PM in Kabul
PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan’s daylong visit to Kabul on Thursday has come at a time when a question mark hangs over the Afghan peace process, and when the US is in the middle of a presidential transition. The latter development has to be considered because it remains to be seen how a Biden White House handles the Afghanistan file, specifically the key question of foreign troops’ exit from the country.
The fact is that the Pak-Afghan bilateral relationship has for the past several decades been viewed through the lens of the Afghan internal conflict, therefore any improvement in ties is linked to peace and stability in Afghanistan. Mr Khan’s meetings with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani remained cordial, and both leaders reiterated their commitment to peace as well as strengthening the bilateral relationship. Mr Khan offered this country’s full support when he told the Afghan side that if “Pakistan can help, please let us know”.
Engagement at the highest level between Islamabad and Kabul is essential for improved bilateral relations, as well as peace in the region. Too often spoilers have tried to drive a wedge between both capitals, which has prevented the relationship from developing to its full potential. Moreover, there are elements within the Kabul establishment that have no love lost for Pakistan, and are constantly blaming this country for Afghanistan’s internal woes.
While it is true that Pakistan has some leverage with the Afghan Taliban, blaming this country alone for Afghanistan’s problems is unwarranted. That country has been ruined by decades of involvement in its internal affairs by external forces, including the superpowers of the day, as well as failure of the Afghan political and tribal elites to accept each other. However, if the relationship is to move forward, both Islamabad and Kabul must build trust; regular exchanges between the respective leaderships can help reduce the trust deficit and address areas of concern.
Coming to the Afghan peace process, Donald Trump, in his final few months in the White House, has announced a fresh drawdown of US troops. While the move has been criticised by some in the American establishment, as well as Nato, the world will have to wait till Joe Biden assumes the US presidency to see what direction Washington will take vis-à-vis Afghanistan. Mr Biden has said that he too favours a troop withdrawal, but wants to move more slowly. Indeed, this is a critical time for the Afghan peace process.
Any major discrepancy in American policy may affect the peace deal the US signed with the Afghan Taliban in February, and a chaotic withdrawal of foreign troops may plunge Afghanistan back into civil war. Foreign forces, primarily America, must ensure that the withdrawal is orderly, while Afghan stakeholders — especially the government and the Taliban — must put in greater efforts for an internal peace deal.
Social media rules
THE dreaded outcome of the state’s relentless campaign to control social media has become a reality. With the notification of the ‘Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Online Content (Procedure, Oversight and Safeguards) Rules 2020’ under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, the government now has legal cover to issue blanket bans on digital content. The rules apply to any social media company operating in Pakistan and require them to set up a brick-and-mortar presence in the country with the goal of eventually moving data servers here.
Given the state’s proclivity for surveillance, clamping down on free expression and hounding journalists and activists who use social media to share information, this development marks a dark chapter in Pakistan’s digital rights story. In a continuation of this sinister tradition, the rules were gazetted without consultation with stakeholders, rights groups and citizens, despite initial promises that a discussion would take place. National and global digital rights groups have expressed outrage and concern over the rules for legitimate reasons. One worrying turnabout from the initial draft is the removal of the position of ‘national coordinator’ and the vesting of these powers with the historically censor-happy Pakistan Telecommunication Authority. Without providing adequate safeguards, the rules give sweeping powers to the PTA to ban and remove content, and ironically also empowers it to conduct a review of its decisions. Its words “integrity, security and defence of Pakistan” make room for blocking content that can create “hatred, contempt or disaffection of government or public servants”. Effectively, this means whistleblowers and journalists can be censored when sharing critical views which “harm the reputation” of federal or provincial government officials. The Asia Internet Coalition which represents several social media platforms including Facebook, Google and Apple has pointed out that the rules were passed without a discussion, labelling the demands draconian as the data localisation requirements will prevent people from accessing a free and open internet. Tragically, the same demands will hurt Pakistan’s digital economy and cut it off from the rest of the world as they lay the groundwork for an intimidating regulatory environment which forces companies to go against their privacy and regulatory policies regarding “established human rights norms on privacy and freedom of expression”. Not only are these rules a historic own goal on the part of the Ministry of Information, they also cement the government’s reputation of being paranoid, restrictive and intolerant.
Crash probe findings
THE final findings of the Aircraft Accident and Investigation Board regarding the deadly 2016 PIA plane crash has once again brought the national flag carrier as well as the aviation industry regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, under the spotlight. Though the probe primarily blames PIA engineers for the three technical faults — a fractured power turbine blade, a broken pin inside the overspeed governor device, and contamination inside the propeller valve module — cited as the causes of the tragedy, the CAA cannot be excused for its lack of proper oversight. The inquiry confirms the findings of the preliminary report into the crash, which had also found lapses on the part of the airline and lack of oversight by the CAA to be responsible for the accident. The ill-fated PIA ATR-42 flight, that was on its way to Islamabad, had crashed into the hills near Havelian, killing all 47 passengers — including singer-turned-evangelist Junaid Jamshed — and crew on board, 42 minutes after taking off from Chitral.
That it took the investigation board, which works under the CAA, four long years to finalise the report speaks volumes for the outrageous manner in which both the airline and the flight industry regulator have in the past tried to blunt the impact of such inquiries to protect their own. Little concern is ever shown for the families of those who have lost their near and dear ones in these avoidable tragedies. We do not know if any action was taken against those found responsible. One would not be surprised if they were not taken to task for their carelessness that cost so many lives. PIA has been struggling with massive financial and technical troubles for the last two decades. The inquiry report will surely raise questions about the quality of its human resource as well. Similarly, the oversight role of the CAA will come under greater public scrutiny. It is time that a decision is taken on PIA’s affairs and the CAA is overhauled to prevent future tragedies.