Doves and Demons in the Gulf: New Age Islam’s Selection, 20 January 2016
New Age Islam Edit Bureau
20 January 2016
Doves and Demons in the Gulf
By Asad Rahim Khan
Who Was Tipu Sultan?
By Sameer Ahmed
Justice System in Pakistan
By Tufail Hussain Malik
By Mahir Ali
Is Pakistan Ready For A Take-Off?
By Ahsan Iqbal
Hope for Peace in Afghanistan?
By Jonathan Power
Doves and Demons In The Gulf
By Asad Rahim Khan
January 18, 2016
At last, at last, the Republic steps up. Or, at least, that’s what we hear from Pakistan’s media mills — the white and green is tiptoeing out onto the world stage again, with olive branches for everyone. May we hear that most meaningless phrase again: ‘a just and lasting peace in the Middle East?’
We may not get the chance: the House of Saud has worked itself into a tizzy, executing convicts and bombing Yemen into a pile of ashes — all so that Iran may be kept at bay. And because this is playground politics, the rest of its boys are piling on: the world woke up to the shocking news that Comoros just broke off relations with Tehran.
Well, hurray for Comoros, with a population numbering less than Islamabad’s (a fellow island nation). We knew not your name before, and we wave goodbye as you fade into the ether again.
But why all the sound and fury? Sadly, this constant punching and pouting and embassy-storming is the new normal, ever since the US drew down. After turning the Middle East into a smouldering black hole, Uncle Sam is telling the other players to make nice — and that’s not sitting well with the brothers from Riyadh.
“Cut off the head of the snake,” King Abdullah had told Washington, and blow up whatever nuclear facilities Tehran has. But that was 2010.
In 2016, the US is content with de-fanging said snake instead, if in instalments. Thus Javad Zarif’s million-dollar-smile: the West lifted sanctions last week, and for Iran’s foreign minister, that’s quite the victory lap.
If in one field: while the kingdom schemes against Persia, Persia’s started acting like Empire again, backing some of the deadliest predators on the planet. As Hunter S Thompson once said of another president, Syria’s Assad is a tall hyena with a living sheep in its mouth. The former eye doctor continues starving and gassing his own people into the ground.
But long before Putin, it was Iran — and only Iran — protecting the Ba’athists. Even elsewhere, the ayatollahs are ascendant: as the Houthis continue to hold on to Yemen, and Hezbollah goes from strength to strength in Lebanon, and Shia militias resume their love-hate affair with the Iraqi army. Make no mistake — Iran is playing the game harder than anyone else. And unlike the kingdom, it’s winning.
Throughout, the Western press has acted like its usual nuanced self: “Ancient Islamic Sunni-Shiite schism inflames a modern world,” read USA Today, and many like it. Those pesky, schismatic Moslems, the press moans, sticking their curved swords in one another since the 7th century.
While a delightful take on world affairs, the present push-and-pull started as late as ’79: rather than your End-of-Times battle royale, it’s down to power plays between an oil-rich theocracy and, well, another oil-rich theocracy, with sectarian allies as a crutch.
And that brings us to the sticking point in this mess: oil. As sanctions slide off, the world is readying itself for a flood of Iranian black gold (just the thought sent the Saudi stock market plunging five points Sunday). The millions of barrels in Iran’s floating reserves are waiting for the market, one that’s already oversupplied: the price of crude is hitting lows not seen in years, and that’s giving the kingdom jitters.
In short, fear and loathing is at fever pitch, and the usual suspects are fanning the flames. Hezbollah boss Nasrallah called the kingdom’s recent execution of Nimr al-Nimr a “message of blood”. In perhaps the most tragicomic turn of events, the Israeli press threw its lot in with the kingdom instead: in a lecture to the US, The Jerusalem Post said, “Between a staunch ally and a declared enemy, one might well wonder why there is any question of which to support.” And then, lest we forget, adorable little Comoros tried to get a swing in there too.
Enter Pakistan, everyone’s favourite non-allied ally. Of course given the Saudi-Iran context, entry of any sort seems ominous. But a man doth not choose his family, and a land doth not choose its neighbours: Pakistan’s in the middle of it.
But there’s a growing awareness that we’re vulnerable — and it would be a mistake to get complacent just yet — saying Pakistan is somehow immune to the sectarian venom slowly gripping the world post-Zarqawi, is both inaccurate and irrational. The Gulf has financed some of the most vicious sectarian groups in southern Punjab — massacring Shias with abandon — while Iran has recently recruited Pakistani fighters for Assad in Syria.
And since the King and the Supreme Leader unfriended each other at the start of the year, Pakistan has been witness to protests backing either side. This is a nauseating trend, and must be ended.
Which is why we’re all surprised: Pakistan’s making some terrific decisions. For starters, parliament voted to stay out of Yemen in April — over five days of debate, not a single lawmaker supported sending troops. And according to Bruce Riedel, flashbacks to when Egypt bled 20,000 casualties fighting the same Zaydi tribes that back the Houthis, “figures prominently in Pakistani thinking”. The same history’s already played out: the war has become a gruesome affair.
And, despite a depressing statement of support for Assad, Islamabad has also stayed clear of Syria; nor has it see-sawed over to Iran.
Like Talleyrand suing for peace, we see now PM Sharif and General Sharif travelling to both capitals — and calling for sanity to prevail. The PPP, which to its credit began the neutrality policy in Syria, stands vindicated. Even Imran Khan is pitching in, meeting emissaries from both countries and, if one excuses the inexcusable reference, hoping Pakistan’s not a Cornered Tiger between the two.
For our wham-bam politics, this is a sea-change in thought: this is, dare we say, something close to wisdom. But wisdom must now extend inside: in shutting down sectarian thugs for good.
Iran and Saudi may be clawing at each other, but for once, Pakistan’s started making the right moves. Maybe next time, Comoros.
Asad Rahim Khan is a barrister and columnist. He is an Advocate of the High Court
Who was Tipu Sultan?
By Sameer Ahmed
January 20, 2016
Living in Pakistan, most of us are familiar with the historical figure of Tipu Sultan. He was the South Indian ruler of the state of Mysore who died fighting the East India Company in May 1799. But Tipu Sultan has differing legacies in India, England and Pakistan.
In November 2014, South Indian playwright Girish Karnad invited jeers when he proposed that Bengaluru airport in Bangalore be named after Tipu Sultan. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)responded with a protest of all ceremonies marking Tipu’s birth anniversary in the Indian state of Kannada. In India, Tipu Sultan is thought of as a resistance hero by a large number of Muslims and segments of other communities. But he evokes a mixed response from non-Muslims in most parts. His is a controversial image even in his hometown (now Kannada). Rightwing Hindus revile him for being anti-Hindu, anti-Kannadiga, a religious bigot, the son of an upstart who usurped the rightful Hindu prince of the Woodeyar dynasty and presented himself as a freedom fighter against the English to gain sympathies. He is often compared to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb for his alleged persecution of non-Muslims.
The English have called Tipu a mercurial tyrant whose hatred of the East India Company and modernity reached unreasonable heights. History texts authored by English historians often relate Tipu’s cruel treatment of captured English soldiers, his forced conversion of thousands of Hindus and his frequent expansionist invasions of neighbouring territories belonging to the Marhattas, and the Nizam of Hyderabad. Some authors allege that General Matthews of the East India Company’s army was poisoned while in Tipu’s captivity. Major David Baird of Lord Macleod’s Regiment, who was to become a general later and participate in the final assault on Tipu’s fort at Seringapatam, reported having suffered torture and abuse at Tipu’s hands.
Tipu’s alleged ‘wildness’ contributed to the animal imagery that the English employed for him. Tipu liked tigers and kept many at his fort. When he was young, a particularly ferocious cub was brought to the fort. It would grow up to become majestic and untameable, earning the title ‘Tiger Royale’. Gaining sovereignty, Tipu ordered a tiger throne for his seat. He is often reported to have said: “It is better to live a day as a tiger than a century as a jackal.” This obsession with tigers was used against him. The English shot all of his tigers when they took his fort. They also launched an ingenuous literary campaign against the fallen “Tiger of Mysore”. Tipu Sultan “the tyrant” and the Indian tiger were merged to form a metaphor for beastliness. In 1886, Ralston and Cole published an illustrated short story called Tippoo: A Tale of a Tiger. In the story, an English couple tries to pet an Indian tiger, but the beast refuses to be disciplined and is killed by terrified neighbours. In artistic portrayals, an English lion was shown to be in battle with an Indian tiger. In this amusing clash, the English lion was regal and victorious, the Indian tiger vicious but cowed.
Now, the Pakistani version. In 1949, the Pakistan navy acquired a British naval destroyer called the HMS Onslow and renamed it the PNS Tipu Sultan to pay homage to the Muslim hero. Another ship, the HMS Avenger, was purchased in 1994 and renamed the PNS Tipu to preserve the legacy. In literary portrayals, Tipu has been depicted as a mythical warrior prince by novelists Naseem Hijazi and Sadiq Husain Siddique. Sa’adat Hassan Manto dramatised Tipu’s death in a moving short story that is part of the Manto Nama. Acting great Mohammad Ali portrayed Tipu in the 1977 Urdu-language film Tipu Sultan. The film was based on Hijazi’s novel and shows Tipu dying with his sword clutched firmly in his right hand. Afterwards, General Baird acknowledges his corpse with a military salute. PTV came up with a soap on Tipu in the 1990s. In Pakistan, Tipu is the consummate holy warrior who waged battle against the invading farangi and etched his name in the history of heroes. One man, three legacies. Who really was Tipu?
Many in India denounce Tipu for mixing religion with politics. But the Sultan was not the first to paint a resistance movement in religious colours. One of the earliest instances of ‘Islamic’ resistance to foreign occupation can be found in the teachings of the 14th century Islamic scholar Ibn-e-Taymiyyah (died 1328). The imam ordained holy war against the Mongols. Tipu did what had been done before him. Do politics and religion go well together? That is not the subject at present, though it is a contentious one. However, it does seem that resistance movements involving Muslims often mix religion with national identity. In South Asia, for instance, scholars associated with the Darul Uloom Deoband and the Ahl-e-Hadith movement offered, for some time, a popular and indigenous Muslim counter-narrative to the English colonial presence. People associated with these movements also fought the Sikhs in Punjab and sought help from Muslim rulers in Afghanistan, thus giving a pan-Islamic tinge to their efforts. Tipu’s religious legacy merits contextualisation.
The English campaign to present Tipu as an unstable oppressor was, in certain ways, part of the larger colonial campaign to delegitimise native rulers. Showing the native king as a tyrant was conducive to the British effort of selling their benign and modern rule to the people. It was imperative to tell the people how they had been wronged by decades of misrule. Tipu Sultan was a despot, and despotism was something primitive and peculiarly Asian. The arrangement was designed to present the English as an advanced, forward-looking civilisation that was ‘meant’ to replace the tyranny of the volatile Islamic Sultan.
The Pakistani version is not without its flaws either. It is too skewed, too mythical to endure in a rational analysis. In most cases, Pakistani studies of Tipu become eulogies from the first couple of passages. There can hardly be a disinterested analysis when the intent is to elevate someone to divine status. Tipu’s modesty and Islamic credentials are often evoked in binary opposition to the debauchery-ridden pomp of the Mughals. In our narrative, he was not defeated but betrayed to the English by his prime minister, Mir Sadiq. So, where does that leave us?
There is no simple answer to the question of who he truly was. He could have been a despot and a freedom fighter at the same time. But this is what I leave you with. Despite the divergence in his portrayal discussed above, almost all historical sources agree on one point: Tipu Sultan’s end. He fell fighting the English. We are talking about a man who grew up fighting them and questioned what they considered to be their right to colonise foreign territories and cultures. He must have felt alone in a shrinking world encircled by the Marhattas, the Nizam of Hyderabad and Governor Generals Cornwallis and Wellesley. How do you face odds like that? What do you tell your family when you know you are fighting a battle you cannot win? More importantly, what do you tell yourself? Maybe this: it is better to live a day as a tiger than a century as a jackal.
Sameer Ahmed is a lecturer in English Literature at Government College University, Lahore
Justice System in Pakistan
By Tufail Hussain Malik
20 January 2016
AN impetus for social change in Pakistan; an inspiration for South Asian societies; a silver lining to achieve a fair justice system; standard bearers for the independence of judiciary. This is how the Pakistani lawyers defined themselves throughout their 2007 movement for the restoration of the deposed judges.
Mr Paul Marsh, the then president of the Law Society of England & Wales, wrote to the Pakistan Supreme Court Bar Association to express his support confirming international recognition of the movement.
This achievement came at a hefty price paid by the lawyers who were placed under house arrest, imprisoned, burnt, injured and killed during demonstrations in almost all parts of the country. Despite dissensions due to the lawyers’ political allegiances, the judges were restored — and that was how far we got; that was, in fact, the end of the lawyers movement. Unfortunately, a fair justice system is still an unrealised dream for our nation.
The lawyers must take a proactive approach in making justice work.
A year ago, reports showed that more than 1.7 million cases were pending with the Supreme Court, the high courts as well as the lower courts.
Only the Islamabad High Court had yet to dispose of over 13,000 cases accumulated over the period of one year The picture in the provincial courts is a lot gloomier.
Apart from inculpating the benighted executive, let’s admit that we lawyers, as officers of the courts, are simply failing the nation to achieve a reliable justice system. What right do we have to berate others including the government, when we are not performing our role despite holding an LL.B degree as a minimum qualification?
In courts, we observe case adjournments on petty grounds on a daily basis. Do we realise that this is a huge drain on the public purse?
There is a lengthy chain of the wastage of time and resources of everyone involved in the process; valuable judicial time, police vans carrying prisoners coming from far-flung areas only to take the prisoners back without a hearing; expert witnesses, eg, forensic scientists and doctors whose time will be wasted, crippling both the health and the justice systems.
Then there are poor clients attending courts only to find out that there is a strike and the courts are dishing out new dates.
Who is to take care of this loss of valuable public resources which can be spent on improving public security measures or recruiting more judges? The lawyers must act as custodians of the public purse and take a more proactive approach in making the justice system work in the best interests of our country and our people.
As a starting point, the bar councils at all levels should form committees consisting of lawyers, representatives of the judiciary and local government administrations and those of the general public. The committees should be tasked with undertaking a review of the causes impeding the delivery of speedy justice and that of issues faced by the general public in the litigation process.
The committees should then submit their reports along with the recommendations to improve the lugubrious situation in the courts, within one to two months, to the presidents of the bars.
The presidents should make sure that measures are taken to implement the recommendations in order to achieve a fair and efficient justice system.
Pakistani lawyers demonstrated that they could bring a change where civilian and military regimes failed miserably.
We need to make sure that we achieve an effective justice system which ensures a fair trial, a right that is guaranteed under Article 10A of the Constitution. We are in desperate need of developing a culture where we put the interests of Pakistan and Pakistanis first instead of our affiliations with political parties.
Litigation blights people’s lives. It is the lawyers’ responsibility to help ameliorate conditions in our country by providing a fair, effective and impartial justice system. Thomas Erskine, while defending his client Thomas Paine in 1792, passionately stated: “I will forever, at all hazards, assert the dignity, independence, and integrity of the … bar; without which, impartial justice ... can have no existence.”
It should also not be forgotten that as a result of increased confidence and trust in the justice system, increasingly people will turn to the courts rather than preferring to settle scores by resorting to violent means. This will, inevitably, result in peace, stability and improved business activity in the country and benefit our nation. As John F. Kennedy rightly put it, let us light a candle instead of cursing the darkness. Unless we achieve the objects of the lawyers’ movement, it will just be a part of our history pages gathering dust and smuts.
Tufail Hussain Malik is a lawyer.
By Mahir Ali
January 20, 2016
MORE than a few eyebrows shot up when the British film director Steve McQueen, fresh from the triumph of 12 Years a Slave, announced a couple of years ago that his next project would focus on Paul Robeson. Some of the bewilderment revolved around the question of why he would pick such an obscure subject.
There was a time when Robeson was anything but obscure. During the 1930s-40s, he was arguably the best-known African American on the planet. But when he died 40 years ago this week, it can safely be said that his name did not ring a bell for most Americans. This outstanding athlete, actor, singer and political activist had been effectively written out of history. This was almost exclusively a consequence of the way in which he used his tremendously powerful voice.
Robeson could have served as a poster boy for the American illusion that it did not have a serious race problem. After all, he had graduated from Rutgers University with honours, having made his mark on the sporting field as a formidable footballer, whereafter he obtained a degree in law from Columbia. He had, however, experienced racial prejudice every step of the way.
There was a time when Robeson was anything but obscure.
Robeson was proud of his colour, increasingly aware of what his fellow African Americans were up against, and intrigued by his African heritage. Amid a growing political awareness, he dedicated himself to the performing arts. The gift of a golden voice stood him in good stead both in the performing hall and on the dramatic stage, where starring roles in plays by Eugene O’Neill beckoned soon enough, and before long he was a star of the screen as well.
The deeply unsatisfactory roles he was offered persuaded him and his wife, Eslanda Goode Robeson, to relocate temporarily in the late 1920s to London, which they found considerably more congenial than their homeland. Critically acclaimed appearances on West End stages were accompanied by film offers that he hoped would accurately reflect the richness of African culture.
Robeson was generally disappointed on that front. There was at least one exception, though: The Proud Valley placed him among Welsh miners — and it was this unlikely connection that first piqued the interest of a 15-year-old McQueen.
London also afforded the Robesons the opportunity to learn firsthand about colonial struggles for independence from the likes of Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah and, not least, Jawaharlal Nehru. The acquaintance with Nehru and his sister, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, developed swiftly into a lasting friendship, especially for Eslanda. She was appalled when, in 1949, Paul refused to meet Nehru on the latter’s first visit to the US as prime minister, on account of the impression that Indian communists were being repressed.
There was eventually a reconciliation, and during the 1950s Nehru was active in the campaign to have Robeson’s passport restored to him. The US State Department, meanwhile, leaned heavily on New Delhi in an effort to thwart planned celebrations of Robeson’s 60th birthday by a committee headed by Justice M.C. Chagla and bolstered by the participation of Indira Gandhi.
Robeson’s stay in London also led him to accept an invitation from the film director Sergei Eisenstein to visit the Soviet Union. This was a crucial turning point in his life. Robeson refused to relinquish his infatuation with the Soviet Union when the wartime alliance between the US and the USSR made way for the Cold War. That sufficed to render him an unperson.
When one of his typically belligerent interrogators at a House Un-American Activities Committee hearing in 1956 asked him why he did not stay in Russia, Robeson responded: “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country, and I am going to stay here and have a part of it just like you. And no fascist-minded people will drive me from it. Is that clear?” The inquisition was rapidly brought to an end when Robeson thundered: “You are the non-patriots and you are the un-Americans, and you ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
Two years later, Robeson’s passport was restored. He was able to keep a commitment to play Othello at Stratford-upon-Avon. But the persecution had taken its toll physically and psychologically. After returning to the US in 1963, Robeson lived as a recluse amid failing health. He was unable to attend a 75th birthday concert, but sent a message assuring his well-wishers that he was the same Paul, dedicated as ever to human equality and peace among nations.
If even an iota of his spirit can be resurrected via McQueen’s film, it will be a worthwhile endeavour. Many of today’s performers could do worse than heed Robeson’s admonition, delivered in the thick of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s: “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative.”
Is Pakistan Ready For A Take-Off?
By Ahsan Iqbal
January 19, 2016
The latter half of the 20th century has seen many countries successfully emerge as regional powerhouses. Unfortunately, Pakistan has been struggling to make this happen despite being endowed with rich resources. In the 1960s, Pakistan was touted as a rising economic power like Japan but its progress was derailed due to the 1965 war. In the early 1990s, Pakistan again captured the attention of the world when it took the lead in pioneering economic reforms in South Asia. However, this dream once again proved to be short-lived as the country plunged into a decade of political instability. Governments lasted no more than two years, and eventually the country was caught in the talons of martial law. In 2013, the Western media was calling Pakistan the most dangerous country in the world. Just two years later, due to economic reforms and security-related measures taken by the government, Pakistan is being projected as an emerging economic success story by the same media. Today, we are again poised for an economic take-off. The improving security situation, improving economic indicators and the establishment of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) offer many opportunities for the country. The million-dollar question is whether we will seize this moment for an economic take-off or will once again squander it.
There cannot be a better analogy to understand Pakistan’s trajectory than learning from the concept of ‘take-off’ in aviation. In order for a plane to successfully take off, besides having a clear runway and favourable weather conditions, in the tug of war between opposing vertical and horizontal forces of lift versus weight, and thrust versus drag, the forces of lift must prevail over weight and the power of thrust must prevail over drag. During a take-off, all the weight on the aircraft must also be stable, otherwise the take-off can turn into an accident. The aircraft cannot take off if its engines are not working in sync to provide the required thrust. An aircraft can land with one of its engines shut down, but it can never take off without all engines working together. If all these conditions are not met, the plane can’t take off successfully.
This example is instructive in understanding Pakistan’s potential for a take-off. Firstly, we are a nation of 200 million people, of which almost two-thirds consists of the youth, with heightened aspirations and expectations. Our institutions are weak due to a fractured political history featuring long shadows of various martial laws. Moreover, due to the lack of investment in human capital over a prolonged period means that we still have high levels of illiteracy, disease and poverty. This translates into a heavy weight of social underdevelopment that has to be lifted. We need an extraordinary force of lift to overcome the drag and downward pull and achieve a successful take-off. We possess a rich endowment base. However, this can only be harnessed effectively by adopting the right strategies and implementation mechanisms with a clear focus on the economic agenda. Additionally, just as an aircraft can’t take off if the runway isn’t clear and is not of the desired length, countries also need to ensure that their policies are sound and provide a consistent and stable span for take-off. Finally, equally important is the favourability of the socio-political weather, as political thunderstorms and social jolts are capable of subverting take-offs.
The nation’s institutions must work harmoniously to produce the positive synergy required for an economic take-off. It is absolutely critical that all national institutions align themselves with a national vision and function with harmony to overcome the inertia of forces of the status quo to ensure a national take-off. Pakistan is an evolving society in which new power centres are emerging alongside traditional structures of power. After the Eighteenth Amendment, provinces have assumed added responsibilities and roles. Coordination between the federal government and provinces for realising the national development agenda has become critical. The media, the private sector and civil society are new and powerful players in national affairs. The judiciary has assumed a new role in the wake of Judges Restoration Movement. The role of parliament and the legislatures has become critical for effective democratic governance. The civil and military bureaucracy plays a key role in our context.
Based on these fundamentals and lessons from our history, in order to ensure Pakistan’s take-off, it is critically important that all stakeholders, institutions and players join hands for a team effort. Political differences must not come in the way of the pursuit of national goals. Vision 2025 has been developed through elaborate and extensive consultation of all stakeholders. It has been approved with the consensus of all political parties represented in the governments of our federation, with the PML-N at the Centre and Punjab, the PTI and the Jamaat-e-Islami in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, the PPP in Sindh and the nationalist parties in Balochistan. The nation has declared its aspirations and intent to join the league of newly emerging economies with the goal to be among the top 25 economies of the world by 2025. In order to reach this goal, we will need to achieve an annual growth rate of over seven per cent. Though this may seem daunting, with the great dividend of the CPEC in our grasp, this goal is achievable. However, to realise this dream we need to follow the rules of a successful take-off — maintaining favourable political weather, ensuring a smooth platform of consistent policies, and working together as a united, determined and focused nation.
Ahsan Iqbal is the federal minister for planning, development and reform
Hope for Peace in Afghanistan?
By Jonathan Power
January 19, 2016
Yesterday in Kabul, the so-called Quadrilateral Coordination Group — comprising representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the US — met to hold discussions on a roadmap to peace in Afghanistan. A former Taliban senior official said that “military confrontation is not the solution” and that a “political solution” was needed to end the war in Afghanistan. “The motivation for peace talks was very weak in the past,” Mohammad Hassan Haqyar said. “But now the situation has changed and the parties seem to have a readiness for dialogue.”
Speaking before the meeting, Sartaj Aziz, the foreign affairs adviser to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said, “The primary objective of the reconciliation process is to create conditions to bring the Taliban groups to the negotiation table and offer them incentives that can persuade them to move away from using violence as a tool for pursuing political goals.” Some have compared these negotiations to those between the Vietcong and the Americans that brought a successful end to the Vietnam War. In fact, the two situations are not comparable. The Taliban, the ultra-fundamentalist Islamic guerrilla movement, does not hold a great deal of Afghanistan’s territory. The Vietcong controlled well over half. Shortly after the peace agreement they tore it up and captured Saigon, the capital of the South.
In Afghanistan, although US troops are being drawn down fast and now only amount to 10,000 plus a small contingent of aircraft, the Americans are relying on the Afghan army, which they have trained well, unlike the Iraqi army that disintegrated last year before the onslaught of Islamic State (IS). Nevertheless, the army is being battered. The 352,000-strong army and police last year sustained 28 percent more losses than in 2014.
A complicating factor is that IS has recently entered the fray joining the once defeated al Qaeda. Al Qaeda was the target of the original act of war made a few days after the 9/11 attack on the twin towers of New York. US and British jets effectively destroyed it. Stupidly, the allies stayed on, widening their purpose far beyond the limited goal of destroying al Qaeda that President George W Bush had announced was the bombing’s only purpose. The Americans and their NATO allies decided that they wanted to defeat the Taliban and other hostile groups so that Afghanistan could become democratic and treat its women right.
Today the Taliban are making ground and fight with a ferociousness that suggests they will always be a significant force in the country. They do not have the strength to challenge Kabul and the power of the central government but they have, in the last year, overrun military bases, district centres and security checkpoints, seizing many weapons. They now control more territory since the time before American forces kicked them out in 2001. They have taken most of the province of Helmand in the south. This gives them control over a large area of poppy growing. They are making money by selling opium to buy sophisticated weapons. Nevertheless, there are reliable reports that the Taliban are splitting as a result of two antagonistic claims for leadership following the death of its powerful leader, Mullah Omar. What are the chances of peace negotiations working? The political scientist James Fearon has noted that only 16 percent of civil wars and insurgencies end through a negotiated peace settlement.
Some observers are hopeful that on this occasion there can be a successful negotiation, given the long stalemate in the fighting. They point to the fact that there is new leadership in Kabul. The previous president, Hamid Karzai, had an embittered relationship with the US.
The second indication that things might go well is that Pakistan, a long-time clandestine supporter (publicly it has been helping the US) of the Taliban on the grounds that it needed to secure its interests in Afghanistan and to counter Indian influence, is using its weight to make peace. Since the attack in December 2014 that killed 132 school children in Peshawar, the government, facing outrage among most of its population, has been changing its policy towards the Taliban, although some say that parts of its intelligence service are still pro-Taliban. There is also a fear that unless the war ends the increasingly powerful Pakistani Taliban will cause severe problems.
How much will the Taliban concede at the peace talks? They say they will only renounce al Qaeda once a peace deal is signed. They will also want to participate in a new government. They will want a Loya Jirga (a council of all parties) in which the Taliban, the government and civil society come together to amend the Constitution that will legitimise the Taliban.
Most observers believe peace is a long shot. Moreover, if the Taliban had places in the government what would their demands be? They would want to sideline girls’ education and enforce the burka.
It will not be easy.
Jonathan Power has been a foreign affairs columnist for the International Herald Tribune for 20 years and author of the much acclaimed new book, Conundrums of Humanity — the Big Foreign Policy Questions of Our Age. He may be contacted at email@example.com