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In tandem: violence and peace process

[Featured Image: Courtesy CARTOONSSTOCK.com]

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hong Lei has condemned terrorist attack on Badaber; said, China supports Pakistan in firmly combating terrorism. Advisor to PM on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz said, initial investigation into the attack on PAF’s domestic camp near Peshawar had proved terrorists’ contacts within Afghanistan; further investigation is underway and will be shared with Afghan authorities on completion. Apparently this attack was aimed at, once again, disrupting the next round of reconciliation talks between the Afghan government and Tehreek-e-Taliban Afghanistan (TTA), which appears round the corner. Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan have deteriorated during recent weeks following a sudden spike in violence in Afghanistan. Angered President Ashraf Ghani had said that his country will now not seek any help from Pakistan for brokering a peace deal. However, behind the scene strenuous efforts were on to revive the peace process.
Two top American commanders visited Pakistan in the recent weeks; Chief of US Central Command General Lloyd Austin and the US/NATO commander in Afghanistan General John Campbell. John Campbell was accompanied by the acting American Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Jarrett Blanc. Visitors discussed Afghan peace talks with Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, focused at jump-starting the stalled process. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would also like to see the peace talks resume before his forthcoming visits to the UN and the White House.
Dust is settling down over the issues that cropped up after his demise; now the life is returning to normal. TTA has swiftly resolved its leadership issue and Mullah Akhtar Mansur has emerged as a near consensus leader. Mullah Omar’s family has also pledged allegiance to him. The succession dispute could have caused a split in the conglomerate; and in that case it would have been difficult to carry forward the peace process. Afghan Taliban leadership has brilliantly succeeded in arresting the dissent within the rank and file of the TTA. Mansoor displayed patience, tact and pragmatism in consolidating his leadership. He did not let loose violence on his detractors and held the conviction that better options existed. He even reached out to senior Taliban commanders in the Middle East to seek credibility to his leadership.

Now Mansoor is likely to return to negotiating table, Kabul is also likely to join after making few noises. Ghani needs to set his own house in order. Who would know better than him that despite the claims to the contrary, Afghan National Security Forces (ANCF) are not in good shape and war is a non-option for the incumbent Afghan government. Ghazni jailbreak has not only embarrassed Kabul government but also was an impressive display of power by the Taliban. Taliban continue to keep the Afghan army on its toes, engaging it in a war of attrition; ANSF casualty rate is alarmingly high and is on the rise. At the same time, the war lobby in Kabul is on ascendancy, beneficiaries of status quo via continuation of ongoing shady war, like Rustam Dostum, have again sprung into action; such elements could happily become Indian proxies for keeping the pot boiling.

Taliban are busy in a spree of show of force to reassert their dominant status for two reasons. Firstly, to shore up support base from erosion at the hands of the Islamic State; and secondly, to pressure the Afghan government to make concessions when the peace talks resume. To be fair, attribution of recent acts of violence in Afghanistan to Daesh (IS) may not be an accurate assessment. Though, there are reports of presence of this outfit in Afghanistan, it is unable to sustain itself due to sharp decline in foreign funding, and there is no footprint of this group in Pakistan.
Pakistan has invited the new leadership of the Afghan Taliban to re-join the reconciliation process. “We hope that TTA will give up violence and join intra-Afghan dialogue for peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan will facilitate the dialogue, as before,” foreign office spokesperson said. This approach, of putting horse before the cart, is essentially a non-starter. Prudence demands that instead of preconditioning reconciliation with termination of violence, initial phases of negotiation should aim at working out the modalities of renouncing the violence culminating at a cease-fire. This would need a whole range of actions to create conducive environment through Confidence Building Measures (CBMs), like exchange of prisoners. Once the warring factions gain each other’s trust, sustainable cease fire would be a logical outcome.
Sartaj Aziz travelled to Kabul on September 04 to deliver a key message calling for the resumption of peace process. However, Afghanistan has yet to respond to Pakistan’s proposal. Sartaj Aziz has stated that efforts are being made for resumption of reconciliation talks between the Afghan Taliban and the Afghan government. Aziz added that it now depends on the Afghan government, and they can resume the process if they are willing to. While Afghan government has all the right to choose the option of handling the peace talks unilaterally, such an effort is not likely to lead anywhere, because Afghan peace process is a complicated enterprise that needs robust guarantors firstly for sealing a mutually acceptable agreement, and later for its successful implementation at political and military levels.

Pakistan’s role in facilitating the reconciliation process has always been considered crucial. At the same time Pakistan has all along been cautioning about the limits of its influence on the Taliban. Apparently, Pakistan and Afghanistan have once again agreed “to restore trust, end the blame game against each other and create a positive atmosphere,” Aziz said about his meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Pakistan has confronted Afghanistan with ‘compelling’ evidence of how its security forces have successfully dismantled the Haqqani network from FATA. Pakistan’s assessment is that majority of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan are now being planned from within Afghanistan.

As of now, American priority is resumption of Murree peace talks; the US is no longer pressing for a Pakistani military crackdown on the Haqqani Network, which was indeed an unrealistic demand ab-initio. Afghanistan shall also figure in the agenda of talks between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping during his state visit to the US. This would add to a coordinated US-China-Pakistani effort in the days ahead to put the Afghan peace talks back on track. Three key regional powers neighboring Afghanistan (China, Pakistan and Iran) are on board. Contacts between the US and Iran during nuclear negotiations have begun to produce more areas of cooperation including Afghanistan, where there is clearly emerging alignment of interests between the US and Iran.

Pakistan’s policy on Afghan peace process is rather clear. Pakistan has always been ready to facilitate the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process because it feels that peace in Afghanistan is important not only for the people of Afghanistan but also the people of Pakistan and the region. In this regard, the success of Zarb-e-Azb in eliminating terrorists is well-known to the world. Afghan government should cease the opportunity and rejoin the peace process. Afghan side should understand that charisma of Mullah Omar is so powerful that he continues to have impelling influence on the rank and file of TTA, even two years after his death.

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Blasphemy issue needs a permanent solution

The good sense has prevailed, an imminent catastrophe has receded. In a written statement issued on August 30, Geert Wilders announced "not to let the cartoon contest go ahead.” The contest was to be held at the tightly guarded offices of his Party for Freedom in the Dutch parliament building. Meanwhile, the Netherlands government had been at pains to distance itself from the contest. Prime Minister Mark Rutte questioned Wilders' motive for organising the contest. Pakistan’s foreign minister congratulated the nation and Muslim Ummah on their moral victory and termed the cancellation of the contest a victory for Pakistan on the diplomatic front. Cancellation announcement came within days after Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a statement saying the act was hurting the sentiments of Muslims living all around the world. Condemning the blasphemous cartoon competition in the Netherlands, Prime Minister Imran Khan had blamed the recurrence of such incidents a collective failure of the Muslim world, saying he would take up the matter at the United Nations General Assembly’s upcoming session. After the publication of Salman Rushdi’s blasphemous book ‘Satanic Verses’, it has become very easy to malign Muslims in the West, the prime minister said. “And they have been successfully doing it.” If they [Western countries] feel pained discussing the Holocaust, why haven’t we been able to convey to the West how much we feel pained when they do blasphemous things against Islam and our beloved Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him)?” Pakistan’s foreign office is undertaking a hectic diplomatic campaign to avert the exhibition of profane cartoons in November. Hopefully the good sense would prevail. Time and again, Western Christian countries purposefully hurt the religious sentiments of Muslims through public display of profane audio-visual and print material about Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), under the pretext of their so called doctrine of freedom of expression. In a stark contradiction, same very European States immediately imprison anyone questioning the veracity of ‘Holocaust’, while Muslims and their religion don’t get the similar preferential treatment. While earlier such incidents in Netherlands were an act of non-state actors, this time parliamentary permission to hold the forthcoming exhibition inside parliament premises had made the government of Netherlands a party to this nefarious act of religious extremism. Opposition leader Greet Wilders has a track history of airing anti-Muslim sentiment. In December 2017, he proposed that European countries should adopt Donald Trump-style travel bans to counter a wave of Islamisation, according to him, sweeping the continent. Wilders also urged Europe to adopt Australia’s tactics in turning back migrant boats and to build new border walls, as Trump had vowed to do along the US frontier with Mexico. Wilders is the parliamentary leader of his party in the House of Representatives. During his election campaign, Wilders had published a one-page election manifesto calling for a ban on all asylum seekers and migrants from Islamic nations, and urged his country to leave the European Union. Wilders also stands for banning the Quran and closing all mosques and Islamic schools. Political environment in Netherlands is quite murky and thoroughly mired in populist rhetoric, where both the government and the opposition are, more often than not, competing to appear more racist and exclusionist. Wilders was defeated in March 2017 elections by Mark Rutte. According to Guardian “cost of latter’s victory against Geert Wilders’ anti-EU, anti-immigration, anti-Islam Freedom PVV party was a pyrrhic victory”. Mark Rutte’s VVD party had adopted the very rhetoric of Wilders to beat him. Rutte had said: “something wrong with our country” and claimed “the silent majority” would no longer tolerate immigrants who come and “abuse our freedom”. Close to end of his previous tenure as Prime Minster, Rutte thought that being tough on Turkey would fetch him more votes, therefore he “happily sparked a mini-international crisis for the sake of votes”. While during the electoral campaign, Rutte said stopping Wilders was about stopping the “wrong sort of populism”. Situation is akin to India where both BJP and Congress compete to articulate more pro Hindu rhetoric to encash Hindu vote bank. Pakistan had approached Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to lodge a protest against this planned cartoon competition in Netherlands. Former caretaker Foreign Minister Abdullah Haroon had set the dice rolling by writing a letter to the OIC Secretary General seeking his leadership for a collective action to register a protest of OIC countries with the Dutch authorities, who in turn had written to the Dutch foreign minister, on behalf of 57 Muslim countries, protesting against this abominable event. It is not the first time that the Netherlands is holding such competition. In the past also such acts have frequently been committed by this country with a malicious intent to target the noblest personality of the Holy Prophet (Pbuh). Pakistan has called upon the Dutch Ambassador to Pakistan and the EU Ambassador, who represents 28 European countries, to register the protest. “We have conveyed our condemnation of this deliberate attempt to vilify Islam. Such incidents should not go unpunished,” Foreign office spokesperson said. Pakistan’s new government had taken forth the process. During its first meeting, cabinet decided to take up the matter at bilateral level. Pakistan lodged a strong protest with the Netherlands over an announcement of holding a competition of blasphemous caricatures. “The charge d’affaires of the Kingdom of the Netherlands was summoned to the Foreign Office on August 13, and a strong protest was lodged”, Foreign office stated. Deep concern was conveyed at this deliberate and malicious attempt to defame Islam. “Pakistan’s ambassador in Hague has been instructed to forcefully raise the issue with the Dutch government along with ambassadors of OIC member states,” the Foreign Office went on to add. Foreign minister Shah Mahmud Qureshi also spoke to his Dutch counterpart. Pakistan’s permanent representatives to the United Nations in New York and Geneva were directed to take up the matter with the UN Secretary General, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and other UN bodies and procedures. The issue would also be discussed in the forthcoming meeting of the OIC’s Council of Foreign Ministers, scheduled to be held on the side-lines of forthcoming 73rd ministerial session of the UNGA. Though the triggering issue is behind us, OIC should not lower its guards, it should firm up an action plan if any individual or government attempts such a misadventure in future. During this meeting the Muslim countries should send a loud and clear message that the despoliation of Muslim holy personalities is not acceptable to them. The silver lining is that there have been saner voices from within Dutch civil society. Demonstrations were held by Dutch nationals to show solidarity with Muslims. During March 2017, Dutch citizens gathered at a mosque in Amsterdam, to show solidarity with the country’s Muslim population. People representing a broad coalition against racism gathered at the central Al-Kabir mosque to show opposition to anti-Muslim sentiments in the country. “We as a Muslim community pose no danger whatsoever to society,” said Najem Ouladali while addressing the gathering. “We believe that what Wilders is doing is very dangerous to our society,” Ouladali added. Najem was one of the organizers of the gathering. Pakistan should continue to work closely with all the OIC member states to find a permanent solution to this recurring issue. Matter should be persistently raised at the relevant international fora until a sustainable way is found by the international community for preventing such abhorrent acts.

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