Taliban Engagement Comes With Trade-Offs, Doha Process Shows gnewsplus24

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: The third installment of the Doha process underscores a conundrum about engagement with the Taliban, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the first session of Parliament since the country’s election, and Nepal faces yet another political crisis.

On Sunday and Monday, international diplomats met with senior Taliban leaders during talks hosted by the United Nations in Doha, Qatar. The discussions marked the third iteration of the so-called Doha process, which aims to address challenges in Taliban-led Afghanistan.

Taliban leaders were not invited to the first session and declined to participate in the second due to the presence of Afghan civil society leaders, among other factors. This time around, civil society and human rights leaders were not invited to represent Afghanistan; that’s likely why the Taliban agreed to join.

The talks did not produce substantive outcomes, but U.N. officials described the exchange as an opportunity for each side to hear the other out. The Taliban called for the removal of sanctions, while diplomats expressed concerns about Afghan economic stress. A top agenda point was how to get more aid to the Afghan people, but that discussion did not result in any major decisions.

Skeptics may write off the Doha process as a pointless exercise that only legitimizes the Taliban regime, but that is an oversimplification. The recent talks underscore the conundrum that foreign governments face in formulating policy toward Afghanistan under the Taliban: Painful trade-offs are inevitable, whether they choose engagement or isolation.

As with the recent Doha talks, engagement brings diplomats opportunities to focus on pursuing key objectives, from delivering humanitarian aid to gauging Taliban commitments to curb terrorism. But it also means losing credibility in efforts to take principled stands on specific issues, risking the loss of allies in the international human rights community and especially among Afghan women.

Finally, engagement gives the Taliban a public relations victory: They can boast that they are not the pariahs that their critics say they are. Isolation, meanwhile, lets diplomats maintain moral high ground, but it allows fewer opportunities to secure the buy-in needed from the Taliban to pursue positive outcomes in Afghanistan, such as establishing new international financial mechanisms that would bring more economic security to common Afghans.

Many Afghans living in the country, desperate for humanitarian and economic aid, seem to want the international community to do whatever is possible—including talking to the Taliban—to maximize the chances of more assistance getting into Afghanistan. Engagement also brings opportunities to focus on pressing issues: For example, in Doha, the United States reportedly discussed the fate of two U.S. citizens being held in Afghanistan.

Envoys to Afghanistan from about two dozen countries—including some in the West, as well as China and Russia—participated in the latest Doha talks, reflecting the consensus within the international community in favor of engagement without formal recognition of the Taliban regime. But this position puts diplomats at odds with Afghans—including many based abroad—who advocate for isolation.

The U.N. was understandably criticized for hosting talks that excluded Afghan women, leaving it up to foreign diplomats to bring up concerns about women’s rights that the Taliban surely shrugged off. But on this front, the U.N. may have been on to something.

Any meaningful negotiation with the Taliban over their regressive policies toward women and human rights more broadly can only be conducted with the group’s supreme leadership: the Kandahar-based mullahs who make and enforce those maximalist positions. They isolate themselves, rarely traveling or engaging with foreign diplomats. It is the more pragmatic, Kabul-based leaders who participated in the Doha process.

Unsurprisingly, aside from a few one-off meetings, there has been no international outreach to the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada, and his circle in Kandahar. Last December, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution calling for a new special envoy for Afghanistan. Such an individual would be well placed to at least try to get through to Kandahar, but nothing has happened since.

Even if there were an open channel of communication with the leadership in Kandahar, any negotiation would be painfully difficult. Their ideological positions won’t easily be swayed by inducements of formal recognition for the Taliban regime or more financial assistance; these are temporal matters that mean little to them.

Ultimately, the road to progress on human rights in Afghanistan runs through Kandahar, not Doha.

Modi addresses Parliament. On Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared before the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s Parliament, as part of the inaugural legislative session after the country’s election, which concluded last month. He gave a characteristically proud and defiant speech, celebrating the third consecutive electoral victory of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and lambasting the opposition Indian National Congress.

Modi’s appearance also offered glimpses of the challenge he will face from an opposition emboldened by its strong showing in the election. Modi’s speech was often interrupted by opposition members. But the biggest shift was the presence of Rahul Gandhi, who is now the formal head of the opposition—because his Congress party finally cleared the threshold of 10 percent of parliamentary seats.

In Modi’s first two terms, there was no opposition leader. But in theory, the figure imposes checks on the prime minister, sitting on key committees that appoint top officials. They can also make it more difficult for the government to ram through legislation with little debate or to suspend opposition lawmakers—both of which Modi has done in previous years.

During his own speech in Parliament on Monday, Gandhi took aim at Modi and the BJP, accusing “those who call themselves Hindu” of violence, hatred, and “untruth.” These and some other harsh comments were later removed from the parliamentary record.

U.S. resolution on Pakistan passes House. Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 368-7 on a resolution that urges Pakistan to launch an independent investigation into claims about irregularities and interference in its February general election and “condemns attempts to suppress” Pakistanis’ participation in democracy. Around 86 percent of House members voted on the measure.

The overwhelming support for the resolution reflects how an increasingly vocal Pakistani American community—many of whom support imprisoned former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan—brought their concerns to the attention of their elected officials. Last Friday, Pakistan’s lower house of Parliament passed its own resolution describing the U.S. measure as trying to “undermine the [Pakistani] state.”

The U.S. resolution is unlikely to impact Washington’s policy toward Islamabad. After all, its main demand—a probe into Pakistan’s election—has already been made by the U.S. State Department. For its part, the Biden administration is keen to maintain a workable relationship with Pakistan. Last week, the State Department praised Pakistan’s new counterterrorism plan.

Still, the House resolution won’t soon be forgotten in Islamabad, and it will fuel fears within Pakistan’s civilian and military leadership that the Pakistani diaspora in the United States could advocate for harsher legislative measures.

Political crisis in Nepal. Yet another government in Kathmandu is in danger of collapsing, just four months after taking office. This week, former Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s CPN-UML party—a key partner in the coalition led by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal and his CPN-MC party—reached an agreement with the head of the Nepali Congress party, Sher Bahadur Deuba, to pull out of the coalition.

Deuba’s party is the largest in Parliament, and Oli’s is the second-largest. The two leaders are set to form a new “national consensus” government: Oli is expected to lead, with Deuba serving as prime minister, for 18 months, after which elections would take place. According to Nepali media reports, a dispute over the chairperson of Nepal’s Securities Board led to the Oli-Dahal split.

However, Dahal has refused to resign and said this week that he hopes to hold a confidence vote in Parliament. The crisis will harden long-standing public perceptions in Nepal that the political class—led by a small group of familiar faces—is caught up in an unending cycle of power plays, distracting from policy priorities.

Nepal has had 13 different governments since 2008, when the country’s monarchy was formally abolished. Dahal, Deuba, and Oli have all served multiple terms as prime minister.

Monday marked eight years since a horrific assault on a bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh—the country’s deadliest-ever terrorist attack. The Islamic State claimed the attack, which killed 22 people, mostly foreigners, at the popular Holey Artisan Bakery in an affluent neighborhood. But Bangladeshi authorities blamed an outlawed local militant group, Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB).

In the wake of the attack, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government staged a massive counterterrorism operation that resulted in at least 80 suspects killed and more than 300 people arrested. The harsh tactics raised concerns in the U.N. and among human rights monitors and some foreign governments.

Such worries have persisted in recent years. In 2021, the Biden administration sanctioned Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, a top paramilitary force, for serious human rights violations. Nevertheless, tactically speaking, Bangladesh’s operations were successful: Terrorist attacks have been rare in the last few years.

However, Dhaka counterterrorism authorities are now warning of a quietly resurging Islamist militant threat in Bangladesh. This week, officers said more than 300 accused militants have been released on bail in the last year, including some members of a group known as Neo JMB. Officials in Dhaka say the group lacks the capacity to carry out a Holey Artisan-style attack, but it could conduct damaging hacking activities.

While concerning, these official assessments should be viewed with some caution. Government critics have accused Bangladesh of using counterterrorism imperatives as a pretext to crack down on Islamist members and supporters of the political opposition. This week, a senior counterterrorism official said there’s a “very thin line” between Islamist terrorists and “so-called Islamist parties.”

Women’s rights advocate Rakhshinda Perveen argues in the Express Tribune that affirmative action needs to be a bigger part of development policy in Pakistan, especially regarding women. “Affirmative action for women in the formal economy would impact their status and well-being,” she writes. “They may face less misogyny, experience greater protection from harassment at workplaces and encounter fewer penalties for motherhood.”

In the Print, automotive journalist Kushan Mitra writes about the dangers in India posed by so many cars using blinding high-beam lights. He argues that driving glasses, not bans on those lights, can best help reduce accident risks: “I am very certain that poor vision plays a major, and unfortunately undocumented, role in vehicular accidents in India.”

Writer Anu Muhammad argues in Prothom Alo that there is a need for more studies on wealth in Bangladesh to better understand the country’s poverty: “Unless research is carried out on the accumulation of the wealth of the ultra wealthy, how can … the permanence of poverty and the increase in inequality be understood?”

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