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IPRI Conflict Weekly, 25 March 2020, Vol.1, No. 10
IPRI Conflict Weekly, 25 March 2020, Vol.1, No. 10
IPRI # 36, 25 March 2020
Sukanya Bali, D. Suba Chandran, Lakshmi V Menon and Sourina Bej
In the news
This week in Afghanistan, several worrying events took place, and the unrest continued in the region. On 25 March, an attack on the Sikh religious complex in Kabul led to the death of 25 people, which was later claimed by ISIS.
On 23 March, Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State met the Taliban leaders in Qatar, after his visit to Afghanistan. After a failed attempt to bring truce between the rival leaders, President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the US cut aid to Afghanistan by $1 billion.
On 22 March, the Taliban and Afghan government had a “virtual” meeting over the prisoner release. On 19 March, an insider attack by six policemen in Zabul province led to the death of 24 soldiers.
Issues at large
There is an urgency for the US to speed up the release of Taliban prisoners and bring back its troops from Afghanistan. The attacks, delay in intra-Afghan talks, and the internal political feud between leaders have put Trump’s foreign policy agenda at stake. The US Special Envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, advised both leaders to negotiate “as soon as possible”, as “no prisoners have been released to date despite the commitment to do so as expressed by both sides.”
Mike Pompeo visited Kabul on 23 March to mediate between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and to work upon the comprehensive peace deal signed between the US and Taliban. The differences between the two - Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah- have only increased after Ghani was declared a winner in the elections. Both have claimed victory in the Presidential elections.
Post Pompeo visit, the US announced a cut of $1 billion aid. Pompeo further said, the US will prepare for another cut by 2021 and will also review “all the programmes and projects to identify additional reduction and reconsider our pledge to future donor conference for Afghanistan”.
Outside Kabul, violence is continuing despite the deal between the US and the Taliban. Six policemen, suspected to have links with the Taliban, infiltrated into an army base in Zabul province and killed several soldiers on 19 March. Ata Jan Haq Bayan, Zabul provincial council chief, said that the “attackers had connections with the Taliban insurgents.” It was reported, that they fled in two military Humvee vehicles, along with weapons and ammunition. Earlier that day, Asadullah Khalid, Afghanistan’s defence minister, said the country force would switch to “active defence posture” as there has been no decrease in the Taliban attacks.
Between the Afghan government and the Taliban, the deadlock over the release of prisoners continues. The release of 5000 Taliban prisoners daunted the Afghan government considering the prospects of later instability in the country. As of now, President Ashraf Ghani only agreed to the release of 1500 prisoners, provided they sign an agreement to never return to the battlefield. The ‘prisoners swap’ is a significant issue that has been delaying the progress in the peace process.
Will the cut in aid affect the US and Afghanistan relations in the coming weeks? The US had a complicated relationship with the previous Afghan President during his second tenure as well. This had its dynamics in fighting the Taliban.
Second, the recent Taliban attacks indicate the determination of the Taliban in coercing the government to agree to its conditions, as of the US-Taliban deal.
Third, the US aid cut maybe a strategy to pressurize Afghanistan in bringing in an inclusive government. To work towards intra-afghan talks and also for long term stability. But Afghanistan still fails to come to the negotiating table with the Taliban due to internal political conflicts and disagreements over the terms of prisoner release.
Fourth, even if progress is made in intra-Afghan talks, there is a possibility of continuous attacks by ISIS, as the attack on the Sikh religious place on 25 March would highlight.
In the news
In the jungles of Sukma district in Chattisgarh state, the Naxals killed 17 security personnel in an ambush and looted their weapons, including 12 AK-47s, and a UBGL, an INSAS, and an LMG. The personnel was a part of a security operation, following information regarding the gathering of the Maoists in the forests of Elmagunda in Sukma district.
The operation includes 600 personnel drawn from the District Reserve Guards (DRG), the Special Task Force (STF) of the state police, and the CoBRA commandos of the CRPF. According to available reports, the operation could not materialize as the information about the gathering was false. The team was returning in two groups, when more than 250 Naxals ambushed one of the groups, resulting in a crossfire – leading to the killing of 17 personnel. The intensity of the casualty from the Naxal side is yet to be ascertained.
Issues at large
This is not the first time that Sukma is in the news relating to anti-Naxal operations, and also a substantial casualty of the security forces. In March 2014, 16 people, including 11 from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) were killed by the CRPF in an ambush. In December 2014, 14 personnel from the CRPF were killed, again in the same district. In March 2017, 16 people, including 15 from the CRPF, were killed in the border between Sukma and Bastar districts.
The security forces have been on a learning curve in understanding the naxal strategies. The Naxals would set an ambush – with misinformation, to trap the security forces in a geographic terrain of the forests that would give them an advantage.
Another strategy has been to stage a minor attack to draw a larger team of security forces into the area and ambush them in a bigger number. One of the reasons, why the reinforcement took time to get back into the areas where the firing was taking place for hours was to avoid a possible trap.
Perhaps, the raiding party was led by misinformation, carefully planted. There was information regarding one of the largest gatherings of two companies of the Peoples’ Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA), and about the dreaded Maoist leader Hidma’s presence. According to Durgesh Awasthi, the Director-General of Police (DGP): “It was the biggest yet congregation of the Maoists in the area from Bijapur and Sukma. Following the information, our men went to fight them and were ambushed.” According to the Hindu, “despite the intelligence, they did not encounter even one Maoist and began their journey back, in two groups, to their camps at Chintagufa and Burkapal, not more than six kilometers apart as the crow flies.” It was a trap that the security forces walked into.
In retrospect, it is easier to blame the security forces for falling due to false information. The Hindu, in its editorial, has raised crucial questions: “It is yet to be convincingly explained how as many as 400 personnel so near did not rush to aid their uniformed brethren. Was it a leadership or assessment issue? Was there a communication breakdown? Was the initial intelligence properly vetted, or was it a bait? Was this entire operation properly supervised?” These are important questions that need to be answered. If not to the public, at least internally within the government and the security forces.
The presence of naxal leader Hidma and the gathering of two companies of the PLGA is something that the security forces fighting the Naxals in the region could not resist. It was a risk and a bold attempt. Nevertheless, they took; and failed. But did they?
The guerrilla warfare, especially by the Naxals in Chattisgarh, cannot be taught in any counter-insurgency manuals. This has been a harsh lesson that the security forces have been learning in fighting the Naxals in the jungles. It is a long haul.
In the news
As of 25 March 2020, Pakistan has 1016 confirmed coronavirus cases, of which 413 are from Sindh, 312 from Punjab, 115 from Balochistan, 78 from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and 16 from Islamabad. Eighty-two cases have been confirmed in the two Kashmiri entities under Pakistan control. The deaths tally is seven.
However, measures taken by the Centre and provinces in battling the spread of the pandemic are incongruent. While provincial governments of Punjab, Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Balochistan have declared lockdowns of varying degrees, the federal capital Islamabad has no lockdown. All provincial government offices, private offices, and factories, exempting those dealing with daily essentials have been shut. However, federal government institutions such as NADRA, Passport office, banks, Steel mills, TDAP, Pakistan stock exchange, aviation, and Foreign affairs continue to operate.
Issues at large
On 21 March, Sindh was the first province to go into a complete lockdown for 15 days. On 22 March, Balochistan soon followed Sindh’s lead with more or less similar restrictions and exemptions for ten days. On 23 March, Punjab synchronized its efforts with the above provinces and declared a lockdown. KP, however, announced a ‘public holiday’ from March 24-28. While Sindh and Balochistan have more or less identical directives. Punjab deviates by allowing government offices and food takeaway joints to function.
However, Islamabad Capital Territory has limited efforts to a partial closedown of shopping malls and markets with no inter-city and intra-city travel restrictions. Pharmacies, groceries, and auto-workshops were advised to remain open, while restaurants were allowed take-away and deliveries.
Simply put, considering the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, while the latter is in a state of a complete shutdown with travel restrictions, Islamabad requires its workers to come from Rawalpindi.
Such contradictory and incongruent laws absolve the objective/purpose of the lockdown or social distancing. Congruent and synchronized efforts by federal and provincial governments are necessary to tackle COVID-19. Considering the novel virus’ proliferation rate, every minute matters in countering the pandemic.
Even with Pakistan crossing the 1000 infection mark, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan maintains that homegrown cases are limited. Nevertheless, despite refraining from a national lockdown, on 23 March, Pakistan approved the provinces’ request for military deployment to aid civilian administration in battling the pandemic. A national lockdown is imminent.
Meanwhile, provinces are blaming the Centre of underplaying the number of cases and severity of the outbreak; quarantining of pilgrims at Taftan is becoming a menace; domestic pressure for repatriation of Pakistani students from China is mounting and Pakistan has sought loan repayment waivers, medical equipment from China along with aid from US to bolster rapid response and monitoring to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.
In the news
On 24 March, the International Crisis Group (ICG) report, “COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch” assessed the potential of the global outbreak of COVID-19 on fragile states, conflict-torn countries and conflict resolution mechanisms. Identifying seven trends, the report took stock of those caught in the midst of conflict and the consequences of the disease on humanitarian aid flows, peace operations, and diplomacy among the conflict parties.
The major fallouts of the outbreak that the report concluded are: First, the vulnerability of the conflict-affected population will be compounded by mismanagement, corruption, or foreign sanctions making the countries ill-prepared to tackle COVID-19. Second, the conflict resolution mechanisms will be severely affected to the extent that travel restrictions for international mediation efforts have already been impaired as UN envoys in the Middle East are blocked from travelling, and regional organizations have suspended diplomatic initiatives. Last, the risk to the social order will be seen through a decrease in global unrests (that marked 2019), the regime controls over movements of people and riots, or xenophobic sentiments owing to ‘human to human transmission’ of the disease.
Issues at large
2019 witnessed the emergence and worsening of conflicts across the globe that continued in 2020. Since 2019, Libya has been divided between the internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli and a rival government in the east by Khalifa Haftar. The situation in Gaza has been no different as Israel’s pushback on the Palestinian settlement question has an adverse result. Yemen witnessed the worst humanitarian crisis in 2018, and only through an aggressive international intervention, the situation was contained from deteriorating further. Yemen has become a critical fault line in the Middle East rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. A December 2018 Stockholm Agreement fostered a fragile ceasefire and also prevented a famine, but since then, the conflict has broken out within the anti-Houthi front against the Hadi government. The turmoil in the Sahel, the influx of Rohingya refugees from Rakhine province in Myanmar to Bangladesh, the conflict in Idlib, and the subsequent flow of Syrian refugees in Turkey were the highlights of worsening conflicts and outmigration of the affected.
An event that dominated the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 was the Afghan Peace deal between the US and the Taliban and the absent intra-afghan dialogue in Afghanistan. The above conflicts also have one common factor: staggering cases of COVID-19 in these countries.
The lessons learnt through the Ebola outbreak in Africa highlight the primary intersection between political conflict and failing health capacities in containing an epidemic. Reviewing the 2014 Ebola outbreak in conflict-torn countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone reveals that Ebola spread was mainly due to the scepticism of the people about their governments long with attacks on hospitals and medics by armed combatants. Similarly, in Afghanistan, currently, the troop rotations have been paused in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading. The global rise in pandemic cases has shifted the focus of international organizations and the member countries from their commitment to the peace processes in Yemen, Libya and Syria to one’s domestic problems of COVID-19. In the absence of global commitments in conflict management, the crisis from the Middle East to Central Ameria will further worsen after the global pandemic ends..
Along with possible deterioration of conflicts across the globe, the report throws caution that the human to human transmission will be difficult to contain once it impacts the refugees in the camps of Bangladesh and Turkey. The report mentions the scope for political exploitation by world leaders. But in an era of eroding strongholds of authoritarian leaders, how does the outbreak aid the power regimes? The case in point: The Russian President Vladimir Putin postponed the voting on the constitutional changes, thereby letting him remain in power till the crisis averted. The announcement comes in spite of Russia reporting the lowest number of coronavirus cases and deaths. Similarly, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has indefinitely extended a state of emergency and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (still remains to form a government) suspended all court proceedings thereby stalling the corruption charges that have tainted his image as a leader.
Second, the use of total lockdown, army as the warriors in implementing social distancing and prison terms for those in the social gathering have disbanded the global protest movements like in Hongkong, Shaheen Bagh in India, and ‘Future for Friday’ protests. However, the use of state machinery to control has also led to the rise of a new curve of protests. For example, in Colombia, food trucks headed for Venezuela were looted as a sign of protest against the decision taken by both Bogotá and Caracas to close the Colombian-Venezuelan border for health reasons. Quarantined Brazilians have continued protests by banging pots and pans from their balconies against President Bolsanaro for calling the COVID-19 epidemic a media trick.
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