Af-Pak Digest By Ambassador Sharat Sabharwal | May 2023


  • Overview
  • Developments in Pakistan
  • Developments in Afghanistan

I Overview


  • Political Situation
  • Economy
  • Terrorism
  • Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK)
  • Pakistan-China
  • Pakistan-India
  • Pakistan-US
  • Pakistan Denies Providing Arms to Ukraine


  • Human Rights and Humanitarian Situation
  • Eid Message of the ‘Islamic Emirate’ Supreme Leader
  • Afghanistan-US
  • Afghanistan-Pakistan
  • Afghanistan-China
  • Regional and International Meets on Afghanistan

II Developments in Pakistan

Political Situation

Pakistan’s political impasse has deepened. The principal tussle, which revolved around the demand of PTI leader Imran Khan for early elections, has now degenerated into his open confrontation with  army chief Asim Munir. Not ready to face an early election, the Shehbaz Sharif government has brazenly refused to hold election to the Punjab Assembly, citing security and financial constraints, in spite of a directive from a Supreme Court bench headed by the Chief Justice, Umar Ata Bandial. The government is in violation of the constitutional norm of holding election within 90 days of dissolution of an assembly (the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies were dissolved by the PTI led/supported provincial governments  in mid-January and elections should have been held by mid-April).  Developments on this issue saw all major institutions of the state- the Presidency, government backed by its Parliamentary majority, Election Commission and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court- pitted against each other and playing a partisan role. The government mobilised the Parliament in its confrontation with the Chief Justice. The Supreme Court itself was bitterly divided with only about  half of its judges supporting the Chief Justice. The army  was reported to be against early or scattered elections to the provincial and federal assemblies. Faced with an impasse, the Chief Justice led bench of the Supreme Court gave the rival parties time to reach a compromise on the timing of elections through dialogue. However, talks between the government and the PTI failed.

The political crisis deepened when the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) arrested Imran Khan in a case of alleged corruption from the premises of the Islamabad High Court, where he had gone to get bail in some cases.

Bereft of an effective political counter to Imran Khan’s popularity, the government has for some time been trying to involve him in court cases and get him disqualified from holding public office. However, they had not been able to pin him down so far. This changed when Imran Khan recently repeated his allegation that Major General Faisal Naseer, head of the counter-intelligence wing of the ISI, had engineered two attempts on his life. The army reacted sharply, describing the allegation as “fabricated and malicious.” Khan’s arrest came within two days of this army statement. He was arrested by Punjab Rangers who, though nominally under the civilian government, are commanded by army officers. The NAB is headed by a retired Lieutenant General. The arrest provoked  violent agitation by PTI supporters across Pakistan, with reports of ransacking and burning of public and army properties, including the residence of the Corps Commander, Lahore. The state authority seemed to have virtually collapsed.

In an uncharacteristically quick dispensation of justice, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the Chief Justice, ordered Imran Khan’s release, declaring his arrest from judicial premises illegal. The violent protests abated, but the crisis is far from over. The armed forces public relations wing, ISPR, and Imran Khan have exchanged angry words, accusing each other of worsening the situation. Imran Khan has held the army chief, General Asim Munir,  responsible for his arrest. On his part, Asim Munir has resolved to bring all the planners, abettors, instigators and executors of the post Imran Khan arrest violence to justice. A number of senior leaders of PTI have been arrested. A special meeting of Corps Commanders has endorsed the above resolve and said that the perpetrators of violence would be tried under the relevant laws, including the Pakistan Army Act. In view of persistent reports regarding fissures in the top echelons of the army on the Imran Khan issue, this meeting was significant in putting out a unified message endorsed by all corps commanders.

If, as it looks likely, there is heightened confrontation in view of the army-coalition government combine’s efforts to tame Imran Khan and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (who will be in office till September this year), it will further paralyse governance and impair the ability of the Pakistani state to deal with other challenges such as the tanking economy and terrorism etc.  


In the midst of Pakistan’s continuing economic crisis, the World Bank and ADB pegged Pakistan’s economic growth during the current financial year at around 0.5 percent. In a report released in early April, the World Bank stated that due to various economic shocks, nearly  four million Pakistanis had got pushed into poverty during this fiscal year. It also called upon Pakistan to immediately arrange new foreign loans to avoid a public debt crisis. Pakistan’s annual external financing needs were projected, on an average, at $28.9 billion up to the Financial Year 2024-25. The report termed the outlook for Pakistan as highly uncertain, hinging on strong political ownership and effective implementation of critical economic reforms. In a debt sustainability analysis prepared by Pakistan’s Ministry of Finance, it was stated that Debt to GDP ratio and Gross Financing Needs to GDP ratio were in excess of sustainable levels of 70% and 15% respectively and were expected to remain so at least till 2026.

The government continued to claim that it had fulfilled all conditions of the IMF, including getting assurances from friendly countries to bridge the financing gap till the end of the current fiscal year in June, to revive the Extended Fund Facility (EFF). However, the Fund was not satisfied with the assurances received and stated that reaching an agreement on EFF revival was still work in progress. Instead, the two sides were reported to be entering into discussions on the budget for the next fiscal year, which is to be presented in the Parliament in early June. This did not signal an imminent resolution of the EFF issue.


The National Security Committee (NSC), composed of top civil-military functionaries and headed by the Prime Minister, met and reaffirmed the resolve to thwart terror threats and re-launch the National Action Plan against terrorism. The Committee proclaimed that the recent wave of terror was the result of the soft corner towards and absence of a well thought out policy  against the TTP – an insinuation to the policy of dialogue with the TTP initiated by the Imran Khan government. The above decisions of the NSC came in handy to the government, both to target PTI and oppose the moves of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for an early election in Punjab. Many Pakhtun politicians expressed concern at the prospects of a renewed military operation in the tribal belt.

Terror attacks in Pakistan continued to take place at regular intervals, targeting mainly the security forces, including a blast at an office of the Counter Terrorism Department in Swat, which killed at least a dozen persons including police officials.

Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK)

In a repeat of the practice in Pakistan to get rid of  inconvenient politicians through judicial action,  POK “Prime Minister” Sardar Tanveer Ilyas of PTI was disqualified from holding public office by the POK High Court in a contempt case related to his alleged derogatory remarks against superior judiciary. Subsequently, Chaudhry Anwarul Haq, also of the PTI, was elected the next “Prime Minister” unopposed, with Tanveer Ilyas alleging that he had got the job after striking a deal with the army. Earlier, the POK Legislative Assembly adopted a resolution seeking opening of a Kartarpur type corridor between India and the Sharda Peeth temple in POK, causing embarrassment to the POK government. The POK “Prime Minister” said that an investigation had been initiated to ascertain how the resolution was passed.


Army Chief Asim Munir paid a four day official visit to China in April, his first after assuming office; and met senior military officials. During his meeting with the Pakistani visitor, Zhang Youxia, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission expressed his country’s desire to deepen and expand military cooperation with Pakistan and jointly safeguard regional peace and stability.

A US intelligence document leaked online by the Discord messaging platform shows the limits imposed on Pakistan’s attempt to rebuild its relationship with the US in the light of its deepening and widening relationship with China. In the leaked memorandum titled “Pakistan’s Difficult Choices” that had been obtained by the US intelligence, Pakistan’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Hina Rabbani Khar, suggests that Pakistan must stop maintaining a middle ground between China and the US. She cautions that Islamabad should avoid giving the appearance of appeasing the West, adding that the instinct to preserve Pakistan’s partnership with the US would ultimately sacrifice the full benefits of what she deemed the country’s “real strategic” partnership with China.

China has faced a serious problem in ensuring the safety of its nationals working in Pakistan. A new dimension was added to this problem when Pakistani labourers working at the Dasu hydroelectric project being built by a Chinese company, accused their Chinese supervisor of blasphemy. The Pakistani authorities immediately took him into what was described as protective custody. An accusation of blasphemy in Pakistan usually results in long incarceration of the accused and, in many cases, his or her ex-judicial killing. However, the two countries worked quietly to ensure the release of the Chinese national and his repatriation to China.

The Khunjerab Pass linking China to “Gilgit Pakistan”, which is under illegal occupation of Pakistan, was reopened in April after a closure of almost three years due to COVID-19.


As the current rotating Chairman of SCO, India has been inviting Pakistan to all the meetings in the run up to the summit in July this year. Pakistan attended most of the meetings held till the end of April virtually and at a level lower than the invited functionary. However, the Pakistani announcement that Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto would attend the meeting of the Council of SCO Foreign Ministers to be held in Goa (India) on May 4 and 5 in person bucked the above trend. The spokesperson of the Pakistan foreign office said that the above decision reflected Pakistan’s commitment to SCO. However, in view of the media interest in India-Pakistan issues, the above announcement led to considerable speculation regarding a bilateral meeting between the two countries in the margins of the SCO meeting. In the light of Pakistan’s internal preoccupations at the moment and the consequent inability to make any positive move of note vis a vis India, the expectation of a bilateral meeting was highly speculative. Further, on the day of the above announcement, a proxy of the Pakistan based terror group JeM killed five Indian army personnel in an ambush in Poonch, resulting in a statement by EAM Jaishankar that it was difficult to engage with a neighbour that practices cross border terror against India. In Pakistan too, hard-line voices, including some from PTI, criticised Bilawal’s decision to visit India. All this put paid to even a remote chance of a bilateral meeting. Even though bilateral issues could not have been raised during the SCO meeting, both sides included general references in their national statements, alluding to contentious matters, that were found jarring by the other party. Bilawal Bhutto chose to give some media interviews while in India, in which he not only castigated India on Kashmir, but also commented on India’s internal affairs. This invited a robust response from the Indian Minister. Thus, Bilawal’s visit, instead of resulting in any thaw in the relationship, added to the tension between the two countries. It would be unrealistic to expect any meaningful movement in the relationship till things settle down politically in Pakistan; and India is through with its election in 2024.

A journalist duo caused controversy in Pakistan, in the run up to Bilawal’s visit to India, by claiming that former army chief Bajwa wanted to cut a deal on Kashmir with India, but was prevented by the Imran Khan government from doing so; and that he had told a group of journalists that the Pak army did not have the wherewithal to fight India. This necessitated a clarification by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) that former army chief’s off the record remarks regarding the combat worthiness of his army had been quoted out of context. Army Chief Asim Munir stated subsequently that the Pakistan army had the will, capability and capacity to protect Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Pakistan objected to the Indian move to hold some G20 meetings in Srinagar and said that it would make a demarche to other G20 countries against it.

Pakistan’s response to the Indian demarche to amend the Indus Waters Treaty was received by India in early April and the Indian government said that it was being examined. Speaking in the Pakistan Senate, Minister for Climate Change, Sherry Rehman said that India could not amend the treaty unilaterally. She alleged that India had sent a “vague” letter in January, seeking revision of the treaty and claimed that the move was meant for internal consumption in view of the Indian election due in 2024. She added that the Permanent Indus Commission was the appropriate forum to discuss any concerns regarding the treaty.


Pakistan Ambassador to the US, Masood Khan has said that Pakistan consulted the US before signing a recent crude oil import deal with Russia. He also called upon the US to restore foreign military financing and foreign military sales that were suspended by the Trump administration. Asked to comment on Pakistan’s oil deal with Russia, the US State Department Spokesperson said that each country had to make its own decisions on its energy supply and one of the reasons that the US, through G7, had supported price cap on Russian oil was to ensure that steps were not being taken to keep Russian energy off the market.

Pakistan Denies Providing Arms to Ukraine

After months of reports that Pakistan had made supplies of ammunition to Ukraine through some western countries, the Pak Foreign Office stated that no such supply had been made and Pakistan had maintained strict neutrality in the Ukraine war. The clarification came in response to the claim of a Ukrainian army commander in a BBC interview that they had received rockets from other countries, including Pakistan, but the Pakistani ammunition was substandard. While giving the above clarification, the spokesperson of the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs acknowledged that Pakistan has had strong defence ties with Ukraine in the past.

III Developments in Afghanistan

Human Rights and Humanitarian Situation

After barring female employees of national and international NGOs from workplace, the Taliban government banned female national staff members of the UN from going to their offices. The UN Secretary General condemned the ban, warning that it would undermine the UN ability to deliver life-saving aid to the Afghan people. The move was also condemned unanimously by the UN Security Council; and the OIC Secretariat  expressed concern at it.

The UN agencies continued to express concern at the serious humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. An OCHA report said that over 28 million people need lifesaving assistance in Afghanistan, adding that an appeal for US $4.6 billion had received less than 5% of the amount required.

Eid Message of the ‘Islamic Emirate’ Supreme Leader

In an Eid message, the Taliban Supreme Leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, called upon the international community to recognise the “Islamic Emirate”. He added that proper diplomatic relations of other countries with Afghanistan would help solve the country’s problems. He further stated that Afghanistan wants positive relations with its neighbours, Islamic countries and the world within the framework of Islamic principles. Afghanistan does not wish to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries and others should not interfere in Afghanistan’s affairs. He called upon people to help the government to maintain stability and security and underlined the role of the Ulema in the society. He said that education and training of the whole country is one of the responsibilities of the ‘Islamic Emirate’ and effective plans for further development in this area were being worked on, but did not say anything on the contentious issue of education for girls and women. In his speech for Eid prayers at the Kandahar Grand Mosque, Akhundzada said that he would not allow implementation of non-Islamic laws in the country.

In yet another sign of the growing clout of the Kandahar faction of the Taliban, the Taliban information ministry said that the office of the main spokesman of the Taliban government would be moved from Kabul to Kandahar.


The Chief of Staff of the Taliban regime, Qari Fasihuddin Fitrat criticised the US for violating Afghan airspace repeatedly in spite of the matter being taken up with them.

In a recent report, the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said that the US remains the largest humanitarian donor to Afghanistan, adding that since the withdrawal of the US forces from Afghanistan, the US government has appropriated $2.02 billion for humanitarian aid and development efforts in Afghanistan. Testifying to the House of Representatives Oversight Committee, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General said that he could not assure that the US assistance was not going to the Taliban instead of being spent for the intended purposes. He accused the Biden administration of stonewalling his efforts to investigate this aspect. The accusation came within days of the Biden administration releasing a summary of classified reports that mostly blamed the chaotic August 2021 US pull-out from Afghanistan on the Trump administration for failing to plan for the withdrawal that he had agreed to with the Taliban.

A Washington Post report quoted a leaked Pentagon assessment, which claims that the Islamic State (IS) is once again using Afghanistan as a staging ground for plots against the US, Europe and Asia. The Biden administration, however, stated that the US maintains the ability to remove terrorists from Afghanistan without permanent presence on the ground.


The head of Pakistan’s diplomatic mission in Afghanistan returned to Kabul four months after he had gone back to Pakistan following an assassination attempt against him.

Director General, Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) of Pakistan has said that his country has completed fencing along 98% of the Durand Line and this will help in preventing the crossing of terrorists from Afghanistan. However,  a spokesman of the Taliban regime, Zabiullah Mujahid, said that the fencing work was not begun during the Taliban regime and was no longer continuing.


The Chinese Foreign Ministry released a paper stating China’s position on the Afghan issue in April. Its key elements were: China respects the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan, respects the independent choices made by the Afghan people and respects their religious beliefs and national customs; China will never interfere in Afghanistan’s internal affairs; China supports moderate and prudent governance in Afghanistan and hopes that Afghanistan would build an open and inclusive political structure; China hopes that the Afghan interim government will protect the basic rights of all Afghan people, including women, children and all ethnic groups; China will continue to do its best to help Afghanistan with reconstruction and development; China welcomes Afghanistan’s participation in Belt and Road Cooperation and supports Afghanistan’s integration into regional economic cooperation and connectivity; China supports Afghanistan in countering terrorism and hopes that Afghanistan would fulfil its commitment to crack down on all terror forces including the ETIM; China calls upon the international community to support Afghanistan in taking comprehensive measures to prevent the country from again becoming a safe haven of terror; China calls upon the US to immediately lift its sanctions on Afghanistan, return Afghan overseas assets and deliver its pledged humanitarian aid to meet the emergency needs of the Afghan people; China opposes external interference in Afghanistan; Afghanistan should be a platform for cooperation among various parties rather than of geopolitical games; China supports all measures that are conducive to political settlement of the Afghan issue; China supports Afghanistan’s fight against narcotics and will support more concrete actions by Afghanistan to counter narcotics cultivation, production and illicit trafficking.

Regional and International Meets on Afghanistan

In the light of the Taliban continuing to defy the counsel of the international community for an inclusive governance structure and respect for human rights etc; and concerns of various countries regarding terror groups getting a sanctuary in Afghanistan, meetings of countries in various groupings continued to take place to reflect on the Afghan situation.

The two-day 4th meeting of neighbouring countries of Afghanistantook place in Samarkand (Uzbekistan) and was attended among others by the Foreign Ministers of Russia, China, Iran, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of Pakistan and the Foreign Minister of the Taliban regime. A separate meeting of the representatives of Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan was also held. The participants were reported to have focussed on implementing the demands of the international community concerning establishment of an inclusive government, education for women and girls and respect for the rights of minorities. However, no progress on these issues was reported.

The above demands were also voiced at the SCO Foreign Ministers’ meetingin Goa (India). The Indian External Affairs Minister said that India’s immediate priorities include providing assistance to the Afghan people, ensuring a truly inclusive and representative government, combating terrorism and drug trafficking and preserving the rights of women, children and minorities.

The 5th China, Pakistan, Afghanistan Trilateral Foreign Ministers Meetingtook place in Islamabad. In a long aspirational statement issued at the end of the meeting, it was stated that the three sides decided to expand and deepen their cooperation in the security, development and political domains. In relation to security, the statement referred in particular to TTP and ETIM. The three sides also expressed their resolve to harness Afghanistan’s potential as a hub of regional connectivity and reaffirmed their commitment to further cooperation under BRI and to extend the CPEC to Afghanistan. Following a separate round of Sino-Pak strategic dialogue, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister stressed that the core issue and red line was terrorism, which posed a serious threat to regional peace.

The UN convened a closed door meeting of representatives of over twenty  countries and organisations on Afghanistan in Doha. There was some confusion regarding the purpose of the meeting when the UN Deputy Secretary General, Amina Mohammed, said that the meeting “could find those baby steps to put us back on the pathway to recognition (of the Taliban regime)”. However, in the face of opposition, including from the US, to this stated aim, the UN clarified that the gathering would not focus on recognition of the Taliban, but on achieving a common understanding within the international community on how to engage with the Taliban on issues such as human rights, in particular women’s and girls’ rights, inclusive governance, countering terrorism and drug trafficking. It was also stated that the Taliban had not been invited to the meeting. The UN Secretary General said that the UN will stay in Afghanistan to deliver humanitarian aid to millions despite the Taliban restriction on the UN female staff, but warned that funding was drying up.





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Ambassador Sharat Sabharwal, Former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan and Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Ananta Centre


Pramit Pal Chaudhury, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta
Mr AK Bhattacharya, Editorial Director, Business Standard, Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre Editorial Director

Pramit Pal Chaudhury, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar, Former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia; President, Institute of

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar, Former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia; President, Institute of



Ambassador Sharat Sabharwal, Former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan and Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Ananta Centre


Pramit Pal Chaudhury, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta
Mr AK Bhattacharya, Editorial Director, Business Standard, Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre Editorial Director

Pramit Pal Chaudhury, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar, Former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia; President, Institute of

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar, Former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia; President, Institute of



Ambassador Sharat Sabharwal, Former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan and Distinguished Visiting Fellow, Ananta Centre


Pramit Pal Chaudhury, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta
Mr AK Bhattacharya, Editorial Director, Business Standard, Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre Editorial Director

Pramit Pal Chaudhury, Foreign Editor, Hindustan Times, and Distinguished Fellow & Head, Strategic Affairs, Ananta

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar, Former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia; President, Institute of

Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar, Former Ambassador of India to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia; President, Institute of