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Dawn Editorial 9 July 2020

American exit

INDEED, the American counterterrorism and nation-building project in Afghanistan — much like the Soviet and British imperial forays in the past — has been an unmitigated disaster. While the US invaded Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 ostensibly to hunt down Al Qaeda and punish the Afghan Taliban that sheltered the transnational terrorist conglomerate, today, nearly two decades on, while Al Qaeda may be scattered, the Taliban are very much in the ascendant. And while Washington has lost over 2,400 personnel and spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the effort, there is not much to show for it as the Afghan government and military are widely seen as incapable of running and securing the country once their Western sponsors depart. In such circumstances, and considering it is an election year in America, President Donald Trump’s haste to ‘bring the boys back home’ can be understood. But as a trilateral communiqué jointly issued by Pakistan, Afghanistan and China on Tuesday warned, America’s rush to get up and leave before an intra-Afghan peace agreement is in place can pave the way for the resurgence of terrorist groups.
The broad consensus is that if the US and other Western forces leave without an agreement between Afghan stakeholders, the chaos that ensued after the Soviet withdrawal may be repeated. That is why the three sides “urged for an orderly, responsible and condition-based withdrawal of the foreign troops from Afghanistan. …” While the Afghan government would have a tough time maintaining peace in a post-withdrawal scenario, Pakistan and China also have legitimate security concerns, specifically if terrorist groups use Afghanistan as a launching pad to destabilise the region. While the post-Soviet period saw rival Mujahideen warlords battle each other as well as the government in Kabul, this time there are far more bloodthirsty players waiting in the wings, namely the local chapter of the self-styled Islamic State group. If foreign forces were to beat a hasty retreat, the government in Kabul — a weak construct riven by ethnic and tribal rivalries — would be faced with the gargantuan task of fending off the Taliban, IS and other militant groups alone.
There was a ray of hope when the US and Afghan Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha earlier this year. However, there has been no workable counterpart agreement between the government in Kabul and Afghan factions, principally the Taliban, which is a recipe for disaster. The main issue is the massive gulf of mistrust between Kabul and the Taliban; there is the prickly question of prisoner exchanges between the two sides, while the Taliban continue to hammer government forces. Both the Afghan government and the Taliban need to reconsider their rigid positions for the sake of their country. On its part, the US must realise that while its exit is long overdue, a messy, hasty withdrawal will only add to Afghanistan’s problems.


Sugar industry reform

THE federal cabinet’s decision to form a Sugar Reforms Committee indicates the government’s intention to eliminate the widespread informality in the country’s sugar market. The decision comes as a legal battle rages between the government and the industry association over the multiple inquiries ordered against individuals and companies held responsible for the winter sugar shortages and price hike. Though the government is yet to share the mandate of the proposed committee formed in light of the recommendations of the probe commission report on the misuse of sugar and wheat subsidies, the reforms body has reportedly been tasked with the formulation of a long-term strategy for appropriately regulating and documenting the sugar business, without waiting for the outcome of the court battle.
The sugar probe commission did well by bringing to light the long-standing systemic problems in the sugar supply chain. For example, it has pointed out that the sugar industry is not regulated properly. This allows politically powerful mill owners to fleece sugarcane growers, manipulate the domestic market, steal taxes and blackmail governments into giving the industry huge subsidies in the name of smallholder farmers and urban consumers. The findings of the report have also raised a number of questions regarding the existing, flawed sugar policy and the lack of transparency in the distribution of billions of rupees in subsidy. Government interventions in the sugar market through direct and indirect subsidies given at different stages of the supply chain are ostensibly necessitated by a ‘desire’ to ensure a fair cane price for growers and lower rates of the sweetener for urban consumers for political reasons. The probe report shows that none of these objectives are ever met despite huge subsidy spending. Thus, the committee will need to work on two fronts. One, it will be expected to propose actions to document the supply chain to effectively regulate the business and prevent owners from manipulating the market and stealing taxes. Two, it will be required to suggest changes in the existing sugar policy to reduce the government’s presence in the market. This will involve the elimination of price controls, removal of restrictions on the establishment of new mills, revision in the policy regulating crop movement, and liberalising the regime governing sugar imports and exports. No sugar-sector reform effort can succeed unless the government decides to pull itself out of the value chain to ensure competitive market practices by shifting from price controls towards a liberal trade regime.


Anti-student action

IN a move that will be a blow to foreign students, American Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced on Monday that international students attending schools in the US may not take a full online course load and remain in the US. The law-enforcement agency said those students whose universities are operating fully online must leave the country, transfer to in-person schools or face deportation. The announcement came just weeks after US President Donald Trump suspended the entry of certain foreign workers to the US — a decision taken on the pretext that it would help the coronavirus-battered economy but one which betrays Mr Trump’s anti-immigration motives. The fresh decision that orders foreign students to leave if they aren’t attending school in person will have hugely negative consequences for the international student body of about 1.2m in the US. Not only will it add to the already uncertain situation they are facing as universities shut down and go online in a Covid-battered country, it will unfairly force them to leave accommodations they have paid for out of fear that they will be deported.
The American government’s decision seems to be senseless, unfair and unjustifiable. It flies in the face of the hopes of so many foreigners who pay thousands of dollars to gain an education and experience university life which is so prized in the US. Ahead of the election, Mr Trump appears to have pulled many a shocking trick out of his hat, yet the recent move targeting foreign students is a new low and perhaps among the most cruel and illogical. Not surprisingly, even as the United States becomes the country with the highest Covid-19 death toll at 133,000 and 3m cases, Mr Trump tweeted this week to say that universities should open this fall. It appears that ICE’s announcement will exert pressure on universities to reopen even if they are not ready, therefore exposing students to health risks. This narrow-minded and unjust decision must be rethought.
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