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Evolving dynamics of Afghan conflict

Last week Afghan forces pulled out of bases in Musa Qala, a strategic district of the southern province of Helmand. The commander of the Afghan army’s 215th Corps, Mohammad Moeen Faqir, said troops had been ordered to pull back from Roshan Tower, their main base in Musa Qala, as well as other checkpoints to reinforce Gereshk, straddling the main highway, one which links Kabul with the south and west. “Now that the government has withdrawn its forces from this district, we will see Kajaki, Gereshk and Sangin collapsing very soon,” said deputy provincial council member Abdul Majid Akhundzada.

A spokesman for NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Kabul said its aim remained to train, advice and assist and referred questions on Afghan troop movements to the defence ministry. US officials estimate the Taliban dominate or threaten almost a third of the country and has full control over at least four districts. Although Helmand has been one of the provinces most at risk, the Taliban have been pushing forward across the country, putting severe strain on government troops, fighting alone since international forces ended most combat operations in 2014.

According to the United Nations (UN), the rate at which civilians are being killed by the US airstrikes in Afghanistan is now at its highest point since 2008. The UN began recording civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2009, ever since, it has documented nearly 59,000 deaths and injuries. In its latest annual report. United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) says there were 103 civilian deaths from US air actions in Afghanistan in 2015. Although these deaths are slightly more than the 101 recorded in 2014, they came from a third as many airstrikes. While there were 1,136 airstrikes in 2014, this number fell to 411 in 2015. The sudden increase after so many years of falling casualty rates has raised concerns that military targeting is becoming less accurate or that there might have been an unannounced change in the rules of engagement. During 2015, the Taliban pressed forward, capturing towns and killing large numbers of Afghan security forces, there was mounting pressure on the US to increase the number of air attacks in Afghanistan to push back the Taliban.
Chris Woods, director of the monitoring group Air wars, says “hard-won” lessons from 2009 onwards, when serious efforts to reduce the civilian casualty rate from international airstrikes began, are being lost. “What [the UN data] indicates to me is that they are not taking the same care…This is not just about accuracy, it’s about politics,” he says.

Sahr Muhammad Ali from the Centre for Civilians in Conflict, a nongovernmental organization, warns that Resolute Support needs to ensure its systems are ready for what lies ahead this year. “I think it’s going to be a difficult year,” she says. “In 2016, the fight’s going to be ugly…. RS has to ensure that all policies and guidance have been disseminated and are being adhered to by all troops.”

Overall civilian casualties of the war in Afghanistan rose to record levels for the seventh year in row in 2015, as violence spread across the country in the wake of the withdrawal of most international troops. At least 3,545 non-combatants died and another 7,457 were injured by fighting last year— 4 percent increase over 2014. “The harm done to civilians is totally unacceptable,” Nicholas Haysom, the head of the UNAMA said in a statement. Pattern indicates that more non-combatants are being caught in the crossfire. Heavy fighting in the northern city of Kunduz, which briefly fell to the Taliban in late September 2014, and a wave of suicide bombs which killed and wounded hundreds of people in Kabul last year were the main factors behind the rise, while elsewhere casualties fell. Ground engagements were the leading cause of civilian casualties at 37 percent, followed by roadside bombs at 21 percent and suicide attacks at 17 percent. Women and children were hard hit, as casualties among women spiked 37 percent and deaths and injuries increased 14 percent among children. Casualties attributed to pro-government forces jumped 28 percent compared to 2014 to account for 17 percent of the total.

While at the same time, a statement from President Ashraf Ghani accused the Taliban of violating international law. It said Afghan security forces underwent regular training to ensure the protection of civilians and were liable to investigation if any breaches occurred. Taliban were blamed for most civilian deaths and injuries, which stood at whooping 62 percent. Investigators accused insurgents of using tactics that “deliberately or indiscriminately” caused harm to civilians. Taliban have rejected the report, describing it as “propaganda compiled at the behest of occupying forces” and said the government in Kabul and its US ally were the major causes of deaths and injuries.

UN officials have said that pledges from both sides to limit casualties had not been backed up. “The report references commitments made by all parties to the conflict to protect civilians, however, the figures documented in 2015 reflect disconnect between commitments made and the harsh reality on the ground,” Bell said. She said the expectation of continued fighting in the coming months showed the need for both sides to take immediate steps to prevent harm to civilians.

Less than half of victims who report incidents of violence or crime in Afghanistan do so to the police, and citizens rated the judiciary as the most corrupt institution in the country. Judicial decisions frequently appear biased in favour of government and parliament and there are allegations of government officials, politicians and other powerful figures blocking police investigations involving their associates. The overall result is a dysfunctional justice system in which corruption largely goes unpunished, and those with power enjoy impunity. People prefer Taliban to adjudicate their disputes.

Srirak Plipat, Regional Director for Asia Pacific, Transparency International said: “the state is failing to deliver basic services to citizens. Corruption is largely to blame”. But it is also the result of a systematic failure to ensure staff are recruited on merit and skills, rather than their connections, and widespread corruption. In 2012, half of Afghan citizens paid a bribe while requesting a public service. The total cost of bribes paid to public officials amounted to US$ 3.9 billion.

The United States has spent more than $7 billion in the past 14 years to fight poppy production. Tens of billions more went to governance programmes to stem corruption and train a credible police force. As of now, poppy cultivation not only is tolerated, but is a source of money. Officials have imposed a tax on farmers cultivating poppy. Some of the revenue is kicked up the chain, all the way to officials in Kabul, ensuring that the local authorities maintain support from higher-ups for keeping the opium growing.

The outgoing commander of Operation Resolute Support and American troops in Afghanistan, General John F Campbell, paid a farewell call on Army Chief General Raheel Sharif on February 18. Campbell paid rich tributes to the professionalism and phenomenal achievements of Pakistan Army in Operation Zarb-e-Azb. He also acknowledged Pakistan Army’s efforts towards regional stability. General Raheel thanked Campbell in particular for his efforts to bring about stability in Afghanistan! Two generals reviewed the ongoing reconciliation process in Afghanistan and discussed the way forward. Though generals may think that worst of the Afghan conflict is far behind them, from a commoner’s perspectives, Afghanistan faces numerous daunting challenges.

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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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