By Nadir Naim
On January 28, following six consecutive days of talks in Qatar’s capital Doha, Washington’s main negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad announced that the US and the Taliban finally have a “draft framework” in place for a deal which could pave the way for peace talks with the Afghan government.
Khalilzad’s comments undoubtedly ignited hopes of a breakthrough in the grinding 17-year conflict, but neither the US nor the Taliban officials offered any details on the specifics of the framework.
Historically, due to its strategic location, Afghanistan often served as a battleground on which global and regional powers settled their rivalries. Series of invasions, interventions, wars and long-term confrontations caused major devastation and loss for all involved parties, with the highest price inevitably being paid by the Afghan nation.
Over the years, the warring parties participated in countless rounds of talks and negotiations, at times creating cautious optimism. However, due to decision-makers’ short-sightedness, overconfidence and refusal to learn from past mistakes, peace always proved evasive and the suffering of millions continued.
Today, we seem to be facing yet another opportunity to break this cycle of violence and start a peace process that could finally allow the people of Afghanistan to unite, heal and prosper. However, as has been proven many times over in the past, sustainable peace cannot be achieved unless all parties learn from past mistakes, understand their enemy’s needs and motivations, and come up with a settlement that satisfies the local population as well as all regional and global stakeholders.
This is why it is crucial at this historic juncture to examine the factors that led to the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s and the motivations that guide the group to this day.
What does the Taliban want?
The Taliban was formed in the early 1990s by a faction of “mujahideen”, Muslim Afghan fighters who had resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989).
Taking advantage of the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of Soviet troops, the group easily expanded its sphere of influence in the years following its formation and seized control of Afghanistan in 1996. It held control of most of the country until being overthrown after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in December 2001 following the September 11 attacks.
After the toppling of the Taliban regime, the group’s members were ready and willing to accept a peace deal that would allow them a modest but dignified existence in the country. Yet, politicians and decision-makers both inside and outside Afghanistan, intoxicated by their decisive victory, refused to entertain this option and swiftly kicked the Taliban off the negotiating table. At the Bonn Conference, which determined the country’s destiny, they completely ignored the group’s most basic demands and facilitated the formation of a strictly anti-Taliban government. This was the fundamental mistake that triggered the latest round of bloodshed in Afghanistan and brought us to where we are today.
Today, we are dealing with a group whose members view themselves as holy warriors who managed to defeat an unjust foreign invasion.
In the past 17 years, countless Taliban leaders were killed, humiliated and forced into exile by US forces. The ones that were not so lucky ended up in cages at Guantanamo or Bagram, where they were subjected to unspeakable torture and degradation. All this caused members of the group to view their fight against US forces as inevitable, necessary and even sacred.
Moreover, the governing powers forced members of the Taliban to live in conditions so grave – as fugitives always on the run – that entering the battleground became an easy, even natural, choice for them. Perhaps more significantly, over the years the Taliban continued to expand its zone of influence in Afghanistan and came to think of itself as the victor in the conflict. The group also managed to win the hearts and minds of a portion of the disenchanted rural population that views the central government as ineffective in providing them with basic services and is overwhelmingly drowned in endemic corruption.
Now, as an influential political and military entity recognised by all involved parties, the Taliban wants to achieve two long-term goals: The complete withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan and the establishment of an inclusive Islamic government.
Of course, the group, which believes it has the upper hand in negotiations, also has multiple short-term demands aimed at building confidence.
The Taliban wants its leaders to be taken off international sanctions lists, its prisoners to be released and its political office in Doha to be recognised internationally. Unlike the period following its defeat in 2001, the Taliban now believes it has earned the right to remain a substantial political force in Afghanistan following a settlement. It has a clear political vision and wants to set some parameters for its future international relations. This is why it is also keen to sign bilateral non-aggression treaties with regional and international powers.
The ongoing negotiations can only succeed if all involved parties acknowledge the Taliban’s position and avoid underestimating the group.
Last year’s successful three-day Eid ceasefire between the Taliban and the Afghan government – the first of its kind since the start of the US-led invasion in 2001 – was a clear indication that ordinary Afghans are ready to make peace with the Taliban. Indeed, my people are desperate for a return to normalcy after four decades of war. However, this does not mean they are willing to accept any peace settlement with the group. Many Afghan women think a peace deal with the Taliban will limit their rights. Members of the Hazara minority, who are Shia Muslims, also believe a poorly configured peace settlement may put their future in the country at risk.
To achieve sustainable peace, the Afghan government, with the help of the US, will need to strike a balance between acknowledging the needs and expectations of the Taliban and providing the necessary protections for segments of the Afghan population that feel threatened by the group.
Moreover, all local stakeholders – government officials, opposition leaders and tribal elders – will need to reach a consensus among themselves on what they want from the peace settlement. For now, they all appear to be more focused on holding on to their seats after the next election than reaching a deal with the Taliban. If they continue to be more concerned about maintaining their grip on power than bringing stability to their country, and refuse to negotiate a power-sharing deal, any peace efforts will be doomed for failure.
Further complicating matters, regional and international powers have not yet reached a consensus on the specifics of a peace settlement in Afghanistan. An inclusive regional consensus is imperative; the US won’t be able to do this alone if it wants sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Moscow, Beijing, Islamabad, Tehran, New Delhi and Ankara would all want a say in the final settlement.
Nevertheless, as an Afghan citizen, I am more cautiously optimistic than I have ever been before about prospects for peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban is still refusing to talk directly to the Afghan government, but this time the US is highly motivated to get the two sides together. President Donald Trump made it clear that he is eager to get his country out of “dumb wars” abroad and the only realistic way for him to achieve this goal is to bring both the Taliban and Kabul to the negotiating table.
There is no doubt that ultimately it is us, the Afghans, who are responsible for and should own and lead the peace process, but to reach this goal we need the assistance and goodwill of all our neighbours and partners. We only hope this time they will not repeat past mistakes and will help us find a way out of this conflict by taking into consideration the expectations and needs of all involved parties as they push the negotiations forward. It’s high time for Afghanistan to stop being a battleground for foreign powers and fulfil its true potential and become a central hub of connectivity in the heart of Asia. And today, this dream is within our reach.
The importance of being humane
By Gopalkrishna Gandhi
Custodial torture is global, old and stubborn. Dismemberment was a method of torture practised with vigour in ancient India, crushing-by-elephant-foot another. The Arthashastra prescribes mental torture through swear-words with or without physical assaults. Death by a thousand cuts was ancient China’s speciality. The Tang Code (652 CE) describes judicial torture in detail. Ancient Japanese methods of torture numb the human imagination. Their modern avatar in Japan’s World War II of biological and chemical experimentation on humans — prisoners, mainly Chinese — in Unit 731 stop the blood-flow to one’s heart.
So, does that mean sadism is an inherent part of human nature? It certainly shows that the inflicting of pain is an inseparable part of human history. More specifically, the history of power, of authority and control.
The practice of custodial power is about men — and sometimes, women — who are in positions of power, even if for a brief while and over a limited terrain, having custody over a powerless person. It is about the use of custodial opportunity to torture the captive’s body and mind. And there, in that arena of wantonness, it becomes something of a sport for the human “Gods” that rule mere humans. “They kill us for their sport,” Shakespeare said of “the Gods”.
Custodial death, when not ‘natural’, is the extreme end-point of custodial torture. The death penalty, notwithstanding ‘due process’, is a close kin to this lawless and heartless game.
In Greece, the pinnacle of culture, Socrates was in 399 BCE sentenced to death by hemlock, which was known to act slowly, incapacitating the person in stages, climbing from the lower extremities limb by limb to the heart. A little further to the east, around 30 CE took place what is ironically the only hallowed case of plain torture. After being stripped and scourged, the victim’s palms, known in anatomy to be among the most sensitive of human limbs, were nailed to the cross’s horizontal beam, his feet to the vertical. “I thirst,” Mary’s son said.
Torturers are invariably sadists. Mary Surratt is not a well-known name. She was the first woman to be hanged in the U.S., in 1865, under due process. Her crime: being part of the conspiracy that led to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Minutes before her end, she complained to the hangman that her handcuffs hurt. They won’t hurt long, he said. Peering down the ‘drop’, she then said she hoped they would send her down neatly. Sure thing, they said. Sure enough they botched it. Her frame doubled up. “She makes a good bow,” the hangmen jested. Lincoln must have screamed in his grave.
Hitler’s torturing of his prisoners would shame Satan, if such a creature exists. He was as real as his poison gases, tooth-extractors. Stalin’s, Pol Pot’s, ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s examples would have embarrassed Hell, if such a place exists. The power-centres of these tyrants were hellishly real.
Apartheid South Africa had its torturers trained in Algeria to inflict pain without leaving any signs on the body. Imam Haron, Steve Biko and the Naidoo family are among the better known of the many less known and unknown brutalised by the apartheid regime.
The butchering last October of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi tells us custodial torture and killing are no country’s, creed’s or culture’s monopoly. Nor that of any clime-time. Torture seems to be, like the roach, co-terminus with Time. And co-extensive with homo sapiens.
Custodial torture is about the here and now. As I write and the reader reads this, we can be sure that not far from wherever we are, someone is being tortured by somebody. I am not referring to criminals torturing their captives, but of that somebody who has ephemeral custody, semi-legal, pre-legal, legal, over that someone’s body and mind.
India has practised and continues to practise the ‘third degree’ with impunity. Let only him deny it who has cause to hide it.
But if torture is real, human revulsion with torture is also real. And it has shape, definition. It has scope.
Meeting on December 10, 1984, the UN General Assembly stirred the world’s conscience. It adopted the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Better known as the UN Convention against Torture, it sought to prevent torture around the world. More specifically, it “required states to take effective measures to prevent torture and forbade them from transporting people to any country where there is reason to believe they will be tortured (refoulement)”. Most significantly, the Convention made state parties to undertake that “no exceptional circumstances whatsoever” will be “invoked to justify torture, including war, threat of war, internal political instability, public emergency, terrorist acts, violent crime, or any form of armed conflict”.
In other words, it foresaw every possible subterfuge and subversion by states.
India took 13 years to sign the Convention, but sign it did, on October 14, 1997, during the 11-month-old Prime Ministership of I.K. Gujral. Hat’s off to him. He did what Rajiv Gandhi, V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar, P.V. Narasimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda could not, did not, do. But signing is only the first step. Unless a convention is ratified and followed or preceded by domestic legislation that commits the ratifying party to compliance, the original signing carries no meaning. India has not ratified.
India’s non-ratification of the Convention is both surprising and dismaying. What is the constraint? A state which signs the Convention has to have a domestic law on the subject to outlaw and prevent custodial torture. Without such a law, there is no meaning to signing the Convention. And so, late as it was, the UPA II government introduced a Prevention of Torture Bill in the Lok Sabha in 2010 and had it passed in 10 days. The bill as passed by the Lok Sabha was referred to a select committee of the Rajya Sabha. The committee gave its report recommending the Bill’s adoption later the same year. Citing National Human Rights Commission figures of reported torture cases, the report said the figures showed custodial torture was rising. It also pointed out that the number of reported cases being only a fraction of actuals, the situation was serious.
But that Bill was unlucky. It lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha. And was not revived by the 16th, the present Lok Sabha. Ratification of the Convention remains in limbo. Custodial torture remains in position.
In reply to a question (May 11, 2016) whether the government was planning to ratify the Convention, the Minister of State for Home did not answer either in the positive or negative but spoke of amending Sections 330 (voluntarily causing hurt to extort confession) and 331 of the Indian Penal Code. The nature of these amendments has not been delineated and so, almost nine years after the report of the Select Committee and 21 years after signing the Convention, India is yet to legislate a law that will outlaw torture an enable it to ratify the Convention.
What is the constraint? Why is the Indian state unwilling to say, ‘no custodial torture in India’? The answer can only be that the power over a captive’s body and mind is not easily given up.
Senior advocate Ashwani Kumar, former MP and Minister, moved a PIL in the Supreme Court in 2016 asking it to get Parliament to move forward in the matter. After a full day’s exclusive hearing in the case, the court has reserved its orders. Can the Supreme Court indeed “nudge” Parliament? It knows best, in its wisdom and experience. This much, however, one can hope: In a matter that concerns ‘life and liberty’, the Supreme Court is the guardian of the Constitution’s guarantees. And when the one being guarded says, ‘I thirst,’ the guardian can only bring to its parched lips the waters of life. Whatever be the outcome of Mr. Kumar’s PIL, it is imperative that the democratic opposition makes the ratification of the Convention and a new anti-torture legislation part of its common programme. The 17th Lok Sabha must take a stand on this matter. It has a choice: to join the civilised world in moving away from ancient barbarism or stay in the dungeons of blinding, benumbing brutality.
Volatile Kashmir needs careful handling
By Jagdish Rattanani
The deaths of 44-plus CRPF jawans in the suicide bombing in Pulwama last week raises many questions and changes many things in Jammu and Kashmir. The anguish and outrage at the suicide bombing has been voiced and felt across the nation. The social media is full of demands for tough retaliatory action. There is need for this rhetoric to cool as the government weighs its options and considers its actions. Some, like the withdrawal of MFN status to Pakistan, are unlikely to make much of a difference. Low intensity cross-border action has been attempted (and even owned up) before by this government; but it clearly achieved little. There remains the risk of an escalation in a situation that is already tense and volatile. All parties have come on one page to condemn terrorism in all forms and the support being given to it from across the border. But the coming Lok Sabha elections add a new dynamic to the situation and will influence the way the conversation pans out in the coming months.
Meanwhile, a lot of diplomatic work remains to be done in getting the international community to name Masood Azhar, the founder and leader of the UN-designated terrorist group Jaish-e-Mohammed, as a terrorist who must be brought to justice. The JeM was declared a terrorist organisation by the US state department way back, precisely on December 26, 2001. Britain had proscribed it even earlier, in March 2001, and followed it up by banning its splinter group Khuddam Ul-Islam in October 2005. Nothing much has clearly moved on that front.
Amid the terrible turn of events, reports of attacks on Kashmiri traders and students across India are very disturbing. A series of reports have been flowing in on the social media over the last few days. Not all of them are true.
The CRPF has officially denied at least one alleged incident in Dehradun. On the other hand, Omar Abdullah, former J&K chief minister, has met Union home minister Rajnath Singh to express concern about the intimidation of Kashmiris. He has asked for a nodal officer to be appointed to respond to the threats to Kashmiris. The home ministry for its part lost no time in issuing an advisory to all states and Union territories to ensure the safety and security of Kashmiris across the nation. Targeting Kashmiris who have nothing to do with terrorism or the attack on security forces in their home state is precisely the kind of divide that the terrorists would like to see. This is playing right into the hands of those who wish to break the country, and build the narrative of a nation divided. What is required, therefore, is some cool heads and calm thinking.
Matters have also turned worse with false propaganda that is being directed to incite passions. As the CRPF itself has pointed out in an advisory: “It has been noticed that on social media some miscreants are trying to circulate fake pictures of the body parts of our martyrs to invoke hatred while we stand united. Please do not circulate/share/like such photographs or posts.” In fact, the CRPF moved fast to curb misinformation, and publicised its helplines to help reporting of attacks against Kashmiris elsewhere.
In Kashmir, there has been much talk of the BJP’s muscular policy. About 10 days before the Pulwama attack, the Prime Minister spent a day in the state, and met newly elected sarpanchs. At a gathering in Srinagar, he said: “We will tackle every terrorist in a befitting way. We will break the backbone of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir and fight it with all our might.” This was a reiteration of the BJP’s muscular approach that has been in play for some time, fitting into the narrative it offered when breaking the alliance with then chief minister Mehbooba Mufti of the People’s Democratic Party in June last year. Yet, the approach has coincided with rising violence, more terror attacks and the alienation of the people. After the Prime Minister’s address in J&K on February 3, the state’s political parties were highly critical. Just a day before the Pulwama attack, Ms Mufti held a press conference to criticise what she called the BJP’s “hideous agenda” through the governor, who now runs the administration. Her exact words: “We acted as a major hurdle for the BJP to implement its agenda in Jammu and Kashmir. However, since the time it toppled the democratically elected government, the party is trying to rule the state through the governor and is making strenuous efforts to alienate the Muslims of the state.” If these statements tell us anything, it is about the slide in the situation — in innumerable ways — that have raised the hackles of people.
Violence has been on the rise and in many ways far worse in the last year. The number of terrorist-linked incidents was reported at 614 in 2018, almost three times than those in 2014 and 2015. The total number of terrorists killed in 2014 was 110. In 2018, 257 were killed. But the death toll of civilians and security forces killed also rose — from 75 in 2014 to 129 in 2018, according to figures submitted by the government to the Lok Sabha. It would appear that the rough and tough approach offered by the BJP is not working too well.
The swift developments after the Pulwama attack and the focus on the nature of the response runs the risk of India failing to ask some hard questions on its intelligence methods and mechanisms in J&K. This is clearly a massive failure of intelligence. Those at the helm must be made accountable. Some tough questions must be asked on how a massive collection of arms was put together in a village and let loose so easily by a very young attacker. If this is the nature of attacks to follow, it changes the picture in Kashmir — it will make every citizen suspect, every vehicle a source of trouble, and make handling the situation that much more difficult. Even though it is difficult to prevent every attack, there should be some capacity to have credible intelligence inputs. These are difficult times, but we must not shy away from asking difficult questions. Given the huge budget for intelligence, we can and must do better.
Finally, the freedom given to the security forces to act is not freedom to make the lives of ordinary people more difficult. Great care must be taken not to alienate ordinary Kashmiris. They are the worst sufferers in this endless cycle of violence and nobody has a greater stake in peace than the ordinary people who simply want to be allowed to live and go about their lives in this cruel weather.
Need to win hearts and minds
By Amulya Ganguli,
One of the most disturbing aspects of the February 14 terror attack in Pulwama was that the suicide bomber was a local, Adil Ahmad Dar, who lived in a village near the Jammu-Srinagar highway where the attack took place.
Although indoctrinated as a fidayeen by the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, Dar’s act as a jehadi underlines the vulnerability of impressionable Kashmiri youths to insidious anti-India propaganda by Pakistani terror groups nurtured by the Deep State comprising the country’s army and an espionage agency.
In this particular instance, Dar was apparently “inspired” to kill himself by the Taliban’s “victory” signified by American withdrawal from Afghanistan. If anything, the tragedy emphasises the inter-linked international dimensions of Islamic terrorism.
From Syria to Afghanistan/Pakistan to Kashmir, the jehadi mindset is primed among the youth by the mythical Islamic Caliphate’s war against the kafirs (infidels).
Unlike West Asia and even in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, Indian democracy provides a safeguard against a Messianic struggle, which is why an overwhelming majority of Indian Muslims, including those in Kashmir, remain committed to the democratic system.
As much is evident from the recent panchayat and municipal elections in the state even if the polling percentages in the Valley were low.
However, it is undeniable that a section of Muslims in the valley continue to remain alienated notwithstanding the government’s attempts to reach out to them via the negotiations carried out by the Centre’s representative, Dineshwar Sharma.
But if his efforts have failed to defuse the situation, the reason perhaps is the government’s reluctance to implement some of the recommendations to improve the conditions made by the Dileep Padgaonkar Committee.
These included reducing the army’s visibility, addressing human rights violations, reviewing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and lifting the Disturbed Areas Act.
In essence, what these initiatives were expected to do was to reach out to the hearts and minds of the ordinary people whose commitment to the Indian state cannot be doubted as the continuing relevance of the mainstream parties like the National Conference and the Peoples Democratic Party show.
What is required to defang the terrorists and wean away the misguided youth from their self-destructive path is a gesture which will have a major impact.
One of them is to consider freezing the AFSPA (former Congress minister P. Chidambaram wanted it to be scrapped altogether) and to give a cast-iron guarantee that neither Article 370 nor Article 35A will be touched. The former confers a special status on Kashmir and the latter relates to citizenship rights.
It is only such “big ticket” reforms which can end the sense of alienation among the youths who are cynically exploited by Pakistan’s Deep State.
An outreach of this nature will confirm that the government does not regard Kashmir merely as a law and order problem, where all that is needed is a harsh crackdown on the malcontents.
Arguably, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may not find it easy to change its longstanding stance favouring dispensing with Article 370. But it has to be remembered that Atal Behari Vajpayee did put Article 370 in cold storage in 1996 along with his party’s demand for building a Ram temple and introducing a uniform civil code when he was looking for allies to form a government.
Vajpayee had also called for looking at the Kashmir issue within the parameters of insaniyat (humanity) rather than of the Constitution.
Such broadmindedness is the need of the hour to dissuade deluded young men like Dar from the path of nihilism. Otherwise, more and more of such brainwashed youths will leave their kith and kin to court untimely death.
Equally, scores of security personnel will be in danger of losing their lives because official policies have failed to assure the discontented people of a state with a distinct cultural ambience that they are the nation’s cherished citizens.
It is only when the Kashmiris are visibly mollified that Pakistan’s “isolation”, which the Centre is currently seeking, will be complete, for a fully integrated Kashmir will negate Pakistan’s hope of avenging its Bangladesh defeat and recovering the “K” in the country’s name.
India has dealt with rebellious outbreaks in different parts of the country from the Northeast to the Maoist belts in central and western areas with a fair amount of success. There is no reason why it cannot achieve the same in Kashmir with a patient understanding of the grievances affecting the state, especially when it has national-level leaders like Farooq and Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti with their political and administrative experience.
True, the jehadi factor makes it difficult for a government to adopt a sane attitude because of the irrational pseudo-religious fervour of the militants. But an overt demonstration of being sensitive can enable the government to enlist the overall support of Kashmiri society and enable the elders to rein in the rebels.
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