Deciding Afghanistan’s fate
DEADLY bombings against the backdrop of peace talks paint an uneasy picture for the future of Afghanistan, on the brink of witnessing a dramatic withdrawal of US troops even as the spectre of violence looms.
On Thursday, 10 people were killed — including two Nato troops — when a powerful car bomb exploded in a heavily fortified zone in Kabul, just days after Zalmay Khalilzad, US special envoy and America’s chief negotiator in the peace talks, concluded the ninth round of meetings with the Taliban leadership in Qatar and announced the two sides had reached an agreement which only awaited the Trump administration’s approval.
Following the bombing, Khalilzad returned to Qatar for unscheduled talks with the Taliban that reportedly went on well past midnight. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been left out of these high-powered discussions in Qatar on the insistence of the Taliban, and appears to be deeply unhappy with some aspects of the impending peace agreement.
From the press conference that followed the trilateral dialogue held in Islamabad yesterday, with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi hosting his Chinese and Afghan counterparts, it was clear the focus of the talks had been on ensuring that the battle-scarred country does not once again descend into internecine warfare.
At this critical juncture, all stakeholders need to exercise prudence and foresight. As the Chinese foreign minister stated during the press conference, what transpires now must take place in an orderly and responsible manner. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reportedly refused to sign the deal, indicating that Washington’s conscience may be troubled. Anxiety about the post-accord situation is clearly at an all-time high. The Taliban are banking on violence to strengthen their bargaining power and get the most out of the deal as the now decentralised leadership gears up to battle the militant Islamic State group. At the same time, the US is in a hurry to get out of Afghanistan — a key promise of President Trump during the 2016 presidential election. With another election around the corner, it appears that Mr Trump is keen to bill Afghanistan as a victory and cross it off his to-do list.
While the people with power deliberate, the people of Afghanistan watch with bated breath, anxious and fearful about what the transition will bring. They hope for peace and a viable path to power-sharing, that will allow them to have a say in who governs them. As a group of nine former ambassadors to Afghanistan have poignantly said in an open letter critical of the US approach to negotiating the troop withdrawal, “[The US] must not yank so much support from our Afghan friends that they are unable to protect themselves”.
A rushed decision on the US withdrawal will have regional and global consequences and spawn more violence and insecurity for a people who have suffered for decades.
A PARTICULARLY diabolical mode of sowing terror revisited Quetta on Thursday. Two back-to-back explosions took place in the city, leaving one man dead and nine injured. The first blast occurred near a transport office and injured four people. The second took place a little later close to the same location, killing an emergency worker and injuring four others, including two media persons — a reporter and a cameraman working for a TV channel. That there were no more casualties is nothing short of a miracle. Balochistan’s largest city, prone to terrorist violence since years now, has several times been targeted by twin attacks, coordinated to deliberately kill as many people as possible. Two years ago, the assassination of a senior advocate in Quetta was designed to draw many other lawyers to the hospital where his body had been taken. A suicide attack on the gathering killed over 70 people, including 56 lawyers. Two TV cameramen were among the dead. To cite but one more example, a bombing inside a snooker hall in a Hazara locality on Jan 10, 2013, was followed minutes later by a second, massive explosion outside the venue. At least 81 people, including rescue workers, police personnel and media persons, among others, were killed and around 120 injured in the two blasts.
Very often, negligence in observing basic security protocols leads to more people dying in twin attacks than would have otherwise. Law-enforcement personnel must immediately cordon off the site of a bombing or targeted killing: for one, it is a crime scene and evidence must be diligently preserved so that the investigation has enough material to enable it to bring the perpetrators to book. Secondly, security cordons can ensure that bystanders and media persons are at a reasonable distance from the site in case of another explosion. Speaking of the media, such has become the cutthroat nature of the business that in the race to obtain ‘exclusive’ footage, news editors often push their reporters and cameramen beyond acceptable limits. Some years ago, in an environment rapidly becoming hazardous for journalists, a large group of newspaper editors and heads of news at television channels had agreed on reporting guidelines for the electronic media. Among other issues, there was a consensus they would not compete in the coverage of dangerous situations. Perhaps channel heads need to revisit and, if need be, improve the guidelines. No ‘money shot’ is worth risking life and limb for.
WOMEN labourers who pick cotton from the fields of Sindh highlighted their grievances at a recent press conference in Karachi, flanked by members of human rights organisations. Other than long hours and tough working conditions that expose them to a host of health complications — the lack of safety measures provided by employers making them especially vulnerable to disease and injury on the job — they are paid very low wages and are offered virtually no social protection. The women present at the event requested the Sindh government to give them the same status and rights that industrial workers are entitled to. Workers employed in the agriculture economy are some of the most exploited and ill-treated. Since there is no data and agriculture is considered part of the ‘informal’ economy, it is uncertain what percentage of women are employed, but labour organisers estimate that nearly half of the total agricultural workforce of Sindh consists of women. Due to their perceived lower social status, they are left all the more defenceless.
Out of all the labour laws passed over the years, not a single one has extended to agriculture workers, with the exception of the right to form unions under the Sindh Industrial Relations Act 2013. This might be because many of Pakistan’s parliamentarians are landowners themselves, and the emancipation of their workers would not be beneficial to their own interests. Last year, women legislators vowed to work for the rights of rural women, particularly those employed in agriculture, those who MNA Nafisa Shah referred to as the “slaves of the slaves”. Perhaps as a result of their efforts, the Sindh cabinet approved the Sindh Women Agriculture Act this year, but it is yet to be passed by the Sindh Assembly. It may be a rarely acknowledged truth, but much of this country’s economy runs on the backs of women. It is time their voices are heard.