• COVID-19 crisis
• Allegations of wrongdoing against leading PTI members
• Army tightens grip on Information Ministry
• US-Taliban deal
• Controversy surrounding the Presidential election
• COVID-19 crisis
• Arrest of “Islamic State” terrorist
• Continued violence
II Developments in Pakistan
According to a World Bank report, Pakistan will suffer a sharp economic recession and a steep increase in fiscal deficit as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The external sector position will also come under strain because of falling remittances from abroad, portfolio outflows and heavy debt repayment obligations. Pakistan could register a negative growth ranging between-1.3% to-2.2%. IMF too predicted contraction of Pakistan’s economy by 1.5% in the current fiscal year, with a possible recovery to 2% growth next year.
PM Imran Khan announced a stipend of Pak Rs. 12000 for each of the 12 million poor families to mitigate the impact of economic hardship resulting from the COVID-19 crisis. He also promised opening of the construction sector from mid-April to provide employment to daily-wagers. State Bank of Pakistan, which had cut its benchmark interest rate from 13.25% to 11% in March, reduced it by a further 200 basis points to 9% in April.
PM Imran Khan appealed to rich countries and heads of international financial institutions to give debt relief to countries like Pakistan. It was reported that Pakistan was seeking rollover of almost half of its $28 billion external debt due for repayment over the next three years. The government welcomed the subsequent decision of the G-20 countries to suspend repayments of principal and interest of external debt by over seventy developing countries, including Pakistan, for almost a year. IMF approved disbursement of $1.3 billion to Pakistan to deal with the COVID-19 economic shock. IMF also agreed to put on hold the ongoing $6 billion extended fund facility to Pakistan and revise it after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic in the light of the macroeconomic indicators prevailing at that time. The facility requiring economic austerity on the part of the Pakistan government had come under increasing criticism within the country as the economic costs imposed by the pandemic mounted.
Around 2200 at the end of March, the number of Coronavirus cases stood at 16,697 at the end of April, with the death count of 385. Government’s performance in dealing with the crisis came in for sharp criticism, including by the Supreme Court. Even though provinces had imposed a lockdown to contain the pandemic, PM Imran Khan continued to oppose complete lockdown, maintaining that it would adversely impact the labour class the most. He added that the agriculture sector needed to work fully and there was no lockdown in rural areas. The army spokesman too said that the country could not afford an indefinite lockdown. After his meeting with Chief Ministers in mid-April, Imran Khan announced that the lockdown in provinces would be extended by two weeks with opening of a number of sectors of economic activity. However, in a separate statement, he acknowledged that the government expected a spike in COVID-19 cases by the middle of May, which could bring the country’s healthcare system under considerable strain.
PM Imran Khan dialled President Trump to discuss the Coronavirus pandemic and thanked him for US help in IMF and other international financial institutions to create more fiscal space for Pakistan. He also underlined Pakistan’s support for a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and facilitation of the Afghan peace process. He called for early commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations.
In the beginning of April, the Sindh High Court overturned the conviction by a lower court of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh for the 2002 kidnapping and murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl. It found him guilty of only kidnapping and reduced the sentence from death to 7 years’ imprisonment. The High Court also acquitted three others, who were serving life sentence in the same case. The judgment paved the way for immediate release of Saeed Sheikh, who had already spent 18 years in prison. However, the Sindh police placed all four under detention for three months under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance on the ground that their release was likely to create a serious law and order situation. The US state Department condemned the above verdict, calling it “an affront to victims of terrorism everywhere.” Later in the month, the Sindh government challenged the High Court verdict in the Supreme Court.
In a relief to Pakistan, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) pushed back the review of Pakistan’s performance in combating money laundering and terror financing from June this year to October because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Allegations of wrongdoing against leading PTI members
The ruling PTI was in for embarrassment when an enquiry report revealed that two of its leading members- sugar barons Jahangir Tareen and the Minister for Food Security Khusro Bakhtiar- had exported sugar produced by their mills after obtaining a large subsidy from the government, at a time when sugarcane production was expected to be low, thereby earning undue profit and causing sugar scarcity in the market. PM Imran Khan, who ordered the report to be made public, shifted Khusro Bakhtiar from the Food Security portfolio. The incident also brought into sharp focus factionalism within the party. Jahangir Tareen, a large financier of Imran Khan’s election campaign, with close links to the security establishment, was widely seen as architect of the PTI victory in the 2018 election. He has had run-ins with other party stalwarts such as Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in the past. He alleged that he was being targeted from within the party, but pledged his continued support to Imran Khan.
Army tightens grip on Information Ministry
Under attack for the lacklustre performance of his government, PM Imran Khan appointed Senator Shibli Faraz, Leader of the House in the Senate, as Information Minister in an image refurbishing exercise. The portfolio had hitherto been under the charge of Dr. Firdous Ashiq Awan, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister, who was removed to be replaced, with the same designation, by Lt.-Gen (retd) Asim Saleem Bajwa, a former DG of the Inter Services Public Relations from 2012 to 2016 and the Chairman of the CPEC Authority since November 2019. With Bajwa’s appointment, it was clear that the army had tightened its grip on the information set up of the civilian government. It was equally clear in the light of the civil-military equation that Bajwa would be the real boss of the information ministry.
Pakistan continued its obstructionist attitude towards India’s initiative to promote cooperation among SAARC countries against COVID-19. After attending the meeting chaired by Prime Minister Modi in March at the level of Special Assistant to PM for Health and dragging its feet on making a contribution to the SAARC emergency fund to deal with the COVID-19 crisis, Pakistan stayed away from the regional trade officials’ video conference on COVID-19 hosted by India on April 9 on the ground that such activities could be effective only if spearheaded by the SAARC Secretariat. However, around the same time, it pledged $3 million to the SAARC emergency fund, while stating that all proceeds of the fund should be administered by the SAARC Secretariat and modalities for its utilization should be finalized through consultations with the member states as per the SAARC Charter. Indian media reports quoted government sources as saying that Pakistan was trying to score narrow political points by tying utilization of the emergency fund to the SAARC bureaucracy. India has maintained that the fund should be considered as a stand-alone emergency step and should remain outside the SAARC calendar of approved activities. Later in the month, Pakistan chaired a video conference of health ministers of SAARC countries, which was attended by an Indian delegation headed by the Director General of Health Services.
Pakistan continued its strident anti-India rhetoric. Foreign Minister Qureshi wrote to the OIC Secretary General and Foreign Ministers of OIC countries, complaining about “the rising wave of state-sanctioned hate crimes and Islamophobia in India”. India described such rhetoric from Pakistan as an attempt to shift focus from the abysmal handling of their own internal affairs.
Ceasefire violations by Pakistan continued along the LoC. The Indian army chief said that at a time when the world was fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, Pakistan continued to foment trouble for India.
III Developments in Afghanistan
Implementation of the US-Taliban deal continued to face hurdles. At the beginning of April, the Taliban accused the US of violating the deal by not ensuring release of the agreed number of prisoners, attacks on Taliban targets even in non-combat areas and airstrikes on “inappropriate” and civilian targets. While stating that they had reduced attacks in cities, they reserved their right to attack any outpost of the Afghan government until conclusion of a ceasefire following intra-Afghan negotiations. Later in the month, the Taliban office in Doha released a list of 50 US forces attacks against them, including 33 drone strikes, since the signing of the deal. A spokesman of the US army rejected the Taliban allegation and called upon them to reduce violence. Khalilzad and Gen. Austin Miller, commander of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, met a Taliban delegation led by Mullah Baradar in Doha in mid-April to resolve differences. However, in a sign of lingering problems, in early May, the spokesman of the US army called upon all sides to return to the political path. Addressing the Taliban, he said that if violence could not be reduced, there would be responses.
In early April, the Taliban announced that they were recalling their negotiators, who had arrived in Kabul in late March to discuss prisoners exchange, on account of intentional delays by the Afghan government. However, addressing a press conference, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that some progress had been made since his visit to Kabul in late March despite posturing by parties in the media. On April 8, the Afghan government released 100 Taliban prisoners “based on their health condition, age and length of remaining sentence”, indicating some movement on the prisoners exchange front. By early May, the Afghan government was reported to have freed around 550 Taliban prisoners and indicated its intention to release up to 1500 in all. The Taliban claimed to have released 112 prisoners in their custody. These numbers fell far short of the release of 5000 Taliban prisoners by the Afghan government and 1000 prisoners by the Taliban prior to commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations, mentioned in the US-Taliban deal.
The US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad had a telephonic conversation with the Indian External Affairs Minister in mid-April to exchange views on bringing lasting peace to Afghanistan.
Controversy surrounding the Presidential election
The the month of April despite mounting pressure by the US and other donors to resolve it. According to a report of NBC News, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, during his visit to Kabul in late March, told the feuding leaders to resolve their differences and reach an agreement with the Taliban, failing which President Trump could order the withdrawal of all American soldiers from the country and slash the US financial aid (it would be recalled that the Americans announced a reduction of their aid by $1 billion soon after conclusion of the above visit). In early April, President Ghani publicly proposed that the leadership of the peace council be taken over by Abdullah Abdullah with the protocol of Vice President. Abdullah Abdullah rejected the offer. However, in early May, both sides indicated that they were close to ending their feud. A spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah was quoted as saying that he would lead the high peace council and have a 50% share in government appointments. He further stated that a few more details needed to be sorted out. A spokesman of President Ghani also tweeted that progress had been made in the ongoing negotiations.
Afghanistan reported 2171 Coronavirus cases and 64 deaths at the end of April. A report of the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) stated that beset by a poor healthcare system, malnutrition, war and other vulnerabilities, Afghanistan was likely to face a health disaster due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The World Bank approved aid of $100.4 million for Afghanistan’s fight against the virus. A Chinese medical supply shipment arrived in Kabul in early April. The Indian Embassy in Kabul announced that 251 containers carrying the first consignment of 5022 MT of wheat out of a total gift of 75000 MT from India to Afghanistan had set sail from India for the Chabahar port. It was further announced that India was also gifting half a million tablets of Hydroxychloroquine to Afghanistan for health professionals and COVID-19 positive cases.
Arrest of “Islamic State” terrorist
Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) announced on April 4 that they had arrested a key member of “Islamic State” (IS) Khorasan branch, Abdullah Orakzai, also known as Aslam Farooqi, a Pakistani from the Orakzai agency, along with nineteen of his associates in Kandahar. The NDS also announced that after the killing of Abu Saeed Bajawari, Farooqi was appointed the shadow governor of IS in Afghanistan and enjoyed close relations with Pak based terror groups such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba. Pakistan made a formal request to Afghanistan to hand over Farooqi to them on the ground that he had been indulging in anti-Pakistan activities from Afghanistan. However, Afghanistan turned down the request and stated that since Farooqi was involved in the killing of hundreds of Afghans, he would be tried under the law of the country.
In a statement issued by Afghanistan’s Office of the National Security Council (ONSC), it was stated that the Taliban had conducted 2804 attacks from the beginning of March till April 19, resulting in around 800 civilian casualties. A Reuters report claimed that data obtained by them from a Western military source showed that attacks by the Taliban mounted by more than 70% between March 1 and April 15 compared to the same period a year ago. A Pentagon Spokesman stated in Washington that while the Taliban had adhered to a commitment in their deal with the US not to mount attacks on US-led coalition forces or major cities, their level of violence was unacceptably high and not conducive to a diplomatic solution. He added that the US forces had continued to do defensive attacks to help defend their partners in the area and would continue to do so. The Taliban rejected President Ghani’s call for a ceasefire during the Coronavirus pandemic.
On April 6, Pakistan temporarily opened the Torkham and Chaman border with Afghanistan, which had been closed in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis leading to a spike in the price of essential commodities in Afghanistan, for four days to facilitate return of Afghan citizens to their country. Bilateral trade between the two countries and NATO supplies remained suspended. However, subsequently, Pakistan decided to allow movement of cargo trucks and containers to cross over into Afghanistan thrice a week with effect from April 10. Pakistan said that this decision was based on a request received from Afghanistan and humanitarian considerations.
(The views expressed are personal)