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Afghanistan-Maldives Relations: A Narrative of Dichotomy
Posted:Dec 2, 2017
 
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By Aditya Raj Marwan
 
Maldives, a country situated at the south-southwest of India having a population of approx. 3, 92,709, has been making rounds on international front since the sentencing of ex-president Mohammed Nasheed for 13 years on the charges of terrorism. Afghanistan is located in the heart of Asia and it certainly has serious geopolitical interests in the Indian Ocean region. The diplomatic relations between Afghanistan and the Maldives was established on March 17, 2006. Recently an informal peace talk with Taliban was held in Maldives which could be brought back to our attention but it accrued no development in any sense and it went on to such an extent that Afghan government officials made it clear that there had been no such official talks.  Maldives has many a time made its stance clear on supporting the peace process in Afghanistan as it has been reiterated many a time by its diplomats at the UN and other multilateral engagements . Maldives is a concern of all the Asian nations as major part of the oil and energy seaborne trade crosses the Indian Ocean region where this archipelago of 1,190 coral islands grouped into 26 atolls sits at the strategic location.  At this point, it is crucial to assess the relations between Afghanistan and the Maldives as the growing radicalism in the Indian Ocean country can act as a serious impediment to the stability of the whole Asian region including Afghanistan.
 
 
SECURITY PERSPECTIVE- LOOMING ANATHEMAS
 
Since the ascension of Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom as the president of Maldives, radicalisation in the Maldives is on a high rise. Yameen Rashid, a 29 years old blogger, who went vociferous against Islamic radicalization was stabbed to death and it has consequently raised the security concern as this was an outright reflection of growing radicalism in the country where liberal and moderate Islam has taken a back seat.  In January 2017, the government released a policy that included providing instructions to tourism companies to facilitate tourists with written rules on how to conduct in a Muslim country. It is justified to introduce such measures but turning a blind eye to the real concern brings some doubt. Such actions on the part of government explicitly make it clear that instead of taking serious measures against radicalisation, the government is trying to accommodate radicalism and tourism in order to benefit from both. Undoubtedly, the government’s portrayal of ex-president and its party as Christian missionaries or anti-Islamic secularists has injected the thoughts of youths with radical and extremist Islamic values which would be detrimental to any future government with liberal Islamic values. Moreover, a court sentenced a woman who was accused of adultery to death by stoning. Though the order was later annulled by the higher court but it reflects the extremist beliefs of judges and other officials in remote islands and in Malé, too.  All these developments aptly suggest that Maldives is on the brink of being radicalised and launched as another hotspot for Wahhabi militancy. The Daesh influence in Iraq and Syria is drawing near to an end as the Iraqi forces have launched an offensive in Anbar which is one of the last remaining areas under their hold. Arabisation  of the population at the hands of Maldivian government is pouring sympathy in the heart and mind of youths and elders alike for extremists fighting the western domination of Muslim lands and is making Maldives a fertile ground for recruitment.
 
 
About more than two hundred Maldivians are supposed to have fled to Daesh territories in order to achieve martyrdom under the self-claimed Caliphate. According to few of Maldivians who had joined Jabhat al-Nusra front in Syria, they emphasized that Maldives is not the only strategic point for them as they want to establish themselves in the Indian subcontinent.  Interestingly, Daesh has suffered ignominious defeat at the hands of Peshmerga and Iraqi forces which include Popular Mobilization Force (Iran backed Shia Militias) in Iraq and are on retreat as only a few villages are left to be freed from them. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Daesh), suggestively, has presence in Afghanistan so it provides returned extremists including Maldivians a platform to continue the war for caliphate and also fighting the US and NATO forces there. Through the Indian Ocean, it is easy for the jihadists to infiltrate Pakistani territory and ultimately making it to Afghanistan or acting from the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) region. The vulnerability is well-apprehended because of the vast unprotected Indian Ocean region and Pakistan’s ambivalence attitude towards peace in Afghanistan. It is call of the time that Afghanistan must cooperate and negotiate with India and US alliance in the Indian Ocean so as to exchange proper intelligence regarding the movement of extremists in the Ocean region which is another transit alternative for extremists other than air and also to contain drug-trafficking taking place through the ocean. Direct talks with the Maldives government shall not be propitious considering the fact that government itself is propagating the radical ideology and supporting Salafist parties and institutions for its own political gains which is not for the purpose of inclusivity but to remain in power.
 
 
 AFGHANISTAN AND MALDIVES AT THE UN
 
Afghanistan has secured a seat at the UN Human Rights Council for the term of two years period starting in 2018. Maldives did contest but because of getting only four votes, it pulled itself out of the league. Looking at the human rights scenario in Maldives one can very easily discern that the violations are extremely egregious and so, many countries have denied Maldives any further role in Human Rights Council. The sentencing of ex-President Mohammed Nasheed for thirteen years on the charge of terrorism is alleged globally to be against the principle of fair and natural justice i.e. the due process which everyone is entitled to. The independence of the judiciary has been misconstrued in Maldives as it is interpreted as if it is a privilege of a judge, and not a responsibility to decide the case fairly with due process and not out of some external influence.  The passing of Anti-defamation and Freedom of Speech Act is an absolute encroachment upon the rights of every human as enshrined under Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This act criminalizes all such expressions that contradict a tenet of Islam, threatens national security, contradicts social norms etc. It passively serves the government in power at present as they can easily mow down any voice or press which expresses such dissent that can jeopardize the government’s interest. Flogging is still rampant as a punishment in Maldives and Yameen’s government seems to go easy with it. Leaving the Commonwealth while blaming it for interfering in the domestic matters of Maldives is another excuse for not bringing an end to its human rights abuse which started with the detention of ex-President Mohammed Nasheed.  It has secured only four votes for membership of UN Human Rights Council this year and this expresses the common dissent among international community against the human rights abuses by Yameen’s government.
 
As Afghanistan is about to sit at the UN Human Rights Council, it is its paramount responsibility to bring up the human rights abuses in the region to the front and at the same time improving human rights scenario domestically. The human rights abuses in Maldives have been so egregious and gross that it threatens the democratic values and Afghanistan, as a member of Human Rights Council, has to monitor and report all these abuses so as to gain the trust of those nations  which see Human Rights Council as a ‘feckless haven for human rights abusers’.  It is an opportunity for Afghanistan to consolidate its image as a human rights advocate which will surely accrue it a commendable position in international community and most probably provide it a Launchpad to contend for a non-permanent seat at UN Security Council in future that will entirely depend on Afghanistan’s credibility at different institutions and committees of the United Nations. Although domestic human rights scenario stands on the top of all priorities for Afghanistan but advocating, monitoring and investigating the same in the region is extremely important to consolidate trust and gain credibility.
 
Maldives has officially announced its candidature for UNSC election to be held in 2018, but it seems like Afghanistan would vote for another candidate i.e. Indonesia as the mutual ties between Indonesia and Afghanistan has always remained on a vigour strength. The latest visit to Afghanistan by Retno Marsudi, Foreign Minister of Indonesia hints that the relations are going to be even stronger than it has been in the past.  But nevertheless, Maldives has been at the forefront of advocacy concerning climate change policies and Afghanistan should stand side by side supporting Maldives on such crucial issues at the United Nations.
 
 
ENGAGEMENT AT REGIONAL AND SUBREGIONAL INSTITUTUIONS
 
Back in 2010, Maldives National Chamber of Commerce & Industry (MNCCI) and Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce & Industries (ACCI) collaborated together signing a MoU in order to provide a forum for more systematic business promotional activities in trade, investment and other industrial sectors. It was aimed to serve as a platform for the businessmen and investors of the two countries where they could discuss the business and trade matters. In 2014, ACCI chaired the 5th South Asia Conference which focused on “New Opportunities in Infrastructure Construction and Development of South Asian Countries”. Around 80 delegates including those from Maldives participated in the conference.
 
But recently, there has been a paradigm shift in the attitude of India regarding SAARC since last year’s SAARC Summit Boycott, a reaction against Pakistan’s safe harbouring of terrorists on its land, and this step was supported by Afghanistan and later, even Maldives came in India’s support. At present, one can witness a shift of India’s attention from SAARC to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) as it hosted a meeting of security chiefs from all the seven members of BIMSTEC earlier this year. India seems to be paying more attention to sub-regional institutions rather than SAARC. It raises a question with regard to the future of SAARC as the terms between India and Pakistan deteriorates and recently, Maldives has extended its support to Pakistan to host the SAARC summit at the time when other SAARC nations couldn’t accept Pakistan’s safe haven for terrorism at any cost. S. Jaishankar, the Foreign Secretary of India retorted that SAARC is a ‘jammed vehicle’ as one country is not connected to others on the key issue of terrorism, which was a reference to Pakistan.  Maldives supporting Pakistan to host the SAARC summit is an apathetic regard to the common concern of all the South Asian nations on the matter of terrorism and the safe haven that Pakistan ensures them.
 
 
 
Looking at the above facts and recent developments it seems very probable that the influence of SAARC has dwindled as India is not ready to further any talk and has shifted its attention to BIMSTEC and other sub-regional institutions. So is the scenario with Afghanistan-Maldives tie as it won’t be propitious now to rely much on SAARC but to engage bilaterally. Maldives being a nation which has narrow resources and is dependent to major extent on tourism for its survival, Afghanistan’s concern should rest on security issues which necessitate vigilance and watch over the growing radicalism in the country and the movement of radicals and extremists out of the atoll country. It can be achieved through conducting dialogues between the intellectuals of two nations, by holding conferences on the proper interpretation of religious literature. But one has to keep in mind that Maldives is attracting a significant flush of petrodollars from Saudi Arabia and has implemented major changes domestically so as to adopt Salafism in the land.  In such a stringent and stoic situation, it would be a tough path for Afghanistan to initiate and build upon any such bilateral engagement with Maldives considering the overwhelming flush of Saudi Arabia’s funds to the country. Moreover, China’s influence in the country adds much pain to any serious deliberation on initiating talks with Maldives with the hope of reciprocity in regard to the intellectual exchanges on the moderate version of Islam or any other engagement of such nature because of Afghanistan’s leaning toward America and India.
 
 
CONGLOMERATION OF TROUBLES: AN IMPENDING CRISIS
 
The region has become a hot spot of the rivalry and power-flaunting between India-US and China. The situation of Maldives at present suggests that radicalism is mounting up gradually in its isolated islands which has become quite evident after Yameen’s government released the policy which included a provision requiring tourism companies to provide tourists with guidelines of how to behave in an Islamic country which seems like capitulating to the probability of foreigners being attacked on the Maldivian soil. Moreover, the recent activities targeting liberal journalists who raised their voice against radicalism have met with violent resistance and few of them even got killed.  The press has been mowed down by the government after passing of the anti-defamation legislation which is another measure adopted by President Yameen’s government to use religion as a tool to remain in power by making a coalition with puritan Salafist parties.  Maldives, as per the TSG Foreign Fighters report, supplies the world’s highest per capita number of foreign fighters to Middle-East for jihad fighting under ISIS and Al-Qaida’s Al Nusra Front.
 
 
 
Looking at the pattern of the way events are unfolding in Maldives it is easily discernible that this behaviour is very much similar to the pre-Red Mosque Siege behaviour which happened in Pakistan in the year 2007.  Any significant shift of Maldives toward America-India alliance in the Indian Ocean region will backfire as the country has been radicalised to much extent and China-Pakistan alliance would not leave any opportunity to bring the shift of Maldives in their favour for their own geopolitical interests including Maritime Silk Route which becomes quite evident from China’s huge investment in the Maldives including the Malé-Hulhule Bridge and Malé International Airport, and the chances of such crisis is exacerbated by the reason that Wahhabi ideology has got entrenched in the society on many of the isolated atolls in Maldives. Due to shortage of good educational opportunities in Maldives, many parents send their children to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for theological studies in Madrassas which are unregulated; and thus they indoctrinate students with radical and extremist views.  On 5th September 2014, a protest took place where placards being carried said ‘No democracy- We want just Islam’, ‘We want the laws of the Quran, not the green book (Constitution)’ etc.  In this paper, many events and situations have been discussed which suggests that if this radicalism is not contained by strict measures in near future then it can lead to a fatal blow to the government which, right now, is using this radicalisation process as a tool to remain in power along with trampling on the human rights of its citizens. So it is an arduous job for Maldivian government to choose its side and they must do it carefully so as to not alienate the radical population or to go against their Wahhabi ideology.
 
 
NEED OF CAUTIOUS ASSESSEMENT FOR FUTURE ENGAGEMENT
 
While the politics in Maldives has remained stagnant and tumultuous domestically, Afghanistan must remain cautious in promoting people-to-people interaction as it may further lead to spread of the same ideology which has, till now, brought devastation to the country either through Pakistan or by some middle-eastern radicals since 90s. The violation of human rights of its citizens by Yameen’s government has gained worldwide attention and arbitrariness of judiciary and other organs and governmental machinery has been criticized by the United Nations as well.  Afghanistan is about to play an active role as a member of Human Rights Council and it is an opportunity for the nation to win the confidence of international community which shall further consolidate its position in international politics and shall also lead as a groundwork for retaining support of many nations i.e. regional and global consensus  for its domestic peace process. Adding another feather to its cap, Afghanistan has secured the green place in supporting freedom of expression in the UNESCO.  This shows the unflinching effort of National Unity government to promote human rights unlike those nations who served as a member of Human Rights Council but were standing on the top of lists concerning human rights abuses like Maldives etc. Afghanistan needs to build upon this accomplishment and look forward to monitoring and promoting the same in the South Asian region and Maldives should also be on the watch list of the Afghan government and its delegation at UN Human Rights Council. Maldives has also earned the confidence of international community with regard to its advocacy for climate change  and it’s strategically the most important issue for Maldives as its highest natural island is only 2.5 metres above the sea.  Moreover, as the significance of SAARC in the region has fettered to some extent recently, Afghanistan, although a landlocked country, should make an endeavour to become a member of Indian-Ocean Rim Association (IORA) as it includes those countries who have the common interests and one of its priorities is to focus on the protection against traditional and non-traditional maritime security challenges including piracy, terrorism, drug trafficking etc.  All these concerns are mutually shared by all the nations and so Afghanistan should make an endeavour to become a member of this organisation and it has become a matter of primary concern after its hammering out of trilateral cooperation agreement for using Chabahar port as a transport and transit corridor with India and Iran.  Afghanistan’s access to the port has provided it with a leverage over its earlier dependency on Pakistan and a major stake in the Indian Ocean region and it would be justified on its part to become a member of the IORA. On 25th May this year, Maldives had decided to participate in the IORA but the membership has not been confirmed yet.  This organization can act as a platform for dialogues and cooperation between Maldives and Afghanistan, and with Indonesia and India’s support the organisation seems propitious for engagement between the two nations bilaterally.
 
 
CONCLUSION
 
Strategically, Afghanistan-Maldives engagement should be focused on the Regional diplomacy with a tinge of Track II promoting Islamic literature and its moderate interpretation by engaging intellectuals and other non-state actors. But again, instead of engaging bilaterally Afghanistan should prefer engaging multilaterally involving other Islamic countries in the region like Indonesia etc. too. Maldives and the ‘Indo-Pacific Region’  has become the hot spot of Indo-China rivalry and China’s growing military presence has endangered the status quo in the region. So Afghanistan should take extreme care to maintain neutrality with regard to its relations with Maldives as tilting toward either side can have a negative effect on its domestic peace process. The menace of radicalism and extremism is hovering over Maldives and the treacherous nature of Maldivian government at present negates any serious intelligence sharing on their part so consequently Afghanistan, with the help of maritime powers like India and US, should monitor the movement in the Indian ocean region bordering Iran and Pakistan because the inactive terrorist cells in the country may be mobilised at the order from headquarters in Afghanistan, Pakistan or India.  People-to-people interaction should be scrutinized so as to curb the exchange of radical ideologies among the people of two nations as it can give a fillip to Taliban and ISIS hold over the country and may imperil the stability of the country in particular and the region, in general. Daesh presence in Afghanistan shall attract the Maldivians with extremist and Wahhabi ideology and so, the security concern should guide the determination of the extent of the relationship between Afghanistan and the Maldives. Moreover, Afghanistan should make genuine endeavours to become a member of IORA as now, it has a major stake in the Chabahar port and consequently in the Indian Ocean region. This platform can also play a significant role in dealing with maritime terrorism, drug-trafficking and other traditional and non-traditional concerns in the region. It is important to reiterate that Afghanistan should adopt the regional diplomacy instead of directly engaging with the Maldivian government as the political situation in Maldives is tumultuous and even treacherous. Nevertheless, Maldives had enacted two acts in 2015 as a measure to curb terrorism which is plausible. They are ‘Anti-Terrorism Act’ and ‘Prevention of Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing Act’.  But it still remains to be seen whether these enactments can seriously contain the process of radicalisation and impending threats to the land or not. Maldivian politics has hit the rock bottom and gradual radicalisation of people in the country is nothing else but Frankenstein’s monster. The contrast between the governments of both the respective countries is extremely vivid. On one hand, Afghanistan’s attitude toward protecting human rights and attempt to include into government adversaries like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar etc. through peaceful talks is highly commendable and a step forward to enhance democratic values but, on the other hand, the Maldivian government has made coalition with radical parties from time to time to remain in power and usurped them later when the government’s whimsical interests were at stake. The attitude of the two governments illuminates a sharp dichotomy but it is in the best of both’s interest to engage bilaterally and multilaterally while keeping in mind the perils it possesses.
 
 
 
 
 
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