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Opinion: Why the Taliban Will Never Agree to a Real Peace Deal

By Douglas London
They know they are winning. Why would they concede anything?
Last Saturday, the United States and the Taliban started a weeklong partial truce that, if it holds, could lead to the signing of a peace pact by the end of the month. To many, that could mean America’s more than 18-year war in Afghanistan might finally be drawing to a close. But this is a dangerously misguided belief.
In the final two years of my C.I.A. career, I was chief of counterterrorism for South and Southwest Asia, which includes Afghanistan and Pakistan. I am also a father who spent many sleepless nights worrying about my son during his two tours in Afghanistan with the Marine Corps. No one wants peace more than me. But I don’t share the optimism of those extolling the promise of this seven-day “reduction in violence.” I do not even believe that we have come to “the end of the beginning,” as Winston Churchill put it. Rather, the obstacles to peace are so profound and so numerous that the chances of a meaningful peace deal being signed, much less honored, strike me as vanishingly small.
To start with, the Taliban leadership has no incentive to embrace a deal that in any way requires concessions on their part, for one major reason: They believe they are winning. The Taliban has successfully challenged the government for control of rural areas, and by doing so, the roads necessary to resupply major urban areas. And while the government in Kabul can claim support from a greater percentage of the overall population — mainly people in the major cities — the Taliban continues to extend the territory over which it rules.
At the same time, the government of President Ashraf Ghani is facing a major political crisis over a contested election in which both he and his main political rival, Abdullah Abdullah, have claimed victory. (Mr. Abdullah has threatened to form a parallel government if he is not installed as president.) Moreover, the Trump administration seems intent on drawing down American forces to 8,000 troops, from 14,000, regardless of whether the Taliban takes any reciprocal action.
Why, then, would the Taliban agree to anything that might hinder what they see as their inevitable march to power? Time and momentum are on their side.
The insurgency’s leaders also face considerable internal resistance to signing a meaningful peace deal. The United States will insist that the Taliban enter negotiations with the American-backed government in Kabul and allow a residual force of American troops to remain inside Afghanistan to attack Islamic State and Al Qaeda forces.
But it is hard to imagine the Taliban leadership successfully convincing its fighters and most ardent supporters to accept those provisions, after years of deriding the government as “illegitimate American stooges” and of demanding that all foreign forces leave Afghan soil. Taliban leaders know that accepting any of those concessions could jeopardize their tenuous control of the movement, potentially snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
Just negotiating with the Taliban is a treacherous proposition, given how diverse, decentralized and factionalized the group is. Afghanistan has historically been controlled by regional warlords with no enduring loyalty to any particular ideology, leader or cause. Even today, such regional strongmen continue to defy central authority, be it that of the Kabul government or the Taliban. The Taliban itself is no different. Predominantly Pashtun, it comprises various geographic and tribal constituencies, and its leadership struggles to maintain cohesion among those groups.At the top of the Taliban hierarchy is Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada. A hard-line religious scholar from the Taliban’s southern base of support in Kandahar, he was long a senior figure within the group’s Islamic courts. He leads by virtue of religious credentials and connections rather than military credentials, and is known as a consensus builder unlikely to take risks.
One of his deputies is Mullah Muhammad Yaqoub, the son of deceased Taliban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar. Now 30 years old, Mullah Yaqoub ostensibly leads the Taliban’s Quetta-based shura, or council, overseeing Taliban activities in the country’s more predominantly Pashtun south and west. But he lacks battlefield experience and his bloodline provides little guarantee that his father’s loyal followers will consistently support him.
The Taliban leader with the most battlefield credibility is another deputy, Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the shadowy Haqqani network that controls the Taliban’s Peshawar-based shura, with operations in northern, eastern and central Afghanistan. Separated by mountains from the southern Pashtuns as well as Afghanistan’s northern Tajiks and Uzbeks, the Haqqani network’s manpower, financial resources and battlefield skills, particularly suicide bombings and kidnapping operations learned through cooperation with Al Qaeda, have been crucial to Taliban success.
It is telling that Mr. Haqqani was the author of a Times Op-Ed last week asserting that the Taliban was prepared to accept a peace accord. The Haqqani network is the Taliban’s most independent and militarily effective fighting force. In having the reclusive Mr. Haqqani be author of the piece, the Taliban leadership might have been trying to send a message of unity to both the West and to Taliban commanders in the field.
Even so, there’s another impediment to securing a real peace deal: Members of the Taliban’s Qatar-based negotiating team are largely disconnected from and disrespected by the Taliban’s senior leadership. The lead negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, is a career Taliban politician, not a warrior, who was replaced as deputy Taliban foreign minister in the late 1990s after his own falling out with Taliban leadership. The team’s ostensible chief is Mullah Omar’s former deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was wasting away in a Pakistani prison until the United States pushed for his release in late 2018, probably because he has long supported negotiations.So what is really driving these peace talks? The answer seems to be President Trump, who has promised to end America’s involvement in Afghanistan and made the release of American hostages a priority. The president’s special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, a Trump loyalist, is determined to secure a deal that need only survive until the fall election. Mr. Khalilzad, who appears to be interested in becoming secretary of state in a second Trump term, pressured President Ashraf Ghani last November to release Anas Haqqani, Sirajuddin Haqqani’s younger brother, along with two other prominent Haqqani network officials, in exchange for two Westerners held by the group. The exchange was viewed as a crucial first step toward revitalizing the negotiations. But in a bad omen for the impending deal, a cease-fire in Zabul province that was promised as part of the prisoner exchange never materialized.All of this means that the Taliban will have little to lose from signing a deal that they can walk away from, and much to gain when the United States draws down its forces. Significantly, among the American troops that will depart are those who train the most effective government fighters, the Afghan special operations forces. Those commandos have had an outsize impact in relieving besieged Afghan cities. Neutralizing them is a key goal of Taliban and Haqqani field commanders.
I am not arguing that the United States should keep troops in Afghanistan forever. But there are better ways to seek a true, lasting peace — such as by treating Afghanistan as the fractured nation it is and negotiating separate deals with regional Taliban leaders and warlords.
No one cares more about finding lasting peace in Afghanistan than those of us who have toiled on these issues for years and lost friends on its battlefields. But there is little reason to believe that an agreement calling for substantial concessions from the Taliban is possible right now, regardless of the optimistic talk emanating from Washington. A one-week “reduction in violence” is not a cease-fire, and a deal that yields concessions without demanding any in return will not bring real peace.

#AbolishBlasphemylaws - Blasphemy still a potent tool for Pakistan's hushed hardliners


Inside a small Lahore courtroom, the packed crowd attending the hearing of a blasphemy case against a Christian pastor is most notable for the absence of hard-line clerics shouting insults and demanding the death penalty.
For years, they would attend such hearings in force, seeking to pressure magistrates to convict and impose the severest sentences on anyone facing what is an incendiary charge in Pakistan.
But one year after the conclusion of the country’s most high-profile blasphemy case and a government crackdown against extremists who exploited it for political ends, the clerics are largely gone.
“Before Asia Bibi, dozens of maulanas (religious scholars) were coming to my hearings,” said the pastor Adnan Prince, who stands accused of desecrating the Koran.
“After that, they didn’t come anymore,” Prince said.
The case of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010 and acquitted by the Supreme Court in 2018, shone a global spotlight on the use — and abuse — of blasphemy laws in Pakistan.Her release was pounced on by the hard-line Islamist Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan party (Movement at the Service of the Prophet), which was formed five years ago and gained influence by weaponizing the blasphemy issue.The party spearheaded violent street protests against Bibi’s acquittal and called for the Supreme Court justices to be killed, but crossed the reddest of red lines by urging the overthrow of the country’s powerful army chief.A government crackdown ensued that netted thousands of TLP loyalists — a move that Prince’s lawyer, Asad Jamal, credits for the absence of the maulanas.“The voice of the (religious) far right has been muffled,” Jamal said, adding that the crackdown had sent a clear signal to the extremists who abandoned their courtroom lobbying.
But if that lowered the intimidating decibel levels in court, “the feeling of fear is still there” among the magistrates, Jamal stressed.
According to one former judge, magistrates in Pakistan’s lower courts remain very vulnerable to intimidation in blasphemy cases, given that they often live among the communities they serve.Due to the risk of being labeled blasphemers themselves if they acquit, they tend to “always convict,” said the former judge.A recent example saw a university professor, Junaid Hafeez, sentenced to death in December for insulting the Prophet Mohammed.Given that the first lawyer who agreed to represent Hafeez was murdered, his family argued there was never any prospect of receiving a fair hearing.
“Could any judge in such circumstances take the risk of doing justice?” they said in a statement.
Condemning the sentence, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said blasphemy laws continued to be “heavily misused” and the judicial process was “ridden by delays and pressures at the level of the lower judiciary.”The contention that many guilty rulings by magistrates in blasphemy cases are flawed has been borne out by the significant number that are overturned on appeal by higher courts.
But Pakistan’s clogged justice system means the appeal process can take years.
Last September, the Supreme Court acquitted Wajih-ul-Hassan after he had spent 18 years on death row for allegedly insulting the prophet.
And even after release from prison, freedom is a relative term when it comes to allegations of blasphemy and the vigilante violence that often surrounds them.
“In many people’s minds, even though he’s been acquitted, he’s still guilty,” said his lawyer, Nadeem Anthony. “So he has to live in hiding.”
The communities most at threat from abuses of the blasphemy law are religious minorities, including the Ahmadi sect, whose belief in a prophet after Mohammed is viewed as heresy by most mainstream Muslims.
“The vulnerability is still there and it is going to remain as long as the law is there and people accept its legitimacy,” said a spokesman for the sect, Usman Ahmad.Blasphemy is a hugely inflammatory charge in Pakistan. Merely suggesting reform of the law can trigger violence, most notably in the case of Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s most populous province, who was shot dead by his own bodyguard in 2011.Hanged four years ago, the bodyguard was hailed as a martyr by his supporters, who built a popular shrine in his memory on the outskirts of Islamabad.No wonder then that politicians are mostly extremely reluctant to speak out against any aspect of the blasphemy law, and Prime Minister Imran Khan notably voiced his full support for the legislation during his successful 2018 election campaign.Defending itself against accusations of pandering to extremists, the government points to the support it gave Asia Bibi after her acquittal, despite the intense pressure brought by groups like the TLP.
Bibi left Pakistan for a new life in Canada in May last year.
Extremists represent just “one percent” of the Pakistani population, insisted government spokeswoman Firdous Ashiq Awan.
“A minority of people can’t reflect the mindset of a society,” she said.
Nevertheless, the TLP secured more than 2.2 million votes in the 2018 general elections and is hopeful of winning seats in local polls later this year. The party demonstrated its influence last month by successfully blocking the release of a new film by prominent director Sarmad Khosat on the grounds that it contained blasphemous content. “Blasphemy is a point through which we attract people,” Rehman Ali Tarar, a prospective TLP candidate, said at a recent rally with thousands of party supporters in Lahore.

#Pakistan - #AsiaBibi: I always believed I would be freed

Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman who spent years on death row after being convicted of blasphemy, says she always believed she would be freed.
Now living in Canada, she told the BBC that she hoped she would be able to return to Pakistan one day.
Ms Bibi has released a memoir, Enfin Libre! (Finally Free), written with French journalist Anne-Isabelle Tollet.
In it, she recounts her time in jail and her brutal treatment by guards.
In one of the most disturbing incidents she recounts how she had her neck put in a brace that was tightened with a key, and was pulled about on a chain by guards.
Pakistani authorities have dismissed the allegations, saying her claims of torture were "not plausible".

Who is Asia Bibi?

  • Asia Noreen - commonly known as Asia Bibi - was accused of blasphemy after an argument with a group of women in June 2009
  • A year later she became the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan's blasphemy laws, causing an international outcry
  • The death sentence was quashed by the Supreme Court in 2018, triggering violent protests by religious hardliners

Ms Bibi spoke to the BBC during a visit to France where she is promoting her new book.
She recalled how, in 2009, a longstanding dispute with neighbours culminated in a group of local women accusing her of insulting the Prophet Muhammad.
"My husband was at work, my kids were in school, I had gone to pick fruit in the orchard," she said. "A mob came and dragged me away. They made fun of me, I was very helpless."
In her book, Ms Bibi tells how she feared for her life in prison, with other inmates calling for her to be hanged. She also recalled mistreatment at the hands of the prison guards.
"I can't breathe," she writes. "My neck is compressed by a neck brace that the guard can tighten as much as he wants with a big key. A long chain drags on the dirty floor; it links my throat to the guard's handcuffs that drags me like a dog."
Ms Bibi told the BBC that her Christian faith helped her through the ordeal.
"They said change your faith, and you'll be freed. But I said no. I will live my sentence. With my faith," she said.
"I found out from my husband that the whole world was praying for me. And that even the Pope had prayed for me. That made me happy. And I found out the whole world was praying for my misery to end.
"That made me feel that their prayers would definitely free me."
Media captionAsia Bibi's escape from Pakistan death row
Ms Bibi called on Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan to free anyone unjustly accused or convicted of blasphemy and to ensure that the charges are investigated properly.
"Innocents should not be punished for no reason and people who are innocent, in prison, should be freed," she said.
"During the investigation, both parties should be questioned properly because there are a lot of problems in our investigative procedures. And it is hard to tell who is on whose side."
Despite her ordeal, Ms Bibi said she still felt positively about Pakistan and hoped to return there one day.
"It was my country that freed me. That makes me proud," she said.
"I left of my own volition because I was in danger there. Anything could have happened to me at any point. So that's why I left my country. But I have the same love for my country in my heart now. I still respect my country and I want to see the day when I'm able to go back."
She also recalled her sorrow at hearing while in jail that two politicians who tried to help her - Shahbaz Bhatti and Salman Taseer - had been murdered.
"I cried a lot. I cried for more than a week for them. Even today, my heart is full of sadness for them and I miss them," she said.
But, she says she feels no bitterness to those who called for her to be killed.
"I'm not angry at all, I've forgiven everyone from my heart and there is no hardness in me, there is patience in me because I learned how to be patient after having to leave my children behind," she said.

Who are Pakistan's Christians?

Christian children in Lahore
  • Make up 1.6% of Pakistan's predominantly Muslim population
  • Majority are descendents of those who converted from Hinduism under the British Raj
  • Most converted to escape their low-caste status and many are among the poorest in Pakistan
  • Targeting of Christians fuelled by strong anti-blasphemy laws and anger over US-led war in Afghanistan

The vast majority of those convicted of blasphemy in Pakistan are Muslims or members of the Ahmadi community who identify themselves as Muslims but are regarded as heretical by orthodox Islam.
Since the 1990s scores of Christians have also been convicted. They make up just 1.6% of the population.
The Christian community has been targeted in numerous attacks in recent years, leaving many feeling vulnerable to a climate of intolerance.
Data provided by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) shows a total of 720 Muslims, 516 Ahmedis, 238 Christians and 31 Hindus have been accused under various clauses of the blasphemy law from 1987 until 2017.
Pakistani authorities say blasphemy laws exist in many parts of the world and that all such cases in Pakistan are brought before the courts and follow due process.
Ms Bibi says in her book that the Christian community is despised and bullied and discriminated against.
But Pakistan says it attaches high importance to the protection of rights of minorities, which are guaranteed under its constitution.
Enfin Libre! By Asia Bibi is out now in French and other languages, and an English translation of the book will be available in September.

#AsiaBibi: #Pakistani woman jailed for #blasphemy claims asylum in #France

Jon Henley

 Emmanuel Macron invites Christian who spent eight years on death row to live in-country.

Asia Bibi, the Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years on death row on blasphemy charges, has filed an initial application for asylum in France and been invited to live in the country by Emmanuel Macron.
But speaking after a meeting with the French president in the Elysée palace on Friday, Bibi said she had not decided where she would settle. She was acquitted last year and granted a one-year leave of stay with her family in Canada.
“I need time to think,” Bibi said. “Canada has been good to me. France has been very good to me – and France has given me a name. But for the time being I need to concentrate on my health, my family and my children’s education.”
Bibi’s case outraged Christians around the world and fanned divisions inside mainly Muslim Pakistan. The former farm labourer was sentenced to death in 2010 after Muslim labourers working with her in the fields refused to share their water because she was Christian.
An argument broke out and one woman went to a local cleric to accuse Bibi of committing blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad. Two Pakistani politicians were later killed for publicly supporting her and criticising the country’s draconian blasphemy laws.
Pakistan’s supreme court overturned the conviction in October 2018, sparking violent protests in Pakistan and calls for the judges in the case to be killed. The violence was led by the Islamic group Tehreek-e-Labbaik.
Bibi was also in France to promote her book Enfin Libre! (Finally Free!), co-written Anne-Isabelle Tollet, a French journalist who helped publicise her case with two previous books and forming an international support committee in 2015.
“I was very honoured to be received by the president, to be next to him, and to be invited to live here,” Bibi said, sitting alongside her daughter Eisha, 21, who is disabled. She was also accompanied on the trip by her husband Ashiq, 58, and her second daughter Eisham, 20.
“France is a symbol for me,” she said. “It was the first country in the world to really support me, and the country from which my name became known.” Bibi said she was also deeply honoured earlier this week to meet the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who presented her with honorary citizenship of the city.
An Elysée official said France was “ready to welcome” Bibi if she wished, providing she met the criteria for asylum. French rules require asylum seekers to submit a request to an independent state agency, Ofpra, which decides whether it should be to granted.
It is understood that Bibi filled in the appropriate forms with her family members on Friday. Although she said she had not received any recent death threats, Islamic extremists have pledged to pursue and kill her.
In Canada, she lives with her husband and daughters in a three-bedroom apartment in an undisclosed location. She told French media this week that she was hopeful things would change to allow her and her family to return to Pakistan one day.
“I really hope for it, just the way I kept hope when I was in jail that one day I was going to be free,” she said. Bibi said she was grateful for the prayers of fellow Christians around the world who had helped her remain strong before her release.
In her book, Bibi recounts how she was kept chained in prison and jeered at by other detainees. A devout Catholic, she said she had never committed blasphemy: “I cannot even think of insulting any prophet. I didn’t say anything. It was all about a glass of water.”

UN rights chief slams Pakistan for failing to reign in violence on minorities

Even as a debate is underway in India over religious freedom owing to the contentious citizenship law protests, the UN Human Rights chief has flagged violent attacks on minorities in neighboring Pakistan.

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, on Thursday, said religious minorities in Pakistan continue to face violence and repeated attacks on their places of worship.
The UN High Commissioner also blamed Prime Minister Imran Khan government’s failure to amend the country’s notorious blasphemy law provisions which are often used to perpetrate violence against persons from minority communities.
While addressing the ongoing 43rd Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on human rights developments, Bachelet mentioned the case of Junaid Hafeez, a university lecturer in Pakistan, who was sentenced to death in December for blasphemy.
“Religious minorities in Pakistan continue to face violence, repeated attacks on their places of worship, and discrimination in law and practice,” Bachelet said.
“The (Pakistan) Government, despite recommendations from international human rights mechanisms, has not amended or repealed blasphemy law provisions which have led to violence against religious minorities, as well as to arbitrary arrests and prosecution,” the former Chilean president said in a statement on Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law.
“The death penalty remains mandatory for blasphemy, and in December, the Multan Court sentenced Junaid Hafeez to death on a blasphemy charge, in contravention of international human rights law,” she added.
Junaid Hafeez case
Janai Hafeez, 33, a university lecturer who was arrested in March 2013, was sentenced to death for blasphemy. He was accused of posting derogatory comments about Prophet Muhammad on social media.
Hafeez’s case came under international scrutiny when his lawyer Rashid Rehman was shot dead in 2014 after agreeing to take up the case.
The accused had to be kept in solitary confinement after being repeatedly attacked by other prisoners in jail.
Hafeez completed his Master’s in the United States on a Fullbright Scholarship with a specialisation in American literature, photography and theatre. He took up the position of Bahauddin Zakariya University (BZU) in Multan where he was employed till his arrest.
Hafeez’s lawyer at the time had described the judgement as “most unfortunate”.