What can Nepal, as the chair of SAARC, do about the Afghanistan crisis?

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NL Today

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Kathmandu: As the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan is unfolding after the Taliban takeover on August 16 followed by the withdrawal of American troops from the war-torn country, the question is being raised about the role of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and particularly that of Nepal as the chair of SAARC, in helping resolve the Afghan crisis, with particular focus on safely bringing back Nepalis from Afghanistan home.

On Tuesday, as many as five former ambassadors of Nepal issued a statement drawing the attention of the SAARC countries to address the emerging challenges. Hiranyalal Shrestha, former ambassador of Nepal to Russia, Deep Kumar Upadhyay, former ambassador to India, Durgesh Man Singh, another former ambassador to India, Suresh Chalise, former envoy to the US and the UK and Mahesh Maskey, former ambassador to China, urged “the government of Nepal to immediately take necessary initiative to start a dialogue with relevant countries in the region in order to address the emerging challenges.”

The statement signed by five former envoys says the “political advancement of Taliban in Afghanistan is indeed a subject of concern to all the SAARC member countries. The unfolding situation there will have a far-reaching consequence on the region’s socioeconomic, migration and security realms.”

Although the Taliban have declared amnesty across Afghanistan, called women to resume work, school and join the government and are working for a negotiated settlement with other groups for the governance of the country, the statement further says, their appeal to the international community for recognition has met with skepticism because of their past records when they were in power and their present unacceptable behavior towards people who want to leave Afghanistan.

The former ambassadors argue that Nepal, as the chair of SAARC, has a momentous role for the stability in the region.

What can Nepal actually do?

Arjun Bahadur Thapa, the Secretary General of SAARC from 2014 to 2017, wonders what role Nepal may actually play. “It is very positive to express concerns about the situation in Afghanistan but I don’t see exactly what Nepal can do,” Thapa told Nepal Live Today. According to him, SAARC has had no history of speaking on the internal affairs of another member country. “It has no mandate to do so either.” “Even America failed to tame the Taliban, I wonder what Nepal will be able to do,” he added.

Thapa, however, admits that the Afghanistan crisis will impact the region as one of the SAARC member states Pakistan is already flooded with refugees from Afghanistan.  “We could say things like respect democracy, women’s rights and human rights but then Afghanistan and even Pakistan might not like it. Who knows? It’s a tricky situation.”

When asked if Nepal can do nothing about the crisis unfolding in Afghanistan, Thapa said that Nepal may contact the Taliban and appeal for safety and safe return of the citizens of SAARC countries to their respective countries. “We can tell them that as a responsible SAARC member, you have a duty and responsibility to ensure the safety of all citizens of member states and ensure their safe return to their respective countries,” he said.

While commenting on the situation of Afghanistan personally, Hiranya Lal Shrestha, who is one of the signatories of the statement, said that many Nepalis have shed their blood in Afghanistan since the Anglo-Nepal war of 1814-16. “Since 1816, Nepalis have been shedding blood for and in Afghanistan.  Since the time of Balbhadra Kunwar, Nepalis have died in that land while fighting for the British and now American powers,” he said.

According to him, hundreds of Nepalis worked for the security of British, Canadian, French and American missions in Afghanistan. “We only have the records of those who worked there legally. How about others who went to work there illegally? What about their safety?”

Hiranya Lal Shrestha says that Nepal failed to bring back its citizens home through own its initiative. “Many Nepalis working in Afghanistan illegally may be languishing in various parts of that country.”

Shrestha thinks that Nepal should not see the Taliban from the Western perspective. “We don’t need to demonize the Taliban nor do we need to idolize them. We need to build our own perspective on Afghanistan and the Taliban,” he said.

“China, Pakistan and Russia have established contacts with the Taliban in their own ways.  Nepal should also establish contact with the Taliban to ensure the safety of Nepali citizens and to bring them back home safely.”

According to Shrestha, Nepal as a SAARC chair, should at least discuss with member states for peace and stability in Afghanistan and the region.

“Even a statement, or some appeal from the Nepal government, can make a difference,” he said.