* Despatches

Trump’s move to call off dialogue with the Taliban has been welcomed by Afghan forces

U.S. President Donald Trump cancelled peace negotiations with the Taliban last Sunday after the insurgent group claimed responsibility for an attack in Kabul that claimed the life of a U.S. soldier.

In a tweet, Mr. Trump shared that he had planned to separately meet with Taliban leaders and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at Camp David. “[I]n order to build false leverage, they admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations...” he said. Mr. Trump was referring to an attack in Kabul that also claimed the lives of a Romanian soldier and 10 Afghan civilians.

The U.S. President’s decision brought to a halt a dialogue process led by U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad that had been taking place for 10 months with several rounds of meeting between the U.S. and the Taliban. The most recent of these seemed to have concluded in a deal that could have potentially seen an end to the U.S.’s 18-year-long conflict in the country.

The cancellation of talks was welcomed by many Afghans who had witnessed increasing violence and civilian casualties even during the duration of the process.

“I think the U.S. should have called off negotiations a long time ago, back when Khalilzad’s efforts did not change the Taliban’s position,” Samira Hamidi, Afghan activist and regional campaigner with Amnesty International told this writer. “Even after nine rounds of negotiations, the U.S. Special Envoy had failed to address issues of cessation of hostilities and ceasefire with the Taliban. In fact the group not only used violence as leverage but also to force the U.S. to pressure the Afghan government to accept proposals such as cancellation of elections,” she reasoned, adding that the increased Taliban attacks across the country and the resulting mass civilian casualties proved that the group was not serious about peace. “The U.S. also gave unnecessary legitimacy to the militant group, who believe they are close to a victory and [to] establishing an ‘Emirate state’ again. It is a worrying situation,” she said.

Mr. Trump followed his move to cancel talks with the militant group with another warning issued on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, vowing to hit the Taliban insurgents “harder than they have ever been hit before”.

Taliban’s response

The group has responded with similar threats and several attacks since the peace talks were first called off. On Wednesday, hours before the U.S. observed the anniversary of 9/11, the Taliban fired a rocket at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. On the following day, a suicide car bomb killed four soldiers at a commando base in the Afghan capital.

Senior security officials who spoke to this writer were concerned about an increase in violence, more so in the light of the presidential elections scheduled for later this month. “Yes, we do expect the level of violence to go up because the Taliban has threatened the [presidential] candidates, and [has] warned Afghans not to participate in the election,” one official said on the condition of anonymity.

However, the collapse of talks has not entirely ruined the prospects of peace. In fact, many Afghan analysts believe that this is but a phase in the negotiation process. “Despite the violence, which was expected from both parties to increase more pressure for bargaining, recent remarks by Mike Pompeo hint that the U.S. is still interested in a deal with the Taliban,” explained Omar Sadr, an Afghan analyst.

“This is also an opportunity for Taliban to sit down with the Afghan government and discuss a real peace process but only if it agrees to a conditional ceasefire. If the Taliban and the Afghan government sit for intra-Afghan negotiations there are good chances for women’s participation as negotiators,” Mr. Hamidy added.

Meanwhile, Afghan security forces remain hopeful, yet cautious of the developing situation. “If they [Taliban militants] don’t agree to intra-Afghan talks then yes, we will hit them harder,” a security source said, echoing Mr. Trump.

He also indicated that the unceremonious pause in talks and Mr. Trump’s strong words had helped boost the morale of Afghan troops, who had been at the receiving end of the growing insurgent violence. “A week ago, everything was complicated for our security forces. While there was air support [from the foreign forces], our security forces needed moral support as well which wasn’t clear because of the Taliban negotiations with the U.S. even as they targeted the Afghans. But now there are no peace talks anymore and even [NATO’s] Resolute Support [Mission] announced that it will fight the Taliban. That’s a big morale booster for Afghan forces.”

As President Macri seeks re-election, the country is battling social distress, and an impossible public debt

“This government does not represent us,” said Jacqueline Flores, one of the leaders of the Confederation of the Workers in the Popular Economy (CTEP). On a sunny September day, Ms. Flores was standing outside Argentina’s Congress building, in the midst of a protest against hunger. She was once a street vendor. As a young woman, Ms. Flores joined the movement of the ‘excluded workers’ or informal sector workers.

The government Ms. Flores referred to was that of President Mauricio Macri, who will face an election in October. Manuel Bertoldi, a leader of the Patria Grande Front, introduced a phrase to the conversation — ‘Macrisis’.

Mr. Macri’s policies have favoured the narrowest sector of Argentina’s rich, and the international banks and financial institutions. As a consequence of his gifts to the wealthy, Mr. Macri’s government has found itself to be unable to honour its debts, with the currency in a state of free fall. He has even taken the country to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), an enormously unpopular decision given Argentina’s experience with the organisation in the first decade of the 21st century. The term ‘Macrisis’ captured the mood: there was dismay at the country’s return to the IMF, and this dismay was personalised around Mr. Macri, who had become a deeply despised figure.

Reports from the government and scholars validate the view of the ‘excluded workers’. A report from the National Institute of Statistics showed that about half the children in Argentina struggle below the poverty line, an increase by 11% since last year. A study by the Catholic University suggested that nearly a third of Argentina’s population lives under the poverty line. Of Argentina’s 44 million people, a minimum of five million people cannot afford to buy the most basic necessities — according to a study by scholars at the University of Avellaneda. It is impossible to see these statistics and not be deeply moved. This is a country of great resources, and yet of increasing social distress.

The Peronists

In October 1945, thousands of Argentinians had gathered before the Casa Rosada, the President’s home in front of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, demanding the release of their leader Juan Perón from prison. They were called the descamisados (‘the shirtless ones’). Juan and Eva Perón’s base amongst the working-class and the urban poor went on to create a political seam that favours the ‘shirtless ones’ till this day. The ‘shirtless ones’ or the ‘excluded’ are a key constituency of the struggle in Argentina against the IMF and the oligarchy.

From the villa miserias — the slums of misery — came the thousands of protesters in early September to demand the enactment of a suite of seven Bills that had originally been tabled in 2017. These Bills call upon the government to declare a National Emergency against hunger. Various national food programmes would increase the food delivery in public schools and in the popular restaurants.

The money needed for these programmes, said José Seoane, the Buenos Aires coordinator of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, is a fragment of the interest payments that drain out Argentina each week.

Argentina sits on a $101 billion debt with central bank reserves that are now around a mere $10 billion. Since 2000, the country has already defaulted twice on its debt. It is almost certain that it will have to default once more. The $56-billion loan from the IMF last year drove the country into a more perilous situation. There is no appetite for Mr. Macri’s very generous short-term bonds, and no sign that the IMF is ready to reschedule loan payments. Standard and Poor’s downgraded Argentina’s bonds to CCC-, deep into junk bond territory.

Mr. Macri is unlikely to win a re-election in October. The presidency, opinion polls and the public mood indicate, is likely to be retaken by the Peronists — Alberto Fernández and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner — and their Frente de Todos (Front of Everybody) platform.

In late August, Mr. Fernández met with an IMF team and made it clear that the IMF’s loan and its conditions have not helped Argentina — inflation and public debt have grown, while the situation for businesses and families has continued to get worse.

In 2004, the IMF had admitted in a study of its earlier intervention in Argentina that the organisation “failed to highlight the growing vulnerabilities” in its “choice of policies” and that it “erred by supporting inadequate policies too long”. That report has perhaps been forgotten by the IMF, but not by the Peronists and the ‘excluded workers’.

“The Debt Is with the People, not the IMF,” read one banner at the September march. It was a clear summary of the situation.

The housing market in this German city is loaded against foreigners, migrants and refugees

Srinivasa Prasad sounded both angry and sad as he talked about his experience of searching for an apartment in Stuttgart.

“A majority of renters were not interested in seeing me after they found out that I was not German. They even asked why I was not speaking their language,” said the Indian engineer, who recently moved from Hong Kong to Germany.

Mr. Prasad, an employee at a big German company, had only recently shifted to Stuttgart and wanted to settle down with his family. However, finding a proper apartment became a problem. Many landlords, and he contacted more than one hundred of them, did not want to rent apartments to non-white foreigners.

A lot of them did not hesitate to show their blatant racism towards Mr. Prasad and his family. “I will never ever rent my house to someone like you,” one person wrote in a message. “We do not rent to people who do not speak our language,” another renter messaged Mr. Prasad.

A common occurrence

Racism in the German housing market is not a new phenomenon. Finding a place to live has always been much more difficult for foreigners, migrants and refugees than for white Germans. This also includes Germans whose parents or grandparents have a migrant background.

“When I talked with the renters on phone, everything appeared to be fine. They invited me to come and visit their apartments. But when I arrived and they saw my black, curly hair, I felt immediately that their attitude had changed,” said Ömer Sarikaya (name changed), a student from Stuttgart University.

Mr. Sarikaya said most house-owners told him that they had found another tenant after they had met him. “In many cases, they were lying. I remember how I told a friend of mine to reach out to one renter after I received a negative reply from him. Surprisingly, the apartment [had become] free again,” he said.

In 2015, Germany’s Anti-discrimination Office had pointed out that discrimination, fuelled by racism, against minorities was regularly taking place in the housing market. In a report, the office had underlined the fact that prejudices were often shown in face-to-face talks. Additionally, those wearing obvious religious symbols, such as the Islamic hijab, were also at a disadvantage with it came to renting homes.

Mr. Sarikaya, who has a Turkish-Muslim background, remembered some of the questions he faced from landlords after they met him. “They asked me if my mother wore a scarf or how often she was praying daily. Some also asked me about my views on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or if I was affiliated with radical extremist groups,” he said.

Mr. Prasad finally found an apartment owned by another migrant. “I did not have the feeling that anyone cared about my religious background. They just heard me or saw me and came to the conclusion that they would not give me their apartment. I doubt that this would have happened if I was a white expatriate,” he said.

The engineer, who has a good income, also does not believe that money was a problem. “It’s just blatant racism, and I was very shocked when I witnessed that,” he said.

‘Believed to be unreliable’

Farhad Arefi (name changed), Mr. Prasad’s new landlord, has roots in Afghanistan. He grew up in Germany and knows about the racism problem in the housing market. “Many white Germans believe that Asian, African or Arab migrants do not pay their rent because they do not have money or are unreliable. They have a lot of prejudices. For that reason, it is very hard for migrants to find a flat,” he said. Mr. Arefi immediately accepted Mr. Prasad as his new tenant. He does not believe that the attitudes of German society will change anytime soon. “Racism is a big problem, and a lot of media outlets continue to portray migrants or refugees in a very bad way,” he said.

Some observers believed that political pressure on the government and legal action against the discriminating parties need to be stepped up to prevent racist behaviour in the housing market. For example, affected persons can be empowered to go to law as long as racism can be explicitly proved, like in the case of Mr. Prasad, who received such messages from his prospective landlords. The discrimination is also obvious if someone gets a rejection while the apartment is still free, as in the case of Mr. Sarikaya. However, at the same time, many believed that house-owners have the right to decide whether or not to rent their apartment to a potential tenant.

Can the U.S. play a role in bringing India and Pakistan to the negotiating table?

U.S. President Donald Trump earlier this month once again brought up the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) issue, offering ‘help’ to India and Pakistan. “I get along with both countries very well. I am willing to help them if they want, they know that is out there,” he told reporters.

This marked a departure from Mr. Trump’s earlier offer to ‘mediate’ between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, made in July when he met Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House. India had not taken kindly to the statement.

Moeed Yusuf, associate vice-president of the Asia centre at the U.S. Institute of Peace, and author of Brokering Peace in Nuclear Environments: U.S. Crisis Management in South Asia said he considered Mr. Trump’s statement “a mellowing down of that [earlier] position”, which he said was “not the U.S. policy position to begin with”. Mr. Yusuf also said that at the end of the day, Mr. Trump does genuinely want to be involved in these kind of very difficult high-profile international situations.

“That’s his style of diplomacy. But on this one, we have seen clearly that he has backtracked after meeting Indian Prime Minister at the G7 Summit so I don’t foresee any major changes here quite frankly, I don’t think he is going to be able to do much. He may say this every now and then but to pin hopes on a major change in U.S. policy at this point I think is unlikely,” Mr. Yusuf told The Hindu.

Mr. Yusuf added that where the U.S. and others will come into the picture is if there is a major India-Pakistan crisis and there are war clouds over South Asia “because then the nuclear element comes in but unfortunately when it comes to dispute resolution, there is going to be talk but no real action from the international community.”

Speaking on the issue, Maria Sultan, director-general of the Islamabad-based South Asian Strategic Stability Institute University, said that no crisis in Kashmir can remain limited in time or space and “it may become the Achilles heel for regional security”.

‘Highly exaggerated’

Analyst Zahid Hussain said that expectation that the U.S. could mediate between India and Pakistan “is highly exaggerated”. He pointed out that India has never accepted third-party involvement on the issue.

“However, the U.S. can play a role in bringing the two countries on negotiating table. Washington has played a significant role in easing tensions between them in the past. Mostly it is through backchannel diplomacy,” Mr. Hussain told The Hindu.

Foreign policy expert Fahd Humayun believes that since August 5, India has tried to allay international concerns on the possibility of a conflict, and underplay J&K’s geopolitical dimensions.

“But the creeping attentiveness of a string of U.S. lawmakers, including presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, suggests a growing cross-sectional interest in an inflammatory dispute that American diplomats had, at least in the past decade, increasingly tried to hedge.”

He added that since the early 2000s, America’s pivot to the region had largely been balanced on an evolving strategic camaraderie with India. But there are at least three indications this year that America’s and the international community’s approach to South Asia may be undergoing a shift, he said.

“The first is the clear lessons drawn from [the events of] this February, when America’s hesitation to put itself in the middle of growing hostilities after the Pulwama attack in Kashmir led to the first aerial combat between Indian and Pakistani air forces since 1971.

“The second reason is that while the breadth of Indo-U.S. ties may still prevent the U.S. may from publicly acknowledging Pakistani outrage, for many in Washington, the bloom is off the global rose as far as Prime Minister Modi’s approach to democracy and human rights are concerned. This is manifesting itself in multiple ways: concern expressed by the State Department vis-à-vis human rights in Kashmir, the refutation by a senior American diplomat of a suggestion that U.S. officials had been informed of the decision on Article 370 in advance, and the first-ever UN Human Rights report [earlier in the year] documenting human rights abuses by Indian security personnel.

“Third is the slow but vital recalibration of Pakistan’s image in Washington as a regional stabiliser whose support has helped the United States achieve significant progress in talking to the Taliban in Afghanistan. A successful visit by Prime Minister Imran Khan to Washington in July and a budding rapport with the White House has boosted the currency of Islamabad’s views, and its concerns, within strategic corridors,” Mr. Humayun told The Hindu.

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