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Joining the global protest fray: Islamists march on the Pakistani capital

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Pakistan, long viewed as an incubator of religious militancy, is gearing up for a battle over the future of the country’s notorious madrassas, religious seminaries accused of breeding radicalism.

Islamist-led protests also threaten to be a fight for the future of the government of prime minister Imran Khan.

The stakes for both the government and multiple Islamist and opposition parties and groups are high.

Pakistan earlier this month evaded blacklisting by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international anti-money laundering and terrorism finance watchdog, but only by the skin of its teeth.

Maintaining Pakistan on it grey list since June of last year, FATF warned the South Asian nation that it would be blacklisted if it failed to fully implement an agreed plan to halt the flow of funds to militant groups by February of next year when the watchdog holds its next meeting.

The warning was reinforced by a statement by FATF’s Chinese president, Xiangmin Liu. China has long shielded Pakistan from blacklisting.

“Pakistan needs to do more and faster. Pakistan’s failure to fulfil FATF global standards is an issue that we take very seriously. If by February 2020, Pakistan doesn’t make significant progress, it will be put on the blacklist.” Mr. Xiangmin said.

Pakistani officials acknowledged that Mr. Xiangmin’s comment underlined the seriousness of their country’s predicament but said it would serve as an incentive to push forward.

That is likely to energize Islamist opposition to Pakistani efforts to comply with FATF demands that would impose strict oversight on their funding and financing of social and cultural activities, including the operation of tens of thousands of religious seminaries.

A five-party Islamist coalition that demands “true Islamization” and the establishment of shariah law, led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, the 66-year old head of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam and a former member of parliament, organized a countrywide march scheduled to converge on the capital Islamabad on October 31.

Mr., Rehman said the march of up to one million people was a declaration of “war” against Mr. Khan’s government. He demanded the government’s resignation. His protest is likely to secure a degree of support from other major opposition parties like the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

With government efforts to engage the opposition in talks to fend off the march on Islamabad going nowhere, both Pakistani security forces and stick-wielding Islamist volunteers clad in yellow uniform-like garb have been preparing for the march. Security forces have virtually sealed off Islamabad’s government district.

The government is also considering closing roads leading to the capital and banning media coverage.

Pakistani media reported that authorities were also contemplating digging ditches along footpaths leading to Islamabad to prevent protesters from circumventing roadblocks by foot.

The Islamists were further energized by a controversial meeting last month on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly between Mr. Khan and George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist behind the Open Society Foundation.  The foundation was banned from Pakistan in late 2017 as part of a crackdown on non-governmental organizations.

Mr. Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew who survived the Holocaust, and the foundation are globally in the bull’s eye of populist, ultra-nationalist and militant religious opposition to what they term ‘globalists’ and ‘cosmopolitans.’

The attacks, like in the case of the Islamist coalition in Pakistan as well as Hungarian prime minister Victor Orban and other nationalist and far-right forces, often take on anti-Semitic connotations.

Mr. Orban, who studied on a scholarship provided by Mr. Soros’ philanthropy, has charged the billionaire with secretly plotting to flood Hungary with migrants and destroy it as a nation.

Mr. Rehman, accusing Mr. Khan of being a “Jewish agent,” was particularly irked by the fact that the prime minister was believed to have asked Mr. Soros to assist in reforming Pakistani madrassas in a bid to counter radicalization and ensure that the seminaries adopt curricula approved by the ministry of education.

Greater government control of the seminaries would substantially weaken the significant street power of Islamist parties that often fare poorly in elections.

The emerging power struggle between Mr. Khan and the Islamists is in many ways an effort by the Islamists to force the military that long supported them to choose between them and the prime minister.

Mr. Khan is believed to have had military support in the electoral campaign that brought the former cricket player to office on a promise to end corruption and improve living standards.

Instead, a persistent economic crisis forced Mr. Khan to agree to a US$6 billion bailout by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that involves stark austerity measures.

The Islamists ability to march on Islamabad has some analysts suggesting that they would not be able to do so without at least a military nod.

Whatever the case, the march could not come at a more awkward moment for Mr, Khan.

Mr. Rehman hopes to capitalize on popular discontent as Pakistan struggles to overcome the economic crisis and seems unable to garner substantial international and Muslim support in condemning India’s withdrawal of the disputed area of Kashmir’s autonomy.

Earlier this week, police in Islamabad employed water cannons to disperse teachers protesting the fact that they had not been paid for months.

Complicating affairs is the fact that solving the economic crisis, confronting India in the dispute about Kashmir and meeting FATF’s demands are all intertwined.

Militants and others have degrees of financial manoeuvrability because much of the Pakistani economy remains unrecorded. In addition, despite crackdowns, various militant groups like Jamaat-ud-Dawa and Jaish-e-Mohammed remain useful proxies in battles over Kashmir. All of which mitigates against full compliance with FATF’s demands.

That is the murky playground in which Mr. Rehman and his Islamist alliance is seeking to stir the pot.

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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South Asia

Kashmir burns as lockdown continues

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The valley is on fire again, and it is engulfing the whole region. It is not just about Pakistan or India but the onus remains on the world, every person, every country, and every individual as Kashmir suffers from these flames.

It is burning everywhere. The dispute of Pakistan-India is not new. It has elevated from its dormant levels. From the disruption of peace-talks to election fueled border skirmishes, every action and every other effort in the region is worsening the situation.

Time has stood still. It has stopped healing wounds and only the lacerations have increased. As the lockdown persists, the agony persists and continues to darken the skies.

The cries of innocent Kashmiris (nine million of them) scream on the loss of their loved ones. The arrests under the Public safety Act (PSA) has demeaned its meaning in Kashmiri eyes and in the eyes of the world. Everyone arrested under this act have gone under detention without trial for a maximum of two years. As absurd it sounds, the trauma is more horrific.

And all of this began with the passing of Article 370. And it has raised many questions in the minds of the people living in these areas

Voted by the majority of Indian parliament members, that is,351 votes in favor and only 72 against, on 5th of August. The timing, the stunts being played by the restraining government are to be questioned. Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has claimed to normalize the abnormal situation in the state of Jammu Kashmir. But the truth cannot be further from this. In the six months since, the state could not have destabilized more had Pakistan directly intervened. At its lowest ebb of the past 40 years, the situation needs to be normalized.

And in this manner Modi and the current Indian government have set the template for every dictatorial regime. Arrest all possible voices of a region, cut all communications, blockade the region and you are on your way.

Internet, tele-communication and any sort of media coverage was limited to say the least. As millions suffered badly with each passing day of the curfew. The valley burnt and there were no witnesses as a complete lockdown continued as the government tried to normalize the state.

But the images of the valley made their way out and the stories they tell do not need much interpretation. They support their tales without much context. It will be wrong to assume their context but there was no one to state it. Such was the stranglehold of the government. And this was in stark contrast to what was aimed at.

To revive Kashmir’s economy and make it come at par to rest of the country, a lot of different directions were available. So why mess with the hornets nest.

The necessary steps that Modi’s government had to take were promote local governance and encourage new investment plans in the state. Outdated plans had to be set aside and a renewed focus on ones that bring the state to the forefront after lagging behind rest of India for so many years.

What Mr. Modi does is anyone’s guess. After all, he has been the face of RSS backed BJP known for its neo-Nazi politics. The great face of secular India maligned by the idiosyncratic visions of a deranged lunatics.

And it has not played out well in Kashmir. The state’s lack of governance has had a detrimental impact on its development and the current legislature change will not help its case. All these measures were strongly criticized by the international media and on political forums.

The need to stabilize the region of Indian occupied Kashmir becomes very frequent question in the minds who follow the news update on the region. For Pakistan and India, the claim of Kashmir could not be more skeptical than in current situation. And impact current affairs situations in the geography.

From America taking out its soldiers from Afghanistan, to unrest in Iran and middle-east. The noisy neighbors and Kashmir issue impacts everyone. And as we learn from Soviet retreat from Afghanistan and its ensuring unrest, South Asia is not going to stabilize for some time. And Kashmir will be the talking point.

Wisdom would suggest that this issue should be decided sooner rather than later. Even if India’s claim of Kashmir being an unresolved matter of India, it should be resolved at the earliest. This has to be done some day, and with American troops leaving Afghanistan, doing it before will be a good time.

The freedom fighters have been engaged in Afghanistan for the better part of two decades and the focus will return on Kashmir. The suffering of millions of Muslims cannot be overlooked and the region will not be able to stabilize. It is in the best interests of all parties involved, especially India.

On the other side of the border, Pakistan is watching eagerly and getting support for its international claims. Peace talks have been proposed and they would mutually benefit both the countries and stabilize the region. But no movement has been seen on this front. Both Islamabad and Delhi are far from sitting across each other.

Pakistan itself has unilaterally changed the structure of Azad Kashmir government. And they did it by changing the status of the Gilgit Baltistan and Azad Kashmir territories last year. Any kind of the unrest in the Kashmir state has a direct effect on the Azad Kashmir.

And Pakistan cannot keep a blind eye on a region as close as the Indian Kashmir.It has openly talked about freedom of Kashmir from India and demands from the world to support its rights. And as Pakistan supports the Kashmir issue on all forums indiscriminately, the pressure is piling on Delhi.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced solidarity with Kashmir. His government is taking the issue to every forum possible including the human rights forums in United Nations (UN).Islamabad knows the significance of this period and has highlighted the violations happening under Article 370.Pakistan’s support Kashmir is firm and is not budging.

As the issue takes rage, other countries also got involved in it as sitting back and ignoring the matter is out of question.

The United States (US) senate committee on foreign relations has called to bring an end to this type of “humanitarian crisis” in Kashmir. Even Donald Trump has offered to support in any way to solve this “complex issue”.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping has shared that he is personally keeping abreast with the situation in Kashmir and would “support Pakistan in issues related to its core interests.”Xi, however, added that both India and Pakistan should resolve the dispute through peaceful dialogue.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan took up the issue in the UN General Assembly. He called to resolve it through peace dialogues as they ensure the safety, equity and happiness of the people of the region rather thana rmed collisions.

Even Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom stated that the people of Kashmir “must be included” in decisions concerning their future.

Decades have passed and there is a dire need to resolve this issue as the time flies it brings more anger in the residents. Open dialogues area solution which is in the best interest of Kashmiri people. Other repercussions are hard to fathom and difficult to digest.

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How Internal Political Instability Risks Threatening Pakistan’s International Commitments

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Dharna (Mass sit-ins) politics in Pakistan is not a new phenomenon as it has happened several times by various political parties and other entities. Yet, it is the “timing of such Dharnas” that is the most important thing for the success and failure of such methods when pressurizing governments. Currently Pakistan faces numerous problems ranging from an unstable economy, terrorism, staunch opposition from other major political parties such as the PML (N) and PPP, the Kashmir issue, the Afghanistan matter and mounting Western pressure regarding CPEC.  Any misadventure created by a Dharna or any other issue could cost the present government a heavy price in the form of regional commitments considering the current situation of the country.

Recently Bilawal Bhutto announced a Dharna to be held in March in addition to the one planned by Fazul Rehman this month. Both parties through Dharna politics want to pressurize the incumbent government via politicizing the widespread inflation plaguing the Pakistani economy. They also aimed to further build on how Fazul Rehman through his previous Dharna the previous year had tried to pressurize the Imran Khan government along similar lines. One of his top demands then was calling for a re-election because he considered the election of July 2018 rigged. This demand was favored by wide swathes of the opposition because of their resentments against the existing government and its policies.

As is the current situation within Pakistan is already unstable because of various problems. The most pressing being Western pressure being applied through the FATF and IMF in key development projects such as CPEC. Under the current circumstances, the government cannot afford any kind of strike or resentment by political parties which can diminish its image at the national as well as global levels.

This is apparent in how, the United States and India through the FATF and other means have been pressurizing Pakistan on the pretext of clamping down on money laundering which is allegedly being used by various terrorist organizations within Pakistan. In this regard, any kind of trouble generated within the country through Dharna politics or any other means would lead to the country gaining further unfavorable international attention. The resulting political instability could further bring Pakistan closer to being placed on the FATF black-list. If that happens then Pakistan would suffer immensely giving birth to a whole host of new political and socio-economic restrictions for the whole nation.

According to the present government, it has already been struggling to control the list of demands given by the FATF to avoid being put on the blacklist. This was evident in the recent visit by Imran Khan and the Army Chief to the US where a whole range of issues were clarified with the US government. These included the internal situation within Pakistan along with other regional concerns such as terrorism, the Afghan peace process, the Kashmir dispute and Chinese involvement through CPEC. Moreover, the statement by American president Donald Trump should be taken seriously by the present government that America with the cooperation of various nations will protect human rights violations throughout the world and fight against radical Islamic terrorism. There are many precedents where America has been intervening within various regions of the world under the pretext of protecting human rights and eradicating terrorism.

In addition, there is no denying that India wants to exploit the situation further by projecting the Pakistani state as the mother of terrorism at multiple regional and global forums. There can be various motives behind this move in which the Kashmir issue and RSS ideology hold immense importance. It is widely believed that PM Narendra Modi wants to divert the attention of Pakistan as well as other regional and global forums from the atrocities and human rights violations taking place in Jammu and Kashmir.

In this regard, Imran Khan has been trying his best to halt Dharna politics through multiple strategies by calling for political unity to help alleviate the current difficult situation in the country. This for instance has been evident in his attempts to prioritize the threat from India regarding the Kashmir issue well as India’s designs to portray Islamabad as a terrorist state, above the internal politics being waged within Pakistan. Such concerns have made the situation of the country considerably sensitive hence the government has to behave and act sensibly to control the emerging situation. If such issues are not going to be solved skillfully and efficiently, then the entire nation is likely to bear the consequences and repercussions of the troubles generated through such internal instability.

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India’s Extended Indo-Pacific’ and Enhanced Cooperation with the European Union

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The Indo-Pacific has emerged as a new strategic theatre in the 21st century. In this geopolitical construct, India occupies a prime place and it has provided the country with a platform to project its power and influence beyond the traditional South Asian region. Besides, it facilitates India to move up in the ladder in the international power configuration. It was a natural extension of India’s Look-East policy launched in the early years of the post-Cold War era to integrate the Indian economy with the East Asian economic dynamism and lately it has been extended into the strategic domain as India’s strategic relationship with fellow democratic countries in the region grew stronger. India is now an original member of almost all regional security mechanisms of the region. This has been a major shift in the approach of regional countries because in the past India was excluded from the Asia-Pacific construct and was not considered a part of the region, politically and economically.

India embraced the Indo-Pacific construct despite it being an American initiative for widening its hub and spoke network beyond its traditional alliance system and bring India into the new security architecture under the US leadership. The US has enthusiastically supported the growth of India-Japan strategic cooperation, which formed the basis of the Indo-Pacific construct. It has resulted in India’s increasing strategic engagement with the Pacific littoral countries and enhancing India’s profile on security issues in the region. The formation of the quadrilateral security dialogue (quad) mechanism is the culmination of the idea that major powers take more responsibility to preserve peace and stability in the region.

A major reason for India’s interest in the Indo-Pacific construct has been the pre-eminent role that other countries have accorded to India in the Indian Ocean region (IOR). Such recognition by other major powers is a key indicator in judging India’s status in the larger international power configuration. At the same time, India believes that partnering with the US, especially in the Indo-Pacific construct would help it acquire advanced defense technology necessary to counter the challenges emanating from its

traditional rivals such as Pakistan and China. However, India’s enthusiasm in strengthening the quad and treating the Indo-Pacific framework as a beneficial geopolitical sphere is diminishing. Instead, India’s Indo-Pacific strategy now focuses on to the western part of the Indian Ocean.

There are three main reasons for this change of attitude: firstly, for India, the existing Indo-Pacific is complex and security driven. The fundamental objective of free and open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) concept is to preserve rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, but it is inextricably linked to alliances and containment strategies, which India has never been a party to. Secondly, for New Delhi, the existing Indo-Pacific construct is characterised by Sino-American rivalry for regional dominance. India does not want to be entangled in this competition. India doesn’t want to be seen as against China as the construct itself is being touted as anti-China mechanism by China. Officially, New Delhi doesn’t consider that China’s increasing naval activities in the Indian Ocean is to contain India’s maneuverability in its backyard. India’s newly appointed first Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat has downplayed the concern raised by the naval fraternity that China’s increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean region is not against India but to protect China’s legitimate interest in the region.

New Delhi engages with both countries-albeit in varying degrees-but expects the US to remain as the most powerful nation in the Indo-Pacific. Similarly, New Delhi’ naval capability is not sufficiently enough to manage its security interests in both the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. The existing multilateral mechanism under the leadership of ASEAN supported by the US preponderant power could well preserve the rules based order in the Indo-Pacific.  And thirdly, strategically, the existing Indo-Pacific comprises eastern half of the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific but India considers it inclusive and more wider extending from the Americas coast to the African coast – call it ‘extended Indo-Pacific’, which include Russia, eastern coast of the Pacific , West Asia, and African coastal states. This will bring India’s traditional defence partner Russia into the construct and also it could dispel China’s concerns.

India’s ‘extended Indo-Pacific’. Source: Delhi Policy Group Indo-Pacific Monitor, Vol 1, No, 1, 2020

India’s ‘look-west’ policy and enhanced cooperation with the EU

India looks to avoid a spill-over effect of the US-China rivalry in the western Pacific into the Indian Ocean or a direct competition between the India and China. At the same time, Chinese increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean region is a great concern for India. To prevent China getting strategic influence in the Indian Ocean, India is building a coalition of littoral countries as well as enhancing its cooperation with the European Union. Britain, France and Germany have already shown their interests by raising their profile in the Indo-Pacific, with freedom of navigation operations. Since EU have already made its presence in the western part of the Indian Ocean by participating in the anti-piracy operation and doesn’t have any hegemonic ambition,  a strong naval cooperation between India and EU bodes well. Britain and France have legitimate stakeholder status in the Indian Ocean region and India’s defense partnership with both is also progressing well. 

Since US commitment to providing guarantee for regional security is diminishing, instead, the Trump administration demands regional countries to take more responsibility both financially as well as militarily, an India-EU strategic partnership would be able to preserve the rules-based order in the India Ocean region. India has now become a reliable strategic partner for the US in the Indian Ocean region so much so that US allies are also inclined to partnering with India. For India’s part, it is ready to cooperate with all major powers that have a legitimate interest in the Indian Ocean region. Under its ‘look-west’ initiative India has recently strengthened relations with countries of the western Indian Ocean which include island countries, African coastal states and West Asia.

The geo-economic situation of the western Indian Ocean region demands a close cooperation between EU countries and India. India has promulgated security and growth for all in the region (SAGAR) as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) targeting the western part of the Indian Ocean rim and islands with a leadership undertone. As an alternative for the ‘debt trap’ which the BRI has turned into, India has taken infrastructure projects both bilaterally and with a third party in the island nations and littoral countries which include Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (ASGC) with Japan. As of 2018, Chinese companies have participated in the construction and operation of a total of 42 ports in 34 countries under the Silk Road scheme, and between 2016 and 2017Chinese firms announced around US$20 billion-worth of investment in nine overseas ports. India cannot match with China’s financial muscle power so it requires economic cooperation with EU.

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