Dawn Editorial 30 January 2021

US-Taliban deal

RECENT statements from both the Afghan Taliban and the new US administration indicate that the peace agreement signed between Washington and the Afghan militia in Doha last year may be in peril unless both sides make more of an effort to save it. A statement from the Taliban on Friday accused the US of ‘violating’ the accord by targeting civilians, though the militia’s spokesman tweeted that they remain “fully committed” to the plan. This appears to be a reaction to recent American statements, in which senior members of the Biden administration have questioned the sustainability of the Trump-era peace agreement. A top Pentagon official said that while the US stood by the Doha agreement, the Taliban would have to meet “their commitments to renounce terrorism” and stop violent attacks. While the Taliban and the Kabul government have been meeting to talk peace, violent confrontations on the battlefield between both sides continue, which has prompted the new American administration to question the Taliban’s commitment to the peace plan.
Indeed, it would be ideal for all foreign forces to exit Afghanistan and leave the security of the country to the government. The country has seen decades of instability primarily due to foreign meddling in its internal affairs. However, the Taliban’s paradoxical stance of talking and fighting at the same time has cast serious doubts over the peace process, and in this regard the Biden administration’s concerns are genuine. If the Doha agreement is to survive, and if the talks between Kabul and the Taliban are to succeed, there needs to be an immediate cessation of hostilities from the militia, particularly attacks targeting civilians. If these processes fail, there is a strong likelihood that the ‘forever war’ in Afghanistan will continue. While outsiders have played a role in destabilising Afghanistan, Afghan warlords and power-hungry factions have also done their bit to ensure peace is not established in their homeland. Today, the onus is on the Taliban to silence their guns and give peace a chance.



Sheikh’s acquittal

THE Supreme Court’s decision to order the release of Omar Saeed Sheikh, the principal accused in the Daniel Pearl murder case, has come as a blow to not just the family of the slain journalist but also to proponents of free press everywhere. By a majority of two to one, the apex court extended the benefit of the doubt to the accused, thereby removing a key hurdle in his release.
Although a review petition has been filed, at the moment, there is little preventing Sheikh — arguably one of the most dangerous militants — from being a free man. Given the ghastly nature of the crime he has been accused of, and the long and painful fight of the Pearl family for justice, it is no surprise that both his family and the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken have condemned the decision in strong words. Dubbing Sheikh’s release an “affront to terrorism victims everywhere”, Blinken has urged a review with the hope that justice will be done.
The fact that Sheikh, a notorious man who is allegedly involved in some high-profile crimes that transcend borders, will soon be free is yet another startling chapter in his cryptic life story. The British-born militant who dropped out of the prestigious London School of Economics and disappeared into the Balkans — only to resurface later in India where he was arrested then freed in a hostage exchange — has been all too lucky in his trysts with danger.
He is believed to have been a part of the conspiracy to assassinate Gen Musharraf, and apparently was also the person who called then president Asif Zardari, impersonating the Indian external affairs minister from inside his prison cell. He is accused of kidnapping four foreign tourists in India-held Kashmir as well as transferring money to a militant involved in the 9/11 attacks. The fact that this man has always been a step ahead of the authorities is mind-boggling. Perhaps the world will never learn what his true role was in Daniel Pearl’s kidnapping and murder. But despite that, there are enough signs that he is a dangerous man who should remain behind bars.
The entire case points to the sorry state of Pakistan’s law-enforcement agencies that have failed to produce convincing evidence that holds in a court of law. The fact that an individual accused of endless criminal acts has time and again hoodwinked the authorities is an indictment of the investigating agencies in the country.
Not only should the state seriously reflect on this failure, it must also tell the world who the real murderers of Daniel Pearl are if Sheikh and three others have been acquitted. If it fails to do so, it will send a message that there is no justice for those who harm journalists in Pakistan, and that their killers continue to roam free.



Corruption data

A RATHER pointless debate took place in the wake of the release of Transparency International’s report that showed Pakistan slipping by four points in the Corruption Perception Index in the year 2020. Since the present government prides itself on its anti-corruption efforts, the slippage undoubtedly felt like an embarrassment since despite two and half years of relentless pursuit of cases against its political opponents on allegations of corruption, it seems like the country appeared to outsiders to have become more corrupt, not less. Not surprisingly, the government deployed a defence of its own, arguing that the 2020 report is based on data gathered between 2017 and 2018 and therefore the slippage actually reflects the country’s performance under the previous administration. But a look at the data sources given in the report goes against this claim. The report uses a complex methodology to derive a perception score using data from 13 different reports put out by various multilateral and private agencies. Only one of these 13 publications is from 2018, and that one has data only for 54 African countries so its contents would not have significantly affected Pakistan’s score. Three other publications used for calculating the Corruption Perception Index are dated 2019 and all three are based on 2019 data. The rest are all publications from the year 2020. It seems the prime minister’s advisers have tried to create the impression that the index reflects data from the years 2017 and 2018 in an effort to avoid having to answer questions regarding why Pakistan’s rank has slipped, despite what the government sees as a robust anti-corruption drive underway.
The more important point being raised in the report is missed if one is too bogged down in this debate over which government had the better ranking. One look at the source reports used to calculate the Corruption Perception Index shows that outsiders look at the institutional strength of a country to assess its level of corruption, not ongoing law-enforcement efforts. This is measured by looking at aspects such as the amount of red tape that gives bureaucracy an invasive role in decision-making, or the judiciary’s ability to adjudicate without interference of powerful actors in any given country. For an anti-corruption effort to be credible in the eyes of neutral parties, it would be better if the rulers worked on building the credibility of the country’s institutions as the primary focus.

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