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Dawn Editorial 1 March 2020

Doha deal

WITH the signing of the peace deal between the US and the Afghan Taliban in Doha yesterday, America’s long war in Afghanistan may be coming to a close.
America’s envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad and the Taliban’s representative Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar were all smiles while signing the deal in the Qatari capital. But the days ahead will show whether these cordialities are genuine, or if the once-bitter foes return to face each other on the battlefield.
There are quite a few unanswered questions emerging from the Doha process, as well as some lessons that should be learnt by all sides.
If everything goes according to plan, Afghanistan’s long nightmare may indeed soon give way to a more peaceful future.
However, knowing that country’s history, it is too early to celebrate, though one should remain optimistic considering that the alternative to dialogue is relentless war.
And over the past four decades, Afghanistan has been battered by more than its fair share of conflict, as a result of foreign meddling as well as its own political elite’s lust for power.
The Americans and their Nato allies have agreed to withdraw all foreign troops within 14 months, while the Taliban have consented to talk to the US-backed government in Kabul — a dispensation they have in the past dismissed and derided.
Moreover, the Taliban have also agreed to not host Al Qaeda, a former ally, or any other terrorist outfit in any of the areas the militia controls. This can only be welcomed.
On paper these are all positive developments, though it will be up to the stakeholders — primarily all Afghan factions, the Americans, as well as neighbouring states — to help this difficult but doable peace process succeed.
One of the main lessons that should be learnt from the Afghan imbroglio is the failure of nation-building projects by foreign forces.
While the US invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 — as the Taliban were hosting Al Qaeda at the time — this mission quickly turned into a more complicated ‘civilising’ project, as the Americans sought to remake the country in their own image, without realising the tribal and ethnic complexities of Afghanistan.
Similar tales of disaster have emerged in Iraq, Libya and Syria, where the US and other Western forces have toyed with regime change, with horrific results.
Secondly, the government in Kabul must accept the Taliban as a political reality, even though both sides despise each other at the moment.
The fact is that unless Afghans trust each other and work together, no foreign-backed peace initiative will succeed, as the Mujahideen infighting after the Soviet withdrawal showed. And the Taliban must also pledge to respect the political process and work within democratic norms if they wish to see peace prevail in their homeland.


Train tragedy

FRIDAY’S tragic accident in which at least 20 people lost their lives after a train rammed into a passenger bus at an unmanned crossing near the Rohri railway station in Sindh could have easily been avoided. The death toll is likely to rise with many wounded bus passengers in precarious condition.
This is not the first time that an unmanned crossing has been the scene of a deadly collision between a train and a bus. Given that there are as many as 3,000 unmanned crossings in the country, we cannot rule out similar occurrences in the future. In fact, collisions at unmanned crossings are perhaps the main cause of deadly train accidents here. The sad part is that, instead of taking steps to prevent such accidents, the tragedy is now being used to score political points.
For instance, it would have been much better for Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid to have directly approached the Sindh government to address the issue of unprotected crossings rather than starting a blame game during his news conference on Saturday. He must not forget that the buck will always stop at his door as railway minister and his performance will come under public scrutiny whenever there is a railways disaster on his watch.
Even if the minister is not ‘directly’ to blame for the latest incident, the people are well within their rights to ask him what his ministry has done to prevent train accidents that occur frequently because of its negligence. Pakistan has a long history of train accidents mainly because of poor infrastructure and the absence of safety standards.
The vast majority of accidents take place because the railways has not invested in infrastructure. In 2019 alone, there were over 100 train accidents, including a fire that engulfed three coaches of the Tezgam in October. More than 70 people died.
The number of train accidents also includes derailments, something a senior railway official recently described as ‘normal’. It is unfair to blame the incumbent government for the mess the railways is in. Yet this government was expected to pay more attention to stop further decay of the railways and improve its overall performance. The prime minister had announced in July that additional funds would be allocated for the proper maintenance of the railways infrastructure, and that officials responsible for neglecting the safety of the passengers would be held to account. Action on that promise is still awaited.


Vaccine-derived polio

THE frequent emergence of vaccine-derived polio virus type-2, or VDPV2, cases in the country has led to complex challenges for the health authorities. Most of these cases have surfaced in KP where, in addition to an overall surge in polio cases this year, there has been violence against polio teams. Since the second half of 2019, a total of 31 VDPV2 cases have surfaced — 22 in 2019 and nine in 2020 so far. This is a matter of great concern because the type 2 virus was believed to have been eradicated globally and WHO had discontinued the vaccine for it in Pakistan some years ago. The oral vaccine that is now administered to children in the country only contains antigens for the P1 and P3 strains. According to WHO, comatose virus contained in oral polio vaccines that keeps circulating in under-immunised communities for at least a year causes vaccine-derived polio. In this instance, the VDPV2 cases are believed to have been caused by a mutation in the type 2 virus. It is unclear how the virus resurfaced. But the authorities should take note that it has become a threat to global anti-polio efforts.
Meanwhile, vaccine-derived polio cases have also surfaced in several countries of West Africa, such as Congo and Nigeria (which was set to be declared polio-free last year); as well as in the Philippines, Malaysia and China. Some experts have suggested that malnutrition and poor sanitation are a major contributing factor in the resurfacing of VDPV2 cases. As the health authorities prepare to take up the growing polio challenge, they must also identify the gaps in the anti-polio programme and analyse how they can boost eradication efforts, which only some years ago had brought down the number of cases in the country substantially. Prioritising polio awareness among communities and neighbourhoods and providing more security for vaccinators to get the campaign back on track would be a good beginning.


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