Loya Jirga’s advice
A MAJOR stumbling block standing in the way of peace between the government in Kabul and the Afghan Taliban may have been removed with the recommendation of the Afghan Loya Jirga to free 400 “hardcore” Taliban prisoners. There were great expectations after the Americans and the Taliban had signed what was described as a landmark peace agreement in Doha in February. A stipulation in that agreement was that Kabul would release 5,000 Taliban prisoners, while the Afghan militants would set free 1,000 government troops. While the Afghan government had set free the vast majority of detainees, around 400 Taliban men remained in captivity, with some of them accused of perpetrating heinous crimes. However, this hurdle too seems to have been cleared as the Jirga — in which around 3,200 Afghan influentials and politicians took part — has spoken in favour of extending an olive branch to the Taliban by freeing their remaining fighters. “We are on the verge of peace talks,” declared Dr Abdullah Abdullah, head of the Loya Jirga and amongst the most powerful politicians in Afghanistan. The Foreign Office also welcomed the move, saying it hoped that with the decision “intra-Afghan negotiations will commence at the earliest”.
The decision to free the Taliban fighters was certainly not easy, as the Jirga faced criticism from some of its own members as well as others for releasing the insurgents, some of whom have been involved in egregious acts of violence targeting civilians along with soldiers. However, it is clear that the grand Afghan gathering has taken the risk of freeing these fighters to prevent Afghanistan’s collapse into total anarchy with the departure of foreign troops, especially with even more bloodthirsty groups such as the self-styled Islamic State waiting in the wings. As reported, Afghan security forces arrested 11 IS terrorists who were aiming to attack the Loya Jirga on Sunday. The fanatical group clearly wants to see chaos in Afghanistan so that it can use the vacuum to expand its tentacles across the region. This is all the more reason for all Afghan factions — including the Taliban — to end the violence and work for a political settlement in their country.
The ball is now in the Afghan Taliban’s court. Now that one of their key demands has been met and endorsed by a grand gathering of Afghans, let them put forth their own confidence-building measures. There is combat fatigue across Afghanistan. The Western forces that invaded the country in 2001, led by the US, have lost their appetite where their nation-building plan for Afghanistan was concerned and now want to bring their troops home. Most of all, the Afghan people are tired of almost non-stop instability dating back to the 1970s. The Taliban and the Afghan government must now take full advantage of the situation to start a meaningful dialogue, as this window of opportunity may not last long.
Regrets, post facto
THE Punjab Assembly has courted needless controversy, and given that matters of religion are involved, defusing it will be far from straightforward. On July 22, the provincial lawmakers unanimously passed the Tahaffuz-i-Bunyad-i-Islam Bill, which now requires only the governor’s assent to become law. Since then, several legislators from both the treasury and opposition benches have had a change of heart — or undergone a reality check — and are now declaring their opposition to the same. They say they voted for the bill without reading it and fear that if passed into law it will fuel sectarian divides in Punjab. Some treasury members see the entire episode as a ‘conspiracy’ against the PTI government, while a PTI legislator sought forgiveness for having supported the bill. Predictably, the religious lobby is pushing back with its usual straw man arguments. On Sunday, clerics from several Sunni schools of thought met in Lahore to decide on their future line of action. At the press conference that followed, they condemned what they described as “vicious” and “intolerable” attempts “in the name of reservations on this bill” to make the sanctity of holy personages controversial.
The MPAs belatedly expressing their opposition to the bill have behaved in a shockingly irresponsible manner. That they should have voted in favour of a piece of legislation without even reading it is bad enough, but to have done so in a matter that involves the tinderbox of religious sensitivities is truly appalling. A simple reading of the bill’s clauses throws up numerous red flags. If enacted, the law will be a gift to the ultra right and could reverse the gains made in delegitimising violent extremism in society. Consider the fact that Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi, the leader of the banned sectarian organisation Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, was among the clerics who met on Sunday. Moreover, the bill is designed to shred the concept of freedom of expression by setting up a repressive system of censorship. According to this, one individual, the director general of public relations, will have sweeping powers to stop the publication of any book containing, in his opinion, ‘objectionable’ material. There is another aspect of the legislators’ supine vote in favour of the bill that deserves to be highlighted. Over the years, as the influence of ultra conservative elements in society has grown — even if their numbers in parliament remain limited — acquiescence on religious issues seems the ‘safer’, hence default, option.
BY losing the first Test against England at Old Trafford, a match they had in the bag for the most part of four days, Pakistan has lost an advantage in the three-match series. With a number of new players — whom England had no prior exposure to — in the line-up, including the fast bowling duo of Shaheen Shah Afridi and Naseem Shah, besides opener Abid Ali and wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan, Pakistan had been hoping to take the hosts by surprise. They were buoyed, too, by Babar Azam’s stellar presence since he is a much more accomplished player now compared to 2018 when his series in England was cut short by a nasty arm injury. And last but not the least, the welcome return to form of Yasir Shah came as a huge boost to Pakistan’s bowling as the leggie lapped up eight wickets in the match. But none of these factors, including a healthy first innings lead of 107, could see Azhar Ali’s men cross the winning line. They have no one but themselves to blame for psychologically not measuring up to the moment of truth.
For a team that arrived in England well over a month ago and had ample time to acclimatise, Pakistan had no excuse for its defeat at Old Trafford and showed they are still vulnerable to pressure despite having abundantly talented players in their ranks. In the final analysis, the abject batting collapse in the second innings coupled with Azhar’s prosaic captaincy on the fourth day rankle. It is always an uphill task for a visiting team to bounce back after defeat in the opening match, and players must ask themselves why they lost. With stalwarts such as Misbah-ul-Haq, Younis Khan, Waqar Younis and Mushtaq Ahmed in the coaching staff, surely the players have no dearth of good advice available to them. They now have to go in with a resolve to win and play aggressive cricket from the outset to emerge victorious and cheer up their dismayed fans.