The Trump administration’s special adviser on Afghan peace met last week with Taliban representatives in Qatar for talks that included “working toward finding a peaceful resolution” to the war. Zalmay Khalilzad, a hawkish diplomat appointed as the US special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation last month, has met with six Afghan Taliban leaders. Zalmay had earlier held consultations in Islamabad, Riyadh and Doha also. The meeting, in all cases, is a significant development towards finding peace in Afghanistan. This also reflects the America’s fresh thinking to acknowledge the political and military reality in Afghanistan. America invaded Afghanistan in October, 2001 in the aftermath of terror attacks on the US on September 11, 2001 resulting in dislodging of Taliban government, which the America thought, was shelter the master-minds of American attack. After initial defeats, Taliban, however, gathered their strength again pushed the American and its allied forces to the wall by capturing almost 45 percent territory of the country. The Afghan strategy by Trump last summer, which aimed at boosting Afghan security forces and the presence of the US troops, did not prove to be effective enough to defeat the Taliban. The US seems to have got frustrated by the Taliban attacks in the capital Kabul and other strategic cities. What is most worrisome for the US is that it is losing on all counts and finds itself in a nutcracker situation. It can neither afford to exit as a defeated super power, nor can it stay for long. It has lost the war but is not acknowledging it and badly wants a face saving formula. It can exit only through Pakistan and not via northern network which is no more available to ship out heavy baggage. The US is faring poorly on all other fronts including the domestic front where Trump has become highly unpopular. Both Pakistan and Taliban are defiant and holding their ground. The pressure on Pakistan too seems to have failed.
Since the rise of Imran Khan to power in Pakistan, Pakistan civil and military authority appear on the same page, and publicly demonstrate their guts to say “no” to Washington. The emergence of Sino-Russian camp and the possibility of Pakistan slipping into it with Iran and Turkey, is also giving the Trump administration sleepless nights. The US fears the possibility of Russia giving surface-to-air missiles to the Taliban to counter air threat. The superiority of America in air attacks is the only factor that stops Taliban from walking Kabul. The Russian supplies would then boost Taliban to undefeatable forces. India’s walking into America’s lap and its involvement in Kabul is the last thing Pakistan and Taliban would ever accept. The demise of Tahreek Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has dealt a severe blow to India’s interests. Pakistan’s decision to repatriate Afghan refugees was another shock not only for India but also for the US and Ashraf Gani administration of Kabul as well. Pakistan also undertook the construction of 830 km border fence and setting up of 400 border forts along the harshest border terrain with Afghanistan. The construction work is expected to be completed by 2019. This has given a major advantage to Pakistan to guard itself against the enti Pakistan elements in Afghanistan. The Pakistan-China economic cooperation in the form of CPEC has come up as a another hissing cobra for both USA and India, which would not only smash their global ambitions and isolate them, but also strengthen their foes China and Pakistan.
The Trump administration seems to have finally understood the dangers of continuing its military engagement in Afghanistan. It is for this fact that voices of talks with Taliban are coming equally from the civil and military administration of the United States. Pakistan has long been pleading for ending the war through negotiations with Taliban; the Afghan and U.S. officials have accused it of aiding and abetting Taliban. Washington, in a bid to put pressure on Pakistan, has suspended $300 million in military aid. A key part of Khalilzad’s assignment is to persuade Pakistan to actively back peace talks. It is quite a positive development happening in the region. Rising above petty interests, all the powers involved in should contribute to these peace efforts.
Collapse of Afghanistan peace talks
The hope for end of the war in Afghanistan has suffered a major blow as the peace talks between Taliban and the Afghan government have collapsed. A key meeting of Taliban leaders and Afghanistan government officials was scheduled to take place in Qatar on April 19 but a last minute row over the large number of delegates Kabul wanted to send culminated in the fall down. Taliban leaders refused to accept the Afghan government delegation in such a large size. The peace talks have been postponed indefinitely. The talks have collapsed at a moment when bloodshed continues in the war torn country. On Saturday suicide attackers stormed the Ministry of Communications in the capital Kabul trapping thousands of people inside the building for hours while security forces battled the assailants. At least 10 people died in the fighting. The Islamic State group claimed credit for the attack, which came a day after U.S.-led peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan leaders broke down in Qatar, with no immediate plans to reschedule negotiations. Taliban indeed is the major power group in Afghanistan. It now controls or influences more than half of Afghanistan. The government writ has largely been squeezed to Kabul only. A recent United Nations tally revealed that around 4000 civilians were killed across Afghanistan last year. The United States, which is leading an effort to end the war, signaled its disappointment and urged both sides to return to the table, though organizers gave no hint about when the conference might be rescheduled.
Efforts to end the Afghan conflict have accelerated since the appointment of U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in September last year, who has since been shuttling across the region to revive Afghan peace talks. He has held several meetings with the Taliban leaders at their political office in the Gulf country of Qatar. American President Donald Trump’s letter, in recent past, to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan seeking Islamabad’s support in establishing peace in Afghanistan too has helped in reviving the peace efforts in the decades old war torn country. Trump had earlier tried to terrorize and pressurize Pakistan through intimidating measures, and in the process stopped all the military aid the country was supposed to get as its share for being a partner in America’s war on terrorism. Trump directly accused Pakistan of harbouring and sponsoring the terrorists, and wanted Pakistan to fight the America’s war in Afghanistan. Trump issued threat and warnings to Pakistan with the intention that like in the past it would succumb to such pressure. But as it saw Taliban capturing more and more areas, Trump stopped all military and economic aid to Pakistan to make Islamabad more pliable. America even threatened Pakistan of military action if it did not comply to the US orders. But the rise of Imran Khan to power saw a new and confident Pakistan refusing to toe the American line. American officials have now admitted that the Taliban control more than 60 per cent of the territory in Afghanistan. Hence, the Trump administration has finally come to the conclusion that there is no other option but to talk to the Taliban. The U-Turn by Donald Trump is a huge indicator that no country, howsoever powerful it could be is invincible. In the new scenario, America’s interests in peace in Afghanistan are growing as the US wanted complete withdrawal of its forces from the country. There is no other alternative to peace. Irrespective of what America or other interested powers want, peace should restore in Afghanistan in the interests of its people. More than anyone else, it is the people of Afghanistan who need peace. It is imperative on all stakeholders to restore peace talks without any delay so that peace returns to the war-torn country.
Easter Sunday shock
On Sunday Sri Lanka was rocked by a series of deadly blasts that killed more than 200 people and injured around 500 more. At least eight bombs ripped through three Churches and two high-end hotels in the capital Colombo causing widespread casualties. Seen as one of the worst terror acts in the island nation, the bombing were struck at a time when large number of Christian devotees had gathered in Churches to celebrate Easter. The day is celebrated by Christian across the world as a mark of reincarnation of Jesus Christ three days after his crucification. In a country of 22 million people, Christians form around 10 percent of the population. The scale and savagery of the attacks that clearly targeted Christians have left Sri Lankans devastated and confused. The country has a long history of disenfranchisement among minority Tamil groups, who are largely Hindu, at the hands of the Sinhalese Buddhists led to a civil war in the 1980s. The Tamil Tigers, an armed insurgent group that identified itself as secular, launched deadly attacks, including some of the earliest use of suicide bombings as a tactic of insurgency. The group was active in northeastern Sri Lanka, in areas such as Jaffna. The LTTE was a highly motivated insurgent group which is the first separatist militant group in south Asia to introduce suicide bombings as a means of its campaign. Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was also killed by this group by human bombing. In response, the Sri Lankan Army carried out brutal campaigns, largely focused on the Tamil stronghold in the northeast. The civil war ended in 2009 after a large-scale operation by the army that defeated the Tamil Tigers and killed its leader—Velupillai Prabhakaran. There is no exact casualty toll, but the United Nations has suggested that as many as 40,000 civilians were killed in the last stage of the war alone.
No group has claimed responsibility for the latest devastating attack. The police said they believed the bombings were the work of one group but declined to identify it. At least 35 of the victims were foreigners, including several Americans. For years, as Sri Lanka has climbed away from war, it has been building a robust tourism industry. The bombings were the deadliest attack on Christians in South Asia in recent memory and punctuated a rising trend of religious-based violence in the region. In recent years, there have been clashes between the majority Sinhalese Buddhist community and minority Muslims, and in March last year the government imposed a 12-day state of emergency to quell anti-Muslim riots. Christian groups have also complained of increased harassment from hard-line Buddhist groups. Buddhists form around 70 percent of the country’s overall population. Sri Lanka is known for its tremendous natural beauty, which attracts millions of tourists every year. The country gained independence from British rule in 1948 as the dominion of Ceylon, and became the Republic of Sri Lanka in 1972. Its people have long borne a burden of violence. It is yet to be seen who are behind the Sunday bombings and how it does fit in the country’s turbulent history. Much to the credit of the Sri Lankan government, the island nation did not react in panic. Though the authorities had to impose curfew as precautionary measure but the overall situation is reported peaceful. But few would dispute with the fact the rise of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism has resulted in sectarian divides that is growing menacingly, and the country has experienced new waves of violence. A rise in intolerance has been attributed in part to the postwar triumphalism of some Sinhalese majority politicians. The Sri Lankan government needs to look into the Sunday bombing from all angles.
Bad news from Islamabad
Pakistan is in its history’s worst economic crisis. With no end in sight, Prime Minister Imran Khan has removed his finance minister Assad Umar from his position, and appointed a new chief Abdul Hafeez Sheikh for the finance ministry. Sheikh has served as economic advisor in General Musharraf’s government. But keen observers believe that removal of Assad would hardly bring any positive change in the current crisis without a huge bailout package from International Monetary Fund (IMF). While the exact amount of this package has not been determined, Pakistan already owes the IMF billions from previous programs. Since Pakistan is already on Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) grey list, any bailout package from friendly countries too is the most unlikely. It is a serious challenge that is starring at Imran Khan’s face so freighting. Imran Khan’s eight-month-old government has faced sustained criticism from political opponents, independent commentators and the business community over the government’s handling of the economic crisis facing the country. Much of that criticism was leveled against his finance minister Assad Umar. In his bid to pacify his critics and wriggle the country out of these crises, Imran Khan, last week, removed Assad from finance ministry for the lack of effective financial strategy. He was given other ministry but Assad took it as insult and he resigned from the government. Assad’s removal came immediately after he worked out a bailout package with the officials of IMF in New York. An IMF mission is expected to visit Islamabad next month to work out more details though, according to Assad, all major issues had been settled and documented. Assad was made the butt of criticism for taking months to finalize the IMF deal which resulted in serious economic crisis. The critics said that the delay in working out deal with the IMF shattered the confidence of the investors in Pakistan economy.
Pakistan is reeling under huge international debt. It can well be understood from the fact that currently around 31 percent of Pakistan government’s expenditure is earmarked for debt servicing. What ails Pak economy further is the decreasing revenues. Dwindling foreign exchange reserves, low exports and high inflation is adding menacingly to growing fiscal deficit, and current account deficit of Pakistan. The country has no other option but to knock on the IMF doors. It would 22nd bailout loan from the international body to Pakistan since 1980. Dr Kaiser Bengali, Dean of the Faculty of Management Science at the Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto Institute of Science and Technology, in Karachi, last week, warned that Pakistan’s economy has reached the “point of collapse”. “For the first time in four decades of research, I am deeply worried. The alarm bells are ringing. We have no choice but to beg. I fear starvation, poverty and unemployment,” he warned. Pakistan government is likely to present the budget on May 24. Pakistan needs to ensure investment friendly environment to attract the international investors. Pakistan is facing a serious image problem that is scaring global investors. It is in the interest of Pakistan to improve its image as a responsible and credible nation-state by getting better the security scenario of the country to attract foreign direct investment. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report, Pakistan ranks 136th out of 190 economies. To improve this ranking and draw more investment, Pakistan should ease customs laws and regulations and rebrand and boost its international image as a desirable destination for tourism and industry alike. It should also encourage domestic investment through more flexible tax policies, particularly targeting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Such measures would reposition Pakistan on the international stage as stable, competitive ground for foreign investment.