MonitorsPublished on Sep 08, 2020
The talks must be viewed as an opportunity to transform the Afghan social and political landscape, by reflecting local voices – especially that of women, and other marginalised groups – in the agenda of the peace process.
South Asia Weekly Report | Volume XIII-36

Afghanistan: Peace talks must prioritise inclusivity and compromise

Shubhangi Pandey

On 3 September 2020, the Office of the National Security Council of Afghanistan (ONSC) announced that the process of prisoner exchange with the Taliban had been completed, paving the way for the long-awaited intra-Afghan talks to be launched. The protracted process of prisoner release had earlier hit a snag, with President Ghani refusing to free the last batch of 400 highly dangerous Taliban prisoners, many of whom were convicted of unspeakable crimes.

Even as the loya jirga, convened by President Ghani to take a call on the fate of the remaining Taliban prisoners, approved the latter’s release with a view of prioritising peace over any other consideration, the Afghan government held reservations about the same. While expressing apprehension in freeing the remaining inmates, many of whom were seen as a grave threat to society, the government also demanded that the Taliban release the 20 security personnel they still had in captivity.

In the latest update, however, the exchange of prisoners is complete on both ends, with only half a dozen Taliban prisoners still held by the government, who have carried out attacks against foreign forces. The 7 Taliban prisoners, whose release is contested by countries like Australia and France, will be flown to Qatar and handed over to the government there instead, as talks begin in Doha.

The intra-Afghan negotiations, which could reportedly begin in the first or second week of September itself, would witness high-powered delegations on both the sides, carrying sweeping decision-making powers to decide the agenda, and sign agreements, if need be. The Taliban’s 20-member negotiating team that has been handpicked by the group’s chief Mullah Akhundzada consists of members from their leadership council as well,with Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai helming the delegation as lead negotiator.

On the side of the government, the negotiating team consists of politicians, former officials, civil society representatives and even a few women, who will be led by Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, former head of the National Directorate of Security. The constitution of the team has also been endorsed by the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah, who has stressed the need to uphold national interests, women’s rights and the values of freedom of speech and sovereignty during talks.

Different value systems

While the news of the possibility of intra-Afghan talks materialising over the next couple of weeks rekindles hopes for a peaceful future, it also brings into focus the problem of reconciling incompatible value systems, held by either side. On the one hand is the Afghan government, determined to retain the liberal, democratic Islamic order, with the aim of safeguarding civil liberties and the rights of women and minorities.

On the other hand is the Taliban, which espouses a fundamentalist value system, and seeks to establish a theocratic order in Afghanistan, governed by a strict interpretation of the sharia or Islamic law. For the Taliban, any political system that does not conform to their fundamentalist vision of the state is invalid. The tussle between the Taliban and the Afghan government therefore ultimately boils down to their ideologically different views of the Afghan state.

The Taliban’s set of radical beliefs and values is also what sets them apart from the other insurgent groups operating in Afghanistan, and as questionable as it may be, it projects them as formidable opponents of the existing political structure. The Taliban do not want to be relegated to political insignificance like Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami, which signed a peace deal with the government in 2016 in exchange for their political mainstreaming, but in the process, lost sight of their core objectives. The Taliban’s willingness to engage in talks, first with the US and now with the Afghan government, must be viewed with immense caution, instead of assured optimism.

With the US, the Taliban negotiated from a position of relative strength, knowing that the US would be desperate to withdraw militarily from Afghanistan having been unsuccessful in their war effort even after fighting for almost two decades. As for agreeing to participate in intra-Afghan talks, the Taliban is possibly hoping to capitalise on receding foreign presence in Afghanistan mandated by the deal with the US, which has rendered the group even stronger, to drive the negotiations in their favour. Thus far, the Taliban has succeeded in framing the terms of the peace process – the conditions and agendas, both.

Indispensable inclusivity

While popular perception associates intra-Afghan talks with a power-sharing deal between the government and the Taliban, President Ghani’s remarks at a recent gathering held in Kabul indicated otherwise. In his address, he clarified that the ultimate aim of the talks would be to put an end to bloodshed and violence, in fulfilment of the will of the Afghan people. The talks must indeed be viewed as an opportunity to transform the Afghan social and political landscape, by including and reflecting local voices – especially that of the women, and other marginalised groups – in the agenda of the peace process.

While the Taliban certainly don’t represent the will of the people, so far, the government too has failed to mobilise the masses on significant questions to do with preferred political structures, the role of women in politics and other spheres of public life, and the processes of economic reorganisation and state building. A large section of people in Afghanistan remain opposed to the highly-centralised forms of governance followed by the pollical elites based in Kabul, which has perpetuated corruption, arbitrary decision-making, and political patronage based on personal rapports rather than ideological convergences.

Such a political culture has increasingly distanced the government from the people, particularly those belonging to the traditional, tribal communities. Instead of remaining dissociated with local realities of ordinary Afghans, the government must make the people a legitimising force, capable of steering the narrative of the peace process.

The implementation of the US-Taliban deal itself must facilitate substantial progress on the reconciliation front, as opposed to being used as a mere instrument to rehabilitate the Taliban, bring them into the mainstream political fold, with the population at large still disenfranchised. Therefore, while ending the cycles of violence is an essential prerequisite to peace in Afghanistan, in the absence of inclusivity, the sustainability of any peace deal will be an impossible feat to achieve. In addition, both sides in the negotiations would have to accept a veritable degree of compromise in order to arrive at any shared understanding on the future of Afghanistan.

Bangladesh: Indian Foreign Secretary’s visit boosts bilateral ties

Joyeeta Bhattacharya

The India-Bangladesh relations got a major boost with Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla’s visit to Dhaka last month (18-19 August). It was Shringla’s  maiden overseas visit after the travel restrictions were imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The visit is seen as being fruitful. Shringla was the first foreign emissary Prime Minister Hasina met after the outbreak of the Covid-19.

During his two-day visit, the Indian Foreign Secretary called on the top leadership of Bangladesh, including Foreign Minister A K Abdul Momen and his counterpart Masud Bin Momen. He also had a virtual interaction with the Chief of Bangladesh Army.

In his interactions, Shringla discussed various issues of mutual interest, including development partnership, cooperation in tackling Covid-19 challenges and vaccine-development, etc. A major highlight of the visit was his handing over of a special message of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Prime Minister Hasina. She appreciated Modi’s efforts in sending his special representative with a massage on how the two countries could take the relationship forward.


The visit attracted wide media attention since it coincided with the rising tension between India and China that has resulted in a rigorous power-game by Beijing to deepen its influence in India’s neighbourhood. The Chinese game of seeking to influence India’s neighbours has been visible  in Bangladesh too,  through measures like enhancing the list of products for duty-free access into its markets and providing massive loans for development projects.

The local media described the visit as India’s effort to win back Bangladesh, one of its trusted friends in the neighbourhood. The authenticity of the claims made in the media needs detailed analysis before drawing any conclusion as the two countries view their relationship independent of any influence of a third country. Recently, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had expressed displeasure over the repeated comparison of its relationship with Bangladesh with that of China.

An analysis of the agenda of the visit showcases two different strands of India’s engagement in Bangladesh, which have been overlooked in the popular discourses on the bilateral relationship.  These relate to the humanitarian approach which has been the foundation of the bilateral relationship, and at the same time celebrating shared heritage and culture which binds the two countries.

India’s relationship with Bangladesh precedes strategic considerations. The torture of Bangladeshi people by the Pakistani army and the subsequent influx of refugees was a major driver for India’s support for the country’s Liberation War in 1971. Post-liberation also, India has been prompt in providing humanitarian assistance to Bangladesh, either for dealing with  natural disasters like cyclone or health emergencies like the Covid-19. Besides, health tourism forms a major component of the bilateral relationship.

Twin celebrations

During the visit, the India Foreign Secretary also discussed the celebrations of two major events -- the birth centenary of ‘Bangabandhu’ Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (Mujib Borsho), the leader of Bangladesh independence movement, and  the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence.

The Bangabandhu has been credited with pioneering the bilateral relationship, and the celebration of his birth centenary jointly by the two countries will add a new dimension to the relationship. Similarly, the golden jubilee of Bangladesh’s independence is a moment that demands joint commemoration by Bangladesh and India.

Bangladesh rode to its victory due to the efforts of its freedom fighters and the India Army. The Indian Army fought side by side with the Bangladeshi freedom fighters in 1971.  Given the importance of these events, India’s top diplomat discussing these momentous occasions resulted in a feeling of commonness between the two countries.

Delivering on promises

Nevertheless, to benefit from the positives achieved from the visit, India should work on delivering the promises made to Bangladesh.  Fast-tracking development projects in Bangladesh will be a significant step forward. Also, India’s help in the repatriation of the Rohingya refugeess to Rakhine in Myanmar will be encouraging.  From 2017, the Rohingya refugees are residing in Bangladesh after they fled their homes in Rakhine to escape the atrocities of the Myanmar security forces in retaliation of an attack on their camps by an armed group from the community.

Cooperation between India and Bangladesh will not only help the development of the two countries but also contribute to the prosperity of South Asia. Regular interaction between the top leaderships and the officials will help in strengthening the relations.

The visit showcased the importance India gives to Bangladesh and added a new momentum to the relationship, which for some time has been limited to virtual interactions.

Country Reports


Prisoner-exchange complete

The government announced on 3 September that the final batch of 400 Taliban prisoners had been released, barring 7 inmates deemed as highly dangerous, who would instead be flown to Qatar and handed over to the government there. The Taliban too responded to the government’s demand by freeing the 20 security personnel in their captivity. With the process of prisoner exchange completed based on the conditions put forth by both the sides, intra-Afghan negotiations could reportedly begin in the coming days.

ADB pledges Covid-19 support

President Ashraf Ghani signed multiple agreements with the Asian Development Bank, with the latter pledging support in the form of US$ 23.95 million to the government, in their fight against the rapid spread of the coronavirus. The support entails the construction of hospitals in some of the worst affected provinces, and the procurement of essential medical supplies that would strengthen healthcare infrastructure and facilities in the country.


Relief to Khaleda extended

In a major step, the authorities have decided to extend the suspension of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia's jail sentence for six more months. The privilege, however, comes with conditions and she will not be allowed to travel abroad. The decision followed on request of the family members of Begum Zia.  Begum Zia has been convicted in cases of corruption and has been sentenced for 5 years in the prison. Already she has completed 776 days in the prison before she was released in March this year.

Remittances up

Nullifying Covid-centric speculation, the country received a record of $1.96 billion as remittance, which is 36 higher in comparison to $1.44 billion received in the same period last year. The country thus recorded 36 percent growth in the receipt of the remittances. Remittances are an important source for Bangladesh’s foreign exchange earnings and speculations were made that remittances will see a sharp decline due to the slowdown of the economy due to outbreak of Covid19 pandemic which impacted the employment opportunities for the migrant workers.


Nation-wide lockdown lifted

Prime Minister Lotay Tshering on 31 August announced a phase-wise relaxation of the nationwide lockdown. The lockdown that lasted 21 days beginning from 14 August and the unlock process will continue till 10 September. More than 50,000 people were tested while the lockdown was operation. However, the imposition of Red Zone in the town of Phuentsholing would continue.

Lekphell to head BIMSTEC

Tenzin Lekphell, one of the founders of the Bhutan’s ruling party -- Druk Nyamrup Tshogpa, is all set to be the next Secretary-General of BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) after he was nominated by the government as its appointee. His nomination was accepted by the Foreign Secretaries of the member countries. The BIMSTEC Secretary General’s post is for three years and rotates among the seven member countries. It was Bhutan's turn this time.

Call to stabilise food systems  

Foreign Minister Dr Tandi Dorji, speaking at the 35th UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s regional conference for Asia Pacific on 3 September, called upon member-countries to stabilise food systems against current and future threats and frame immediate, mid-term, and long-term plans to respond through cooperation and support of relevant stakeholders. Recognising the negative impact of the current pandemic on vulnerable groups in the society, Dorji said that Bhutan was working to further improve agriculture productivity for food security.


Border tension continues

The border tensions between India and China continued and both the countries accused each other of “provocative” military movements last week. The latest tensions took place on the South bank of the Pangong Lake in Eastern Ladakh.  The defence ministers of both the countries have talked to each other in Moscow and communication is being done at multiple levels to de-escalate the tensions between India and China.

Ex-President passes away

Veteran leader of the Congress Party and the former President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, passed away last week after being in hospital for 20 days. He was COVID19 positive and was being treated for a blood clot in his brain. As Mr Mukherjee left a rich legacy of five decades long political career, prominent personalities in India and across the world paid tribute to his exceptional contribution to the public life as a statesman and parliamentarian. Indian government has declared seven days of national mourning to condole his death.


‘India Out’ campaign

Camouflaging their demand for freeing jailed former President Abdulla Yameen, the PPM-PNC Opposition combine attached to him ha sought to give a ‘nationalist’ twist to their ongoing nation-wide protest by adding an India angle to the same. ‘India Out’ posts are becoming increasingly visible in a section of the social media even as such placards have begun making their appearance on the streets, as well. The protest-coinage comes in the wake of India and Maldives signing multiple developmental investment plans, including the nation’s longest sea-bridge, three times of the size of China-funded Sinimale Bridge, connecting capital Male and airport-island, Huluhule.

Threat to Solih

The Maldivian Police Service (MPS) has launched an investigation into a guest at a TV talk-show openly calling for killing President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih. TV Channel 13 has since apologised in public, saying that the guest spoke on his own and they did not have anything to do with it. This is possibly the first time that open threat and call of the kind has been rendered through a TV channel, with the result, the Maldivian Broadcasting Commission too has launched separate investigations.


Covid-19 and elections

Some political parties and analysts have called upon the Union Election Commission (UEC) to discuss matters relating to poll campaign in times of Covid19 with the Ministry of Health and other stake-holders. As per the election law, the political parties have the right to canvass 60 days before the poll date, starting from 8 September. The view is that given the current pandemic situation, the UEC should first meet with the Health Ministry and other government departments concerned and then meet with political parties to review the situations and to decide on what to do next for holding general elections.

India provides $5 m

A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on India-Myanmar Border Area Development was signed during the visit of Prime Minister of India to Myanmar in May 2012. According to this MoU, India would grant US$ 5 million per annum for the basic infrastructure and livelihood development of the Chin State and Naga Self -Administered Zone. On 28 August, last month, a cheque was handed over for US$ 5 million for the third year of the India-Myanmar Border Area Development by Shri Saurabh Kumar, the Ambassador of India to Myanmar. Under the third year projects, nine roads and bridges and five schools have been constructed in Chin State. The projects have been undertaken in nine townships with 82 beneficial villages.


‘Pandemic Act’ in action

The Supreme Court has decided to enact a new ‘Pandemic Act’ in light of the prevailing COVID-19 crisis situation. High risk groups and women have been specifically targeted in order to address any prevailing difficulties. The Ministry of Health and Population  along with the Ministry of Law and Justice and the National Information Commission have been requested to conduct a comprehensive study to identify the prevailing gaps in the ‘new normal’ system.

Finance Minister resigns

Finance Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada submitted his resignation to Prime Minister K. P Oli. He was also holding a ministerial portfolio in the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology. Given the trying times that the Himalayan nation is going through, especially with the falling GDP, the vacuum must be filled immediately.


Graft charge against PM aide

Lt. Gen. Asim Saleem Bajwa (retd) is set to quit as special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan on information and broadcasting after allegations of corruption. However, he will remain as chairman of CPEC authority. According to a news report, Gen. Bajwa used his office to set up offshore assets with his wife and brother. Bajwa refuted the allegations. According to the news report, Bajwa family especially his wife, own a large number of share in foreign businesses and have purchased a property worth $14.5 million in the US. At present, his wife is shareholder in 85 companies including 82 foreign companies.

Sanctions regime ‘politicised’

After the US, the UK, France, Germany and Belgium blocked Islamabad’s move to designate two Indian nationals as global terrorists, the Foreign office of Pakistan regretted the politicisation of the United Nations sanctions regime. Pakistan had moved to designate the two Indian nationals as global terrorists under the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) 1267 sanctions committee. However, it failed to provide evidence against the two individuals and the move was blocked. It is pertinent to mention that the USA, UK, France, are permanent members, while Germany and Belgium are non-permanent members of UNSC.

Sri Lanka

20-A draft gazetted

The government has gazetted the 20th Amendment Bill to the Constitution after Cabinet approval, providing for reversal of most provisions contained in the equally controversial 19-A put in place by the previous Government of National Unity (GNU). The restored provisions include the powers of the Executive President to dismiss the Prime Minister and dissolve Parliament one year after elections, freedom for those with dual citizenship to contest parliamentary elections, and other anti-Rajapaksa clauses, which included the lowering of the minimum age for the presidency from 35 to 30 years.



Opinion Pieces

Hikmat Noori, “The Battle Over Printing Mothers’ Names in Afghan IDs”, TRT World, 3 September 2020 

Mohammad Zahir Akbari, “The Intellectual Position of Afghanistan in Post Modern Era”, The Daily Outlook Afghanistan, 2 September 2020


The Afghanistan Times, “Reactions to HCNR Formation”, 31 August 2020

The Kabul Times, “Ashura: Resistance Against Injustice”, 29 August 2020


Opinion Pieces

Fahmida Khatun, “Women’s access to stimulus packages and post Covid-19 gender equality”, The Daily Star, 1 September 2020

Abdullah Shibli, “Bangladesh is not a risky destination”, The Daily Star, 1 September 2020



Kunesel, “Let there not be another lockdown”, 4 September 2020

The Bhutanese, “Community transmission is here”, 30 August 2020


Opinion Pieces

Nimai M Mehta, “The road from the Ram Temple: Polarisation has created more heat than light”, The Indian Express, 4 September 2020

Jayati Ghosh, “A guide to flattening the curve of economic chaosThe Hindu, 3 September 2020

Manish Sabharwal, “COVID economic pain will pass but we need to create enduring change for firms, citizens with reforms”, The Indian Express, 3 September 2020

Rahul Verma, “The Congress has four choices nowhindustantimes, 3 September 2020


The Telegraph, “Unchanged: Definition of criminal contempt”, 4 September 2020

The Indian Express, “A deserved reprieve”, 3 September 2020

The Indian Express, “First class”, 3 September 2020

hindustantimes, “A new low for Indian television news”, 3 September 2020

hindustantimes, “Farewell, Pranab da”, 31 August 2020


Opinion Pieces

Saisiah Alisjanhbana, Executive Secretary, UNESCAP, “Financing economic recovery”, The Edition, 5 September 2020


Opinion Pieces

Aung Zaw, “In Myanmar's Karen State, Ex-Insurgents Create a Haven for Chinese Casino Bosses”, The Irrawaddy, 28 August 2020


Opinion Pieces

Ujwal Thapa, “What could go wrong in Nepal in the next two years?” Republica, 4 September 2020

Amish Raj Mulmi, “Show me the numbers”, The Kathmandu Post, 3 November 2020

Babu Krishna Karki, “Shyam Sharan’s punitive prescriptions: Perils to Nepal-India relations”, Republica, 31 August 2020


The Kathmandu Post, “Custodians of injustice”, 3 September 2020

The Kathmandu Post, “Work must go on”, 2 September 2020


Opinion Pieces

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, “Advisers, SAPMs and cabinet”, Dawn, 5 September 2020

A.G. Noorani, “Map disputes”, Dawn, 5 September 2020

Muhammad Zohaib Jawaid, “How can PTI turnaround the export sector?”, Tribune, 3 September 2020

Zahid Hussian, “Karachi’s fault lines”, Dawn, 2 September 2020

Andrew Korybko, “Did Indian intel just discredit Modi’s ‘no intrusion’ claim?, Tribune, 2 September 2020

Jawed Naqvi, “Changing an unchanging world”, Dawn, 1 September 2020

Sri Lanka

Opinion Pieces

M S M Ayub, “Misconceptions of a peace envoy in his peace mission”, Daily Mirror Online, 4 September 2020

Kelum Bandara, “19-A enacted more with political interests”, Daily Mirror Online, 4 September 2020

Sanjeeva Fernando, “Protecting 19-A: Between a constitutional monarchy and modern republic”, Daily Mirror Online, 3 September 2020

Ranga Jayasuriya, “Colombo Port City and the big picture of US sanctions on Chinese firms”, Daily Mirror Online, 1 September 2020

Kelum Bandara, “People in the North, East began to think practically and sensibly”, Daily Mirror Online, 1 September 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “The International Community and Threat of Isolation”, Ceylon Today, 1 September 2020

Austin Fernando, ex-High Commissioner to India, “India’s Neighbourhood Policies and Neighbours”, The Island, 31 August 2020

N Sathiya Moorthy, “What do the Tamils want?”, Colombo Gazette, 31 August 2020


Easwaran Rutnam, “The Diaspora gave Prahbakaran all wrong advice: Erik Solheim”, Daily Mirror Online, 2 September 2020


Daily Mirror Online, “With the 20-A whither goest Lanka”, 5 September 2020


Afghanistan: Shubhangi Pandey

Bangladesh: Joyeeta Bhattacharjee

Bhutan: Mihir Bhonsale

India: Ambar Kumar Ghosh

Maldives & Sri Lanka: N Sathiya Moorthy

Myanmar: Sreeparna Banerjee

Nepal: Sohini Nayak

Pakistan: Ayjaz Wani

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