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DAWN Editorials – 20th May 2016

QCG meeting

CONVENED after three turbulent months, the fifth meeting of the Quadrilateral Coordination Group was not expected to provide any significant breakthroughs. But when the QCG itself can only agree on hopeful — even wishful — language in the official statement and cannot even announce a date for the next meeting, it would appear that the peace process in Afghanistan is well and truly at an impasse. Yet, given the overall history of the Pak-Afghan relationship, it will come as a relief that, for all the anxiety and acrimony, neither side is willing or ready to walk away from dialogue altogether. Afghanistan and Pakistan still engaging in dialogue, even if frustrating, slow and seemingly without any results, is certainly preferable to an outright rejection of talks. Moreover, despite the acute and apparent difficulties in nudging the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table, there still appears to be a consensus in the QCG that an intra-Afghanistan peace process is the only viable option for the country. From those admittedly frayed strands could be constructed the basis of the next phase in the dialogue process.

The draft agreement between the Afghan government and the infamous Afghan warlord and long-time Pakistan ally, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, suggests that a path to peace can in fact be forged. A peace agreement with Mr Hekmatyar and his Hizb-i-Islami was perhaps possible because of the vastly diminished influence and military strength of the Hizb — long gone are the days when Mr Hekmatyar could terrorise Afghans from his base in the northeast of the country and attract UN sanctions for his actions. But with no success or even measurable progress elsewhere, the Afghan government can try and use a tentative peace agreement with Mr Hekmatyar and his group to demonstrate the possibilities of dialogue to other Afghan militants. Ultimately, it is with the Afghan Taliban, still lacking a dominant new leader but believed to be largely falling in line behind Mansour Akhtar, that the Afghan state must pursue dialogue. While it is the task of the QCG to create the conditions for talks, the Afghan state can also shape the environment for dialogue with the Taliban by demonstrating robustness on the battlefield and reconciling with whichever groups it finds are amenable to a quick peace.

If there is anything that is clear in Afghanistan it is that neither can the Taliban achieve a military victory and overthrow the Afghan state nor can the latter decisively and permanently defeat the Taliban. In theory, that should offer some space for a negotiated settlement given that both Kabul and the Taliban have rational expectations. But in the real world the many and overlapping variables can undermine simple logic. Pakistan may not have a master key to unlock the Afghan problem, but surely it is time to put more effort into converting theory into practice.

Budget and Panama

THE deliberations surrounding an inquiry into the Panamanian affairs of the prime minister are finally set to begin in a properly defined context, and it is time to keep them within the confines agreed upon. The finance minister needs to be freed from the deliberations so he can focus on the more important budget preparations that should be the biggest claim on his time these days. With an agreement that the terms of reference for the inquiry will be decided by a parliamentary body, the political crisis has now found rails and should stay there. The budget process is at risk of being subordinated to the noise and fury of the affair, and that must be prevented from happening. The tools of the budgetary exercise should not be used to shore up the government’s support during this crisis, and insulating the budget from the pressures generated by the political crisis should be the priority. There are indications already that the crisis is driving the government to adopt a goodies-laden approach towards the budget in the hopes of buying popular support, such as the May Day announcement by the Punjab chief minister to raise the minimum wage by Rs1,000. A hike in the minimum wage is not a bad thing, but the timing of the announcement gives rise to suspicions that it is designed to buy support at a time when the government is struggling to regain its credibility.

Much damage can be done to the economy if the government loses track of its responsibilities at this critical juncture. This is the last full-year budget the government is going to announce and the last opportunity to get some vital work done, particularly on the fiscal and structural side where matters have been bogged down since 2013. If we see wildly unrealistic revenue targets, followed by goodies like enhanced laptop distribution— a pet scheme of this government — we’ll know they have taken the low road forward. This is the time to be searching for revenues to fulfil next year’s goals, and deciding on expenditure priorities that best advance economic growth and job creation. The Panama disclosures have presented the government with a stark challenge to explain the assets of the prime minister, but the matter need not, and certainly must not, become an all-consuming obsession that takes away from the government’s ability to discharge key obligations either.

Syrian peace talks

AS fighting intensified in Syria this week, UN-brokered peace talks in Vienna failed to revive the February 2016 ceasefire agreement and restore humanitarian aid to trapped civilians. The US and Russia, alongside the 17-nation International Syria Support Group, left without any conclusive gains. Only last month, UN envoy Staffan de Mistura conceded talks were “barely alive”. But talking peace is the only solution. That this conflict has spawned displacement and starvation for millions of Syrians should be reason enough for the immediate re-enforcement of a ceasefire agreement, especially given the deepening of sectarian sentiments — Alawites are identified with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Sunnis with the opposition. With questions being raised about the Middle East’s political and religious polarisation, the Arab nations must demonstrate political and moral leadership, uniting on a single platform —perhaps breathing life into the moribund Arab League or OIC — to push for peace. De-escalating support for regional militant/sectarian proxies, if only for the sake of the Syrian people, must be the call of the moment.

Since talks began last October, divisive superpower politics have further thwarted a truce. Rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as Russia and the US, have yet to agree on a common agenda for peace. And while the US should be reminded that any ill-conceived removal of Mr Assad will strengthen Sunni jihadi militancy, Russia’s and Iran’s refusal to consider an alternative to the status quo will only strengthen the impasse. Lost in the maze of politics is the core issue: the plight of the Syrian people, living through a protracted civil war, is worsening by the day. Quantifying the carnage, the Syrian Centre for Policy Research estimates war fatalities at 470,000 ie 11.5pc of the country’s population has been killed since 2011. This crisis will end when global and regional players stop catering to their own hegemonic interests. Until then, we will see the knock-out effect of the population displacement, with the war destined to gradually reshape the region and beyond.

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