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Dawn Editorial 3 March 2020

Taliban and US folly

THERE are a variety of opinions regarding the chances of success that the peace deal recently signed between the US and the Afghan Taliban in Doha has.
Pessimists see the deal as a ruse by the hard-line militia to get the Americans out of Afghanistan in order to consolidate their grip on the country by overpowering the fragile dispensation in Kabul.
More optimistic voices, however, view this as a historic opportunity to end decades of bloodshed in this battered country.
What is clear is that such a complicated and long-running conflict is unlikely to wind down in days or weeks, and success will be incremental, even if all parties play by the rules.
The peace deal also highlights the fact that over the years, successive US administrations have completely misread the Taliban and were unable to understand the complexities of Afghan society.
At one time, Washington portrayed the Afghan Taliban as the embodiment of evil; today, America’s high officials are treating the militia as legitimate stakeholders in the Afghan political process. Perhaps if this realisation had dawned on the US earlier, the violence could have ended many years ago.
The Taliban emerged from their stronghold in Kandahar in the mid-1990s and essentially filled the power vacuum that a chaotic Mujahideen/warlord dispensation had created.
While, indeed, they employed brutal methods to cement their rule, ideologically, as pointed out in these columns, the Taliban were Islamist nationalists, as opposed to the pan-Islamic militant outfits such as Al Qaeda, or the many groups active in South and Central Asia, which wanted to recreate a caliphate.
One of the reasons the Taliban forged an alliance with Al Qaeda was because they were shunned by the international community, despite ruling Kabul. Osama bin Laden’s outfit provided them with much-needed funds, and perhaps if global powers had engaged with the Taliban, history might have taken a different trajectory.
The Taliban themselves have evolved over the years; while at one time they shunned all vestiges of modernism and enforced a mediaeval code, today, the tech-savvy insurgents are on Twitter and their leadership happily poses for the cameras.
The Americans tried and failed miserably to remake Afghanistan in their own image.
Afghanistan is by nature a culturally conservative society and most Afghans adopt the symbols the West holds up of ‘extremism’ — the burqa, the beard, religious orthodoxy — voluntarily.
Hoping that this society would be transformed into a liberal democracy within a few years was incredibly naive and reminiscent of the colonial ‘civilising missions’ of yore. Moreover, another destructive byproduct of sidelining the Taliban has been the emergence of even more fanatical groups, such as the local IS chapter.
Time will tell if these lessons are integrated into a more realistic Afghan policy by the US and its allies, or if the follies of the past will be repeated.

 
 

Power emergency

IT might sound like alarmist talk when the power sector regulator advises the prime minister to declare a ‘power emergency’ in the country. But given the discrepancy between the figures concerning the circular debt presented by the power bureaucracy and the regulator, perhaps the call should be taken seriously. The power bureaucracy has long been notorious for its total lack of transparency, especially with regard to its reporting of financial data. When pressured by its political bosses to improve its performance, it routinely resorts to managing the numbers rather than the outcomes on the ground, with the result that it is able to show an improvement in performance without actually having achieved anything. The regulator, Nepra, has now reportedly told Prime Minister Imran Khan directly, and in the presence of high officials from the power bureaucracy, that the circular debt figures being reported by the latter are not correct; it has presented its own figures as a counterpoint. For the period ending Dec 31, to take one example, there is a Rs74bn discrepancy in the amount of the circular debt that was reported by the power division and Nepra. The nature of the power system is such that there is no way to reconcile the two different numbers, other than sending both the parties into a room with a neutral arbiter of some sort, who is able to emerge with the correct amount.
Given this lack of transparency, the continuing rise of the circular debt indeed looks like an emergency situation. The government prefers to blame this situation on the rising capacity payments, given the recent additions to power-generation capacity under the previous government. But with such opacity in the figures, it is difficult to accept this claim at face value. It could just as easily be the result of poor billing and recoveries. Perhaps while they are busy reconciling their numbers on the circular debt, those in charge can also produce an independent analysis of what is driving the current increase. There was always a concern over the rising capacity charges that have come with the new additions under the last government. Warnings were even sounded from within at that time, but they were quickly brushed aside as the power projects continued. It is becoming imperative to get to the bottom of what has gone wrong, because the circular debt is now touching Rs2tr. This climb cannot be sustained forever.

 
 
 

Online rules consultation

PUBLIC transparency and accountability mandate that a government legislate in the best interests of its constituents, following an inclusive and exhaustive consultative process. They also require that a government be responsive to concerns that arise as a result of such a process not being followed during the formulation of policies, rules and laws governing the public. The federal government has failed on both counts with regard to the controversial Citizen Protection (Against Online Harms) Rules, which has rightly been excoriated in both international and local quarters. Technology firms as well as press, legal and rights bodies have all warned of the varied and significant harmful effects that can arise by implementing this set of rules, which only came to light last month after the federal cabinet quietly approved it in January. In response to this backlash, the prime minister called for further review and stakeholder consultations — a move that was welcomed by, among others, this paper. However, what has transpired since is extremely disquieting.
After days of mixed messages from official quarters, it now appears almost certain that the so-called consultative process is little more than eyewash. On Friday, the IT ministry notified a review committee that includes only government officials and no industry or civil society representation. Moreover, no assurance has been given that the rules have been withdrawn, leaving it unclear whether the government intends to consult on formulating online regulations afresh or simply on how to implement these rules. Forty Pakistani rights groups have now signed a statement boycotting these talks unless the government commits to revoking the rules in toto. Indeed, if the purpose of the rules is to ‘protect’ citizens against online harm, the need of the hour is data protection legislation, not draconian regulations that no social media giant is willing to comply with. In order to demonstrate good faith, the government must immediately retract the rules and notify legal and technical experts agreed to by these bodies to the review committee.

 
 

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