Pessimism looms over outcome as Pakistan clears talks with local Taliban

Special Pessimism looms over outcome as Pakistan clears talks with local Taliban
The Pakistani Taliban — known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — is not directly affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, but pledges allegiance to them. (AFP)
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Updated 07 July 2022

Pessimism looms over outcome as Pakistan clears talks with local Taliban

Pessimism looms over outcome as Pakistan clears talks with local Taliban
  • Parliamentary Committee on National Security on Tuesday formally approved negotiations with TTP militants
  • TPP extended ceasefire indefinitely after talks with Pakistani tribal elders mediated by Afghan Taliban in June

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistani government holding negotiations with local Taliban militants has been described by experts this week as “the only solution” for it to end militancy in the country, but many were skeptical about whether the process would lead to a positive outcome after previous failures.

The Pakistani Taliban — known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — has carried out some of the bloodiest attacks inside Pakistan since 2007, including a 2014 assault on a school in which 134 students were killed. The group is not directly affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, but pledges allegiance to them.

Pakistan has since 2007 carried out a number of military operations against the TTP, but despite reducing the militant group’s footprint — with most fighters fleeing to neighboring Afghanistan — it has not been able to fully stop attacks, which had begun to rise again along its western border in recent months.

On June 4, the TTP extended a ceasefire with the government for an indefinite period, after two-day talks with a delegation of Pakistani tribal elders facilitated by the Afghan Taliban, who have run the government in Kabul since US-led forces withdrew last year.

This week, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chaired an on-camera meeting in Islamabad attended by over 100 lawmakers and officials to deliberate on talks with the Pakistani Taliban. The Parliamentary Committee on National Security subsequently gave its formal approval to hold the talks and also set up a parliamentary committee to oversee the process and ensure it was carried out within the ambit of the constitution.

Pakistan media has widely reported that at the heart of talks is an offer to accommodate the TTP with a safe passage back to Pakistan from Afghanistan in exchange for the group agreeing to a long-term ceasefire, dissolving its organization and possibly even joining mainstream politics.

“Pakistan wants to do it (talks) because the militancy problem is not over and they have realized that the only solution to this problem is that local Taliban should be integrated into the mainstream,” Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Kabul, told Arab News on Wednesday.

“Because for how long can military operations go on?”

Though the Afghan Taliban were brokering talks with the TTP as they had to uphold an international obligation not to let any militants use Afghan soil to attack another country, Mohmand said the Kabul government also did not want to force the TTP to come to the table or agree to a deal.

Afghan Taliban leaders have in the past openly praised the TTP for its contributions to the insurgency against the US-led security assistance coalition and the former Afghan government, and hinted that it cannot abandon the Pakistani affiliate.

“Afghan Taliban are the facilitators and they are playing this role because for some time TTP fighters fought with them in Afghanistan,” Mohmand added. “But if they (Afghan Taliban) will force them towards Pakistan, then TTP will blame them for their arrests (in Pakistan).”

Speaking about the main demands of the militant group, the diplomat said the TTP wanted a resolution of the issue of missing persons, compensation for losses endured from military operations, and for Pakistan to scrap a 2018 law that did away with the semi-independent status of the former tribal regions, FATA, that dates back to British colonial rule.

The TTP also wants a substantial reduction of Pakistani military forces from the former tribal areas, which border Afghanistan and where the group was mostly harboring before being driven out through military operations.

“Government will not accept the revival of the tribal system as it requires a constitutional amendment," Mohmand said, adding: “There is little hope on missing persons, so in reality, they can only move forward on the compensation issue.”

Abdul Basit Khan, a research fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the government’s negotiations with the TTP were a “sensible move” to reduce violence in Pakistan’s border regions.

“Pakistan wants to reduce violence and they have achieved it as due to the ceasefire, attacks have already gone down,” Khan told Arab News, adding that there was “no military solution” to the TTP problem.

“(The) parliamentary committee on national security has taken a clear position that only those demands which fall within the Pakistani constitutional framework will be accepted and any demand contradictory to it will not be accepted, such as reversal of FATA merger,” Khan said. “And TTP will also not be allowed to keep arms even if it is repatriated to Pakistan.”

Former diplomat, Ayaz Wazir, supported the talks but was skeptical there could be a “permanent solution” unless the people of the former tribal regions were included in the decision-making process.

“The real problem with the decision-makers is that they never take (the) people of FATA into confidence, neither at the time of military operations, nor during the merger, and that vacuum has always provided space to the TTP to resurface,” he said.

Last year, the two sides had agreed to a ceasefire but talks broke down due to a disagreement over the release of TTP prisoners held by Pakistan, according to local media.

Another analyst, retired Brig. Mahmood Shah, a former chief of security in the tribal areas, said another round of negotiations with TTP after previous failures was a “bad idea” that was bound to fail. He also said the Pakistani constitution did not allow for talks with any group that challenged the nation’s sovereignty.

“These talks cannot succeed and will never produce a sustainable solution as TTP will not back down from its core ideology and keep pursuing it with the use of violence as a tool,” Shah told Arab News.

Between 2006 and 2015, nearly 50 militant groups declared war on the Pakistani state, conducting over 16,000 terror attacks, according to government figures. More than 80,000 people have been killed in the violence, which cost over $150 billion in losses to the Pakistani economy and drove 3.5 million people from their homes in the tribal regions where military operations were carried out.

“Pakistan has thrown them (TTP) out of tribal areas after extensive military operations and a lot of sacrifices,” Shah said. “What was the rationale of all those previous actions if they will now be allowed to return?”


‘Stranded’ Afghanistan translators sue UK government

‘Stranded’ Afghanistan translators sue UK government
Updated 10 sec ago

‘Stranded’ Afghanistan translators sue UK government

‘Stranded’ Afghanistan translators sue UK government
  • ‘We saved British soldiers and now save our lives’
  • Defense Ministry regrets delay, cites complexity of cases

LONDON: Several Afghan translators who worked with the British army during their deployment in Afghanistan and who were allegedly left behind during last year’s evacuation are reportedly suing the UK government.

According to Sky News, the solicitor for at least six translators said the processing system they had been through was “appalling” after four of them were initially rejected, and then later approved to come to the UK after legal papers were lodged.

One of the translators, who was not on an evacuation flight with his family last August, and who lodged a legal appeal following an ARAP (Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy) scheme rejection, told the channel he felt “stranded” in Afghanistan.

According to the report, he successfully applied for relocation in February and in May was told to await instructions regarding how to leave Afghanistan via a third country, but is still awaiting those instructions.

“I’m really afraid and I’m in hiding,” he told Sky News. “I’m feeling so unhappy, I live like in a prison, my message to the British Army ‘we saved the lives of the British soldiers and now it’s time to save my life and my family’s life.’”

Another man, who has also lodged a legal appeal, had to be assisted by the Canadian government to escape Afghanistan, and has since been living in a hotel room in Pakistan with his wife and five children.

“The overall handling of the scheme, in spite of reassurances, has been appalling,” solicitor Qays Sediqi told Sky News.

“These individuals — if they didn’t have legal representation — would be left stranded in Afghanistan or a third country where they have no right of residence,” he added.

ARAP was launched in April 2021 and, since then, more than 10,000 people have successfully relocated, from around 120,000 applications. However, it is believed a further 8,000 are eligible.

Delays were “regrettable,” according to the UK Ministry of Defense, which also said it was putting more resources into identifying and assisting eligible applicants.

“We continue to relocate eligible Afghans who worked with the UK armed forces under the ARAP scheme and are working with partners in the region to bring out as many people as we can on a regular basis,” a spokesperson said.

“All applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis. Processing timelines vary due to the complexity and personal circumstances of each applicant and we regret any delays as we work through complex cases.

“We are investing in a new casework system, putting in more resource(s) and adapting our approach to make it easier and quicker to identify and process applications from eligible Afghans,” the spokesperson added.

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Ex-Philippine leader and democracy defender Fidel Ramos is buried

Ex-Philippine leader and democracy defender Fidel Ramos is buried
Updated 11 min 18 sec ago

Ex-Philippine leader and democracy defender Fidel Ramos is buried

Ex-Philippine leader and democracy defender Fidel Ramos is buried
  • Former president died July 31 at age 94 from COVID-19 complications
  • His six-year term was marked by major reforms and attempts to monopolies

MANILA: Former Philippine President Fidel Ramos was laid to rest in a state funeral Tuesday, hailed as an ex-general, who backed then helped oust a dictatorship and became a defender of democracy and can-do reformist in his poverty-wracked Asian country.
Ramos died July 31 at age 94 from COVID-19 complications at the Makati Medical Center in the capital region, his family said. He also suffered from a heart condition and dementia and had been in and out of hospital in recent years, former aides said.
An urn containing the ashes of the US-trained general, who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars, was placed in a flag-draped coffin, which was carried by six pallbearers amid somber music.
His cremated remains were placed in his grave after a funeral procession led by honor guards and his family, which was showered with flower petals from two helicopters. The ceremony, which was broadcast live nationwide by state-run and major TV networks, was attended by newly elected President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and was capped by a 21-gun salute.
Marcos Jr. visited Ramos’ wake Thursday and condoled with the family of Ramos, who, he said, “was a symbol of stability after all the tumultuous events of 1986.”
Marcos Jr. is the namesake son of the former Philippine dictator, whose 1986 ouster came after Ramos — then a top official of the Philippine Constabulary — and defense chief Juan Ponce Enrile withdrew their support in defections that sparked massive army-backed protests.
Ramos was the late dictator’s second cousin and had helped the elder Marcos enforce martial law starting in 1972 in an era when thousands of people were incarcerated, tortured and became victims of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.
Ramos was laid to rest near the grave of the dictator, who was buried at the Heroes Cemetery with military honors in 2016 in a secrecy-shrouded ceremony after then-President Rodrigo Duterte gave his approval and the Supreme Court dismissed objections from human rights activists.
The Department of National Defense, which was once led by Ramos, said he was a decorated soldier who spearheaded the modernization of the military, one of Asia’s most underfunded. He organized the elite special forces of the army and the national police.
The cigar-chomping Ramos, known for his “we can do this” rallying call to Filipinos, thumbs-up sign, attention to detail and firm handshakes, served as president from 1992 to 1998, succeeding democracy icon Corazon Aquino.
She was swept into the presidency in 1986 after the largely peaceful “People Power” revolt that toppled the dictator and became a harbinger of change in authoritarian regimes worldwide.
Marcos, his family and cronies were driven into US exile, where he died in 1989.
After Aquino rose to the presidency, Ramos became the military chief of staff and later defense secretary, successfully defending her from several violent coup attempts. In 1992, Ramos won the presidential elections and became the largely Roman Catholic nation’s first Protestant president.
His six-year term was marked by major reforms and attempts to dismantle telecommunications and other business monopolies that triggered a rare economic boom, bolstered the image of the impoverished Southeast Asian country and drew praise from business leaders and the international community.
In his last State of the Nation address before a joint session of Congress in 1997, Ramos said only sustained development, a modernized agriculture, industrialization and adequate infrastructure would allow the country to wipe out poverty. But he stressed it was crucial for Filipinos to safeguard democracy.
“We cannot allow our democracy to wither — because Philippine democracy is our unique comparative advantage in the new global order,” Ramos said then. “Without freedom, economic growth is meaningless. And so, freedom, markets, and progress go together.”
One of his legacies was the 1996 signing of a peace pact between his government and the Moro National Liberation Front, the largest Muslim separatist group at the time in the volatile southern Philippines, homeland of minority Muslims.
Ramos’ calm bearing in times of crises, including the 1997 Asian financial crisis, earned him the moniker “Steady Eddie.”
A son of a longtime legislator and foreign secretary, Ramos graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1950. He was a part of the Philippine combat contingent that fought in the Korean War and was also involved in the Vietnam War as a non-combat civil military engineer.


Taiwan holds military drill as China accused of preparing invasion

Taiwan holds military drill as China accused of preparing invasion
Updated 32 min 9 sec ago

Taiwan holds military drill as China accused of preparing invasion

Taiwan holds military drill as China accused of preparing invasion
  • Taiwan lives under the constant threat of invasion by China
  • Taipei’s drill started in the southern county of Pingtung shortly with the firing of target flares and artillery

FENGGANG TOWNSHIP, Taiwan: Taiwan held an artillery drill Tuesday simulating a defense against an attack as its top diplomat accused Beijing of preparing to invade the island after days of massive Chinese war games.
China launched its largest-ever air and sea exercises around Taiwan last week in a furious response to a visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the highest-ranking American official to visit the self-ruled island in decades.
Taiwan lives under the constant threat of invasion by China, which views its neighbor as part of Chinese territory to be seized one day, by force if necessary.
“China has used the drills and its military playbook to prepare for the invasion of Taiwan,” Joseph Wu told a press conference in Taipei on Tuesday, accusing Beijing of using Pelosi’s visit as a pretext for military action.
“China’s real intention is to alter the status quo in the Taiwan Strait and entire region,” he said.
Taipei’s drill started in the southern county of Pingtung shortly with the firing of target flares and artillery, ending just under an hour later, said Lou Woei-jye, spokesman for Taiwan’s Eighth Army Corps.
Soldiers fired from howitzers tucked into the coast, hidden from view of the road that leads to popular beach destination Kenting.
The drills, which will also take place Thursday, included the deployment of hundreds of troops and about 40 howitzers, the army said.
On Monday, Lou said the drills had been scheduled previously and were not in response to China’s exercises.
The island routinely stages military drills simulating defense against a Chinese invasion, and last month practiced repelling attacks from the sea in a “joint interception operation” as part of its largest annual exercises.
The anti-landing exercises come after China extended its own joint sea and air drills around Taiwan on Monday, but Washington said it did not expect an escalation from Beijing.
“I’m not worried, but I’m concerned they’re moving as much as they are. But I don’t think they’re going to do anything more than they are,” Biden told reporters at Dover Air Force Base.
China has not confirmed if its drills in the Taiwan Strait will continue Tuesday.
But Taiwanese foreign minister Joseph Wu condemned Beijing for extending its military exercises around the island, accusing them of trying to control the Taiwan Strait and waters in the wider Asia-Pacific region.
“It is conducting large-scale military exercises and missile launches, as well as cyber-attacks, a disinformation campaign and economic coercion in order to weaken public morale in Taiwan,” he said.
Wu went on to thank Western allies, including the US after Pelosi’s visit, for standing up to China.
“It also sends a clear message to the world that democracy will not bow to the intimidation of authoritarianism,” he said.
Taiwan has insisted that no Chinese warplanes or ships entered its territorial waters — within 12 nautical miles of land — during Beijing’s drills.
The Chinese military, however, released a video last week of an air force pilot filming the island’s coastline and mountains from his cockpit, showing how close it had come to Taiwan’s shores.
Its ships and planes have also regularly crossed the median line — an unofficial demarcation between China and Taiwan that the former does not recognize — since drills began last week.
Ballistic missiles were fired over Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, during the exercises last week, according to Chinese state media.
On Tuesday, the Chinese military released more details about the anti-submarine drills it had conducted a day earlier around the island.
The People’s Liberation Army’s Eastern Theater command said the exercises were aimed at enhancing the ability of air and sea units to work together while hunting submarines.
It said maritime patrol aircraft, fighter jets, helicopters and a destroyer practiced locating and attacking targets in the waters off Taiwan.
The scale and intensity of China’s drills — as well as its withdrawal from key talks on climate and defense — have triggered outrage in the United States and other democracies.
The drills have also shown how an increasingly emboldened Chinese military could carry out a gruelling blockade of the island, experts say.
But Beijing on Monday defended its behavior as “firm, forceful and appropriate” to American provocation.
“(We) are only issuing a warning to the perpetrators,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular briefing, promising China would “firmly smash the Taiwan authorities’ illusion of gaining independence through the US.”
“We urge the US to do some earnest reflection, and immediately correct its mistakes.”


Islamic communities fearful after 4 killings in Albuquerque

Islamic communities fearful after 4 killings in Albuquerque
Updated 33 min 2 sec ago

Islamic communities fearful after 4 killings in Albuquerque

Islamic communities fearful after 4 killings in Albuquerque
  • Killings have sent ripples of fear through Islamic communities in New Mexico and beyond and fueled a race to find who was responsible

First was the killing of a Muslim man from Afghanistan late last year. Then came two more slayings in the last two weeks — men from Pakistan who attended the same mosque in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Those deaths were followed Friday by the city’s fourth homicide of a Muslim man in nine months. Together the killings have sent ripples of fear through Islamic communities in New Mexico and beyond and fueled a race to find who was responsible.
Authorities on Monday identified the latest victim as they sought help searching for a vehicle believed to be connected to the slayings. The common elements were the victims’ race and religion, officials said.
Naeem Hussain was killed Friday night, and the three other men died in ambush shootings. Police in New Mexico’s largest city are trying to determine if the deaths are linked.
“The fact the suspect remains at large is terrifying,” Debbie Almontaser, a Muslim community leader in New York, wrote on Twitter. “Who is next?!”
In a phone interview, Almontaser said that a female friend who lives in Michigan and wears the hijab head covering shared with her over the weekend just how rattled she was. “She’s like, ‘This is so terrifying. I’m so scared. I travel alone,’” Almontaser said.
Hussain, 25, was from Pakistan. His death came just days after those of Muhammad Afzaal Hussain, 27, and Aftab Hussein, 41, who were also from Pakistan and members of the same mosque.
The earliest case involves the November killing of Mohammad Ahmadi, 62, from Afghanistan.
Aneela Abad, general secretary at the Islamic Center of New Mexico, described a community reeling from the killings, its grief compounded by confusion and fear of what may follow.
“We are just completely shocked and still trying to comprehend and understand what happened, how and why,” she said.
Some people have avoided going out unless “absolutely necessary,” and some Muslim university students have been wondering whether it is safe for them to stay in the city, she said. The center has also beefed up its security.
Police said the same vehicle is suspected of being used in all four homicides — a dark gray or silver four-door Volkswagen that appears to be a Jetta or Passat with dark tinted windows. Authorities released photos hoping people could help identify the car and offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.
Investigators did not say where the images were taken or what led them to suspect the car was involved in the slayings. Police spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos said in an email Monday that the agency has received tips regarding the car but did not elaborate.
“We have a very, very strong link,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said Sunday. “We have a vehicle of interest … We have got to find this vehicle.”
Gallegos said he could not comment on what kind of gun was used in the shootings, or whether police know how many suspects were involved in the violence.
President Joe Biden said he was “angered and saddened” by the killings and that his administration “stands strongly with the Muslim community.”
“These hateful attacks have no place in America,” Biden said Sunday in a tweet.
The conversation about safety has also dominated WhatsApp and email groups that Almontaser is on.
“What we’ve seen happen in New Mexico is very chilling for us as a Muslim minority community in the United States that has endured so much backlash and discrimination” since the 9/11 attacks, she said. “It’s frightening.”
Few anti-Muslim hate crimes have been recorded in Albuquerque over the last five years, according to FBI data cited by Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and a professor of criminal justice at California State University at San Bernardino.
From 2017 through 2020, there was one anti-Muslim hate crime a year. The highest recent number was in 2016, when Albuquerque police recorded six out of a total of 25 hate crimes.
That largely tracks with national trends, which hit the lowest numbers in a decade in 2020, only to increase by 45 percent in 2021 in a dozen cities and states, Levin said.
Albuquerque authorities say they cannot determine if the slayings were hate crimes until they have identified a suspect and a motive.
Louis Schlesinger, a forensic psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said bias killings are often perpetrated by a small group of people, typically young white men. A lone perpetrator is rare.
“These are basically total losers by every dimension, whether it’s social, economic, psychological, what have you,” he said. “They’re filled with hatred for one reason or another and target a particular group that they see, in their mind, to blame for all their problems in life.”
It was not clear whether the victims knew their attacker or attackers.
The most recent victim was found dead after police received a call of a shooting. Authorities declined to say whether the killing was carried out in a way similar to the other deaths.


Russian casualties in Ukraine up to 80,000: Pentagon

Russian casualties in Ukraine up to 80,000: Pentagon
Updated 09 August 2022

Russian casualties in Ukraine up to 80,000: Pentagon

Russian casualties in Ukraine up to 80,000: Pentagon
  • Kahl admitted that the Ukraine side also had significant losses of manpower on the battlefield, but gave no figures

WASHINGTON: A senior Pentagon official estimated Monday that as many as 80,000 Russians have been killed or wounded in Ukraine since the war began in late February
“The Russians have probably taken 70 or 80,000 casualties in less than six months,” Under Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl said.
Kahl also said Russian forces have also lost “three or four thousand” armored vehicles, and could be running low on available precision-guided missiles, including air and sea-launched cruise missiles, after firing a large number on Ukraine targets since launching the invasion on February 24.
Those losses are “pretty remarkable considering the Russians have achieved none of Vladimir Putin’s objectives at the beginning of the war,” he told reporters, referring to the Russian president.
He said the slowdown in Russian forces’ use of longer range and precision guided missiles was an indicator that their supplies had fallen close to what Moscow needed to hold in reserve for “other contingencies.”
Kahl admitted that the Ukraine side also had significant losses of manpower on the battlefield, but gave no figures.
“Both sides are taking casualties. The war is the most intense conventional conflict in Europe since the Second World War,” he said.
“But the Ukrainians have a lot of advantages, not the least of which is their will to fight.”