US and Taliban sign the long-awaited peace deal
On 29 February, the US officials and the Taliban representatives signed the long-awaited peace deal in Doha.
Initial reports hint that the deal would lead to the following. First, the US would withdraw troops from Afghanistan over the next 14 months. Second, the Taliban would cut ties with other foreign terrorist networks like Al-Qaeda and ISIS and prevent Afghanistan from being used to attack against the US. Third, an intra-Afghan talk would begin in March 2020. Mike Pompeo has commented: ‘the US will closely watch the Taliban compliance with their commitment and calibrate the pace of our withdrawal to their action’.
The agreement was signed in the presence of representatives from Pakistan, India, Uzbekistan, Turkey, Tajikistan and Indonesia.
What is the background?
Last week, the US and the Taliban signed a ‘reduction in violence’ agreement in Afghanistan; according to available reports, it was a success story. The last two years witnessed several failed attempts in the signing of the peace deal.
Earlier, in September 2019, the US and the Taliban were on the verge of signing a deal, which was abruptly declared ‘dead’ by the US President Donald Trump after the death of an American soldier. Negotiations restarted later in November. The Afghan government has not been included in the talks, but it is believed they are consulted.
Outside the negotiations, there was another process inside Afghanistan and a problem arising from it. In September 2019, there was a Presidential election; Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah were the lead contestants. Last week, Ashraf Ghani was declared as the winner of the presidential election held in September 2019. Abdullah has refused to accept the results and announced the formation of a parallel government.
The US so far has declined to acknowledge the election results. Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah agreed on Tuesday, to postpone the swearing ceremony for two weeks, in ‘order to support the peace process’.
What does it mean?
For the first time, the Taliban has successfully signed a deal with the US, which has given legitimacy to the Taliban. A deal with a complete withdrawal of foreign force and no intervention in Afghan politics is a great achievement for the Taliban.
Second, the seven-day reduction between the US and the Taliban has affirmed the Taliban leadership and ability to control its forces. The deal signed is a ‘step forward’ by both the nations to bring stability in Afghanistan.
Third, the Afghan government, which has been precluded from the deal has come to terms, under pressure, to accept the deal. The talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban may help in deciding the future course of the country.
Fourth, the presence of regional actors, Pakistan and India at the signing ceremony signifies their importance in keeping the peace in Afghanistan. Pakistan has played a crucial role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Malaysia: A new Prime Minister, and the beginning of a political turmoil?
On 29 February, Muhyiddin Yassin has been appointed as the new prime minister of Malaysia. The king declared that he has reached this decision after discussing with all the Parliamentarians. This declaration will hopefully end a week-long political turmoil. This started with the collapse of the ruling coalition and the resignation of the preceding Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed, on 24 February.
The King requested Mahathir to continue as interim Prime Minister, till the government is formed again. However, on 28 February, he requested the King to re-appoint him as the Prime Minister; the King refused the same.
What is the background?
The 2018 election, brought the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition to power and also brought two prominent leaders Mahathir and Anwar Ibrahim together, after years of a feud. Anwar was Mahathir’s deputy during his previous tenure, but there was a dispute between them due to financial crisis. They were successful in ousting the Najib Razak’s government on the grounds of a failing economy and corruption.
The coalition was formed with an understanding that Mahathir subsequently would handover the leadership over to Anwar. However, he refused to set a date, even after Anwar pressed for it.
On 23 February, ten members of Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) had met some members of Mahathir’s party and also members of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), with the intention of forming a new government. This led to the collapse of the ruling coalition, and Mahathir’s resignation. Anwar met the King seeking justice, who in turn met with all the 222 members of parliament, other Kings of the provinces and members of the Army to resolve the conflict.
Meanwhile, on 28 February, Mahathir claimed he patched with Anwar and wanted to re-instate as the Prime Minister again with the support of PH as a coalition.
What does it mean?
First, the appointment of the new Prime Minister does not imply the end of political turmoil. Muhyiddin Yassin needs to form a government, which needs to have 112 seats for a majority in 222 membered Parliament. On the one hand, in case Mahathir and Anwar come together and gain support from some provincial parties, the duo may gain the majority. This might bring Mahathir to power again, but he would not be the Prime Minister. On the other hand, Yassin has been appointed as the new chairman of the PPMB. Previously, Mahathir was the chairman of this party; along with chairmanship, Yassin has gained the support of the party members. He also enjoys the support of UMNO, a strong party. But it is unclear if he has the support of other ethnic parties to win the majority. Thus, this skirmish to form the government will continue for at least another week.
Second, in case Yassin forms a new coalition to form a government that will bring back, UMNO to power. This party has been in power in Malaysia since its independence in 1957, till 2018. UMNO is known for its pro-Malaya policies. Hence this will upset the Chinese, Indians and other ethnic minorities of Malaysia who forms 30 per cent of the population.
Third, this political turmoil has tarnished not only Mahathir’s image but the entire country’s image internationally. Mahathir who was always revered as a respectable leader is currently referred to as ‘power-monger.’ He could have avoided this crisis by living up to his promise to Anwar. This has also impacted the already dipping economy, which has been hit from the impact of the COVID-19 virus in China.
Coronavirus spreads to Italy, Iran and South Korea: Cases at dangerous levels outside China
Over forty-eight countries have reported cases of coronavirus, and this week a spike in the number of cases in Iran, Italy and South Korea was observed. South Korea has become the country with the second-highest number of cases after China; with a total of 2931 cases and 594 new cases reported in a single day on 29 February 2020. Officials have announced plans to check 200,000 people who have visited a church in Daegu that has now become one of the hot zones of the virus.
Iran reported a number of their top officials who have tested positive for the virus. BBC noted the death toll in Iran at 210, with a majority of cases from Tehran and the City of Qom; whereas the official toll announced by the Health Ministry was at 34. Italy has confirmed a total of 820 cases with the death toll at 21. The spread of the virus has been observed to have reached other European countries like Austria, Switzerland, Croatia, Greece and outside Africa, to Algeria and Brazil in Latin America.
What is the background?
An analysis done by the end of January 2020, saw the virus cases concentrated largely in East Asia, South East Asia and very few cases across the globe. However, by the end of February 2020, there has been a significant increase in the number of countries that have reported cases along with an increase in the total number of cases and deaths. Many countries have reorganised their methods of quarantine after it was seen as being ineffective. For two months, the approach to dealing with the cases have been underway only on an individual country basis.
There is no global effort to deal with the issue other than the travel ban and restrictions. There have been no updates on the vaccines and collective measures to tackle the issue that is now on its way to being a pandemic. Singapore, however, is seen showing some consistent cases of success in its treatment to the virus affected patients.
What does it mean?
The quarantine criticism might have to be taken seriously globally; the spike may be observed in other countries soon. The virus can no longer be contained in a region anymore. The failure to develop a medicine that could effectively treat the cases is questionable. The approach of countries to try and deal with the virus individually has been counterproductive. WHO would have to step up and take measures along with the countries to move beyond political considerations to get at a uniform solution to deal with the spread of the virus.
Trump in India: Between Substance and Rhetoric
President Donald Trump was on his first official visit to India from 24-25 February. His 36-hour visit was a combination of optics in Ahmedabad and Agra, and formal talks in New Delhi. The most important takeaways were on the military and energy front, where both the countries agreed for technology transfer and expansion of cooperation in the nuclear energy sector.
The joint statement pronounced that there would be more cooperation and collaboration on the production of advanced military systems and strengthening strategic ties. Import of advanced military helicopters; a possible deal between Westinghouse Electric Co and Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd; an agreement between the Exxon Mobil Corporation and Indian Oil Corporation to develop better pipeline network for natural gas distribution; the reiteration of India’s importance in the Indo-Pacific and the UN, are the key takeaways.
What is the background?
For India, the visit was vital as it expected some progress in the negotiations on Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA), substantial defence deals, strengthening energy cooperation and projecting India-US bonhomie. Before the visit, India purchased 24 Sikorsky MH-60R naval multirole helicopters. The US had approved the sale of Integrated Air Defence Weapon System to India. There were, however, low expectations on a possible trade deal.
For the US, India is an integral part of its Indo-Pacific strategy. Trump administration had renamed the US Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command, highlighting the position of India and the Indian Ocean in its strategic. An official visit would strengthen the US’ commitment to its stance.
Also, with 2020 presidential elections on cards, Trump would want the Indian diaspora in the US to support his candidature, and a visit to India could ensure the same.
What does it mean?
First, Economics remains a tough nut to crack. Before his visit, Trump hinted at the possibility of not concluding a trade deal with India before the presidential elections in the US. This was clear during the visit, when the two leaders did not ink a substantial agreement or deal on the trade front. India is demanding a resumption of export benefits under the Generalized Systems of Preferences and an exemption from high duties on aluminium and steel products. The US is against the imposition of high tariffs on its products and is also concerned with the trade deficit with India. The two countries expect an agreement by the end of this year.
Second, the Indian media portrayed the visit as a milestone in bilateral relations. The foreign media, on the other hand, had mixed opinions. While some of them focused on the attention Trump got in a foreign country; few others juxtaposed the timing of the visit with the violent communal clashes in the capital. Some media houses criticized the lack of any big outcome or an agreement from the tour.
Third, the question the trade deal continues to linger. The US will continue to pressurize India on trade-related issues, especially when the election is approaching. It is yet to be seen how India reels under punitive actions of Trump administration. There were many rhetoric statements on terrorism, Kashmir and the US’ offer for mediation between India and Pakistan. New Delhi will certainly not accept a third-party mediation in this issue. The Indo-Pacific and the Quad maintains a status-co. The talks did not move beyond ‘free and secure Indo-Pacific’, even though Trump mentioned about revitalizing the informal grouping.
New Trade Talks in Europe: UK cautions a ‘No Deal’ to EU
The UK on 27 February unveiled its negotiating strategy for a trade deal with the EU and threatened to walk away from trade negotiations if sufficient progress is not made by June, thereby raising its stakes before the country begins crucial talks from 2 March. The Downing Street’s document titled “The Future Relationship With the EU” lays out negotiating terms on fishing, financial services and the “level playing field” rules that will limit the extent to which the UK must align to EU regulations in exchange for market access.
The tough negotiation stance entailed in the document is consistent with Boris Johnson’s promises of no alignment after the Brexit transition period and that the European Court of Justice will have no oversight of UK laws. As the UK negotiates, it’s position during this transition period that ends on 31 December 2020, the trade deal with EU will be crucial in laying the roadmap for UK’s global economic and political position.
What is the background?
The UK’s approach towards a level playing field rules remains in line with the Political Declaration on the future relationship, agreed in October 2019 with EU. However, the UK which understands on a level playing field, stands apart from what EU has interpreted it as the “provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition.” It would tantamount to the UK’s compliance with EU’s legal policies. More than discussing the economic terms of the trade, the negotiation between the EU and UK will also alter the extent of the UK’s coastal fishing rights.
The UK government is seeking a Norway-style deal on fishing, and the mandate says that the UK will no longer accept the ‘relative stability’ mechanism for sharing fishing quotas in place since the 1970s. The fishing agreement will rather be based on the “principle of zonal attachment, which better reflects where the fish live and is the basis for the EU’s fisheries agreement with Norway.” The mandate by the UK comes in the backdrop of an equally tough question on Northern Ireland. By turning Northern Ireland as the dual border with EU, the mandate sets the stage for preparation of border checks, custom rules and different tariffs that the UK will have to install with Northern Ireland and EU.
What does it mean?
First, the UK with the trade mandate has put its tough foot ahead and it will not come as a surprise if both sides accuse each other of backing away from commitments made in the non-binding political declaration in October 2019 that laid the ground for UK’s Brexit Withdrawal deal. Even though both the UK and the EU agreed in principle on a free-trade agreement, the mandate signifies the beginning of how difficult it will be for both EU and UK to implement it. French President Macron has already agreed that the EU’s tough days with the UK are more than just over. He is echoing the EU’s equally fatigued and tough negotiating stand against the UK on the trade deal.
Second, the possibility of the government leaving without a trade agreement looms large under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, with a range of mini-agreements on other areas. The UK has already put in place some border infrastructure. The UK trade mandate is so distant from the EU position that it increases the chance of a breakdown in EU-UK negotiations. Even if the EU were to assent to the UK proposal, this will represent a significant backsliding from the existing open economic exchanges between the UK and the EU.
Last, by putting the face of a tough negotiator UK’s trade talks with EU will set a precedent of isolationism for itself. The US has already put its trade talks with the UK on hold after the UK allowed a partial investment by Huawei in developing its 5G technology. It remains to be seen in the next week how EU-UK transits its trade talks without a breakdown.
Also during this week…
Maldives to raise the Rohingya issue at the ICJ
Maldives has decided to file a written declaration of intervention and formally join the African state of Gambia in taking Myanmar to the UN’s highest court for alleged genocide. It has hired the services of Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. She will represent the Maldives in seeking justice for Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims at The International Court of Justice, challenging Myanmar’s alleged military crackdown in Rakhine state in 2017 that witnessed mass murder, rape and destruction of communities due to which Myanmar faces accusations of genocide. Earlier, A UN fact-finding mission had confirmed the “genocidal intent” of the violence.
Sri Lanka withdraws from the UN War Investigation
Sri Lanka officially informed the Human Rights Council in Geneva that it is withdrawing from co-sponsorship of UNHRC Resolutions on post-war accountability, terming it as “unconstitutional and a blot on the sovereignty and dignity of Sri Lanka”. Amidst a lot of criticism for taking a very different approach to the previously made commitments, the Sri Lankan government announced that it would set up a domestically designed reconciliation and accountability process for sustainable peace. In response, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed regret warning that this step “risks setting back efforts to advance reconciliation, accountability and human rights.”
Turkey and the new Russian air raids in Syria
33 Turkish troops were killed during Syrian government air raids in Idlib late on Thursday dramatically escalating the conflict between Ankara and Moscow-backed forces in north-western Syria. Fears of a direct conflict between Russia and Syria have increased. Over the past few days as Ankara has sent thousands of troops and convoys of equipment to Idlib leading to direct clashes with regime forces for the first time. The Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air power, attempted to retake Idlib which is the last held territory of the Turkey-backed Syrian opposition rebel fractions. Following the attack, Turkey which hosts 3.7 million Syrian refugees, as well as other migrants, claims that it has not received enough support and so will not abide by its EU deal to stop refugees from reaching Europe this could result in a serious refugee crisis in Europe. In response, Greece and Bulgaria have sent reinforcements to deter attempts by refugees to crossover to their borders.