The latest edition of Conflict Weekly covers: Release of Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan, Troubles in Naga Peace Talks in India’s Northeast, and a deadly week in Lebanon | Contributors to this edition are: D Suba Chandran, Sourina Bej, Samreen Wani and Abigail Miriam Fernandez
Afghanistan releases the final batch of Taliban Prisoners, expecting it would kickstart the intra-Afghan dialogue
In the news
On Friday, 7 August 2020, the Afghan President convened a Loya Jirga in Kabul to decide the fate of the remaining Taliban prisoners. While addressing the 3000 strong Jirga, President Ghani was quoted to have stated: “The Taliban have said that if the 400 prisoners are released the direct talks between our negotiating team and the Taliban will start three days later…In the meantime, they have threatened that if they are not released, not only they will continue their war and violence, but they will escalate it.”
On Sunday, 9 August, the Jirga agreed to recommend the government to release the remaining 400 Taliban prisoners. Subsequently, a Taliban spokesman was quoted saying that now there is no hurdle to start the negotiations between the Taliban and the government.
On Monday, 10 August, President Ghani issued a decree to release the last batch of the Taliban prisoners.
Issues at large
First, the issue of the phased release by the Afghan government. Though there were claims about 5000 Taliban prisoners, around 4600 were released since the US-Taliban deal in February 2020. However, President Ghani was apprehensive of releasing all the prisoners; around 400 of them were imprisoned on charges of serious crimes.
Second, the issue of the Taliban’s continuing violence, despite engaging the government in talks on the release of its prisoners. According to a New York Times survey (Afghan War Casualty Report: August 2020), during this month “at least 42 pro-government forces and 41 civilians have been killed in Afghanistan.” Clearly, the Taliban is using violence as a strategy to pressurize the Afghan government to yield to release the prisoners.
Third, the issue of American pressure on the Afghan government to yield to the Taliban. While the Afghan government has been hesitant, there has been pressure from the US. The US pressure on Kabul is primarily due to what is happening in Washington. Trump wants the return of American troops before the start of the next Presidential election.
Fourth, the issue of pressure on the Jirga to recommend the release of the remaining Taliban prisoners. Not every member of the Jirga was on board on the decision to release. According to a New York Times report, “Many delegates said it appeared that the Afghan government had already given in to US pressure to release the remaining prisoners. The assembly, convened solely for consultation and with no executive power, was a way for Mr Ghani to share political responsibility, they said. Representatives from several committees added that they were asked to give affirmative or negative recommendations on the release of the 400 prisoners without being provided details of what the prisoners were accused or convicted of.”
The release of the last batch of the prisoners has been projected as the last hurdle, in initiating a negotiation process between the Taliban and the Afghan government. And this, in turn, is expected to lead to peace in Afghanistan. Perhaps, there would be a negotiation or a façade of it. Certainly, it would not lead to peace. Only more carnage.
Taliban is unlikely to change its colour. Despite those apologists saying that the Taliban today is a changed organization, there is no evidence to provide that. Statistics on violence and the number of people targeted and killed since the US-Taliban deal in February 2020 would prove otherwise.
Taliban would not stop anything short of taking over Kabul and controlling entire Afghanistan.
Northeast India: The federal government and the NSCN (IM) attempt to put Naga peace talks back on track
In the news
On 10 August, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah) for the first time released the details of the 2015 Framework agreement amid peace negotiations in New Delhi. After skipping a meeting in Kohima convened by Governor R N Ravi, who is also the interlocutor in the Naga peace talks, the group is directly sitting with the Centre to salvage the decade-old dialogues. Requesting for a new interlocutor, NSCN (IM) has faulted Governor Ravi for deleting a crucial word from the original framework and circulating a modified framework with other groups. The agreement released by NSCN (IM) stated that along with sovereign power-sharing, an “enduring inclusive new relationship of peaceful co-existence of the two entities” will be provided. Governor Ravi has, in turn, dropped the word “new” while sharing the framework with other umbrella groups like Naga National Political Groups (NNPGs).
Issues at large
First, the trust deficit against the Nagaland governor as an interlocutor. The new revelation by NSCN (IM) has widened the existing mistrust against Governor Ravi. In the past, peace talks between NSCN (IM) and Governor Ravi had concluded in a stalemate over the demand for a separate constitution and flag. Since then the governor has come down heavily on the extortion trails of NSCN (IM) and also pressurized the government department for details on those involved with different groups. This has irked groups like NNPGs, who has been critical of the governor’s lack of empathy towards diverse interests in the process. The publication of the framework echoes a common sentiment amongst groups who had so far cooperated with the Centre that the governor is using a deal to force a consensus in the peace process.
Second, the declining popularity of the NSCN(IM). The ongoing NSCN (IM) ‘s talks with the Centre follows a time when the group is facing resistance on its ability to represent the collective Naga identity. Even though NSCN (IM) continues to be the largest group championing the nationalist cause, it still has not been able to balance out concerns on its overpowering Tangkhul character. Since the death of Isak Swu and Muivah’s deteriorating health, the group has been deemed as Tangkhul centric in its decision-making by the larger Nagas in Nagaland. The top leaders of NSCN (IM) had in the past decided against disclosing the 2015 framework, thereby giving in to the fears of a peace process being dominated by one tribe. Hence as the group looks to enter the political process and represent the larger Naga identity, its acceptance in the state will depend on how it holds its end in the peace talks with the Centre.
Third, long-drawn peace processes in the Northeast with no resolution. The peace processes in the Northeast have become less about peace, and more a strategy aligning with the development and security-centric approach of the central government. On the one hand, the Centre sits in the negotiating table ironing out the issues and on the other adopts a strong policing to keep insurgency in check. The fear of the return of insurgency has become imminent as the peace talks end in stalemate. Similar has been the fate of the Naga peace process structured around the NSCN (IM). It has been failing as the group’s acceptance in Nagaland, and Manipur shrinks and the ailing old leaders continue to lead the peace process alienating the youth in the cadre-based group. The current government has, in turn, lost patience and made the process transactional with ignorance towards the emotive nature of the Naga identity assertion.
First, replacing the governor is not the solution but imperative and will put the talks back to square one. The approach of ‘What’s in a word’ has costed the interlocutor as he fails to heed the emotive and political significance of the framework. The Naga peace process needs a strong interlocutor who represents the region. As the Centre looks for a September resolution it is important to remember signing the final peace deal is not the end but only the beginning of a larger political process towards inclusion.
Second, the peace talks between the NSCN (IM) and the Centre raise faint hopes of a peace agreement, but the sovereign nature of the group’s demands will further delay the process unless a middle path is achieved. A separate federal arrangement is unlikely to be heeded by the Centre as one takes lessons from J&K. At the root of Naga nationalism is the demand for a separate representation of their identity which could be solved through an autonomous Naga territorial council but will depend on how the different groups would want their share of representation in the council.
Lebanon: Following the deadly explosion, a new round of protests starts, while the government resigns
In the news
On 4 August, a deadly explosion at Beirut port claimed 200 lives and left around 300,000 homeless along with causing billions of dollars in damage to property. A day later the Lebanese PM declared Beirut a disaster-stricken city and announced a state of emergency for two weeks. As it became clear that 3000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in storage for the last six years was the cause for the blast, thousands of protestors took to the streets in central Beirut demanding justice. Protestors stormed into various government ministries and banks demanding political change and an end to corruption.
On 10 August, barely two days after calling for early elections, PM Hasan Diab announced his resignation from office blaming the blast on decades of corruption by the ruling elites.
Issues at large
First, the blast has caused a humanitarian and food crisis for an economy already in free fall. Apart from Venezuela, Lebanon is the only other country that is reeling under hyperinflation. According to official figures, food and clothing costs had earlier surged by 190 per cent and 172 per cent as minimum wages shrank. About 120,000 metric tonnes of staple food imports perished in the blast as the FAO chief warned that Lebanon had bread supplies only for another two and a half weeks.
Lebanon has the world’s third-highest debt to GDP ratio at 170 per cent as the value of the currency against the dollar has reduced by 80 per cent. With unsustainable fiscal and current account deficits, IMF projects that the economy will shrink by 12 per cent in 2020. Having already defaulted on its debt repayment in March and subsequently failing to secure an economic rescue package from the IMF, the Lebanese economy is completely incapable of footing the $15 billion bill of the damage caused by the blast. On 6 August, President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut and promised to head an international effort to mobilize humanitarian aid for the country. However, despite foreign donations of up to $300 billion, it won’t be enough to deal with all the crises at once.
Second, the problems of governance. The state has been regularly defaulting on delivering public goods and services. In the wake of the blast, it is the civilian volunteers that have largely undertaken the clean-up of Beirut with the state agencies conspicuously absent from the scene. Regular and prolonged power cuts, a dismal state of public sanitation, hospitals at the verge of closure, long queues at the gas stations and empty groceries have exasperated the public.
Third, sectarian politics and the ruling elite. Lebanon has 18 recognized religious sects that have led to a highly sectarian political system. Militias at the end of the civil war negotiated a power-sharing agreement in the Lebanese legislature that is prone to infighting. Every sect has its respective voter base that it caters to while also drawing money from specific sections of the economy. Protestors in Beirut therefore, do not want international donors to deliver assistance through government channels as they fear it might either be sold or funnelled to sectarian loyalists and the ruling elites.
As the blame game for assigning culpability for the blasts is underway, Lebanon is yearning for change. As the political elite stand discredited, scheduling early elections will not solve the structural and economic problems that are at the root of the public anger spilling on the streets.
Switching governments does not solve the problem of governance absenteeism nor does it improve the standard of living. For Lebanon, this moment in history is as much about the survival of the vanishing middle class as it is about resuscitating the country.
Also in the news…
Peace and Conflict around the world
Thailand: Student stage anti-government rallies, taking on the military
On 10 August, large crowds gather to support the young students in Thailand who for weeks now have staged rallies across the country, urging the armed forces and their allies to withdraw from politics and respect human rights. At the protest last week which was attended by thousands, a protest group went further, issuing a 10-point list for reform of the monarchy. Further, calls for reforms were also made at a small rally where student gathered in Harry Potter outfits holding chopsticks and batons while demanding that the military stop interfering in politics and society stating, “Thailand has been dominated by the dark power of the Death Eaters (The military).” While others stated, “Maybe the older generation doesn’t understand that their rights and freedom have been taken from them, but we understand,” adding, “They don’t have the right to touch the hair on our head.” This recent wave of pro-democracy protests is said to be a resumption of rallies held earlier this year which was prompted by a court decision to ban Future Forward, an opposition party popular among young people.
Hong Kong: Media tycoon Jimmy Lai has been arrested
On 10 August, media tycoon Jimmy Lai was arrested by the Hong Kong police along with his two sons and four executives from his company, Next Digital. Further, hundreds of police officers also raided the newsroom of Lai’s newspaper, Apple Daily. Lai has been accused of “colluding with foreign powers.” His case is the most high-profile arrest so far under a controversial security law imposed by China further triggering condemnation from activists within Hong Kong and from Western countries who feared the law would be used to crack down on critics and restrict reporting. Lai has been a vocal critic of not only the Hong Kong government but also of Beijing’s increased assertiveness in the territory. Earlier this year, Lia, who also holds a UK citizenship, was charged with illegal assembly and intimidation. However, he was granted police bail.
Bolivia: Protesters bring the country to a standstill amid election delays
Amid the rising death toll due to the pandemic, six million people were stranded by 70 roadblocks set up by anti-government protesters. The last week’s protests were sparked due to the court’s decision to postpone the presidential election from 6 September to 18 October due to the coronavirus. The demonstrations were led by the country’s biggest trade union federation, the Bolivian Workers’ Center (COB). Further, the opposition Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) has accused the caretaker government of Jeanine Añez of using the pandemic as an excuse to cling to power. The decision has instigated fears of a repeat of the chaos and bloodshed that followed the last election nine months ago, which led to the downfall of the long-serving leftist President, Evo Morales. The protests in Bolivia are a result of the people’s desperation for a stable government and their diminishing faith in their country’s ability to contain the pandemic, and to alleviate the economic crisis in the country.
Belarus: Protests erupt following election results
On 9 August, riots erupted across Belarus after official exit polls gave the victory to the country’s longtime President, Alexander Lukashenko. Main opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya issued a statement of defiance, rejecting the results of a presidential election which she claimed to be rigged, adding “I believe my own eyes, the majority was for us.” On the other hand, Lukashenko has threatened to crush any illegal demonstrations, further claiming that the protests were being directed from abroad, singling out Poland, Britain, and the Czech Republic. As protests erupted for the second day the Central Election Commission in Belarus announced on 10 August that preliminary results show Lukashenko won with 80.23 per cent of the vote, while Tikhanovskaya stood at 9.9 per cent. While this is said to be the deepest crisis Lukashenko in his career apart from the already existing anger over the handling of the economy and the coronavirus situation, Tikhanovskaya with two other female politicians are said to have transformed the image of the country’s male-dominated politics. However, she is said to have left the country on 11 August after being pressured by the authorities to leave for Lithuania.
Somalia: Al-Shabab attack kills eight soldiers in Mogadishu
On 8 August, eight soldiers were killed and at least 14 others wounded by an al-Shabab suicide bomber in Mogadishu after the attacker detonated an explosive-laded vehicle at the gates of an army base. The blast sent shockwaves through the city and a cloud of smoke overhead. The al-Qaeda-linked armed group al-Shabab claiming responsibility for the attack stated, “We conducted a successful martyrdom operation on a major apostate military base in Mogadishu,” adding, “The enemy suffered many casualties and wounded, military vehicles destroyed.” While Somalia has been suffering from ceaseless conflict for almost 30 years, the internationally-backed government in Mogadishu has been fighting Al-Shabaab Islamic insurgents since 2008, who has been trying to overthrow the former. Although the insurgent group has lost most of its holdings in the country, it continues to carry out deadly suicide bombings and assassinations in the capital and its surrounding areas.
Mauritius: Growing oil spill threatens ecological disaster
On 6 August, fuel leaking from a crack in the Japanese bulk carrier that ran aground on a reef in Mauritius is creating an ecological disaster, endangering corals, fish and other marine life around the island with the tanker said to be grounded in a sensitive zone. More than 1000 tons of fuel has already seeped from the bulk carrier with about 2500 tons of oil still on board. Further, huge cracks visible on the ship’s body are indicating that it could break apart and leak more fuel. Attempts made to free the tanker has been thwarted due to the persistent bad weather. Japan and France extended support to address the issue.
Further, environmental group Greenpeace has stated that the spill was to likely to be one of the worst ecological crises Mauritius has ever seen. On the other hand, the pressure is increasing on the government to explain why immediate measure was not taken since the ship ran aground two weeks back.
About the authors
D. Suba Chandran is Dean of the School of Conflict and Security Studies at NIAS. Sourina Bej and Abigail Miriam Fernandez are Project Associate and Research Assistant at NIAS. Samreen Wani is a postgraduate scholar in International Studies from Stella Maris College.
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