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What does Iran want in Afghanistan?

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By Maysam Behravesh

Unprecedented negotiations in Qatar between US special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban have created cautious optimism for lasting reconciliation. “We made significant progress on vital issues,” Khalilzad wrote on Twitter, adding: “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and ‘everything’ must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire.”

The potential peace pact, according to a Reuters report, stipulates that foreign forces leave Afghanistan within 18 months of the draft deal being signed. It also requires the Taliban to prevent al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) from using Afghan territory to stage attacks against the United States and its allies.

 

The big elephant in the room, however, is how the consequent power void will be filled and what role, in particular, Afghanistan’s neighbours, Iran and Pakistan, will play in the post-withdrawal environment. While Pakistan has generally backed the Afghan Taliban as an ideologically reliable and militarily resilient bulwark against growing Indian influence in its northern neighbourhood, Shia Iran’s relationship with the Sunni militant group is highly complicated. Part of this complication is rooted in their common opposition to the US, which has led Tehran to pursue a costly and unpopular policy of “strategic hedging” in war-torn Afghanistan, that is, supporting the US-backed Afghan government and the Taliban at the same time and playing them against each other whenever necessary.

In September 1996, the Taliban fighters seized control of Kabul and established the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which was recognised by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – all Iran’s regional rivals. Around two years later, in August 1998 when the Taliban were fighting Iran-backed Northern Alliance – a military front headed by former Afghan Defence Minister Ahmad Shah Massoud – to extend their control over all Afghan territory, they stormed the Iranian consulate in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif and killed 10 diplomats as well as a correspondent from Iran’s state news agency there.

Shocked and outraged by the mass murder of its diplomats, Tehran deployed tens of thousands of troops along the border with Afghanistan, but ultimately stopped short of invading its eastern neighbour. It was later speculated that members of Sipah-e-Sahaba, an anti-Shia militant organisation with close connections to the Pakistani military and intelligence apparatus, played a role in the killings.

Pakistan’s newfound nuclear capability must have been on the minds of Iranian leaders when they decided to refrain from a military intervention against the Islamabad-backed Taliban forces in Afghanistan. After three years of strategic self-restraint and patience, however, Iran grasped the opportunity presented by the September 11 terror attacks and, along with the Northern Alliance, provided the US-led coalition with indispensable military and intelligence assistance to topple the Taliban government in late 2001.

Ever since, Tehran’s evolving relationship with the Taliban has been marked by an ambivalent combination of restrained support and containment, as Iranian leaders have sought to use the armed group as a strategic instrument to stymie the US war effort in Afghanistan and make sure that the American military presence in Iran’s backyard remains contested and abortive.

In September 2017, Sharif Yaftali, chief of general staff of the Afghan national army, affirmed in an exclusive interview with BBC that Kabul had evidence showing that Iran supplied weapons and equipment to the Taliban in western Afghanistan. The revelation followed similar remarks by provincial authorities in the region. In August of the same year, Mohammed Arif Shah Jehan, then governor of Farah province adjacent to Iran, told The New York Times that “the strongest Taliban” in the border areas were “Iranian Taliban”.

Another sign of a possible Tehran-Taliban collaboration emerged in May 2016, when a US drone targeted a lone vehicle on a desert route in the southwestern Pakistani province of Balochistan, killing the driver and his only passenger. While the passenger’s passport listed his name as Wali Mohammad, a Pakistani national, US and Afghan officials confirmed his real identity as Mullah Akhtar Mansour, then-leader of the Taliban. Intriguingly, the obscure passenger was returning from Iran, where his passport indicated he had travelled at least twice during the year.

A key catalyst for the Islamic Republic’s non-aligned yet convergent relationship with the Taliban has been the rise of the more militant, vehemently anti-Shia ISIL in parts of Afghanistan. For Iran, the Taliban is, among other things, the lesser nemesis with the potential to curb the spread of the most aggressive anti-Iranian forces to its east.

As Tehran treats the Taliban as an ancillary lever in its strategic toolkit, the Sunni militant group views neighbouring Iran through a similar lens of expediency.

It is “a seasonal relationship that serves only one purpose and that is to fight the Americans out of Afghanistan. It is, thus, a hate-love relationship”, Harun Najafizada, veteran Afghan journalist and translator into Persian of Zalmay Khalilzad’s book, The Envoy, told me. “Aware of how the Islamic Republic treats fellow Sunnis in Iran, the Taliban does not seem to recognise Shia Iran as a strategic ally”.

With the US-Taliban peace negotiations gaining momentum and the Trump administration searching for a safe way to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan, Tehran’s contacts with the armed group have recently increased. Officially confirming these communications, the Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani stressed the need for “the active participation of regional countries” in the Afghan stabilisation and peace process during a one-day visit to Kabul on December 26 last year. Shamkhani’s assertions, however, did not stir as much controversy as those of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif who described a future Afghan state without the Taliban as “impossible” in a January interview with India’s NDTV channel.

Nonetheless, some Afghans believe that Kabul generally pursues a “very cautious” policy towards Tehran. “The government is usually silent about Iran’s actions because they need its financial and political backing,” Faisal Karimi, a professor of journalism at Herat University and director of the Afghanistan Institute for Research and Media Studies, said. “They are trying to create a balance in Afghanistan’s foreign policy and think keeping Iran satisfied would serve Afghan interests”.

It is the quest for a similar strategic equilibrium that inclines the Islamic Republic to favour a heterogeneous, if not divided, government in post-withdrawal Afghanistan. Iranian leaders seem to believe that such a pragmatic balance would maximise their control over Iran’s eastern neighbour, preventing it from turning into an anti-Shia stronghold on the one hand and a US political-military bastion on the other.


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Opinion

The importance of being humane

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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.

(The Hindu)

 

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Volatile Kashmir needs careful handling

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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.

 

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Need to win hearts and minds

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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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