he made his entire politics captive to this conspiracy myth.  But today no one questions them on the impact it had on our foreign policy. US today feels betrayed, Saudis not ready to give aid, Chinese worried about their stakes and it continues.  So diplomatically this conspiracy mantra has damaged Pakistan like anything.

Imran Khan’s followers see nothing wrong in what he says and what he does. They absolutely reject all the facts, all the logics and embrace the rhetoric which is fuelling more today with a greater intensity. Imran khan is leading this campaign more aggressively. Khan very well knows that bringing large crowds to Islamabad will have an impact only if there is some kind of aggression.  The leaders on different occasions already hinted towards an aggressive March. He very well realizes that the figure of 2.5 Million is unrealistic but keeping in view the size of Islamabad, 0.1 Million crowd will even be perceived as a bigger crowd. So can he force the early elections at this stage? How will the government react to it? For instance let’s accept this narrative that the pressure of crowd aids PTI in getting an early election call and PTI wins it. So now what next? How will you deal with the mighty US? The economy is already sinking. You need aid to feed it but no one is providing you that. Then how will you stop dollar from going above 200? How will you provide relief from the soaring fuel prices when you won’t have money for a subsidy even? Forget about one lakh jobs and 50 lakh houses.

From the past few weeks we haven’t heard any PTI leader telling any economic plan or any diplomatic plan to revive relations. How will you deal with the IFI’s, World Bank & IMF when they’re all US controlled and as per your narrative you won’t accept “Amreeka ki Ghulami” or USA’s dictatorship.

So now what options the present regime has? The government would of course like to stop this building dangerous momentum of “Azadi March”. They would not like any big clash in Islamabad which results in bigger mess and chaos. The PDM government also has a much bigger fish to deal with, the same sinking economy. They came into power with this narrative to fix economy as former Premiere was unable to do it.  The key cabinet members made more than two different official visits.  The instructions are coming from London today as a decisive power so who will run the government? Who will run the system? Will the IMF aid? What will be the upcoming budget about? This upcoming budget is a bigger risk for this government along with an already announced to Long march call. Khan has already played a dangerous narrative especially with the blame of another conspiracy being made about his Life.   

The stakes, the narrative and the politics of every party is at risk today.  But above that, Pakistan is at risk. The dread is in the air. The end of May will be heated ferociously in Islamabad, whether politically or meteorologically.

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Sri Lankan economic crisis and the China factor

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After the resignation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is the sole member of the United National Party (UNP), was sworn in as Sri Lankan Prime Minister on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Wickremesinghe will be holding the position of Sri Lankan PM for the sixth time. While the new Sri Lankan PM is a seasoned administrator, the task of restoring even a modicum of normalcy to the island nation’s economy, which is currently facing its worst economic crisis since its independence in 1948 seems to be a Herculean task (Wickremesinghe has clearly indicated, that his first task will be ensuring the supply of electricity, diesel and petrol to the people).

 The grave economic crisis, which has resulted in acute shortage of food and essential commodities have brought ordinary people on the roads and demonstrations have resulted in violence and loss of lives (the Sri Lankan President had to declare a state of emergency twice first last month and then earlier this month). There had been a growing clamor for the resignation by President Gottabaya Rajapaksa but Wickremesinghe was sworn in after the exit of Mahinda Rajapaksa (protests have been carrying on even after the swearing in of Wickremesinghe)

During his previous tenure, Wickremesinghe had tried to reduce Sri Lanka’s dependence upon China, and in his current tenure he will be compelled to do the same. He had also been critical of the previous government for not approaching the IMF for assistance (Wickremesinghe has been repeatedly accused of being pro-west and having neoliberal leanings by many of his political opponents).

It would be pertinent to point out, that the PM had also batted for a coordinated regional response, by SAARC vis-à-vis the covid19 pandemic. The new Sri Lankan PM has also been an ardent advocate of improving ties with India.

While it is true, that Sri Lanka finds itself in the current situation due to economic mismanagement and excessive dependence upon the tourism sector (which faced a severe setback as a result of covid 19), it is tough to overlook the level of debts piled vis-à-vis China, and the fact that the Island nation was following China’s model of economic growth with a focus on big ticket infrastructure projects.

Another South Asian nation — Pakistan which witnessed a change last month where Shehbaz Sharif took over as Prime Minister, replacing Imran Khan, also faces daunting economic challenges.  Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves were estimated to be a little over $ 10 billion on May 6, 2022 and the Pakistani Rupee fell to its all time low versus the US Dollar on Thursday, May 12, 2022. Shehbaz Sharif ever since taking over as PM has repeatedly reiterated the importance of Pakistan’s ties with China and the Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto in a conversation with his Chinese counterpart alluded to the same, with Pakistan’s Foreign office in a statement released after the conversation between Bhutto and Wang Yi said:

 “underscored his determination to inject fresh momentum in the bilateral strategic cooperative partnership and add new avenues to practical cooperation”.

 Yet, China has categorically said that it will not provide any financial assistance until Pakistan resumes the IMF aid program. Pakistan has been compelled to look at other alternatives such as Saudi Arabia and UAE, which have also said that without the revival of the IMF program aid will not be possible. Only recently, Chinese power companies functioning under the umbrella of the China Pakistan Economic corridor (CPEC) have threatened to shut down their operations if their dues (to the tune of 1.59 billion USD) are not cleared. China had also reacted very strongly to the terror attack on Karachi University in which three Chinese teachers lost their lives, this is the second such attack after 2021. China in recent years had also indicated to Pakistan, that it was not happy with the progress of the China Pakistan Economic (CPEC) project. The current government in Pakistan has repeatedly pointed to this fact.

One point which is abundantly clear from the economic crisis in Sri Lanka as well as the challenges which Pakistan is facing is that excessive dependence upon China has disastrous consequences in the long run. If one were to look at the case of South Asia, Bangladesh has been astute by not being excessively dependent upon China – it has maintained robust economic relations with India and Japan. Given the changing economic situation it is becoming increasingly important for developing countries, especially in South Asia, to join hands to confront the mounting challenges posed by excessive dependency upon China. US, Japan and western multilateral bodies and financial institutions need to find common ground and provide developing countries with an alternative economic narrative. It is also time for India along with other countries in the South Asian region to find common ground and focus on robust economic cooperation.

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