- Political Situation
· Turmoil in “Gilgit-Baltistan”
- Internal Situation
- Taliban Report Mining Contracts
- OIC Delegation in Afghanistan
- Water Discords
· Moscow Format Consultations on Afghanistan
II Developments in Pakistan
Uncertainty continued regarding holding of elections in Pakistan. Going by the constitutional provision of holding elections within 90 days of dissolution of the National Assembly, President Arif Alvi ruled that elections should be held no later than November 6. However, both the Election Commission and the caretaker government maintained that the President had no role in announcing the election date. Alvi, who completed his five years term as President on September 8, continues in office as the national and provincial assemblies that would be required to elect his successor are not in existence at the moment. The Election Commission of Pakistan stuck to its earlier stand of conducting elections only after delimitation of constituencies as per the 2022 census, but stated at the end of September that the delimitation process would be completed expeditiously to hold elections in the last week of January 2024. However, no specific date was announced and scepticism continued to prevail in the country about adherence to the above deadline.
The Islamabad High Court suspended the sentence awarded to Imran Khan in the Toshakhana case by the trial court, but he remained in detention in another case regarding mishandling of a classified communication from Pakistan’s Embassy in Washington DC, which Imran Khan had used to allege an American conspiracy to throw him out of power. Some legal experts were of the view that Imran Khan’s disqualification from contesting election for five years, ordered by the trial court along with his conviction in the Toshakhana case, would not be impacted by the suspension of the sentence. Separately, the police authorities added sedition to the other charges already filed against him for instigating the May 9 violence against army installations. Further, in a continuing crackdown on Imran Khan’s senior aides, Sheikh Rashid, Interior Minister in his government, was also arrested. Significantly, caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarlul Haq Kakar stated in a press interview that fair elections were possible without the participation of Imran Khan and other senior leaders of his party, who are under detention in various cases. The recently released results of a Gallup survey conducted in June show that Imran Khan remains the most popular leader with 60% approval rating as against only 36% for Nawaz Sharif. Therefore, keeping him out of the political fray will need some heavy lifting by the army.
Differences between the old major political players – PML(N) and PPP- became more pronounced and there were signs that PPP was miffed because of its perception that the army under Asim Munir seemed to favour PML(N). Unlike PML(N), which seemed comfortable with delayed elections to recover its lost support, PPP was keen on early elections and was nervous at the prospect of the ongoing delimitation exercise giving more seats to Karachi, where MQM-P is influential, at the cost of the rural constituencies, where it holds sway. PPP was also reported to be unhappy at some of its favourite officers in Sindh having been removed by the caretaker government. In a sharp attack on PML(N), Bilawal Bhutto accused it of having conspired with the army and the judiciary to marginalise PPP in Punjab in the last two elections. He complained against absence of level playing field for his party for the next election.
The PML(N) leadership announced that Nawaz Sharif would return to Pakistan from his exile in London on October 21. However, Nawaz caused some disquiet in sections of PML(N) by stating that the former army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, former DG ISI Faiz Hameed and two former Chief Justices of the Supreme Court (Saqib Nisar and Asif Saeed Khosa) must face accountability for having ousted him from power illegally. Shehbaz Sharif, who is known to be close to the army and had come back to Pakistan after prolonged consultations with his elder brother in London, rushed back to London, inter alia, to persuade him not to insist on accountability of the above individuals, which would be unacceptable to the army. The incident is symptomatic of the problem that the army chief Asim Munir faces in Punjab. He needs Nawaz Sharif to counter Imran Khan’s popularity, but may not be comfortable with him as Prime Minister and may prefer Shehbaz Sharif in the event of PML(N) forming government.
In a controversial move, a three member bench headed by the outgoing Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Umar Ata Bandial, struck down a law passed by the Parliament that had resulted in closure of several accountability cases against various political leaders, including Nawaz Sharif, and ordered their reopening. Upon retirement of Bandial, the next senior most judge, Qazi Faez Isa, took over as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court on September 17. He is ill-disposed towards Imran Khan, whose government had filed a reference against him in the Supreme Judicial Council. It is to be seen how his incumbency impacts political developments in Pakistan.
DG ISI Nadeem Anjum was granted one year extension in his tenure in September. It is widely expected that the forthcoming elections will be managed by the army to secure an outcome to its liking. If so, ISI will be required to play an important role in the exercise.
Pakistan continued to face a precarious economic situation. There were countrywide protests against high electricity bills, which were subsequently joined by traders. A government plan to give relief to consumers by making staggered recovery of electricity bills ran into trouble with the IMF. In keeping with the prominent role in economic affairs assumed by the Army Chief Asim Munir, he held meetings with representatives of the business community in Karachi and Lahore to share with them the government’s plan to revive the economy. He assured the business community that all out efforts would be made to ensure transparency in the dollar rates in the open and interbank markets, besides bringing money exchanges under the purview of taxation, eliminating smuggling at the borders with Iran and Afghanistan and improving tax collection. He further stated that the recently constituted Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC), of which he is a member, would attract investments of up to $100 billion from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Kuwait and other countries. He was of the view that state-owned enterprises should be privatised to save the large amount being spent on them. However, there was widespread scepticism among independent observers regarding Asim Munir’s economic revival plan and the ability of Pakistan’s macroeconomic and business environment to attract the quantum of investment that Munir has talked about.
There is no substitute to structural reforms of the economy, which the Pakistani elite led by the army is not willing to undertake as it would hurt their privileges. Echoing the need for such reforms, the IMF Managing Director asked the caretaker Prime Minister of Pakistan to collect more taxes from the wealthy and protect the poor. Instead of heeding her advice, the government continued to borrow heavily. Thus, during the first three months of the current financial year, it borrowed 57% of the total amount borrowed during the last financial year.
Turmoil in “Gilgit-Baltistan”
Large scale protests broke out in “Gilgit-Baltistan” after filing of an FIR against a reputed Shia cleric, Agha Baqir Al-Hussaini, on charges of blasphemy related to remarks made by him at an ulema council in Skardu. Protests by his supporters against the FIR and counter protests by Sunnis for action against him, along with offensive remarks by a Sunni cleric, brought alive the Shia-Sunni fault line of the region. Sunni protestors blocked a section of the Karakoram highway for three days demanding Agha Baqir’s arrest. Mobile services were suspended across the region and the “Gilgit-Baltistan” government requisitioned the services of army on the pretext of maintaining law and order for the chehlum of Imam Hussain. However, reflecting the seriousness of the situation, the government asked all public and private transport companies to arrange armed private security guards on their buses and vans plying on the Karakoram highway. The unrest continued for almost two weeks, but a degree of normalcy seemed to have returned when the authorities restored mobile data services in the region.
A report released recently by the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad states that security forces lost 386 personnel during the first nine months of 2023 in terror incidents – the highest casualties in the last eight years. The rise in violence was particularly concentrated in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.
Pakistan experienced multiple terror attacks. In an attack at the end of August, a suicide bomber exploded himself near a military convoy, killing nine soldiers in the Bannu district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. In a serious incident at the end of September, around 60 persons were killed and over a hundred injured in a suicide blast near an Eid-i-Miladun Nabi procession in Balochistan’s Mastung district.
Reports have persisted for quite some time regarding supply of munitions by Pakistan to Ukraine through western countries. These were denied by the Pakistan Foreign Office, but have now been confirmed by the US based news organisation ‘The Intercept’, which states that the US facilitated the latest Dollar 3 billion, 9-month, IMF bailout to Pakistan earlier this year in return for supply of munitions by Pakistan for Ukraine. The supply was important for the Ukrainian forces at a time when they were facing munition shortages. The Intercept report cites documentary evidence to establish munitions sales agreed to between the US and Pakistan from the summer of 2022 to the spring of 2023. Besides Pakistan, the US State Department and the IMF have denied The Intercept report. However, it would be recalled that Pakistan had remained in prolonged negotiations with the IMF to get a bailout, which had not materialised on account of its inability to fulfil the IMF conditions. Therefore, the above mentioned $3 billion facility came as a surprise and could well have been the result of US help.
The US Ambassador to Pakistan, Donald Blome, met the Chief Election Commissioner of Pakistan in the midst of uncertainty regarding the date of the elections due in the country. He expressed the US support for free and fair elections conducted in accordance with Pakistan’s laws and constitution, adding that the US was committed to enhancing US-Pakistan ties regardless of the chosen leadership. The Ambassador also met caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar, who assured him that the caretaker government’s main responsibility was to assist the Election Commission in holding elections. The statement was significant in view of speculations regarding a prolonged tenure for the caretaker government.
Donald Blome paid a six-day visit to “Gilgit-Baltistan” during which he met local representatives and government officials. The visit was not announced by the US Embassy and became known due to a statement issued by the office of the Deputy Speaker of the local assembly, whom the Ambassador met. The Ambassador also paid a visit to Gwadar. The opposition leader in the “Gilgit-Baltistan” assembly questioned the visit and the secrecy attached to it and noted that the Ambassador had visited two key areas linked to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The Ambassador had visited PoK in October 2022 also. India raised concerns at the Ambassador’s visit to “Gilgit-Baltistan”.
Pakistan continued with its familiar rhetoric on Kashmir. Addressing a meet on UN Peacekeeping Missions, army chief Asim Munir said that Pakistan aspired to create a region where peace prevailed and trade, transit and investment generated prosperity for all states of South, West and Central Asia. He called for a peaceful resolution of the Jammu and Kashmir issue in accordance with the UNSC resolutions and wishes of the Kashmiri people. Speaking to a TV channel, the caretaker Prime Minister said that relations with India could not become normal without resolving the “core” issue of Kashmir. Speaking at an Asia Society conference in New York, caretaker Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani said that Pakistan’s peace overtures to India, including the opening of the Kartarpur corridor, had been met with negativity. He accused India of human rights violations in Kashmir and claimed that worsening “religious extremism” in India, especially against Muslims, had further complicated the situation. The Pakistan Foreign Office indulged in anti-India rhetoric in the context of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegations concerning India’s involvement in the killing of a Khalistani terrorist in Canada. Caretaker Prime Minister Kakar’s speech at the UNGA too contained Pakistan’s familiar anti-India rhetoric. India exercised right of reply.
The 11th meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee on CPEC between China and Pakistan was held in October 2022. However, it took the two sides almost a year to reach consensus on its minutes. The agreed minutes show China’s cautious approach on further expansion of the CPEC projects. China did not agree to expansion of cooperation in the areas of energy, water management and climate change proposed by Pakistan. On its part, Pakistan gave up its opposition to the setting up of a new coal-fired power plant in Gwadar and agreed to a number of Chinese demands. China also rejected a proposal to set up a joint working group on water resources management. The Chinese caution in not agreeing to a number of projects proposed by Pakistan seems to stem from Pakistan’s precarious economic and law and order situation.
During the above meeting, Pakistan agreed to further beef up security to safeguard China’s commercial interests in Pakistan. The minutes of the meeting acknowledge that the Chinese personnel, projects and institutions in Pakistan are facing a “challenged security situation”. According to Pak media reports, it was decided that bulletproof vehicles will be used for all outdoor movements of the Chinese nationals working on various projects.
The Russian Embassy in Islamabad has stated that Pakistan has received its first shipment of liquified petroleum gas from Russia. Russia delivered 1,00,000 metric tons of LPG to Pakistan through Iran’s Sarakhs Special Economic Zone. The Embassy further stated that consultations on a second shipment were under way.
III Developments in Afghanistan
A UN report states that Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) has increased its operational capabilities inside Afghanistan, with the total number of fighters and family members associated with the group estimated at four to six thousand persons. It further stated that ISK has become more sophisticated in its attacks. Separately, reports in the Pakistani media have spoken of the outlawed Sunni terror group Lashkar-e-Jhanvi taking up the banner of ISK and some TTP cadres establishing links with it. The Taliban, however, rejected the report.
Speaking in Paris, Ahmed Massoud, the exiled leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRF) said that there was currently no dialogue with the Taliban as they had refused to hold talks. He vowed to step up guerilla warfare to bring them to the negotiation table. It would be recalled that NRF opposed the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and clashes had occurred between the two sides in NRF’s stronghold of Panjshir. Massoud said that NRF had changed its tactics as it could not fight the well-equipped Taliban conventionally and had shifted to guerilla-warfare, which, though less visible, had caused more impact. In spite of the above claim by Massoud, there have of late been no reports of any serious challenge posed by his group to the Taliban regime.
Afghanistan continued to face a serious humanitarian situation. According to a UNDP report, there are around 6.5 million internally displaced persons in Afghanistan, both due to conflict and violence, as well as natural disasters. This number is the next highest after Syria. Separately, the World Food Programme (WFP) said that due to cash crunch, it was unable to provide food assistance to about a fifth of the 15 million people in Afghanistan who need it. WFP added that they have to choose between the hungry and the starving, leaving millions scrambling for the next meal.
Speaking in Geneva, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights accused the Taliban of a “shocking level of oppression” of women and girls, adding that human rights in the country were in a state of collapse. Separately the Human Rights Service of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) called upon the Taliban to stop torture and protect the rights of detainees. Speaking at a UN Security Council meeting, Roza Otunbayeva, head of UNAMA said that the Taliban policies driving exclusion of women were unacceptable to the international community. A number of members of the UNSC called upon the Taliban to remove restrictions on women and girls. The Taliban spokesman, however, accused the UN agencies of magnifying the issues of women’s education and work, while ignoring the progress made (which he did not elaborate), adding that the UNSC should have instead discussed the removal of sanctions on the Taliban, release of frozen funds of Afghanistan and recognition of the Taliban government.
Taliban Report Mining Contracts
The Taliban Minister of Petroleum and Mines has claimed that contracts for seven mines worth more than $6.5 billion have been signed. According to Afghan media reports, the contracts were signed on August 31 in the presence of Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, Deputy Prime Minister and some Chinese investors. The Minister has further stated that gold mines in Takhar province, with an area of 12 square kilometres, will be handed over to a China-Afghanistan company and $310 million will be invested in them. The copper mine of Mes Aynak in Logar has been handed over to a private company, which will invest $411 million in it. The Minister also spoke of award of four blocks of the Ghoryan iron ore mine in the Herat province and a lead mine in the Ghor province to various companies which, according to him, will make sizeable investments.
However, according to a report in Nikkei Asia, the announcement is drawing scepticism. To begin with, the $6.5 billion figure amounts to about half of Afghanistan’s GDP and the Taliban cannot achieve investment of this order without large scale foreign involvement. The Taliban have claimed to have awarded contracts worth over $5 billion relating to iron ore mines in the Herat province to a mix of Afghan, Iranian, Turkish and British companies. But independent experts believe that the above amounts are inflated and it is too early to predict how the reported projects will work out. They maintain that the legal policy framework for mining is virtually non-existent. Doubts also persist about the ability of the Taliban to provide security to the investment and personnel of foreign partners.
OIC Delegation in Afghanistan
A delegation of Islamic scholars of the OIC visited Afghanistan in September to share the concerns of OIC member countries, especially with regard to women’s education and employment, with the Taliban officials and Afghan religious scholars. The visiting delegation stressed that education is an Islamic obligation for both men and women and expressed the willingness of the OIC member countries to provide all possible support for this purpose to Afghanistan. A Taliban spokesman said that the Afghan officials assured the delegation that the ban on girls’ education would not be permanent. He added that suggestions of the OIC delegation will be kept in mind in running an Islamic system in Afghanistan. However, there was no clear indication from the Taliban regarding resumption of girls’ and women’s education and women’s employment.
In the backdrop of the dispute between Iran and Afghanistan on water supply from Helmand River to Iran, the Iranian President said that Afghanistan had accepted the visit of a group of Iranian experts to check the quantity of water available in the river. Another senior Iranian functionary said that Afghanistan had agreed to provide water to Iran from the Helmand River subject to suitable rainfall conditions. The Taliban, however, said that climate change and persistent droughts have resulted in water shortage, causing problems in implementing the Helmand River Water Treaty.
The Uzbek President expressed concern over construction of the Qush Tepa canal by the Taliban which, he said, could change the balance of water in Central Asia by diverting the water of Amu Darya. He called for a joint working group to study the impact of the canal. The Taliban, however, said that Afghanistan has no agreement with any country on Amu Darya, but is willing to discuss the Amu Darya water issue to address the concerns of neighbouring countries.
Tension continued between the Taliban and Pakistan on Pakistan’s allegations regarding use of the Afghan soil by TTP and other groups to perpetrate acts of terror on the Pakistani territory. It spiked when hundreds of heavily armed militants of TTP stormed Pakistani security posts in the Chitral area from the Afghanistan side. The Pakistani security forces claimed that they were beaten back after three days of fierce fighting, though the situation in the area was far from normal. Some Pak media reports stated that TTP had been joined by the Afghan Taliban in some of the terrorist attacks in Pakistan. Some other reports linked the timing of the Chitral incursions to the sectarian tensions in the neighbouring “Gilgit-Baltistan” area. Alarmed by these incursions, the Pakistan Foreign Office said that the weapons left by the US in Afghanistan required global attention as they had fallen in the hands of Afghan terrorists and added that this concern had also been shared with the Taliban regime. Pakistan also recorded a strong protest with the Taliban over the above incursions. In a separate development, the Torkham border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan was shut after exchange of fire by forces from both sides. Both sides blamed each other for the clash and, with the movement of perishable items from Afghanistan remaining blocked, the Taliban called for a dialogue to resolve the issue. The Pakistan Foreign Office claimed that the clash occurred after the Afghan authorities started building a checkpoint on the Pakistani side of the border and called upon the Taliban to respect Pakistan’s territorial integrity. The Taliban, on the other hand, said that they were only carrying out repair work on an old security check post. Following prolonged bilateral consultations, the border point was opened eight days after it was closed. According to some Pak media reports, the Pakistanis kept the border closed for a prolonged period to put pressure on the Taliban government, which was faced with agitation by Afghan traders in Nangarhar, whose trucks laden with perishable commodities were stuck on the Afghan side. The Pakistanis also wanted guarantees from the Taliban that the TTP militants who had carried out incursions in the Chitral region would withdraw, as they saw the incursions as a pressure tactic by the Taliban against Pakistan’s efforts to check smuggling from Afghanistan.
Afghan media reported that during the subsequent visit to Kabul of Asif Ali Durrani, Special Representative of Pakistan for Afghanistan, the Taliban Foreign Minister, Amir Khan Muttaqi, proposed the constitution of a joint committee to address problems between the two countries. Reports in the Pakistani media spoke of an assurance from Kabul that concrete steps would be taken to neutralise the activities of militants attacking Pakistan. At the end of September, the Caretaker Foreign Minister of Pakistan claimed that the Taliban had arrested around 200 TTP fighters. Given the failure of the past efforts to bridge the gap between the two countries on the issue, only time will tell what impact the latest reported understanding between them has on terror activity in Pakistan.
The Taliban announced that a new Chinese Ambassador Zhao Xing had presented his credentials to Mohammed Hassan Akhund, Prime Minister of the Taliban regime. China’s previous Ambassador to Afghanistan, Wang Yu, who had taken up his post in 2019, had stayed on after the Taliban victory and completed his tenure in August this year. Other diplomats in Kabul with the rank of Ambassador had all taken up their post before the Taliban takeover. The Chinese described the arrival of the new Ambassador as a normal rotation of diplomats, intended to continue advancing dialogue and cooperation with Afghanistan, adding that “China’s policy towards Afghanistan is clear and consistent.”
The Indian Council for Cultural Relations announced that to continue the policy of supporting Afghanistan, it had been decided that from the academic year 2023-24, 1000 scholarships annually will be offered to Afghan nationals for online undergraduate and post-graduate courses.
The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in New Delhi issued a statement at the end of September to say that it would be ceasing its operations from October 1 due, inter alia, to “lack of support from the host government”. The communication appears to have been the result of some internal dissensions within the Embassy between personnel loyal to the former regime and the Taliban. However, the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs stated a few days later that the Afghan Embassy in New Delhi continued to operate and the government was in contact with diplomats at the mission and the Afghan consulates in Mumbai and Hyderabad. He expressed the hope that a substantial number of Afghan nationals in India will continue to receive necessary consular support.
Moscow Format Consultations on Afghanistan
The fifth meeting of the Moscow Format on Afghanistan took place in the Russian city of Kazan in September and was attended by representatives and officials from 13 countries, including India, Pakistan, China, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. The Taliban Foreign Minister was also present at the meeting and Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and Turkey were guests of honour. The joint declaration of the meeting noted with concern the difficult security situation in Afghanistan due to intensification of activities of terrorist groups, particularly the Islamic State (IS). It appreciated the fight of the Taliban regime against the IS, while calling upon them to do the same against all terror groups. It called upon the Afghan authorities to step up cooperation with regional countries to combat threats of terrorism and drug trafficking. The participants regretted that there had been no progress in forming a truly inclusive government in Afghanistan and called upon the Taliban to conduct dialogue with the representatives of alternative ethno-political groups to complete the process of peaceful settlement. They expressed concern at the restrictions on women’s employment and girls’ education and underscored the unacceptability of deployment of military infrastructure of third countries in Afghanistan and its neighbouring states under any pretext.