The face-saving exit of the US from its protracted fatigued involvement in the Afghan theatre, which cost the country $3 trillion and blood of 2400 soldiers, was refurbished as the US Taliban peace deal signed on 29th February in Doha. Congenitally inept to turn the tide of war in its favor through military might, a typical US resorted to diplomatic overtures in the form of peace talks granting concrete major concessions to those Taliban leaders, who are placed on the US’s and UN’s terror list. Under the deal, the US will reduce its military footprint of 14,000 troops to 8,300 within 135 days followed by the complete withdrawal of all the US and foreign troops within the next 14 months. The US has further bolstered the Taliban’s standing by agreeing to release 5000 political prisoners by 10th march, the first day of intra- Afghan talks, and promised to delist Taliban from the US and UN sanctions list that entail travel bans, assets freeze, and arms embargo.
In return, the US hopes that the Taliban abides by an unenforceable promise of not harboring terror outfits like ISIS and Al Qaeda that threaten the security of the US and its allies and start negotiating with the Afghan political leaders to reach a national accord for the future governing system. To naively believe that the Taliban will cut its umbilical connections with Al Qaeda will be a major strategic mis calculus, considering that the Taliban gambled on their tenuous hold on power for protecting Al Qaeda leader Bin Laden only to face the wrath of US invasion in 2001. Any anticipated vagaries in the equation of Al Qaeda -Taliban ties are elusive as the Sirajuddin led Haqqani network shares deep bonhomie with Al Qaeda and its leader Ayman al Zawahiri has shared bayat or allegiance to Taliban’s leader Habitullah Akhunzada. The two may well augment their joint military operations against their common enemy, the Islamic State of Khorasan, as the group has staged a deadly comeback in Kabul attacking a gathering of politicians and local populace commemorating the killing of an ethnic Hazara leader. Apart from that, the US outsourced its counter-terrorism operations to that Taliban who never proved any discernible evidence of officially drifting away from Al Qaeda. In the event of raining attacks from the US and coalition forces, these ties will further strengthen at the crest. Further Taliban’s leadership due to its decentralized governing structures, factionalism has limited capacity to control battlefield actions as their commanders hail from diverse geographical and tribal constituencies.
The US – Taliban agreement has overwhelming use of the prefix of “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan not recognized by the United States and Taliban” in a bid to not legitimize the Taliban. But this acted counterproductive, as the US might have officially conceded to Taliban’s authority or its role in the future political matrix of Afghanistan where it has asked Taliban to perform the government’s obligations of not issuing travel documents or providing refuge to those who endanger the security of the US and its allies. When just mainstreaming Taliban’s deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani was not enough, by offering him the editorial space in the venerable New York times, to whitewash Taliban’s barbaric self-righteous history of inflicting pain on the Afghans titled with the article “What we the Taliban want”, US without the concurrence of Afghan government, its principal ally, promised Taliban that their 5,000 fighters will walk free before the start of inta Afghan dialogue.
President Ghani, well cognizant, about how the release of these Taliban leaders might boost the Taliban’s fighting morale and military capabilities, refused to release them keeping in mind the harsh battlefield imbalance skewed in the favour of the Taliban. Perhaps in the wake of the political stalemate where his principal rival Abudllah Abdullah has discredited his victory in the principal elections thus enervating the prospect of the cohesive political front in negotiating with Taliban, he thought that prisoner card could have given the government a miniscule leverage when they negotiate political settlement with Taliban. Right after the signing of deal with the US , Taliban showed its true colors and issued directives to avoid hostilities against the US and foreign forces but to resume attacks on Afghan security forces which was met by a retaliatory response in the form of US airstrikes on Taliban.
As the US begins its withdrawal, Taliban will ramp up its operational tempo and pressure targeting the Afghan forces and even civilians which ironically wont be considered as the breach of the deal considering that Afghan lives are of less value and they will left on their own as the emphasis in the deal has only been given to the security of US and its allies. The risks of miscalculations run high for the Taliban as their strategy to increase skirmishes on the battlefield to retain the balance of power on ground can elevate the risk of reckless escalations, imperiling the lives of US forces. Such an event increases the probability that the US security establishment in the pursuit of their own security guarantees might think of leaving behind a residual intelligence and security presence which might well play out in the favour of Afghan government.
There is mention in the agreement that the US will act as a facilitator of intra afghan dialogue but if the Taiban- Afgan dialogue doesn’t lead to fruition of any sort of political arrangement within these 14 months , it wouldn’t have any impact on the US ‘s plan of phased withdrawal. This bears stark resemblance to the 1973 Paris Peace agreement when the US repackaged its military defeat against the North Vietnam Communist bloc as a peace deal leaving South Vietnam in the lurch leading to the fall of Saigon in 1975. With Trump’s administration’s abandonment of the Afghan government and the Syrian Kurds, the US rightfully championed Kissinger’s controversial statement that America has no permanent friends or enemies but only interest. While this is true for nearly every state in the world where realpolitik is the hallmark of any foreign policy, the US just proves it more explicitly and unabashedly than anyone else.
The fact that US had a timeline for its exit in the deal and didn’t push for an adherence or a strict timeline for a country wide ceasefire, which lays the groundwork for any neat peace agreements especially while dealing with non state thugs like Taliban says alot about much the US really cares for stable and prosperous future of Afghanistan. Before any peace talks, political will, systematic exchange of information on arms buildup , troops movement, establishment of observation posts , peace keeping forces, and opening of diplomatic channels for negotiations and most important ceasefire monitoring mechanisms form the fulcrum of any confidence building measures. But in this scenario , a seven day reduction in violence pact was the only litmus test the Taliban had to pass through to negotiate for the departure of foreign forces.
We can draw parallels with that of the developments in Idlib where the Sochi partners of Russia and Turkey respectively announced ceasefire in Idlib, the last rebel held stronghold, just to break them initiating revealing how cheap the life of Syrians is in today’s debilitating security landscape.
It is also worth to raise questions as to why the Kabul declaration with the Islamic Republican of Afghanistan and the Doha agreement with Taliban didn’t evince any mention of the preservation of the democratic progressive gains made in the last 18 years after the Taliban’s ouster since 2001? The US has shown its back by not fulfilling the moral obligation of protecting the rights of minorities and women in Afghanistan. It didn’t seek any guarantees from Taliban’s to uphold the liberties of these segments of societies once they set foot into the political mainstream even after Taliban’s repetitive insistence that they will protect their rights and freedom as governed by the strict interpretation of Islam.
Though the US has exemplified that it will nullify the agreement if Taliban doesn’t adhere to its promises prescribed in the deal, these can be simply idle threats considering that Trump in the crucial election year has to tantalize his support base by fulfilling one of its core election promise of bringing back home the US troops from all “endless wars” in the Middle east.
The US jubilation will eclipse over the misery of Afghans when they are already disillusioned with the country’s communal discord, rampant corruption, which has led to the loss of confidence in the state institutions and where violence and bloodshed with each passing is becoming a norm, simultaneously making them numb.
The intra afghan talks will face major stumbling blocks as Taliban will have a better bargaining position and the onset of challanges of accommodating the political visions of strange bedfellows, one coveted by Taliban to run the state through the rigid islamic sharia law, and the second, a democratic, inclusive and nationalistic model of Islamic republic of Afghanistan . For that, Abdullah and Ghani must first settle the power dispute to have an upper hand in the talks. Other contentious, hard pressing issues include the framework of the current democratic Afghan constitution , which is an anathema to Taliban, representation of the minorities and the demobilization or reorganization of the Taliban’s forces into Afghan security apparatus.
The most tenacious Afghans stood indomitable driving out Soviets, British, and US out of the country, but might be at war with themselves, as the cultural and multi ethnic make of the country, which raged a bloody civil war might prove as a voodoo if the second phase of intra afghan dialogues fails to materialize the prospect of peace in Afghanistan.
The U.S Lauded Pakistan’s Assistance in Fighting COVID-19
The United States has thanked Pakistan for its donation of protective gear and surgical masks to support the fight against coronavirus. In a Tweet, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appreciated Pakistan’s goodwill donation of surgical masks and protective suits to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He said this delivery is a symbol of Pak-US solidarity in the fight against COVID-19 and termed it a “partnership for the prosperity of the two countries.”
Meanwhile, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, Alice Wells, in her tweet, also expressed gratitude to Pakistan for the goodwill donation. She said our countries’ health partnership and the coordinated response would help defeat this virus and rebuild our prosperity.
Earlier, the consignment of Personal Protective Equipment from Pakistan via a C-130 flight from Islamabad landed at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland. The equipment was also handed over to the US Federal Emergency Management Agency for onward delivery to the US armed forces.
Pakistan values its Seven Decades-long friendship with the US. Although, it is meager Medical Supplies, yet as a token of friendships values a lot. Pakistan is also facing a huge challenge of the outbreak, and the rapid growth is alarming in Pakistan. Nevertheless, Pakistan is a responsible nation and always willing to share its part of responsibility in any part of the World. Either it is a natural disaster or warlike disaster, Pakistan always played its role on the front line as a volunteer. Pakistan is a country with the highest number of philanthropists per million population.
The US was one of the few first countries that recognized Pakistan in 1947 after getting independence from British rule. Pakistan was a close ally with the US in the cold war era and the Afghan War. Pakistan was a frontline ally with the US in its War on terror. Pakistan enjoyed non-NATO close ally status. Definitely, Pakistan was also beneficiary of US AID and assistance. Either it was on Economic front, or S&T, Defense or Education, Military or civilian, Agriculture or Industry, almost all areas witnessed the US assistance in the past. The US is a major trading partner with Pakistan too.
Pakistan has no objection if the US changed its priorities and aligned itself with India. The US is aiming to strengthen India to counter China, but India used all of the American assistance to counter Pakistan. The US may keep balance and restrict its assistance to India to a condition not to use against Pakistan. There can be designed a monitoring and tracking system to check that American assistance is not used against Pakistan directly or indirectly. A close monitoring system may be deployed on India and verifiable by any third party. I believe “there is the way if there is a will.”
Prime Minister Imran Khan is a visionary leader and peace-loving in nature. His declared-policy to be a partner in peace with any country in any part of the World is well appreciated widely. Pakistan was a victim of the Afghan War for the last four decades and learned a bitter lesson. War means disaster; War means a net loss of human lives and economy; War means no victory for either side. Pakistan will be no longer partner wth any one in War with any country.
Pakistan’s strategic location, where it connects almost half of the World and at the major trade route – Middle-East to rest of the World, is vital for maintaining peace and stability of this region as well as the whole World. Pakistan is a nation of 220 Million, with its 70% population of youth under the age of 40 years. Pakistan is a resilient nation and can survive under any circumstances.
Pakistan wanted to keep traditional friendship with the US and strongly wish an early resumption. Pakistan wanted to contribute its potential to global peace and stability. In the past, especially in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Pakistan kept close alliance with the US while maintaining its strategic relations with China. I hope the US may not object to Pakistan’s strategic interest with China or Russia while restoring traditional friendship with Pakistan.
The Need for Pakistan’s Digitalisation Policy
Change is the only constant and one has to keep evolving through new trends in order to compete with the changing dynamics of the world. There is no denying the fact that any country’s economic growth is now directly linked to one factor i.e., adoption of information and communications technology. The adoption of digitalisation is the new reality where majority of population has access to mobile phones and internet than to basic necessities of life. Digitalisation is not a choice, it is the need of the hour, therefore, the governments are now determining their policies and strategies for digitalising every sector, to promote and strengthen their socio-economic fabric.
Keeping in view the current scenario, the COVID-19 has had a major impact on almost all socio-economic sectors, the digital world has never been more important than it is today, Digitalisation is the new normal where consumers are buying everything online whether it is to buy groceries and essentials or to socialise and virtually reach with friends and family. During this critical time, many of these adoptions will persist long even after the situation has stabilised.
Globally countries are adopting new ways through digitalisation to ease the life of their citizens by providing them with improved and rapid amenities. The access to free internet services made it possible to pave the way for effective digitalization. An exponential increase is observed in the number of internet providers and consumers which demonstrates that the world is adapting with the concept of digitalization. It is witnessed that the developed countries has already shifted all their services from the outdated ways to online portals to facilitate the masses. In recent years, Pakistan is also evolving its IT sector promptly by introducing the latest technological mechanisms in the country.
The present government has taken up the task to digitalize the entire country and is working hard to create an e-governance system to bring down corruption, to ensure accountability process and also to augment the productivity in the country. The government has been taking great strides in the advancement of technology- from the Mohafiz app to digitizing the Postal service and the introduction of Tax Asaan mobile app which provides taxpayers with quick access of verification features like active Taxpayers list (ATL), NTN/STRN inquiry and exemption certificate etc. and many more. The PTI government has been proactive in the inclusion of technology within various segments and has also launched the online FIR system where people can submit their complaints online, and will be facilitated by government officials.
Nevertheless one might assume that digitalisation and government don’t blend,but in reality this fusion is helping the government agencies and officials to represent their agendas and administrative progress directly to the people through social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc.).Perhaps the defined role of government social media accounts is to serve as a source of unrestricted updates. This includes everything from present initiatives to upcoming policy reforms and breaking news. Therefore, news should be a foundation of your content strategy as a government account. For instance, we are currently seeing social media crisis management in action for government organisations, including real-time updates in response to COVID-19. This illustrates that social media actually serves as a first hand source of information and provides people with timely updates. This is the brilliance of digitalisation and government that the voters and opposition are already there and the government has only one job that is to publish content which engages the attention from the public. This also suggests educating your followers by clarifying potential misinformation, keeping in view the fact that how quickly fabricated content can spread through social media, the government accounts serve as an important source for authentic information.
Statically, as per Pakistan’s Digital2020 Report, Feb 2020: there were 76.38 million internet users in Pakistan in January 2020 which illustrates that the number of internet users has increased by 11 million (+17%) between 2019 and 2020 and internet penetration in Pakistan stood at 35%. As far as the social media users in Pakistan are concerned, the number has increased by 2.4 million (+7.0%) between April 2019 and January 2020 which shows that there were 37.00 million social media users in Pakistan in January 2020 and the penetration rate stood at 17%.The source of this penetration depends widely on mobile connections in Pakistan. Reportedly, there were 164.9 million mobile connections in Pakistan in January 2020. The number of mobile connections increased by 9.6 million (+6.2%) between January 2019 and January 2020. Surprisingly, the number of mobile connections in Pakistan was equivalent to 75% of the total population in January, 2020.
With these growth trends projected to persist in the future, Pakistan is dire need of a comprehensive ‘Digitalisation Policy’. There should be a policy that must be implemented in its true spirits, and the government should devise an efficient monitoring mechanism to evaluate the vitality of that policy.
South Asia: A COVID-19 Outlier?
International observers remain baffled at the rate of spread and impact of Corona on one of the most populous regions in the world. South Asia is home to more than a 5th of the world’s population. As is the case with other trends related to Corona, it is still not clear why the virus did not see the surge in the region that was experienced in other parts of the globe.
South Asia had been deemed as the perfect hotbed for the Coronavirus. It is densely populated, has poor public health institutions, and is geographically close to China, where the virus originated. Its people are also affected by severe levels of poverty, malnutrition, and hunger. While the countries share a similar heritage, the region happens to be one of the most poorly connected in the world, owing to bad road networks and toxic bilateral relations between some of the countries.
Despite strict guidelines from respective governments, social distancing norms are incompatible with South Asian society. It is a privilege only the elite can afford, as a vast majority of the people live in close proximity with their family members. The region also comprises of fairly religious societies, and governments have faced challenges in the prevention of congregational worship. In Pakistan, Khan was severely criticized for allowing communal prayer during the month of Ramadan.
It can be argued that the relatively lower numbers can be accounted for by low testing rates but if the health care systems in these countries had been choking up, it would have been very difficult to hide.
India, the economic giant in the region, can boast of imposing the strictest lockdown in the world. While the fatality rate is increasing with every passing day, the number of deaths is nowhere near that of Europe or the US. Migrant workers paid a heavy price for the lockdown, which was announced without prior notice, leaving millions displaced. The economic cost of the lockdown has been astounding, as an estimated 122 million Indians lost their jobs in April alone. India’s unemployment rate is now at a record peak of 27.1%,
Similarly, in Bangladesh, researchers from Dhaka University predict that around 15 million people from different sectors will become unemployed in the country due to slowdown of businesses. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the Federal Minister for Planning and Development, Asad Umar, predicted that around 18 million people might lose their jobs as a result of the lockdown.
Modi and Khan have recently eased lockdowns in India and Pakistan respectively, in spite of increasing cases, as they expressed concern for low-income groups and daily wage earners in their countries. Their concerns regarding their economies may be well-founded. According to a recent Yale study, social distancing measures may be more effective in saving lives in higher-income countries. Whereas, in lower-income countries a complete lockdown may be counterproductive, significantly increasing the economic costs. Economic benefits generated by social distancing are estimated to be 240 times larger for the United States, or 70 times larger for Germany, compared to the value created in Pakistan. The value of savings would be 59% of the GDP for the US, 85% of the GDP for Germany as opposed to 14% of Bangladesh and 19% of India’s GDP.
There are several theories about the conservative spread of the virus in South Asia. None of them have been substantiated as yet. It could be that the pandemic was taken more seriously in these developing economies because there was an acceptance of the fact that they weren’t well equipped to deal with the crisis in case it hit them with full force. Some experts credit the warmer and humid climate of the region to have kept the spread of the disease in check. Others are talking about the protection offered to South Asians by the vaccine for Tuberculosis, BCG and possibly a weaker strain of the virus in this region.
One of the more plausible explanations for this trend seems to be the extremely young population of the region. The average age of an Indian is 26.8 years. The number is less than 25 years in Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan. In contrast, the average age of a citizen is 45 in Italy and above 40 in Germany, France and the UK. According to the Yale study, Populations in rich countries tend to skew older, and so the mortality rate is expected to be higher in those countries, in spite of the disparity in healthcare capacity.
According to Jacob John, a virologist from India, it is not sensible to compare the situation in South Asia with Europe yet, as the region is over a month behind in terms of timeline. Therefore, the April of Europe should be compared to June in India. The epidemic is developing in different countries at different rates and it has not yet reached its full maturity in the region.
There is little doubt about the fact that Covid-19 represents one of the greatest challenges for global leaders of our times. Policy has to evolve constantly according to the trajectory of the virus in the concerned country. The choice between lives and livelihoods can never be an easy one to make.
While it’s too soon to declare any country’s approach a success, it can be acknowledged that South Asian countries enforced stringent lockdowns at a relatively early stage compared to many in the West. However, locking down for over a month hasn’t necessarily slowed down the spread of the disease and the reversal of restrictions could lead to spikes in rates of infections. This in tandem with increasing economic constraints makes it a complex dilemma for policymakers. As the virus is yet to peak in the region in the coming months, the real challenge for the leadership lies in expanding their capacity to deal with the worsening situation.
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