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Pakistan-US relations will change

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With the new US President-elect Joe Biden coming to power, US policies for the whole world, especially for world peace, democratic values and protection of human rights, are expected to be rationalized. This can be done only after the appointments to key positions have been completed, the form of the new administration will be clear and the thinking and behavior of the new officials will be known. However, the views expressed so far by the US President and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, black Secretary of Defense, General (retd) Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken,reflect at least a positive view of Pakistan. Historically, compared to conservative Republican presidents, enlightened Democrat US leaders have a reputation for having a softer side in favor of Pakistan, Joe Biden has twice visited Pakistan with President Barack Obama when he was vice president. There is a general impression that they are fully aware of the situation in Pakistan and the challenges facing the region, so the Pakistani nation can expect a better demeanor from them.

It is clear that India has long been a key partner of the United States, and under Biden’s presidency there is no prospect of a change in the relationship as a whole, but to curb China’s influence and fight global terrorism, In terms of US Indo-Pacific strategy, South Asia’s most populous country will remain an important ally, but there may be some difficulties in the personal relationship between Biden and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Trump has refrained from criticizing Modi’s controversial domestic policies, while Biden is accustomed to talking genuinely unwind, his campaign website also criticized the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), calling for the restoration of Kashmiris’ rights, are the two laws that have sparked mass protests in India.

The world is well aware of India’s extremist activities, yet it is turning a blind eye to its own interests. US interests are also linked to India, so the administration of newly elected US President Joe Biden is full of Indians. According to reports, Biden’s administration includes 20 Indians, 17 of whom will be part of the White House complex, while three Indians are members of the National Security Council. It is no secret that the United States is India’s strategic Ally and wants to make India a bigger power than China. This is a fact that has nothing to do with any particular US administration. In this context, the presence of 20 Indians in Biden’s administration could be dangerous for Pakistan. Although the Biden administration has not yet taken any specific steps regarding Pakistan, the influx of Indians in the Biden administration has certainly raised Pakistan’s concerns.

There is no doubt that the Indian foreign lobby is very active against Pakistan. In this regard, President Joe Biden’s administration is clear evidence of Indians, but the basic policy of the United States is based on continuity and sustainability and does not change without the consent of the American establishment. Whoever wins the presidency in the United States, his attitude towards Pakistan will be the same as that decided by the American establishment. At the moment, the US Establishment is concerned about Pakistan because of the CPEC and Pak-China relations and will maintain its presence in Afghanistan to some extent in its interests in the region, so the improvement is that more hopes should not be pinned on from President Joe Biden and instead of being a victim of illusions, it is important to think about how to deal with the Afghan issue while maintaining a balance in our affairs with the United States and China.

The Afghan administration is trying to mislead the new US government at the behest of India that the Taliban have failed to implement the peace agreement, while the US-Taliban agreement was reached after a long process with many ups and downs. The agreement guarantees peace in Afghanistan, and the role of the Taliban in the Afghan peace process must be examined, but the Biden administration must also look at the behavior of the Afghan government, which wants to solo flight. Status quo can protect the power of rulers, but at what cost? Only at the cost of continuing terrorism in Afghanistan can the power of the puppet rulers be maintained. For peace in Afghanistan and the region, the Biden administration must begin the Afghan peace process from where its predecessors left, otherwise the dream of peace in the region will not come true, nor will the United States ever get out of the quagmire.

A change of government in the United States will never diminish the importance of Pakistan. In view of the changing circumstances in Pakistan, the United States is still needed today. However, in this context, not much change in US policies is expected, but Biden’s South Asia policy will be somewhat different from Trump’s. Newly elected US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have also expressed concern over Indian initiatives in Kashmir, and are very much focused on human rights. We want the Biden administration to pay attention to the Kashmir issue as well. If this happens, it will be better not only for us but also for the Kashmiri people. The appointment of two Kashmiris to the Biden administration also conveyed a message that human rights abuses in occupied Kashmir need to be addressed, but we must remember that the United States, despite its unconditional loyalty, has never been able to help Pakistan in difficult times and should not expect more in the future. The Pakistani government should consider every step towards partnership with the United States and take it in the national interest; under this thinking, Pak-US relations will change.

The writer is a freelance columnist, essayist and blogger, pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from Lahore college for Women University (LCWU). She’s interested in environmental issues and the need for political change.Twitter:@Attiya Munawer

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South Asia

Religion Freedom Index of Bangladesh: Current Developments and Government Responses

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Pope Francis joins in prayers led by a Rohingya Muslim man at an inter-religious conference at St Mary’s Cathedral in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on December 1, 2017. Mohammad Ponir Hossain / Reuters

Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) recently published its annual Religious Freedom in the World 2021 Report (RFR) that scrutinizes the situation for all major religion groups in 196 countries across the world. The report found that, over the past two years, oppression against susceptible faith communities has augmented in all but one of the 26 countries listed in the survey’s worst (‘red’) category. Bangladesh is that only country whose position on the red list of religious persecution remains unchanged.

The annual report says that religious freedom is being undermined in one out of every three countries in the world which composed two-thirds of the world population. 62 countries out of a total of 196 face severe violations of religious freedom. The situation of minorities in India and Pakistan is deteriorating further. The situation in China and Myanmar is the worst. According to the report, the situation is worse in 95 percent of the 26 countries where persecution is taking place. Nine new countries have been included in this list- seven from Africa and two from Asia.

The report on Bangladesh says that the torture of minorities has not increased in recent years but the influence of Islamic groups is increasing in the politics of Bangladesh. However, the government has been successful in subdue the influence and maintaining religious freedom. For instance, after the rise of Islam-fabric politicization leading by “Hefazat-e-Islam”, the top leaders and at least 375 people nabbed for their recent violent activities. The strict position of law enforcement agencies against the rampage of the group denotes the zero-tolerance of Bangladesh government in ensuring religious freedom and upholding “secularism” which is one of the state principals of its constitution. The argument can be evident with the recent report of the European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) titled, “Bangladesh and Pakistan: acting against extremism versus making a show of acting against extremism”. Highlighting the activities of the Islamist group Hefazat-e-Islam (HIB) in Bangladesh and the radical Tehreek-e-Labbaik (TLP) in Pakistan, the report comments that Bangladesh government has been making “noticeable progress in dealing with the radical Islamist HIB whereas Pakistan has floundered dramatically in its inconsistent, ill-considered and ill-implemented attempts to pacify the TLP”. Besides, the initiatives of the Bangladesh government in protecting the minority rights are so much praiseworthy.

According to the 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom of US Department of State, to advocate the minority rights and to foster religious tolerance, Bangladesh government has taken a number of initiatives such as-

•Providing guidance to imams throughout the country to prevent militancy and monitoring mosques for “provocative messaging”.

•Deploying law enforcement personnel at religious sites, festivals, and events considering potential violence. The Economic Times reported that 30,000 and 31,272Durga Pujas were organized across the country in 2017 and 2018 respectively without any security issue.

•Zero-tolerance to Islamic militancy. For instance, Special Tribunal convicted and sentenced to death seven of eight defendants who were accused in the 2016 killings of 22 mostly non-Muslim individuals at the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka.

•Offering stipends to students from the minority groups in the primary and secondary level; and

•Providing funds for minority rituals and social activities.

Most importantly, Bangladesh ensures a level playing field in the employment sectors and a viable people-to-people contact. ‘Dhormo Jaar Jaar, Utsob Shobar,’ (Religion for own, but festivals for all” is a testimony of its secular values and communal harmony. The ACN report itself showed, in Bangladesh, where due to fear of infection, minority faith groups were incapable of offering the last rites to family members, an Islamic charity buried not only Muslim but also Hindu and Christian victims of COVID-19. Besides, reliefs were equally provided to every sector of the society regardless of their race or religion.

To conclude, Bangladesh always believes in fraternity beyond ethno-religious affiliations and practiced secularism in daily life throughout the history. But at present, due to the rise of right-wing populist politics both at regional and global level and rise of fundamentalism, religious harmony in Bangladesh is also affected. However, comparatively, Bangladesh is doing better than many regional states and the country is destined to overcome the challenges in near future due to the pro-active role of the government in this regard.

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West Bengal Election: Implications for Indian Politics

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Polling officials collecting the Electronic Voting Machine (EVMs) and other necessary inputs required for the West Bengal Assembly Election, at a distribution centre, in Uluberia, West Bengal on April 05, 2021. Image source: Election Commission of India, Government of India

After a tumultuous eight phase election process, Trinamool congress has become successful to retain power for consecutive third terms amidst growing popularity of saffron tide. However, Mamata Banarjee’s Trinamool congress has successfully halted the tide at West Bengal frontier. The victory of TMC in the state testifies to “Bengal Exceptionalism” and is also a victory for Indian secularism.

The Trinamool Congress (TMC) victory in the assembly election has far reaching repercussions for wider Indian politics. For one, it sends a resounding message to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that their dream of monolithic Hindu India is still far-fetched. While BJP was much enthusiastic and ardent to gain a victory in the election, as evidenced by Amit Shah’s intermittent visit to Bengal and the latter’s incendiary rhetoric and Prime Minister Modi’s several visit to state to canvass votes. Interestingly, the ubiquitous display of Narendra Modi’s posters led one commentator to sardonically quip whether NarendraModi is vying for chief minister position. This partly explains the importance BJP and Narendra Modi attached to West Bengal election.

Above all, this election was important for BJP to prove their regional appeal. BJP’s vision of “one state, one party” largely hinged on the victory in the Bengal. If BJP could win in Bengal, there had been possibility that other states would fall in order. This significance of Bengal election illuminates the importance that BJP attached to Bengal and their buoyant activities to seal the victory.

Bengal was long been known as bastion of ethnic politics rather than communal one. It was never been a fortress of all-India political parties. Even, in its heyday of all India politics, Indian National Congress (INC) couldn’t gain much favor in Bengal election as the politics in Bengal is driven by an appeal to “Bengali-ness” which other nationwide party lacks.

However, upheavals in Bengal politics had been unmistakable in recent times. Especially, the event of BJP’s significant performance in 2019 union elections led some observes to presage an ominous trend of Bengal politics unfolding. The BJP’s 40% share of vote from Bengal is largely an anomaly in the Bengal’s election history where all India political parties had hard time managing minuscule portion of the votes. The 2019 election result therefore doesn’t augur well for TMC in 2021.The defections of stalwart TMC leaders in favor of BJP exacerbated this grim predication and forbade an electoral mishap for TMC.

The detractors implicated Trinamool Congress for power abuse, extortion, misappropriation of welfare money and egregious Muslim appeasement. Especially, BJP seek to frame Trinamool Congress as anti-Hindu party. They had pointed to how Mamata Banarjee had benefitted Muslim clerics inordinately by providing them with benefits which their counterpart of Hindu religion was deprived of. Beside, “Bangladesh Card” had been recurrently employed to accuse the alleged lenient approach of TMC with regards to Bangladeshi migrants.

BJP capitalized on anti-incumbency resentment emanating from prolonged period of TMC role which had generated local level corrupted politician and scandals of misappropriated welfare schemes facilitated BJP rhetoric. Besides, BJP promised that the coordination with center government will be far easier if BJP gains state power. BJP rallied unemployed youth with the pledge of jobs had BJP

ascent to Bengal throne. Above all, BJP appealed to Hindu sentiments of the 60% majority Hindus of the state.

However, with the charismatic leadership of Mamata Banarjee and the promise of being rooted in Bengali soil and a proponent for peaceful communal relations, Mamata Banarjee’s TMC has been indomitable as manifested by resounding victory of Trinamool Congress.

The BJP’s promise of “Hindu Bengal” hadn’t materialized as West Bengal had long been a fortress of communal harmony, largely an aberration from all other Indian states. This communal harmony has been again bolstered by defeat of BJP in the assembly election.

The result of the election will largely reverberate across India with far-reaching consequences. Firstly, the victory of Trinamool Congress means that Modi’s vision of monolithic India isn’t viable in view regional peculiarities. Secondly, it safeguards the federal structure of India in face of increasing intrusion of central government. It also will restrain Narendra Modi’s unchecked centralization of the state. Thirdly, it will make Mamata Banarjee a spokesperson and central figure of anti-BJP movement in absence of vigorous congress presence. Fourthly, it puts an end to NarendraModi’s contentious CAA(Citizen Amendment Act) and other policies.

Lastly, this win of Mamata Banarjee has the possibility of catapulting her to the heft of an all India leader. Especially, in the absence of a BJP’s strong chief minister face, Mamata Banarjee was vying with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This has momentous implication. This will consolidate the popularity of TMC in other states also with the image of Mamata Banarjee and memory of implicitly defeating Narendra Modi serving as an accelerator of her all-India appeal.

Nevertheless, there is marked indications that the Bengal politics has irrevocably altered in the process of this election. While Bengal had long been the indisputable image of Indian secularism, the communal tendencies have made deep inroads in Bengal politics. BJP has surpassed all other local political parties and now only second to TMC. This trend is unnerving for secular Bengal as well as India. However, it can now rightly be articulated that saffron tide of communalism has been retarded. This victory of Mamata Banarjee has reverberation across India and can be termed as the victory of Indian secularism and federalism.

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Feasible Outcomes after Withdrawal of US Troops from Afghanistan

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According to US President Joe Biden’s announcement, the process of withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan has begun. On September 11, 2001, there was a militant attack in the United States. The United States went on a military operation in Afghanistan in the wake of that attack. Now all US troops are being withdrawn from Afghanistan before the 20th anniversary of the longest war in U.S. history. US President Biden commented that the goal of the US war in Afghanistan has been achieved. After the Taliban’s overthrow, the civilian Afghan government was established in Kabul with US support. The US administration now feels that the present Afghan government is capable of ensuring the security of its country.

The announcement during Trump’s tenure was that the troops would leave on May 1. Biden pulled it off in September. Biden’s Republican party has persuaded him against the rapid departure of troops. The reason behind Biden’s announcement of the new withdrawal date lies in repairing relations with NATO, which suffered under Trump. This transatlantic relationship was damaged by several of Trump’s statements. According to Trump, NATO members were not doing what they were supposed to pay for the alliance and wanted to approve Germany, Afghanistan’s top contributor after the US. When the withdrawal agreement was negotiated with the Taliban last year, the demands of NATO members, who are dependent on the US military for airlift support, were not considered sufficiently. Now it appears that NATO also announced the withdrawal of troops after Biden announced the withdrawal of troops to fix September 11 as the withdrawal date. This time change has given NATO members the opportunity to work to coordinate with the United States for their departure from Afghanistan. The Biden administration’s move could be seen in the context of efforts to bring US foreign policy back to multilateralism.

The United States also feels that rebuilding relations with NATO and other partners is very important. Because it will enable the US to stay in better position to face various global challenges like China’s rise and climate change. Already China has expressed concern over the decision to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan. China thinks foreign troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan in a responsible and orderly manner. According to them, this is necessary to ensure a smooth transition from Afghanistan as well as to prevent any terrorist group from taking advantage of the chaos. But the real problem lies for China as US officials point out that the United States now wants to focus on addressing other important challenges, including the threat from China, by shifting its focus from Afghanistan.

However, the long-term presence of US troops did not eventually defeat the Taliban. Afghan forces and the central government in Kabul could not be able to increase control over the entire country. After 20 years of war and thousands of deaths, US officials have acknowledged that the Taliban are at their strongest military level. We see that the attacks have increased dramatically in the last one year. The Taliban has taken over and has destabilized the position of the Americans in Afghanistan. The provincial capital, briefly occupied by Afghan troops, is regularly recaptured by rebels. US forces are leaving behind a deeply unpopular Afghan government that has not won the confidence of the people. Afghans blame Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s weak leadership for the Taliban’s resurgence. His reluctance to share power is hampering the initial move to map a post-war future, which is a barrier to peace.

The Taliban are indicating that they want to return to the role of the previous regime when American troops leave. Their desire is single authority. Unwilling to compromise and run the country, they want full authority after September. They are talking about establishing their own model of ‘Islamic rule’. But it won’t be that easy for them as they have full control of only 20 to 30 per cent of the districts of the country. The same is true of government forces. Both taliban and government forces hold power in the remaining 50 percent of the area. However if Taliban are able to take control over the whole country, women’s society and the media are most afraid of their past rule. Higher education institutions are often attacked by the Taliban. Millions of girls went to school while Americans were still there, who were forbidden by the Taliban to receive any kind of education. From under the protective shield of Americans, women became doctors, entrepreneurs, Parliamentarians. They will now be in danger. Similarly, Afghans who have struggled to make the country a more hospitable and socially tolerant place will be at risk. Meanwhile, about 17,000 Afghans from those communities are waiting to get U.S. visa.

It remains to be seen whether Afghanistan’s warring sides come to an agreement. As the US moves away, it is time for Afghans to lead the talks and agree on a permanent ceasefire and peace settlement. The coming months will tell how much faith the Taliban and the Afghan government can give to the war-weary Afghan people and show the leadership they need to rule. Whether the Taliban will undermine the rights of women and minorities returning to Kabul has become a question. It also remains to be seen whether the Taliban will allow al-Qaeda and IS militants to be active in Afghanistan if they return to power. There is a possibility of high levels of polarisation across the country due to insecurity among the groups. Stability can come only if the present government and Taliban in Afghanistan work together.

The United States is now more interested in shifting attention from Afghanistan and the Greater Middle East and looking to Eastern Europe and Asia-Pacific region. The United States is reluctant to take responsibility for the negotiations even though it has announced the withdrawal of troops. Biden’s announcement does not have a roadmap for how the country will run after their departure. The United States wants Russia, China, Pakistan and India to participate in talks on Afghanistan. As a major power, it is dependent on who will be in governance in Afghanistan in the interest of Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan and India. China and Russia are interested in Afghanistan for regional dominance and trade reasons, but India has a major interest in Afghanistan’s geopolitics in the conflict-making relations with Pakistan and the Kashmir crisis. The current deal will benefit the Taliban as well; It will also help Pakistan create a comfortable position in regional politics. Pakistan would like its backed Taliban government to be established in Kabul in its desire to consolidate its influence. But Pakistan also has a reason to worry. If the Taliban cannot bring peace to the country, the world society will put the responsibility on Pakistan. The refugee wave in Pakistan could rise another round if Afghanistan is newly disturbed. India, on the other hand, will want Pakistan’s influence-free Afghanistan. Again, in northern Afghanistan, where the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek people live, they will not easily accept Taliban forces controlled by the Pashtun population. So there is a risk of long-term unrest. Afghanistan’s future situation depends a lot on what the role of regional powers will be after the withdrawal of US troops and how much the agreement of international community to control itself will be implemented there without being in Afghanistan.

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