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Afghanistan between war and peace making

Following the latest attack by Taliban in Kabul killing over 40 persons,  Chief Executive of Afghanistan Dr Abdullah Abdullah  has postponed his planned visit to Pakistan. Earlier during a meeting between President Mamnoon Hussain and Dr Abdullah Abdullah, on the side-lines of the OIC summit, mutual commitment to work together to address common challenges was reaffirmed. The President had underlined the importance Pakistan attached to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and highlighted the efforts being made for the promotion of the Afghan reconciliation process, including through the Quadrilateral mechanism.

Fierce offensive around Kunduz began only days after the Taliban group announced its annual spring offensive, vowing to launch large-scale attacks to drive the Western-backed government from power. Imamuddin Qureshi, chief of Kunduz’s Imam Saheb district, said several security outposts had already fallen to the Taliban, and he called on the government in Kabul to send reinforcements and air support immediately. Outposts were also overrun in other districts and security forces fled to Kunduz city to regroup, Khanabad district Chief Ayatullah Amiri said. The highway between Kunduz and neighbouring Takhar province also stands blocked. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said fighters had captured outposts in six districts and three bomb blasts had killed seven members of the Afghan security forces just outside Kunduz.

With the Taliban’s declaration of Spring Offensive, fighting is likely to pick up the usual momentum in other provinces as well. Last year was a turbulent year for the Afghan government, its security forces and the people. Taliban undertook numerous tactical attacks alongside takeover of small and medium size urban centres for varying durations. Alongside, Taliban went through leadership transformation process after the death of Mullah Omar; it was a ferocious spell of intra-Taliban fighting. In the meanwhile, Daesh and Afghan Taliban fell apart, and the influence of Daesh in Afghanistan began to melt down. Taliban had released a statement in 2015 telling Daesh that “The Islamic Emirate does not consider the multiplicity of jihadi ranks beneficial either for jihad or for Muslims.” Many Taliban leaders who had crossed over to Daesh’s Khorasan chapter have returned to the fold of Taliban leadership. They have all accepted Mullah Akhtar Mansur as their leader. On April 11, a Taliban statement said that scores of Daesh members re-joined the Taliban in eastern Nangarhar province.

Struggle for leadership amongst Afghan Taliban factions has come to a close and all notable groups have ended up under the command of Mullah Akhtar Mansur. Lastly, Mullah Omar’s son Yaqoob, and brother Manan have also joined Mansur and have been elevated to high positions. Yaqoob has been given a seat on the executive council (Rahbari Shura) alongside leadership of Military Commission in 15 provinces out of 34. Manan would head Preaching and Guidance Commission and also serve as member of executive council; both have assumed their positions. The announcement came just days after senior leader Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir declared allegiance to Mullah Mansur. Now the only hold out is Mullah Rasool. It was quite a tall order for Mansur to completely unify a fractured organisation. Though there will always be rejectionists, the question is how much of a threat such players will continue to pose. For now, Taliban have re-established their hierarchical and unitary organization.

Afghan forces face their second summer fighting season without the full support of NATO, which ended its combat mission in December 2014. Afghan government has successfully courted the occupation forces to delay a planned drawdown of nearly 13,000 troops stationed in the country, and maintain its air power and military support. NATO faces growing pressure from within to expand its military role as Afghan forces struggle with high casualties and desertions; and as efforts to restart Taliban peace talks falter again and again. The morale of Taliban fighters is high, whereas Afghan forces are fighting for survival. “This will be a very tough year for Afghan forces, beset by mismanagement and corruption,” Kabul-based military analyst Atiqullah Amarkhil recently told AFP.

Last year, fall of Kunduz marked the first time a major Afghan city was lost to the Taliban since 2001. With their new found strength, 2016′s fighting season may bring more startling successes for Taliban in Kandahar, Helmand, and Badakhshan alike. The Afghan government could face a tall task. The NATO and Afghan officials have said they expect very tough combat in 2016. According to NATO commanders, the Taliban exert control over only six percent of Afghanistan but up to a third of the country is at risk from the insurgents and government forces control no more than 70 percent of the country’s territory. During 2015, even during biting winter, heavy fighting continued across Afghanistan, from Kunduz, in the north to Helmand province bordering Pakistan in the south.

Taliban announced the start of their spring offensive on April 12, pledging to launch large-scale offensives against government strongholds backed by suicide and guerrilla attacks to drive Afghanistan’s Western-backed government from power. The offensive is codenamed “Omari Operations”. Their statement said they would “employ large-scale attacks on enemy positions across the country” during the offensive. “With the advent of spring it is again time for us to renew our Jihadi determination and operations. Hence the Islamic Emirate’s leadership eagerly announces this year’s Jihadi Operation in honour of the movement’s founder and first leader, the late Amirul Mu’mineen Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid,” the statement read. “Let’s prepare for decisive strikes against the enemy purely for the sake of Allah with strong determination and high spirits,” Mansur told his followers in a recent message posted on the Taliban website.

The Council said the operation will result into “strategic victories and cleanse the country from the presence of the remaining foreign invaders and their malignant and corrupt rebel servants.” The Taliban statement further said “Operation Omari” was initiated and planned by the group’s leadership, the leaders of the military commission as well as their military planners. “Similarly the operation will employ large scale attacks on enemy positions across the country, martyrdom-seeking and tactical attacks against enemy strongholds, and assassination of enemy commanders in urban centres. The present operation will also employ all means at our disposal to bog the enemy down in a war of attrition that lowers the morale of the foreign invaders and their internal armed militias,” the statement said.

The Taliban further that said their scholars, elders and leaders will open a dialogue with the government forces to give up their opposition to the group and join their ranks to safeguard them. This is in tandem with Afghan government’s efforts to bring the Taliban to the negotiation table. A meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG) is expected later this month to re-examine the prospects of jump starting intra-Afghan dialogue.

Onus to secure any reduction in violence through cease fire(s) rests with the Afghan government through a package of political concessions that could, step by step, induct the Taliban into Afghanistan’s mainstream political structures. Earlier the Afghan government comes out with such a package, better it would be for the peace process. Afghan government is poised to be loser in the battlefield and each combat victory would result in further entrenching by the Taliban.

Pakistan has denounced the launch of spring offensive and has announced that it would continue to play a positive role for peace in Afghanistan. But Pakistan is in no position to dictate to Taliban. Thus one has to be cautious while attaching timelines and deadlines or preconditions to the process. Rather, it is more important to keep the process on track and foil the attempts to derail it.

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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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