On Tuesday, a statement on a website of the Afghanistan Taliban movement called for the establishment of a joint committee to investigate civilian deaths.
In addition to the Taliban, representatives from the United Nations, Nato and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference would sit on the committee. The statement came in response to a UN report, issued last week, which found that anti-government forces, including the Taliban, were responsible for 76 percent of civilian casualties during the first six months of 2010, and that such casualties had jumped 31 percent compared with the same period in 2009.
The statement has been attributed to Zabiullah Mujahid, a self-proclaimed Taliban spokesman, and has yet to be formally endorsed by the Quetta Shura, the movement’s governing council. Several analysts have seized on the statement as evidence that the Taliban is attempting to bolster its image as a legitimate political movement within the country. Nato diplomats are reportedly ‘cautiously considering’ the offer.
The openSecurity verdict: It is understandable that Nato diplomats regard the online statement with caution; without direct endorsement from more senior Taliban commanders, let alone Mullah Omar himself, it is unclear how far the offer can be taken at face value. If it is serious, it raises the question of what it signifies.
In the best case scenario, it is the Taliban, on their own terms, proposing a joint political initiative that can lay the groundwork for future negotiations. Covert UN initiatives directed towards this end have reportedly been underway for months. A diplomatic track of sorts has been a key part of Nato’s strategy since President Obama authorised a surge in US military forces into the country at the beginning of the year. According to this reading, even without the vaunted assault on Kandahar which was a central component of the military track, the Taliban are themselves open to negotiations aimed at a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
There are, unfortunately, inconveniences to such an interpretation. Firstly it is clear that the Taliban central leadership are trying to combat the public perception that they are responsible for as many, if not more, civilian deaths than coalition forces, particularly in the wake of the McChrystal doctrine last year, urging restraint on the part of US troops. Part of this effort was the release last year of a code of conduct to its fighters urging that civilians be treated well and according to Islamic principles. The code of conduct was re-released last month. This offer to form a joint committee may simply be part of the wider war over public perception.
Secondly, however, a key problem raised by the promulgation of the code of conduct by the Taliban leadership was that, by and large, it was ignored. Candace Rondeaux, an analyst based with the International Crisis Group in Kabul, has cited this fact as part of an increasingly compelling body of evidence that the Quetta Shura’s control of its field commanders is weakening. This raises the critical quandary that, even if the offer on the website is genuine and reflects the consensus of the Taliban high command, how effective can negotiations be when the Taliban’s own forces, let alone affiliated groups such as those led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Sirajuddin Haqqani, do not consider them binding?
Pakistan to crack down on extremist-backed charities
Pakistan announced on Friday that charities connected with Islamist militants will be excluded from ongoing relief operations in the flood-stricken country. Interior Minister Rehman Malik said that ‘the banned organisations are not allowed to visit flood-hit areas’, and that any members of banned organisations who were caught collecting funds will be arrested and tried under anti-terrorism legislation.
The move comes amid fears, expressed most strongly in Washington, that the sluggish international response to the recent floods will allow Islamist militant organisations to steal a march on western aid agencies. In the process, they will be able to exploit the suffering of the nearly 4 million Pakistanis who have been made homeless by the disaster, generating sympathy for the militant cause and undermining ongoing operations against the Taliban. Islamist groups pursued such a strategy in the wake of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake with substantial success.
But there is considerable scepticism surrounding the effectiveness of such a ban. Certainly it is not the first time Pakistan has attempted to clamp down on charities acting as fronts for Islamist groups. Critics of the move say that banned groups quickly reform under different names and that this is frequently sufficient to circumvent government measures.
Israel and Palestinians due to resume talks
On Thursday evening, US state department officials were briefing that Israeli and Palestinian representatives would be announcing on Friday a return to direct talks after an icy stalemate that lasted for twenty months. A precondition that the talks have a one-year time limit has reportedly been agreed to by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
On Friday it is thought that the Middle East Quartet, comprising the US, Russia, the UN and the EU, will make the first move, outlining a plan for direct negotiations and exhorting the participants to engage. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton will then issue a statement inviting both sides to Washington to commence the direct talks, which will possibly commence as soon as 2 September.
Aside from the one-year time limit, the Israelis have staunchly rejected any other preconditions for talks, including extending a moratorium on settlement construction in the West Bank which is due to expire on 26 September. It is thought that this key deadline has been the motivating force in US negotiations with both parties. It is thought that if negotiations can begin before this deadline, an ongoing moratorium can be discussed as part of comprehensive negotiations.
The potential breakthrough comes after nearly twenty months of ‘proximity talks’ that saw thr US special representative shuttling between both sides attempting to reach an agreement by which direct talks could be resumed. Although today’s announcement, if it comes, will be undoubtedly a step in the right direction, the previous twenty months have witnessed a catalogue of incidents that may make any direct talks intractable. These include the Gaza War of winter 2008-2009, the ongoing dipute over the Goldstone report that followed in the wake of the war, and most recently the Israeli assault on the Gaza aid flotilla.
As if to underscore the depth and complexity of the obstacles that remain, on Thursday the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs published a report that criticised the increasing restrictions placed on Gaza residents’ access to farmland and fishing zones by the Israeli military. Highlighting the fact that these restrictions have gradually been increasing over the past ten years, the report has found that currently access to 17 percent of the total area of the Strip and 35 percent of its agricultural land is currently restricted. If Gaza residents violate these restrictions, the IDF has fired ‘warning shots’ ostensibly attempting to avoid civilian casualties. Notwithstanding these attempts, the report states that, since January 2009, 22 civilians have been killed and 146 injured in such incidents.
South African government resorts to harsh measures to break national strike
In response to a national strike which has seen more than one million state workers protest against low pay, South African President Jacob Zuma has responded with harsh measures, sending in security forces to break the strike by force. South African police have used rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse strikers picketing schools and hospitals. The public sector unions are demanding an 8.6 % pay rise; an amount which the South African government adamantly declares is unaffordable.
What began as a dispute over pay and conditions has reportedly become something potentially far more dangerous, with one analyst observing that ‘this is more than an industrial dispute’. The analyst, Professor Sakhela Buhlungu of the University of Johannesburg, went on to state that "it is a political testing of strength in which Zuma can't be seen to be weak." With schools and hospitals reduced to battle grounds across Sub-saharan Africa’s largest economy, it remains to be seen if any party can emerge from the clashes a winner.