Afghan Talks: Despite Initial Hiccups, Hope for Peace Remains

Even as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reiterated his demand for a cease-fire, few watching the peace talks in Doha expected a positive response from the Taliban.  
 
“[T]he Afghan people have a clear and urgent priority: a cease-fire. An urgent end to the violence will more than anything else give us a chance to progress,” Ghani said in his address to the United Nations Wednesday.  
 
The Taliban response was clear.  
 
“If we stop fighting, then what does there remain to talk about,” a member of the Taliban negotiating team in Doha told NBC News, according to a story published earlier this week.  
 
As the historic negotiations between the Taliban and an Afghan team, including government representatives, enter their third week, the talks are stuck on the most basic of questions, like how to describe the two decades of war in Afghanistan. The Taliban want to call it “jihad.” The other side disagrees.  
 
Yet, those who have watched and analyzed the conflict think of it as a positive development.  
 
“Taliban refusal of an immediate cease-fire, language used to discuss non-Hanafi Sunni Islamic law, women’s rights and future role … these same issues were the reality of the conflict every day for years,” said Andrew Watkins of the International Crisis Group, an independent, non-profit organization working to prevent conflict. The start of difficult discussions on how to change things, he said, was a step forward.  
 
The United States, which prepared the ground for the current peace talks by holding its own 18-month-long negotiation with the Taliban and signing a historic deal with the militant group it once called “terrorists,” understood that the continuing violence may be problematic.
 
“By any measure, the current levels of violence are too high,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. official in charge of negotiating with the Taliban, told members of the U.S. House of Representatives this week.
 
However, Khalilzad also seemed to believe that the best way of reducing the violence was through the current negotiations.
 
“We hope that the current negotiations will lead to a significant reduction in violence by all sides, reducing the number of Afghans getting killed or wounded. … We, for our part, will continue to press for this objective,” he said. Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. envoy for peace in Afghanistan, is seen before talks between the Afghan government and Taliban insurgents, in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 12, 2020.Even though the Taliban have so far refused to commit to a cease-fire, they say they hope for an end to war.  
 
“Yes, we are hopeful, and that is why we came here. We have a strong will to start the meetings and reach a conclusion,” Mohammad Naeem, the Taliban’s Doha-based spokesman, told VOA’s Afghan Service this week.  
 
Still, the two sides are poles apart when it comes to their aspirations for the country. The Afghan team is trying to safeguard the constitution and all the rights that women, minorities, and others have gained in the last 20 years.  
 
The Taliban, according to Naeem, want to define all rights according to their interpretation of Islam.
 
“We cannot bring the values of other societies and impose them on our society. For example, we cannot justify women’s rights on the basis of the values that exist in the United States, in Europe, and in other countries. Our nation does not want this at all. Our nation is Muslim,” he said.  
 
This worries women’s rights activists in Afghanistan. The previous Taliban regime in the 1990s was considered a repressive theocracy by most of the world.  
 
While skeptics feel the Taliban may be wedded to the same old ideology, Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Wilson Center in Washington, said there may be a younger generation of Taliban leaders ready to be flexible.  
 
“By being vague in public comments, the Taliban may be betraying the lack of consensus within the broader organization about what direction it truly wants to take,” Kugelman said.  
 
Watkins of the International Crisis Group said the Taliban have shown that it can be both ideological and pragmatic.Members of the Taliban delegation attend the opening session of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 12, 2020.“The Taliban are flexible in interpreting sharia when they are presented with a sufficiently compelling reason to do so. If their reality on the ground changes, or if the benefits that may result become obvious, the group may very well show flexibility even on the issues we assume are its core beliefs,” he said.
 
Khalilzad seemed to favor Watkins’s view, and U.S. policy seemed to be geared toward compelling a change in Taliban behavior through offers of assistance.
 
“While we do not seek to impose our system on others, we have made it clear to the negotiators that their choices and conduct will affect the size and scope of future U.S. assistance,” Khalilzad said.  
 
The Taliban have repeatedly said they want a continuation of international aid after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.  
 
According to Watkins, top Taliban figures have “begun to privately admit that their period of governance was rife with flaws and failures.”  
 
Ironically, the biggest challenge to the talks seemed to be emerging not from the Taliban but from internal divisions among Afghan political factions.
 
The membership of the High Council for National Reconciliation, the body that is supposed to oversee negotiations with the Taliban, is not yet final. When Ghani announced a list of members, it was rejected by his political rival and the Council’s head, Abdullah Abdullah.Abdullah Abdullah (C), Chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation, speaks with negotiators at the end of a session during peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, in Doha, Qatar, Sept. 12, 2020.“Already, figures such as (Gulbuddin) Hekmatyar (former warlord-politician) have begun openly calling for separate, divided negotiations with the Taliban. And this reflects a much larger number of Afghan leaders who have been quietly communicating with the group,” said Watkins.  
 
The divisions, said Kugelman, did not look good for Kabul, since it appeared its team was pitted against a well-organized and united Taliban negotiating team.  
 
The complex negotiations also face the prospect of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Afghanistan, reducing the Afghan team’s leverage even further.  
 
“The U.S.-Taliban deal obliged the Taliban to start peace talks, not conclude them, in order for U.S. troops to depart,” said Kugelman.  
 
Both President Donald Trump and his rival in the presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden, have expressed their intention to leave Afghanistan.
 
The last time a foreign army left Afghanistan was the Soviet Union in 1989. Afghanistan fell into a vicious civil war and has not seen peace since.  
 
Khalilzad and other senior U.S. officials hope they can “help Afghanistan seize this historic moment and avoid repeating what happened in the 1990s.” But they also acknowledge that the road ahead is full of challenges.   
   Najiba Salam of VOA’s Afghan Service contributed to this report.
 

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Hydroponic Farm Ventures Take Root in Indian Cities

The rows of lettuce, microgreens and herbs that Himanshu Aggarwal and his mother grow in an enclosed room in a busy New Delhi market began flourishing six months ago, just when the COVID-19 pandemic was taking hold in India.Himanshu Aggarwal grows lettuce, microgreens and herbs in an 800-square-foot enclosed room in New Delhi. (Anjana Pasricha/VOA)It was not the best of times. A day after the Aggarwals launched their hydroponic venture, 9Growers, India declared a stringent lockdown, making them nervous about how they would sell their freshly plucked greens amid the pandemic.Surprisingly, the situation helped grow their business. Worried about contracting the virus, people began to focus increasingly on healthful foods, and at the same time, shops became willing to stock their produce.Pratibha Aggarwal helped her son launch the venture 9Growers. (Anjana Pasricha/VOA)”Vendors were open to having good produce, specially during lockdown. They were not even getting basic necessities, and we were giving them fresh produce harvested on the same day,” said Himanshu Aggarwal, 24, who was inspired to take up hydroponic farming after seeing the quality of fruits and vegetables during a trip to Europe. “Even our best produce could not match theirs. So I thought about how to achieve the same standards for a small community, and hydroponics seemed the answer.”Amid growing demand for fresh farm produce without pesticides, young entrepreneurs in Indian cities such as Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru are turning their attention to hydroponic farming, where plants grow without soil and are fed mineral nutrients through water. Using much less water than conventional procedures do, hydroponics has won attention as a sustainable farming method in several countries, such as the Netherlands.Some in Delhi have opted to put up their ventures in poly houses on the city’s outskirts. Others are doing it in the heart of the city, in residential or commercial areas, where the plants grow in laboratory-like conditions under artificial light that simulates sunlight. Most of the young entrepreneurs learned about it on the internet and through trials and experiments in their homes.The hydroponic farm is situated on the top floor of a building. (Anjana Pasricha/VOA)Aggarwal’s plants thrive on the top floor of a small building in an 800-square-foot room. Accessed through an electronics store, the unlikely space transports a visitor from the honking cars and traffic snarls to the surreal sight of the 18 varieties of lettuce and other leafy greens thriving in vertical panels in one of Delhi’s most crowded markets.“We are giving them everything they want — temperature, air quality, humidity. We are monitoring all the aspects for them so that they give the best result,” Aggarwal said.The appeal of greens growing in a clean, germ-free environment has grown during the pandemic as people focus more on eating healthful foods, according to shop owners. While the higher cost is a barrier for some, high-income consumers in cities are increasingly willing to pay the price for fresh produce.Boxes of hydroponic greens are displayed among other vegetables. (Anjana Pasricha/VOA)In an upscale neighborhood in New Delhi, Mohinder Pal Singh, who stocks the hydroponic greens, said he gets repeat orders from customers who try them out. “Due to COVID, a lot of people have switched to greens to boost immunity. People have also become very conscious of eating nutritious food,” he said. “So sale of such produce is increasing.”The owner of a fruit-and-vegetable shop in a Delhi market says hydroponic produce is selling amid rising demand for healthful food amid the pandemic. (Anjana Pasricha/VOA)Optimistic about the growing demand for local produce in cities, some entrepreneurs are scaling up their businesses. Rohit Nagdewani, the founder of farmingV2, plans to expand to other cities — his seven farms in Delhi produce about 2,500 kilograms of hydroponic produce every month. “People are becoming increasingly aware of the source of the food and how many hands it is exchanging, so there is a big future in hydroponics, where supplies reach within a few hours of harvesting,” Nagdewani said. “All that is fueling demand. That is why I have put my entire savings into it,” he said with a laugh.For another Delhi-based entrepreneur, Raghav Varma, 30, the inspiration to turn to city farming came during a visit to the hill state of Uttarakhand, where he saw hydroponic produce being grown for export. Back home, his experiments showed that he was able to grow a 300-gram head of lettuce in a small ice cream container on his windowsill. “It was really fresh and crunchy because it is grown in water. So I thought this was an amazing way to produce food for urban dwellers,” said Varma, who has co-founded Farmstacks.A customer looks at a box of microgreens. (Anjana Pasricha/VOA)However, the entrepreneurs admit that consumer awareness about hydroponics needs to be raised. To do that, Varma allows people to choose the greens they want to grow for their own use at a small community farm in Delhi.Most of the entrepreneurs do not have a farming background; Varma was a digital marketing executive, Aggarwal a corporate employee, and Nagdewani started his career as an automotive journalist.They are proud of their new calling. “ ‘Urban farmer’ is actually a very good tag. It’s a new profession, I would say, and it gives us a sense that we are back to our roots from where we started,” Aggarwal said with a smile.

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US Reiterates Mediation Offer as Pakistan, India Report Fresh Border Clashes

Pakistan and India have reported “intense” cross-border clashes in the disputed Kashmir territory a day after the United States reiterated its offer to facilitate peace talks between the South Asian rivals.  
 
The Pakistani military said Wednesday two of its soldiers were killed by Indian gunfire in an “unprovoked cease-fire violation” along the Line of Control (LOC), which separates the Indian- and Pakistani-ruled parts of the Himalayan region.
 
The army’s media wing claimed retaliatory gunfire by Pakistani troops had inflicted “substantial damage” on the Indian posts where the shooting was initiated.  
 
An Indian Defense Ministry spokesman blamed Pakistani forces for resorting to the early morning “firing with small arms and intense shelling with mortars” in the southern Poonch district along the LOC. He did not report any casualties and said the Indian army retaliated “befittingly.”
 
The nuclear-armed neighboring countries routinely accuse each other of unprovoked attacks in violation of their 2003 mutual cease-fire in Kashmir. The clashes have killed dozens of civilians and soldiers on both sides in recent months.   
 
Islamabad and New Delhi claim Kashmir in its entirety and have fought two wars over the Muslim-majority region.  
 US mediation offer
 
On Tuesday, William Todd, President Donald Trump’s nominee as the next U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, called for defusing the regional tensions.
 
“Our hope is that both countries will take the necessary steps to reduce tensions. And as President Trump has offered, we are prepared to facilitate dialogue if both sides request it,” Todd told a congressional hearing in Washington.  
 
Todd stressed in his testimony that the Trump administration was pursuing a “strong” relationship with both India and Pakistan.
 
“In terms of regional dynamics, although we have a strong relationship with India, that does not need to come at the expense of Pakistan,” he said. “I believe that under the right conditions, we can have a strong relationship with both countries.”
 
India firmly opposes any third-party mediation in its bilateral disputes with Pakistan, including Kashmir.
 
Regional tensions have dangerously escalated since August 2019, when India revoked a decades long semi-autonomous status for Indian-administered Kashmir and split it into two union territories.  
 
Islamabad rejected the move, saying Kashmir is an internationally recognized dispute under a long-standing United Nations Security Council resolution.  
 

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New Delhi Hydroponic Farm Flourishes During Pandemic

Entrepreneurs in Indian cities are turning their attention to indoor hydroponic farming that uses the technique of soil-less cultivation. For one such enterprise, whose launch coincided with India’s strict lockdown, the COVID 19 pandemic actually helped grow business as consumers began to focus increasingly on healthy foods. Pasricha reports from New Delhi.Camera: Darshan Singh 
Producer:  Jason Godman 

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India, China Agree Not to Add Troops on Disputed Himalayan Border  

India and China have agreed to not send more troops to a disputed border region in the Himalayas, where their respective troops engaged in deadly hand-to-hand fighting in June. A joint statement released Tuesday says the agreement was reached after talks between senior military officials from both countries the day before.  The statement said both nations have agreed to “avoid misunderstandings and misjudgments” that would lead to any further clashes in the strategic cold desert region of Ladakh, which borders Tibet.FILE – A police officer heckles a supporter of India’s main opposition Congress party as others pay tribute to the Indian army soldiers killed in a border clash with Chinese troops in Ladakh region, at India Gate, in New Delhi.A standoff that began in May worsened a month later when the soldiers came to blows, using bare fists and crude weapons including stones and clubs, that left 20 Indian soldiers dead and several more wounded. China also suffered casualties but has not provided details.   Both sides blamed the other for the recent fighting. India accused China of violating bilateral agreements by amassing troops and armaments along the so-called Line of Actual Control that divides their unsettled boundary, while Beijing accused New Delhi of trespassing and firing shots that threatened the safety of the Chinese border troops.   Longstanding protocols forbid the use of firearms.   The boundary dispute between India and China has simmered since they fought a war in 1962, but both countries set the decades-old issue aside in recent decades as economic ties blossomed. The latest standoff has again put a deep strain in their ties.   India has banned scores of Chinese apps including the hugely popular video game PubG and TikTok and restricted Chinese firms from infrastructure projects since the military standoff.  

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2 Sentenced to Death in 2012 Pakistan Factory Fire

A Pakistani court Tuesday sentenced two men to death and another four convicts to life in prison for setting a garment factory ablaze in 2012, the worst industrial fire in the country’s history, that killed 264 people.  The court said the men from a local political party started the fire in retaliation for the factory owners refusing to pay more than $1 million in extortion money. The stories of people burning alive in a building with no fire exits or extinguishers caused an uproar across the country and drew attention to the hazardous working conditions of garment factory employees.   The owners of the Karachi factory, Ali Enterprise, claim they had a safety certification, but families of victims refuse to believe them.  FILE – A rescue worker walks past covered bodies, killed during a fire at a garment factory, after they were brought to the Jinnah hospital morgue in Karachi, Sept. 12, 2012.”There were no fire extinguishers, no way for people to get out. How can they claim they had a safety certificate?” said Saeeda Khatoon, a leading member of the Ali Enterprise Victims Association.   She said if anyone had contacted the owners for extortion, the owners should have either closed the factory or reached out to security forces for protection.  “We stood in front of the factory all night. The next day we got dead bodies of our children,” she said.  Victims’ families say with proper safety mechanisms in place, lives could have been saved.   The owners, brothers Arshad and Shahid Bhaila, moved to Dubai after the fire and have not returned to Pakistan.  Eight-year court caseThe prosecution presented 400 witnesses in a case that lasted eight years. Police said three out of the four exits from the factory were locked and the windows had metal rods, keeping people from escaping the blaze that engulfed the building and everything inside.   The two men sentenced to death, Abdul Rehman, also known as Bhola, and Muhammed Zubair, known as Zubair Charya, belonged to MQM, a political party that has often been linked to violence in the past.  The party split into several factions in 2017. One of those factions, that claims it has cut all ties with its previous top leadership, is part of Pakistan’s governing coalition.   The court acquitted MQM leader Rauf Siddiqui, then-provincial minister for commerce and industries, due to lack of evidence. He was accused of ordering the arson. Activists say the incident has not changed the hazardous conditions factory workers face in Karachi. 
 

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