THE peace process in Afghanistan has reached a critical stage. Stakes are high for everyone concerned, none more so than the people of Afghanistan who have endured four decades of conflict. As the Loya Jirga meets in Kabul to decide on key questions including the release of the remaining Taliban prisoners, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has had a telephonic conversation with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and discussed Pakistan’s role in promoting peace in Afghanistan. In a tweet, Mr Pompeo termed the call “productive” and said, “I look forward to advancing our shared goals and increasing partnership.” Mr Qureshi said Pakistan would be a partner for peace with the United States.
Peace hinges on the talks that are expected to take place between the government in Kabul and the Afghan Taliban. These talks in turn are dependent on Kabul’s decision to release about 400 Taliban prisoners. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stressed that peace talks could begin in days if prisoners were freed. The Afghan government has already released about 5,000 Taliban prisoners but there is some unease about freeing the last batch which includes many who have apparently been involved in high-profile attacks. Mr Pompeo has, however, urged Kabul to release the prisoners because this could lead to direct talks and an end to the war. The Trump administration wants a peace deal quickly so it can withdraw enough troops from Afghanistan before the US presidential elections in November allowing President Donald Trump to tout this as a major foreign policy achievement. Timing is therefore key. Pakistan has played a major role in facilitating discussions and remains heavily invested in a positive outcome of these talks. Kabul should swallow the bitter pill and proceed with the release of the remaining Taliban prisoners without delay. With Washington egging both sides on and Islamabad providing full support in every sense, there is no reason why the peace talks should not commence without much delay. Once they do, the next stage of negotiations regarding power sharing will bring up many sensitive issues. It will not be an easy task given the fact that the government controls Kabul while the Taliban hold sway over a major portion of the country.
Everyone wants an end to violence. This war-weariness may help stakeholders display greater flexibility in their positions. However, long-drawn negotiations could complicate matters. The presence of the militant Islamic State group is already a looming threat and the longer this uncertain situation prevails, the greater the chances of spoiler events taking place. The US is also pressed for time which means it can lean on the Afghan government to do away with unnecessary delays. It is an opportune moment for Afghanistan to make peace with itself and agree on a framework for future power-sharing and governance. All stakeholders must stay the course and make it happen.
EMBOLDENED by the falling positivity rate and lower coronavirus-related hospital admissions, the National Command and Operation Centre has allowed the reopening of businesses in the country. Timelines have been announced according to which several sectors, ranging from restaurants and transport to educational institutions, beauty parlours and gyms, will reopen. Even poorly ventilated venues, such as cinemas and marriage halls can start functioning again with government-mandated SOPs in place.
However, the Pakistan Medical Association expressed pertinent concerns over the decision and has said the government should have at least waited for the consequences of Eidul Azha to become clear. The PMA’s general secretary said it would take 10 days to know if the virus spread rapidly during the festival, and also pointed to potentially super-spreading high-turnout events such as the upcoming Muharram gatherings and Independence Day celebrations. These are valid concerns and the authorities must consider them very seriously. The haste in arriving at this decision is baffling, considering that even the prime minister had warned of a post-Eid spike in coronavirus cases if caution were not exercised. However, the government has made its announcement on the reopening of every commercial sector less than a week after Eid celebrations ended. In its elation over Pakistan’s Covid-19 success, the government rushed to give this good news to businesses across the board that all is well and life can go back to normal. This attitude is dangerous and defies logic. The post-Eid period should have been a test for the government to gauge the situation. In Punjab, cases had dropped to an average of below 100 during the last week, but have again increased to around 300. With no restrictions and the public geared to go back to normal, the threat of community transmission is high. The government must reconsider its stance. It has the unenviable task of striking a balance between a controlled reopening of the economy and safeguarding public health, and these decisions must be taken with vigilance and caution as priorities. No doubt, Pakistan is fortunate in having lowered the Covid-19 curve and has prevented an all-out catastrophe such as we have seen in countries where hospitals and morgues were inundated. Yet, the authorities must not allow their optimism to ignore the hard facts: Covid-19 is a fast-spreading, deadly virus that has crippled many sophisticated healthcare systems and devastated communities. All decision-making must be done with cautious optimism — not wishful thinking.
Save the snow leopard
FOR centuries, the elusive snow leopards ruled some of the highest peaks in the world, living and hunting at altitudes ranging between 900 to 6,000 metres. However, in recent years, their numbers in the wild have dwindled, and they face danger on multiple fronts. From climate change and the loss of their natural habitat, to falling prey to poachers looking to sell their fur and body parts in the black market, the snow leopard is presently placed under the ‘vulnerable’ category in the IUCN Red List. According to the wildlife monitoring network, Traffic, at least 220 to 450 snow leopards are killed each year by farmers and hunters across Asia. In Pakistan, these majestic creatures can be spotted — every once in a while — in the Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountain ranges, but they have shared a mutually threatening relationship with local populations. In May 2019, for instance, a snow leopard reportedly mauled an eight-year-old child to death in the Galiyat. Then, in January 2020, a snow leopard attacked and injured a man in Swat, before it was shot dead by residents. There have also been several instances of snow leopards feeding on livestock, further angering residents, who kill these large cats to protect themselves and their sources of sustenance.
Beyond survival, though, the animal’s skin and bones hold great monetary value in the illegal trade of animals, and poaching continues under the radar. Most recently, five people were arrested by the Gilgit-Baltistan Wildlife Department after they put up photos of themselves smiling next to a slain leopard on social media. The men confessed to the killing, and mentioned that the female snow leopard lived with her two cubs, whose lives were spared. Despite the remarkable conservation efforts carried out by local NGOs to save the species, and engage local populations in the process, there are only an estimated 300 to 400 snow leopards left in Pakistan. Wildlife authorities must do much more to protect them.
Published in The DAWN, August 9, 2020