A common enemy
THE carnage unleashed by the militant Islamic State group in Kabul on Friday is a chilling reminder that this implacable enemy has much to gain from continuing chaos in Afghanistan. Around 30 people were killed and at least 61 wounded when a gathering of Shia Hazaras in the capital was targeted by gunmen belonging to the terrorist outfit. A transnational Islamist group such as IS poses a threat to the entire region; it constantly seeks cross-border allies amongst like-minded violent extremists in its quest for global dominance. The situation thus calls for more than the government in Kabul and the Afghan Taliban to find a way to work together following the withdrawal of foreign forces from their country. It requires that Afghanistan and Pakistan — and potentially Iran, given the many sectarian attacks carried out by IS — coordinate intelligence-gathering and tactical planning, and perhaps to some extent consider operational coordination, if they are to vanquish the terrorist group.
Moreover, strategic objectives have changed in the current political scenario, requiring a recalibration of (tacit) alliances. The Taliban, locked in battle with Nato and Afghan security forces — and reluctant to open up another front — turned a blind eye to TTP militants fleeing military operations in Pakistan’s tribal areas and seeking shelter inside Afghanistan. Similarly, the Afghan government, not to mention the US, did the same to gain leverage against Pakistan. When IS expanded its franchise to Afghanistan, it easily found recruits from within the increasingly radicalised local population, and became a direct threat to the Taliban’s largely ethnonationalist movement by appealing to the same demographic. The Taliban even lost to the IS some of its more hardline fighters who were violently opposed to talks with the US and influenced by the terrorist outfit’s pan-Islamist ambitions. Pakistani militants, however — mostly former TTP elements — comprise the largest component, with Central Asians making up the rest.
In recent months, IS has suffered major setbacks in Afghanistan — especially in Nangarhar province — at the hands of the Taliban and separately, the Afghan security forces. But this may be a narrow window of opportunity. As a UN report notes, there still remain around 2,500 IS fighters in Afghanistan, most of whom are concentrated in Kunar province which is contiguous with Pakistan’s western border. If instability continues to reign in Afghanistan, perhaps even escalate as the Taliban try to use violence to gain the upper hand vis-à-vis the Afghan government, IS could regain lost ground. The TTP, with its extreme, transnational ideology is its natural ally. In the event of such a nexus, Afghanistan would be plunged into further violence, and it would only be a matter of time before the bloodshed spills over into Pakistan. For both these countries, therefore, IS is a common enemy. The sooner they join forces to fight it, the better it will be.
THE European Union has extended its unilateral trade concessions on its imports from Pakistan under the Generalised System of Preferences-Plus system for another two years. The EU uses the GSP-Plus scheme as an incentive to encourage good governance and sustainable growth in developing countries the bloc trades with. The scheme has in the past successfully contributed to the efforts of some of the EU’s trading partners such as Paraguay that moved up the development ladder and graduated from being a low- to middle-income country. Thus, the extension in the GSP-Plus status — which is also recognition of the progress made by Pakistan in the last two years on further strengthening laws and institutions to implement the 27 core international conventions on human and labour rights, environment, narcotics control and corruption — is important for the country.
Simultaneously, the biennial assessment report, on the basis of which the facility has been extended until 2022, points out the shrinking space for civil society and the growing curbs on freedom of expression in the country. “In Pakistan, a number of international NGOs are being expelled, with implications for the freedoms of those organisations still in the country. Freedom of expression including through the media is under threat,” it reads. In the area of labour rights, Pakistan has been clubbed together with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar where concerns over freedom of association remain. In the next two years, the country needs to ease EU concerns over these issues or risk losing duty-free access which is crucial for Pakistani products to maintain an edge in the 27-member country bloc vis-à-vis similar products originating from its trade rivals including India, Turkey, Vietnam and China. The importance of GSP-Plus for Pakistan’s exports can be gauged from the fact that the nation’s shipments to the EU have increased by a hefty 65pc from 4.5bn euros in 2013 — before GSP-Plus tariff concessions — to 7.5bn euros in 2019. In 2018, Pakistan availed tariff concessions on exports worth 5.9bn euros out of the total export earnings of 6.7bn euros to EU states. At a time when the country’s exports had been declining or stagnating, it was increasing its market share in Europe thanks to the GSP-Plus scheme. Pakistan is currently at a fiscal crossroads, struggling to break out of its worst economic slowdown ever. The only way out of its financial troubles is through a rapid boost in exports. The EU trade concession can go a long way in helping it achieve sustainable economic growth.
Security for Aurat March
The brave and resolute women of this country are marching today to demand the justice, equality and respect they deserve.
To mark International Women’s Day, participants of the Aurat March are demonstrating in several cities, calling for an end to violence, abuse and discrimination against women.
In the past two years, this movement has attracted thousands of protesters and has remained peaceful and well-organised. Armed with placards, posters and an unflinching determination, women are taking to the streets in a public show of power, despite the hatred and vitriol spewed on them by their detractors.
It is clear that for some critics, the notion that women can take ownership of their bodies and their lives is a triggering factor.
In previous years, the post-Aurat March days saw photo-shopped images of marchers carrying provocative posters which were not written by them go viral — images that are still used to discredit the movement.
The swelling backlash and abuse directed at women advocating Aurat March this year is unprecedented.
On social and mainstream media, the atmosphere created by those who feel threatened and insecure about women marching for their rights is a cause for concern.
Death and rape threats have been hurled at activists posting about the march online. In Islamabad, a mural painted on a wall to show solidarity with the women’s movement was brazenly blackened and defaced by vandals, reportedly in the presence of the capital’s police.
Read: Jamia Hafsa students claim responsibility for defacing feminist mural in Islamabad
A Lal Masjid spokesperson said the vandalism had Maulana Abdul Aziz’s blessings, while Jamia Hafsa students have vowed to launch a ‘counter protest’.
The JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman, too, has gone as far as to threaten that the march would be stopped at all cost.
In light of this highly charged and toxic environment, it is incumbent upon the federal and provincial governments to ensure that the Aurat March participants are provided security and that those threatening intimidation and violence are stopped. The authorities will be held responsible if any violent confrontation occurs at peaceful demonstrations where citizens are exercising their democratic rights.