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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 “Now that the government has withdrawn its forces from this district, we will see Kajaki, Gereshk and Sangin collapsing very soon,” said deputy provincial council member Abdul Majid Akhundzada.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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Dynamics of FATF listing

Pakistan Focus Analysis. Indo-US anti-Pakistan nexus is so very obvious, both have in-chorus expressed their joy on Pakistan’s placement on grey list. Indian Express has reported that “India, US are one in saying Pakistan deserved to be demoted to anti-terror funding group's 'grey list’”. "India welcomes the decision of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to place Pakistan in its Compliance Document (grey list) for ICRG [International Cooperation review Group] monitoring," said India's ministry of external affairs. And; "outstanding counterterrorism deficiencies consistently raised by the Financial Action Task Force and [Pakistan] needs to take actions, including on the raising and moving of funds of UN-designated terrorist groups, a top US official said to news agency PTI”. Decision is politically motivated and is part of American strategy to pressurise Pakistan to settle some other scores. Pakistan has been placed among the jurisdictions (states) with strategic deficiencies: Ethiopia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia and Yemen. FATF has called upon these states to complete implementation of the action plans expeditiously and within the proposed timeframes, vowing to closely monitor the implementation. It was also agreed in February Plenary that an Action Plan would be negotiated between Pakistan and FATF members by June. This has been done. The FATF has formally placed Pakistan on the grey list due to ‘strategic deficiencies’ in its anti-money laundering and terrorism financing regime. The decision came despite Pakistan had demonstrated reasonable progress in three out of four major areas of FATF concerns. Pakistan’s team led by Finance Minister apprised the plenary about measures that Pakistan had taken to stop money laundering and strangling the terror financing. In prevailing World Order, nothing works better than American pressures. During February plenary, the US and the UK went out of their way to by-pass the standard FATF procedures and jointly arm twist the FATF for nominating Pakistan for the grey list in June, regardless of its February-June period effort and progress; they were also joined by France and Germany. Pakistan has undertaken to work towards effective implementation of the Action Plan, while staying in the grey list. A similar situation took place in 2011 when Pakistan was included in the grey list and was taken out in 2015 after it successfully implemented the Action Plan. There were tall claims that Pakistan was unlikely to be placed on the grey list of the global financial watchdog as the country had made enough progress to meet international anti-money laundering and terror financing standards, such euphoric environment had been created before and during the previous FATF plenary meeting as well. There is a need to float realistic expectations before such international events. FATF identifies jurisdictions with strategic AML/CFT deficiencies in its two public documents: FATF Public Statement (call for action)– commonly known as black list—and Improving Global AML/CFT Compliance— nick named as grey list. It is an on-going process; these lists are updated three times a year. Interestingly, FATF does not use grey list/blacklist terminologies. The ICRG of the APG had identified four key areas of concerns: deficiencies in the supervision of Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Counter Terrorism Financing regimes; cross-border illicit movement of currency by terrorist groups; progress on terrorism financing investigation and prosecution; and implementation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions 1267 and 1373, for curbing terror financing. ICRG report has shown that Pakistan did show progress on three out of four major areas of concerns. Cross-border smuggling of cash was the only major area where Pakistan admitted deficiencies. Maximum number of conditions – nine to be precise – take into account the concerns of the UNSC resolutions, followed by eight commitments to address concerns regarding terrorism financing prosecution, four are about curbing currency movement across the border and five recommendations relate to improvement in the supervision mechanisms of banks and companies. Pakistan has undertaken to demonstrate that authorities are identifying cash couriers and enforcing controls on illicit movement of currency and understanding the risk of cash couriers being used for terrorism financing. Remember Ayan Ali case? And who protected her? Carrier is enjoying quality life abroad. Pakistan has made a “high-level political commitment to work with the FATF and APG to strengthen its Anti-money Laundering (AML)/Countering Financing of Terrorism (CFT) regime and to address its strategic counter-terrorist financing-related deficiencies,” according to FATF announcement. The FATF said Pakistan will also be demonstrating that remedial actions and sanctions are applied in cases of AML/CFT violations, and that these actions have an effect on AML/CFT compliance by financial institutions. “It will be demonstrating that competent authorities are cooperating and taking action to identify and take enforcement action against illegal money or value transfer services.” During the intervening period Pakistan government did strenuous hard work to plug the gaps. Ambitious laws were enacted. Finance ministry improved institutional mechanisms for handling anti-money laundering and countering financing terrorism issues. Coordination between the State Bank, Banking institutions and law enforcement agencies had also been strengthened to curb money laundering and terror financing. Pakistan has recently addressed issues raised by the FATF through a tax amnesty scheme, while Securities and Exchange Commission has issued Anti-Money Laundering and Countering Financing of Terrorism Regulations (2018). National Security Committee has also reaffirmed its commitment to cooperate with the FATF. Through its Action Plan, Pakistan has demonstrated to the world that it was ready to go an extra mile to curb money laundering. Pakistan will have to deliver on the first goal by January next year and complete all the 26 actions by September 2019,” it is indeed a tight schedule. One wonders whether Pakistan has requisite mechanisms in place to implement and steer such an ambitious plan. An expert assessment has it that though Pakistan’s inclusion in the grey list may hurt its image in the international landscape, its economic impact will not be as severe as being portrayed. This is because when Pakistan was part of the grey list/blacklist (2008-2015), it successfully approached multilateral bodies, floated international bonds and had international trades. Hopefully Pakistan will be able to come out or grey list in September 2019, however it must follow consistent economic policies to remain out of such trouble spots. Caretaker government would do a great service by forming a national commission to identify and punish all those responsible for letting the things reverse back after Pakistan’s previous journey to blacklist was over.

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