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The Taliban Takeover and Afghans Ontological (In)Security

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Since the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in mid-August 2021, the general public, media, and academic environments have tremendously discussed the event’s security implications. Nevertheless, these discussions have focused on physical security threats. Conspicuously missing is the ontological aspect of security, relating to how security involves metaphysics of life – being, feeling alive, real, or sense of inner self. Therefore, the overarching objective of this piece is to explore this overlooked critical insecurity that has engendered urban Afghan responses. While helping to fill the existing gap in the security discussions, it serves a policy relevance, drawing policymakers’ attention to metaphysical insecurity when dealing with the impending humanitarian crisis. Why are urban Afghans petrified about the Taliban second-coming to the extent of opting for death by falling from a moving plane?

In a conversation with a colleague the days following the takeover and American desperate evacuation efforts, he was astonished about the actions of the people who climbed onto the wings of the military plane: “What was wrong with these people [Afghans]? Didn’t they know that they would fall and die? Did they think that they could hang on in the air until the plane landed?” The answer to his questions and the central argument this piece drives is that the urban Afghan public’s anxieties and uncertainties surrounding the Taliban takeover create ontological insecurity that threatens their existential conditions – ordinary living or sense of being in the world. Therefore, their actions, including chasing a taxiing airplane and clinging to its wings, were consequent attempts to reacting to the anxieties to their feeling of aliveness or realness. Rural Afghans might relatively coexist with the Taliban due to the congruity of their unique understanding and interpretation of Islam. Thus, I focus on the urban population with a modernized view of Islam and a taste of Western culture, putting them at odds with the Taliban and rural folks. Some rural people even abhor urbanite culture and consider it un-Islamic.

Security may underpin various explanations. However, a common matrix is that security entails freedom from threats to core values. Thus, we can have a security language implying metaphysics of life – ontological security. Ontological security is an emotional phenomenon concerned with “the confidence that most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action.” In simple terms, it denotes having a consistent or continued sense of being or self-identity and having that sense accepted and affirmed by others and having that acceptance and affirmation guaranteed consistently. Therefore, an ontologically secured person is an individual who has a “sense of his presence in the world as a real, alive, whole, and, in a temporal sense, a continuous person” and can go out into the world and meet others with similar conditions. An ontologically insecure person develops anxieties on the assurances derived from an existential position. They may feel more innately unreal than real, more dead than alive, and consistently questioning their identity and autonomy in their ordinary living circumstances. Therefore, everyday life “constitutes a continual and deadly threat.” That is, an ontologically insecure person has life without feeling alive – a walking dead-man.

International relations research generally agrees that states pursue security and survival. Therefore, we can think of the state as an ontological security-seeking agent. It gains legitimacy by performing core responsibilities, including human security – averting dangers to human safety and survival that living conditions such as poverty, abuses, repression, disease, environmental stress, hunger, and armed conflict cause. Thus, it acts as a structure or institution for the citizens to achieve ontological security, reducing existential anxiety and making life intelligible. The state – not church/mosque – mediates between life and death. Therefore, in parts of the world where it cannot perform this role, it has no basis for claiming legitimacy, and ordinary living constitutes a great sense of existential anxiety. Understanding it from this point, we can understand the psychology of, for example, men and women who brave through the Mediterranean Sea on rickety boats into Europe.

For urban Afghans, a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is not devoid of existential anxiety. There is uncertainty that Afghanistan can seek its ontological security, let alone serve as an ontological security structure. There is a fear of losing jobs, status, or once held privileges, and daily activities like schooling or sports. There is little confidence in the continuity of their self-identity in the immediate environment the Taliban supervises since there is an incongruity between urban Afghans and the Taliban’s ordinary living. Thus, the former believes that it is unlikely the latter would consistently accept and affirm its sense of self that makes them feel alive or whole.

Urban Afghans existential anxiety is due to prior experience with the Taliban. From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban accorded women the most circumscribed role in society, banning their education and public appearances. In some cases, Taliban officials beat women for “wearing white socks [because] that is the color of the Taliban flag.” The sixteen public codes prohibited citizens from watching television, those who risked watching blackened windows. The Taliban detached the hands of people accused of stealing, imprisoned people for wearing British or American hairstyles or trimming the beard, prohibited music and dance at all public places, including wedding ceremonies. Taliban administered all punishments publicly, and everybody was required to attend.

We are humans. Thus, there are many circumstances under which anxieties may be normal or a more general condition. Ontological insecurity triggers questions to our identity and autonomy, and we may express fear of the unknown from time to time due to some uncertainty. However, anxiety is not an absolute condition; there can be degrees. Low levels may be insignificant and associated with relative stability, while higher levels can unsettle a person’s inner being. It is emotionally related, and in most instances, we cannot answer the arising questions rationally. Therefore, “when they are profound and chronic, as irrational, these feelings are more the result of emotional supersensitivity than irrationality.” The feelings arise due to the uncertainty a prevailing situation would have on the self and his continuous existence or living as a normal person.  Therefore, urban Afghans’ direct fear of physical safety in the belief that the Taliban would harm them due to incongruent identities, combined with the danger to human security, is significant enough to create metaphysical insecurity, affecting their existential conditions. The existential anxiety is due to prior experience with the Taliban between1996 to 2001. Thus, the thought of the Taliban coming back with the 1996-2001 governance overwhelms their human nature and innately kills them. It creates a feeling of having a life without being alive.

Therefore, people clung to the plane not because they did not know that they would fall and die. However, they believed that if they could hang on and arrive at the next destination – although the chances were zero – it’s bingo because that assures them of living as a temporally continuous person. But if they should fall and die, they have lost nothing because it is the same as living in Afghanistan – life but feeling unreal and dead. It suggests that individuals preferred natural death, even by falling from a moving plane, to feeling living-dead. Nevertheless, why would Afghans have uncertainties about the Taliban second-coming and not assume that the Taliban has changed? It is because mistrust is a crucial component of ontological insecurity. Thus, Afghans cannot trust the Taliban since the latter is the source of the former’s feeling dead inside. Therefore, ontological security that discusses individuals’ sense of safety in the world includes a basic trust of other people. The trust serves as an emotional inoculation, protecting people against future profound existential anxiety that enable them to maintain hope of consistent acceptance and affirmation even in the face of later draining circumstances. Unfortunately, previous Taliban rule prevented Afghans from having this inoculation.

There are glimpses that urban Afghans’ anxieties about their existence or feeling of aliveness are not unfounded. For example, universities have reopened, and curtains or boards separate women from men. Therefore, understanding this metaphysical security would enable us to thoroughly discuss Afghans insecurity vis-à-vis the Taliban takeover with sufficient nuance.

Thomas Ameyaw-Brobbey is an Assistant Professor of International Relations, Diplomacy and Security at the Faculty of Law and Public Administration, Yibin University, Sichuan, China. His research interests span international relations issues, security issues (civil conflicts and wars, human security), state-building, domestic governance institutions of developing countries, China-African public diplomacy, and political communication.

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South Asia

India’s Unclear Neighbourhood Policy: How to Overcome ?

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India has witnessed multiple trends with regards to its relations with its neighbours at a time vaccine diplomacy is gaining prominence and Beijing increasing the pace towards becoming an Asian superpower, whereby making these reasons valid for New Delhi to have a clear foreign policy with respect to its neighbourhood.

Introduction

The Covid Pandemic has led to increased uncertainty in the global order where it comes to power dynamics, role of international organisations. New Delhi has tried to leave no stone unturned when it comes to dealing with its immediate neighbours.  It has distributed medical aid and vaccines to smaller countries to enhance its image abroad at a time it has witnessed conflicts with China and a change in government in Myanmar. These developments make it imperative for New Delhi to increase its focus on regionalism and further international engagement where this opportunity could be used tactically amidst a pandemic by using economic and healthcare aid.

According to Dr. Arvind Gupta, New Delhi has to deal with threats coming from multiple fronts and different tactics where it is essential for New Delhi to save energy using soft means rather than coercive measures.. India under Vaccine Maitri has supplied many of COVAXIN doses to Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka where many have appreciated this move. The urgency of ensuring humanitarian aid during these periods of unprecedented uncertainty are essential in PM Modi’s Security and Growth For All ( SAGAR) initiative, which focusses on initiating inclusive growth as well as cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region.

This pandemic witnessed various threats coming in India’s neighbourhood through multiple dimensions which include maritime, land, cyber as well as air threats where adversaries are using these to put pressure on New Delhi to settle land as well as marine disputes as per their terms.  These encirclement strategies have made it necessary for India to open up various options such as holding maritime joint exercises with like-minded countries, developing partnerships, providing economic as well as healthcare support to weaker countries plus having a clear insight about changing global dynamics and acting as per them.

This piece will discuss about various changing tactics, pros and cons which India has with respect to developing its national security vis-à-vis its neighbourhood, why should it prioritise its neighbourhood at the first place?

Background

India’s Neighbourhood is filled with many complexities and a lot of suspicion amongst countries, some viewing India because of its size and geography plus economic clout as a bully where it is wanting to dominate in the region putting others aside. This led to New Delhi play an increased role in nudging ties first with its neighbours with whom it had multiple conflicts as well as misunderstandings leading to the latter viewing Beijing as a good alternative in order to keep India under check.

Ever since PM Modi has taken charge at 7 RCR, India’s Neighbourhood First Policy has been followed increasingly to develop relations, to enhance understandings and ensure mutual cooperation as well as benefit with its neighbours. The relations with Islamabad have not seen so much improvement as compared to other leaders in the past. Even though former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was invited for PM Modi’s 1st Swearing In ceremony in 2014, terrorist activities have never stopped which could be seen through Pathankot, Uri and Pulwama terror attacks which killed many of the Indian soldiers. Even though surgical strikes were conducted on terror camps in retaliation to these bombardments, Islamabad has not changed its heart at all about its security or regional demands. New strategies and friendships are being developed where Beijing has played a major role in controlling power dynamics.

The Belt and Road initiative, first time mentioned during President Xi’s 2013 speech in Kazakhstan, then officially in 2015,  lays emphasis of achieving a Chinese Dream of bringing countries under one umbrella, ensuring their security, providing them with infrastructure projects such as ports, railways, pipelines, highways etc. The main bottleneck is the China Pakistan Economic Corridor when it comes to India’s security threats, passing through disputed boundaries of Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir till Gwadar. Other projects have been initiated in Chittagong, Hambantota, Gwadar , Kyapkyou. These projects form a String Of Pearls in the Indo Pacific where New Delhi is being balanced against through economic plus development incentives being given to the member countries under the project. That’s why in the recent past, New Delhi is asserting its influence in the region, looking at new dimensional threats where Beijing’s threats in the maritime domain in the islands in East as well as South China seas are not being seen favourably in many countries such as ASEAN, US, Australia and Japan which is giving India an opportunity to look towards countries with a common threat. Amidst this great power struggle between Washington and Beijing, New Delhi is stuck between a rock and hard place i.e., having a clear and strong foreign policy with its neighbours.

In this region, India has a sole threat which is mainly Beijing where the latter has achieved prowess technologically and militarily where New Delhi lags behind the latter twenty fold. So, there is a need for improvising military technology, increase economic activities with countries, reduce dependence on foreign aid, ensure self-reliance.

Situation

South Asia is backward when it comes to economic development, human development and is a home to majority of the world’s population which lives below poverty line. The colonial rule has left a never-ending impact on divisions based on communal, linguistic and ethnic grounds. Even, in terms of infrastructure and connectivity, New Delhi lags behind Beijing significantly in the neighbourhood because the latter is at an edge when it comes to bringing countries under the same umbrella. Due to these, many initiatives have been taken up by New Delhi on developing infrastructure, providing humanitarian aid to needy countries.

There have been numerous efforts made by India with respect to reaching out to the Neighbours in 2020 through setting up of the SAARC Covid Fund where many Neighbourhood countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka gave contributions to ensure cooperation, joint scientific research, sharing information, healthcare kits where the countries contributed USD $ 18 million jointly towards this fund where New Delhi made an initial offer of USD $ 10 million.

New Delhi has even mustered ties with the Association of Southeast Asian countries during the pandemic under its Act East Policy where proper connectivity through the Northeast could be useful in easing movement of goods but currently, the infrastructure in Northeast needs more improvement where issues such as unemployment, poor connectivity are prevalent whereby disconnecting it from rest of the other states. This region could play an important role in linking Bangladesh, Myanmar to New Delhi along with the proposed India-Thailand –Myanmar Trilateral Corridor. Focus has also been laid to develop inland waterways, rail links and pipelines to ease connections between countries, making trade free and more efficient.

India is focussing on developing the Sittwe and Paletwa ports in Myanmar under the Kaladan Development Corridor, at the cost of INR 517.9 Crore in order to provide an alternative e route beneficial for the Northeast for getting shipping access

Summing Up

 These above developments and power display by a strong adversary, give good reasons for New Delhi to adopt collective security mechanisms through QUAD, SIMBEX and JIMEX with a common perception of having safe and open waters through abiding to the UNCLOS which China isn’t showing too much interest in, seen through surveillance units, artificial islands being set up on disputed territories which countries likewise India are facing in context to territorial sovereignty and integrity. These developments make it important for India to look at strategic threats by coming together with countries based on similar interest’s vis-à-vis Chinese threat.

There is a need for India to develop and harness its strength through connectivity and its self reliance initiative ( Aatmanirbharta ) so that there is no dependence on any foreign power at times of need . Proper coordination between policy makers and government officials could make decision making even easier, which is not there completely because of ideological differences, different ideas which makes it important for the political leadership to coordinate with the military jointly during times of threats on borders. Self-reliance could only come through preparedness and strategy.

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South Asia

India is in big trouble as UK stands for Kashmiris

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 A London-based law firm has filed an application with British police seeking the arrest of India’s army chief and a senior Indian government official over their alleged roles in war crimes in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Law firm Stoke White said it submitted extensive evidence to the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit on Tuesday, documenting how Indian forces headed by General Manoj Mukund Naravane and Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah were responsible for the torture, kidnapping and killing of activists, journalists and civilians – particularly Muslim – in the region.

“There is strong reason to believe that Indian authorities are conducting war crimes and other violence against civilians in Jammu and Kashmir,” the report states, referring to the territory in the Himalayan region.

Based on more than 2,000 testimonies taken between 2020 and 2021, the report also accused eight unnamed senior Indian military officials of direct involvement in war crimes and torture in Kashmir.

The law firm’s investigation suggested that the abuse has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. It also included details about the arrest of Khurram Parvez, the region’s most prominent rights activist, by India’s counterterrorism authorities last year.

“This report is dedicated to the families who have lost loved ones without a trace, and who experience daily threats when trying to attain justice,” Khalil Dewan, author of the report and head of the SWI unit, said in a statement.

“The time has now come for victims to seek justice through other avenues, via a firmer application of international law.”

The request to London police was made under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”, which gives countries the authority to prosecute individuals accused of crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world.

The international law firm in London said it believes its application is the first time that legal action has been initiated abroad against Indian authorities over alleged war crimes in Kashmir.

Hakan Camuz, director of international law at Stoke White, said he hoped the report would convince British police to open an investigation and ultimately arrest the officials when they set foot in the UK.

Some of the Indian officials have financial assets and other links to Britain.

“We are asking the UK government to do their duty and investigate and arrest them for what they did based on the evidence we supplied to them. We want them to be held accountable,” Camuz said.

The police application was made on behalf of the family of Pakistani prisoner Zia Mustafa, who, Camuz said, was the victim of extrajudicial killing by Indian authorities in 2021, and on behalf of human rights campaigner Muhammad Ahsan Untoo, who was allegedly tortured before his arrest last week.

Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the past two decades in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both in its entirety.

Muslim Kashmiris mostly support rebels who want to unite the region, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country.

Kashmiris and international rights groups have long accused Indian troops of carrying out systematic abuse and arrests of those who oppose rule from New Delhi.

Rights groups have also criticized the conduct of armed groups, accusing them of carrying out human rights violations against civilians.

In 2018, the United Nations human rights chief called for an independent international investigation into reports of rights violations in Kashmir, alleging “chronic impunity for violations committed by security forces”.

India’s government has denied the alleged rights violations and maintains such claims are separatist propaganda meant to demonize Indian troops in the region. It seems, India is in big trouble and may not be able to escape this time. A tough time for Modi-led extremist government and his discriminatory policies. The world opinion about India has been changed completely, and it has been realized that there is no longer a democratic and secular India. India has been hijacked by extremist political parties and heading toward further bias policies. Minorities may suffer further, unless the world exert pressure to rectify the deteriorating human rights records in India.

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S. Jaishankar’s ‘The India Way’, Is it a new vision of foreign policy?

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S. Jaishankar has had an illustrious Foreign Service career holding some of the highest and most prestigious positions such as ambassador to China and the US and as foreign secretary of India. Since 2019 he has served as India’s foreign minister. S. Jaishankar also has a Ph.D. in international relations from JNU and his academic background is reflected in this book.

His main argument is simplistic, yet the issues involved are complex. Jaishankar argues that the world is changing fundamentally, and the international environment is experiencing major shifts in power as well as processes. China is rising and western hegemony is declining. We are moving away from a unipolar system dominated by the US to a multipolar system. Globalization is waning and nationalism and polarization is on the rise (p. 29). The old order is going away but we cannot yet glimpse what the future will look like. This is the uncertain world that Dr. Jaishankar sees.

Dr. Jaishankar also argues that India too has changed, it is more capable and more assertive. The liberalization program that began in 1991 has made the Indian economy vibrant and globally competitive and it is well on track to becoming the third biggest economy in the world, after China and the US.  The war of 1971 that liberated Bangladesh, the liberalization of the economy after 1991, the nuclear tests in 1998 and the nuclear understanding with the US in 2005, Jaishankar argues are landmarks in India’s strategic evolution (p. 4). So given that both India and the system have changed, Jaishankar concludes, so should India’s foreign policy.

But his prescription for India’s foreign policy, in the grand scheme of things, is the same as before – India should remain nonaligned and not join the US in its efforts to contain China. India will try to play with both sides it seems in order to exploit the superpowers and maximize its own interests (p. 9). But he fails to highlight how India can find common ground with China other than to say the two nations must resolve things diplomatically. He also seems to think that the US has infinite tolerance for India’s coyness. In his imagination the US will keep making concessions and India will keep playing hard to get.

Jaishankar has a profound contradiction in his thinking. He argues that the future will be determined by what happens between the US and China. In a way he is postulating a bipolar future to global politics. But he then claims that the world is becoming multipolar and this he claims will increase the contests for regional hegemony. The world cannot be both bipolar and multipolar at the same time.

There is also a blind spot in Jaishankar’s book.  He is apparently unaware of the rise of Hindu nationalism and the demand for a Hindu state that is agitating and polarizing India’s domestic politics. The systematic marginalization and oppression of Muslim minorities at home and the growing awareness overseas of the dangers of Hindutva extremism do not exist in the world that he lives in. He misses all this even as he goes on to invoke the Mahabharata and argue how Krishna’s wisdom and the not so ethical choices during the war between Pandavas and Kauravas should be a guide for how India deals with this uncertain world – by balancing ethics with realism (p. 63). Methinks his little digression in discussing the ancient Hindu epic is more to signal his ideological predilections than to add any insights to understanding the world or India’s place in it.  

One aspect of his work that I found interesting is his awareness of the importance of democracy and pluralism. He states that India’s democracy garners respect and gives India a greater opportunity to be liked and admired by other nations in the world (p. 8). Yet recently when he was asked about the decline of India’s democratic credentials, his response was very defensive, and he showed visible signs of irritation. It is possible that he realizes India is losing ground internationally but is unwilling to acknowledge that his political party is responsible for the deterioration of India’s democracy.

This is also apparent when he talks about the importance of India improving its relations with its immediate neighbors. He calls the strategy as neighborhood first approach (pp. 9-10). What he does not explain is how an Islamophobic India will maintain good relations with Muslim majority neighbors like Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan.

The book is interesting, it has its limitations and both, what is addressed and what is left out, are clearly political choices and provide insights into how New Delhi thinks about foreign policy. So, coming to the question with which we started, does India have a new foreign policy vision? The answer is no. Dr. Jaishankar is right, there is indeed an India way, but it is the same old way, and it entails remaining nonaligned with some minor attitudinal adjustments.  

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