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Dealing with the Taliban: India’s Strategy in Afghanistan after Regime Change

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Present piece deals with recent stunning takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban and India’s foreign policy dilemma in dealing with new ruling. It also deals with immediate implications for Pakistan, India, China and USA and their assumed response over new geo-political landscape in Asia.

 Taliban’s stunning takeover of Kabul sent shock waves around the world and has placed immediate implications for the complicated knot of three regional powers in Afghanistan’s neighborhood: Pakistan, India and China. In recent months, all three governments have escalated their diplomatic outreach to the Taliban in anticipation of the possibility that it would grow into a political force in Afghanistan. That possibility became reality as the group swept into the capital ushering in a new geo-political landscape in Asia. For Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban’s return delivers a strategic defeat to rival India, but also potentially a boost to an affiliated insurgent group, the Pakistani Taliban, that threatens Pakistan itself. For India, it heightens anxieties about militancy in Kashmir as it is juggling flammable border standoffs not only with Pakistan but also with China.

Cherished History of Afghanistan

Afghanistan is an ancient mountainous landlocked country at the crossroads of Central and South Asia and is surrounded by Pakistan to the east and south, Iran to the west, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan to the north, and China to the northeast. Its location along the Silk Road connected it to the cultures of both the Middle East and other parts of Asia and has historically remained in contention and violence since the military campaigns of Alexander, the Mauryas, the Arabs, the Mongols, the British, the Soviets, and in 2001 by the United States with NATO-allied countries. It has been called ‘unconquerable’ and nicknamed as ‘graveyard of empires’ though it has been occupied during several different stages of its history.

The modern state of Afghanistan began with the Hotak and Durrani dynasties of the 18th century but unfortunately very soon became the buffer state in the ‘Great Game’ between British India and the Russian Empire. In 1893 Durand Line was made to mark border of Afghanistan with British India, but was not recognized by the Afghan government and it has led to strained relations with Pakistan since the latter’s independence in 1947. Following the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919, the country became a monarchy under King Amanullah, until almost 50 years later, when Zahir Shah was overthrown and a republic was established.

In 1978, after a second coup, Afghanistan became a Soviet Union protectorate. This provoked the Soviet–Afghan War in the 1980s against Mujahideen rebels and by 1996, most of Afghanistan was captured by the Taliban, who were removed from power after the US invasion in 2001 post 9/11. This 20 year war has finally drawn to a close on 15 August 2021, with Taliban once again sweeping across Afghanistan.

Insinuations for India

Afghanistan and India have remained strong and friendly over the decades. They had been historical neighbors, and shared deep historical and cultural ties. India was also the only South Asian country to recognize the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Relations diminished during the 1990s when Afghan civil war started which turned into take-over of a government by Talibans. India is the largest regional provider of humanitarian and reconstruction aid to the present day Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and even today is engaged in various construction projects, as part of India’s rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan.

India is recognised by most Afghans as the ‘most cherished partner of Afghanistan’ and is the largest regional donor with over $3 billion in assistance. It has built over 200 public and private schools, sponsors over 1,000 scholarships, hosts over 16,000 Afghan students. In the aftermath of the 2008 Indian embassy bombing in Kabul, the Afghan Foreign Ministry quoted India as a ‘brother country’ and the relationship between the two as one which ‘no enemy can hamper’. Relations between Afghanistan and India received a major boost in 2011 with the signing of a strategic partnership agreement, Afghanistan’s first since the Soviet invasion of 1979.

A major shift in India’s political position on the Afghan Taliban was reported by a Qatar official in June 2021, who confirmed that an Indian delegation had quietly visited Doha to meet Taliban’s leadership. This is a major shift. The Taliban’s reliance on Pakistan is unlikely to change anytime in the near future. The cost to India of remaining distant from the ongoing attempts at reconciliation especially since it has thus far nurtured a relationship mainly with the Afghan government would likely be much higher than the cost of being involved in them.

Scorching Afghanistan and New Geo-Political Reckonings

New developments in Afghanistan have created new scopes in context of geo-politics of the region and might form new equations for realigning the power politics. For China, the U.S. withdrawal has raised fears of a widening network of militant groups targeting the ambitious infrastructure projects it is unfurling westward across Eurasia. The Afghan Taliban pledged in its 2020 deal with the United States that it would not harbor extremist groups such as al-Qaeda if the U.S. military withdrew in a timely fashion. The Taliban spokesman has also said the group would not attack Chinese targets. In Islamabad there is euphoria that they defeated India and America but also worry among the national security establishment that the Taliban may not be beholden to Pakistan in their moment of triumph. After the euphoria, there are second-order consequences that include the potential of Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorist groups, including the TTP (Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan), that might come back to bite Pakistan.

Pakistan’s close ally China has also sought a deal with the Taliban that they will not hamper any Chinese interests in the region. China’s conciliatory posture toward the Taliban marks a stark public turnaround from previous decades, when it voiced concerns that the group was harboring ethnic Uyghur fighters who sat on the Taliban’s ruling council while plotting separatist war in their homeland of Xinjiang.  China was ready to contain any fallout from Afghanistan by pressuring the Taliban to make a ‘clear break with Xinjiang-related forces’, holding joint military drills with Russia and other regional governments, and reinforcing border controls.

In India which had long argued for a power-sharing deal in Afghanistan, anxieties soared in recent months as India’s partner, the former Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, sustained a string of battlefield defeats before fleeing the country. For the first time in decades, India will no longer have a friendly government or tribal faction in the country. And more problematic to India Taliban’s return will be a morale booster for Pakistan-based groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad and the TTP. It could be a psychological victory of the terrorist groups and the terrorist groups will use it to try to drum up a little more recruitment among youth in places like Kashmir.

Could China gain a foothold in the Region?

China has reportedly promised big investments in energy and infrastructure projects, including the building of a road network in Afghanistan and is also eyeing the country’s vast, untapped rare-earth mineral deposits. And it was already reportedly preparing to formally recognize the Taliban before the group seized control of the country. Laurel Miller, the program director for Asia at the International Crisis Group, tells NPR that “The Taliban see China as a source of international legitimacy, a potential economic supporter and a means of influence over Pakistan, a Chinese ally that has aided the group,” according to The Wall Street Journal. Meanwhile, the Taliban could be pushing China and Russia closer as the two countries seek a hedge against the potential for instability in Afghanistan. Both countries are concerned about possible ‘spillover’ of Islamist extremism, Miller says. Despite their Cold War animus, China and Russia recent time reportedly deployed 10,000 troops, as well as planes and artillery pieces, to China’s Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region as part of a joint exercise to fight terrorism, and jointly protect peace and stability in the region.

Is America now weaker?

The nature of withdrawal comes at great risk to US national security and to America’s standing in the world. What is happening on the ground is a complete collapse of the US-led negotiations with the Taliban, which left the United States flat footed to respond to the events rapidly unfolding on the ground. The world will not view this as a logical transition away from a country in which the United States does not belong. Instead, Biden’s realpolitik message juxtaposed against the chaotic scenes in Kabul simply reinforces longstanding global opinions of America’s unreliability and diminished superpower standing in the world. Biden tried to assure Americans, and the world, that Washington would continue to fight global terrorism. Finally, the United States still needs eyes on Afghanistan and must move quickly to evacuate Americans from Afghanistan and then begin the hard work of developing a plan for protecting its long-term national security interests in South Asia.

Indian Dilemma

The idea of dealing directly with the Taliban is a bitter one for Indian officials and the larger Indian population. This was the group that escorted terrorists into Pakistan following the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight in 1999.  India needs a long-term strategic approach towards Afghanistan that weaves political, economic, military and diplomatic dimensions into a coherent whole within the framework of a grand strategy. India’s Afghan policy must be based on a clear-cut understanding of India’s strategic goals in the region, and the regional and global strategic environment.

Currently, there are two wars in Afghanistan, one inside Afghanistan that has gone on against foreign intervention for the last four decades, and the other against the Afghan government from Pakistani soil causing a parallel internal disturbance. Since Pakistan’s key policy objective has been to establish its hegemony in Afghanistan, it views an independent Afghanistan that has a vibrant relationship with India as the main hurdle in the achievement of its hegemonic ambitions. However, an Afghanistan deprived of Indian presence would be nothing but another hapless province of Pakistan to be ruled by movers and shakers from Rawalpindi, and to be exploited by China through the Belt and Road Initiative. More problematically, this will not only compound the humiliating experiences of the Afghan people by way of rollback of their basic freedoms, but also create a breeding ground for various fundamentalist organisations, ready to escalate religious and sectarian conflicts across the region. Only Time can tell what actually happens in Afghanistan over the next couple of years. Whatever be the final truth, India must engage with the Taliban leadership, leverage our support amongst the people, build our resources to deal with any surge in terrorism within our borders and keep our powder dry.

Dr. Devender Sharma specializes in Middle Eastern Studies. Currently he is Assistant Professor, in Political Science at Centre of Excellence, Government College, Sanjauli, Shimla (H.P) (India).

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South Asia

A long way of solidarity: a voice for the voiceless Kashmiris

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Friday prayers in Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir. © John Isaac

Every year on February 5 Pakistan observes Kashmir Solidarity Day. It aims to demonstrate Pakistan’s support and solidarity with the people of Indian-occupied Kashmir, and their continuing liberation struggle, and to honor Kashmiri martyrs who sacrificed their lives fighting for Kashmir’s independence.

Every year, on Kashmir Solidarity Day, Pakistan expresses its political, moral, and diplomatic support for the righteous fight of our Kashmiri brothers and becomes its voice in the international forums.

Kashmir’s discord carries historical as well as contemporary events that hinder its political future.

Historical account of the humiliation of Kashmir’s people

The history of conflict dates back to 1947. In the June 3 plan, the princely state offered a choice between India and Pakistan. Maharaja Hari Singh deceived Pakistan and ceded Kashmir to India through a standstill agreement, which sparked an uprising of Pashtun tribesmen and the Hindu nationalists and RSS to organize a program against Muslims, killing between 20,000 and 100,000 Muslims. On October 27, 1947, Indian troops landed in Kashmir to fight against the Pashtuns and the local armies; this led to the first India-Pakistan war. During the war, India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, promised a referendum: “The fate of Jammu and Kashmir is ultimately decided by the people; the pledge we have given is not only to the people of Kashmir but also to the world.” “We will not and cannot back out of it.”

India referred the dispute to the United Nations a little more than two months later. A resolution passed on August 13, 1948, asking both nations to withdraw their forces; once that happened, a referendum was to be held, allowing the people of Kashmir to decide their political future. But the Indian troops were never withdrawn, and the referendum never happened. On January 1, 1949, the ceasefire was agreed upon, and Kashmir became a disputed territory. Over the next 70 years, India and Pakistan fought three wars over Kashmir.

In Indian-administrated Kashmir, India maintains around 600,000 troops in Kashmir, who have committed human rights violations like rape, torture, and enforced disappearances that continue today. The number of people killed in Kashmir is estimated to be between 50,000 and 100,000, which shows the ruthlessness of the so-called largest democracy in the world.

Situation after the abolishment of articles 370 and 35A

On August 5, 2019, the Indian government abrogated Article 370 and Article 35A of the Indian Constitution, which granted Jammu and Kashmir a special status and autonomy. The Indian government enforced a curfew, disrupted communication connections, arrested political leaders, and deployed extra soldiers in the area, generating widespread resentment and demonstrations.

Since the abolition of Articles 370 and 35A, human rights abuses and violations in Kashmir have increased significantly, with claims of widespread mass arrests, torture, and extrajudicial executions by Indian security personnel. The Indian government has also restricted freedom of speech, assembly, and the press, making it impossible for citizens to openly express their thoughts and report on the state of the area.

In addition, the Indian government has been accused of fostering demographic changes in the area through the settlement of Hindu migrants, which has resulted in a fall in the percentage of the Muslim population and degradation of the Kashmiri people’s distinctive cultural and religious identity.

International human rights groups have shown concern about the situation in Kashmir and demanded an independent investigation into the reported human rights breaches and abuses. About 87 civilians have been killed by the Indian forces since the abrogation of Article 370. The international community has also advocated for a peaceful settlement to the issue that takes the Kashmiri people’s rights and interests into consideration.

The situation in Kashmir remains severe, and the continuous violence and human rights violations continue to provide the international community with a formidable task. The region’s political future is still unknown, and a sustainable resolution to the war has not yet been found.

Pakistan’s Advocacy for Kashmir

Pakistan has made several attempts to resolve the ongoing conflict in Kashmir and has sought international backing for its stance on the matter. Pakistan has repeatedly discussed the Kashmir issue at the United Nations and other international forums, stressing the need for a peaceful settlement of the conflict based on the self-determination principle and the right of the Kashmiri people to choose their destiny. Pakistan has also made diplomatic attempts to garner international support for its viewpoint, notably via the Organization of Islamic Cooperation and the Non-Aligned Movement.

Pakistan has also endeavored to provide political, diplomatic, and moral assistance for the Kashmiri resistance movement. India has accused Pakistan of financing terrorism in the area based on information that Pakistan supports separatist organizations in the region. Pakistan has denied these allegations and advocated for a peaceful settlement according to UN Resolution 47 (1948), which calls for a ceasefire, and UN Resolution 51 (1948), which calls for a plebiscite to be held in the region to determine the will of the Kashmiri people.

Despite these attempts, the situation in Kashmir remains unresolved, and a permanent resolution to the conflict has not yet been reached. The issue remains a significant source of conflict between India and Pakistan and a problem for the international community.

Conclusion:

Kashmir’s political future remains uncertain and is the subject of ongoing discussion and negotiation between India and Pakistan, as well as international engagement.

Currently, the territory is split between India and Pakistan, with India administering the greater part and Pakistan the smaller. The Line of Control (LoC), which divides the two managed territories, has often been the scene of tension and bloodshed.

There have been appeals for a peaceful conclusion that takes the rights and interests of the Kashmiri people into consideration. Some have suggested the concept of “self-determination,” in which the people of Kashmir would have the right to choose their destiny through a referendum or a negotiated solution between India and Pakistan.

Kashmir’s political future is unpredictable and vulnerable to the continuous dynamics of the war as well as the shifting political and strategic objectives of the major regional countries. The international community still has a big part to play in finding a solution, and India, Pakistan, and the other countries in the area are likely to have to be involved and support any lasting solution.

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Sri Lankans deserve a clean break from the past

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The decision of former president Maithripala Sirisena to run for president pits two unpopular, establishment candidates against one another. With both Sirisena and Ranil Wickremesinghe involved in past political turmoil and the current economic crisis, Sri Lankans deserve a clean break.

While a presidential election cannot be held until 2024, the Sri Lankan Electoral Commission recently announced local elections for February. With no popular mandate and as the only member of his party, President Wickremesinghe is expected to face an embarrassing defeat in the poll, but it is unlikely to bring down the government.

The announcement that Sirisena would run as president comes at a pivotal time for Sri Lankans.

Wickremesinghe warned this week that the Sri Lankan economy could contract by up to 4% this year, after shrinking 11% last year.

Last year, the island nation descended into turmoil, with an economic collapse leading to its worst crisis in years. Foreign currency shortages, runaway inflation and a recession left the government unable to make debt repayments and left Sri Lankans desperately short of food and fuel.

This led to unprecedented unrest, particularly in the capital Colombo, resulting in the deaths of protesters and police, with hundreds more injured or detained. The protests culminated in the storming and occupation of the presidential palace, forcing Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country, with Wickremesinghe replacing him as president.

Sirisena has a chequered history in Sri Lankan politics.

Sirisena was part of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet before defecting to the opposition and winning a surprise election victory against Rajapaksa in 2015.

As President, Sirisena formed a close partnership with Wickremsinghe, appointing him Prime Minister, before the two spectacularly fell out. This culminated in the sacking of Wickremesinghe in 2018, replacing him with Mahinda Rajapaksa. At the time, Wickremesinghe claimed that the move was “unconstitutional”.

This led to a constitutional crisis and power struggle between Wickremesinghe, Rajapaksa and Sirisena, with the former President dissolving parliament and calling snap elections. Sirisena then decided to not seek re-election, leaving office in early 2019. He was replaced as president by Mahinda’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Recently, the Sri Lankan supreme court ordered Sirisena and several other top government, police and intelligence officials to pay millions of rupees in compensation to the victims of the 2019 Easter bombings in Colombo. The court found that Sirisena, as former president, ignored multiple warnings about an imminent terrorist attack weeks before the deadly event took place.

But Wickremesinghe is also no saint.

Wickremesinghe, a six-time prime minister, won a parliamentary vote with the backing of the Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party to replace Gotabaya Rajapaksa in July 2022. For this reason, he is accused of owing his position to the family.

Upon gaining the presidency, Wickremesinghe immediately cracked down on protesters, condemning the protests as “against the law” and calling protesters “fascists”. Under his watch, more than 140 protesters have been arrested and its leaders driven into hiding.

In August 2022, the United Nations condemned his government’s crackdown on protesters. The UN also criticised the repeated use of emergency measures, such as curfews, calling them a “misuse of emergency measures”.

The president has also been accused of delaying this poll, claiming the economically crippled country cannot afford to spend 10 billion rupees on a local election. However, the election commission decided to proceed despite the president’s request. Nonetheless, this raises doubts about Wickremesinghe’s respect for the democratic process.

What Sri Lankans desperately need is political stability and good economic management so the country can dig its way out of its worst crisis since independence.

Sirisena and Wickremesinghe offer neither. The former is struggling to finalise a bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund and both are notorious for poor political decision making and unpopular with a public desperate for change.

Therefore, Sri Lankans are faced with two establishment candidates who only offer more of the same.

The solution, at least for the time being, is for Wickremesinghe to call a presidential election so the next president has a clear mandate by the people. This will assist in forming a stable government and in bailout negotiations with the IMF.

Power also needs to be decentralised through ambitious political reforms that allow for wider participation and decision making in parliament. While, admittedly, this would be difficult under both Sirisena and Wickremesinghe, it is the first step in dealing with corruption and nepotism in Sri Lankan politics.

Presidential candidates serious about solving the countries problems also need to focus on key issues, such as rebuilding the economy, accountability for human rights and rebuilding political integrity and public trust.

Only once this is achieved, and Sri Lanka has shed itself of its dysfunctional political past, will it be able to recover.

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A Hybrid Political System for Pakistan: A Proposal

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The political system of Pakistan is an amalgamation of Islamic, British, and Indian influences, shaped by a multifaceted array of religious, ethnic, and regional factors, making it a culturally rich and ever-changing landscape. Pakistan is renowned for its powerful military establishment, which has traditionally wielded significant influence in determining its political direction. The nation’s political history is characterized by cycles of military rule, punctuated by several coups, followed by phases of democratic rule, though the military has continued to exert a significant degree of influence in the country’s politics. Furthermore, Pakistan has had to contend with the pernicious threat of extremism, with various militant groups operating within its borders and perpetrating terrorist attacks, which have destabilized the nation’s political, social, and economic stability.

This article aims to shed light on the challenges faced by the political system in Pakistan, specifically concerning the current political turmoil the country is experiencing. It also suggests a potential solution to stabilize the system and bring about a revolution in the way politics is conducted in Pakistan

The challenges faced by Pakistan’s democracy are compounded by the elite classes’ actions. The country is currently facing significant upheaval, which can be attributed to several factors. The lack of solid democratic institutions, frequent military takeovers, and the involvement of powerful military and civilian elites are among the underlying causes of the country’s political instability. Additionally, ethnic and regional conflicts, poverty, and economic growth issues further exacerbated political instability. The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, as well as political unrest in neighboring countries, have also had an impact on the country. Furthermore, Pakistan’s history of military control, political corruption, and a lack of a deeply ingrained democratic culture have all contributed to the volatility in its political system.

The current political quagmire that plagues Pakistan is multifaceted, primarily stemming from a dearth of political acumen and a paucity of commitment on the part of leaders to prioritize the exigencies of the populace over their own personal and factional interests. This has led to a diminution of public confidence in the political system and government officials. Furthermore, the military’s prolonged political intervention and sway history has exacerbated a lack of democratic stability and accountability. Another critical conundrum that has impeded the country’s political evolution is the preponderance of corruption and nepotism in every government agency, rendering it difficult for citizens to repose trust in government officials. As a result, there is a burgeoning loss of faith in institutions of all varieties, with people losing trust in the government, corporations, and political leaders.

Furthermore, the failure of successive governments to address the issue of corruption has further undermined public trust in the political system. The permeation of corrupt practices in every government institution has made it difficult for citizens to have faith in government officials, leading to a general disillusionment with the political system. Additionally, the lack of transparency and accountability in government operations has enabled corrupt officials to operate with impunity, further eroding the public’s trust in the political system. The aforementioned issues have resulted in a political climate marked by a lack of stability and continuity, hindering the country’s economic and social development. It is imperative that the political class and other stakeholders work towards addressing these issues to ensure that the political system can effectively serve the people’s needs and promote the country’s long-term stability and prosperity.

Proposing A New Way to get stability in Political System?

A hybrid political system combines characteristics of many political systems, such as democracy and autocracy. Two examples are a semi-presidential system, which combines a prime minister and a president, and a federal system, which combines a central government with regional administrations. Hybrid systems can also include components of other kinds of democracy, such as a parliamentary system combined with a robust presidential system. These systems are frequently viewed as a compromise between competing political ideologies or as a means of balancing the strengths and shortcomings of various systems

If the official replaces the current political system with a hybrid one, it could be very beneficial. One of the main advantages of a hybrid system is that it allows for a balance of power between the legislative and executive branches of government. In a presidential system, the executive branch is separate from the legislative branch, with the president having a lot of power. In a parliamentary system, however, the executive branch is accountable to the legislative branch. In a hybrid system, the executive branch has some independence from the legislative branch but is still responsible for it. This helps to prevent too much power from being concentrated in one person or group and also helps to protect citizens’ rights and to avoid abuse of power.

An additional benefit of implementing a hybrid system is that it may facilitate more efficient decision-making by leveraging the strengths of both presidential and parliamentary systems. In a presidential system, the separation of powers can result in stalemates and prolonged indecision, while in a parliamentary system, the government can swiftly collapse if it loses the legislature’s support. A hybrid system, on the other hand, can offer a balance of stability and agility, allowing for more prompt decision-making while maintaining the accountability of the executive branch. Furthermore, considering Pakistan’s history of military involvement in politics, a hybrid system can provide a mechanism to hold the military accountable to the civilian administration and reduce the likelihood of military intervention.

It is imperative to acknowledge that a hybrid system may not be the ultimate remedy for all of Pakistan’s issues, and its successful operation would require meticulous planning and execution. Nevertheless, this system could potentially provide a glimpse of sustained stability in Pakistan’s political landscape, and it is incumbent upon the authorities to consider this system as a viable option to circumvent further obstacles.

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