I Overview

Pakistan:

• Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)
• Terrorism
• Pakistan-US

Afghanistan:

• Peace and Reconciliation
• Afghanistan-India
• Afghanistan-Pakistan
• Afghanistan-China

II Developments in Pakistan

Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)

The opposition alliance -Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM)- was nowhere close to its declared goal of forcing the Imran Khan government out of power and confined itself largely to threatening rhetoric at its rallies. Speaking in the beginning of January, the PDM head, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, reiterated that the opposition movement would no longer be directed only against the Imran Khan government, but also its backers (the army) and added that the planned opposition long march could end up in Rawalpindi instead of Islamabad. Opposition sources said that the Maulana’s threat was a message to the army to stay neutral in the government-opposition tussle. However, the army was not impressed and its spokesman said that in case the opposition brought its march to Rawalpindi, they would be looked after well and served ‘chai-pani’! He rejected the allegation that the army had rigged the 2018 election – a claim that flies in the face of the widely acknowledged intervention of the army in the 2018 election in favour of Imran Khan’s PTI.

PDM pushed for early decision in a case pending before the Election Commission of Pakistan for over six years regarding alleged funding obtained by PTI from dubious sources abroad. The Prime Minister tried to muddy the waters by calling upon the Election Commission to undertake an expanded scrutiny of funds obtained by all political parties. No early relief in the matter from the Election Commission was in sight for the opposition.

In view of PPP’s opposition to the proposed move to resign from the national and provincial assemblies and prevent holding of elections, the PDM parties decided to take part in the upcoming by-elections. Contrary to the originally planned strategy of forcing the government out through mass resignations from the assemblies and a long march on Islamabad, the PPP leader, Bilawal Bhutto, announced the intention of his party to remove the government through a no-confidence move in the National Assembly, describing it as a democratic, constitutional and lawful procedure. There was little chance of a no-confidence motion against the Imran Khan government carrying the day, particularly because of continued support of the army to it. PML(N) was quick to ask Bilawal Bhutto to show his numbers in the National Assembly before submitting a no-confidence motion. It also adopted a hard-hitting resolution alleging that appointment of retired and serving army officers in various institutions was creating an impression of martial law in the country and calling for restoration of sanctity of vote.

The only consolation for the hardliners within PDM was an announcement in early February regarding a long march on Islamabad beginning March 26, but without any details of the march. In the meanwhile, Prime Minister Imran Khan remained secure in his position.

Terrorism

Faced with the ongoing scrutiny of the Financial Action Task Force, Pakistan continued to take action against its terrorists, who have come to acquire a high profile internationally. The Punjab Government Counter Terrorism Department arrested Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi of LeT, a prime accused in the Mumbai terror attack case and free on bail since 2015, on terror financing charges. He was accused of collecting funds for a dispensary and using them for committing acts of terror. He was subsequently sentenced to five years imprisonment.  Separately, an anti-terrorism court issued an arrest warrant against the JeM head, Masood Azhar, who too was accused of terror financing. India said that Pakistan had acted against Lakhvi to project a sense of compliance ahead of the FATF meeting. However, the US State Department said that it was encouraged by Lakhvi’s conviction, adding that his crimes go far beyond financing terrorism and Pakistan should further hold him accountable for his involvement in terrorist attacks, including the Mumbai attack. Taking note of the above American statement and apprehending India bringing up the issue of unconluded trial in Pakistan in the Mumbai terror attack case, the Pak Foreign Office alleged that India’s reluctance to send witnesses to testify in the Pakistani court had delayed the trial. The allegation is unwarranted because India has told Pakistan to obtain the testimony of Indian witnesses either by sending a judicial commission or through video-conferencing.

Pakistan voiced its concern over India getting chairmanship of three key panels of the UN Security Council, including the Taliban sanctions committee and the Counterterrorism committee. The Pak Foreign Office spokesman said that members of the UN Security Council should ensure that India does not abuse its position as a non-permanent member of the Council. Reacting to the killing of some Shia Hazara coal miners in Balochistan, which resulted in a sit-in by the relatives of the deceased causing embarrassment to his government, Prime Minister Imran Khan accused India of backing the IS to cause unrest in Pakistan. Pakistan has often made such baseless allegations against India in an attempt to cover up its own deep involvement with terrorism in the region.

Successive governments in Pakistan have spoken of reforming the madressahs system that has been a major cause of radicalisation in the Pakistani society. The Imran Khan government too had expressed its intent to reform the madressah education system by, inter alia, registering all the madressahs. However, according to Pak media reports, the reform programme of the current government has been as ineffective as the earlier such programmes and only around three hundred of the thirty thousand or so madressahs  have applied for registration.

Pakistan-US

Speaking on US-Pakistan relations at the webinar of a US think tank, Special Assistant to the Pak Prime Minister on National Security, Dr. Moeed Yusuf said that Pakistan wishes to pursue a bilateral relationship with the US that is not hyphenated or clouded by US interests in other regional countries, but is based on mutual understanding. He regretted that in the past, Pakistan was seen through the Afghanistan prism and hoped that the Biden administration would look beyond the Obama era conversation to build a wider relationship with Pakistan. He claimed that Pakistan had evolved and wanted to become a geo-economic melting pot that provides the world with economic bases and not military bases. He added that Pakistan was focussed on connectivity and CPEC was an obvious example of it. Pakistan desired peace and stability in Afghanistan for westward connectivity. However, even while talking of a lofty vision, Dr. Yusuf could not resist India baiting, accusing India of being intolerant, with serious internal tensions and human rights concerns. To those familiar with Pakistan’s history, Dr. Yusuf’s words were no more than an old wine in a new bottle. There is no reason to believe that Pakistan will shift its focus from appraising its prime geographic location in military terms, acting as a rentier state, rather than in economic terms as a trade and transit link. Shorn of its clearly overblown economic logic, the CPEC too falls within this framework. Back in the nineties too, the Pakistanis had justified their intervention in Afghanistan and promotion of the Taliban in terms of developing trade linkages through Afghanistan with Central Asia. However, their real aim, which remains unchanged,  was to have a pliable government in Kabul and strategic depth in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s transactional relationship with the US is not likely to shift from Afghanistan in the foreseeable future, regardless of the change in the US administration. Any other elements of the relationship will revolve around this primary focus.

In a rather untimely decision for the Pak government’s aspiration to build a broader relationship with the Biden administration, the Pak Supreme Court upheld the judgment of the Sindh High Court, delivered last year,  ordering immediate release of Omar Saeed Sheikh, accused of killing the American journalist Daniel Pearl. In a strong statement, his first concerning Pakistan after taking over as Secretary of State, Antony Blinken said that he was deeply concerned by the Pak Supreme Court decision and any proposed action to release Sheikh and his co-accused, which he described as an affront to terrorism victims everywhere. He added that the American authorities were prepared to prosecute Sheikh in the US for his horrific crime against an American citizen. He also spoke to Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi. While the Pakistanis tried to assign a broader scope to the phone conversation, Blinken in his tweet on the call focused on the Daniel Pearl case, saying he had spoken to Qureshi on ensuring accountability for convicted terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh and others. He added that the two interlocutors also underscored the importance of continued US-Pakistan cooperation in supporting regional stability. The government of Sindh filed a review petition against the Supreme Court decision, which was supported by the federal government. The Court did not reverse its earlier decision, but asked the authorities to shift Sheikh from prison to a rest house where he would stay under supervision of the security agencies. The Pakistanis cannot afford to annoy the new US administration on the issue. On the other hand, they will have to contend with the reaction of religious extremists in the event of Sheikh being handed over to the US authorities. All in all, tough negotiations lie ahead on the issue between the two countries.

III Developments in Afghanistan

Peace and Reconciliation

With the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad continuing his regional diplomacy on behalf of the outgoing Trump administration (he has been asked to stay on by the Biden administration also), intra-Afghan talks in Doha that had been paused in mid-December, resumed in early January, but fizzled out within a few days without taking any decision on the agenda of talks. The lack of progress was not surprising in the light of both sides awaiting a word from the incoming Biden administration regarding their stand on implementation of the US-Taliban peace deal signed under Trump. Some media reports suggested that lack of progress in the talks was also because the Taliban had demanded the release of seven thousand  prisoners in addition to the five thousand released earlier by the Afghan government, removal of some members of the group from the UN blacklist and the establishment of an Islamic system to help expedite the peace process. A senior aide of President Ghani ruled out release of any more prisoners, alleging that those released earlier had added to violence. Head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah said that further release of prisoners and removal of names of the Taliban from the UN blacklist would take place after the Taliban agree to peace.  

In his Senate confirmation hearing, Antony Blinken said that the new administration would want an end to the so-called forever war in Afghanistan and bring back the US forces home, while retaining some capacity to deal with any resurgence of terrorism. He added that the incoming administration would thoroughly assess the US-Taliban peace agreement and seek to preserve the gains that have been made in terms of rights of girls and women in the last twenty years. Subsequently, the incoming US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan too told his Afghan counterpart in a phone conversation that the US would review the peace agreement and assess whether the Taliban were living up to their commitments to cut ties with terrorist groups, reduce violence in Afghanistan and to engage in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government and other stakeholders. He underscored that the US would support the peace process with a robust regional diplomatic effort to help the two sides achieve a durable and just political settlement and permanent ceasefire. Secretary Blinken conveyed a similar message to President Ashraf Ghani later on and committed to consultations with the government of Afghanistan, NATO allies and international partners regarding a collective strategy to support a stable, sovereign, democratic and secure future for Afghanistan. However, at the same time, the new administration also made it known that it was not abandoning the basic framework of negotiations drawn up by the previous administration. Jake Sullivan told a think tank meeting that the Biden administration supported what the previous administration had done in terms of setting up and supporting negotiations between the stakeholders in Afghanistan towards a just and durable settlement. In a separate statement, the Pentagon said that the Taliban had not met their commitments to the US and without their doing so by renouncing terrorism and stopping violent attacks on the Afghan forces and the Afghan people, it was very hard to see a specific way forward for a negotiated settlement. The statement added that any decision of force levels in Afghanistan would be driven by the US security requirements. The above initial statements from the Biden administration are encouraging and indicate that the new administration might not be as accommodating towards the Taliban as the Trump administration that was in a hurry to withdraw US troops. It is also expected that the Biden administration might not stick to the US-Taliban peace deal deadline of withdrawing all US forces from Afghanistan by May this year. In any case, implementation of the peace deal is running behind schedule. However, these are early days. Having managed to bring Americans to the negotiations table, the Taliban and their backers in Islamabad are not going to give up their core agenda of dominance in Afghanistan. Only time will tell how firm the Biden administration remains with them.

In the midst of the pause in the peace process following the change of the US administration, reports of a proposed interim set up in Afghanistan continued to circulate. According to media reports, during his visit to Kabul in early January, Zalmay Khalilzad discussed three options with Afghan politicians: inclusion of the Taliban in the present government, inclusion of elements of the present set up in the structure of a Taliban led government and the establishment of an interim and inclusive government. President Ashraf Ghani, who has opposed the idea of an interim government in the past and did not meet Khalilzad, said that the Afghan people did not support the dissolution of democracy and his main duty would be to peacefully transfer power to his successor on completion of his tenure according to the law.

Even as the peace talks were on hold, the Taliban visited some regional countries to use their leverage on the Biden administration to push for implementation of the US-Taliban agreement, as the Taliban leader Abbas Stanekzai put it during a visit to Moscow. He also described the Ashraf Ghani government as the only hurdle for peace. Another Taliban leader, Mullah Baradar was hosted by Iran.

Afghanistan-India

In the face of continuing uncertainty concerning Afghanistan’s future, the Indian NSA Ajit Doval paid a visit to Kabul in January and held meetings, besides his counterpart, with President Ashraf Ghani, former President Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah and First Vice President Amrullah Saleh. According to a statement issued by the Presidential palace in Kabul, the two sides discussed cooperation in countering terrorism and strengthening regional consensus on the Afghan peace process. It added that President Ghani told the Indian NSA that the Afghan security forces are the righteous pillar of Afghanistan’s stability and are fighting in the front lines against regional and global terrorism. Tweeting about his meeting with Doval, Amrullah Saleh said: “We discussed the enemy. It was an in-depth discussion.” Earlier, the Afghan Foreign Minister had a phone conversation with his Indian counterpart to discuss the Afghan peace process.

Afghanistan-Pakistan

In spite of Pakistan’s repeated assertion of its support to the Afghan peace  process, a war of words between the two countries on the use of each country’s territory for terrorism against the other continued. In a statement in the beginning of January, the Pak Foreign Office called upon the Afghan government to take immediate action against terrorists finding sanctuaries in Afghanistan to target Pakistani security forces. The statement followed killing of six Pak Frontier Corps soldiers in the Mohmand district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, close to the Afghan border. Later in the month, the Afghan Foreign Ministry called upon Pakistan and other countries with a stake in Afghanistan’s future to put pressure on the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire. Earlier, President Ghani had said that  Kabul-Islamabad ties remained weak and the Taliban should cut their ties with Pakistan.

Pakistani continued its outreach to various political figures in Afghanistan. The Afghan Shia leader and head of Hizb-e-Wahadat-e-Islami, Mohammad Karim Khalili, visited Islamabad in January.

Pakistan began work on the Torkham-Nowshera segment of the 1270 km CASA-1000 transmission line that is expected to bring power generated in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan. CASA 1000 project is being financed by the Islamic Development Bank, European Investment Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Britain’s Department for International Development and USAID.

Afghanistan-China

According to media reports, ten Chinese nationals, who were arrested in Afghanistan in December on spying charges, were sent back to their country in January. Reuters quoted Ahmad Zia Saraj, the head of the National Directorate of Security (NDS) as telling the Afghan Parliament  that the persons in question had been arrested, but he could not give any further details because of the sensitivity of the case. Some reports maintained that the arrested persons were involved in keeping an eye on the activities of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM). The spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, however, claimed that China was unaware of the reported deportation of Chinese nationals from Afghanistan on spying charges.


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(The views expressed are personal)
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About the Author

Ambassador Sharat Sabharwal

Former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan and Distinguished Fellow, Ananta Centre

Mr Sharat Sabharwal joined the Indian Foreign Service in 1975. After serving in various positions in the Permanent Mission of India to the UN in Geneva and the Indian Missions in Madagascar, France and Mauritius, he was Director/Joint Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs in New Delhi from 1990 to 1995. The positions held by him subsequently have been Deputy High Commissioner of India in Pakistan (1995-99), Deputy Permanent Representative of India to the UN in Geneva (1999-2002), Ambassador of India to Uzbekistan (2002-2005) and Additional Secretary/Special Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs (September 2005-March 2009).

Mr. Sabharwal was High Commissioner of India to Pakistan from April 2009 to June 2013.

He was appointed Central Information Commissioner in November, 2013 and served in this position till September, 2017.
Mr. Sabharwal has been Deputy leader/member of the Indian delegations to the UN General Assembly, the erstwhile UN Commission on Human Rights, International Labour Conference and World Health Assembly. He was also the Deputy Leader of the Indian delegation to the International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent held in Geneva in October 1999 and member of the Indian delegation to the World Conference against Racism, held in Durban in September 2001.

Mr. Sabharwal holds a post graduate degree in Political Science. He speaks English and French besides Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi.

Mr. Sabharwal has been an author at the Indian Express, The Hindu, India Today, The Tribune and The Wire.