Af-Pak Digest by Ambassador Sharat Sabharwal | April 2021

I Overview

Pakistan:

• Pakistan Democratic Movement on the brink of breakup
• Economy
• ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’
• Pakistan-India
• Pakistan-US

Afghanistan:

• Peace and Reconciliation
• Afghanistan-India
• Afghanistan-Pakistan

II Developments in Pakistan

Pakistan Democratic Movement on the brink of breakup

Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of opposition parties, came to the brink of a breakup in March. The month began with Yusuf Raza Gilani, the former PPP Prime Minister and PDM candidate winning a keenly contested election to the Senate against the PTI candidate and Finance Minister, Hafeez Sheikh, who needed to win the seat to continue as Minister. The Supreme Court had earlier rejected a government move to hold the election through show of hands in the National Assembly as against secret ballot mandated in the constitution. According to some media reports, the army did work behind the scenes to ensure Hafeez Sheikh’s victory, but their intervention, which came too late, managed only to reduce the margin of Gilani’s victory. However, after this solitary success, PDM ran into strong headwinds. Stung by the defeat of his candidate for Senate, Prime Minister Imran Khan moved quickly to secure a vote of confidence in the National Assembly. Gilani, who was presented by PDM as its candidate for the Senate Chairmanship, lost to the government candidate. Differences between PPP and other major parties in PDM on the issue of resignations from assemblies came to a head. Taking into account PPP’s reluctance to lose their government in Sindh, the other major parties were willing to confine the resignations to the federal Parliament in the first instance and felt that a planned long march to Islamabad without such resignations to generate a political crisis would serve no purpose. At a meeting of the PDM leadership in the third week of March, PPP refused to go along with the resignations move. Worse still, proceedings of the meeting leaked out to the media mentioned an unpleasant exchange between PPP and PML(N) on former President Zardari’s suggestion that Nawaz Sharif return to the country to wage a joint struggle against the government. The next dispute arose on election of leader of opposition in the Senate, for which both PPP and PML(N) presented their candidates. Yusuf Raza Gilani, the PPP candidate won the slot, with PML(N) claiming that he had been supported by some Senators close to the government. A war of words broke out between the two camps, with prominent PML(N) leaders accusing PPP of doing a deal with the army. It was reported that Gilani had received support of Senators from the Baluchistan Awami party, which was floated by some PML(N) defectors with the active support of the army in 2018. This gave some credence to the allegations that after Gilani’s victory for the Senate seat, the army had intervened actively to thwart the designs of PML(N) and other PDM parties aligned with them. It was also clear that by blocking the resignations move, PPP had given comfort to the army supported PTI government in return for being left alone in Sindh and possible relief for its leaders in the accountability cases. In early April, the PML(N) led faction of PDM issued a show cause notice to PPP and Awami National Party (ANP) for nominating Gilani for the post of leader of opposition in the Senate. ANP quit PDM in response and PPP said that it was not answerable to any other party.

PDM, which had been formed to pose a strong challenge to the army led establishment, seems to have floundered because of differing interests of its major constituent parties and machinations of the army in going soft on PPP in return for their thwarting the PDM agenda. A split between PPP and PML(N) looks likely. The PDM experience so far is yet another reminder of how difficult it is for the Pakistani political class to mount a credible challenge to the army.

Economy

The World Bank has painted a bleak picture of the Pakistani economy in its South Asia Economic Focus report released at the end of March. The report projects Pakistan’s growth during the current financial year at 1.3% (as against 3% projected by the government), with public debt touching 94% of GDP and consequently Pakistan’s exposure to debt-related shocks remaining elevated. The growth projection for the next financial year is 2%. The report further points out that sectors that employ the poorest, such as agriculture, are expected to remain weak and poverty is likely to remain high. Inflation rate for the current and next financial years has been projected at 9% and 7% respectively. Fiscal deficit is projected to remain elevated at 8.3% of GDP in the current financial year as against the government’s target of 7.1%. The report comes as a dampener for the Imran Khan government that has been claiming a turnaround in the economy. The month saw departure of Imran Khan’s second Finance Minister, Hafeez Sheikh. Since he had not been elected to the Senate, his continuation in the government would have necessitated his getting elected to another seat in the Parliament. However, it was reported in the Pak media that the Prime Minister was not satisfied with his performance, particularly on inflation control. Sheikh was replaced by Hammad Azhar, who had hitherto handled other economic ministries. However, Imran Khan was also reported to be considering bringing in Shaukat Tarin, who had handled the Finance portfolio in the PPP government from 2008 to 2010, in some capacity to help him with the economy. These developments were indicative of panic in the Imran Khan government at its inability to get a handle on the economy.

‘Gilgit-Baltistan’

The Legislative Assembly of ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’ passed a resolution unanimously to demand the provisional status of a province for the territory and its representation in the Parliament and other constitutional bodies. Imran Khan had promised such a status to the territory during the assembly elections held last year. In December 2020, he constituted a twelve member committee to make recommendations on this issue, which is yet to submit its report. Pakistan is keen to give a firmer legal footing under its constitution to ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’, which provides linkage between Pakistan and China and has now assumed greater strategic importance in the context of CPEC. The proposed provincial status is being described as ‘provisional’ in the light of Pakistan’s stand that the future of all the territories of Jammu and Kashmir is to be decided through a plebiscite.

Pakistan-India

Speaking of India’s inclusion in the proposed meeting to be convened by the UN to discuss a unified approach to supporting peace in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Special Assistant on National Security, Moeed Yusuf, said that peace could not be achieved through a “spoiler”. He accused India of interfering in Pakistan, using the Afghan soil. The statement was indicative of the deep trust deficit between the two countries, inter alia, on Afghanistan, which would continue to rear its head with the fast evolving situation in Afghanistan.

The statement of General Qamar Javed Bajwa made in February, extending a hand of peace and restoration of the 2003 ceasefire announced later that month continued to raise hope of a forward movement in the bilateral relationship. Media on both sides clutched at every positive straw in the wind in this context. Holding of a meeting of the Indus Commissioners (which is mandatory at least once a year as per the Indus Waters Treaty) after a long gap, inter alia, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Modi’s message to Imran Khan, wishing him speedy recovery from COVID-19 infection and exchange of letters between the two Prime Ministers on Pakistan Day (March 23) were seen as signs of a widening thaw, even though the letters exchanged on Pakistan Day were in fairly standard language used by the two countries in the past. If anything, Imran Khan’s reply to Prime Minister Modi’s letter conveying greetings on Pakistan Day gratuitously alluded to the two-nation theory. 

Delivering his inaugural address at the two-day Islamabad Security Dialogue, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that India would have to take the first step to move things forward, without, however, specifying what he expected India to do. He added that Pakistan could not fully exploit its geo-economic potential unless it improved its ties with neighbours by strengthening trade and greater connectivity and establishing peace in the region. Kashmir, he said, was the lone irritant standing in the way of better ties between India and Pakistan and could be resolved through dialogue. If India gave Kashmiris their right under the UN resolutions, both India and Pakistan could benefit greatly. India could access resource-rich Central Asia, if there was peace. The Prime Minister also dwelt upon the issue of comprehensive national security, built on the pillars of traditional and non-traditional security, including his vision for economic prosperity and human welfare. Speaking at the same forum, army chief General Bajwa said that national security is not solely a function of armed forces anymore, but is multi-layered: outer layers being the exogenous factors of global and regional environment and inner layers being the endogenous factors of internal peace, stability and developmental orientation. He emphasized in particular economic security and cooperation, adding that Pakistan intended to leverage its vital geostrategic location for its own, regional and global benefit. He described a stable Indo-Pak relationship as a key to unlock the untapped potential of South and Central Asia by ensuring connectivity between East and West Asia and added that without the resolution of “Kashmir dispute” through peaceful means, the process of sub-continental rapprochement would always remain susceptible to derailment due to politically motivated bellicosity. Expressing Pakistan’s desire “to bury the past and move forward”, he said that for resumption of peace process or meaningful dialogue, India would have to create a conducive environment, particularly in Kashmir. He outlined Pakistan’s geo-economic vision centred around a lasting and enduring peace within and outside, non-interference in the internal affairs of Pakistan’s neighbouring and regional countries, boosting intra-regional trade and connectivity and bringing sustainable development through establishment of investment and economic hubs in the region. Bajwa said that Pakistan was trying to make CPEC, which is at the heart of its economic transformation plan, inclusive, transparent and attractive for all global and regional players, adding perhaps with an eye on the US that seeing Pakistan through the CPEC prism only was misleading. Pakistan’s “immensely geostrategic” location made it a country of immense and diverse potential.

In contrast to the speeches of PM Imran Khan and General Bajwa, Foreign Minister Qureshi accused India of taking “illegal and unilateral” actions in Kashmir in August 2019 and called upon India to “stop violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms” in Kashmir, halt its “illegal attempts to change the demographic structure” of J&K and implement the UN Security Council Resolutions. He alleged that India was fomenting destabilization in Pakistan. Subsequently, Qureshi, along with other hardliners in the government – Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid and Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari – led a charge in the Cabinet against the decision of the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) headed by the Finance Minister to permit import of sugar, cotton and yarn from India. It would be recalled that Pakistan had suspended trade with India in the wake of withdrawal of special status of J&K. The ECC decision was reminiscent of Pakistan’s earlier, non-MFN compliant, policy of allowing imports from India selectively. The Cabinet annulled it and Foreign Minister Qureshi said that until India revoked its August 5, 2019 decision, normalisation of relations was out of question. Using a slightly different and more flexible formulation, Moeed Yusuf, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister for National Security, said that there would be no trade with India “until it revisits the illegal steps of August 5, 2019.” There are reports that some segments of industry were opposed to the move to import the above items from India and may have influenced the cabinet decision. In the past, decisions on trade with India, taken in response to vested interests in the Pak industry and business, have often been cloaked in the political differences between the two countries, notably on Kashmir. However, purely commercial interests do not explain the rigid and unrealistic demand of India revoking the August 2019 move, in contrast to the earlier demands of India creating a conducive environment for dialogue, including in Kashmir, which left a degree of ambiguity that could facilitate an agreement between the two countries to take the peace process forward. The U-turn on trade, therefore, appears to signal lack of consensus on the earlier peace overtures.

As stated in the Af-Pak digest for March 2021, the issue of emphasis on comprehensive security, including economic security, as against only military security, along with the need to appraise Pakistan’s key geographic location in terms of trade and transit linkages rather than in purely military terms, has been raised earlier also, notably during the tenure of the PPP government that came to power in 2008. However, it fell victim to Pakistan’s security state paradigm. It is to be seen whether the renewed emphasis on trade and transit meets with any different fate. Revocation of the recent decision to import cotton and sugar from India does not inspire much confidence.    

Pakistan-US

There was a growing concern in media comments in Pakistan that its attempts to build a wider relationship with the US, going beyond Afghanistan, had not made much headway. The US decision not to invite Pakistan to the climate change summit called by President Biden was seen in this light. There was consternation that while inviting India, Bangladesh and Bhutan from the South Asian region, Pakistan had been left out, though it was among the countries most affected by climate change. PM Imran Khan, however, made light of this omission and said that he was puzzled at the “cacophony” over Pakistan not being invited to the meet, adding that his government’s environment policies were driven solely by the commitment to Pakistan’s future generations of a clean and green Pakistan to mitigate the impact of climate change.

III Developments in Afghanistan

Peace and Reconciliation

Uncertainty continued regarding the timing of withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. While in his recent letter to President Ghani, Secretary Blinken had stated that the option of withdrawal by May 1, the deadline stipulated in the US-Taliban deal, had not been ruled out, President Biden said that it would be tough to withdraw the remaining troops by May 1. Adam Smith, Chairman of the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee was quoted as saying that the Biden administration was looking to keep US troops in Afghanistan past the May 1 deadline, while exploring a deal in which the Taliban would allow a US counter-terrorism force to stay in the country.  The Taliban called upon the US administration to stick to the deadline of May 1, failing which there would be appropriate reaction from their side. They also stated that they had shared a 90-day reduction in violence plan with the US, but there had been no agreement on it. Media reports, quoting Taliban sources, mentioned that the Biden administration had asked the Taliban to agree to the presence of US troops for another three to six months, but they had not made their final decision on this proposal.

The Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process ministerial conference took place in Dushanbe (Tajikistan) in March. The key elements of declaration of the conference were: support for the ongoing peace efforts, a call upon Afghanistan’s neighbours to maximize their efforts for the success of the peace process, enhanced role for the UN in the peace process, recognition that a comprehensive and permanent ceasefire would enable all sides to reach an agreement on a political settlement, which should protect the rights of all Afghans, including women, youth and minorities, condemnation of the high level of violence and expression of concern at the continued relations between the Taliban and international terror groups, including Al-Qaeda. Speaking at the conference, President Ashraf Ghani said that the ongoing peace process should produce: a political agreement to be endorsed by a Loya Jirga (grand assembly), a ceasefire with international verification and monitoring, international and regional guarantees for neutrality of Afghanistan, principles for forming a government of peace-building within the framework of the constitution with a time-bound mandate culminating in an internationally supervised presidential election and a framework on counter-terrorism objectives. Elaborating on his idea of a government of peace-building, he said that it would be “formed by the current elected leadership and other Afghans who will not be candidates in the next election” within the framework of the constitution. The idea seems to be in keeping with Ashraf Ghani’s repeated assertion that he would not transfer power without elections. The President said that his greatest honour would be to hand over authority to his elected successor and he would strongly support elections at the earliest possible time. The election would be followed by long term work of national reconciliation, reintegration of combatants and refugees and defining Afghanistan’s new security, development and governance priorities.

Russia hosted consultations of the ‘expanded trio’: Russia, US, China and Pakistan on the Afghan peace process, to which it also invited representatives of the Afghan government, some Afghan political figures and the Taliban.

The Turkish Foreign Minister said that they planned to host Afghanistan peace talks, proposed by the US, in Istanbul in April. He added that the meeting was not an alternative to the Qatar process, but would complement it.  

Levels of violence in Afghanistan remained high. President Ghani dismissed his Interior Minister, Masoud Andarabi amid a spate of attacks. In a statement, the UN Security Council unanimously condemned the alarming number of attacks deliberately targeting civilians in Afghanistan. It called for an immediate end to such attacks and the need to bring perpetrators to justice.

Afghanistan-India

Foreign Minister Atmar of Afghanistan paid an official visit to India. The discussions focused on strengthening the India-Afghanistan strategic partnership, particularly cooperation in the areas of political, security, trade, economic, capacity development, education, social and cultural relations. External Affairs Minister, S. Jaishankar, underscored the importance of comprehensive and permanent ceasefire for a successful Afghan peace process. He reassured the Afghan minister of India’s long-term commitment to a peaceful, sovereign, stable and inclusive Afghanistan, where rights of all sections of the society are protected within a democratic, constitutional framework.

Speaking at the Heart of Asia conference at Dushanbe, Minister Jaishankar said that for a durable peace in Afghanistan, what is needed is a genuine ‘double peace’ i.e. peace within Afghanistan and peace around Afghanistan. It requires harmonizing the interests of all, both within and around the country. He added that India had been supportive of all the efforts being made to accelerate the dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban, including intra-Afghan negotiations. He also supported a regional process to be convened under the aegis of the United Nations, adding that UN stewardship would help to take into account all relevant UN resolutions and improve the odds for a lasting outcome. He called for protection of gains of the last two decades and in this context mentioned democratic framework for holding elections through universal suffrage, Afghanistan’s sovereignty in domestic and foreign policy and protection of rights of women, children and minorities.

Afghanistan-Pakistan

The Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement (APTTA), which had expired in February, was extended for three months to allow the two countries to discuss proposed amendments to the document for signing it for a longer duration. Afghanistan’s free trade to India via Pakistan and Pakistan’s cargo transit to Central Asia through Afghanistan are among the key issues that need to be sorted out, but the parties have not reached an agreement on them after months of discussions.

Pakistan welcomed the US efforts to re-energise the peace process in Afghanistan. Asked about India’s inclusion in the peace process, the spokesman of the Pak Foreign Office said that Pakistan supported regional approaches to solving the conflict in Afghanistan, but noted that India had not been a “constructive partner” for peace in Afghanistan.

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