Dawn Editorial 1 August 2019

Civilian deaths in Afghanistan

FIGURES published in a UN report released on Tuesday depict a grim picture of civilians in Afghanistan. While the government in Kabul and its Western backers continue to fight the Afghan Taliban (with the Americans simultaneously pursuing dialogue with the militant group), ordinary Afghans are dying in high numbers in the crossfire. What is most shocking is the fact that in the first half of 2019, the majority of these Afghans were killed by Nato and government forces. As per the UN’s figures, over 1,200 civilians were killed in acts of violence in the first six months of this year; more than 700 of these casualties were the result of air strikes and night raids carried out by Afghan forces and their foreign backers. However the Taliban, as well as the self-styled Islamic State group, which has a considerable presence in Afghanistan, have directly targeted 300 civilians. Unfortunately, attacks are a frequent occurrence in Afghanistan. On Wednesday over 30 people were killed when an IED went off targeting a bus in the western part of the country. The government says the Taliban are responsible for the atrocity, while the militia has denied involvement.
At a meeting held in Doha last month, members of the Taliban, civil society figures as well as Afghan politicians attending the event in their ‘personal’ capacity pledged to bring civilian casualties down to zero. Clearly, if the latest UN figures are anything to go by, a lot needs to be done in this regard by all sides. While the Afghan state has a responsibility to protect the country, such a high number of civilian casualties in government offensives are unacceptable, especially when Kabul is backed by the highly advanced military machine of its Western backers. The Taliban will also not win any hearts and minds if they continue to target non-combatants. The path to peace in Afghanistan is marked by the strange dichotomy of fighting and talking at the same time by the belligerents. A conscious effort needs to be made by all sides to live up to their pledges of protecting civilians and reducing collateral damage. Although terrorist groups like IS cannot be expected to have such scruples, the Afghan state, as well as the Taliban, needs to stop targeting non-combatants.
As the Afghan peace process continues at a relatively moderate pace, even while the stakeholders continue to fight each other, a major confidence-building measure can be a pledge to not kill civilians. This must be the target for Kabul, for the Americans as well as for the Taliban. Unless all stakeholders pledge to protect the lives of the Afghan people, and actively work towards the goal, their efforts to pursue peace will look hollow and appear to be little more than machinations to capture (or keep) power.


Minority question

DURING his appearance at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., Prime Minister Imran Khan said his government would be remembered for being “the most inclusive government in Pakistan” when it came to ensuring protection for minorities.
Momentarily, he brought up the “one element, where we still have a problem”, before quickly moving on to speak about his government’s role in ensuring the safety and freedom of Aasia Bibi.
He reiterated his stance again on National Minority Day in Islamabad — this time for a local audience, referencing religion to condemn the practice of forced conversions.
How history will judge this government remains to be seen, but for now it has indeed taken some positive steps in this regard. For instance, images of 500 Indian Sikhs crossing the border to make their way to Nankana Sahib on the birth anniversary of the founder of Sikhism certainly helps boost the country’s reputation and promotes tolerance for the beliefs of others, especially at a time when India is making headlines for the wrong reasons, ie the poor treatment of its minority citizens, particularly Muslims and Dalits.
This is perhaps part of the government’s desire to promote religious tourism in the country.
Last year, the prime minister laid the foundation stone for the construction of the Kartarpur Corridor, which would connect the second holiest site in Sikhism with the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur, India. Recently, there has also been an announcement of reopening a 1,000-year-old Hindu temple in Sialkot, sealed since 1947. According to one report, the decision came from the realisation that the Hindu families of Sialkot had no communal place to gather and worship.
Most places of worship of non-Muslim minorities are pre-Partition structures, and many are under constant vigilance due to threats of vandalism and extremist attacks. Then there is the issue of land grabbing, which also uses religion as a cover for material greed. So while on one hand, correct steps are being taken to ensure protection for some minority groups, the climate of fear persists for many others. Minorities are targeted disproportionately in false blasphemy charges and continue to be subjected to forced conversions.
Again and again, the prime minister has reiterated his belief that all citizens of the state must be treated equally. One can only hope he is sincere in ensuring that they are, including that “one element” he mentioned. Only then, can we truly celebrate a progressive Pakistan.


Rawalpindi crash

TUESDAY’S crash of an army plane in Rawalpindi has cast a pall over the nation. At least 18 people were reported to have lost their lives in the incident, among them five army personnel — two of them of officer rank. The civilian casualties included seven members of a family who were hit as the aircraft came down in a village next to a phase of Bahria Town in Rawalpindi. Many others are fighting for their lives in hospitals after suffering serious injuries in the accident, including burns that are most difficult to treat. Initial investigation hinted at a technical fault as the cause of the crash. One of the engines of the plane apparently stopped working; this will entail a protocol whereby all aircraft belonging to the same fleet will undergo inspection before they are cleared for flying. Eyewitness accounts say the ill-fated plane was flying at an unusually low altitude and its movement was erratic before it fell. It struck houses most of whose inhabitants were asleep at the time. It could well have been that, faced with the inevitable, the pilot did attempt to take the plane towards an open, unpopulated or less-crowded area.
The loss of lives on the ground, including those of women and children, as well as the severe injuries caused by the crash, is extremely distressing. It also raises the question of the possibility of an even greater tragedy had the crash occurred in a more densely populated area of the city. Apart from discussion on the points more directly related to this specific incident the incident is going to stir debate on many aspects of general aviation safety. Among them is the issue of maintaining a safe distance between populated areas and flying zones used by all kinds of aircraft. There has been just too heavy an increase in recent times in overhead traffic in thickly populated, often poorly planned urban areas. The issue has to be looked at closely and on an urgent basis.

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