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Grass-Roots Peace Movement Spreads Across Afghanistan

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Afghan protesters for peace hold banners during a protest in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, March 31, 2018. Several hunger strikers taking part in a rare sit-in peace protest in Afghanistan's restive south have been taken to a hospital for treatment, officials and protesters said. VOA
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The grass-roots call for peace by some residents that began as a sit-in in Afghanistan’s restive Helmand province is gathering momentum and spreading to other provinces of the country.

A car bomb explosion March 23 in the nation’s southern region, near a packed sports stadium in the provincial capital of Lashkargah, killed at least 14 people and wounded dozens more.

The attack occurred while a wrestling match was underway. The Taliban did not officially claim responsibility, but Afghan officials assigned blame to the insurgent group, saying it typically denies responsibility for attacks that kill large number of civilians.

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Initially, it was viewed as just another routine terror assault that killed civilians, and it would have remained so had it not been for the residents of Helmand province, who decided they had to act.

A man carries a wounded boy to a hospital after a car bombing outside a sports stadium in Lashkargah, capital city of southern Helmand province, Afghanistan, March 23, 2018. Provincial chief of police Abdul Ghafar Safi said the blast was carried out by a suicide bomber and that the target was civilians. VOA

A group of young local men began a sit-in at the capital of the province and demanded an end to violence. Later, women joined the sit-in and urged the warring sides to end the vicious cycle of violence that has been tearing through the nation.

“Stop making us widows and making us cry over the death of our children,” a woman said at the rally in Helmand last month.

Hunger strike

The initial anti-war sit-in turned into a hunger strike after the Taliban rejected the protesters’ pleas for peace and instead warned them not to go near Taliban territory. The insurgent group instead instructed locals to conduct their protest at a nearby Afghan and NATO military base.

The strike continued for three days before religious clerics intervened and encouraged protesters to eat.

“Religious clerics considered the hunger strike to be against Islam, and they asked us to end it, promising they would go to the Taliban and discuss our demands with them,” Bacha Khan, a protester in Helmand, told VOA.

The hunger strike did end. The sit-in, however, continues, gaining momentum and rapidly expanding to other provinces.

Iqbal Khyber, an activist from Helmand and a key member of the sit-in, told VOA demands for peace would not end.

“Our sit-in will continue until we see at least two days of cease-fire between warring sides. Our long march began in Kandahar province [in southern Afghanistan] today [April 5]. We will put up the peace sit-in tents in every corner of the country,” Khyber told VOA.

“Preparations for putting peace sit-in tents in Kabul, Zabul, Paktia, Khost, Bamyan, Balkh, Kunduz, Badakhshan and Farah are already underway. We will not stop until our demand for peace is met,” he added.

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Growing demonstrations

Demonstrations have begun in western Herat and central Bamyan provinces, where dozens of protesters got together and expressed their solidarity with the Helmand peace sit-in.

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“The call for peace is the voice of all Afghans and it cannot be attributed to a specific tribe, group or party,” Faqir Ahmad, a protester at a Herat peace sit-in tent, told VOA.

At a gathering in central Bamyan province, activists announced their backing of the Helmand sit-in.

“Today we pronounce our support for the peace and advocacy movement of our brothers in Helmand,” Ismail Zaki, a civil society activist in Bamyan, told VOA.

Government reaction

While at an international conference in Kabul in late February, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani offered unconditional peace talks with the Afghan Taliban. He advocated for the peace movement across the country.

“I welcome the campaign in Helmand and other provinces where women, elders and youth have gathered to seek peace and raise their voices against war and violence. And I hope this peaceful national movement will be strengthened and supported by the people in large numbers,” Ghani said in a Dari tweet on Wednesday.

The Taliban have yet to officially respond to the Afghan government’s offer of unconditional peace talks.

The Afghan High Peace Council (HPC), a government body tasked with talking to the insurgents, also praised the initiative of Helmand residents.

“I call on Tahrek-e-Taliban, the commanders of the Taliban, the people who are living in Taliban-controlled areas, let’s end the war and embrace peace,” Karim Khalili, chairman of the HPC, told a gathering on Wednesday in southern Kandahar province.

Taliban’s stance

While the Taliban initially rejected the local plea for peace, the insurgent group has since softened its stance.

A Taliban official requesting anonymity told VOA that his group is looking forward to meeting and talking with the protesters.

“It is a totally new subject for us. We are studying it and we will meet with these people and listen to their demands and will try to find out why they are making such demands from the Taliban alone,” the insurgent official told VOA.

That meeting apparently happened. According to the organizers of the sit-in, local Taliban groups in Helmand have supported their call for peace.

“Local Taliban delegations visited us, extended their support and expressed their frustration of war,” Khyber, a sit-in organizer, told VOA. VOA

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History of US aid to Pakistan: 1950-2014

Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad have alleged that Pakistan misspent some 70 percent of the U.S. funds that paid the Pakistani military to run missions in the unwieldy provinces along the Afghan border

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A big part of that answer lies in determining how much bang the United States has gotten for its buck so far—whether or not some of the money was syphoned off along the way to fund Army generals' new houses or Taliban elements. Wikimedia Commons
A big part of that answer lies in determining how much bang the United States has gotten for its buck so far—whether or not some of the money was syphoned off along the way to fund Army generals' new houses or Taliban elements. Wikimedia Commons

It was with the best of intentions that the U.S. funnelled nearly $5.3 billion to Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. After all, that money helped strike down a Cold War adversary. But there were unintended consequences too—namely, the Taliban. Since 9/11, the U.S. has turned on the spigot again, sending more than $15 billion US aid in assistance to Pakistan. It also bolsters development efforts, which, according to bill coauthor Sen. John Kerry, will “build a relationship with the people [of Pakistan] to show that what we want is a relationship that meets their interests and needs.”

But how effective will this round of money be? Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad have alleged that Pakistan misspent some 70 percent of the U.S. funds that paid the Pakistani military to run missions in the unwieldy provinces along the Afghan border. U.S. officials accuse Pakistan of running a double game with the money, keeping the Taliban at bay just enough to persuade American benefactors to keep their wallets open, thereby ensuring a lifeline for the country’s mangled economy. All of which raises the question: will any amount of money produce results?

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As the Cold War heated up, a 1954 security agreement prompted the United States to provide nearly $2.5 billion in economic aid and $700 million in military aid to Pakistan. Wikimedia Commons
As the Cold War heated up, a 1954 security agreement prompted the United States to provide nearly $2.5 billion in economic aid and $700 million in military aid to Pakistan. Wikimedia Commons

A big part of that answer lies in determining how much bang the United States has gotten for its buck so far—whether or not some of the money was syphoned off along the way to fund Army generals’ new houses or Taliban elements. Here’s an accounting of US aid to Pakistan in recent decades, divided into eras based on the ebbs and flows of assistance. (Figures are in historical dollars.)

1950-1964: As the Cold War heated up, a 1954 security agreement prompted the United States to provide nearly $2.5 billion in economic aid and $700 million in military aid to Pakistan.

1965-1979: With the Indo-Pakistani hostilities in the late 1960s, the United States retreated. Between 1965 and 1971, the U.S. sent only $26 million in military US aid, which was cut back even further to $2.9 million through the end of the decade. Meanwhile, economic US aid kept flowing, totalling $2.55 billion over the 15 years.

Everything came to a halt in 1979, however, when the Carter administration cut off all but food aid after discovering a uranium-enrichment facility in Pakistan. Pakistani leader Gen. Mohammad Zia ul-Haq refused $400 million, split for economic and military US aid from President Jimmy Carter, calling it “peanuts.” The following year, he was rewarded with a much more attractive offer.

1979-1990: The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan changed everything. Pakistan’s ISI security apparatus became the primary means of funnelling covert U.S. assistance to anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan. From 1980 to 1990, the United States ramped up its contributions for both development and military purposes, sending more than $5 billion over the course of the decade.

From 1980 to 1990, the United States ramped up its contributions for both development and military purposes, sending more than $5 billion over the course of the decade. Wikimedia Commons
From 1980 to 1990, the United States ramped up its contributions for both development and military purposes, sending more than $5 billion over the course of the decade. Wikimedia Commons

1991-2000: But even while Pakistan was serving a strategic Cold War purpose, concerns persisted about the country’s nuclear ambitions. That gave President George H.W. Bush an easy out from the massive funding commitments in 1990, after the fall of the Soviet Union.

US Aid over the next decade withered to $429 million in economic assistance and $5.2 million in military assistance, a drop-off Pakistanis still cite bitterly, accusing the United States of leaving them high and dry during the decade.

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2001-2009: Since 9/11, the United States has once again bolstered its funding commitments, sending nearly $9 billion in military assistance both to aid and reimburse Pakistan for its operations in the unwieldy border regions with Afghanistan. Another $3.6 billion has funded economic and diplomatic initiatives. But U.S. officials and journalists’ accounts have raised concerns that such funds are not being used as intended, and not just because of the typical concerns about corruption.

Documented military and civilian government deals with Taliban elements, like a 2004 agreement with Waziri militant leader Nek Mohammed, have confirmed that money intended to fight the Taliban is, in many cases, being used instead to pay them off. (Islamabad is currently battling Taliban fighters in Waziristan.) When the deals fall through, as rapidly shifting alliances in Pakistan’s tribal regions often do, that money ultimately ends up funding the insurgency. U.S. officials have expressed particular concerns about the Pakistani government’s links to the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, which reportedly has ties to Al Qaeda. At the same time, former president Pervez Musharraf has recently admitted to using U.S. military funding to strengthen defences against India.

2009-2014: A new five-year, $7.5 billion assistance package was passed by Congress in September and signed by President Obama in October, with stipulations explicitly prohibiting funds from being used for nuclear proliferation, to support terrorist groups, or to pay for attacks in neighbouring countries. It also puts a new emphasis on the bottom line, reserving the right to cut off US aid if Pakistan fails to crack down on militants.

Those restrictions have opened a rift between the military and the civilian government in Pakistan, which maintain an uneasy relationship following nearly a decade of military rule under Musharraf. Military leaders worry they are being sidelined by the increased U.S. emphasis on development and accountability, claiming the bill threatens Pakistan’s sovereignty. But supporters of the bill say the restrictions are no more stringent than previous ones and accuse Pakistani military leaders of manufacturing a crisis to undermine the civilian government.