Af-Pak Digest by Ambassador Sharat Sabharwal | June 2024

II Developments in Pakistan

 

Political Undercurrents 

 

In spite of the relative stability resulting from the installation of the Shehbaz Sharif government after the highly contentious February election, there are political undercurrents that could destabilise the system again. 

 

The Af-Pak Digest of May 2024 covered discontent among Nawaz Sharif loyalists, which was addressed by the Prime Minister by, inter alia, elevating the Nawaz confidant and Foreign Minister  Ishaq Dar to the position of Deputy Prime Minister and accommodating another Nawaz loyalist, Rana Sanaullah in the government. The judicial hurdles preventing Nawaz Sharif from holding public office having been removed, he was elected unopposed as president of PML(N), a position that had been held by Shehbaz Sharif since Nawaz’s disqualification by the Supreme Court in 2018. In his address to the party after taking over as its President, Nawaz sharif targeted those who had got him disqualified. He  called for action against the retired Supreme Court judges, who had ruled against him.  It is to be seen how far Nawaz Sharif pushes this grievance. It is a chapter that the army leadership would be loath to reopen. Nawaz also referred to the unsuccessful attempts made by some unnamed individuals to drive a wedge between him and his brother and thanked Shehbaz for standing by him. This, however, will not put an end to the different approaches of the Nawaz and Shehbaz loyalists within the party. The Prime Minister will increasingly find himself caught between the demands of the army and the anti-army stance of his brother. PML(N) also suffered a setback when the Supreme Court stayed the decision of the Election Commission to award the reserved seats of PTI to PML(N), PPP and other parties. In case the final decision of the apex court goes in favour of PTI, it will boost its ranks in the federal and provincial assemblies and consequently weaken the ability of the government to get important legislation passed. 

 

PTI remained up in arms against the army led establishment. It released a white paper alleging widespread electoral manipulation in February and called for a judicial probe into it. However, the party was unable to mount a major agitation against the government. There is also confusion regarding the stance of the party on reconciliation with the army/government. Imran Khan has repeatedly ruled out any dialogue with the government. As for dialogue with the army, while talking of it on occasions, he has linked it to restoration of his ‘stolen mandate’. There is no indication of the army under Asim Munir showing any inclination to engage in a dialogue with a recalcitrant Imran Khan. The confrontation, therefore, continues. Imran Khan and some other PTI leaders have riled the army through some social media posts comparing the current situation of the country to the fall of Dhaka in 1971. Government agencies have opened an investigation into the matter. 

 

Asim Munir has continued to target the PTI agitation of May 2023 resulting in attacks against multiple army installations. He has also not taken kindly to the social media campaign of the party against him. Speaking on the first anniversary of the above agitation, he ruled out any compromise or deal with its planners. Speaking on the same occasion, DG, ISPR said that any dialogue with PTI could take place only if it earnestly apologised publicly in front of the nation and gave up the “politics of anarchy.”

 

There were also signs of growing confrontation between the army and a section of the judiciary. The judges in superior courts have been under pressure from the army to act against PTI cadres and leaders. Allegations made by six Islamabad High Court judges at the end of March regarding interference by intelligence agencies in their work are already pending before the Supreme Court. Further, a judge of the Islamabad High Court has alleged that a top official from the army threatened him during the consideration of a case. Another judge of the same court hauled up officials of the intelligence set up in the kidnapping of a poet from PoK. A recent meeting of Formation Commanders, presided over by the army chief, stressed that the planners, perpetrators, abettors and facilitators of the May 2023 riots need to be brought to justice for the collective good of the country and without swift and transparent dispensation of justice, the stability of the country would remain hostage to such elements. Contrary to this expectation, the judiciary has in the recent past given relief to Imran Khan in some of the cases pending  against him. This is likely to result in continued tensions between the judiciary and the army. 

 

Economy

 

Securing a fresh bailout package from the IMF remained the top priority of the Shehbaz Sharif government. An assessment mission of the Fund visited Pakistan in May and was reported to have presented a long list of measures that the government would have to implement to move towards a new loan. Many of these steps are likely to be included in the budget for 2024-25 to be presented in June. 

According to media reports, with a preliminary assessment of $23 billion external financing over the coming financial year, the Pakistan government has decided to have debt of around $12 billion rolled over by China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

 

In the midst of the contacts with the IMF for a new loan, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif has announced that all state owned enterprises (SOEs) with the exception of strategic entities would be privatised. However, there are discordant notes within his coalition on the issue. PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto has called for exploring the alternative of public-private partnership instead of outright privatisation of SOEs. Deputy Prime Minister Ishaq Dar is also reported to be in favour of continued state control over SOEs, describing them as national assets. In spite of such discordant notes, under pressure from IMF and because of backing of the army leadership to the privatisation policy, the government is pressing ahead with the privatisation programme, including of the national carrier PIA. It is to be seen how far it succeeds in privatising loss making enterprises. 

 

The Pakistan government has been talking of large investment, particularly from the Gulf countries, flowing into the country as a result of the efforts of the Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC). In recent months, there was great deal of excitement on investment by Saudi Arabia. A large Saudi economic delegation also visited the country. It was reported that the final investment decisions would be taken during the visit of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Pakistan in May. However, the visit was later reported to have been deferred. During a recent visit of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to the UAE, it was announced that $10 billion investment from that country would be coming into Pakistan. However, the actual flows from the above countries are likely to be adversely impacted by factors such as continued political instability, weaknesses of the Pakistani economy and poor law and order situation. IMF forecasts only around $7 billion in FDI into Pakistan over the next four years. 

 

Undaunted by the above challenges, the Prime Minister has constituted a cabinet committee on SIFC, which includes the army chief as a special invitee. 

 

Terrorism

 

Terror attacks continued through May in Balochistan and the tribal belt. Among some major incidents, a girls’ school was  blown up in North Waziristan. At least seven barbers from Punjab were shot dead in Gwadar while they were asleep. Earlier in April, nine economic migrants from Punjab had been shot dead in Balochistan. Later in May, seven security personnel were killed and two injured in two terror attacks in North Waziristan.

 

Violent Agitation in PoK

 

Protests organised by the Jammu Kashmir Joint Awami Action Committee (JAAC)- an alliance of labour leaders, traders, transporters and civil society activists- in PoK turned violent. JAAC had been demanding the fixing of electricity rates as per hydropower generation costs in PoK, sale of subsidised wheat flour and downsizing the government machinery to spare resources for the public. Not getting a favourable response from the PoK government, it called for a protest march towards Muzaffarabad. In response, the authorities arrested activists of JAAC in overnight raids, resulting in a strike call by it on May 10 followed by the above mentioned march on May 11. This was followed by several days of unrest resulting in loss of four lives, including a policeman, and injury to over a hundred. The matter having reached a boiling point, the government in Islamabad, which exercises a tight control over PoK, came into action and provided the funds to meet all the demands of JAAC. Consequently, the agitation was called off. Earlier, a similar agitation had led to a serious law and order situation in the so-called Gilgit-Baltistan. That agitation too calmed down only when the federal government provided the funds for supply of subsidised wheat in the territory. These agitations are pointers to the high discontent in both these areas of J&K occupied by Pakistan illegally against misgovernance under the tight control of the Pakistani establishment. In both cases, the authorities resorted to patchwork to tide over the immediate problem, but the fundamental factors underlying the recent unrest remain unaddressed and could lead to future trouble. However, oblivious to these factors, Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Mohsin Naqvi blamed a “neighbouring country” for the unrest, adding that details will be revealed when the government had gathered complete evidence. 

 

Pakistan-China

 

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Ishaq Dar visited China for the fifth round of China-Pakistan Strategic Dialogue. According to media reports, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told him that China was ready to work with Pakistan to develop an “upgrade version” of CPEC to strengthen cooperation in areas like industry, agriculture, mining, new energy and information technology. He also expressed the hope that Pakistan would  continue to make every effort to eliminate the worries of Chinese enterprises and personnel. Periodic terror attacks against their nationals in Pakistan are a top concern of the Chinese. There are reports that the Chinese have called for a large scale military operation against militants in the tribal belt, which is not easy with Pakistan’s current economic situation. The security factor, together with Pakistan’s crushing debt burden, low absorption capacity of the Pakistani economy, administrative bottlenecks in Pakistan and controversies regarding the CPEC projects within the country, has slowed down the CPEC investment. The existing projects also face problems. The Gwadar port, whose first phase was completed in 2007, is reported to have logged only 22 ships in its best year to date. It has also not attracted any regularly scheduled deep-sea shipping lines. 

 

Notwithstanding the above, the Pakistan Foreign Office announced towards the end of May that Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif would be paying a five-day visit to China in June with focus on revitalising the CPEC. This would be his first visit to China after taking over as Prime Minister a second time earlier this year. However, some media reports suggest that the visit will be centred around getting debt relief from China. According to a NIKKEI Asia report, Pakistan is moving to restructure more than $15 billion in power-plant debt owed to  Chinese energy producers. This is in addition to around $1.9 billion in unpaid operating bills of the Chinese power producers. Pakistan wants to extend the maturity of the loans taken for construction of power plants by five years. 

 

Pakistan-USA

 

The Pakistan Foreign Office denied the reports, including a statement by the PTI leader Omar Ayub, that Pakistan was going to provide military bases to the US. While doing so, the Foreign Office spokesperson also referred to the recent visit of the US Acting Under Secretary for Political Affairs John Bass and Principal Deputy  Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Horst to Pakistan, adding that the two sides discussed bilateral cooperation in the areas of trade, investment, energy, health, education, agriculture and climate change.

 

Pakistan and US held Counterterrorism Dialogue in May, which according to the Joint Statement issued by the two sides covered most pressing challenges to regional and global security including TTP and ISIS-Khorasan. The Joint Statement also referred to the importance of expanded counterterrorism collaboration, including exchange of technical expertise, provision of border security infrastructure and training, including the US training of more than 300 police and frontline responders since the last such dialogue in March 2023.

 

Pakistan-India

 

In a written reply to a question in the Pakistan National Assembly, Foreign Minister Dar said that trade with India had remained suspended since 2019 due to imposition of heavy duties by New Delhi on imports from Pakistan after the Pulwama attack. He added that Pakistan had consistently advocated constructive engagement and “result oriented dialogue” with India to resolve all outstanding issues including the “core issue of Jammu and Kashmir”, but India’s “intransigence and retrogressive actions” had vitiated the atmosphere and impeded the prospects of peace. He called upon India to create an environment conducive to peace and dialogue. Dar, who some time ago had said after a meeting with the business community that Pakistan would review the issue of trade with India, was clearly economical with the truth in making the above statements. India had granted MFN status to Pakistan in 1996 in the hope that Pakistan would reciprocate it. That never happened. Following the Pulwama terror attack in February 2019, the Government of India decided to withdraw the MFN status given to Pakistan and increased duties on Pakistani imports by 200%. However, Pakistan did not suspend bilateral trade at this stage. It did so as one of the retaliatory measures to withdrawal of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir by India in August 2019. Further, while India had earlier refused to talk to Pakistan in the presence of Pakistan sponsored terror on its territory,  Pakistan has maintained since August 2019 that it will engage in a dialogue with India only if it reverses its August 2019 step to, inter alia, withdraw J&K’s special status. The above statements by Dar do not amount to a constructive position and consequently do not have the potential to break the ongoing impasse in the bilateral relationship.  

 

III Developments in Afghanistan

 

Terror and Violence

 

In spite of the relative stability maintained in Afghanistan by the Taliban, the country remained prone to periodic acts of terror and violence. Islamic State claimed responsibility for a terror attack against a Shia mosque in Herat towards the end of April that claimed six lives. Later in May, the Islamic State claimed another attack in the Bamiyan province that killed three Spanish citizens and three Afghans. According to the statement issued by the Islamic State, the attack was pursuant to their leaders’ directions to target citizens of European Union wherever they were found. The Taliban also faced violent protests during May  in the Badakhshan province, which borders China, over restrictions on cultivation of poppy. The protestors claimed that their wheat fields and houses were destroyed by security personnel on the pretext of eradicating poppy fields. During these disturbances, a motorcycle laden with explosives struck a convoy of security forces on a mission to eradicate poppy cultivation, resulting in killing of three security personnel and injury to others.  The seriousness of violence in the area was clear from the fact that the Taliban Chief of Army Staff, in an audio clip circulating on social media, called upon the local authorities to stop the protests. He added that the authorities would not permit anyone to carry out poppy cultivation. The Taliban constituted a high level committee to look into the violent incidents. Subsequently, they claimed that order had been restored in the area.

 

Human Rights Situation

 

UN agencies continued to report the unsatisfactory human rights situation in Afghanistan. In its report for January to March 2024, UNAMA said that while the school year in Afghanistan commenced in April, it did so without the presence of girls in high schools. The report also mentioned other instances of restrictions on women. It stated that journalists and media workers continue to operate in a challenging environment. Threats to former government officials and former ANDSF members, including arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings continue to be reported to UNAMA. Public executions continue. The Taliban rejected the above report as baseless. The 15th OIC summit held in Gambia in May, which was also attended by a Taliban delegation, called upon the Taliban to respect the right of Afghan girls and women to education. The summit also emphasised the need for more efforts to address the challenges related to ethnic groups, drugs, terrorism and social issues to ensure inclusive governance and sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan. 

 

Third Doha Meeting on Afghanistan

 

Uncertainty continued regarding the participation of the Taliban in the third UN-led Doha meeting on Afghanistan that is expected to be held at the end of June. The Taliban had skipped the first two meetings objecting to the presence of the Afghan diaspora composed largely of former ministers, high ranking officials and members of the Afghan civil society settled abroad. They have also been opposed to the appointment of a special UN envoy for Afghanistan in keeping with a UNSC resolution on the ground that war has ended, the country is peaceful and there is no need for such an envoy. The Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Abdul Kabir told the visiting UN Under Secretary General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs that the Taliban government would participate in the Doha meeting if its position was accepted. He added that Afghanistan was under complete control of the “Islamic Emirate” and it had an Emir and the government was obeyed. The Taliban response has remained uncertain in spite of the visiting Qatari Deputy Foreign Minister taking up the matter with the top Taliban functionaries during his visit to Kabul. The Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said at the end of May that discussions regarding participation in the Doha meeting were ongoing and an official announcement would be made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs if they chose to participate. 

 

Afghanistan-Pakistan

 

The war of words on the issue of terrorism continued between the Taliban and Pakistan. Rejecting Pakistan’s claim that a recent  terror attack that had killed five Chinese nationals in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province was planned from Afghanistan, a spokesman of the Taliban Ministry of Defence said that the Islamic State had come to Afghanistan from Pakistan and its goals were being set there. He called upon Pakistan to explain this situation. He added that the Taliban had assured China that Afghans were not involved in such incidents. The Pakistan army, on the other hand, stated that there was irrefutable evidence of TTP using the Afghan soil against Pakistan. Subsequently, the Taliban officials claimed that a planned visit by a Pakistani military delegation to Kandahar had been cancelled in an apparent protest over cross border strikes by Pakistan targeting alleged terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan. There was no authoritative word from  Pakistan on this issue. This was followed by reports of clashes between the forces of Pakistan and Afghanistan on the Durand Line near the Kharlachi border crossing. According to subsequent Pak media reports, tribal elders from both sides helped in bringing the situation under control. 

 

Under pressure from China to take action against the perpetrators of the above mentioned attack against Chinese nationals, the Pakistani Interior Minister Mohsin Naqvi stated at a press conference in Lahore in May that the TTP leadership was based in Afghanistan and hostile foreign intelligence agencies were behind the above attack. He added that the attack was planned and completely operated from Afghanistan. He called upon the Taliban to hand over to Pakistan the terrorists responsible for the attack along with the TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud. Pakistan’s Minister for Planning and Development Ahsan Iqbal said that his country was not opposed to inclusion of Afghanistan in the CPEC projects, but would like China to persuade Kabul to crack down on the terrorist groups operating from the Afghan soil. Subsequently, following the visit of  a delegation led by the Interior Secretary of Pakistan to Kabul to discuss Pakistan’s findings on the above attack, the Pak Foreign Office said that the Afghan side had agreed to examine the information provided to them and work with Pakistan to take the investigation to its logical conclusion. However, around the same time, a spokesperson of the Taliban regime said that the issue had nothing to do with Afghanistan and Pakistan should ensure its own security. He described the findings of its probe made public by Pakistan as an attempt to create distrust between China and Kabul. 

 

After months of tensions between the two sides on Pakistan’s move to introduce the requirement of proper travel documents for travel across the Durand Line, both sides agreed to introduce a temporary admission document for transporters of commercial goods of both sides to facilitate trade. The Pakistani requirement of insisting on travel documents is as unpopular in its tribal belt as on the Afghan side. The move has resulted in protests in the Pakistani town of Chaman that have lasted for months and turned very violent recently resulting, inter alia, in ransacking of the local administrator’s office. 

 

Afghanistan-Russia 

 

A delegation of the Taliban regime led by its Minister of Industry and Commerce attended the Russia-Islamic World Kazan Forum held in May. 

 

There were a series of statements from the Russian government supportive of the Taliban. Speaking at a security meeting of CIS countries in Bishkek, the head of the FSB security service said that the Taliban were fully capable to restoring order in Afghanistan provided there was no meddling by external elements. TASS quoted Zamir Kabulov, the Russian special representative for Afghanistan as saying that the Russian Ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs had presented a proposal to President Putin for removal of the Taliban from the list of designated terrorist groups. He added that the Taliban government had come a long way towards being recognised, but there were still some hurdles. Foreign Minister Lavrov said in the course of a media interview that the Taliban were holding real power in Afghanistan and Russia would be removing them from the list of terror organisations. He added that the UNSC did not declare the Taliban a terrorist organisation and there were only twelve to fifteen specific persons on the list. While making this statement, Lavrov noted that Kazakhstan had very recently removed the Taliban from the list of terror organisations. The Taliban welcomed the above Russian statements. At the end of May, President Putin stressed the need to build relations with the Taliban as they were in power in Afghanistan and controlled the country. 

 

After the Taliban victory, the international community seemed to have reached a broad consensus, with some nuances in the position of key countries, requiring the Taliban to meet certain conditions, including building an inclusive set up and checking the activities of terror groups from the Afghan soil, to gain formal recognition. However, all key countries have continued to deal with the Taliban, both to address their own security concerns and to reach humanitarian assistance to the Afghan people. This has impacted adversely the pressure on the Taliban to meet the aforementioned conditions and hardliners have continued to control governance in Afghanistan. However, as things have moved forward, even the imperfect consensus mentioned above seems to be fraying. Besides the above Russian statements, President Xi Jinping received the credentials of the Taliban Ambassador to Beijing a few months ago. Russia and China have taken a stance different from that of the western countries in the UN led Doha meetings, showing greater understanding for the position taken by the Taliban. Further developments will be worth watching in this context.


The previous issues of Af-Pak Digest are available here: LINK

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