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The Taliban return

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By Hussain H Zaidi

Having fought for over 17 years, the US and the Afghan Taliban are well on course to finally turning swords into ploughshares. Only a cataclysmic event can bring the current dialogue to a grinding halt. Ousted from power at the end of 2001 by the US/Nato-led Operation Enduring Freedom, the Taliban now seem set to recapture their past glory.

Who blinks first has for years been the million-dollar question in the Afghan war, which is arguably the costliest and the bloodiest conflict in the contemporary world. The war has soaked up close to a trillion dollars from Washington’s kitty while more than 2,000 American troops have been killed and over 20,000 have sustained injuries. Likewise, nearly 60,000 Afghan military and police personnel, and more than 38,000 civilians have died. The number of militants killed also runs into thousands.

 

The tide of history seems to be on the side of the Taliban, as the US acceded to one of their lead demands for face-to-face talks without involving the Afghan government, which they dismiss as a puppet of Washington. The US-Taliban one-on-one was opposed by Kabul because it would confer legitimacy on the militants. The acceptance of the demand constitutes a big concession to the militants and lays bare Washington’s desperation over the lingering crisis.

While the dialogue was being held in Doha, the Taliban struck at an intelligence training centre and killed more than 40 troops, which only confirmed that they went into the talks from a position of strength, leaving Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who knows he is fighting a losing battle, to highlight the sacrifices made by his troops and citizens at the World Economic Forum.

At the six-day Doha parleys, significant progress has been made on the two sticking points in the Afghan conflict: a schedule for the withdrawal of US-led international forces from Afghanistan – the militants’ demand – and the guarantee from the Taliban that they would not allow international jihadi organisations like Al-Qaeda to take root in the country after the pullout – the Americans’ demand.

As only a sizeable US presence in Afghanistan stood between the Taliban and the throne of Kabul, the militants persistently called for a complete American pullout from Afghanistan as a precondition for an end to the war. Other important issues, such as a ceasefire and the direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government have been put on ice for now.

Be that as it may, it could have been the other way round, with the Taliban and Kabul first thrashing out a truce and future political roadmap for the country followed by an agreement on the withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. That’s what has been the standpoint of the Afghan government. But since the US top priority is to quit Afghanistan as early as possible – like a mega enterprise facing whooping losses to opt out of the market – it chose the course prescribed by the Taliban.

Although Zalmay Khalilzad, the US chief negotiator for talks with the Taliban, has assured that any deal with the militants would include an intra-Afghan dialogue, it has become a secondary issue. The foremost issue for Washington is to leave Afghanistan with the guarantee that the Taliban would not provide shelter to an organisation like Al-Qaeda again. Such a guarantee can be underwritten by regional powers and enforced by the fear that in case Afghanistan reprises its status of being an epicentre of global terrorism under the Taliban, the US may once again invade the country.

But such a guarantee can hardly be regarded as iron clad. Once they have become the supreme power in Afghanistan, the Taliban would not be under the thumb of regional countries. It also won’t be easy for the US to commit enormous resources to another round of the Afghan war, except if a 9/11-like calamity were to hit the country.

As the philosopher Thomas Hobbes once observed, covenants without the power to enforce them are merely words. This ring true for Afghanistan, where political power still flows out of the barrel of the gun – and only from the barrel of the gun. So once the US leaves the roiled country triumphantly, holding the Afghan reconciliation trophy, who will ensure that the Taliban don’t rise roughshod over other ethnic/sectarian groups, the way they did in the 1990s?

But why has Washington chosen the road it has? After they had ousted the Taliban regime, the US and its Nato allies had the option to finish off the Taliban as an armed opposition. But it is doubtful if that option ever received a fair hearing for the reason that the Taliban themselves never constituted a serious threat to US security.

The Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996. While that may have been an epoch-making event for the region, it wasn’t the case for the US. It was only when the Taliban regime dragged its feet on handing over Al-Qaeda’s leadership, which is widely seen to have masterminded the 9/11 attacks, that the US decided to unseat it. Thenceforth, America’s top concern in Afghanistan was to lay waste to Al-Qaeda’s network in the country, which it did.

That is the reason Washington seldom, if ever, expressed its unflinching commitment to stay in Afghanistan until the country rids itself of militancy. Instead, it hinted from time to time at possible exit strategies, while at the same time pressurising Islamabad to do more. Pakistan could not be realistically expected to fight a US war which the latter itself lacked the commitment to take to its logical conclusion.

Hence, reconciliation among Afghan factions has been the constant theme in Washington’s Afghan strategy. At first, reconciliation was to be pursued on Washington/Kabul’s terms within the ambit of the Afghan constitution. This was to be done by segregating the militants into ‘good’ – who were ideologically motivated – and ‘bad’ – who were mere soldiers of fortune – snuffing out bad militants, and encouraging the good ones to lay down their arms. Finally, a power-sharing agreement would be struck among the key players. It was with a view to segregate the two assumed categories of the Taliban that the quadrilateral peace process involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, China and the US was launched.

Granted a distinction could be made between the good and bad militants, the success of the strategy turned on putting the bad Taliban to sword, which entailed a strong, long-term commitment on the part of the US and its Nato allies. Such a commitment, as already mentioned, was conspicuous by its absence. After Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, Washington’s interest in Afghanistan began to fizzle out. Barack Obama announced that US combat troops would be pulled out by the close of 2014.

Come Donald Trump, who had been opposed to America’s costly involvement in foreign wars. However, in his August 2017 Afghan strategy, he announced his decision to beef up his country’s military presence in the country. But on sober reflection, he realised that adopting such a course would be a fool’s errand. His next announcement was to cut the 14,000 American troops stationed in Afghanistan by half, which sounded the death knell for already feeble attempts to dictate terms to the Taliban.

Thus the reconciliation in Afghanistan was a euphemism for recognising the Taliban, who controlled large swathes of the territory, as a de-jure power. Nothing could have dialled down the morale of Afghan troops more than the impression that the entire war machinery was geared towards offering an olive branch to those they were fighting against.

As fate would have it, the Taliban will soon have another bite at the cherry. It remains to be seen whether time has put a damper on their puritanism and medieval sense of justice or if it is as virile as it was two decades ago.


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Opinion

Theology of Presence

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Amir Suhail Wani

“O you who believe! Remember Allah With much remembrance”: Al Quran

To believe is to be in a state of presence. Presence, though not the climax, but is, one of the most cherished states and authentic manifestations of belief. To let God stay far away in the realm of abstraction and beyond-ness not only dilutes the spirit of worship, but it brings under scrutiny the very notion of belief. Religion, in its finest form, aims at invoking in man the spirit of presence, so that the believer may feel and experience the himself in presence of divine and may thus be able to envision a living and existential relationship with his creator and his object of devotion. Religion, even in its basic etymological connotation invokes the sense of “connectedness and attachment” with the object of devotion. It is in the very essence of man that he wants to be greater than what he is and when submitting before the divine, the individual, finite and subjective ego undergoes an existential, psychological and spiritual transformation of unique nature which expands its contours beyond those of physical perimeters. In any act of worship, the subject envisages the object of devotion as infinite and it not only pays homage to that infinite by bowing to it, but it very much desires to expand its own finitude under the radiance of that eternal infinite. This is what is meant by the philosophical benediction that “make me Thou, not an it”.

 

This human urge of finding means of self expansion by submitting before the divine is the greatest expression of human will and self sacrifice. But this spirit is rendered meaningless and antithetical when religion, in its state of decline, reduces to mere theology. In this reductionism, God remains no longer a living reality in the life of believer. He is rather replaced by a set of axioms and statements which fail to stimulate and satisfy the deepest spiritual yearnings of man and this deepest spiritual yearning is nothing but an aspiration to come in living contact with the divine and transcendental. Islam and for that matter most of the religions strongly condemn the deistic notions about God for it leaves absolutely no scope for religious indoctrination and creates an unimaginable void in the realm of Transcendence. It is in response to nuances like these that the notion of presence assumes multifold importance. It is not only prayer but our entire life that demands, by virtue of its spiritual dimension, that we live perpetually under the spell of divine. Thus religions teach us not merely to pray and thus make prayer a part of our life, but they come to turn our entire life into a sort of prayer. This transformation of life itself into prayer is what has best been embodied by Islamic teachings which reiterate time and again that all acts shall be done according to the law/s prescribed by God and at the beginning and end of each of our activity, the name of God shall be invoked. Not only this, the orations we recite at various instances from entering a washroom to starting our prayer are nothing but a beautiful way of making God a perpetual and living presence in our lives. None of our activities shall be divorced from Transcendent and while we are bodily constantly engaged in acts of world and matter, our heads, hearts and souls shall be perpetually turned to the divine. This act of remembering God in world of forgetting paves the way for “discovering God through material representations”. The highest form of this discovery is prayer and within prayer itself it is dua that marks the height of living relationship between God and believer. The purpose of prayer, as has been narrowly appropriated lately is not merely to make God change his mind and to bring our naive desires to fruition. Prayer is in fact the testimony of our living and real time relationship of servitude and dependency on God. Thus when God asserts “If My servants ask you regarding Me, I am indeed Near. I answer the call of those who call upon Me when they call. So let them answer My call and let them believe in believe in Me–in order that they be truly guided.”, he makes us understand in most emphatic and explicit way that he is very much existentially related to us and responds to our prayers. This response to prayer shall not be seen as the fulfilment of our prayers in material realm (which is true on its own), but it shall invoke in us the existential quest and inspire us to awaken our slumbering spiritual sensibility so that we may truly feel that God is indeed responding to us as our creator and as an object truly worthy of our devotion and worship.

This notion of presence has been subjected to double irony. The religious centric people lost sight of this appeal and dedicated their energies in confining and codifying God in their formulae of logical atomism. They rigidly tried to fix God in their self made definitions made out of untenable language as if trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. While as the role of this intellectual cum theological process can’t be belittled, but their overemphasis on making God comply to their abstractions and creating an unsurpassable chasm between the creator and creation surely set them on too rigid a path. The aftermath of this theorization of God not only created uncompromising hostility among different religions, but within the same religion it gave birth to unending clashes, unforseen intolerance and created such shameful examples that served the purpose of latter day anti religious forces. The second threat, and that is more dangerous, to this “theology of presence” has come from movements like new age spirituality, occult practices and pseudo spiritual shopping malls. Whereas traditional religion and traditional metaphysics taught us to see this world as a reflection and reverberation of transcendental realm, the new age spirituality has tragically represented the divine realm as an “extended expression” of human realm and this immanent universe. This has been sort of shifting the frame of reference and with this shifting of frames, the meaning of spirituality and metaphysics is inverted on its head. This misplaced mysticism and consumerist spirituality is far dangerous than no spirituality at all. In absence of spirituality, one may set out to discover the genuine and true spiritual traditions, but the presence of fake and pseudo spirituality creates a halo effect around man and his genuine thirst and quest is buried under the garb of this “materialistic spirituality”.

There are no palatable solutions to this malice that has invaded our religious obligation of perpetual presence and taught us to be satisfied with rituals without knowing their meaning. What one can do is to read, if one can, the religious scriptures and try to get to the roots of these scriptures. Look out for commonalities among scriptures and try to make a sense out of these commonalities. Another suggestion is to read the authors like Rene Guneon, Frithjof Schoun, Martin Lings, William Chittick and others of their class. What is special about these authors is that they speak about traditional metaphysics in contemporary idiom with an insight that is both inspiring as well as awakening. Finally we must note and note it seriously that life is not a profane activity sprinkled with events of sacred prayers, rather life is sacred as a whole and the existential realisation of this axiom is fundamental postulate on which all religions stand.

(The author is a freelance columnist with bachelors in Electrical Engineering and a student of comparative studies with special interests in Iqbaliyat & mystic thought. He contributes a weekly column for this newspaper that appears every Monday. He can be reached at: amirkas2016@gmail.com)

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Kathua verdict: fact, fable and fiction

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Shabbir Aariz                                   

Finally some relief has been accorded to the family of the victim, Asifa by the trial judge Mr Tejwinder Singh by convicting and punishing the guilty. But it is too little if not too late. The investigating agency has undoubtedly done a commendable job in piecing together the evidence against the odds and succeeded in obtaining conviction for criminal conspiracy, gang rape, poisoning and murder of 8year old Asifa on 17th of January 2018 in Rasana village near Kathua in Jammu. Rape is the fourth most common crime against women in India. The National Crime Records Bureau of India suggests a reported rape rate of 2 per 100,000 people, much lower than reported rape incidence rate in the local Indian media. However, Times of India reported the data by National Crime Records Bureau unveiling that 93 women are being raped in India every day. Every year 7,200 minors are raped as the statistics suggest without unreported ones. Rape is, surprisingly a weapon of punishment in India. In 2014, in Jharkhand village elders ordered the rape of a 14year old. The husband of the woman who was assaulted sexually was told to carry out the rape. As the woman’s husband dragged the girl to a nearby forest, villagers only looked on. Earlier West Bengal village reportedly ordered the gang rape of a 20 year old woman for falling in love with a man from another community. Even in case of Kathua, two BJP ministers stood in favor of the accused. Sexual crimes being committed with impunity not even sparing foreign tourists led to issuance of rape advisories like women travelling should exercise caution when travelling in India even if they are travelling in a group, avoid hailing taxis from streets or using public transport at night. India feels like it is going through an upsurge of sexual violence against children and after several incidents including Asifa’s, received widespread media attention and triggered public protest. The Prime Minister condemned it and UN Secretary General, Antonio Guiterres said “guilty must be held responsible” describing the incident “horrific”. This led the Government of India to reform its penal code for crimes of rape and sexual assault. As such India’s cabinet approved the introduction of death penalty for those who rape children. The executive order was cleared at a special cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Modi. It allowed capital punishment for anyone convicted of raping children under the age of 12. India’s poor record of dealing with sexual violence came to fore after 2012 gang rape and murder of a student on a Delhi bus. The four men involved were sentenced to death. The Supreme Court maintained the death sentence of the convicts; Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta and Mukesh. Rejecting their appeal Justice R Banumathi said the men committed “a barbaric crime” that had “shaken society’s conscience”. It is worthwhile to mention that the death penalty to the said persons was given in the year 2013 while as the executive ordinance came in April 2018 after Asifa’s incident and of a 16year old girl in northern Uttar Pradesh by a member of BJP, Kuldeep Sengar (ironically, victim’s father was arrested and thereafter killed by the Kuldeep’s supporters.) Prior to 2012, there was no single law specifically dealing with children as victims of sexual offences. Then came Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act in 2012, India’s first comprehensive law to deal specifically with child sex abuse and surprisingly the number of reported cases of child abuse rose by nearly 45% the next year.

The new amendments enable a court to hand out a death penalty to someone convicted of raping a child under 12, even if it does not result in death. In countries like China, Egypt, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan, rape is punishable with nothing short of death by hanging, beheading or firing squad. Despite the changes to the law and arming Indian courts, there is reluctance to carry out the death penalty. Is there anything wrong with the collective Indian psyche that deters even courts from putting curbs on sexual crimes against even minors? One feels disgusted for the punishment not being exemplary in Asifa’s case when on trial crimes like gang rape and murder were proved. The court was saddled with the law and verdicts of Supreme Court where death penalty awarded was not interfered with and also its observations emphasizing the gravity of such crime with its impact on the society. Do the laws also have a fiction value? When do we really implement them? Is something more needed to shake society’s conscience? It is more likely that the convicts in this case will go in appeal to the higher court against the judgement. The verdict of the lower court also calls for a counter appeal by the prosecution seeking enhancement of punishment to death of the convicts.

 

(A leading lawyer and eminent poet, author contributes a weekly column. He can be reached at:  vaklishabir@gmail.com)     

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Let’s Become Environmental Protectionists!

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Dr. Shahid Amin Trali

It’s very alarming to find the unending disturbances to our environment. Man’s foul play with the nature is not going well with the present as well as our future. The environmental problems are mounting towards a bigger trouble in future but we are yet to recover from deep hibernation/sleep mode. This menace of pollution has existed for centuries but increased at an alarming rate after industrial revolution in the 19th century. Pollution is one of the biggest global killers, affecting over 100 million people. The world’s population is ever increasing and the treasures of the resources are getting overexploited.

 

There is greater need that we must promote better and efficient use of resources. Mass production of plastics, which began just six decades ago, has accelerated very rapidly—most of it in disposable products that end up as trash. If business goes on as usual, plastic pollution will double over the next thirty years. That would mean there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Plastics have several health hazards, both for humans and animals. Not just that, it is detrimental for the environment too. We must encourage the reduction, recycling and re-use of wastes as raw material for new products. Our younger generation is highly creative and all they must be given is ample support and opportunities. We must promote ‘Jugaad’ creation, the idea of using the waste to make something novel and save resources. We need to set examples from our home places and re-use what we would easily throw away and conserve for a future.  What we cannot recycle let us try not use them. Let’s promote paper products as they break down better in the environment and don’t affect our nature as much.

Learning to be more environmentally friendly is not that difficult task than we think. We must start by living with a greater awareness of the resources that we use in our daily life.  For example we must turn off the lights as soon as we leave a room in our homes and offices or even schools and colleges.  We must be environmental friendly when it comes to building our homes and buildings. Trees are necessary for us to survive. We must plant small trees around our home, don’t cut them unless it’s necessary, work with local environmental groups to plant more trees and educate others about the beauty and benefits of trees.

Water needs to be conserved. Few ways to conserve water are – take short showers, keep the running tap close while we brush our teeth, recycle water in our home, use water saving appliances etc. More good ways to contribute will be consume less energy, buy recycled products, and create less waste and many more. We must refrain from open burning as backyard trash and leaf burning releases high levels of toxic compounds. We must use public transit as much as possible. Let us walk more and drive less to conserve fuel and prevent auto-emission. Let’s use bicycles and scooters for shorter distances to save resources.

Cleanliness leads to cleanliness. We can easily find that a dirty place adds to its dirtiness. When we come across a fresh place, we think twice before turning it bad and dirty. It is sad when we think for our clean homes and hardly care for the roads, hospitals, educational institutions, offices, markets etc. Our mindset has to undergo a big overhaul that our public property is our own property.

India is one of the three worst offending countries when it comes to environmental performance. Corporate leaders have started joining the race to save the planet. Being environment-friendly, eco-friendly, going green are huge claims referring to goods and services, laws, guidelines and policies that inflict reduced, minimal, or no harm at all, upon ecosystems or the environment. But the attempts need to be strong and concrete. Small and medium sized companies in particular generate a lot of pollution and need awareness and support policies to safeguard the environment.

Individuals, organizations and governments need to join hands to protect our environment.  Let’s educate others about the significance of living an environmentally friendly life. The more we will share an awareness of the richness of the environment, the more we can do together to protect it. Environmental love and care must receive an all time attention and priority. Let’s go beyond the model building exercises for safer environment and turn them into reality. Organizations must appreciate and reward the employees for their environmental care.

The Philippines recently has taken a unique and wonderful initiative. The island country passed a law under which every student there has to mandatorily plant ten trees in order to get their graduation degree. The law if it is implemented properly will ensure that over 175 million trees will be planted every year. The law will be applicable for college, elementary, and high school students as well. Our education system must owe greater responsibility towards environment and find some unique strategies to safeguard it. Let’s go green and pledge to protect our environment. (The author is Assistant Professor, ITM University Gwalior, Youth Ambassador, International Youth Society. He can be mailed on: dr.shahidamin15@gmail.com)

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