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Kashmir in geopolitical context

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The decision of the Indian authorities to abolish the special status of Jammu and Kashmir has caused a predictably angry reaction from Pakistan. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has signalled his country’s readiness to use “all means available”  to counteract such a “unilateral” move on the part of New Delhi. Also, a statemetn condemning the decision has been made by Beijing. According to Pakistani media, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, while in Islamabad, “stated that China would oppose any unilateral actions by India in Kashmir which could worsen the situation in the region.”  Later, amid reports of cancellation or postponement of the visits of high-ranking representatives of India and China to Beijing and New Delhi at the beginning of September, there appeared  media reports about the possiblity of relations between the two countries deteriorating “over the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.” What is happening in this region, which has been torn by geopolitical controversy for decades?

The territory of the former principality of Jammu and Kashmir has been an apple of discord between India and Pakistan ever since the end of the British colonial rule in 1947. Both countries claim full control over the region. Being in a state of war from the first days of independence, New Delhi and Islamabad have fought against one another four times; and three times over Kashmir. At present, India controls 45% of the historical territory of Jammu and Kashmir, where most of the population lives, and Pakistan – 35%. The remaining 20%, a barren and sparsely populated Aksaychin plateau, is under the control of the PRC. India considers Aksaychin an integral part of the historical region of Ladakh – the eastern part of Jammu and Kashmir, which is populated mainly by Buddhists. This gives India a reason for disputing it belonging to China. India also claims a territory in the north of Kashmir (northeast of Ladakh), which Pakistan transferred to the sovereignty of the PRC as part of the exchange of territories in accordance with the 1963 border treaty. What gives this region a particular importance is its role in the distribution of water resources of the Indus River basin, an important source of fresh water at the junction of the two most populated countries in the world, China and India, and  Pakistan as well. Most of Kashmir’s 12 million residents are Muslims. For more than 30 years, they have been fighting fierce battles against the policies of the central authorities of India which they say are aimed to restrict the autonomy of the region and weaken the positions of the Muslim majority. India accuses Pakistan of training, arming and sending militants to Kashmir.

On August 5th this year, the Indian authorities abolished the special autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and created two union territories within its borders – two administrative units that enjoy fewer rights than a state and are controlled from the center. Jammu and Kashmir is in the western part of the former state, and Ladakh – in the eastern. The decision was effectuated through the Indian Parliament, by annulling Article 370 of the Constitution, which bestowed a special status on Jammu and Kashmir. As a result, the union territory of Ladakh has lost its own legislative body. In addition, they have lifted a ban on the purchase of land in Jammu and Kashmir by residents of other states of India, which has been in force for decades.

The decisions in question have triggered mass protests from local Muslims. The Indian authorities have brought in extra military and police units, increasing their total number to almost 540 thousand. They have also been blocking mobile communications and the Internet. A curfew was announced in a number of areas on September 8th . According to media reports, thousands of protesters have been detained. Observers say, the decision on Kashmir is a “well-planned and well-prepared” step. However, they point out, the “redistribution” of power in favor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Javat Party (BJP), as well as measures encouraging the migration of Hindus to Kashmir, will surely encourage radical groups that have been fighting against India from the territory of Pakistan.

So drastic and unpredictable by their aftereffects, the moves taken by Narendra Modi can be accounted for by a whole range of internal and external factors that are closely intertwined. After the February 14 terrorist attack in the Jammu and Kashmir region of Pulwam, which became the bloodiest single-blow terrorist attack in the last 30 years, the issue of “foreign policy and national security” for the first time in Indian history became one of the features of the spring election campaign to elect new members of parliament. The retaliatory strike against Pakistan has become the predictable reaction of the Indian Prime Minister to “the Indian society’s demand of tough measures against the sponsors of terrorism.” Besides, in the midst of the election campaign, the prime minister helped to reverse the emerging tendency towards the strengthening of the positions of the party’s political opponents. The “power” measures contributed to the consolidation of voters around the prime minister and cemented the positions of the BJP in parliament. In the case of Kashmir, a number of observers see Modi’s measures as aimed to divert the attention of the Indian society from the worsening economic situation and rising unemployment.

Another factor is the long-nurtured plans of the Indian leadership to centralize the state and consolidate the country. Without this, as they say in the Indian establishment, it is impossible to upgrade and strengthen national might, including in international affairs. From the domestic point of view, these plans are designed to ensure the growth of Hindu national-religious identity. Without eliminating the only predominantly Muslim state, it is difficult to talk about the ultimate goal of the BJP and the forces supporting it – the proclamation of India as a Hindu nation. The strengthening of such tendencies in the Indian leadership will inevitably lead to tougher measures against Pakistan. Islamabad was quick to  condemn the decision to abolish the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, describing it as “a gross violation of international law and the rights of ordinary Kashmiris,” “and refused to recognize it as an internal affair of India.” Meanwhile, the military escalation that took place last February demonstrated how quickly the flames of war flare up between old enemies. Given the situation, there have sprung up more fears that a new Indian-Pakistani conflict could deteriorate into an exchange of nuclear strikes. However, according to realists, it is precisely the prospect of mutual nuclear destruction that should stop the two parties from allowing an “excessive” escalation of military conflict at the moment. And it will continue to keep them from going over the line in the future.

The interests of New Delhi and Islamabad clash not only in Kashmir, but also to the north of it – in Afghanistan. According to experts from the US Stratfor Center, US negotiations with Taliban, a movement banned in the Russian Federation, on prospects for the withdrawal of most of the American troops, potentially contribute to the strengthening of Pakistan’s geopolitical standing. A stronger position of New Delhi in Kashmir should become a counterbalance to a stronger position of Pakistan in Afghanistan and, as a result, should add to the consolidation of Islamabad’s resources in confrontation with India. In this respect, it seems that the “reformatting” of Kashmir appears yet another milestone in a series of steps demonstrating that India has a political will and intends to dictate its terms to the other side; including using its advantage in conventional weapons. At the same time, in case of failure of a new conventional military escalation with Pakistan, we will not talk about returning to the status quo, but about the deterioration of India’s position; and it will give a new impetus to the Pakistani policy of tacit approval of terrorist attacks on India.

The Chinese factor attaches a relatively new but significant reality to the Kashmir issue. In recent years, Beijing has become a major strategic ally of Islamabad. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which runs through the diputed territory of northern Kashmir, is key to the success of the Road and Belt Initiative.  It provides  alternative access route to the Indian Ocean, bypassing the potentially vulnerable to blockade waters of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. Finally, the dispute with New Delhi over the ownership of the Aksaychin Plateau, an area covering 42,685 km² located on the border of China, Pakistan and India, is also dragging Beijing into the territorial problems of Kashmir.

Meanwhile, China has an objective need, if not for full normalization, then for  stabilization of relations with India. First of all, Beijing is concerned about the potential participation of New Delhi in the creation of anti-Chinese coalitions in Asia. In the event of a new war between India and Pakistan, Beijing will find itself in a difficult position. By supporting Pakistan, China risks throwing India into the arms of the United States. Supporting New Delhi will jeopardize many of its strategic projects in South Asia and Eurasia as a whole, as the implementation of these projects largely depend  on the Pakistani port of Gwadar. In addition, it will set the stage for Islamabad’s return to the bosom of Washington. On top of all that, it would also be difficult for China to act as an intermediary for the parties involved, first of all, due to its “special” relations with Islamabad, which cause growing suspicion within the Indian elite.

Therefore, the decision to centralize power in the former Jammu and Kashmir was seen by a number of Indian experts quoted by Deutsche Welle as speaking of New Delhi’s  concern over the “growing presence” and influence of the PRC in Ladakh. It was also described as an intention to draw the attention of the metropolitan bureaucracy to the problems of the region. Beijing’s initial reaction to the decision of the Indian authorities was fairly harsh. On August 16th, China secured a discussion on Kashmir in the UN Security Council. But the discussion was held behind closed doors in the format of “consultations” in which the Security Council called on both sides to resolve problems through bilateral dialogue. Neither a formal meeting was convened nor an official statement was issued. A number of commentators classified the discussion as “lukewarm”, or neutral, by nature.

The intention of leading powers, as well as the entire international community, to avoid direct involvement in a long-standing and extremely complicated territorial dispute, clearly discourages the leadership of India and Pakistan. And China, even despite the actual threats against it from one of the members of the Indian Cabinet, was allowed to speak out in favor of resolving the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan “on a bilateral basis.” That de facto supports the status quo provided by the Indian-Pakistani Declaration of 1971, according to which, controversial issues in bilateral relations should be resolved solely between India and Pakistan, without involving other states.

New Delhi and Islamabad, while continuing to publicly exchange harsh statements and threats, are unofficially trying to enlist the support of Beijing, Moscow and Washington. However, the United States has said that its policy in the region remains intact. Washington has also given up on the initial idea of acting as an intermediary between India and Pakistan. Russia has supported New Delhi, reiterating its commitment to resolving the Kashmir problem in a bilateral Indian-Pakistani format. Pakistan’s traditional allies, including China, have distanced themselves from the Kashmir problem. China has formally accepted India’s assurances that its actions in Kashmir are not aimed against the interests of China. The tough diplomatic rhetoric between China and India in the first weeks after New Delhi’s decision to eliminate autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir were replaced by a search for ways to ease tensions in course of consultations among  middle-level officials. So far, there have been no reports of Beijing’s intention to disavow the Wuhan format and cancel a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to India which is scheduled for October this year.

Neither Moscow, nor Beijing, nor Washington, though for different reasons, can mediate between India and Pakistan. All three direct participants in the disputes over Kashmir are of tremendous importance for foreign policies of both Russia and the United States. Pakistan does not fully trust Russia, India does not trust China, while the United States does not enjoy the trust of either New Delhi, or Islamabad, or Beijing. And none of the external powers is interested in an escalation of the Indian-Pakistani conflict. Therefore, it is likely that, sooner or later, a compromise will be found, that is, a solution that will return the region to stability, whichever is possible under the current circumstances. But this compromise will likely leave everyone dissatisfied.

From our partner International Affairs

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South Asia

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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