H I G H L I G H T S
• Developments in Pakistan
• Developments in Afghanistan
• Political Situation
• Terrorism and Violence
• Conservatives continue to hold sway
• Reports of clashes in Panjshir
II Developments in Pakistan
Having surprised both the army leadership and his political opponents by holding well attended rallies in various cities, Imran Khan seemed to have gained some momentum by the beginning of May. There were reports of the army having asked the new government to bring about the urgently needed economic reforms and order elections immediately thereafter. There were discordant voices in the governing coalition and within PML(N) on the timing of elections. PPP wanted it after carrying out electoral reforms to reverse, inter alia, some changes, including use of electronic voting machines, introduced by the Imran Khan government. However, there were signals from the Nawaz Sharif camp that he was for early elections. Shehbaz Sharif found himself in a cleft stick in having to introduce unavoidable austerity measures that would certainly entail loss of some public support to his party and fulfil the army demand of ordering elections immediately thereafter. In the face of continuing uncertainty regarding the intent of the government in a difficult economic situation, there was a meltdown at the Pakistan stock exchange and the Pak Rupee nosedived, touching over Rs.200 to a dollar. In a sign of Nawaz Sharif’s influence over his brother’s government, the Prime Minister and his key PML(N) cabinet colleagues visited London to hold consultations with him on the way forward. There were reports that PML(N) might prefer to quit and call for early elections, if the army persisted with its demand to order immediate elections after tough economic decisions. The consultation of the army leadership with some prominent economists fuelled the rumour that the army might bring in a technocrats government for an extended period to deal with the economic problems. Zardari is reported to have played a mediatory role at this stage to get some unspecified assurances from the army leadership that convinced PML(N) to stay on. In the meanwhile, Imran Khan continued with his incendiary rhetoric and repeatedly called upon the “neutrals” (a reference to the army leadership, who have claimed to be neutral in political affairs) and the judiciary to play a role in resolving the political crisis. This resulted in a statement by the armed forces spokesman that the army should be kept away from politics. In the backdrop of reports of some sympathy for Imran Khan within the army, the spokesman asserted that no divisions could be created within the army because of its discipline.
Imran Khan’s “Azadi march” to Islamabad at the end of May, while causing some disorder in the national capital and generating considerable sound and fury, failed to advance his goal of having immediate elections. Because of the stringent measures put in place by the government, he was unable to gather an appreciable crowd, with the exception of those he was able to bring from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, ruled by his party. On reaching Islamabad, he suddenly called off the march, saying he would announce another march in six days in case his demands were not met. However, he failed to announce the date of a fresh march and there were reports that he was in backchannel contacts with the army leadership.
The government finally bit the bullet in ordering an increase in the price of petroleum products, partially off-setting the subsidy it was paying on them, and hinted at an increase of electricity tariff. Simultaneously, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif announced a relief package of Pak Rs. 28 billion for the poor to mitigate the impact of fuel price hike.
Even as it grappled with complex governance challenges, the government leadership remained under pressure from the judiciary. The Supreme Court barred transfer of officers dealing with high profile accountability cases. The Court also expressed concern over removal of names of influential persons in the ruling dispensation, accused of corruption, from the list of those barred from leaving the country. There was no judicial relief in sight for Nawaz Sharif, who stands barred from holding public office for life. In early June, the Federal Investigation Agency sought permission of a court to arrest the Prime Minister and his son, the Punjab Chief Minister, in a money laundering case, but the court extended their interim bail for a week.
While the government might have received some assurances from the army before embarking upon the economic reforms agenda, it remains on a tight leash. The army can pull the rug from under its feet anytime by manipulating the smaller parties that are beholden to it and without which the government will not have to requisite numbers in the National Assembly. Army Chief Bajwa, while willing to work with Shehbaz Sharif, may not be able to repose complete trust in him because of Nawaz Sharif’s overarching influence over PML(N). The uncertainty would only grow as the time approaches for completion of Bajwa’s second tenure of three years in November this year. Therefore, Pakistan continues to face an uncertain and fraught political situation.
Talks between Pakistan and IMF on the much needed resumption of Extended Fund Facility (EFF) took place in Doha in May, but remained inconclusive. The Fund has called for wide-ranging steps to repair macroeconomic stability, going beyond the fuel price hike announced by the government. This may involve further discussions on the tax proposals in the budget for 2022-23, due for presentation to the National Assembly this month, and on the broad budget framework. Besides fuel price hike, the government banned import of certain items, including luxury goods, and stopped disbursing funds for development projects. Finance Minister Miftah Ismail said that Pakistan would be repaying $21 billion in foreign debt in the next fiscal year (July 22 to June 23) and would need another $10-15 billion to finance the current account deficit. The value of Pakistan’s US dollar denominated international bonds had shrunk by around 30% and the government was not in a position to float Eurobonds in the world market to raise fresh funds or borrow from commercial banks. Saudi Arabia and other friendly countries were ready to extend loans, but only after resumption of the IMF programme. He expressed the hope that an agreement with the Fund would be reached in June. In the meanwhile, like the political situation, Pakistan’s economic situation also remains uncertain and fraught.
Terrorism and Violence
Sporadic terror attacks in Karachi and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa resulted in casualties in May, but far less than the number in April, due to the ceasefire between the government forces and Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) brokered by the Afghan Taliban. The ceasefire announced first for ten days on the occasion of Eidul Fitr, was extended by five days initially and subsequently till May 30 after the two sides held an initial round of talks hosted by the Afghan Taliban. The developments came after Pakistan carried out airstrikes in Afghanistan in April following enhanced TTP terror activity in its territory. However, the Pakistani authorities also released around thirty TTP militants to pave the way for the talks. A jirga comprising over fifty members from Pakistan’s tribal areas, including sitting and former parliamentarians, a federal minister and representatives of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government went to Kabul to talk to the TTP representatives in early June. It was reported subsequently that the ceasefire had been extended indefinitely and the talks would continue. It was further reported that the Taliban Interior Minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is facilitating the talks, told the jirga members that while the Afghan Taliban wanted an end to the TTP conflict with Pakistan, they did not wish to coerce TTP, who had waged jihad with them against the Americans and it would be better that Pakistan and TTP came to an agreement through a process of give and take.
TTP is reported to have demanded withdrawal of Pakistani security forces from the erstwhile FATA areas, annulment of the merger of FATA with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (in 2018), withdrawal of all cases against its fighters and their release, payment of compensation for their dead and wounded and introduction of Shariah based governance in the Malakand Division. A recent UN Security Council report maintains that prospects of success in the ongoing peace talks are bleak and states that up to 4000 TTP fighters are based in the areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The ongoing talks are reminiscent of the peace deals entered into by the Pakistani authorities with militant groups in the past, which failed to bring peace. The demands put forth by TTP would amount to a virtual surrender by Pakistan. Therefore, the above mentioned assessment in the UN Security Council report stands to reason.
Anti-India rhetoric under the Shehbaz Sharif government has remained high, almost bordering on the level under Imran Khan. Shehbaz Sharif has himself been active on twitter in criticising India’s policies, particularly in Kashmir. At the beginning of May, he criticised alleged Indian restrictions on Eid prayers in certain areas of Jammu and Kashmir. Strident rhetoric marked Pakistan’s criticism of delimitation of constituencies in Jammu and Kashmir, with the Pak National Assembly passing a resolution against the move. Yasin Malik’s conviction and sentencing in a terror case came in for strong criticism in Pakistan, including by Shehbaz Sharif. Nawaz Sharif, who has been circumspect in his statements on India-Pakistan issues, tweeted to describe the sentencing as a regrettable development. Following reports of posting of a trade official in the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi, the Pak Commerce Ministry stated that there was no change in Pakistan’s policy on trade with India. Shehbaz Sharif took to twitter again to “condemn in strongest possible words hurtful comments of India’s BJP leader about our beloved Prophet”. Taking a leaf out of Imran Khan’s book, he attacked the Indian Prime Minister personally, alleging that India under him was trampling religious freedoms and persecuting Muslims. The Senate and National Assembly passed resolutions on this occasion to criticise the remarks against Prophet Muhammad. India issued statements to rebut Pakistan’s criticism in these cases. The only silver lining was a meeting of the Indus Commissioners in New Delhi in May after an earlier meeting in Islamabad in March.
The hope of some improvement in India-Pakistan relations with changing of the guard in Pakistan has receded. With elections due in August 2023, likely much earlier, Pakistan is already in an electoral cycle. Beset with myriad internal problems and facing the threat of Imran Khan accusing it of sacrificing national interest in the event of any move towards India, the Shehbaz Sharif government in not in a position to take any positive steps and seems to have chosen the safer path of continuing with anti-India rhetoric. With terror violence picking up in recent weeks in Kashmir, reportedly guided from the Pakistani side, the LoC ceasefire, which has held well so far, could come under strain. Under the circumstances, preservation of the ceasefire by both sides will in itself be an achievement.
The China relationship remained on top of the agenda of the Shehbaz Sharif government. Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister took an early opportunity to hold telephonic conversation with their Chinese counterparts. Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto also paid a visit to China, primarily to seek China’s support in stabilising the economic situation in Pakistan. Finance Minister Miftah Ismail claimed in early June that China had agreed to roll over a loan of $2.35 billion, which it had expressed the wish to withdraw in March, and would be doing so at a concessional interest rate.
The new government has assured China of its commitment to the CPEC and prompt implementation of the relevant projects. However, cooperation between the two sides continued to face serious constraints. Victims of Pakistan’s insurmountable circular debt problem, some Chinese Independent Power Producers were reported to have threatened closure of their units. There were also reports of Chinese teachers of the Confucius Institutes in Pakistan leaving for their country en-masse after three of them were killed in a terror attack in Karachi in April. A review of the CPEC projects in Gwadar revealed that only three of a dozen projects had been completed and all the schemes entailing socio-economic benefits for Gwadar were lagging behind.
The Shehbaz government also gave priority to resetting the relationship with the US, which had been hurt, inter alia, by Imran Khan’s accusation of an American plot to oust him from power; and take it beyond cooperation on Afghanistan. Security talks between the CIA Director and DG(ISI) took place in Washington in early May – the last such talks having taken place in July 2021 between the then Pak NSA, Moeed Yusuf, and his US counterpart. The talks were believed to have focussed on Afghanistan, though no details were revealed. During his visit to New York to attend the ministerial meeting on Global Food Security Call to Action, Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto met Secretary of State Blinken. In a press interview, Bhutto described the meeting as very encouraging and productive. He added that the bilateral relationship had been too coloured by the events in Afghanistan in the past and it was time to engage in a far broader and deeper relationship. He claimed that the focus of his talks with Blinken was on increasing trade and cooperation in agriculture, information technology and energy. The US statement on the meeting referred to the shared desire for a strong and prosperous bilateral relationship, discussions on partnership in climate, investment, trade, health and people to people ties. It also referred to cooperation on regional peace, counterterrorism, Afghan stability, support for Ukraine and democratic principles.
III Developments in Afghanistan
Conservatives continue to hold sway
With international recognition nowhere on the horizon, but a large number of countries engaging with the Taliban in the context of humanitarian assistance and their security interests, the conservatives led by Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada have increasingly asserted their control over governance, resorting to some archaic practices of the earlier Taliban regime. The most telling example of their control is the continued foot-dragging on girls’ education despite persistent demands of the international community. Speaking to a gathering in Khost in early May, Taliban leader Anas Haqqani said that an assembly of clerics would resolve this issue. Alluding to strong opposition to girls’ education within the Taliban, he added that instead of fighting and bloodshed, the issue should involve negotiations. The US said it would increase pressure on the Taliban if they did not reverse their decisions imposing restrictions on women and girls. UN Security Council issued a statement, calling upon the Taliban to swiftly lift such restrictions. However, apart from saying at the end of May that a committee had been formed to resolve the issue of girls’ education, the Taliban hardliners showed no sign of making a retreat. Instead, in the garb of an austerity exercise, they dissolved Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission.
In continuing incidents of terror, blasts in Kabul and Mazar-e-Sharif killed at least twenty persons and injured many more in May. The attacks in Mazar were claimed by the Islamic State. Concerns continued to be expressed about various terror groups operating in Afghanistan. Gen. Milley, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff told a Senate hearing that ISIS and other groups were trying to put themselves together in Afghanistan. A US Department of Defence report to the Congress mentioned the assessment of the US CENTCOM that the Taliban will likely loosen restrictions on Al Qaeda in the next one to two years, allowing them greater freedom of movement and the ability to train, travel and potentially re-establish an external operations capability. Speaking at a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in Moscow, the President of Kazakhstan spoke of the unstable situation and unrelenting activity of armed groups in Afghanistan that continued to threaten the security of the CSTO states. The organisation called upon the Taliban to address such concerns of the neighbouring countries. A report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team to the UN Security Council refers to the close relationship between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda and the latter having increased freedom of action. It further states that the main threat to the Taliban comes from the Islamic State and guerrilla type attacks by former Afghan government security personnel. Significantly, the report also speaks of LeT and JeM running training camps in Afghanistan and maintaining deep links with the ruling regime.
Reports of clashes in Panjshir
The above UN report mentions stepped up operations by the National Resistance Front headed by Ahmad Massoud in seven provinces in the north, including Panjshir, which made the Taliban adopt aggressive measures against populations suspected of supporting such operations. It also refers to the recently emerged Afghan Freedom Front, composed of former security personnel, mounting operations in Badakhshan, Kandahar, Parwan and Samangan. In the face of claims and counter claims, no authentic assessment can be made of such operations. However, the Taliban officials in Panjshir admitted some casualties on their side. There were also reports of civilian casualties in Panjshir. Yet another gathering of Afghan politicians, described as “National Resistance of Rescuing Afghanistan”, was hosted by Abdul Rasheed Dostum in Turkey. The gathering stated that it would pursue negotiations, but also military action, if necessary.
There are so far no signs of any credible challenge to the Taliban, with the exception of the growing terror attacks mounted by the Islamic State and other groups targeting, in particular, Shias. However, going forward, if the Taliban continue to shun an inclusive governance system, their troubles could grow, both with their political opponents and the terror groups opposed to them. Continued stability in Afghanistan under the Taliban is not a foregone conclusion.
An Indian official team, led by the Joint Secretary (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran) in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) visited Kabul and met, inter alia, the Taliban Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi. This was the first such visit since the Taliban victory in August last year. Ministry of External Affairs said that the Indian team would meet senior members of the Taliban and hold discussions on India’s humanitarian assistance to the people of Afghanistan; as also with representatives of international organisations involved in distribution of such assistance, and visit places where Indian programmes and projects were being implemented. MEA also referred to the assistance of wheat, medicines, COVID vaccine and winter clothing given by India for the Afghan people. It was further stated that India had historical and civilisational ties with the Afghan people and these linkages would continue to guide India’s approach. The Taliban, on the other hand, said that diplomatic relations, bilateral trade and humanitarian assistance were discussed with Muttaqi, who described the visit as a good start and thanked India for its humanitarian assistance. Muttaqi stressed that India should resume its stalled projects, activate its diplomatic presence and provide consular services to the Afghans, particularly students and patients.
Though India played down the visit, confining it to discussions on humanitarian assistance, it is unlikely that the Indian team did not explore the possibility of some sort of Indian presence in Afghanistan on the lines of other countries, who too have not recognised the Taliban regime. In fact, some media reports had referred to the visit of Indian security officials to Kabul in February to assess the ground situation. As the first official visit to Kabul (there had been a couple of public contacts with the Taliban in third countries), it was a right step as part of India’s prudent policy of seeking openings in the Taliban Afghanistan. India’s circumspection in the wake of the Taliban victory stemmed from the Taliban dependence over the years on Pakistan for sanctuaries and more for their fight against the international forces in Afghanistan and the presence in influential positions in the Taliban regime, especially their security structure, of elements, notably the Haqqanis, who have had widespread business interests in Pakistan and acted as the instrument of ISI in the past to hurt India’s interests in Afghanistan. On the other hand was the imperative of India not abandoning Afghanistan because of its historical ties with the people there, Afghanistan serving as India’s transit to Central Asia and its territory having been used in the past by Pakistan to perpetrate terror in India. Under the circumstances, India has done well in maintaining contacts with Afghanistan through humanitarian assistance, while gradually exploring the avenues of re-establishing its presence there.
Speaking at the fourth Regional Security Dialogue on Afghanistan at Dushanbe at the end of May (the third meeting had taken place in New Delhi in November 2021), India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, said that India was an important stakeholder in Afghanistan and would continue to stand with the people there. He added that the special relationship built over centuries with the people of Afghanistan would guide India’s approach and nothing could change this. He called upon all present at the dialogue to enhance the capability of Afghanistan to counter terrorism and terrorist groups, which pose a threat to regional peace and security. He also called for representation of all sections of Afghan society, including women and minorities towards nation building; as well as provision of education to girls and employment to women and youth.
Aside from India, the Dushanbe meeting was attended by security officials from Tajikistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Kyrgyzstan and China. In a joint statement, the meeting called for an inclusive government, respect for human rights, and fight against terrorist groups and narcotics in Afghanistan. Expressing concern at the current situation in Afghanistan, the participants hoped that the internal political, economic and social situation in Afghanistan would improve. They also emphasized the role of all ethnic groups in the Afghan government.