• COVID-19 crisis
• Pakistan raises Kashmir at SAARC leaders’ video conference on COVID-19
• US-Taliban deal
• Controversy over result of the Presidential election continues
• COVID-19 crisis
• ICC ruling on alleged war crimes in Afghanistan
II Developments in Pakistan
No sooner had Pakistan successfully completed the second review of its Extended Fund Facility (EFF) from the IMF, thanks largely to the expected bonanza from falling oil prices, than its economy was hit by the COVID-19 crisis. Foreign investors pulled out $1.38 billion from its capital markets in the first three weeks of March. Foreign Minister Qureshi said that countries like Pakistan that are burdened by external debt should be provided relief in repayment of loans. There were suggestions in the media that Pakistan should give up the IMF austerity plan linked to EFF. Qureshi stated at the end of the month that the government was trying to get repayment of loans taken from IMF, World Bank and ADB rescheduled. State Bank of Pakistan announced a package of Pak Rs.105 billion to address the economic challenges resulting from the pandemic and cut its key interest rate by 75bps to 12.50%, the first such cut in four years, citing declining inflationary pressure. Within a week, the rate was cut further by 150 bps.
From the first Coronavirus cases reported at the end of February, Pakistan faced a serious crisis at the end of March with over 2200 confirmed cases and 31 deaths. While provinces announced lockdowns as per their assessment, PM Imran did not put in place a national policy of lockdown. Speaking to parliamentarians on March 25, he said that imposing a national lockdown would be detrimental to the economy and he would be urging the provincial leaders to reassess the lockdowns announced by them. A day earlier, he had announced a Pak Rs.1.13 trillion fiscal stimulus package to counter the adverse impact of the pandemic. At the end of March, he set up Prime Minister’s Coronavirus Relief Fund and announced the formation of a Coronavirus Relief Tiger Force of young volunteers to assist the administration in relief activities. Concerns have been expressed that the force might be packed with PTI members, inviting charge of partisanship in its relief work. Separately, a video conference of the Corps Commanders resolved that all available troops would be ready to work with the civil administration in fighting the pandemic. The Pakistan army, which has all along claimed to guard Pakistan’s physical and ideological frontiers, was assigned another frontier by COAS Bajwa, who said that the armed forces would stand shoulder to shoulder with the nation to guard the border between people and COVID-19!
Pakistan raises Kashmir at SAARC leaders’ video conference on COVID-19
Pakistan responded positively to PM Modi’s proposal for a video conference of SAARC leaders to discuss a common strategy against Coronavirus. However, unlike other countries represented by Heads of State/government, it was represented by PM Imran Khan’s Special Assistant on Health, Zafar Mirza. Speaking at the Conference, he referred, inter alia, to coronavirus cases in J&K, adding that it was imperative that “all lockdown” there must be lifted immediately to contain the pandemic. India described the above reference as misuse of the conference, which was a humanitarian and not a political platform. Pakistan rejected the above charge. FM Qureshi wrote a letter to the President of the UN Security Council, calling for immediate “lifting of communication restrictions and unfettered access to medical and other essential supplies” in J&K. In response to India’s pledge of $10 million to a SAARC emergency fund to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, other member countries except Pakistan announced their contributions, bringing the total emergency fund to $18.8 million. However, Pakistan said that it would announce its contribution after confirmation of placement of the fund under the charge of Secretary General of SAARC and drawing up of modalities for its utilization.
Pak President Arif Alvi, accompanied by Foreign Minister Qureshi, paid a two day visit to China in mid-March, essentially to express solidarity with the hosts facing the Coronavirus crisis. It would be recalled that Pakistan had not withdrawn its nationals from Coronavirus hit Wuhan, once again as a mark of solidarity and expression of confidence in the ability of the Chinese to ensure their well-being. During the visit, the two sides called upon all countries to unite and cooperate to deal with the challenge. In a joint statement, China, inter alia, recognized the measures taken by Pakistan to combat terrorism financing and the resolve with which Pakistan implemented the FATF action plan. China reiterated that the Kashmir issue should be resolved properly and peacefully based on the UNSC resolutions and bilateral agreement and opposed “any unilateral actions that complicate the situation.” (India rejected the above reference to J&K in the joint statement). Both sides welcomed the signing of the peace agreement between the US and Taliban and expressed the hope that intra-Afghan negotiations would be the next logical step. Notwithstanding the solidarity expressed in Beijing, Shah Mahmood Qureshi decided to go into self-isolation on his return and get tested for Coronavirus! At the end of March, China sent medical personnel and a plane load of medical equipment to aid Pakistan in fighting the Corona pandemic. China also announced that it was building a makeshift hospital in Pakistan to deal with the growing number of Coronavirus cases.
PM Imran Khan called upon the international community to lift sanctions on Iran, enabling them to deal better with the Coronavirus crisis.
III Developments in Afghanistan
After negotiations lasting eighteen months, the US and Taliban signed a peace agreement in Doha in the presence of Secretary of State Pompeo and representatives of other countries, including the Indian Ambassador to Qatar. The agreement describes the Taliban as “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which is not recognized by the United Sates as a state and is known as the Taliban.” It provides for withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan within 14 months, subject to the Taliban acting on their commitment to not allow the use of Afghan soil to threaten the US and its allies; intra Afghan negotiations (which were to start on March 10) between the Taliban and “Afghan sides” to finalize a permanent ceasefire and the future political roadmap of Afghanistan; release of all prisoners by both sides (release of 5000 Taliban prisoners held by the Afghan government and 1000 prisoners held by the Taliban was to have taken place before commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations on March 10) and lifting of US and UN sanctions against the Taliban. Secretary Pompeo spoke subsequently of two secret implementing elements for protection of US soldiers. In a separate US-Afghan government joint declaration issued simultaneously with the signing of the above agreement, US reaffirmed its commitments regarding support for the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government took note of the US-Taliban agreement, reaffirming its readiness to participate in intra-Afghan negotiations. In a sign of his personal commitment, President Trump had a long telephonic talk with the Taliban leader Mullah Baradar within days of signing of the agreement. The UNSC unanimously endorsed a US sponsored resolution, welcoming the “significant steps towards ending the war and opening the door to intra-Afghan negotiations” enabled by the US-Taliban agreement.
The US-Taliban deal is clearly one sided, paving the way for withdrawal of US forces in return for a vague promise by the Taliban not to allow the use of Afghan soil to threaten the US and its allies, but offers no guarantee of peace in Afghanistan. Because of their family and ideological ties with Al Qaeda, doubts remain over Taliban’s ability to sever links with it. Their commitment to power sharing, constitutional governance and the rights and liberties that the Afghans have come to enjoy under it is also highly suspect. Significantly, the agreement lays down a deadline for action on all items except for successful conclusion of intra-Afghan negotiations to achieve a ceasefire and lay down the future political framework. In a media chat, President Trump acknowledged that the Taliban could possibly seize power after US leaves, adding that US forces could not remain in Afghanistan indefinitely and eventually they (Afghanistan) will have to protect themselves.
Implementation of the US-Taliban deal ran into problems from the word go. Within two days of signing of the agreement, the Taliban announced that they were ending the seven days period of reduction of violence that they had observed before the deal was concluded and would be attacking the Afghan forces. Violence picked up in the country again with Taliban attacks against Afghan forces and installations and some other attacks, including one at a Gurudwara in Kabul, claimed by the Islamic State. Speaking to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defence Secretary Mark Esper said that one of the reasons of continued violence was lack of control of the Taliban leadership over extremists within their ranks.
President Ghani expressed his unwillingness to release 5000 Taliban prisoners, which the deal required to be done before commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations on March 10. This, together with delay in finalizing the Afghan negotiations team, lead to non-commencement of the negotiations on the above date and these are yet to begin. President Ghani initially expressed his willingness to release 1500 old and sick Taliban prisoners subject to their giving an undertaking not to join fighting. The Taliban rejected this offer, insisting on release of 5000 prisoners identified by them. Eventually, the two sides had a skype meeting facilitated by the Americans to discuss the prisoners issue. A three member Taliban delegation arrived in Kabul at the end of March to discuss prisoners’ exchange, building some hope on the subject. There was progress on constitution of the Afghan negotiating team when President Ghani’s government announced a 21-member team, headed by Masoom Stanekzai, an ex-security chief, to negotiate with the Taliban. A Taliban spokesman said that they could not talk to the above team as it was not constituted taking into account all parties. However, Abdullah Abdullah, who continues to contest Ghani’s re-election as President, endorsed the negotiations team, raising the hope that the Taliban might show some flexibility on the issue in view of this endorsement.
All in all, the way forward for the US-Taliban deal remained highly uncertain.
Controversy over result of the Presidential election continues
Abdullah Abdullah continued to question the re-election of Ashraf Ghani to the post of President. Extensive discussions between the two sides failed to break the logjam. Eventually, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as President on March 9 in a ceremony attended, inter alia, by the US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Abdullah Abdullah took the oath of President in a parallel ceremony. A visit by Secretary Pompeo to Kabul failed to resolve the differences between the two sides and the impasse continued at the end of March; though, as stated above, Abdullah Abdullah endorsed the team constituted by Ghani for negotiations with the Taliban. Abdullah Abdullah was reported to be insisting on the office of Chief Executive, which he held in the last Ghani administration and more ministerial berths for his supporters than offered by Ghani.
The first Coronavirus case in Afghanistan was confirmed at the end of February and by the first week of April, the number of confirmed cases was reported to be around 300, with six deaths. However, testing for the virus remained very low. The government took several steps, including banning of large gatherings, to prevent spread of the disease.
After his failed bid to break the impasse between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, Secretary Pompeo deeply regretted that the two had failed to agree on an inclusive government, thereby harming the US-Afghan relations. A statement issued by Pompeo added: “We are today announcing a responsible adjustment to our spending in Afghanistan and immediately reducing assistance by $1 billion this year. We are prepared to reduce by another $1 billion in 2021. We will also initiate a review of all of our programmes and projects to identify additional reductions.” President Ghani said that the aid cut would not affect key areas and further discussions would be held to resolve the impasse with Abdullah Abdullah.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry issued a statement that the US had no legal standing to sign a peace agreement or to determine the future of Afghanistan. The statement added that the US-Taliban agreement was an attempt to legitimize the presence of US troops in Afghanistan.
According to Afghan media reports, the Afghan government expelled two Iranian diplomats for being involved in intelligence activities. In retaliation, Iran also expelled two Afghan diplomats. The Afghan Foreign Ministry did not confirm the reports, stating that relations between Afghanistan and Iran were normal and the political and economic missions of the two countries were working without any disruption. However, Tolo news reported a senior aide of President Ghani as saying that there were discussions between the two countries “regarding those issues.”
Reacting to a clause in the joint US-Afghan government declaration issued simultaneously with signing of the US-Taliban deal, which committed the US to facilitate discussions between Afghanistan and Pakistan to work out arrangements to ensure that neither country’s security is threatened by actions from the territory of the other, Pakistan stated that any issues between the two countries should be resolved bilaterally rather than involving the US.
With closing of the road link with Afghanistan by the Pak government in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak, prices of essential commodities spiked in Afghanistan. However, later in the month, the Afghan Ambassador to Pakistan stated that the Pak government had agreed to allow export of food and medicines to Afghanistan.
The Indian Foreign Secretary visited Kabul on February 28 and 29. He met a number of high functionaries, besides President Ghani, and a wide cross-section of Afghan leaders from politics, media, civil society and academia. He reiterated India’s commitment to enhanced political, economic and development partnership with Afghanistan. He congratulated the people and government of Afghanistan on the conduct of the fourth Presidential election and declaration of the final result.
Reacting to the US-Taliban agreement, the Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs said that India’s consistent policy has been to support all opportunities that can bring peace, security and stability in Afghanistan, end violence, cut ties with international terrorism and lead to a lasting political settlement through an Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled process. The Spokesperson also noted that the entire political spectrum in Afghanistan, including the Government and civil society had welcomed the opportunity and hope for peace and stability generated by the agreement. India pledged as a contiguous neighbour to continue to extend all support to the Government and people of Afghanistan in realising their aspirations for a peaceful, democratic and prosperous future where the interests of all sections of Afghan society are protected.
India described the constitution of the Afghan team for negotiations with the Taliban as a positive step “which would lead to a peaceful and stable future for Afghanistan free from the scourge of externally sponsored terrorism.”
ICC ruling on alleged war crimes in Afghanistan
An appeals panel of the International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled that prosecutors at the ICC would investigate alleged war crimes by various sides in Afghanistan, noting that the prosecutors’ preliminary examination in 2017 had found reasonable grounds to believe that war crimes were committed in Afghanistan and that the ICC had jurisdiction. The decision opens the way for investigators to launch a full investigation. Secretary Pompeo condemned the decision as “truly breathtaking action by an unaccountable political institution, masquerading as a legal body” and vowed to take all necessary measures to protect US citizens “from this renegade, so-called court.” The appeals panel was ruling on a decision taken last year by a pre-trial panel that had rejected the request of the prosecutors to open an investigation.
(The views expressed are personal)