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DAWN Editorials – 22nd June 2015

More effort needed in Afghanistan

 and assist mission named Resolute Support has in diplomatic language spelled out the security and governance challenges in Afghanistan today. Clearly, the massive spring offensive by the Taliban has been a setback for hopes of stability in Afghanistan while the unity government has struggled to get beyond persistent political troubles that have made it all but impossible to improve governance there. President Ashraf Ghani is a leader pulled in many directions with his hands often tied and multiple factors beyond his control. In truth, however, what is playing out in Afghanistan at the moment is partly the result of the US not having a reasonable or realistic strategy there for years now, with President Barack Obama in particular seeming more focused on an exit from Afghanistan than anything else.

Consider the various ways in which the US has contributed to the ever-increasing uncertainty hanging over the fate of Afghanistan. If the unity government is not working out or does not appear to be able to overcome internal differences, is that really a surprise? But it was US Secretary of State John Kerry’s dramatic diplomacy that created the unlikely marriage between President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in the first place. Then, when the White House announced its surge-and-exit plan in 2009, it was apparent straight away that an artificial timeline had been imposed — a timeline within which the Afghan army and police forces simply would not be able to develop the capacity to defend large swathes of the country. Even more problematically, the US long dithered on talks with the Afghan Taliban and then belatedly attempted to nudge along an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned embryonic peace process. Collectively, that history has surely informed the rapidness of the deterioration in 2015.

Yet, the missteps and mistakes of the past should not mean that the deterioration of 2015 cannot be reversed. One consistent positive is that all of Afghanistan’s neighbours — and that includes Pakistan — agree that civil war in Afghanistan is not in anyone’s interest. Moreover, over the past couple of years at least the US-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral ties have moved in the right direction, with the US and Pakistan stabilising their bilateral links and the Pakistan military-Afghan government relationship witnessing unprecedented cooperation. The China factor too is a new and positive influence, while the spectre of the Islamic State making inroads in Afghanistan could induce the Afghan Taliban to take talks with Kabul more seriously. Key to reversing the alarming deterioration of 2015 though will be realistic goals by the Afghan government and the outside powers. Afghanistan is not going to become a vibrant and thriving democracy with strong institutions and a sustainable economy anytime soon. A modicum of stability and governance will do — and the route to that clearly lies through a more urgent effort at talks.

Refugee crisis

NOTWITHSTANDING all the successes touted as hallmarks of the modern age, it is a sad reality that globally, displacement as a result of wars, conflict and persecution is currently at the highest level ever recorded. On Thursday, the UNHCR’s annual Global Trends Report, World at War, said that the number of people forcibly displaced by the end of 2014 stood at a “staggering” 59.5 million, compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago. The increase, it said, represents the biggest-ever jump in a single year. To put that in perspective, consider this: globally, one in 122 people is now either a refugee, internally displaced or seeking asylum; if this were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th largest. These figures hold special significance for Pakistan, which hosts some 1.5 million registered refugees from the protracted conflict in Afghanistan. This gives it the dubious distinction of being the country with the second largest number of refugees in the world (the first being Turkey, which is home to 1.59 million Syrian refugees). In addition to this, there are an estimated one million Afghans resident illegally in the country too; as reported on Saturday, an exercise to register them is set to get under way on July 25 — it will be a six-month process that is to involve the setting up of 21 registration centres across the country.

Here in Pakistan, the Afghan population is generally viewed as a burden, but one that must necessarily be shouldered in the light of humanitarian concerns and the fact that the neighbouring country has not seen peace of any durable shape for over three and a half decades, as a result of conflicts of varying types. Efforts to encourage the refugees to return have met with some success — some 45,000 people have gone back to their country under a UN-sponsored voluntary repatriation programme since January. But the fear felt by many in terms of returning to their own country can be understood, especially since many amongst the refugees’ number were born here. Pakistan continues to receive UN support to see to the needs of the refugees, but the fact remains that Afghanistan’s affairs need to be permanently settled, with little possibility of a return to conflict before a large-scale repatriation of refugees can be expected. The world has an important role to play in this regard, not least Pakistan and the regional countries.

Fishermen’s release

PRIME Minister Narendra Modi’s recent phone call to his Pakistani counterpart to convey Ramazan greetings may not have solved the Sir Creek dispute, but it was no less momentous for around 200 Pakistani and Indian fishermen imprisoned in each other’s countries. Mr Modi’s promise to ensure that Pakistani fishermen detained in his country would return home for Ramazan was promptly reciprocated by Mr Nawaz Sharif with the release of 113 Indian fishermen behind bars here since around nine months. This was immediately followed by India releasing 88 Pakistani fishermen held in its prisons. The freed Indian fishermen were taken to Wagah by train to be sent to their respective destinations, and eagerly waiting families. A report in this paper on Friday offered a glimpse into the hardship their long absence from home had caused; families on the verge of starvation, struggling to make ends meet.

These impoverished people feature in a pantomime that regularly takes place every few months or so between the two neighbouring countries — the release from prison of a clutch of hapless fishermen belonging to one side or the other. The dispute over the maritime boundary at Sir Creek — which is where most of the straying fishermen are apprehended — makes this yet another front for politics to trump the exigencies of life. The fishermen, only looking to make a decent living, are no threat, nor does anyone seriously consider them to be so. Yet they are used as bargaining chips, to be played when the time is right. Surely it did not need the sighting of the Ramazan crescent, or a phone conversation between the premiers of Pakistan and India, to bring the misery of over 200 families to an end. At least, it is heartening to note that most fishermen are not treated badly during their incarceration. But that is small comfort for those who get caught in the infernal game called politics, much like the struggling fish they catch in their nets.

DAWN Editorials – 22nd June 2015

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