All posts by Syed Sharfuddin

About Syed Sharfuddin

Mr Syed Sharfuddin is a student of political science and international relations resident in London UK. He has written extensively on democracy and good governance and served in many senior positions as a diplomat, as an international civil servant, as a humanitarian and as an NGO worker. During his career he has held a number of posts. he was previously CEO of Muslim Aid UK www.muslimaid.org; Special Adviser, Political Affairs Division, Commonwealth Secretariat, London, UK www.thecommonwealth.org and a Civil Servant and Diplomat, Pakistan Foreign Service, Government of Pakistan, www.mofa.gov.pk

Rewriting a new Afghan Constitution: A Briefing Paper

Syed Sharfuddin

The G7 countries met virtually on 24 August under the chairmanship of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and demanded that Taliban must extend the deadline for foreign troops to leave Afghanistan beyond August to complete evacuation of all US and NATO troops, as well as stranded foreign nationals in Kabul and those Afghans who do not wish to live under a Taliban rule. The G7 statement also repeated the call of the UN Security Council (UNSC) made at its meeting on 16 August for Taliban to observe human rights and prevent terrorist acts against third countries. The only difference was that while the UNSC statement did not mention Taliban by name, the G7 did so as an indication that there is now an acknowledgement that the next government in Kabul will be formed by Taliban and they will be making the future decisions in Afghanistan. President Joe Biden, however, did not agree to the G7 demand. He insisted that the US was on course to complete the ongoing evacuation operation by 31 August. He also said that extending the deadline in the absence of an agreement with Taliban, which was not expected, will endanger the security of the US and other foreign troops remaining in Afghanistan after the August deadline.

Regrettably, the G7 call carries the potential of conveying a confusing message to the Afghans who are afraid of atrocities and human rights violations in a future Taliban government. After the airport is cleared and those Afghans whose papers are complete fly out of Kabul, thousands more will be getting ready to leave Afghanistan by air, land or long walk in the next few months to claim asylum in the countries which contributed troops to ISAF in the past. But their expectations would remain a pipe dream against the hard reality of international dynamics. The West had not foreseen such a large emigration of Afghans coming so soon, and neither is the public in the US, EU, UK, Australia and Canada ready to welcome new waves of refugees from Afghanistan. If this happens, thousands of Afghans will be disappointed and become marginalised in their own country because of the false hopes being built by civil society and media.

Ideally, the US and NATO should extract guarantees from the Taliban for giving the Afghan people full civil and political liberties and respecting their human rights in return for a Taliban government’s recognition by the UN and international institutions, including access to the much sought after trade and financial institutions such as the WTO, IMF and the World Bank. Afghanistan is a richly endowed but GDP wise a poor nation, but it is a member or partner of over fifty  intergovernmental, regional and international organisations. This may look like a huge burden for a small country to be representing itself in this high number of organisations, sometimes duplicating and at other times working at cross purposes, but it is also a huge reservoir for starting constructive engagement and promoting global good practice with the Taliban. It will be a waste not to use this great network of knowledge and resource for the rebuilding of a new, peaceful, just and rules-based Afghanistan owned and run by Afghans themselves. By not agreeing to the demand of his European allies in the G7 to extend the 31 August deadline, President Biden seems to be in favour of not pushing Taliban too much in a corner to force them to take unwanted extreme measures which would only add to the instability of Afghanistan in an already volatile strategic region which remains an active theatre of great power rivalry close to Iran, China and Russia.

On their part, the Taliban should not prevent any Afghan who has valid documents to travel to another country freely and without intimidation. The life and property of those Afghans who do not agree or welcome Taliban should be fully protected, and their rights should be recognised and granted by the new rulers. The Taliban have an opportunity to clear their image as barbarians and human rights violators. If any doors are to be knocked in Kabul by their fighters, they should be knocking these doors to offer scared people food and transport to the airport, should they have the right travel documents. As custodians of a new Islamic government in Afghanistan, the Taliban should follow the example of prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, when he entered Makkah ten years after Hijrah. They should force no one to stay in Afghanistan against his/her will. This will be their first major test the world will be watching closely.  

What has happened in Afghanistan in August 2021 is not less than a revolution. Afghans have paid dearly until this moment whether they supported Taliban or fought against them. Their capture of Afghanistan was not a peaceful and constitutional transfer of power from one party to another. A Taliban-led government cannot automatically expect to be recognised by the UN and other countries. Taliban also cannot, as a matter of routine, lay claim to Afghan overseas assets and development funds committed to the former government of Afghanistan by international financial institutions. They will need to work their way to earn it back. They will need to show with their actions in the next few months and years that they are capable of running a responsible and law abiding government.

But the revolution also gives Taliban advantages. They are not obliged to follow the commitments the previous government made to its international partners, or continue with the projects the previous government signed with foreign investors and countries. They are free to renegotiate investment agreements with overseas private investors, institutions and governments. They can launch an inquiry into corruption and kickbacks on commercial deals made by the leaders of the previous government. They are also free to impose limits on the number of foreign diplomats a country can send to its embassy in Afghanistan or open consulates or trade offices in their country. They can sign new treaties of friendship and cooperation with their neighbouring countries or request technical assistance from third countries if faced by brain drain in the short term. They do not have to give a blanket approval for accepting the UN and international covenants without adding any reservations on clauses which contradict their Islamic ideology. They do not have to stop narcotics production or sell arms they have acquired in the war booty to third parties in order to pay their officials salaries. They do not have to give any guarantees that they will not use unconventional methods to defend Afghan territory if it is attacked from outside. All these instruments are now open to Taliban for fresh negotiations with international organisations and third countries. Everything is on the table for negotiation on both sides.

The Taliban have postponed the announcement of their government structure until after the withdrawal of the US and NATO troops from Afghanistan. This has more to do with their own internal issues than international troops withdrawal. It is hard for them to reach power sharing arrangements within their ranks on forming an inclusive government with Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik and Uzbek leaders, women and tribal elders. It will be even harder for them to make compromises on implementing their Islamic ideology and its acceptance by the people of Afghanistan. They will also need to make compromises when political expediency, pluralism and diversity require them to go slow, when they are writing the new laws and regulations.

The Taliban have indicated that they will keep the 2004 constitution of Afghanistan but change it to incorporate their vision of an Islamic Emirate. The 2004 Constitution is a document which was adopted without wider consultations among Afghans. It was drafted with the help of Afghanistan’s external partners. As a primary legal document of the country, it must be Afghan written and Afghan owned. The Taliban were not part of the of the constitution writing process. It was drafted in a hurry in December 2003 and approved and ratified within one month in January 2004.

Even from the perspective of a modern democratic constitution, the 2004 constitution lacks many important features. It provides for an independent election commission (article 86) but it is silent about the appointment, terms of reference and statutory funding of the chief election commission and other members of the commission. The 2004 constitution provides for the establishment of an independent human rights commission (article 58), a central bank (article 12) and an attorney general (article 64.11), but it does not provide for the establishment of an independent public services commission (article 50), an armed forces commission, a truth and reconciliation commission, an inter-provincial disputes resolution council, an auditor general and an independent police commission. Afghanistan needs these institutions backed by the constitution in order to overcome its special vulnerabilities through its internal political processes.

With regard to the Islamic character of the constitution, it is clear that an attempt was made by the framers of the constitution in 2003 to give it an Islamic baptism without much thought. For example, article 4 of the constitution states that “national sovereignty in Afghanistan shall belong to the nation, manifested directly and through its elected representatives.” In the Islamic system of governance, sovereignty belongs to Almighty Allah and is exercised by the people on earth as his representatives, who in turn mandate their leaders to govern them in their land according to the teachings of Quran and the sunnah of prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him. However, the people retain the power to change their leaders if they do not follow Allah’s commands in the function of governance, especially in administering justice, ensuring peace and providing livelihood and sustenance. This concept is missing in the constitution. In another example, article 64.11 mentions, among others, the appointment of the head of the Red Cross. It could be a typo but it reveals the written source. In Islamic countries, including Afghanistan it is known as Red Crescent.

In the Afghan constitution, the idea of presidential form of government is derived from the US system. However, the safeguards provided in the US constitution to prevent a situation where individual electors might be inclined to choose a leader from their own tribal and political circle, creating the danger of a crippling post-election deadlock are not provided in the Afghanistan constitution. Afghanistan is a deeply divided state with as many as 14 recognised ethnic nationalities. It is also divided along linguistic and sectarian lines. These safeguards are necessary to give confidence to ethnic and religious minorities that they will not be swept by the tyranny of majority in the name of democracy. Under article 6, the presidential candidate is not obliged to provide the names of two vice presidential running mates on the panel from another ethnic group or region. There is also no provision to break a tie if the two vice presidential candidates receive the same number of votes as happened in the US elections in the year 1800 resulting in a political crisis and leading to 12th amendment.

The 2004 constitution mentions ‘national treason’ twice in articles 69 and 78 but it does not define what constitutes national treason and what should be the sentence for a person who commits this crime and is convicted by the courts.

In articles 3 and 35, the constitution says that no law shall be enacted that contravenes the “tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam” and that “manifestos and charter of political parties shall” also abide by this restriction. However, in article 34 relating to the right of expression, no restriction is placed on individuals to respect the religion of Islam and refrain from expression of “thoughts through speech, writing, illustrations, as well as other means” that attack the beliefs, principles and values of Islam, as enshrined in the Quran and sunnah, including attacks on the Quran, the personality of prophet Mohammad and members of his noble household, and his companions.

Articles 7 and 8 relating to multilateral and bilateral relations of Afghanistan should be amended to state that “the the guiding principles of Afghanistan’s foreign relations will be: promoting regional and global peace and cooperation, respecting the territorial integrity of other states, pursuing friendly relations with Islamic and other countries, applying the UN principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, and actively pursuing mutually beneficial economic and trade relations with Afghanistan’s regional and external partners.

Afghanistan has been through wars for most of its history. Defence of the fatherland is a quintessential part of the Afghan national character. However, the document is silent about the composition and mandate of the armed forces of Afghanistan and the appointment of the chiefs of the army and air-force. The constitution also does not mention that the military commanders will be subservient to civilian authorities and overthrow of a civilian elected government by the military overtly or covertly will amount to national treason and invoke capital punishment for those involved in treason. Only under the powers of the president, article 64.3 states that the chief executive of the country is the commander in chief of the armed forces.

The 2004 constitution incorporates the concept of social welfare by making the state responsible for providing free of charge education up to college level (article 43), free healthcare and medical facilities (article 52) and financial support to families of martyrs and handicapped persons (article 53). However, the constitution does not state anywhere that the country will follow the principles of social welfare economy. Instead, the constitution declares in article 10 that the state shall protect and encourage market economy. The article should be amended to say that “the guiding principles of Afghanistan’s economy will be Islamic social welfare system and a privately-owned but state-guided free trade and individual enterprise that supports investment, services, equality of opportunity for all citizens, and fair division and circulation of national wealth.”

The 2004 constitution is silent about the territory that comprises the state of Afghanistan. Articles 1 and 21 should be amended to read: “the territory of a sovereign, independent and unitary Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan shall comprise 34 provinces (wilayaat) each of which will be an integral part of the indivisible Afghan state. The capital of Afghanistan shall be Kabul.”

The articles relating to the judiciary should be sufficiently amended to incorporate in the country’s criminal justice system the traditional Afghan system of dispensing justice by involving the local jury and fast tracking the process to avoid delays in the judicial process. This system has been practiced by Taliban in the areas under their control and was popular with the people.

The texts of the oaths of the President, ministers and higher judiciary in articles 63, 74 and 119 should be removed from the main body and placed as annex to the constitution.

Given that Taliban will need to satisfy many smaller minority groups and ethnic populations about the decisions they make in the new government, there is a need to expand the composition of the House of Elders (Mashrono Jirga) hundred percent from the present 102 to 204. Of these, 102 members should come through the procedure stated in article 84 of the 2004 constitution but the other 102 members should consist of the tribal leaders and religious elders representing the ethnic and regional breadth of Afghanistan, as well as gender representation, irrespective of whether they supported the Taliban or the previous governments. These representatives should be elected by the local Jirgas of people from their respective tribes and regions for a fixed but renewable term.

If Taliban use the present constitution as the basis of forming a new government, President Ashraf Ghani’s escape from Kabul together with his entire team of two vice presidents, foreign minister and other ministers, makes it impossible to implement articles 67 and 68, as well as 69 to appoint a new chief executive and his team through fresh elections. The Taliban can also ignore the procedure of forming a new government in the 2004 constitution but still announce new elections within 3 to 6 months. However, holding elections  before a new constitution is agreed and adopted would be a meaningless exercise and could weaken their hold on power.

For amending the existing 2004 constitution, Taliban can use the procedure provided under article 150 of the 2004 constitution. They can use the present independent commission (article 157) or appoint a new independent commission to amend the 2004 constitution. Alternately, they can dismiss the previous Loya Jirga and start the process of drafting the constitution from the scratch. However, they should not throw away the work that has been done so far and has the agreement of many parties and groups, if not them. They should therefore announce a new interim and inclusive administration with a view to drafting, as a first step, a new constitution in a period of 12 to 18 months, using the 2004 constitution as the basis of their new draft. In the next stage, the new draft constitution can then be presented for a national debate. The government can then convene a Special Loya Jirga, constituted only for the purpose of discussing and approving the new constitution. This should be followed by an announcement for a free, inclusive and multi-party election in Afghanistan, observed by local and international observers, hopefully in 2024 or earlier, if possible.

*The author Syed Sharfuddin is a regular contributor to the Weekender. He is a former Pakistan diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs in the Commonwealth Secretariat, UK (2000-2006). He is also a former ex-officio board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission, UK Chapter.

Afghanistan: Collapse of a Government or a Grand Strategy

Syed Sharfuddin

Executive Summary

This essays argues that the major reason for the fall of Afghanistan was Taliban fighters’ surprisingly quick move into Afghan provinces and the capital Kabul in August 2021 in a matter of weeks rather than months. It cannot be doubted that the Taliban had prepared for this move in advance, making deals with local Afghan leaders where possible, and using violence or twisting arms where required. Their organised and speedy advance was not foreseen by the intelligence community, nor by diplomats who were assisting the US and UN-led peace process in Doha, New York and other cities for a political settlement of the conflict in Afghanistan.

The unexpected refusal of the former Afghan government to confront Taliban militarily added to the failure of expectations for holding the ground and preventing a total collapse of the government and its institutions. Had a civil war ensued, which seemed imminent, it would have been bloody, dirty and prolonged. It would have threatened the territorial integrity of Afghanistan and gone deep in the country along regional, ethnic and sectarian lines. It would have inevitably forced the UN Security Council (UNSC) to mandate the creation of a UN Peace Keeping Force in Afghanistan replacing US and NATO troops with UN peacekeepers.

The seeds for such a scenario were sowed in the Doha peace talks, which began cautiously in 2018 between the US and Taliban. The talks did not initially include a road map for a political settlement of Afghanistan but focused only on Taliban ceasefire and phased US troops’ reduction and withdrawal. The former government of Afghanistan was not part of the Doha peace process from the very start of the talks except when the exchange or release of Taliban prisoners was discussed between the US and Taliban. It was only after February 2020 when a peace deal had been reached between the US and Taliban that the US and UN started talking about the political future of Afghanistan following the US troops’ withdrawal. By then, it was too late for the former government to extract any concessions from Taliban. On their part, the Taliban regarded the former government of Afghanistan as a puppet administration imposed by force from abroad whose days were numbered with the dates of the US troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Despite the surprise takeover of Afghanistan by Taliban and an expected new and peaceful beginning announced by them, the country remains exposed to armed conflict and proxy wars in a post US/NATO troops free Afghanistan, reinforced by the geopolitical location of the country in the arena of great power rivalry for political influence and global trade routes. They have been tied in so many knots of international conditionalities that their goose appears to be dressed up for an easy meal. But no one could guess that the Taliban would be back after 20 years. They could still surprise everyone despite the odds being against them at the national and international level.

Introduction

Everyone from military analysts to political leaders, war veterans, intelligence community, Afghans, Indians, Americans and Europeans is asking one question: “Why were Taliban able to retake Afghanistan so easily and quickly when in the assessment of Afghanistan’s friends and supporters, the former government of Mr Ashraf Ghani was well armed and claimed to be under control of the situation?”

After the collapse of the former Afghan government on 15 August 2021 with dramatic scenes of Taliban fighters taking photos in an empty presidential palace in Kabul and saying they were waiting to hear from their leadership what was the next task for them, President Biden said in a televised address to the Americans that evening that he stood by his decision to pull out US troops from Afghanistan by September 2021. But he also blamed the former Afghan government for surrendering to the Taliban and refusing to fight against them, despite the superior firepower and aircover of the Afghan armed forces which the US had ensured after spending $82 billion in creating, funding and training the Afghan military in the last twenty years.

The Big Conversation

Western analysists are trying to find answers to the question what went so wrong in Afghanistan that an investment of over 2 trillion dollars, spent over the last 2 decades did not produce any results when it came to defending the country against a tribally based and loosely organised group of hard core militants not backed by any country in the world. A number of reasons are being advanced. These include the US decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and its bad timing, backing the wrong horse in the race, failure of military intelligence, the rising influence of Taliban in those areas of Afghanistan where the writ of the former government was missing, rampant corruption of Afghan leadership at the centre and the provinces, a bad criminal justice system and poor governance, and fatigue on the part of the Afghan people to carryon fighting after the US troops left the country without giving an agreed political roadmap for the future of Afghanistan

A Fall Guy

There have been accusations against Pakistan from some retired Western diplomats, resident news reporters and NGO personnel, who served in Kabul, that Pakistani agencies created, armed and trained Taliban. But if the US, NATO and the UN could not find any evidence to support those allegations, revisiting these now is no more than a hogwash and amounts to passing the blame of failure to a weaker ally. These diplomats forget that working in a foreign country with the host government 24/7 for a couple of years creates sympathy for the host government of the day and they no longer remain impartial and neutral. This condition is known as “localitis’ in the Foreign Ministries of many countries. To mitigate this, governments keep rotating their diplomats and expatriates on their posts. Pakistan was and remains a partner of the US and NATO on the war against terror but like the US which changed its policy last year about not sending troops to fight in foreign conflicts, Pakistan has also taken a decision that it will not be involved in other countries’ wars in the future. 

Doha Talks

The seeds of Afghanistan’s fall to the Taliban were sown in the Doha negotiations which started cautiously in the capital of Qatar in 2018 and gained momentum in the spring of 2019. The negotiations were long and protracted and had no timeline. Eventually the US and Taliban reached an agreement in February 2020. In November 2020 at the end of his first term, President Trump announced a reduction in active US military presence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. After Trump, President Biden followed on his predecessor’s policy of cutting down US involvement in foreign conflicts and decided that US troops will leave Afghanistan by May 2021. He later extended this date to September 2021. The February 2020 peace agreement agreed at Doha did not include the political future of Afghanistan after US troops’ withdrawal. The US assumed that the former government in Kabul will remain in-charge of Afghanistan and defend itself against the Taliban, who are already subject to sanctions’ measures under the 1988 UN sanctions regime, which is implemented through the 2011 UN Security Council (UNSC) Sanctions Committee . Taliban are still regarded as a threat to peace, stability and security of Afghanistan in the UN documents. In many capitals of the world, they are seen as a threat to human rights, liberty, peace and security of the world.

The Cost of Withdrawal

The exclusion of the former Afghan government from the Doha agreement of February 2020 meant that whatever the Taliban offered to the US in their peace deal was limited between them and the US, and did not apply to the former government of Afghanistan except when exchange of prisoners was involved. An intra Afghan dialogue commenced in September 2020 to reach a political settlement of the conflict but it was too late to extract any concessions from Taliban who were aware that the US would not be militarily supporting the puppet government in Kabul indefinitely. President Ghani on his part insisted that Taliban announce a ceasefire and agree to his government’s terms for a peace deal. Could this be a neglect on the part of the US not to include the political settlement of Afghanistan in the February 2020 peace deal is hard to say. But the historical record of foreign troops’ withdrawal from conflict countries is poor in supporting the claim that the departing powers care about resolving ongoing disputes politically and peacefully after them. Take for instance the recent examples of Somalia and Iraq. Going further back in time, the departure of the British from the Indian subcontinent in 1947 shows a similar pattern. There was no agreement on the boundary in Punjab or the status of Muslim majority princely states in the dominion. The partition itself was bloody and painful because no thought was given to peacefully manage the mass migration of Hindus and Muslims between the two newly independent countries. In Afghanistan two major mistakes were made: 1) absence of the former Afghan government in the Doha peace talks from the beginning, and 2) absence of a timely agreement on the political roadmap of Afghanistan after the withdrawal of US troops from the country.

Flawed Assessment

The US assessment that the former Afghan government was capable of defending itself against the Taliban was wrong, even though Taliban had gained more firepower in the last few years and had captured many remote regions of Afghanistan. The US and NATO miscalculated that the withdrawal of their troops from Afghanistan would result in reduction of Taliban’s attacks and dampen their appeal to the people of Afghanistan as freedom fighters against foreign troops. But it was obvious that their fight was not against foreign troops only. They were after political power which was snatched away from them by force in November 2001.

The US was also wrong in concluding that if Taliban continued their attacks against the former government, it would mount a credible defence for at least between three to six  months. During this period, the US and NATO countries among the P5 could move a resolution at the UNSC to establish a peacekeeping force for Afghanistan. A friendly India at the UNSC would be too happy to support the passage of such a resolution by the Council on grounds of responsibility to protect. The US and its NATO allies would have also agreed to provide supplementary funding for the deployment of UN peacekeepers in Afghanistan and a contingent comprising military and intelligence officers from many troops-contributing countries including from India and other non-Western countries would be effectively based in Afghanistan to stop the Taliban advance and overthrow of the former government by force. In August, a panel of experts set up by the UN Human Rights Council had suggested to the UNSC to consider invoking Chapter VII for Afghanistan. It allows the Council to respond to threats of peace, or acts of aggression by authorising military and non-military action. Decisions taken by the UNSC under Chapter VII are mandatory.

As an added option, the former government, in the event of a civil war and attacks on civilians, could request a Muslim country such as the UAE, Morocco or Turkey to provide troops to defend Kabul, Kandahar, Heart, Badakhshan and Mazar Sharif against Taliban attacks. Under international law asking a foreign government to send troops to supplement a country’s defence force against militants would be deemed legitimate which would push Taliban deeper in the quagmire of war crimes. But their quick takeover of Afghanistan before the end of August pre-empted all these options.

Changing Deadlines

One of the reasons for their quick movement was the uncertainty of US troops’ withdrawal date. President Trump lost the election in November leaving in limbo the claim that the US would reduce its troops’ presence in conflict countries. President Biden decided to follow through the announcement of his predecessor but in April 2021 he changed the May 1 deadline negotiated with the Taliban to 11 September 2021 to coincide with the anniversary of the Nine Eleven incident. The Taliban were not consulted about the extension and were unsure about September, lest the Biden Administration change this deadline again. The Taliban were also unsure about the outcome of negotiations at the Doha talks which resumed in 2021 involving the former Afghan government for a political settlement. Formation of an interim government of national unity which would include Taliban representation and calling new elections were not on the agenda of these talks. Meanwhile the agreements Taliban had made with individual provincial governors and army commanders individually to cooperate with them were drying on the vine. They had little option expect to move fast to achieve their military objectives in the summer.

Multilateral Diplomacy

While the actual situation on the ground in the years prior to Taliban takeover was mainly dictated by what happened in the military theatre, there was no shortage of diplomatic activity to seek peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. But these efforts were focused on strengthening the government in Kabul and asking Taliban to reduce violence and agree to a ceasefire, respect human rights, especially rights of women and minorities and not allow the areas under their control to be used for terrorist attacks against the US and its allies. In these negotiations, Taliban were no one’s favourite and suffered from their image as a backward and unorganised militant group.

The UN Secretary General (UNSG) periodically appointed Special Representatives (SR) to Afghanistan. The current SR is Deborah Lyons of Canada. She briefs the UNSC periodically on the situation in Afghanistan. She is also a member of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). The Mission was established in 2002 on the request of the Afghan government. Its mandate has been subsequently extended by the UNSC periodically to support the Afghan government, assist peace and reconciliation efforts and monitor human rights and protect civilians. This year in March, the UNSG additionally appointed Mr Jean Arnault of France as his new Personal Envoy on Afghanistan and the regional issues. The UN officials have worked closely with the diplomats and special representatives of the US and other NATO countries  to support the presence and mandate of foreign troops in Afghanistan. The UNSC also implements the 1988 Sanctions Committee mandate in proscribing and delisting members of Taliban by the US and other governments.

Security Council’s Engagement

In the wake of the fast deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan in August, the UNSC met on 6 August for a closed briefing and consultations on Afghanistan. Under rule 37 of the Council’s Rules of Procedure, it invited the Permanent Representative (PR) of the former Afghanistan government to the UNSC to brief members. But India blocked an invitation to the PR of Pakistan to brief the Council on Pakistan’s consultations with the Afghan government and Taliban for promoting peace and security in Afghanistan. The UNSC did not issue a statement at the end of its meeting.

The Council met again on 16 August 2021 under the Presidency of India and issued a statement reiterating its earlier demands made to the Taliban. It took cognizance of the change on the ground after 15 August 2021 but did not mention Taliban. In a clear indication that recognition of the de-facto situation in Afghanistan was a long way away, the Taliban were referred to in the UNSC statement as “all parties”.  

The UNSC statement copied the demands made by the US administration from the Taliban. These were earlier reiterated by the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad who attended the resumed Doha talks on 12 August. These talks, however, collapsed due to the non-arrival of the Afghan High Council Representative at Doha on 15 August 2021. In that meeting Taliban were expected to agree to commit themselves to observe a comprehensive ceasefire, refrain from use of force, respect human rights, including rights of women and minorities, denounce terrorism and engage in an inclusive, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process for a political settlement to maintain the status quo in Afghanistan.

The fact that this meeting did not take place and an agreement was not reached with the Taliban is the biggest failure of multilateral diplomacy on Afghanistan.

Taliban’s Military Strategy

The multiple layers of US and NATO military strategy supplemented by bilateral and UN diplomatic efforts to keep the Taliban under a straightjacket were timed out by the speed of Taliban’s move to different provincial capitals from end July to mid-August 2021 starting from the periphery and ending with the encirclement of Kabul on 14 and 15 August. On their part, the Taliban ensured that their peace agreement with the US concluded at Doha in 2020 was not violated. Technically, their agreement with the US had ended in May 2001 but they went along with the US extension in the withdrawal date without giving any commitments. They did not have any peace agreement with the former government to honour.

Having been left out of the Doha talks until November last year, and recovering from the shock that it will be all alone to fend for itself after the US and NATO troops had left Afghanistan by the end of the month, the former government in Kabul came under great pressure. Moreover, despite its bold claims to defend itself, its unpopularity with the Afghan government troops who had been underpaid, under fed and unmotivated did not help mount a defence of any sorts, let alone put up a good fight supported by air cover which the Taliban lacked. The Taliban capitalised on this weakness effectively. President Ashraf Ghani was not alone in his decision to leave the country. He had received credible reports that any armed resistance against the Taliban fighting machine would collapse like a pack of cards, leaving him and his close associates at the mercy of Taliban as war captives.

It is important to mention that Taliban had done elaborated planning before they moved to capture Afghanistan’s provincial capitals. They expanded their control in the rural areas by  exerting pressure through threats and offering social services where the government had completely failed to run basic services for the people. By July 2021, they were already in control of half of Afghanistan. They made deals with the provincial governors for surrender in return for money and other inducements, perhaps including a general amnesty or a role for them under a Taliban government. The Taliban started from the North where they expected the hardest resistance and moved to the South. They also started from the periphery cutting out supply routes before coming to the urban cities. They capitalised on the demoralised Afghan army and coerced their family members to ask them to sell them weapons and not take up arms against Taliban fighters. The Taliban fought a perfect guerrilla battle of modern times.

At the same time, the Taliban kept their political representation in the Doha talks, showing willingness to talk to the representatives of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation even when their fighters were entering the palace of the former President who had fled the country on 15 August with the message that he did not want to cause any bloodshed by fighting the Taliban. The Chairman of the Afghan High Council Mr Abdulla Abdulla never reached Doha on 15 August 2021 to achieve what he had discussed with the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken ten days before: “to accelerate peace negotiations and achieve a political settlement that is inclusive, respects the rights of all Afghans, including women and children, allows the Afghan people to have a say in choosing their leaders and prevents Afghan soil from being used to threaten the US and its allies and partners.” It was too late in the day by a losing side to offer Taliban a power sharing arrangement and then not show up when they were ready to talk peace with the former government in Doha on the day Kabul fell to their fighters without any armed resistance.

Political Minefields

Taliban’s political strategy is at present unknown. Perhaps the capture of Afghanistan came too soon for them. They are now trying to agree among themselves and with their allied partners a political arrangement for the future governance of the country reflecting their Islamic ethos and also meeting the expectations of the international community to be recognised as a legitimate, responsible and representative government. Afghanistan is a country with rich tribal, ethnic, sectarian and political diversity. If Taliban do not play their cards with political wisdom and inclusive governance, they could meet resistance from places such as Panjsher Valley where the First Vice President of the former government, Amrullah Saleh, former Defence Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, and Ahmad Massoud can become a problem for them in the future. The 300,000 Afghan army which melted away in the air still harbours hard core anti-Taliban commanders who can be organised by a disgruntled political group and used against the Taliban. Former President Hamid Karzai and Head of the still uncertain National Reconciliation Council, Abdulla Abdulla, are also potential threats to a Taliban government if they do not respect the political rights of minorities and repeat the mistakes of the earlier 2001 first Taliban government which made them unpopular in Afghanistan, as well as in the comity of the world. These potential pitfalls can be exploited by foreign powers who may want to settle scores with the Taliban for causing them humiliation and create small pockets of armed resistance witch overtime could become hotbeds of proxy wars, once again pushing Afghanistan into instability and conflict.

Conclusion

Capturing Afghanistan from the former government without a major battle was the easier part for the Taliban. Keeping Afghanistan united and peaceful and securing recognition from the international community to play their part as a government that respects international conventions and agreements and promotes democracy, peace and human rights is a much harder task the Taliban now face as they form the next government of Afghanistan. They also have a long road ahead clearing the political minefields inside the country and the institutional hurdles Western powers and multilateral institutions will place on their way. The country’s rich mineral wealth and sensitive geo-strategic location may also cause Afghanistan to remain unstable and in conflict for a long time before it can see the dawn of peace which has evaded the Afghan people for over half a century. But then, no one could guess that the Taliban would be back after 20 years. They could still surprise everyone despite the odds being against them at the national and international level.

*The author Syed Sharfuddin is a regular contributor to the Weekender. He is a former Pakistan diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs in the Commonwealth Secretariat, UK (2000-2006). He is also a former ex-officio board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission, UK Chapter

Pakistan’s Limited Opportunities in Afghanistan

Syed Sharfuddin*

A lot has been written about the strategic milestones in the history of Pakistan concerning the events of 1948, 1962, 1965, 1971, 1988, 1999 and 2019 involving the disputed status of Indian occupied Kashmir and relations with the US, China, India and Afghanistan. Some say that there were many lost opportunities in these events which could have benefited the country immensely had there been a serious and united effort to play them wisely. The other view is that Pakistan should have kept its head down and invested in the economy in order to become a strong power before playing a role above its weight in foreign and regional affairs. There can be books written on both viewpoints and indeed a majority of commentators are found strongly wedded to either the first or the second view, with few willing to hold the middle ground.

The withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in 2021 is both good and bad news for those who are directly affected by Washington’s decision to no longer continue to underwrite US dollar cheques for the long Afghan war. The reason why Washington seems to have lost the will to continue to fund this war is because it reached a dead end making it necessary to turn back or else face more troop losses. The US backed the wrong horse in Afghanistan right from the start and abandoned the Taliban who may not have been the good guys in its view, but they represented the will of the Afghan people not to be brushed away as a rag tag fringe of Pashtun tribesmen reflecting a high degree of independence and perseverance. Washington’s mistake was to liken Taliban with Al-Qaeda and treat them like ISIS or Boko Haram. The Afghan Taliban did not subscribe to the ideology of those extreme terrorist groups. They wanted to be left alone in their country without any outside power imposing its non-Islamic ideology on their beliefs. They were and remain a force to reckon with. Any country ignoring or refusing to deal with them as serious interlocutors in the Afghan peace process will be repeating the same mistake the US made causing it to lose a war for the second time after Vietnam in the 1970s.

Pakistan cannot isolate itself from Afghanistan’s uncertain future. It cannot afford to let other countries or groups fill in the vacuum created by the withdrawal of US forces in Afghanistan and foment instability in the region. A superpower has lost Afghanistan. Period. It does not mean Pakistan should lose Afghanistan too. But Pakistan’s options in Afghanistan are limited. They are also tightly time bound. If Pakistan does not act in time it may miss the window of opportunity it now has before others get in Afghanistan first to bridge the gap. No one has greater interest than Pakistan in ensuring that precious lives are not lost in Afghanistan and lasting peace prevails in South West Asia. This is not just hope but an achievable objective, provided effort is made to take advantage of the opportunity knocking at the door. Ignore it once and the knock will be gone away to another door.

It is only possible when a government in Afghanistan, indigenously represented and popularly elected with Pashtun majority is friendly to Pakistan and does not allow any third power or proxy to threaten Pakistan from across the border. If a civil war breaks out in Afghanistan between the Taliban on one side and the Afghan government forces on the other side, Pakistan should not be a silent spectator waiting to deal with its ugly consequences in the form of refugees and other proxies pursuing their own agendas in the conflict. If such a situation evolves, Pakistani troops should cross the international border on humanitarian grounds to prevent a blood bath of brother by brother in Afghanistan in an absolutely unnecessary civil war.

People often get scared whenever the word invasion is mentioned. It is true that invasion and occupation are F words in international politics, but this is ultimately what works to fix problems. Otherwise they liger on to become protracted conflicts like Syria, South Sudan, Iraq or Somalia causing untold misery for the people of these lands. How else one should call an intervention carried out to defend your vital security and national interest. This is what India would do if there was bloody unrest and divided militias in Nepal, Sikkim or Bhutan. They already invaded East Pakistan in 1971 on the pretext of humanitarian intervention. At that time, the major powers and the UN stood silent watching India violate the international norms of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. This is what Russia would do in Ukraine. This is what was done in Bosnia and Kosovo while the UN stood helpless. This is what the US did in the Bay of Piggs under Kennedy, in Grenada under Reagan and will do again in any Latin American country which falls under its zone of influence if US interests are threatened there. This is why Iraq was invaded when the West was worried about the so called WMDs. This is what Israel would do today in Jordan or Lebanon or Egypt if things went bad there for Israel. A humanitarian military intervention is justified in international law if there are no options left to prevent bloodshed in a conflict state and establish stability and peace other than the use of force.

There are some important shot term objectives Pakistan should have on the plans before taking a timely humanitarian step, if necessary.

The first objective should be that the present government of Afghanistan must go. It has lost legitimacy after its backers have packed up and left, providing sufficient reason for fresh elections to be called in Afghanistan in the next three to six months. These elections should be conducted under a neutral caretaker government of national unity. In the new elections, all Afghans parties and groups, including the Taliban should be allowed to participate without any restrictions. Pakistan has good experience of caretaker governments. It can assist the Afghan electoral commission by providing technical assistance and security through its armed forces. Those in power in Kabul will not like such help but they know too well that they will not be able to form the next government if the next Afghan elections are free and fair and allow Taliban to participate in them. The current Afghan government may prefer instead to fight the Taliban head on. If this happens, Afghanistan could well become Libya with a weak government fighting a stronger military force for its survival at the cost of the people and the country.

A serious consequence of such development will be that this weak government could invite India to send troops to Kabul and other government-controlled cities to provide enhanced security to its buildings and security installations, thereby making it possible for India to do what it has not been able to do during the presence of US the troops, i.e. establish its military presence in Afghanistan just as it did in Kashmir 1948 and in East Pakistan in 1971. While it is true that the Taliban will not allow India to replace the US in Afghanistan, nothing could be done internationally if a government requests another country for military help to defeat what it calls internal insurgency. Turkey is providing military help to the government of Libya which is recognised internationally but it is so weak that it cannot defend its own territory against the military forces of General Haftar who has his own supporters and arms suppliers internationally. The result is a prolonged miserable period of death and uncertainty for the people of Libya and the regular influx of refugees heading to the EU from the North African region.

It has been a long drawn plan of India to squeeze Pakistan in a pincer movement from the East and West militarily in order to fast track its agenda of destabilising Pakistan by organising terrorist activities in Pakistan and actively manipulating separatist outfits in Baluchistan, including reviving the old Pashtunistan stunt on the basis that that the Durand Line Agreement signed between Sir Mortimore Durand, Foreign Secretary of British India and Amir Abdur Rehman of Afghanistan in 1893 which established the border between the two states is a colonial arrangement which does not represent the international border and should be renegotiated to take into consideration territory which included Afghanistan’s old expanded border in West Asia. If this happens, Pakistan will simply be a sitting duck in a reactive mode instead of shaping events and leading fresh initiatives. In fact, there is a real prospect of such a scenario playing out in the event of a civil war in Afghanistan breaking out, which will provide India more space in shaping events. Not doing anything about it now to prevent such a scenario will be the costliest missed opportunity so far in the political history of Pakistan.

There are rumours that the Afghan government and its supporters have approached Turkey for military help to fight the Taliban. It is a smart move. The US would be happy to see a NATO ally keep the status quo in Afghanistan without requiring US troops to be involved in peacekeeping. It would also neutralise Pakistan and prevent the Taliban achieved their aim of capturing Kabul sooner than anticipated. Pakistan has good relations with Turkey. It should advise Turkey that getting involved in Afghanistan to save the government in Kabul will not bring peace to an already volatile country. A peaceful solution lies in calling fresh elections under a neutral arrangement to allow the people of Afghanistan to choose their leaders without predetermined outcomes.

The second objective of Pakistan should be to openly back Taliban’s return to the peaceful political process and participation in the next elections in Afghanistan. They should get a fair share in the governance of the country in proportion to their representation in the population. Kabul’s current leadership does not trust Taliban. It also does not trust Pakistan. The present Administration in Kabul prefers to engage with India more closely, including in defence and economic fields. Pakistan’s natural ally in Afghanistan is Taliban. No one should be under the impression that a government in Afghanistan which does not include the Taliban will be stable or friendly to Pakistan.

The UN, NATO and US are aware that it is not easy to bring peace in Afghanistan. This is because they backed the wrong horse in Afghanistan and never admitted their mistake. This wrong horse was Taliban. Pakistan never considered Taliban as the wrong horse. They were a valuable force which could be trained and tamed. Pakistan should reap the benefit of building trust with the Taliban. It should openly support the Taliban because they don’t like India’s growing influence in Afghanistan. India will find ways to exploit the nationalistic feelings of Afghan Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras, but it cannot win over the Taliban after openly supporting the foreign backed governments of Afghanistan against the Taliban for over a decade. It is true that India too has its Taliban mercenaries to clandestinely carryout terrorist operations in Pakistan, more so on the military, police and government installations, but India’s relationship with such elements is not ideological. It is linked with the chaos that prevails in Afghanistan and the purse that pays for their mercenary services. Once the ground and the money run out, India will not be able to recruit these mercenaries. India is aware of this handicap. That’s why India is firmly backing the present Afghan government against Taliban. This month India supplied two plane loads of ammunition to the puppet Afghan government to kill more Taliban. This will undoubtedly result in more Taliban deaths and their retaliation, causing further bloodshed.

Pakistan should also brace for a fresh wave of terrorist attacks from across its Western border. The objective of such attacks, which have already started to take place lately in Baluchistan and KPK is to keep the Pakistani military preoccupied with its security issues inside Pakistan, and also divert attention away from Afghanistan’s problems. Pakistan should deepen its exchange of intelligence information with China on all security threat. China’s interest in CPEC warrants that its personnel and investments committed to the infrastructure projects in Pakistan are safe and free from interruption.

India is looking for an excuse to side-line Pakistan’s influence in Afghanistan and either fill the governance vacuum itself or get the UN to declare an international mandate like in Palestine in 1947, in order to deny Afghan people their right to determine their destiny freely and peacefully by the ballot box. What an irony that the so-called world’s largest democracy is active to undermine the democratic process in Afghanistan to keep its interests alive there. There is also a lesson for Pakistan to learn in this irony.

The non-Pushto speaking minority Afghan groups in Afghanistan think that Pakistan is responsible for the problems of their country. They have been fed this propaganda in Tajik, Uzbek, Persian and Hazara communities for over a decade. They have come to believe in this propaganda as a fact. By keeping the majority of Pashtun Talibans out of the political process, it is not possible to ensure lasting peace in their country. With the US troops gone, these groups will hopefully appreciate the value of democracy in which ethnic minorities have guaranteed rights under the constitution and can be part of the rich inclusive diversity of Afghanistan.

The view that after American withdrawal and end of foreign occupation in August, Afghanistan will be an independent and sovereign state and we should deal with that country as such is only as good as a pipe dream. It won’t be realised without working hard for it. If it were that easy, Afghanistan would have been a peaceful country long ago, given the engineering done by ISAF, NATO and the US in Afghanistan, reinforced by military and diplomatic activity and further talks in Doha, Tehran and other third countries. These passive and do-nothing views should be totally ignored while plans are drawn to take the required action.

The US troops withdrawal is still a month away. In this sensitive period Taliban need some good counsel at state level to start doing PR and image building in Afghanistan. They are doing the right thing filling up the military vacuum but they are not active on the political and diplomatic front to reassure public that they have changed since the days of their first controversial government in Afghanistan. They have not capitalised on their amnesty call. They have not given a roadmap of what a foreign troops free Afghanistan will be like. They have not issued a manifesto of what their government will do in the first 365 days. They should not come like a storm and upset everything like a tornado. They should learn a lesson from Muslim Brotherhood, the party of Mohammed Morsi which was big on celebrating the departure of Hosni Mubarak (who was ironically one of their own Egyptians) but it was short on confidence building with Egyptians. MB was too fast and too intimidating for its critics. The fire cracker ended soon after it was lighted. It was sound and fury signifying nothing. The Taliban should not repeat this in order to make Afghanistan a peaceful and free country after many decades.


Pakistan can also assist Afghanistan attain peace by actively assisting the new Afghan government, post-election, in disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation of ex-combatants in the Afghan society as useful citizens. Many generations of Afghans, including the Taliban have grown up under the shadow of improvised explosive devices, automatic machine guns and indiscriminately attacking drones. They need to be reintegrated back into the Afghan society and given useful skills to earn their living in dignity and peace. After peace is established thousands of ex-combatants would need psychological counselling and psychiatric treatment. Pakistan can help in this because its doctors speak Afghan languages. Pakistan can help create and train a strong Afghan defence force comprising all Afghan ethnic forces and offer them training courses in its institutions. Pakistan can also help Afghanistan in writing a new constitution for the new Islamic Republic and help with technical assistance for institution building in civil services and criminal justice system. The peace dividend will help both Afghanistan and Pakistan grow naturally without third parties eying their minerals and natural resources and finding excuses to foment trouble. Afghanistan’s future depends on the prosperity of Pakistan. An Afghanistan with expanded CPEC projects will have much more to offer to its own nationals than to the nationals of third countries. So far everyone has made quick silver in the name of Afghanistan, except the Afghans themselves. It is time for battle fatigued Afghans to write their own future in peace, with Pakistan standing by them as a friend in the same way as China stands with Pakistan in all weathers.



*The author Syed Sharfuddin is a former diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs in the Commonwealth Secretariat, UK (2000-2006). He is also a former ex-officio board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission, UK Chapter.

Israel: A step closer to being declared guilty of war crimes

Syed Sharfuddin*

A special session of the UN Human Rights Council was held in Geneva on 27 May 2021 to discuss the grave human rights situation in the occupied Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, which remains fragile after the ceasefire agreed between the two sides following the special session of the UN General Assembly on 20 May 2021. The call for a special session was made by Pakistan, as coordinator of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the State of Palestine on behalf of the OIC countries. The move was supported by 20 of the 47 members of the Commission, as well as 43 observer countries including Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

On 27 may 2021, the Geneva based UN body adopted an OIC backed resolution that, inter alia, called for the establishment of a commission of inquiry on the recent rocket attacks to determine if these constituted war crimes committed by Israel. The resolution also urged on all states to refrain from transferring arms to Israel “when they assess, in accordance with applicable national procedures and international obligations and standards, that there is a clear risk that such arms might be used in the commission or facilitation of serious violations or abuses of international human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law”.

The resolution was easily carried with 24 member states voting in favour, 9 against and 14 abstentions. Countries which voted against the resolution included Austria, Britain, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Germany from Europe; Cameroon and Malawi from Africa; Uruguay from South America and Marshal Islands from the Pacific. Countries, which abstained on the resolution included France, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Ukraine from Europe; and, Brazil, Japan, Korea, India, Nepal, Togo, Fiji and Bahamas from other regions. Countries that voted in favour of the resolution included Armenia, China, Russia, Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico Venezuela, Eritrea, Namibia, the Philippines and other OIC countries represented on the Commission. These were: Bahrain, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Indonesia, Libya, Mauritania, Pakistan, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

Surprisingly, 2 OIC states from Africa did not support the resolution.  Cameroon voted against the resolution while Togo abstained. Cameroon became OIC member in 1974. Togo became a member in 1997. Israel had expected Mexico to vote against the resolution but it voted in favour. The OIC usually does not censure its members for voting against the organisation’s resolutions at the UN for political reasons. Few OIC members have large Muslim majority but are not Islamic countries constitutionally or even demographically such as Nigeria and Cameroon. Their membership of the organisation is meant more to give a voice to the Muslim population of these countries in the Muslim Ummah than to really give its government a place in the association. However, membership only lasts for as long as the government of the day wants to remain a member of the OIC. The arrangement offers advantages to both the OIC and to the concerned countries.

Reacting to the vote, the US, which left the UN human rights watchdog in 2018 and instead decided to become an Observer, said that it “deeply regretted” the decision. Israel called it a “shameful act” which makes a “mockery of international law”. It further said that Israel would not cooperate with the UN probe. No one expressed surprise on these statements as it was clear even before the Commission decided to hold a Special Session to discuss the grave situation in Gaza and other occupied territories in Israel on Thursday, neither the US nor Israel wanted such an outcome.

The UN human rights body is a political organisation. Its resolutions, which are non-biding on member states, are also influenced by political considerations. It is no surprise, therefore, that Israel’s traditional supporters and arms suppliers have either openly come out in support of Israel such as the US, or found other reasons to justify their negative vote, such as the UK which said it finds the resolution’s implementation too costly. However, the Commission’s resolutions do influence the assessment of a country’s human rights record and have an impact on the stance of other human rights bodies and NGOs toward that country.

This is the first time the UN human rights body has called for the establishment of an open-ended permanent Commission of Inquiry to investigate possible war crimes committed by a member state. The Commission is also mandated to investigate all underlying root causes of recurrent tensions, instability and protraction of conflict, including discrimination and repression. The credit for drafting such a comprehensive resolution goes to Pakistan and other like-minded countries, which made it possible for the resolution to be carried by a majority vote.

The 11-day war in which Israel and Palestine fired thousands of rockets against each other resulted in the deaths of 270 Palestinians, including 68 children in the occupied Palestinian territories, mostly in Gaza. It also killed 12 Israelis. However, it was an uneven and totally one-sided war in which on the one side was the organised defence force of a state armed with sophisticated surveillance and aerial strike capability openly backed by the world’s superpower US, and on the other side were rag tag elements of a non state entity with no international recognition or support, defending the rights of its people facing forced evacuations from their ancestral lands, and struggling to protect Al-Aqsa mosque in Al-Quds Al-Sharif during the annual fasting month of Ramadan.

Besides fatalities, Israeli air strikes in Gaza caused a wide spread destruction of civilian infrastructure which included homes, schools, hospitals, and essential supplies such as drinking water tanks and Gaza’s only Covid testing facility. Altghough Israel claimed that these building were used for militant activities, the UN officials confirmed that they had not seen any evidence to support Israel’s claim. If the UN body finds that these attacks were indiscriminate and disproportional, Israel could be well held accountable for committing war crimes in the occupied territories.

In a damage limitation attempt, Israel and the US will now use this vote to stress that the Commission should probe the violations of international law by Hamas for indiscriminately firing “thousands of rockets” on Israel’s civilian population. However, such a large number of missiles causing only 13 deaths in Israel will not provide any evidence of the violation of international law by Hamas. Chances are that after the investigators have done their work, Israel will get fully exposed and will come a step closer to be indicted for war crimes before an international criminal court.


*The author is a former Pakistani diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat, London. He was also formerly a Board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, UK Chapter, and CEO of Muslim Aid, UK.

Why Israel Lost this Round in the Arab Israeli Conflict

Syed Sharfuddin*

The present conflict in the Middle East involving the Zionist State of Israel on the one side and the Palestine Administration of Mahmud Abbas and Hamas on the other side, is about to end with a UN approved ceasefire, with the Palestinians emerging as deeply wounded but victorious in this round. The responsibility for losing this round of hostilities short of a full scale war, despite Israel’s superiority in weaponry and its staunch support by the Biden Administration, rests solely with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is only an interim head of government in Israel, and is under investigation on corruption charges.

In March this year, Mr Netanyahu wrongly calculated his moves to quell local protests over forced evacuations in East Jerusalem carried out by Israeli authorities to continue with new Jewish settlements replacing indigenous Palestinian homes in the disputed Al Quds area. His government’s heavy-handed response brought more protests all over the occupied territories, including Gaza. With the entry of Hamas in the conflict to back the helpless Palestinians, Netanyahu ruthlessly sacrificed civilian Palestinian lives like Paschal lambs to increase his political ratings in Israel. He probably did not realise, despite Biden Administration’s unconditional support for Israel, that his government’s illegal actions in Sheikh Jarrah, storming of the holy Al-Aqsa mosque in Ramadan, and IDF’s continued rocket bombings of Gaza in a completely disproportionate and indiscriminate manner would create such a strong global reaction, including serious concern from Israel’s European friends. The international outcry resulted in the convening of several inconclusive meetings of the UN Security Council and an extraordinary session of the UN General Assembly in New York on 20 May to call on Israel to observe an immediate ceasefire, respect human rights, implement the UN resolutions on Palestine and cooperate in finding a just and lasting two-state resolution of the Arab Israeli conflict.

Until a few weeks ago Israel seemed all set to quietly swallow Jerusalem following establishment of diplomatic relations with half a dozen rag tag Islamic and Arab countries, blessed by the former Trump Administration. Israel was also able to divide the Islamic countries into two blocks: those who believe that it is better to deal with Israel as a friend in order to resolve the Arab-Israeli problem, and others who want Israel to deliver on its international obligations on Palestine first before they establish diplomatic relations with Israel. But after the present show of force by Israel, all those diplomatic gains for Israel have reversed as far as international goodwill for Israel is concerned, and to add salt to Israel’s wounds, its sole challenger in the occupied territories, Hamas, has increased its popularity among the Palestinians in the occupied territories. This conflict has politically proved costly for Israel.

Israeli government grossly underestimated the international reaction for attacking Muslim worshipers in Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem in the holy month of Ramadan. It therefore decided to divert the attention of the world away from the third most respected holy site of Islam which was desecrated by its security forces in front of live videos which later went viral on social media all over the globe. Instead, Israel tried to portray the crisis as a ‘war’ between Israel and Hamas. With the continued aerial bombings of Gaza in a totally ruthless manner for several days, under the rubric of the right to defend itself, Israel wanted to create the impression that the most important thing for the international community was to ask Israel for ceasefire instead of censuring Israel for building new settlements on Palestinian lands, using force to evict indigenous Palestinians from their homes in occupied territories and alter the disputed status of Jerusalem by illegally making it the capital of Israel. This was also the focus of the Israeli Ambassador’s speech at the extraordinary UN General Assembly Session on the Israel Palestine conflict on Thursday.

Israel is now caught up with another problem of facing the charges of war crimes when the evidence of destroying civilian infrastructure, hospitals, schools and killing women and children in Gaza is presented against Israel before the International Criminal Court at an appropriate time in the future. Israel cannot defend itself against such evidence because Netanyahu is on record to have said that Israeli forces only targeted Hamas militants. Surely, hospitals, schools and women and children in their homes cannot be counted as Hamas militants. Among the 300 plus Palestinians killed by Israel only one was claimed by Israel to be a senior Hamas militant. Until now Israel has got away with the impression that Hamas was the problem in the Occupied Territories and neither the Palestine Administration nor other Palestinians who do not support Hamas were any problem. However, while trying to make the ceasefire an important element in the current conflict to make the root cause of the problem fade away from public eye, Israel has gone too far in its aggression against innocent Palestinians. They have been punished not because they were involved in the rocket attacks against Israel, but because they support and vote for Hamas. The message Israel has given Palestinians is that if they continue to vote for Hamas in the elections, this is how they will be responded by the Zionist regime.

Israel tried to reduce the impact of international horror at the indiscriminate killing of civilians in the aerial strikes by reviving the memories of the Holocaust through the Zionist controlled media and pubic speeches of politicians and government functionaries. The Holocaust memories were meant to create public support for the government of Israel when the world felt sorry for the killing of innocent women and children in Palestine by the Israeli raids. The Holocaust is now a major theme in the Israeli and Zionist propaganda machinery in the global print and electronic media.

The Israeli government also tried to create an equation between anti Semitism and anti Zionism, which are two opposite things. While hate speech against Jews, as followers of a great and oldest Abrahamic faith, is unacceptable in any community in our times, sentiments against Zionism are always linked to Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and its political agenda to keep expanding Israel’s borders through illegal land grabs by national legislation, intimidation and forced evacuations.

The implementation of a UN brokered ceasefire between Israel and Palestine should not be an end in itself but a prelude to involving the Quartet and the US as a neutral arbiter between the two sides. If it is ignored like any other incident dominating world headlines for a few days and then fading out in the oblivion, the conflict could come back again to haunt the Israelis and Palestinians in the future. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that we act now to avoid this unwanted scenario.

*The author is a former Pakistani diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat, London. He was also formerly a Board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, UK Chapter, and CEO of Muslim Aid, UK.

From Israel’s right to exist to Palestine’s right to statehood

Syed Sharfuddin*

The ten-day exchange of rocket firing between Israel and Gaza came to an end in the late hours of 20 May 2021 after intense diplomatic pressure was applied by the international community, as well as by Israel’s friends to reach a ceasefire, but the mess it created both politically and on the ground will take months to clear out. This time Israel not only repeated its persistent and known tactics to disregard the international status of the disputed Al-Quds, it also grossly violated Palestinian people’s human rights to worship, protest and defend themselves against state approved attacks on their history, life and property. The short -term priority for Israel, following the ceasefire, is to restore the soft image of Israel, which has been badly damaged in the eyes of its traditional supporters in the US and the EU. Israel also hopes that the ceasefire would remove global attention away from the real issue of forced evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem to establish new Jewish settlements, and bolster the weak political position of Prime Minister Netanyahu with Israeli voters.

On 15 May 2021, the memories of 9/11 were revived when global news networks showed live images of a multi story building in Gaza crumbling down on the ground in a surprise aerial attack carried out by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). This was a despicable attempt of an aggressor state to block out the virtual reporting of Israeli raids on the civilian population in Gaza, and human rights abuses of Palestinian people in Jerusalem covered by Al-Jazeera, TRT and other news networks. By doing so, Israel declared a war on Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and Palestinians living in the occupied territories.

During the Israeli aggression on Gaza, the Zionist apparatus launched a media offensive globally to gain public sympathy for Israel. Staying away from the current news that its TV channels could not show because Israel clearly came out as an aggressor state, they started showing TV documentaries, which highlighted the struggle of Jewish families in Europe during the Holocaust. There is absolutely no relationship between the adherents of the Jewish faith and the armed action of the government of Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu does not represent a majority government in Israel and cannot claim to speak for all the Jewish people in his country. But the timing of showing such programmes made it obvious what the Zionist media wanted to achieve because its own friends and well wishers were disappointed with Israel for continuing to indiscriminately drop bombs on the civilians and destroying homes, schools, hospitals, roads and sources of their livelihood in Gaza.

The programmes that show innocent Jews suffering as a community at the hands of Nazis do not tell that a century ago the Jews also faced racist slurs and struggled to advance in social status, education, jobs and housing in many countries in Europe that were not aligned to Nazi Germany politically. This mirror of history is ugly and it is successfully blocked out by the Zionist media that controls news content and its packaging. History is not what actually happened in the past but what gets reported in the present.

The plight of the survivors of the Holocaust is highlighted not just at times like these when Israel’s approval rating is the lowest globally, but also at the annual remembrance of this painful event every January. But it will never tell its public that at the peak of the mighty Ottoman Empire, when Jews were attacked in Europe where did they go for safety. They were given refuge by the Muslim Ottomans. Istanbul was like Tel Aviv for them. There were no restrictions on them to practice their faith in Synagogues that did not need to be kept hidden from public sight as in Venice once upon a time, or own property, or get education, or train for various professions, or excel in business. The successor state to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey, is still as Jewish friendly as it was in the past. It supports the Palestinians not because they are Muslims, indeed they include Christians, and non-believers as well, but it supports them morally and politically because they have become today’s ‘persecuted Jews’ in their own homeland.

The Islamic countries, with some notable exceptions, are not even aware of these subtle undercurrents that make the news. Five decades ago, Israeli politicians used to ask other governments: “where else should the Jews of Israel go if they are not acceptable to the Arabs; should they all be corralled and drowned in the Red Sea?” Now a time has come when the reverse question is being asked by Palestinians in the occupied territories: “where else should the Palestinians go if they are not acceptable to the Israelis; should they all be corralled and drowned in the Red Sea?”

Some Arab and non Arab Muslim majority states have already accepted this illegitimate and heavily shifting status quo of Palestine in favour of Israel by establishing diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv during the last Trump administration. Their explanation for doing so is that by establishing bilateral and trade relations with Israel, they could positively contribute to the setting for restarting the stalled Middle East peace process. They also expect that being friends of the US and Israel could give them extra weight in the Middle East power play. The once popular but now forgotten formula of “Land for Peace” is obsolete because Israel has appropriated most of the Palestinian lands through national legislation and is not prepared to negotiate it for peace. With the announcement for the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem last year, even Al-Quds Al Sharif is not open for negotiation by Israel. If the Biden Administration continues on the footsteps of  former President Trump’s all out support for Israel, other Arab and Islamic states would come under great pressure economically or politically to sign agreements for establishing diplomatic relations with Israel in the coming years.

Unfortunately the signs from Washington for taking a neutral, non-partisan stand in the Israel Palestine conflict are not encouraging. On 12 May 2021 on a phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Biden said that Israel “has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your country.” However, in contradiction to the concern of president Biden’s statement, the US did not do anything to hasten the convening of the UN Security Council meeting on Palestine requested by Tunisia, Norway and China last week. In fact, the meeting was delayed from 12 to 16 May 2021 due to procedural US objections. By not agreeing to a joint statement on ceasefire, the US also helped Israel by giving it extra days to punish the Palestinians and continuously pound Gaza with heavy artillery. The US also plans to give additional aid to Israel to bolster its defence capability, support new settlement activities and acquire more Palestinian land in East Jerusalem in the future instead of making US aid for Israel conditional on progress in peace negotiations.

The failure of the UN Security Council to reach a consensus agreement on ceasefire led the Organisation of Islamic Conference, Arab League and Non Aligned Movement groups at the UN to call an emergency session of General Assembly on 20 May. But given the way the UN works, a statement coming from the General Assembly on Palestine has no enforcement power unless the UN Security Council endorses it under Chapter seven. Nevertheless, the General Assembly meeting, under the Presidency of Turkey, brought a moral victory for the peace seekers. A ceasefire was eventually agreed, but only after Israel had heavily punished the civilian population in Gaza for supporting Hamas. The more IDF hit Palestinian targets in occupied territories the more popular Hamas became as the only party, however weak, that has the courage to stand up to Israel in defence of the victims and their distraught families.

Nothing can be more irresponsible than the recognition of the “right to self defence” of a state that has repeatedly violated the human rights of the people it has subjugated by force and created an Apartheid system where Palestinians who oppose the Israeli occupation of their territories are kept behind fences built with tall concrete structures and barbed wires. The current crisis was started by Israel in the holy month of Ramadan when there was no provocation from the Palestinians. At that time Hamas was not even in the picture. The rockets Palestinians used to defend against Israeli firepower consisted of handheld stones, fuelled filled bottles and crude home made missiles with no distance trajectory or target accuracy. Almost all of them ended up being blocked by Israel’s iron dome anti missile system. If thousands of rockets were fired into Israel, as stated by Israel and accepted by President Biden, the casualty rate in Israel should shave been into thousands. But it did not even total fifteen in ten days of cross firing.

The entire Palestinian population in the occupied territories is daily subjected to the terror of Israeli security searches of person, homes, transport and offices, and indirect repression in the form of denial of work permits, closure of internet and mobile services, road blocks, suspension of people’s movement and free flow of humanitarian aid, household and construction goods and medicines. Israel has also nibbled away the occupied territories by establishing illegal settlements and by replacing the indigenous Palestinian population with new immigrant families from Russia, the Central Asian Republics, the US and Europe. The conflict is not only unequal between the opposite sides but also not on a level playing field. Under these circumstances calling Palestinians the aggressor party and saying that State of Israel has the right to self-defence is as ludicrous as saying that a tiger has a right to walk into a cat’s corner and expect no meow.

The major supporters of Israel are the custodians of the democratic values of freedom, justice and human rights in the brave new world. Their concerns about the Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps in China and the stateless condition of the Rohingyas in Myanmar are appreciable but their support for Israeli atrocities in Palestine is most unfortunate and indefensible. Justice can only be served if the contesting parties are treated with a neutral and impartial stance; not when one party is always blindly supported but the other is held to account for its excesses.

In addition to the gross violation of the human rights of the Palestinians, there is also a fallacy that the Jews of Israel bought land from the Palestinians by putting their thumbprints on government approved deeds of sale and paid money to settle there. This is a historical fallacy invented and spread by the colonial powers in order to get acceptability. Even the Arabs think that the Palestinians sold their land to the parents of the present day Israelis.

It is a historical fact that Palestine, as most of the Middle East, was under the sovereignty of the Ottomans. The Arab rebellion against the Turks did free them from being ruled from Istanbul but it did not give them the right to sign off Palestine and gift it to the British without holding a referendum in Palestine. The Palestinian example is no different from the colonial history of Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. Despite the fact that the colonial powers had placed this part of Southern Africa under their military control, and in some cases, decided to settle their own nationals or third country nationals there, they had to ultimately grant independence to the colonies and give the right of land ownership back to the original inhabitants. This was despite the fact that the colonial powers, especially the Apartheid regime in South Africa, had enacted many national laws to regularise the sale of land under their administration.

As the world has made progress, many oppressive customs and laws of the past have been challenged and replaced by democratic principles and fair arrangements. Take for example the slave trade with is now completely outlawed; or military expeditions where a country’s army simply marched into another country, defeated any armed resistance and demanded reparations or added it to the empire of the victor state; or the medieval practice of regarding women as property and depriving them of the right to franchise. Therefore, the propaganda of the so-called sale of Palestinian lands in the colonial period is wroth challenging in the International Court of Justice backed by the UN General Assembly in the same way as the legal challenge put forward by the Republic of Mauritius to Britain for the return of Chagos Islands, which include the strategic island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. The Palestinian lands must be returned to their original owners or their heirs with an apology note even if these were bought by the Zionists for a pittance under a colonial authority, because the latter did not have the legal right to approve their sale. As far as the local Sephardic Jewish population of Palestine is concerned, it never exceeded in numbers compared to Muslim Palestinians. The territory and demography of Israel changed after the mass immigration of Ashkenazi Jews to Israel over many decades.

This position is still held today by the Republic of Cyprus regarding the sale of land in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Nicosia has warned non-Cypriots that if a foreigner buys land in the Turkish Cyprus, the Republic of Cyprus will not accept it as legal because, according to them, the land belongs to the displaced Cypriot people who left Northern Cyprus following the deployment of Turkish troops there. This position has the full support of Western countries, which have also refused to recognise the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus as an independent entity. If a “position of principle” is acceptable to the Western countries in the context of Cyprus, why should it be unacceptable in the context of Palestine. One can’t help but ask whether this is because the Cypriots are predominantly Christians and the Palestinians are predominantly Muslims? Or the party that stands to benefit from this stance is a Jewish Israel but not a Muslim Cyprus?

The Zionist movement plans to take the borders of Greater Israel to every area where Jewish prophets lived. The territory of present-day Israel is not their final border. Their expansionist design has roots in the religious prophesies mentioned in the Torah and the Talmud, which means that you cannot expect any concessions from them in the matter of land redistribution in Palestine.

How should one counter an argument when Zionist propaganda goes as far back as six century BC to claim that the kingdom of Yehuda, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, who is regarded as the patriarch of the Jewish nation, covered the whole of Palestine and the nearby Arab wasteland. This account of Talmudic history, combined with the biblical prophesy that the glory of Israel will be revived in the land that is now inhabited by the Jews and where the Temple of Solomon will be reconstructed on its original foundation closer to the end of times, wipes out any right of the Palestinians on their motherland in the occupied territories established over generations. The only way to address this kind of logic is for the Palestinians to claim all Judaic prophets as Palestine’s prophets and all the historical places associated with the Jewish faith as the sacred places of Islam. Moses is the most mentioned prophet in the holy Quran. His name appears 136 times in the Quran followed by Abraham 69 times, Joseph 27 times, Aaron 20 times, Isaac and Solomon seventeen times each, and David and Jacob sixteen times each. As against this, Muhammad is mentioned by name in the Quran only four times. Four of the one hundred fourteen chapters of the Quran are named after Israeli prophets; namely, the Family of Imran, the Children of Israel, Abraham and Joseph. The Arch of the Covenant is mentioned in Chapter two of the Quran. King Solomon’s story is part of the parables of prophets stated in the Quran. The story of David defeating Goliath and becoming the king of Israelites is also mentioned in the Quran. The prophets and places in these lands are sacred to all Abrahamic faiths. There is no exclusive copyright of one faith on them.

If the Muslims of Palestine and indeed the rest of the Islamic world start claiming the history and heritage of all Abrahamic prophets mentioned in the Quran as part of their faith and heritage, the Zionists will lose their exclusive claim on Temple Mount as a Jewish icon because Muslims will also have an equal claim on it in line with Islamic texts. Although it might sound strange, but in the absence of a just and lasting solution of the Middle East problem politically, the only peaceful option left for the Muslims of Palestine is to use Islam as the rallying point to reassert their rights and identity in the occupied territories in the same biblical rhetoric that is used by the Zionists to gain sympathy for their expansionist project of Greater Israel.

Meanwhile the Islamic countries are so engrossed in their political and sectarian infighting that they have lost the will to question a wrong and support the victims of oppression, even if tomorrow holds the dangerous prospect of them facing a similar threat in their own lands. Their coming together this week in New York over the most recent Israel Palestine conflict was a rare show of unity, and if it could be sustained in the future, the Quartet engaging with the conflicting parties to restart the Israel Palestine talks and successfully concluding these for a just and lasting solution of the conflict may not be far from reality.


*The author is a former Pakistani diplomat and a former Special Adviser for Political Affairs at the Commonwealth Secretariat, London. He was also formerly a Board member of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, UK Chapter, and CEO of Muslim Aid, UK.

TLP protests and the power of state

Syed Sharfuddin

The past few days in the politics of Pakistan have been reminiscent of the sunset days of the PML-N era when suddenly a small interest group best classified as a non state actor held the government on tenterhooks leaving it undecided whether to use coercive means to end the widespread public protests or follow the path of compromise through negotiations which involved conceding and reversing the course of action earlier taken by the government to resolve the matter in the wider national interest of peace and tranquillity. The aim of this article is not to recount the development of the episode and its end, which is already covered in the media, but discuss four important issues to help the government in dealing with such issues in the future.

The four issues are: the power of government and the credibility of governors; the role of state institutions to regulate non-state actors within the ideological moorings of the state; balancing legitimate state authority versus people’s democratic right to protest; and, the role of government and political parties.

1) The power of government and the credibility of governors

The question why the power or writ of government is often flouted in Pakistan by non-state actors, including the opposition parties, is so well known that the state has no choice but to come hard on any incident where its authority is in question or is likely to be challenged with armed resistance. It is not an easy task because while the government has the authority to eve’s drop on personal communications, get search warrants for suspected persons and their residences and even arrest those suspected of disobedience to law, it cannot go beyond a certain point because of human rights considerations and the backlash of civil society which easily plays up internationally against the democratic credentials of the state. This delicate balance is also affected by how well prepared the government is in enforcing its political will and whether those tasked with the mandate to govern keep changing their positions every few days. Sometimes the cabinet is also not united on policy matters and the statement of one minister is contradictory to his statement made earlier or to the statement of another cabinet colleague made on the same issue the same day. The buck in parliamentary system for all such contradictions stops at the door of the Prime Minister who must be seen to be in-charge of his team and ahead of everyone’s game.

The PTI government may be given the credit for acting wisely in defusing the crisis and not showing full force of the state in silencing the TLP protests, but it has certainly failed on consistency of policy. For example it was ludicrous for the interior minister to rush to announce that his ministry had decided to approach the cabinet to ban the TLP as a political party without due process, which did happen the next morning, and yet two days later the interior minister agreed to attend a meeting with TLP leaders and reached an agreement with them to end the protests peacefully. It was also embarrassing that the Prime Minister, who is so rightly against the dishonouring of Prophet Mohammad, peace be upon him, who made a historic speech at the UN General Assembly about Islamophobia, made no hard hitting statement, nor took any action last year when the French government officially supported the reprinting of the offensive cartoons by a French magazine in the name of freedom of speech. On the TLP crisis, the Prime Minister said one thing in his speech to the nation holding firm on not giving in to the key demand of the TLP but the very next day he appreciated his interior minister sitting down with the TLP elders to sign an agreement accepting that in return for TLP ending the protests, the government would send their demand about the French ambassador’s return to France to parliament for a debate.

The question of government credibility goes further than domestic audience. Once international community starts to suspect that a country’s leader cannot be trusted for his word, then there is noting left for the government machinery under that leader to convince the world that they are serious about a matter of importance. Pakistan has been through this before and we know that many previous US government officials have publicly said that they didn’t trust Pakistan on its commitments.

Unlike the Turkish President who is unequivocal on the question of blasphemy against the Prophet in the non-Muslim world, the Pakistani leadership has, through its unprepared actions and perhaps contrary to its real intentions, conveyed to France and the EU the wrong message that its previous stand against the blasphemous cartoons was meant only to appease the Mullas domestically. In conveying this message the Prime Minister is not alone. he is joined by the whole caboodle of liberal politicians, many of whom, are represented in the PPP, ANP, BAP, and also to a certain extent in PML-N. Pakistani social media also shows this ideological divide. One the one side is the liberal civil society, media and bureaucracy who couldn’t care less what French magazines print about the Prophet or French lawmakers rule in regard to banning Hijab for French Muslim girls; and on the other are those Pakistanis who genuinely think raising voice against Islamophobia is right, even though the timing to do so now is not right because they have missed the boat. These protests should have come about last year when the magazine published the rude cartoons.

The TLP demand for sending he French Ambassador home makes no diplomatic sense because he is only an official of his government. His function is not to make or change French policy but to act as a conveyor of French government’s foreign policy as it applies to Pakistan. He is but a dignified messenger representing his side between the two governments. Sending him home or breaking diplomatic relations with France can serve no purpose except to remove the official messenger of his government and leave the communication line exposed to third countries and media to add their own spice into your messages. The government should never have agreed to this demand to take it to parliament.

In any case, defence, foreign affairs and printing currency are federal subjects and no federating unit, let alone a political party or religious group has any authority to start dictating heir terms in these areas. The government keeps a specialised department whose job as Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to advise the government through its envoys what is best and possible in the interest of the country. But now that the matter has been referred to parliament, I hope that the parliament will not make the poor ambassador a lamb at the altar, but instead agree that nothing should be done about his staying or returning which is a matter only for the French government to decide. However, the parliament should mandate the PM to make a policy statement through his high podium condemning any foreign government in advance if they continue to back their ‘intellectual terrorists’ in the future to cause anger and violence in the Muslim world through blasphemy against the Prophet and hate speech against Islam, Pakistan would consider it as an unacceptable act against its friendship and bilateral relations. The PM’s speech should also say that Pakistan will not hesitate to draw up a list of such Islamophobia promoting countries for starting an official campaign against them through the Organisation of Islamic Conference and other relevant international official and unofficial platforms of Muslim countries to react reasonable and proportionately. This may include such action as boycott their products; stop attending conferences held in these countries, stop accepting tenders and aid, refuse to send their students to their universities and suspend sporting activities with them.


2) Role of state institutions to regulate non-state actors within the ideological moorings of the state

This issue has been publicly debated at every forum in the last ten years. However, what is new is that when the state has a constitution, which declares Islam as the state religion of Pakistan; when the elected leader of the country is a practicing Muslim and talks about making the country a welfare state modelled after the State of Madina, and when the state broadcaster dubs and airs for two years a Turkish TV play Dirilish Ertugrul which is half history and half fiction but it takes the entire country, as well as the Muslim Ummah all over the world by a public following never witnessed before, then you are obviously talking about a nation that is not prepared to ignore blasphemy against its Prophet, as well as its religious icons, and that its people expect their government to react strongly if the government of a country where the blasphemous act has occurred wilfully to hurt or infuriate Muslims, does not condemn such act or refuses to take action to stop it.

We live in a funny world. Governments and humanists who were so loud in condemning the destruction of the ancient Buddhist icons in the Bamian province of Afghanistan during the Taliban rule are not bothered with the insults hurled at the Prophet of Islam from their lands. The long conflict in Syria for and against the incumbent Asad regime has resulted in the destruction of a rich historical heritage common to the adherents of three great Abrahamic faiths. No one bemoans this great loss. The West has no problem with the whole humanity wearing facemasks to protect against the spread of Covid-19, but it has issues with innocent young Muslim girls wearing Hijab in deference to their beliefs. No one should be allowed to get away with blasphemy of the Prophet of Islam whose name, when recited in public, results in billions of hands rising to touch their hearts as a mark of deep respect for Muhammad, peace be upon him.

The TLP protests did not fall under the category of a non-state actor challenging the power of the state. Unlike the opposition dharnas they did not call for this government to resign. TLP is a registered political party in Pakistan, or was so until it was shut down arbitrarily without involving the election commission or invoking a due process by the interior ministry. They still have a chance of this decision reserving to status quo ante after a successful legal challenge. TLP has two elected representatives in a provincial assembly. Even the Prime Minister said that his government’s goal is the same as the goal of the TLP except that they differ on approach. TLP protests came not as an isolated event after a long time. TLP had staged similar protests earlier pursuing the same matter, but the government did not take action despite promising to do so. In between their two protests, there was a series of dharnas organised by the opposition parties against the government demanding new elections. A lot of dirty language was used in those dharnas, including verbal attacks on the state’s constitutionally protected institutions. Against the high tempers and the fluid political background of the country, the TLP episode was only a small jolt in the present uncertain situation. It could well be a sleeping volcano but it was not an earthquake.

What is surprising, however, is that the government has not fully used the existing state institutions and government apparatus, such as the Council of Islamic Ideology or the Ministry of Religious Affairs to bring about an understanding between the state and the religious parties (not just political parties) on issues that have caused confusion and distrust between the clergy and the state. Not too long ago, a federal Minister of this government with no religious background attacked the Ruet Hilal Committee for being out of times for sighting the Ramadan and Eid moon and caused more harm than good in bringing upon goodwill between the clergy and the state.

The issues where the government needs to work hard include inclusive reform of the madrassas and their state financing, incorporating Imams and Muezzins in its state employee structure and drawing TORs for their recruitment, employment and retirement and delivering uniform Friday sermons approved by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. This will be possible only if the clergy sees these government institutions promoting Islam and finding common ground, and which are run by officials who are not corrupt and who could be trusted with the religious knowledge and services they provide. The government also needs to address issues around application of blasphemy laws in relation to cases brought against poor and uneducated minority citizens, the status of witnesses who are called to testify and the way FIRs are drafted by police; the insistence of Ahmadis to call themselves Muslims in Pakistan and their boycott of electoral rolls, which result in adverse reaction from the clergy against their community; and now the more recent question of blasphemy of the Prophet globally by provocateurs who clearly have an agenda to foment hatred and violence in the Muslim communities and countries and who are officially protected by their governments for carrying out such racist and divisive acts.

3) Balancing legitimate state authority versus democratic right to protest

Organising protests is an essential feature of democracy and defines the political space in which the government and opposition parties operate. In a representative democracy, protests are not the right of political parties alone. Any interest group or gathering of citizens has the right to start or join a public protest in a democracy. In western countries protests are staged against the policies of the government on issues the protestors do not agree with. Sometimes their demands are ignored and at other times these are accepted and result in change of policy. Unfortunately, in countries where democracy is nascent or has repeatedly suffered from authoritarian rules, protests have not evolved into an established form of political expression. The Arab Spring resulted in premature revolutions in countries, which were not prepared for post revolution governance, resulting in great loss of life, instability of state, and damage to the economic well being of their people. In Pakistan, protests do not take place to convey a message of dissent to government. They sound more like a clarion call for a people’s revolution that luckily never happens. The protesting side believes that the government has to bow down to its demands or else go home. The long history of political protests in Pakistan shows that these have been used to bring down a weak government through violence or by creating unstable conditions, which force the military to intervene and restore peace and stability. This is how Ayub Khan’s rule was ended in 1969 and how the lawyers’ movement forced General Musharraf to convene multi-party elections in 2008. Since 2013, a good understanding has been reached between political parties that a regime change through public protests is not the best thing for democracy. However they have yet to develop the understanding that the place to protest and make political noise is parliament and not the street or social media or the country’s TV screens.

It is to the government’s credit that it showed flexibility and agreed to listen to the demands of TLP to end their dharna in the long hot days of Ramadan. Although the interior minister’s U turn so soon after a tough administrative action against the party was a surprise for the country, it was in retrospect a good thing in clearing the position of the TLP as a party which has no hand in terrorist activities. The Sarina Hotel bombing in Quetta on 21 March, only a day after the successful talks between the government and TLP, is evidence of how foreign enemy planned to exploit the TLP dharna to destabilise Pakistan and achieve multiple aims. However, planning and executing a terrorist act from overseas using local sleepers does not happen quickly, and that’s why the enemy failed to anticipate how quickly the TLP dharna ended and could not fast track the terrorist act earlier than it happened. Another lesson for the government is that if public protests on religious questions are allowed to continue without taking urgent and reconciliatory prudent action, Pakistan’s enemies will try to take advantage of it and make the situation worse.

4) Role of government and political parties

There are justifiable questions on the performance of government for not finding a permanent solution to the irritating religious issues resurfacing frequently despite its best intentions to make Pakistan a moderate Islamic state. However, the silence of other political parties, as well as role of other religious parties during the peak of the TLP crisis was most unfortunate and unacceptable. As the country’s opposition they have a responsibility to set aside politics when it comes to issues like Kashmir, Palestine, respect for the honour and character of the prophet, and defence of Pakistan. The opposition and other religious parties failed to meet this expectation leaving the government and the TLP to sort this out between them. It was most unfortunate that some security personnel lost their lives and public property was torched and in retaliation many protestors who were probably fasting were beaten and arrested for disturbing peace. The role of PPP was in particular pathetic when it continued to play politics and boycotted the parliamentary session in which it could have made all the right statements about the incompetent way the government dealt with the matter. That the PPP chose to air its criticism of the government on TV talk shows instead of raising these from the floor of the parliament, shows their seriousness about the blasphemy of the Prophet in countries, which have traditionally been supportive of PPP governments in the past due to their secular ideology and hatred for the Mulla.

5. What’s Next

The government may have crossed the delicate bridge on this crisis and moved on after referring the matter to the parliament. But it must learn to make contingency plans on matters of utmost importance to the country where public sentiment cannot be ignored. It must learn how to create space for public protests and draw up a modus operandi for their organisation and acknowledgement and ensure that it will deal with them not by force but through flexible yet firm hand. On the question of protecting Islamic icons, values and traditions, there will always be a difference between the orthodox and liberal Pakistanis. This difference must be respected and nurtured as part of Pakistan’s rich diversity. However, if the country’s constitution envisages Pakistan to be an Islamic state and be guided by the holy Quran and Sunnah in its affairs, then the state should use its mandate, resources and institutions to bring about a new ‘entente cordiale’ between the clergy and the state to work for the common objective together, and not as mutually exclusive forces. The mischievous question: which Islam Pakistan should follow? is an old red herring and there will be no gain trying to answer this question and forget the constructive things that need to be done first in the interest of the country and its people.

Rich Man Poor Man: A True Story.

Syed Sharfuddin

In a colony of the poor there was a house whose inhabitants had a great fight one day. Their family members had bruises, broken arms and limbs and suffered damage to property as a result of the fight. The neighbours did not know what happened. Everyone thought it was a crazy family, always fighting with itself. Had the family been smart, it would have taken the neighbours in confidence that were all very poor like them and formed one big scattered tribe

The real story was that among the grown up children of that household there was one son who objected to his father going to the house of a rich man who lived in the colony of the rich. The son told his father that the rich man had bad intentions against his maid who was also poor like them and came from their tribe. But the father said he could not do so because the rich man gave him food and if he got annoyed, the other rich persons in the colony of the rich will get annoyed with him and he would get no alms from anyone. The son disagreed with his father. He reminded his father that there were other rich people in that colony who belonged to his father’s tribe. They might prevail on the bad rich man or, worse he could go to his tribes’ people for alms.

The son believed it was not his father’s issue but a wider issue of the poor having dignity and respect. If the father raised a voice against the rich man’s bad intentions, other poor people in the neighbourhood would join his father and the rich will be forced to censure their colleague and ask him to stop misbehaving. But the father would not give in and the son took it upon himself to fight for this lone cause, which he thought was not his own but everyone’s cause in his poor colony and tribe.

That’s how and why the fight started within the household. Most family members joined the father. Some supported the prodigal son; others stood on the margins and preferred to remain silent spectators. The youngsters in the family were too timid to tell anyone outside what was the real cause of the fight. They either blamed the father or the son. But the father had more supporters among the young of the household because he shared the alms he got from the filthy rich man with everyone in the household to the best of his ability and compulsions.

The sad story of the TLP versus the government, which is being blacked out by the news hungry TV channels for fear of PEMRA is exactly like the tory of rich man poor man. The household where the fight broke out damaging and bruising its own family members is Pakistan. The father is the government. His main supporter is the mother who is civil society. She hates the poor and likes glamour and good company. The other sons of the father are different political parties who have their own axe to grind on everything controversial in the household. They are hopeless. The TLP is the rebel son who thinks the social order must change to bring respect and honour for the tribe. The colony of the poor is developing countries, countries emerging from conflict and facing disasters and economic crisis. Most of them have Muslims majority populations. The tribe is the tribe of Islam. The rich man with bad intentions for his maid is France. The maid is the Muslim minority in France. The colony of the rich is G7 countries. They always stand with their rich colleagues in every situation. The young in the family are the media.

The timing of the TLP protest coincides with a legislative bill in France, which seeks to ban hijab for Muslims French girls under 18 attending government schools. It is discriminatory because when it comes to wearing masks to protect against Covid-19 even though it hides the nose, cheeks, lips and chin of the wearer, it is not a security threat; whereas wearing a hijab for religious reasons is not only a security threat but a threat to the liberal way of life of the French people as represented by their government who hold the worst human rights record in the history of colonisation in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity. There is some strong racist mentality at work in the upper echelons of the government in France but no one wants to see it or write about it in the poor man’s household.

The argument of the father has some weight that if he objects to the rich man’s misdemeanour against his maid, he will be told this is none of his business. Moreover, the rich households will stop giving him alms, which pay his bills. The son is also right that unless someone speaks up, the rich man will carryon dishonouring his maid who is from the same tribe as the poor. There have been many previous instances where the rich man has got away with similar advances. If no one takes a stand, he will be putting novel demands on the father before giving him alms. Who knows how humiliating those demands would be if the filthy rich man is allowed to proceed unhindered in pursuit of his lust. The people to blame in this brawl are the young of the household (media) who are not reporting the full story to the neighbours (outside world). They are only blaming the son (TLP) for being belligerent and disobedient to the father (government). If they told the neighbours about the rich man (France) and his doings (hatred of Islam and its followers), the poor (Muslim countries) would know the full picture. The poor are also illiterate and scared. As long as they remain disunited, uninformed and exploited, nothing will change. The rebel son might give up and become like the father or his other worldly wise siblings or leave the household and immigrate to the colony of the rich to reform the system from within, which is also the hope of the maid.

The Vaccine Debate

Syed Sharfuddin

We live in interesting times. In our youth it was just the fear of smallpox, polio, BCG, malaria, meningitis and whooping cough that reluctantly made us visit the doctor. Then came the attack from a whole family of RNA viruses comprising flavi or dengue virus, yellow fever virus, zika virus, alpha coronaviruses, beta coronaviruses, orthomyxo or influenza virus, retro or HIV viruses and orthopneumo viruses. Then in 2020 came the dreaded coronavirus named Covid-19.  Now we are braving its third wave and discussing which vaccine is safe to take.

There are both supporters and detractors of vaccination against Covid-19. The supporters include commercial lobbies with vested interest in selling the vaccine and making money. They include scientists and leaders who want to save humanity and all things associated with good health, jobs and economy. The detractors include people who love conspiracy theories. They include doubters, perfectionists and extra careful souls who value human life and do not like big pharma to treat humans like rabbits in a lab. The common man is totally confused. On one hand he sees the promise of a Covid free world thanks to mass vaccination, of which he wants to be a part; but on the other hand he is told there are many unknowns about this vaccine, which is still in its infancy stage. History of pharmacology tells us how adventurism in virology which was well intended initially, can go horribly wrong later after the crisis is over. There have been many instances of pharmaceutical companies paying huge compensation to people who suffered from the medicines or devices they bought from them unaware that it was costing them their health or in some cases shortening their lives.

In this sea of confusion I have come across a very sensible discourse of some medics, which I find moderately balanced on both sides. On the one hand it advises caution and at the same time it also recommends vaccination. It says that three things are unknown about the current coronavirus vaccine, which is applicable to all the brands currently being supplied in different parts of the world by the few Covid-19 vaccine producing countries. The three unknowns are: the short or long term impact of the vaccine on an individual’s 1) ADE capacity (antibody dependent or disease enhancement; 2) his autoimmune condition; and 3) placenta response.

This discourse advises that:

Persons from the age of 1 to 20 should totally ignore this vaccine because it is absolutely irrelevant to them. Covid-19 does not affect children. 

For people from the age of 21 to 50, this vaccine is also irrelevant because Covid-19 is not going to kill them even if they get it. Organically self acquired immunity is far better than externally induced immunity, because the latter is still in the realm of the unknown. But if their jobs require treating Covid-19 patients, frequent airports visits, international travel, working with public or if they have underlying medical issues they should get themselves vaccinated for their safety and the safety of others.

From age 51 to 70, people can take the vaccine because placenta issues would be irrelevant to females in this age group and if they have no ADE syndrome or no autoimmune disease or condition, they don’t need to worry about the fear of the unknown. For them this vaccine is not the water of life but it is a good defence against a nasty pandemic.

People in the age group from 70 onwards should not worry about the adverse impact of the vaccine because in this age group they are already vulnerable and are likely to have some underlying health issues. Vaccination will protect them against Covid-19, which has the potential to take them down under anyway in most instances.

Now comes the big question of whether getting Covid vaccination should be a choice of an individual or a society because in the context of the pandemic which is still not fully gone, both actors become mutually exclusive. If many individuals don’t get vaccinated the society will be threatened and with it the global economy will suffer too. If society decides that Covid vaccination should become a necessary passport for international travel, or for keeping hospitals empty for other treatments, then individual choice must give in and accept what the leaders decide for their people in the name of democracy. Governments also have a responsibility to protect the life of their citizens, provide healthcare and support the vulnerable. They cannot leave these decisions to individuals. It is not a question of whether you like coffee or tea at breakfast or just water. It is such a serious matter that elections can be won or lost on this one issue alone as the result of the US Presidential election has shown, even though the Covid vaccine had not reached hospitals by November 2020 when the elections were held.

Difficult innit? Let see which way the dice rolls.

Why Governance by Ordinance is bad Governance

Syed Sharfuddin

A government consists of three branches, the executive, legislature and judiciary. Each of these branches is supposed to be independent of each other but they also need to closely coordinate with each other. As its name indicates, the legislature is elected by the people to enact laws for their collective benefit and to uphold the rule of law. The judiciary interprets the implementation of laws where disputes arise and upholds independence of the judiciary. The executive runs the government in line with the rules of business and is assisted by a cabinet, bureaucracy and the institutions established by the constitution and by its own executive acts in carrying out its mandate. This is as far as the theory of governance goes. When the balance between these branches is disturbed, democracy is under threat.

In Pakistan, democracy has always been under threat for one reason or the other. One of the reasons for this is governance by ordinance even when elected civilian governments were in power. According to Article 89 of the Constitution, the President has the power to issue ordinances when both houses of Parliament are not in session and when he is satisfied that circumstances exist which justify promulgation of an ordinance to meet an urgent situation which cannot wait. The life of an ordinance is 120 days, after which the ordinance is to be laid before Parliament to be extended for another 120 days or passed as law or allowed to lapse. Once an extension has been made, it cannot be extended further. However, all governments in the past have used this as a backdoor entrance to push for executive action which they could not take through the parliamentary route because they either did not have the required numbers to pass the requisite legislation in Parliament or when they received an institutional opinion against an action which could only be countered by promulgation of a new ordinance.

At the next Senate election scheduled for 3 March 2021, 48 new Senators will be elected in the 104 member upper house for a period of six years. The PTI government proposed a departure from the traditional secret ballot of the electoral college comprising the provincial assemblies and the bicameral houses of Parliament in the centre. In January 2021 it consulted the Election Commission about the interpretation of Article 266 of the Constitution but it received a negative response. The Election Commission said that any change in the method of conducting the election of the Senate would require an amendment in the election rules to be approved by Parliament. The Election Commission was the correct forum to approach and give advice because it is a statutory body established under Article 218 of the Constitution to conduct the election of both houses of Parliament.

The government said it wanted the open ballot for the Senate election in order to prevent horse-trading, which is a sophisticated name for taking political bribes. This has sullied the reputation of the country’s legislators and exposed them as political opportunists and corrupt leaders violating Article 63 of the Constitution. The government’s initiative was both admirable and understandable as the key focus of the ruling party has been its anti-corruption drive in politics and public office, above any other government business. However, after receiving the advice of the Election Commission on 16 January, the government should have taken a bill to the Parliament to amend the Election Act of 2017 accordingly. But instead of doing so, it made use of Article 186 of the Constitution and referred the open ballot issue to the Supreme Court for an advisory opinion.

Up to this point it was all in order and had the opposition in disarray because the financiers of the alleged horse-trading in the forthcoming Senate election are believed to be more in the opposition ranks than in the government. In any case the government has an empty treasury to indulge in such luxuries. But on 6 February, the PTI government, following a meeting of the Cabinet earlier in the week and after receiving the assent by the President, promulgated Ordinance 2021 amending the Election Act 2017 and requiring the Election Commission to conduct the Senate election through an open and identifiable ballot. The Ordinance also enables the head of a political party to see the vote of his party’s legislators. Having gone to the Supreme Court for a reference, the government should have waited for the apex Court’s opinion before bringing out the Ordinance. And if the government were going to do this in any case because it does not have the required numbers in the National Assembly to amend the Election Act 2017 on its own, then it should not have gone to the Supreme Court in the first place.

Ignoring the advice of the Election Commission and involving the Supreme Court in this matter and yet coming out with an Ordinance to have its way, revealed three things about the government. One: that the PTI government is determined to put an end to alleged horse trading in the electoral college of the Senate election in the absence of clarity in the current election laws. Two, the government has been in a reaction mode ever since it came to power. It did not prepare adequately for the Senate election last year when there was enough time to bring a bill in the Parliament and debate it before amending the Election Act 2017.  Was it a legislative omission or a deliberate ambiguity on the part of the government because horse-trading is a numbers game and can be advantageous to political parties when the players doing the high bidding are on their side? Three: that the PTI government is no different from its predecessor governments when it comes to using the power of promulgating an ordinance if it can bypass the Parliament to achieve its political goals, notwithstanding its popular national anti-corruption agenda.

The government has unwittingly walked into a difficult position by promulgating this Ordinance. The Ordinance will have an impact far longer than its short life of 120 days, if it is not subsequently enacted, because 48 Senators who will be elected by open ballot will remain members of the Senate for six years. If, on the other hand, the Supreme Court upholds the view of the Election Commission, the government can face an embarrassment because its position on the Ordinance will become indefensible.

The open ballot controversy over the Senate election will die down after March election. It may never arise again. But it leaves a question for the civilian politicians. For how long the Constitution and laws of Pakistan will be set aside on one pretext or the other because someone in the executive notices that they do not serve the executive’s policies and need to be amended further. It also places in doubt the commitment of the government as a whole to respect the rule of law and follow it in good faith instead of changing its language every few years.

* The author is a former Special Adviser, Political Affairs Division, Commonwealth Secretariat, London. He can be reached at sharaf.sharfuddin@gmail.com