H I G H L I G H T S
• Developments in Pakistan
• Developments in Afghanistan
• Political turmoil
• Terror violence grows and hits Chinese interests again
• Significant spike in violence
• Eid message from the Supreme Taliban leader
II Developments in Pakistan
Change of government took place both at the federal level and in the Punjab province in the face of stiff resistance by President Arif Alvi and the Punjab Governor – both PTI loyalists. Shehbaz Sharif, whose election as Prime Minister by the National Assembly had been made possible by the intervention of the Supreme Court, was sworn in by the Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani, as the President chose to go on “sick leave”. Sanjrani, whose election as Senate Chairman had been secured by the army in 2018 against the wishes of the then PML(N) government and who had frequently been at the receiving end of their criticism, saw it fit to cooperate with the new dispensation under the changed circumstances. Shehbaz’s son and PML(N) candidate for the Punjab Chief Ministership, Hamza Sharif, had to wait for a little longer because of resistance by the caretaker PTI administration, before he was elected to the post by the Punjab Assembly on April 16 , once again following judicial intervention. However, he had to wait for two weeks before he was sworn in as Chief Minister because the Governor refused to administer the oath despite the Lahore High Court asking him to do so and the President did not act on the court advice to nominate another functionary to administer the oath. Finally, the court took the unusual step of asking the new Speaker of the National Assembly, who has been a senior leader of PPP, to perform the task. The Governor continued to describe the new dispensation as illegal and wrote to the Army Chief to help him in ending the alleged illegality. President Alvi rejected the Shehbaz government’s recommendation to dismiss the governor, leading the government to issue an order for his dismissal, which is being contested by the President and PTI.
Imran Khan is on the warpath. He demonstrated his support by holding well attended rallies in Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore and has threatened a long march and sit in by his supporters in Islamabad in the end of May to press for an early election. Besides his political opponents, he has been attacking the judiciary and the Election Commission in his speeches. While avoiding direct criticism of the army leadership, he has called upon the ‘powers that be’ to make amends and facilitate an early election. However, his ouster was followed by a campaign in the social media against the army leadership, for their role in the recent political events, with the participation of retired army officers. While some prominent retired officers disowned the messages posted in their name, Imran Khan was reported to enjoy some sympathy among the army rank and file. His narrative, centred around an alleged US conspiracy to oust him from power, an independent foreign policy and an appeal to the religious sentiment, is reminiscent of the planks of anti-Americanism and religion used by the army in the past to whip up hysteria in Pakistan. That his campaign was biting was clear from the army responses that followed. A conference of Formation Commanders took note of the “recent propaganda campaign by some quarters” to malign the army and create divisions within institutions and society. It reposed complete confidence in the army leadership’s stance to uphold the Constitution and the rule of law. The armed forces’ spokesman denied that there was any credible evidence of an international conspiracy to oust Imran Khan. In a subsequent statement, he warned that dragging the army into politics was extremely damaging for the country and the army took strong exception to such unlawful pronouncements by political leaders and some journalists. Army Chief Bajwa visited the Lahore Garrison and interacted in two separate sessions with the garrison officers and veterans, stressing the need for a timely and unified response to counter speculation and rumours.
The complexity of running the unwieldy coalition was clear, inter alia, from the tough bargaining on cabinet slots and portfolios, before Shehbaz Sharif’s cabinet was sworn in on April 19. However, the PPP Chairman, Bilawal Bhutto, visited London to sort out some unspecified coalition issues with Nawaz Sharif before he joined the cabinet as Foreign Minister. Shehbaz had to quickly reverse his decision to appoint Nawaz Sharif’s confidant and former diplomat, Tariq Fatemi, as his Special Assistant on Foreign Affairs. Fatemi had fallen foul of the army in 2016 for his alleged role in leaking information of a closed door civil-military huddle to a Dawn journalist and had been removed from the Nawaz Sharif government in 2017 under pressure from the army. However, while depriving him of the foreign affairs charge, Shehbaz Sharif retained him as his Special Assistant, suggesting that PPP may have objected to anyone from Prime Minister’s office interfering in the functioning of the Foreign Ministry under Bilawal Bhutto. Further, though Nawaz Sharif was issued a passport (the PTI government had denied him this facility), uncertainty lingered on his return to Pakistan. The government changed the top officers in the accountability agencies to help its leaders, including Nawaz Sharif, facing various cases. Though Shehbaz Sharif is more acceptable to the army, it may not be easy for him to come out of the shadow of Nawaz Sharif, who is PML(N)’s vote getter and will be needed at the election time. Nawaz is reported to favour an early election. The two brothers are a formidable combine- Shehbaz the efficient administrator and Nawaz the charismatic leader and any divided between them would hurt both.
The new government faces tough governance challenges, particularly on the economic front. It had to raise power tariffs, but withheld the sorely needed steep hike in fuel prices. The dire need for continuation of the IMF Extended Fund Facility will force it to take some tough measures, hurting the common man’s pocket.
Pakistan is in for continued political uncertainty and an election earlier than the scheduled timing of second half of 2023. The coalition partners, particularly PML(N), have taken a political risk by taking the helm at this difficult juncture. They would hope to give sops to people to expand their support, but they could also see people’s anger shift towards them in case they are seen as ineffective at solving the country’s problems, particularly the growing economic hardship.
Tax concessions given by the Imran Khan government in the months before its ouster had put Pakistan’s Extended Fund Facility (EFF) with IMF in jeopardy. Days before taking over as Finance Minister of the new government, PML(N) politician Miftah Ismail painted an alarming picture of the economic situation, adding that negotiations with the IMF would be restarted for continued balance of payments support. He said that the current account deficit for the ongoing financial year (July 2021 to June 2022) was estimated at $20 billion, necessitating $9 billion to cover the deficit and debt repayments during the remaining period of the financial year. The financing needs for the next financial year were estimated at $30 billion. In contrast Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves had dwindled to less than $11 billion, enough for about two months’ imports. According to Ismail, the fiscal deficit situation was also extremely worrisome. After talks at the IMF later in the month, Ismail claimed that the Fund had in principle agreed to enhance the EFF from $6 to $8 billion and extend it for another year beyond its current term ending later this year and a Fund delegation would visit Pakistan to discuss the matter further. However, in a separate press interaction he had himself mentioned the politically sensitive tough conditions laid down by IMF for continuation of the programme, including withdrawal of fuel subsidy, increasing power tariffs and additional taxation measures.
At the end of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s visit to Saudi Arabia, his first foreign visit after taking over as Prime Minister, Pak media reports claimed that Pakistan had secured a package of around $8 billion from the Saudis, including roll over of their existing deposits as well as enhancement of the oil import facility on deferred payment basis and technical details were being worked out. The good equation of the Sharif family with Saudi Arabia may help, though there are indications that the Saudis are linking any additional help to Pakistan reviving its IMF programme. Pakistan was also reported to have requested roll over of deposits and loans by China and UAE.
Terror violence grows and hits Chinese interests again
Pakistan was hit by a series of terror attacks. According to the statistics released by the Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies, April saw 34 attacks that killed 55 persons, including 34 security personnel, and injured around 50, mostly in Pakistan’s tribal belt and Balochistan. The armed forces spokesman revealed in a press briefing that 97 officers and soldiers had died in terror violence in the first three months of 2022.
Terror hit Chinese interests in Pakistan again when the Director and two teachers, all three Chinese nationals, working at the Confucius Institute at the Karachi university were killed in a suicide bombing at the end of April. The suicide bomber was reported to be a female member of the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), which claimed responsibility for the attack. She was a teacher from an educated family, a reminder of the increasing participation of middle class educated Baloch in the ongoing insurgency. Terming the bombing as a premeditated attack targeting Chinese citizens, a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that China supported Pakistan’s fight against terrorism and any attempt to undermine the “ironclad friendship” between China and Pakistan would not succeed. He added that China had asked Pakistan to keep Chinese citizens and institutions safe and make sure that such incidents do not recur. While Pakistan assured China at the level of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif that Chinese interests would be protected, the Pakistani security set up has been unable to prevent periodic attacks against them and this in spite of having assigned around thirty thousand troops for protection of the CPEC projects and the Chinese working on them. Pak media reported that an estimate of Pak Rupees 36 billion had been prepared for security of the Chinese who would be working on ML-1 project under the CPEC for development of railway infrastructure from Peshawar to Karachi, but it was yet to be approved by the Pakistan government. This is an indicator of the scale of the security concerns dogging the CPEC.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif wrote a letter to Prime Minister Modi in which, while stating that peaceful and cooperative ties between the two countries were imperative for the progress of people of the region, he added that this could be best achieved through meaningful engagement and peaceful resolution of all outstanding “disputes”, including the core issue of Jammu and Kashmir. He also stated that Pakistan’s sacrifices and contribution towards fighting and eliminating terrorism were “well known and globally acknowledged.” The letter was in response to a congratulatory letter from Prime Minister Modi, in which he emphasised India’s desire to have constructive ties with Pakistan. As their tweets earlier, the letters exchanged by the Prime Ministers contained standard formulations used in the past and did not signal an opening in the bilateral relationship. A few days after sending his above letter, Shehbaz Sharif criticised in strong terms Prime Minister Modi’s visit to J&K in a tweet, stating that the visit and “laying of foundation stones of hydroelectric projects, in contravention of Indus Waters Treaty” was “another desperate attempt to project false ‘normalcy’ in occupied territory”, adding that Pakistan stood with the Kashmiris “as they rejected the visit and observed Black Day.” Such tweets are counterproductive for any improvement in the relationship.
Speaking earlier at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, Army Chief Bajwa said that Pakistan believed in dialogue and diplomacy to resolve all outstanding issues, including Jammu and Kashmir, and was ready to move forward on this front if India also agreed to do so. However, he also played up the accidental firing of an Indian missile and called for a through probe into the incident. He waded into the India-China border dispute, saying Pakistan wanted it to be resolved soon through diplomacy and dialogue as well; and it was time for the political leadership of the region to break the shackles of history to bring peace and prosperity to the people of the region.
Contrary to Imran Khan’s anti-US rants, both the military leadership and the new government signalled their desire to mend fences with the US. Speaking at the Islamabad Security Dialogue, Army Chief Bajwa expressed Pakistan’s desire to broaden relations with both China and the US without impacting ties with the other. He recalled the long history of Pakistan’s excellent and strategic relationship with the US, which remained Pakistan’s largest export market. At the same time, while responding to an American journalist, he complained that Pakistan had been denied military equipment by the US. Alluding to the US relationship with India, he added that if the US was tilted to one side outright, Pakistan will have to find sources to get weapons to save itself.
Speaking to journalists, Shehbaz Sharif said that he was making efforts to mend fences with all allies and friends of Pakistan, including the US, and Pakistan could not afford to have enmity with the US.
There were conciliatory statements from the US too. A Pentagon spokesman said that the US enjoyed a healthy military to military relationship with the Pakistan army and hoped that this engagement would continue. The State Department spokesman said that the US wanted to work closely with the new Pakistan government on regional and international issues. He referred to Pakistan as an important stakeholder and partner in the context of Afghanistan. Secretary of State Blinken congratulated Shehbaz Sharif on taking over as Prime Minister.
In a sign of thaw, Secretary Blinken phoned the new foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto, and invited him to a food security meeting at the UN headquarters in New York on May 18, which will focus on the threat to global food security as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He also invited Pakistan to the Second Global Covid Summit, which is to be held virtually in May.
III Developments in Afghanistan
Significant spike in violence
While sporadic violent incidents had continued in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover in August last year, terror violence saw a significant spike in April, reminiscent of the days when the Taliban used to perpetrate such violence in various parts of Afghanistan. Four blasts in Kabul in a market, schools and two mosques killed at least 57 persons and injured many more. Most of those killed were Shias, but a blast at a Sunni mosque, in response to the killing of Shias in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, killed a large number of Sunnis congregated for Friday prayers. Dozens of worshippers were killed in a bomb blast at a Shia mosque in Mazar-e-Sharif. Another attack at a Shia mosque in Kunduz killed over thirty persons. There were other incidents involving lesser casualties compared to the above major incidents. The bombings killing Shias were claimed by the Islamic State. However, in the rich mix of terrorists in Afghanistan, one can never be certain about the identity of perpetrators. The Taliban, who are increasingly turning to their past ultra-conservative practices under the influence of hardliners among them, seem to be incapable of ensuring greater stability than was the case before their takeover. This would place a further question mark on their claim to be the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.
There has also been a claim by the National Resistance Front headed by Ahmad Massoud that they have launched a large offensive against the Taliban in the northern provinces of Afghanistan and captured some territory in the Panjshir valley. The Taliban have denied any loss of territory, though they have admitted some skirmishes and a small number killed among their troops. In the information blackout imposed by the Taliban, it is difficult to verify such claims and counterclaims.
Eid message from the Supreme Taliban leader
The Kandahar based Supreme Taliban leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, issued a message on the eve of Eid-al-Fitr in which he, inter alia, called upon the Afghans living abroad to return to their country, spoke of strengthening the education system through opening of new schools and madrassas, vowed not to allow use of Afghan territory to threaten other countries and urged the world to recognise the Taliban regime. He expressed commitment to the rights of men and women as well as freedom of speech based on Islamic values, but was silent on the ongoing restrictions on girls’ education under influence of hardliners like him. He called upon citizens to respect the ban on poppy cultivation imposed by the Taliban recently.
Barring generalities, Akhundzada’s message gave no assurance of reversal of the ultra-conservative practices that are being increasingly introduced in Afghanistan under his instructions. The latest directive requires all Afghan women to wear a hijab and identifies the ‘chadori’ (the full body veil) as the best hijab of choice. Punishment has been prescribed for male guardians of the women not observing the above edict.
The Taliban-Pakistan equation continued to be rocked by border clashes and attacks in Pakistan from the Afghan territory. Tension mounted between the two sides when a Pakistani helicopter was shot at along the Durand Line in the Nimroz province, reportedly injuring a senior Pakistani army officer, and the Pakistanis mounted pressure by announcing a military response. However, the Taliban said that they would resolve the issue though negotiations. Later on, there were reports of drones having been sighted in some areas of Afghanistan abutting Pakistan, followed by drone strikes in Khost and Kunar provinces on April 16, reportedly resulting in killing of 36 persons. The Taliban summoned the Pakistan Ambassador the same day to protest against the above strikes. A statement of the Taliban Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted their Foreign Minister as having told the Pak envoy that military violations must be prevented as such acts deteriorate relations, allowing antagonists to misuse the situation, leading to undesirable consequences. Pakistan neither confirmed nor denied the strikes. However, the Pak Foreign Office issued a statement on April 17, alleging that Pakistan’s security forces were being targeted from across the Durand Line and such attacks had increased significantly. The Foreign Office spokesman said that terrorists were using the Afghan soil with impunity to carry out their activities inside Pakistan. Reaffirming respect for Afghanistan’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, he added that Islamabad will continue to work closely with the Afghan government to strengthen relations in all fields.
In a subsequent statement, the Taliban Defence Minister said that Afghanistan had tolerated the Pakistani strikes because of national interests, but may not do so the next time. The dissonance between the two sides on continued attacks in Pakistan from the Afghan soil and the Taliban reluctance to act against TTP has clearly grown. The Taliban may not have the means to mount military strikes inside Pakistan, but in the event of Pakistan continuing with similar strikes, they could respond by adding to the terror activity within Pakistan.
Differences also arose between the Taliban and Iran over alleged ill treatment of Afghan refugees in Iran. While Iran denied the allegations, there were protests against Iran in Afghanistan and Iran alleged that its Embassy in Kabul and Consulate in Herat had been attacked by the protestors. Iran called upon the Taliban to provide full security to its diplomatic missions and bring to book those who had attacked them. In a subsequent statement, the Taliban said that their Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, had spoken to his Iranian counterpart and they would send a delegation to Iran to assess the situation of Afghan refugees there.