• Pashtun Tahafuz Movement
• COVID-19 crisis
• Power sharing agreement between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah
• Peace and Reconciliation
• COVID-19 crisis
II Developments in Pakistan
Addressing an online session of the World Economic Forum, PM Imran Khan called upon developed countries to provide debt relief to poorer countries struggling to cope with the disastrous impact of Coronavirus on their economies. He added that both Pakistan’s exports and remittances by Pakistani expatriates in gulf countries had fallen. Earlier in the month, Pakistan sent a formal request to G-20 countries for debt relief under the G-20 COVID-19 Debt Service Suspension Initiative and committed not to contract new non-concessional loans except those allowed under the IMF and World Bank guidelines. The debt relief quantum needed by Pakistan for the period May to December 2020 is reported to be $1.8 billion. The executive board of the World Bank approved a $500 million loan to Pakistan for improvement of health and education facilities, generate jobs for women and strengthen social safety nets to fight the COVID-19 pandemic impact. Prime Minister’s Adviser on Finance, Hafeez Sheikh said that due to falling revenue and mounting expenditure, Pakistan’s fiscal deficit, estimated at 7.6% prior to the Coronavirus crisis, was likely to touch 9% of GDP. He also said that instead of growing by 3% during the current financial year ending June 30, as expected before the pandemic, Pakistan’s GDP was likely to contract by 1 or 1.5%. He hoped for growth of 2% during the next financial year.
Moody’s placed Pakistan under watch for possible downgrade of its long-term local and foreign credit ratings due to apprehension of a default on its debt repayments to private sector creditors on account of negative impact of the Coronavirus pandemic on the economy.
Pashtun Tahafuz Movement
Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) leader Arif Wazir died as a result of injuries sustained during an attack on him. Commenting on his death, PTM leader Mohsin Dawar, who is also a member of National Assembly from North Waziristan, said that Arif had been killed by “good terrorists” and the struggle against their masters would continue. His hint was clearly towards Pakistan’s security establishment. PTM leaders and supporters claimed that Arif was the eighteenth member of his family killed by state-sponsored militants. PTM leader Manzoor Ahmad Pashteen alleged that members of the Punjab government had expressed their happiness at Arif’s death, adding that the Pashtuns would now have to “choose their way”.
In spite of the fast growing number of coronavirus cases, the Pakistan cabinet decided in early May to ease the lockdown restrictions in the country May 9 onwards, especially on business and industries, with a view to mitigate the widespread unemployment resulting from the lockdown. Sceptical about a draconian lockdown from the beginning, PM Imran Khan said that the nation would have to learn to live with the pandemic. He continued to face widespread criticism for the lackadaisical approach of his government in handling the crisis. At the end of May, Pakistan had over 71000 coronavirus cases and death toll of over 1500.
Pakistan continued with its high pitched rhetoric against India. Speaking at the virtual NAM summit convened by Azerbaijan, Pak President Arif Alvi raised Kashmir, alleging that the situation there had aggravated further as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and that moves were being made to alter the demography of Kashmir. He also alleged an alarming increase in religious intolerance, hate speech and Islamophobia in the world and, in a veiled reference to India, added that nowhere were these trends more pronounced than in Pakistan’s neighbourhood. He claimed that Pakistan had suffered cross LoC heavy shelling by Indian forces resulting in many civilian deaths. Speaking at the same summit, PM Modi said that even as the world was fighting COVID 19, some people were busy spreading some other viruses such as terrorism, fake news and doctored videos to divide communities and countries. External Affairs Minister Jaishankar made the same point at a virtual meeting of Foreign Ministers of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO). PM Imran Khan alleged repeatedly that India’s policies could jeopardise peace and security in South Asia.
The Pakistan Supreme Court directed the federal government to hold elections in “Gilgit Baltistan” on time under the supervision of an impartial caretaker set-up after completion of tenure of the government there in June, 2020. This would be in keeping with the practice in Pakistan to set up caretaker governments at the federal level and in provinces to conduct elections. It would be recalled that in the beginning of 2019, the Supreme Court had ruled that its powers extended to “Gilgit-Baltistan” also. India lodged a strong protest with Pakistan at their Supreme Court’s decision, reiterating that the entire Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, including the areas of Gilgit and Baltistan, are an integral part of India. Pakistan rejected the Indian protest and India’s “baseless and fallacious” claim about Gilgit Baltistan. Subsequently, the President of Pakistan issued an order for holding elections in “Gilgit-Baltistan” and setting up a caretaker government for the purpose. Separately, the Indian Meteorological Department started mentioning Gilgit-Baltistan and Muzaffarabad in its regional weather forecast bulletins as part of its Jammu and Kashmir Met Subdivision. Pakistan rejected this Indian move.
The Spokesperson of the Pak Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Pakistan had fully complied with the judgement of the ICJ in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case and remained committed to continuing to do so as the case proceeded further. She was commenting on the reported statement of Harish Salve, the India counsel in the Jadhav case that Pakistan had failed to comply with the ICJ ruling and India had to take a decision whether to approach the court again.
Pakistan rejected the new domicile rules announced by the Jammu and Kashmir administration, describing the move as “illegal and clear violation of the relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions, international law including the 4th Geneva Convention and bilateral agreements between Pakistan and India.” Pakistan alleged that India aimed to change the demography of Jammu and Kashmir.
India expelled two officials of the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi accusing them of espionage. The charge was rejected by Pakistan as “false and unsubstantiated.”
The Pakistan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association warned the government of Pakistan against banning raw material imports from India as it would weaken the country’s fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
The CPEC Authority Chairman, Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Asim Saleem Bajwa said that CPEC is Pakistan’s future and there would be no compromise on it. He added that the working plan of both the routes from Khunjerab to Gwadar had been completed and the remaining link routes would be added to it in the next few months. He further stated that the second phase of CPEC would place emphasis on agriculture, industry, trade and science and technology sectors.
Forty years after the project was originally conceived, Pakistan awarded the $5.8 billion contract for construction of the Diamer Bhasha dam, straddling ‘Gilgit Baltistan’ and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, on the Indus river to a joint venture between the Pak army controlled Frontier Works Organization (FWO) and China’s state-run Power China. The project is expected to be completed in 2028 and provide storage capacity of 8.1 million acre feet of water as well as produce 4500 MW electricity. This would be a significant addition to Pakistan’s water storage capacity, which is currently very low. According to media reports, bulk of funding for the project is likely to come from China in the form of commercial loans and thousands of workers may also come from China for construction of the dam. International lenders had shied away from financing the project because of India’s objection to its location in the Indian territory illegally occupied by Pakistan. Serious concerns have been expressed about location of the dam in an earthquake prone area. India objected to the award of the above contract, pointing out that its concerns have been conveyed consistently to both China and Pakistan on all such projects in the Indian territories under Pakistan’s illegal occupation. Commenting on the Indian objection, China said that its position on the issue of Kashmir was consistent and China-Pakistan conducted economic co-operation in order to promote the economic development and well-being of the local population.
III Developments in Afghanistan
Power sharing agreement between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah
The controversy surrounding the result of the Presidential election was resolved in May as a result of conclusion of a power sharing agreement between President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. The agreement provides, inter alia, for Abdullah Abdullah leading the newly established High Council for National Reconciliation with executive authority, his team getting 50% share in the Cabinet and provincial appointments and the rank of marshal for the former Vice President, Abdul Rashid Dostum.
Peace and Reconciliation
Implementation of the US-Taliban deal remained deadlocked at the beginning of May because of continuing differences over the number of prisoners to be released by the Afghan government and a sharp spike in violence by the Taliban. Reuters reported on the basis of data received from western military sources that attacks by the Taliban after conclusion of the deal (from March 1 to April 15) went up by more than 70% compared with the same period a year ago. A spokesman of the US forces in Afghanistan warned of retaliatory action in case violence did not go down. A terror attack against a Kabul maternity hospital located in a Shia dominated area came in for widespread condemnation. President Ghani said that he had ordered the Afghan forces to shift from “active defensive” to “offensive” mode. Significantly, the US Special Representative, Zalmay Khalilzad blamed the Islamic State (IS) for terror attacks in Afghanistan because of its opposition to the US-Taliban peace deal, betraying a tendency to overlook the Taliban role in heightened violence. Responding to a media query regarding terror attacks in Afghanistan, President Trump said that at some point, the Afghans would have to take care of their country and the US could not act as a police force indefinitely. He added that he wanted to bring the US troops back, but would closely watch the situation in Afghanistan and “strike with a thunder like never before”, if necessary. Pentagon said that drawdown of US troops was going forward and they expected to meet the timeline laid down under the agreement with the Taliban.
A respite in violence came when after a visit by Khalilzad to Kabul and Doha, the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire during Eid celebrations. President Ghani welcomed the announcement and ordered the Afghan forces also to observe the ceasefire. In his Eid message to the nation, he said that the government would speed up the release of Taliban prisoners and its negotiating team was ready to begin intra-Afghan negotiations. Skirmishes between the Taliban and Afghan security forces resumed after the three days period of ceasefire and the Taliban remained silent on the government appeals to extend the ceasefire. The Afghan government released 900 Taliban prisoners towards the end of May and a Taliban delegation arrived in Kabul to work with the government on further release of prisoners by both sides.
As part of his shuttle diplomacy, US Special Representative Khalilzad paid a visit to India in early May and met the External Affairs Minister and National Security Adviser. He expressed the US recognition of India’s constructive contribution in economic development, reconstruction and humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, adding that the US attached importance to India’s crucial and continuing role in sustainable peace, security and stability in Afghanistan. The Indian officials reiterated India’s continued support for strengthening peace, security, unity, democratic and inclusive polity in Afghanistan and protection of rights of all sections of the Afghan society. They expressed India’s deep concern at the upsurge in violence in Afghanistan and support to the calls for immediate ceasefire and the need to assist the Afghan people in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. They emphasized that putting an end to terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries was necessary for enduring and sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan. In an interview to an Indian newspaper, Khalilzad said that he had discussed how India could play a more active role in the Afghan reconciliation process. He also said that India should discuss its concerns on terrorism directly with the Taliban. Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, deputy head of the Taliban political office in Qatar told a website that India had over the years played a negative role and maintained economic and political ties with a “corrupt group instead of the nation” in Afghanistan. However, reacting to a statement, circulated on social media and attributed to Taliban spokespersons, that friendship between the Taliban and India was impossible unless the Kashmir issue was resolved, Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman denied that the statement was made by the Taliban, adding that the “policy of Islamic Emirate regarding neighbour states is very obvious that we don’t interfere in the domestic issues of other countries.”
Special envoys of Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan discussed the situation in Afghanistan and the ongoing peace process. In a joint statement, they welcomed the agreement between President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah and expressed the hope that it would expedite the start of intra-Afghan negotiations. They reiterated their respect for the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Afghanistan and the decision of its people on their future and development path. They added that inclusive intra-Afghan negotiations were the only way to realize Afghan national reconciliation, leading to prompt end of the prolonged conflict. They supported comprehensive and sustainable peace for Afghanistan “respecting the constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and the constitutional rights of women as well as ethnic and religious groups.” Other elements of their joint statement were: foreign troops should withdraw in an orderly and responsible way so that the situation in Afghanistan could experience a steady transition and an appeal to all sides in Afghanistan to take decisive action against Al Qaeda, Islamic state, ETIM, TTP and other international terrorist organizations operating against regional countries.
According to a report submitted by a UN monitoring team to the UN Security Council, the Taliban have not only retained their ties with Al Qaeda, but also assured them that these ties would remain unaffected by their deal with the US.
At the end of May, Afghanistan had over 15000 coronavirus cases and death toll of around 260. However, a Reuters report quoted Afghan officials as saying that fewer than one in ten of coronavirus test samples collected in Afghanistan were being processed and of these, more than 30% were testing positive, suggesting a high hidden number of infections. Deputy Health Minister, Feda Mohammad Paikan told Reuters that his ministry could process only 1300 to 1500 of around 20,000 samples collected every day.
The World Bank approved a $400 million grant to help Afghanistan sustain the pace of key economic and public finance reforms and manage current risks and uncertainties compounded by the COVID-19 crisis. ADB too approved a $40 million grant for Afghanistan to help increase the country’s capacity to manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pakistan government named Mohammad Sadiq, a former Ambassador to Kabul, as its Special Envoy for Afghanistan.
According to a Reuters report, two Afghan lawmakers investigating the deaths of Afghan migrant workers had come to the conclusion that 45 Afghan migrants trying to cross over into Iran had died on being forced by the Iranian border guards into a raging mountain torrent at gunpoint. The Afghan authorities said that they had recovered some bodies from the Harirud river, which forms much of the northern, mountainous section of Afghanistan’s border with Iran. The incident is reported to have taken place on May 1. The Iranians, however, denied the occurrence of any event of this kind on their soil. US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo called upon the Afghan government to open a full investigation into reports that Afghan migrants had been “abused, tortured and drowned” by Iranian border guards. The Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the matter would be pursued through diplomatic channels.
(The views expressed are personal)