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Afghanistan between mysteries and realities!

Two suicide attacks one each in Kabul and Kunar provinces of Afghanistan and prompt claiming of responsibility by the Taliban could be another conspiracy to derail the upcoming direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. May be someone else is acting as Taliban. Afghan conflict often throws up events that remain shrouded in mystery.

Disruption of second round of Murree peace process in July 2015 was a strategic setback for the Afghan peace process. Ever since Pakistan has been doing its best to bring together vital nuts and bolts to jumpstart the circus. Hours before representatives of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) were to assemble for the fourth round of talks in Kabul, Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif dashed to Doha and discussed the role of the Afghan Taliban’s office in Doha. His meetings focussed on matters relating to regional security and facilitation of the reconciliation process in Afghanistan by Doha office, through Qatari leadership. Army chief’s visit to Doha was part of Pakistan’s efforts to persuade all Taliban groups to return to the negotiating table.

During the fourth round, the QCG agreed to continue joint endeavours as part of their shared commitments to advance the peace and reconciliation process in Afghanistan. Now Pakistan is all set to host direct talks between the government in Kabul and Afghan Taliban, including other insurgent groups, by the first week of March. “The QCG member states invite Taliban and other groups to participate through their authorised representatives in the first round of direct peace talks with the Afghan government,” post fourth round QCG communique said. “Pakistan has graciously offered to host this round of talks in Islamabad. The QCG members welcomed the

Earlier a two-member Afghan Taliban delegation, led by head of the group’s political office in Qatar, had paid an unannounced visit to Pakistan as part of preparations for the formal resumption of direct talks with the Afghan government. Doha delegates held informal discussions with senior officials of the four countries. They had shared a list of their representatives who would attend the formal talks. This is the first time that Taliban’s Qatar office is taking part in the peace initiative backed by both China and the US. When talks between Afghan Taliban and Afghan government took place under the Murree peace process in July 2015, Taliban’s political office in Qatar had distanced itself from the process.

Pakistan is deeply interested in speedy resolution of the Afghan crisis. More delay in resumption of direct dialogue and attaching of pre-conditions could shake confidence of all those who want an end to the conflict. Unlike the previous round of talks, this time all Taliban groups are being pursued to come to the negotiating table. Taliban’s splinter group, headed by Mullah Muhammad Rasool Akhund, has also been invited to join the negotiation process. In another major breakthrough, participation of former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e-Islami in the peace process is also appears certain.

As the resumption of peace process is round the corner, confusing signals continue pouring in from Kabul as to its genuine commitment to the success of the peace process. Though Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan Dr Omar Zakhiwal has stated that his government is committed to the quadrilateral peace process, ground realities speak otherwise as some circles from within Kabul are trying to attach pre-conditions to the talks. Moreover, former President Hamid Karzai wants India to be added to QCG; and reportedly the US and India are discussing the ways and means to deploy some Indian troops in Afghanistan. While Americans are pondering over a figure of 3-4000 personnel for guarding the ongoing development projects, in his over enthusiasm, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has offered readiness to deploy around 30,000 soldiers. Pakistan has already conveyed to Kabul that any additional deployment of Indian troops in Afghanistan would be taken as crossing of redlines. Presently, 500 Indian military personnel are in Afghanistan, ostensibly to protect Indian embassy and consulates.

This type of environment is quite intriguing. Afghanistan should have been keen for restoration of peace and tranquillity in the country that has suffered so much and for so long because of turbulence and turmoil triggered by a host of factors. Earlier, Afghanistan and some of its friends in the West had been complaining that peace process was not moving ahead because of lack of required support by Pakistan; however, over the last two years, Pakistan has been making hectic endeavours to help forward movement of peace process. Pakistan’s keenness has been widely acknowledged by the international community. Pakistan is deeply interested in speedy resolution of the Afghan crisis as unending conflict has badly damaged it in different ways including missed economic opportunities, deteriorating security situation and continued presence of millions of Afghan refugees that are adding to the socio-economic problems of the country.

In the presence of strong anti-dialogue lobby in Kabul and existence of fragile fault lines, one could neither be sure about continuity and sustainability of the peace process nor could accurately guess the timeframe for reaching an agreement. Though it would be an ideal CBM to announce a ceasefire as soon as possible, keeping in view the stronger combat worthiness of Taliban in the peripheries of urban centres and the approaching spring fighting season, one may have to wait for quite some time for such announcement without adequate political quid pro quo from the Afghan government. Time is on Taliban’s side. Unless President Ashraf Ghani demonstrates political will by putting forward a credible power sharing formula, attractive enough to woo the Taliban side. While it is encouraging to see the Afghan government and Taliban talking directly, Afghans have a poor track record of reaching mutually acceptable truces; and still poorer showing with respect to implementing such agreements. Therefore, while the two sides may appear talking keenly, the burden of heavy lifting like “what to talk” and “how to talk” will fall on the QCG.

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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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