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CWA # 334, 16 September 2020
IPRI Conflict Weekly, 16 September 2020, Vol.1, No.35
IPRI Conflict Weekly, 16 September 2020, Vol.1, No.35
D Suba Chandran, Teshu Singh, Abigail Miriam Fernandez, Chrishari de Alwis Gunasekare & Lakshmi V Menon
Afghanistan: Finally, the Taliban and Afghan government meet, but peace is afar
In the news
On 12 September 2020, the representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban led by Abdullah Abdullah and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar respectively, came face to face, for the first time. The much-discussed intra-Afghan dialogue process on the future of Afghanistan is expected to kickstart with this meeting. It is believed that Abdullah discussed taking the political process forward in Afghanistan, whereas Baradar insisted on establishing an Islamic system in the country.
Besides the above two, there were also the officials of Qatar, the host for the "Doha process", and Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State. The US has invested substantially in the Doha process; Pompeo was quoted to have found the meeting "a truly momentous occasion," but also adding a word of caution about the need for "hard work and sacrifice" to take this occasion forward.
On 9 September 2020, in Kabul, two days before the meeting in Doha, Amrullah Saleh, the Vice President of Afghanistan survived a bomb attack. A former intelligence chief of Afghanistan, and a strong opponent of the Taliban, Saleh was also the target of another deadly attack in July 2019. He survived the attack last year, as he did the last week's address.
Issues at large
First, the meeting between the two – Taliban and the Afghan government has been long due. The reasons behind the delay are likely to remain the primary challenge for the talks between the two, as they move forward. There is no consensus within the Afghan government on talking to the Taliban; though there was a Jirga a few weeks earlier, the decision was thrust upon, than an evolutionary one. There are political differences within the top players – for example Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah and Amrullah Saleh. There are also severe reservations within sections of the society – especially amongst the liberal, mainly women. On the other side, one is not sure whether there is consensus within the Taliban in terms of negotiating with the Afghan Taliban.
Second, the US has been pressurizing the two Afghan actors to come to the negotiation table. Had it not been for the US, the Afghan government and the Taliban would not have come to Doha last week. "The Afghan-led and the Afghan-owned" process is actually pushed by the Americans. It has not evolved from below.
Third, there has been no let down in violence perpetrated by the Taliban since the last agreement with the US in February. Terrorist attacks on the State and societal targets continued in Kabul, and elsewhere in the provinces. While the Taliban is believed to primarily responsible for these violent incidents, there is also the ISIS, which remains outside the purview of the Afghan-led and Afghan-owned dialogue.
The US pressure has been the most significant factor in bringing the two – Taliban and the Afghan government together in Doha. However, the reason behind the US pressure is not an "intra-Afghan dialogue"; rather, it is guided by the decision to withdraw the American troops from Afghanistan. Where would the US stand, once its last soldier leaves Afghanistan?
The American pressure on the two actors was not balanced. The Afghan government had to yield more to the Taliban demands than vice-versa. While the Afghan government agreed to the primary Taliban demand – the release of the prisoners, did the latter made any effort to yield to the former – ceasefire?
The continuing difference between the two actors over the endgame would make or break the road from Doha to Kabul. The Taliban wants to establish an Islamic Emirate, while the Afghan government wants to continue what has been achieved so far. Is there a middle ground?
The Five-Point Action Plan: India, China and the New Panchsheel
In the news
On 10 September 2020, the External Affairs Minister of India and State Councillor and Foreign Minister of China met each other on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Moscow. They issued a Five-Point Action Plan that assured: "to continue dialogue to disengage as quickly as possible, maintaining a necessary".
The Five-Point Action Plan stressed on the guidance from the series of consensus of the leaders so that the differences do not become dispute, the border troops should continue their dialogue, abiding all the existing agreements and protocol on the boundary, dialogue through Special Representative and the Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination and as the situation eases, the two sides should expedite work to achieve new Confidence Building Measures to maintain and enhance peace and tranquillity in the border areas.
On 16 September 2020, according to the Hindu, China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson in response to the Indian Defence Minister stated: "The responsibility for the current situation does not lie with China...The most urgent and important task is for the Indian side to immediately correct its wrong course of action, disengage on the ground as soon as possible, and take concrete actions to promote easing of the situation."
Earlier, on 15 September, the Defence Minister of India made a statement in the Parliament, placing the blame on China for "disregard of our various bilateral agreements."
Issues at large
First, the elusive breakthrough in breaking the impasse at the border level. The recent meeting of the ministers come at the backdrop of heightened tensions at the India-China border area in the Ladakh sectors. The stand-off has lasted for over four and a half months and has led to the death of 20 soldiers from India and an unknown number from the Chinese side. Diplomatic and military attempts during this period could not diffuse the tensions at the border.
Second, the purpose of the meeting was to achieve the "principle of disengagement" of troops because the presence of troops on both sides were a violation of 1993 and 1996 agreements. There seems to be a difference between the two sides on this issue - in terms of who is in violation of these two agreements.
Third, the linkage between border developments and bilateral engagements. Besides the recent joint statement, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a separate statement that stated; "it is normal for China and India to have some differences as two neighbouring powers, but to put the differences in the proper place in bilateral relations, the key is to uphold the leaders of the two countries that China and India are not competitors but cooperation. Partners, the strategic consensus that they do not pose a threat to each other and are opportunities for development." On the contrary, India has specified that the bilateral relations cannot be isolated from the border issue.
Fourth, the official statements reflect a different position. The statements by the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman and the Indian defence minister, as mentioned above, highlights the difference between the core problem - who has violated the earlier bilateral agreements.
Although the Five-Point Action Plan or the "new Panchsheel" has diffused the tension, for now, there are many divergences that remain. There is no indication that either side has changed its stance on how the disengagement will proceed. There is no time frame for the withdrawal of troops. Hence much will depend on the next round of military commander level talks.
Even after these talks, the LAC continues to be ambiguous. Instead of using the term LAC in the joint statement, "border area" was used. The moot question of the extent of the LAC frontier persist.
Pakistan: Women take to the streets again, after a physical assault on a mother of two
In the news
On 12 September, a large number women from all walks of life along with a substantial number of men took to the streets in different cities across Pakistan demanding justice and structural reform after the shocking gang rape on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway. Arranged by progressive groups, including the Women Democratic Front (WDF), Aurat Azadi March, Women Action Forum and Awami Workers Party, called on the government to commit to eradicating the culture of rape and harassment in Pakistan. Further, the protesters also called for making public spaces safer and more accessible to women, an increase in investment in education and health, the safety of women, end to the culture of victim-blaming, effective and transparent investigations by the criminal justice system as well as the removal of the Lahore Capital City Police Officer (CCPO) Umar Sheikh for his comments on the incident.
This outrage comes after an incident earlier this month where a woman driving on the Lahore-Sialkot motorway along with her two children was gang rape after her car ran out of fuel and stalled. The news of the heinous crime which went viral creating a public outrage grew worse after CCPO Sheikh initially unsympathetically took to blaming the victim while addressing the media, stating that the woman could have avoided being at the wrong place at the wrong time. He later went on to apologize for his remarks on 14 September.
Issues at large
First, violence against women has been consistently on the rise in Pakistan. According to a survey conducted in 2018 by Thomson Reuters Foundation, Pakistan ranks as the sixth most dangerous country in the world for women, with cases of sexual crimes and domestic violence recording steep increase. The country was also designated as the fourth worst nation when it came to discrimination in the workplace, access to economic resources such as land, and risks to their safety owing to cultural, religious and traditional practices including so-called "honour" killings. Activists have blamed society's patriarchal attitudes for this problem.
Second, the response from the state. The issues here are three-fold, first the casual attitude of the police and politicization of the police to boot often trivializing such issues. Second, the shortcoming of legislation lies in its effectiveness and implementation rather than the lack of it. Third, the role of the judiciary, who has become more vocal, however, women often struggle to access justice.
Third, the rising voice of women. Women especially in Pakistan over the last two year have become more vocal about their rights. The Aurat March being a manifestation of this, however, on the other hand, violent campaign and attacks the demonstrators these marches show how Pakistani women are constantly rebuked when they demand the right to freedom
Violence against women is a grave violation of women's human rights, irrespective of where, how or when it takes place. The horrific gang rape of a mother along the highway was not an isolated incident, but comes against a backdrop of regular threats and harassment of women, leaving the women and other marginalized sections of the society in danger. Further, the ineffective legislation continues to feed this issue, with it unable to tackle this systemic problem.
Further, violence against women goes to show the root of the issue lies in the highly patriarchal and social and cultural values that are entrenched in society.
Sri Lanka: The Parliament to address the shortcomings of the Draft 20A
In the news
On 3 September, the draft of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka was issued as a Gazette notification with Cabinet approval. Due to various objections voiced, by both - the members of the opposition and the ruling party, the process of tabling the draft has been halted.
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has appointed a Committee to study the proposed draft and suggest recommendations.
Minister of Education and Chairman of the SLPP Prof GL Peiris who heads the Committee stated: "the present government would allow and consider the views of the people, especially in the formulation of a constitution."
Issues at large
First, the crucial changes under the proposed 20A to the Constitution. Under this, the President is granted more power in terms of appointments to both Independent Commissions and high-ranking offices alongside complete legal immunity. However, the duties and functions of the Presidential office are not specified. The Constitutional Council is to be replaced with a Parliamentary Council that has no civil society representation. The limit on the number of Cabinet members is removed, and the Parliament can be dissolved in one year and include dual citizens. Hence with the 20A, the authority of the Executive Presidency that was curtailed by the 19A will be fully restored. This could be considered as the wish of the majority that voted for the two-third mandate as they believed that the 19A compromised the President's capability to act with decisiveness.
Second, the draft 20A has been met with objections by several parties. The leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, claimed: "the proposed amendment to the constitution is a first step towards a dictatorship." Surprisingly, MP Asanka Navarathna representing the SLPP also objected to the draft stating that "the 20th amendment looks like a document prepared in a hurry for someone's personal need." Consequently, the issue will remain under scrutiny for two weeks until the draft is revised and presented to the Cabinet for approval. As Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila commented "It's a progressive decision taken by the government to give a two-week period for public opinions till the draft is tabled in Parliament. Any mistakes in the draft amendment can be corrected at the committee stage." displaying more transparency than when the 19A was passed by the previous government.
Third, the international response. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has expressed her concern as the proposal may deter the independence of the National Human Rights Commission.
While the return of the Executive Presidency with the restored powers might have been the wish of the citizens, there are multiple risks involving the proposed 20A. Notably, the Rajapaksas will be established at the top, as the dual citizen provision will allow Basil Rajapaksa to obtain a Parliamentary seat via the National List.
Similarly, the removal on the limit of Cabinet Members can see the return of oversized Cabinets that will prey on public funding.
Lack of civil society representation may result in corruption remaining undetected, and there will be less opportunity for the public to challenge Bills passed by the Parliament.
However, if the trust inspired by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is not misplaced, then the 20A will allow for the government to rectify the chaotic situation created by the 19A and restore political stability within the country.
Bahrain-Israel normalization: Another Arab State follows the UAE
In the news
On 11 September, the US President Donald Trump sharing a joint statement announced the decision of the Bahrain-Israel normalization on Twitter. "It's unthinkable that this could happen and so fast," he wrote. Sharing the joint statement of the United States, the Kingdom of Bahrain and the State of Israel on his Twitter handle, Trump called it a historical day and said other countries would follow suit. The US-brokered deal is said to be concluded on 15 September 2020.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority recalled their Bahrain envoy and denounced the deal as "another treacherous stab to the Palestinian cause." Bahrain's opposition has rejected the deal.
Iran and Turkey have condemned the development. However, Egypt appreciated the "important step" while Jordan called for necessary steps from Israel for ensuring a comprehensive and fair regional peace, and the United Arab Emirates and Oman welcomed the initiative.
Issues at large
First, the US efforts are gaining success. The Donald Trump-Jared Kushner "deal of the century" is working. Since the beginning of Trump's term, various Arab states have been warming up to the state of Israel. Making the world call the Bahrani and Emirati normalizations as no surprise.
Second, the willingness of the Arab countries to go along with the US plan. This highlights the readiness of these Arab countries to work towards a deal that derails the earlier Arab League Peace initiative, 2002 which centres on the Palestinian cause. Perhaps the Arab countries were awaiting such a push from the United States.
Third, the growing irrelevance of Palestinian statehood. The joint statement merely makes a passing mention of the Palestinians, leaving the Palestinian grievances unaddressed. According to the statement the three countries will work “to achieve a just, comprehensive, and enduring resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to enable the Palestinian people to realise their full potential”. The end of the traditional collective regional understanding for peace which prioritised Palestinian statehood.
Fourth, the angle of common geopolitical interests. The Bahraini normalisation is a piece in the larger puzzle of attempts to single out the regional rivals – Turkey and Iran. It sits well with US’ ‘isolationist Iran policy’ and Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s multi-pronged efforts against the theocratic country.
The recent development reflects the weakening of the Pan-Arab position that calls for Israeli withdrawal and Palestinian statehood in exchange for normalization of ties between Israel and the Arab states.
Does Bahrain's decision reflect Saudi acquiescence? Saudi Arabia, the bastion of the two holiest sites of the Muslim world – Mecca and Madina, cannot openly follow UAE's path due to internal and external constraints. Soon, more Arab states may follow suit, perhaps, starting with Oman, thus materializing a novel Arab-Israeli peace. One that is devoid of Palestinian statehood.
Peace and Conflict in South East Asia and East Asia
South China Sea: Indonesia lodges protests over Beijing's patrol ship
On 14 September, the Foreign Ministry of Indonesia strongly protested after a Chinese coastguard ship spent two days in its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. The ship is said to have left on Monday after arguing via radio. This incident which occurred off Indonesia's Natuna Islands is the latest intrusions into the country's EEZ by Chinese coastguard ships and fishing vessels. Further, this issue comes in light Beijing claiming historic rights to areas overlapping Indonesia's EEZ around the Natuna Islands. However, Indonesia does not consider itself a party to the South China Sea dispute, but Beijing demarks its claims on maps with a nine-dash line.
China: Retail sales grow for the first time in 2020
On 25 September, data released by the National Bureau of Statistics reported that industry, retail and investment all showed noticeable improvements in August, as the Chinese economy continued its broad-based recovery after the devastating impact of the coronavirus. Retail sales are reported to have grown by 0.5 per cent compared to the same month last year, up from minus 1.1 per cent in July and ahead of analysts' expectations of 0.0 per cent growth. This marked the first growth in the retail sector for this year. Further, this comes with the government attempting to give the domestic economy renewed focus, as part of its dual circulation plan.
Australia: The lowest one-day rise of COVID-19 cases reported in almost three months
On 14 September, Australia reported its lowest one-day rise in novel coronavirus infections in nearly three months with authorities starting to lift restrictions aimed at slowing its spread. With the decrease of new infections, the epicentre of Australia's latest outbreak, Victoria state, has begun easing restrictions, allowing people to leave their homes for longer periods and shortening the curfew at night. This comes after the city was placed under strict lockdown in early August after more than 700 cases were detected in a single day. However, frustration continues to rise, with hundreds of people taking part in protests on the weekend against the weeks-long coronavirus lockdown.
Peace and Conflict in South Asia
India: Introduction of new languages in Jammu and Kashmir sparks anxiety among other communities
On 2 September, the Union Cabinet approved the Jammu and Kashmir Official Languages Bill, 2020, under which Kashmiri, Dogri and Hindi were added as three new official languages in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, taking the total number of official languages to five, including the already existing English and Urdu. However, the inclusion of these three new official languages has received strong criticism from members of minority communities, activists and political leaders. Further, this development has opened old and new fault lines in the region, with communities that speak Gojri, Pahadi and Punjabi protesting against their exclusion, all three languages which were initially part of Sixth Schedule of the Jammu and Kashmir Constitution, which recognized eight regional languages of the erstwhile state, including Kashmiri and Dogri.
Afghanistan: Attack in Kabul targets Vice-President Amruallah Saleh, kills ten civilians
On 9 September, a roadside bomb in Kabul targeted Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh, however, while he escaped the attack unharmed, ten civilians were killed, and at least 15 were wounded. The Taliban, which has pledged not to launch attacks in urban areas under a deal with the United States, denied responsibility. This high-profile assassination attempt comes amid a spike in violence nationwide as talks were taking place between the US, Taliban and Afghan officials in Doha. Further, clashes have intensified in provinces with significant Taliban control and influence, along with a rise of targeted killings in Kabul.
Pakistan: Khalilzad visits Islamabad and meets Gen Bajwa
On 14 September, the US Special Representative for Afghan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and his delegation who were in Pakistan for a two-day visit while meeting with the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) Gen Qamar Bajwa credited Prime Minister Imran Khan for Pakistan's role in commencing the intra-Afghan talks. Further, Gen Bajwa said, "Prime Minister Imran Khan has given clear vision regarding peace and connectivity in the region, and all elements of national power are united towards making that vision a reality to ensure long-awaited peace, progress and prosperity in the region." Khalilzad's latest Pakistan visit comes in the wake of a day the long-delayed dialogue between the contending Afghan factions in Doha.
Peace and Conflict in the Middle East and Africa
Mali: Civilian Opposition rejects military-backed transition charter
on 13 September, Mali's opposition movement rejected a charter for a transition government backed by the ruling army officers who overthrew President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita in a coup last month. The military government-backed a charter called for an 18-month transition government on, after a three-day forum with political parties and civil society representatives and also proposed that the transition would be led by either a military or civilian leader. However, the 5 June Movement (M5-RFP), which took part in the talks, rejected the road map, accusing the military government of a "desire to monopolize and confiscate power."
Libya: Eastern-based interim government resigns amid protests
On 13 September, an interim government allied with Libya's eastern-based renegade commander Khalifa Haftar resigned amid protests over power cuts and deteriorating living conditions. A spokesman for the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), Ezzel-Deen al-Falih stated that Prime Minister Abdallah al-Thani tendered the government's resignation to Speaker Aguila Saleh. Further, lawmakers are said to review the resignation of al-Thani's government, which is not internationally recognized, in their next meeting. Over the past few weeks, hundreds of people have taken to the streets of Benghazi and other eastern cities to protest against crippling electricity shortages and poor living conditions, setting tyres ablaze and blocking traffic on several major roads, protests also erupted in al-Marj, a Haftar stronghold on Sunday.
Peace and Conflict in Europe and the Americas
Belarus: President Lukashenko meets with President Putin
On 14 September, President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko met with hos Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The two met at Putin's residence in Sochi, the first foreign trip Lukashenko has made since protests began a month ago. At the start of the meeting, Lukashenko stated, "A friend is in trouble, and I say that sincerely," while thanking Putin for his support. Further, Putin said that Russia would offer a loan of $1.5 billion to Belarus, to help Lukashenko avoid an economic crisis in the short term. Further, this meeting is seen as a crucial development which will go to determine whether or not Lukashenko can survive a protest movement against him.
California Fires: Trump blames poor forest management. Biden calls him a "climate arsonist"
On 14 September, while visiting Northern California, President Donald Trump, stated that the wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington state could be attributed to what he described as a failure to properly manage the state's forests, including the need to cut more fire breaks. In response to this, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called Trump 'a climate arsonist. These statements come as the death toll in California's wildfires rose to 24, with more than 3.2 million acres being burned across the state only in this year. Experts have stated that climate change is causing California's fires to spread more rapidly because of hotter temperatures and more extreme dry and wet spells.
About the authors
D Suba Chandran is a Professor and the Dean of School of Conflict and Security Studies, NIAS. Teshu Singh is a Research Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, New Delhi. Chrishari de Alwis Gunasekare is a postgraduate scholar from the South Asian Studies, UMISARC, Pondicherry University. Lakshmi V Menon and Abigail Miriam Fernandez are Research Consultant and Research Assistant at NIAS respectively.