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Axis of Fragility!

[Featured Picture: Courtesy Pakistan Today] Taliban attacked a guest house near the Spanish embassy in a heavily protected part of Kabul, close to several embassies and government buildings, on December 11, and took a large number of people as hostage. Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, taunting Kabul of not being able to prevent an attack in the heart of capital. “The presence of our Mujahideen with weapons and a car loaded with explosives in such a high security area shows God’s support and the cooperation of the poor and Muslim people,” spokesman Zabihulla Mujahid said in a statement. Though, since July this year, Taliban leadership is caught-up in internal power struggles of its own, that has not hampered their capacity of conducting a string of successful attacks.

Fifth ministerial conference of the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process (HOA) was an interesting event; it could be termed as a success. Process envisages an agenda for regional cooperation in the ‘Heart of Asia’ by placing Afghanistan at its centre and engaging its member states in sincere and result oriented cooperation for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan, alongside a secure and prosperous region. Also in the spotlight was Indian foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, who participated in important bilateral discussions in addition to the conference proceedings.

Joint inauguration of the Conference by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Ashraf Ghani as well as high-level participation of several important countries and international organizations, made the event focus of world attention. It also raised Pakistan’s profile as an important player and a factor of stability in international affairs.

While President Ghani was roaring in Islamabad, Taliban were calling the shots back home in Kandhar. They logged over fifty fatalities during a high profile attack on well-defended joint user airport. Afghanistan is in turmoil, the situation is rather complicated and good offices of every one and any one need to be mobilized if a lasting peace and development is to be achieved.

Prime Minister Nawaz assured that Pakistan considers Afghanistan as more than a neighbour and has always stood by the democratically elected legitimate government in Kabul and fully supports its sovereignty. And that massive movement of Afghan refugees across the common border constitute a security risk, and tangible steps would be required to stop it. Afghan government agreed to restart dialogue with ‘reconcilable’ Taliban with the help of Pakistan, the United States and China. The development came after a series of bilateral and trilateral meetings involving the four countries on the sidelines of the conference.
Afghan foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani said: “At the trilateral and bilateral meetings, the main discussion item has been the peace process in Afghanistan”. The US deputy secretary of state Antony Blinken said: “The governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and US held a series of meetings to reaffirm our collective commitment to enabling an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned process of reconciliation and cessation of violence.” Initial agreement between the US and Pakistan on expediting the resumption of Afghan peace talks was forged during General Raheel Sharif’s visit to the US in November.

Afghan President and Army Chief discussed the roadmap and it was agreed to put in place specific measures to deny terrorists’ access to financial and material resources, dismantle their sanctuaries and curtail their ability to recruit and train new terrorists. During the meeting two sides discussed “meaningful steps” that could bring enduring peace and ensure that the gains made in this regard are irreversible. The Murree process shall resume from where it broke off in July. Mr Blinken said that all stakeholders were determined to move forward and “get the right people around the table”.

Prime Minister Nawaz described the enemies of Afghanistan as enemies of Pakistan, adding that: “We are convinced that terrorism and extremism is the common enemy of all. In our view, the finalization of border management SOPs at the earliest will be helpful in containing the movement of terrorists across borders,” he said. President Ghani lauded Pakistan’s decision to launch military operations against militants and also spoke about the ‘unintended consequences’ of these operations. “Unfortunately, recent events in Pakistan have forced us to host close to 350,000 to 500,000 Pakistani refugees on our soil… Until now, we have launched 40 operations against them through our forces.”

The outcome of the conference was the unanimously adopted “Islamabad Declaration,” reaffirming commitment of the Heart of Asia countries for long-term peace and stability in Afghanistan. Towards this end, the declaration stipulated measures for deepening cooperation and collaboration in political, security, economic development and regional connectivity areas, within the HOA region. Recognizing that emerging security challenges have the potential of expanding to the entire region, if timely measures are not taken, the conference agreed on the need to evolve a collective approach to deal with such challenges. It also agreed to continue cooperation in the following Confidence Building Measures (CBMs): disaster management; counter-terrorism; counter-narcotics; trade, commercial and investment opportunities; regional infrastructure; and education.

Heart of Asia Ministerial meeting also provided an opportunity to hold important bilateral meetings. The most important subject in these sideline meetings was to explore ways and means of improving Afghanistan-Pakistan relations and facilitating the resumption of stalled Afghan reconciliation process. Key elements of this consensus were: peace in Afghanistan is vital for the peace in the region and beyond; closer collaboration and coordination between Pakistan and Afghanistan is essential for promoting peace in Afghanistan and for effectively combating terrorism; and reconciliation through a politically negotiated settlement is the only viable option for promoting long-term peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s role and commitment for facilitating peace talks was recognized.

Pakistan and India have agreed to restart the dialogue process, Sushma Swaraj disclosed at a joint press conference with Sartaj Aziz: “Instead of composite dialogues now comprehensive dialogues will be held in which all outstanding issues will be discussed”. All eight sectors of the composite dialogue would be part of the comprehensive bilateral dialogue and more things could be added to it. Comprehensive dialogue will include discussions on peace and security, Jammu and Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, confidence building measures, the Wullar Barrage/Tulbul Navigation Project, economic and commercial cooperation, counterterrorism, narcotics control and humanitarian issues. It will also address people to people exchanges and religious tourism. Shushma confirmed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Pakistan next year for the SAARC summit expected to be held in coming September.

Shushma set out India’s desire for a new trade corridor to be opened into Central Asia through Afghanistan. Indian agreement of a new dialogue with Pakistan reflected an acceptance that Indian ambition of regional trade will never be realized without its better relationship with Pakistan. The new engagement between the two countries has raised hopes of a broader reconciliation.

Pakistan’s troubled neighbourhood—both in the east and west present a treacherous playground in terms of diplomacy and peace process. Fist immediate causality was resignation of pro-India head of Afghanistan’s Directorate of National Security— Rahmatullah Nabi— who does not want his country to engage with Pakistan for joint and cooperative effort for solving the problems these two countries face, despite the fact that none of the countries could resolve these issues without the help of other. Likewise, Modi has a compulsion to please his hardline power base—terrorist outfit Shiv Sena—through Pakistan bashing. His anti-Pakistan rhetoric of electoral campaign has turned out as a bone in the throat which is neither easy to swallow nor viable to vomit. Pakistan is poised to tread a difficult path with both these neighbours.

Though substantial gains were made during the event— both in Pakistan-Afghanistan and Pakistan-India context, track record indicates these are not without the likelihood of their quick meltdown on slightest pretext.

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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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