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The man who saved the world from Pakistan

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image source: voices.transparency.org

But for a few brave souls like Frits Veerman, Pakistan would have become the world’s most frightening nightmare. Not that it is not today but it could have been worse: we could have been facing a nuclear Armageddon now.

Veerman, a professional photographer in Amsterdam, was one of the first to ring warning bells about Pakistan’s skullduggery in stealing nuclear documents, materials and technology to build its own nuclear bomb. His warnings were brushed aside, he was forced to keep quiet, sacked and harassed to no end for speaking the truth. In a just world, he should have been hailed as an icon of courage. He died in relative obscurity recently.

His story will, however, continue to live, a story of courage to speak out in a world where truth often falls to realpolitik. When Pakistan was running a big nuclear smuggling ring from its diplomatic missions and other agencies, governments and security officials in different parts of the world chose to look the other way. In fact, many connived in the colossal thievery.  They  knew  what  Khan  and his  associates  were  doing  but business and political interests trumped over reason.

Veermen was the only one to say that `the emperor was naked`. He could have easily succumbed to pressure or greed but he did not, and even at a great cost to his life, he chose to speak out, rather than keep quiet.

Veerman discovered the Pakistani game when he was a   young professional photographer in Amsterdam. He used to work at a consultancy firm, FDO (Fysisch-Dynamisch Onderzoek), as a technical photographer. An important client of FDO was   Ultra Centrifuge Netherlands which was part of a top secret project run by a consortium of Dutch, British and German scientists at a nuclear plant in Almelo. In May 1972, a young and charming Pakistani scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan joined the team as a translator of technical documents. He soon became friends with Frits Veerman. He took pictures of centrifuges for him. The two shared an office and met at dinners in the evening. Veermen was introduced to Khan’s wife and two daughters and often went to their house for dinner.

Khan quickly expanded his circle of friends and he would freely access areas at the nuclear plant which were hitherto prohibited. It was sometime in 1973,  a year  after the Pakistani joined the consultancy firm,  that Veermen had his first doubts. He thought there was something fishy about the manner in which the Pakistani was charming his way through the rank and file of the establishment.

It was two years later that Veermen’s suspicions became stronger. He realised that the young Pakistani was in fact a thug–he was stealing classified papers from the plant. This happened one day when he went to Khan’s house near Schiphol airport for dinner.

What he saw took his breath away. He saw top secret centrifuge drawings lying around in Pakistani scientist’s house. They were supposed to be at the plant and locked up in vaults. As Veerman later recalled in an interview with BBC, “That was my biggest worry, what was he doing with those drawings? All the little pieces of the jig-saw put together made me come to the conclusion that Abdul was spying.“ Khan asked him to photograph the documents for him but Veermen refused. He also happened to overhear a telephonic conversation between the Pakistani and his old professor in Leuven about sensitive centrifuge matters. Veerman lost no time in reporting the matter to his superiors. His seniors heard him out and told him to keep quiet. He was asked not to speak about what he saw and found to anyone.

In late 1975, when AQ Khan realised that he was coming under greater scrutiny from a multitude of agencies, he took leave from the office, and along with his family flew back to Pakistan. He never returned. What many did not realise for some time was that Khan had smuggled out precious drawings and a no less useful rolodex of key suppliers of nuclear material and technology in Europe and elsewhere.

But Veerman had not heard the last of Khan. From Pakistan, his former friend wrote to him frequently seeking answers to technical questions about nuclear technology. When he showed one such letter to his superiors, he was asked to burn it. Less than a year after Khan fled Amsterday, FDO held a meeting on the issue where Veerman repeated his assertion that Khan was a spy. Veerman later gave a statement about Khan to Dutch police. But, as Veerman were to find out later, his blunt accusations did not endear him his superiors or others in the government. In fact, the nuclear consortium and consultancy firm, FDO, were delighted when Khan sent his emissaries with a long list of items and work he wanted to contract to European firms. Soon after, Khan’s technicians began arriving at FDO to take a “ “a course in ‘how to build an ultracentrifuge’’, Veerman commented.

In 1978, Veerman lost his job. No reasons were given but he knew he was being sacrificed for speaking out against Khan’s smuggling ring and the complicity of the nuclear plant officials as well as government authorities. The powerful nuclear industry lobby did not want any investigation because it would have exposed its laxity and complicity. The government too was not keen on any probe because it would have been embarrassing and would have impacted diplomatic relations with some countries. So they all kept quiet. The one man who spoke was asked to shut up.

In 1983, during a meeting with FDO officials, when he realised that his only crime was his outspokenness, Veerman was furious and decided to tell the story  to a Dutch newspaper. But nothing came out of his expose and he quietly retreated to a lowly paid job and into obscurity. The state, however, chose to punish him further–he was put on an international watch list and for many years questioned by police whenever he travelled abroad. He was stalked by the police. In one such instance, his family in a car was stopped by armed police.

It was only in 2016 that his role in breaking the world’s most dangerous nuclear smuggling network  was acknowledged by the authorities. The Whistleblowers Authority, a Dutch institution created in 2016, came to the conclusion that Veerman was unfairly treated at the time, as it considered it likely that whistleblowing was the reason for firing him in 1978. A recent report of the Huis voor Klokkenluiders, the Dutch Whistleblowers Authority, showed that the agency had finally absolved Veerman of any charges and in fact pointed out hy he, and not Khan, was punished.

In many ways, Veerman’s honesty and tenacity saved the world from even a more dangerous Pakistan. His act of courage deserves international recognition.

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Afghanistan: the US and NATO withdrawal and future prospects

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On April 14, the United States of America announced that it would withdraw all its troops stationed in Afghanistan from May 1 to September 11, 2021. On the same day, NATO also said it would coordinate with the White House military to initiate the withdrawal.

The year 2021 marks the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of war in Afghanistan, a conflict that has actually been going on since the Soviet invasion of that unfortunate country on December 24, 1979.

What are the plans of NATO and the United States? How will the situation in Afghanistan change in the future?

Regarding the US announcement of the deadline for troop withdrawal, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said that the Afghan government respects the US government’s decision to withdraw its troops by the agreed date.

According to the Associated Press, there were 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan before May 1, far below the peak of over 110,000 in 2011.

According to the websites of the Financial Times and theDeutsche Welle, some ten thousand soldiers from the 36 NATO Member States and other US allies are currently stationed in Afghanistan, including as many as 895 Italian soldiers, as well as 1,300 Germans, 750 Brits, 619 Romanians, 600 Turks, etc.

President Trump’s previous Administration signed a peace agreement with the Taliban in Afghanistan in February 2020, setting May 1, 2021 as the deadline for NATO to begin withdrawing from that country. The Washington Post reported that after the current US government issued the withdrawal statement, the Taliban immediately said that if the United States violated the peace agreement and did not withdraw its troops in Afghanistan, the situation would get worse and one of the parties to the agreement would take responsibility for it.

This year is the twentieth since the United States started the war in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The war in Afghanistan is the United States’ longest overseas war, and has killed over 2,300 US soldiers and wounded some 20,000 people, at a cost of over 1 trillion US dollars.

Although the United States and its allies attacked the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the situation in Afghanistan has been turbulent for a long time, with over a hundred thousand Afghan civilian casualties in the fighting.

According to The New York Times, both Parties’ members of the US Congress have differing views on the consequences of withdrawal. According to the newspaper, Republicans and some Democrats believe that the troop withdrawal will encourage the Taliban insurgency, while others believe it is necessary to put an end to this indefinite war.

But what considerations can be made for the US and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan?

It is well known that the purpose of the United States in taking the war to Afghanistan was a very heavy measure of retaliation against al-Qaeda, which had organised the terrorist attacks of September 11, and against the Taliban regime that protected the top leaders of that terrorist organisation. Although al-Qaeda has not been destroyed, it is unlikely to create similar problems. The United States has achieved its strategic goals and is no longer involved in East Asia’s tactics and strategy.

The interests of NATO (considering its individual Member States) in Afghanistan are fewer than those of the United States. As a military alliance with the United States, the achievement of US strategic goals means that NATO’s equal strategic goals have also been achieved. Hence, rather than continuing to run the risk of confronting the Taliban and al-Qaeda after US military withdrawals, NATO is more willing to remove the “political burden” as soon as possible.

While announcing the terms of the withdrawal, the White House has stated that the threat of extremist organisations such as Somalia’s al-Shabaab and ISIS is spreading globally and it is therefore meaningless to concentrate forces in Afghanistan, with a steady expansion of its military cycle. At the same time, however, the White House has stated that after withdrawal, diplomatic and counter-terrorism mechanisms will be reorganised in Afghanistan to face security challenges. Hence, from the US perspective, there is currently a greater terrorist threat than al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

The prospectsfor advancing the Indo-Pacific regional strategy to oppose China also means that it would be counterproductive for the United States to remain in Afghanistan any longer. Even after the troop withdrawal, there will be insecurity in Afghanistan. That being the case, however, the United States will still find ways and means to support the Afghan regime and the armed forces of the Kabul government.

The Washington Post has also reported statements by a Pentagon official who has stressed that Afghanistan is a landlocked country: consequently, once US and NATO forces withdraw, one of the biggest challenges will be how to effectively monitor and combat extremist organisations and resist threats to US security: at that distance it will be even more difficult without sea landings.

According to Reuters, the CIA predicts that the possibility of a further US-Afghan peace deal is little and has warned that once the United States and its allies withdraw, it will be difficult to stop the Taliban.

The Afghan government forces currently control Kabul and other large cities, but the Taliban are present in more than half of the country’s territory and rural areas. In the future, the possibility of a Taliban counter-offensive cannot be ruled out.

Great Britain’s The Guardian has commented that the years of war have generally made Afghans feel a strong sense of insecurity and the withdrawal of troops will not bring much comfort to the local population. According to the London-based newspaper, for the United States this is yet another war that cannot be won.

According to experts, there are two extreme possibilities in the future situation in Afghanistan. The excellent situation is the one in which the less extremist wing of the Taliban mediates so that, once the United States withdraws, the Taliban can gradually move from being an extremist organisation to being an internal administrative one and then negotiate with the legitimate government supported by the United Nations: this would mean a long-term peace after forty-two years of war.

Under extremely unfavourable circumstances, instead, the Afghan government forces would overestimate their military strength and intend to continue the war alone against their traditional opponents, at which point peace negotiations between the two sides would break down.

This would mean falling again into a prolonged civil war and into eternal war.

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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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