Af-Pak Digest by Ambassador Sharat Sabharwal | December 2023

I Overview

 

Pakistan:

  • Political Situation
  • Economy 
  • Test of Ababeel Missile
  • Pakistan-China
  • Pakistan-Russia
  • Pakistan-US
  • Pakistan-BRICS

Afghanistan:

  • Terror and Violence
  • UN Reports on Afghanistan
  • Afghanistan-Pakistan
  • Afghanistan-India
  • Afghanistan-China

 

II Developments in Pakistan

 

Political Situation

 

With the Election Commission of Pakistan announcing February 8 as the election date following  Supreme Court prodding, electoral activity is slowly picking up in Pakistan. However, rumours that the army led establishment might postpone the election further on the pretext of serious law and order situation in parts of Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa continued to persist.

 

PML(N) leader Nawaz Sharif came back to Pakistan from exile in London, reportedly under a deal with the army, evidenced, inter alia, by the accommodating attitude of the judiciary towards him, beginning with the protective bail against arrest granted by the Islamabad High Court. Sensing the mood of the army leadership, the smaller parties, beholden to the army, appeared to be gravitating towards him. A few days before his return, he called for accountability of the former army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa and former DG ISI, Faiz Hameed for having ousted him from power illegally with the connivance of two chief Justices of the Supreme Court.  However, persuaded by his brother, Shehbaz Sharif (who is more acceptable to the army of the two) and other PML (N) leaders, he did not persist with the above demand, which would be unacceptable to the army, for some time. However, he recently came back to it in a meeting of his party’s Parliamentary Board, while also calling for improvement of relations with neighbours, including India, Afghanistan and Iran. He may have done so, inter alia, to arrest the damage to his image that his reported deal with the army is causing. Though often presented in sections of the Pakistani media as the army’s choice for Prime Ministership, his ascent to the office a fourth time is not a done deal. Firstly, he is yet to cross some judicial hurdles, the most serious being the Supreme Court ruling of 2018, barring him from holding public office for life. The Shehbaz Sharif government had got a law passed by the Parliament, restricting disqualification in such cases to five years. However, the Supreme Court ruled subsequently that the law would apply prospectively and not to the past cases. Secondly, while the army needs him to counter Imran Khan’s popularity, he will not be their first choice for the Prime Ministership because of his past record of tussle with his army chiefs. There are other questions concerning him, to which answers may become available in the coming weeks and months. PML(N) faces an uphill task in the election because of the public anger against it, resulting from the harsh economic measures put in place by the Shehbaz Sharif government to reach a deal with the IMF.  Can he attract the large number of young voters, who reject old style politics and support Imran Khan? How will he reconcile the image of the army’s favourite that he has acquired in the recent weeks,  with his past insistence on civilian supremacy – a stance  that had gone down well with large segments of the population?

 

PTI has not been ruled out of the election so far, but remains bereft of its top leadership. Imran Khan remains in jail on various charges and is likely to stay there at least until after the election. Other top leaders have either abandoned the party or are incarcerated. Realising his situation and facing a demand from the Election Commission to hold election for various party positions, Imran Khan nominated Barrister Gohar Ali Khan, one of his lawyers, for the post of Chairman of the party and he was elected to it unopposed. However, facing the wrath of the army, it would be a tedious task for PTI to muster the resources and  capable candidates to put up a good show. 

 

Frictions between PPP and PML(N) continued, with Bilawal Bhutto attacking the PML(N) leadership for having made a deal with the army. He called for a level playing field in the election and the older politicians making way for the younger generation. His father seemed to differ with him, describing him as “yet not mature enough”, and felt that the Election Commission would ensure a free and fair election. It was not clear whether the two genuinely differed or their differing stance was meant to keep a door open for an accommodation with PML(N) after the election. PPP would like to maintain its stronghold of Sindh, while regaining its support in Punjab, where it had remained marginalised in the last two elections.

 

The army remained influential in the political process from behind the scenes and may like to see a hung house, in which it could manipulate numbers to put together a majority of its choice. The indications so far point to a managed election, as in 2018. 

 

A bench of the Supreme Court rejected the law providing for trial of civilians by military courts. However, the government filed an appeal against the above decision. 

 

Economy

 

Signalling persistence of sluggish growth and high inflation with significant downward risks, the World Bank has called upon Pakistan to make a sharp fiscal adjustment to about 4% of GDP, instead of the prevailing trend of 7 to 8%, and decisively implement the IMF programme to get out of its current economic quagmire. The Bank estimate for growth is 1.7% and 2.4% for the current and next  financial years respectively. It has projected inflation at 26.5% in the current financial year and 17% in the next year. The Bank has further stated that due to the high deficit, cumulatively nearly 75% of the bank lending is going to the government. 

 

The IMF has advised Pakistan against creating a group of preferred investors or resorting to distress sale of assets through the recently constituted civil-military Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC), which seeks to attract investment essentially from gulf countries. The government remained in discussion with the IMF for release of the next tranche of the ongoing $3 billion facility that ends in March 2024. Simultaneously, Pakistan also seemed to be working on debt restructuring, but the caretaker Finance Minister, Shamshad Akhtar indicated that the effort had not been very successful, except for a limited arrangement of $2.4 billion with China till 2024-25. IMF has estimated Pakistan’s foreign loan requirement at $25 billion during the ongoing fiscal year. 

 

During the visit of the caretaker Prime Minister, Anwaarul Haq Kakar to the UAE for the COP 28 meeting, the two countries signed MOUs covering investment in energy, port operations, waste water management, food security, logistics, mining, aviation and banking etc. Pak media reports claimed that these MOUs would pave the way for multi-billion dollar investment through the SIFC. However, only time will tell how much investment actually flows into Pakistan.

 

The European Parliament agreed unanimously to extend the current GSP plus status for another four years for developing countries, including Pakistan. 

 

Test of Ababeel Missile

 

 The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) of Pakistan announced successful flight test of the medium-range Ababeel ballistic missile. ISPR added that the system is aimed at “strengthening deterrence and enhancing strategic stability in the region through the operationalisation of full spectrum deterrence in the overall construct of credible minimum deterrence.” An article by Antoine Levesques published by the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) described the test as the first in South Asia to have reached the testing phase that has been designed to carry multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). The missile is reported to have a maximum range of 2200 km.

 

Pakistan-China

 

Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar visited China to attend the Third Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation and met, inter alia, President Xi Jinping. Describing the CPEC as a practical manifestation of win-win cooperation, he said that it had brought total direct investment of $25.4 billion to Pakistan and created over 2,00,000 jobs. According to Pakistan media reports, the two sides decided to diversify CPEC investment to areas like industrial development, ICT, livelihood projects, mining and mineral exploration and agriculture. The investment has so far remained confined largely to energy and infrastructure projects and its diversification has not come about in spite of the earlier decisions to that effect. The two countries also signed an agreement on the much delayed ML-1 project for upgradation of the rail link from Peshawar to Karachi, which is expected to cost close to $7 billion. Following Kakar’s meeting with Xi-Jinping, the Chinese Foreign Ministry quoted their President as saying that China was willing to strengthen cooperation and promote solidarity with Pakistan, but would like Pakistan to guarantee the safety of the Chinese organisations and personnel working there. This was an indicator of the persisting Chinese concerns on the safety of their citizens and interests in Pakistan.  

 

According to a study conducted by Aid Data, the US-based international development research lab, Pakistan is the third largest recipient of Chinese development finance, with only two percent of the financing between 2000 and 2021 coming as grants and the rest as loans, carrying average interest rate of 3.72%. 

 

Pakistan is reported to have run a cumulative trade deficit of $90 billion with China since 2010 and the export dividends to narrow the trade gap that Pakistan would have expected after the signing of the second phase of the Free Trade Agreement between the two countries in 2019, have not been realised.

 

Pakistan and China conducted the third joint naval exercise in the series titled Sea Guardian in the North Arabian Sea, which was billed by the Pakistanis as the largest joint naval drill so far. It was reported to have involved naval ships, submarine and submarine rescue ships. The exercise continued for seven days.

 

Pakistan-Russia

 

As per media reports, Pakistan has dropped the plan to float a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for importing Russian crude oil due to high pricing risk. Instead, refineries have been asked to import the Russian crude on a commercial basis. Pakistan had earlier imported two cargoes of Russian crude, the first one under a government to government arrangement and the second one on a commercial basis. 

 

Pakistan-US

 

Pakistan and US extended their agreement on Science and Technology Cooperation for a period of five years up to October, 2028.

 

Referring to reports concerning discussion on arms supply during the telephonic conversation between the Pakistani and Ukraine Defence Ministers on November 7, the spokesperson of the Pakistan Foreign Office said that Pakistan has not supplied, nor does it intend to supply any arms to Ukraine. There have been similar denials by Pakistan of earlier reports on supply of munitions to Ukraine through western countries. However, those reports have persisted along with the reports that the US facilitated Pakistan’s latest arrangement with the IMF in return for such supplies. 

 

Pakistan-BRICS

 

Pakistan’s newly appointed Ambassador to Russia has said that Pakistan has filed an application to join BRICS in 2024 and is counting on the Russian support. He added that Pakistan was in touch with other BRICS countries too for their support. 

 

III Developments in Afghanistan

 

Terror and Violence  

 

Sporadic acts of terror and violence continued in Afghanistan, most of these directed at the Shias. A blast at a  place of worship in Pol-e-Khomri killed seven persons and injured seventeen. At least six persons were killed and fifteen injured in another blast in a Shia neighbourhood of Kabul. Islamic State claimed responsibility for this attack. Yet another blast that targeted a bus killed at least seven persons and injured twenty in Kabul. However, in spite of such sporadic incidents, there was no serious threat to the Taliban dispensation in Afghanistan. 

 

UN Reports on Afghanistan

 

In his independent assessment of the situation in Afghanistan, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres called for addressing the needs of the Afghans and creation of a roadmap to facilitate engagement between the international community and Afghanistan. The assessment also included concerns of the international community about Afghanistan, including the use of Afghan soil to threaten other countries; planning and financing of terror acts; and production, sale and trafficking of illegal narcotics. The Secretary General made four main recommendations: addressing the immediate needs of the Afghans; continuing cooperation on key security , regional and political issues; a roadmap for integration of the state of Afghanistan into the international system; and mechanisms to support engagement. He recommended pursuit of  a more coherent political engagement with Afghanistan through a performance based roadmap and called for benchmarks to assess progress of the state of Afghanistan in meeting its international obligations. He also called for the appointment of a new UN envoy and start of intra-Afghan negotiations to result in the formation of an inclusive government.  

 

A document containing the stance of the Taliban regime  towards the Secretary General’s assessment, circulated at the UN, welcomed parts of it that support the strengthening of Afghanistan’s economy and opening of the pathways to the recognition of the current government. However, it  stressed that Afghanistan should not be viewed as a conflict zone where foreign imposed political solutions like intra-Afghan dialogue are deemed necessary. It also stated that establishment of a parallel mechanism by the UN, such as a Special Envoy is unacceptable. It emphasised that the Taliban government is obliged to take into consideration the religious values and national interests of the country during all engagements and will not allow anyone to interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. While agreeing to strive to broaden the makeup of their government, the Taliban ruled out return of ‘failed figures’ from the past. The document claimed that during the last two years, no security incident has occurred where the source is in Afghanistan and their government has established a large and well-trained security force that has effectively provided security and combated the Islamic State. 

 

In a report to the General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan painted a grim picture of human rights of many Afghans, particularly women and girls and other groups including minorities, former government officials and military and security personnel. He spoke, inter alia, of a culture of impunity for torture and inhumane treatment in detention centres. In its report for the period July to September 2023, UNAMA too expressed its deep concern over the human rights situation in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban regime denied the claims made in these report. 

 

Afghanistan-Pakistan

 

Tensions between Pakistan and the Taliban regime have mounted in the recent weeks as a result of certain steps taken by the Pakistan government because of their dissatisfaction with the Taliban response to their demand to curb violent activities of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) from the Afghan soil. The caretaker government of Pakistan, backed by the army, set November 1 as the deadline for illegal immigrants to leave Pakistan or face expulsion thereafter.  The move was aimed at the 1.7 million Afghans believed to be living in Pakistan illegally. The government maintained that the Afghans living illegally in Pakistan were involved in terror activities against the country. Once the deadline was over, the Pakistani authorities started rounding up the Afghans in this category for  deportation. The Balochistan caretaker information minister said that documented Afghan nationals living in Pakistan would also be sent back subsequently. The Pakistan government also tightened the transit trade regime for Afghanistan by banning import of goods prone to smuggling into the Pakistani market, imposing 10% fee on some other imports and stipulating a new condition of a bank guarantee equal to the duties and taxes on imports to ensure that goods meant for Afghanistan reached their final destination. Following introduction of these measures, there were reports of a number of containers with goods meant for transit to Afghanistan being held up at the Karachi port. It was further stated that travel across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border without proper travel documents would not be allowed. 

 

A Taliban spokesman said that the Pakistani threat to forcibly expel Afghans was unacceptable and Afghans were not to blame for Pakistan’s security problems. The Taliban condemned the Pakistani move and the treatment of the expelled Afghans. The Taliban Prime Minister condemned Pakistan’s action. The Taliban Defence Minister issued a stern warning to Pakistan, urging them to consider the consequences of their deportation drive. He accused the Pakistan government of seizing the property of the expelled Afghans. The Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, while praising Pakistan’s ‘good deeds’ in the past, said that the expulsion drive was against international norms and Islamic principles. He added that this action of Pakistan had turned the past goodwill into hostility. The Pakistani move also came in for criticism from UN agencies. Around 4,00, 000 of the 1.7 million Afghans were reported to have gone back to Afghanistan under the Pakistani drive, putting added burden on the meagre resources of the Taliban government. 

 

Transit trade to Afghanistan through Pakistan has over the years been a source of smuggling of goods into Pakistan and a vested interest for many living on both sides of the Durand Line. The Afghans have also all along claimed the right of free movement across the Durand Line, which they do not recognise. Therefore, the Pakistani move on trade and travel led to resentment and protests on both sides.


Pakistan saw a string of terror attacks as the deadline for the expulsion of illegal Afghans expired. These included a brazen assault on the Mianwali training airbase, ambush on a military convoy in Gwadar and a deadly clash in the Tirah valley of Khyber district. Subsequently, eight persons were killed and over twenty injured in a terror attack on a bus in “Gilgit-Baltistan”. in the face of these attacks, caretaker Prime Minister Kakar weighed in on the issue. He said that fifteen Afghan nationals were among the suicide bombers in terror attacks in Pakistan and 64 Afghans were killed fighting Pakistani forces this year. He added that despite repeated assurances, the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan had not delivered on their pledges and instead “clear evidence of enabling terrorism by Afghan Taliban members also emerged in some instances.” Responding to Kakar’s assertions, the Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said that Pakistan should not blame its inability to provide security in the country on others. Subsequently, the head of the Taliban mission in Afghanistan was summoned by the Pakistan Foreign Office and given four demands including extradition of Hafiz Gul Bahadur from Afghanistan, whose group carried out a recent terror attack. Verifiable action against all terror groups and their sanctuaries was also among the demands. A few days later, the Pakistan Foreign Office stated that the response from Kabul on action against TTP was disappointing. 

 

Even though the Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship is quite tense at the moment, neither side may like to precipitate the issue. The Taliban know well the importance of transit trade through Pakistan for Afghanistan. For Pakistan, taking military action against a militarily much weaker Afghanistan would be a hard choice as it could further spike terror within Pakistan, possibly engulfing its Punjabi heartland, as was the case in the first decade of this century. However, no solution to the ongoing crisis between the two countries is in sight.

 

Afghanistan-China

 

The Taliban Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi attended the Trans-Himalya Forum for International Cooperation held in China. In his speech at the Forum, he emphasised economic cooperation, transit, region’s connectivity and increasing trade between countries. He added that efforts were being made by Afghanistan to start work on large economic projects such as TAPI. The Taliban Commerce Minister attended the Belt and Road Forum held in China. On being asked whether inviting the Taliban showed that Beijing wanted to strengthen its ties with them, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that China had noted that the interim government of Afghanistan had said that it hoped to take advantage of the Belt and Road. 

 

The Taliban sent Bilal Karimi as their “Ambassador” to China and he was reported to have presented his credentials to an official of the Chinese Foreign Ministry. However, China said subsequently that the Taliban government will need to introduce political reforms, improve security and mend relations with its neighbours before receiving full diplomatic recognition.

 

Afghanistan-India

 

A statement posted on X in the name of the “Former Afghan Embassy in India” said that the Afghan mission in India had been closed and cited, inter alia, constant pressure from the Taliban and the Indian government to relinquish  control as the reason for closure. The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Taliban regime, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, stated a few days later that the Embassy would reopen shortly and that  the Consuls of Afghanistan in Hyderabad and Mumbai had gone to Delhi to take stock of things. On December 7, the spokesperson of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs said that the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi and the consulates in Mumbai and Hyderabad were functional. As for the government that the Embassy represents, he said that the flag at the Embassy shows who they represent and that India’s “position on the condition of entities” had not changed. The earlier closure announcement appears to have been the result of some internal power tussle within the Embassy, which seems to have been resolved.

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