Taliban seek image makeover as Afghan peace talks gain momentum

The Taliban still holds most of Afghanistan. (FIle/AFP)
Updated 28 December 2018
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Taliban seek image makeover as Afghan peace talks gain momentum

  • “If peace comes and the Taliban return, then our return will not be in the same harsh way as it was in 1996,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said
  • “We want to assure Afghan nationals that there will be no threat to anyone from our side,” he added

KABUL/PESHAWAR, Pakistan: As moves toward peace pick up in Afghanistan, the Taliban are trying to show they have changed since the brutal days of the 1990s when they banned music and girls’ education and carried out public executions in Kabul’s football stadium.
“If peace comes and the Taliban return, then our return will not be in the same harsh way as it was in 1996,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told Reuters, referring to the year they took over in Kabul before their ouster by US-led troops in 2001.
“We want to assure Afghan nationals that there will be no threat to anyone from our side.”
The comments come as moves toward peace negotiations have intensified, following a series of meetings between US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban representatives over the past three months.
Expectations of a decisive shift have been heightened by reports that more than 5,000 US troops may be withdrawn from Afghanistan, in an abrupt about-turn from the previous US strategy of stepping up military pressure on the insurgents.
“Our opposition is with the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Once they are out and a peace deal is reached, then a nationwide amnesty will be announced,” said Mujahid.
“No one, police, army, government employees or anyone, will face revenge behavior from our side.”
Reports of the withdrawal are unconfirmed but they have triggered alarm among many Afghans with bitter memories of the Taliban’s ultra-hard-line regime.
“I don’t think their mindset has changed but they have realized that without respecting human rights, they cannot be accepted by the international community,” said Bilal Sediqi, spokesman for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
With Afghanistan likely to remain dependent on foreign aid for years, the Taliban know they cannot return to the past when fighters swept into Kabul after the chaos of the 1990s civil war.
But they insist that as well as the withdrawal of foreign forces, there will be a return to their strict version of Islamic rule and many Afghans doubt their claims to have softened, even while yearning for an end to the war.
In June, Taliban leaders were angry at their fighters swapping selfies with soldiers and government officials and eating ice cream with civilians during a three-day cease-fire. Soon afterwards, they launched complex attacks on strategic provinces to try to oust Afghan forces and used civilians as human shields.
“Tired of war”
“I know there is no place for me if the Taliban return in their old style,” said Abdul, a 12-year police veteran currently working in the western province of Farah.
.”..I will stand by the government side whatever it decides. But still I have not lost my hope in the future. The Taliban are not the old ones. We see changes among them. They are also tired of war.”
The Taliban, a predominantly ethnic Pashtun movement, strongest in the south and east of the country, now control large stretches of the countryside, where they levy taxes, run courts and control education.
For many conservative rural Afghans, Taliban rule provides welcome stability and the merciless punishments and rigid controls on women’s rights fit well with traditional practices in many areas.
In the Aqtash district of northern Kunduz province, a hotbed of Taliban insurgents, some women said they are allowed to walk freely and do not have to cover their faces in all-enveloping burqas.
Mujahid said the Taliban were not against women’s education or employment but wanted to maintain cultural and religious codes.
“We are not against women working in government organizations or against their outdoor activities, but we will be against the alien culture clothes worn by women, brought to our country,” Mujahid said.
Omaid Maisam, the deputy spokesman for Afghan Chief Executive officer Abdullah Abdullah, said the government protects human rights and the Taliban must accept the national constitution to shed their hard-line image.
“We have seen some signs of changes among them, but they have to show it in their actions that they have really changed,” he said.
Many believe the return on the Taliban would threaten the gains the country has made since 2001. Much work remains to be done to convince women in work or education and skeptical groups of ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras from northern and central Afghanistan.
“I think that these statements that the Taliban have changed are only excuses that are being used by the Taliban to gain acceptance,” said Malina Hamidi, a teacher at a school in the Chamtal district of Balkh province.
“I am 100 percent confident that once they come back to power, they will be the same Taliban that ruled Afghanistan in the nineties.”


Death row ‘spy’ in Pakistan must be freed, India tells UN court

Updated 11 min 55 sec ago
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Death row ‘spy’ in Pakistan must be freed, India tells UN court

  • Jadhav was accused of working for the Indian intelligence services in the province bordering Afghanistan, where Islamabad has long accused India of backing separatist rebels

THE HAGUE: Islamabad should be ordered to immediately free an Indian man sentenced to death for alleged spying in Pakistan, India’s lawyers told the UN’s top court Monday, saying his military trial was a “farcical case” based on “malicious propaganda.”
The hearing concerning Kulbushan Sudhir Jadhav at the International Court of Justice comes amid a sharp spike in tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, after a suicide attack on an Indian military convoy last week and renewed fighting in disputed Kashmir.
Jadhav, a former navy officer, was arrested in the restive southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan in March 2016 on charges of espionage and sentenced to death by a military court in 2017.
India insists Jadhav, 48, was not a spy and that he was kidnapped in Pakistan. New Delhi is now asking the ICJ — which rules in disputes between countries — to nullify his sentence and to order Islamabad to set him free.

“Considering the trauma he has been subjected to over the past three years, it would be in the interest of justice of making human rights a reality, to direct his release,” India’s lawyer Harish Salve told the judges.
He said Jadhav’s trial by military court “hopelessly failed to satisfy even the minimum standards of due process... and should be declared unlawful.”
Furthermore, he said, Pakistan “grossly violated” Jadhav’s human rights by refusing him consular access he was entitled to under the Vienna Convention, the treaty that governs diplomatic relations between countries.
India’s joint secretary at its External Affairs Ministry, Deepak Mittal, told the court the proceedings against Jadhav in Pakistan were based on a “farcical case” and “malicious propaganda.”
But Pakistan’s lawyer Khawar Qureshi hit back after the hearing, saying: “There are fundamental questions that India has yet to answer.
“Today, we are disappointed with India’s position. They’ve said nothing new,” Qureshi said, adding: “You will hear what we have to say about this tomorrow.”
New Delhi’s move in the controversial case comes as fresh bloodshed in Kashmir sent tensions between the neighbors soaring.
The rare foray into the international courts by India and Pakistan could be another flashpoint after Thursday’s suicide bombing in Indian-administered Kashmir that killed 41 troops.
Indian troops suffered new losses Monday in a fierce battle with Kashmir militants that left at least seven more dead.
The latest confrontation piled more pressure on the Indian government, which has blamed Pakistan for the suicide attack that sparked widespread calls for action against its neighbor.
Pakistan has rejected the allegations.

Jadhav was accused of working for the Indian intelligence services in the province bordering Afghanistan, where Islamabad has long accused India of backing separatist rebels.
After a closed trial he was sentenced to death by a Pakistani military court on April 10, 2017, on charges of “espionage, sabotage and terrorism.”
Pakistan’s “story has always been strong on rhetoric and blurry on facts,” Salve told the judges, adding that consular access should be granted immediately.
Islamabad reacted coolly to the ICJ’s urgent order at the time to stay Jadhav’s execution, saying it “has not changed the status of commander Jadhav’s case in any manner.”
The ICJ’s decision will likely come months after this week’s hearings.
Kashmir has been split between India and Pakistan since independence from Britain in 1947 with both countries, which have fought three wars, claiming it as their own.
India and Pakistan also routinely accuse each other of sending spies into their countries and it is not uncommon for either nation to expel diplomats accused of espionage, particularly at times of high tension.
Death sentences however have been rarely issued in recent years.
The last time India and Pakistan took a dispute to the ICJ was in 1999 when Islamabad protested at the downing of a Pakistani navy plane that killed 16 people.
The tribunal decided that it was not competent to rule in the dispute and closed the case.