I Overview

Pakistan:

• Opposition Parties
• Pakistan-India
• Pakistan-China

Afghanistan:

• Peace and Reconciliation
• Afghanistan-Pakistan

II Developments in Pakistan

Opposition Parties

In November 2019, Nawaz Sharif, who had remained incarcerated on corruption charges since December 2018, was allowed to leave Pakistan for medical treatment in London by the PTI government based on an order of the Lahore High Court. Though the initial court permission was for four weeks, extendable on medical advice, he has not returned to Pakistan on the ground that his treatment is not complete. The permission to him to go abroad was seen as part of a deal between the PML(N) leadership and the army. The impression of a deal was confirmed by the silence of Nawaz and his daughter Maryam on political issues after their release from jail and the support extended subsequently by PML(N) for passage of a legislation in Parliament enabling extension in service of the army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, which had run into problems in the Supreme Court because of absence of a law for giving such extensions. PPP leaders also got some relief from the accountability process in return for similar support in Parliament. However, the truce seems to have come unstuck as the accountability process against opposition leaders has picked up again. An accountability court has declared Nawaz a proclaimed offender. At the beginning of September, the leadership of PPP and PML(N) decided to join hands to resist the accountability process and the arrest of their leaders. Around the same time, reports emerged concerning the family of Asim Saleem Bajwa, a retired Lt. General, holding duel charge as head of the CPEC Authority and Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Information, having amassed enormous wealth from a business. He resigned from the latter post, but PM Imran Khan declined to accept the resignation. He has now become the focus of those, including PML (N), who attack the army and its lack of accountability.

The opposition parties held a PPP hosted multiparty conference on September 20. Besides the two principal opposition parties- PPP and PML (N)- it was attended by ANP, JUI(F), Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party and some other smaller parties.  Speaking at the conference, Nawaz Sharif mounted a scathing attack on the army. He said that the opposition struggle was not against Prime Minister Imran Khan but those who brought him into power through the rigged 2018 election - a veiled reference to the army. He spoke of the all-round poor performance of the Imran Khan government and gave a call for its ouster. He referred to the army as ‘a state above the state’, adding that it should stay away from the governmental system in keeping with the constitution. He accused the National Accountability Bureau of conducting selective accountability and referred to the treason case against Musharraf that was sabotaged. It seems that completely cornered by the relentless pursuit of alleged corruption cases against him and his family by the government, Nawaz has decided not to pull  punches any more. Former President Zardari criticised the government for suppressing the opposition and media. JUI (F) chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman called upon opposition members to resign from legislatures. The general refrain at the conference was for restoration of democracy in the country.

The opposition conclave decided to form an alliance called Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), demanded resignation of PM Imran Khan and announced launching of an anti-government movement, starting from October with countrywide public meetings, protest demonstrations and rallies in December and a long march towards Islamabad in January 2021. They also decided to use all political and democratic options, including no-confidence motions and en mass resignation from Parliament to seek “the selected prime minister’s resignation and an end to the role of the establishment in politics.” The reference was to Imran Khan and the army. The 26 point declaration issued by the conference demanded, inter alia, an end of establishment’s (army’s) interference in politics, free and fair elections after election reforms, with no role of armed forces and intelligence agencies, release of political prisoners, withdrawal of cases against journalists, across the board accountability and speeding up of projects under CPEC. The conference also passed a resolution demanding sacking of Asim Saleem Bajwa and a transparent investigation into the allegations against him. It was subsequently decided to make Fazlur Rehman the head of PDM.

The government counter-attacked with allegations against the leaders of  opposition parties. Imran Khan dragged India into the controversy by alleging that it was helping Nawaz Sharif in weakening the Pakistan army. It was revealed by the media that speaking to a meeting convened to discuss conferring of the status of a province on Gilgit-Baltistan a few days before the opposition conclave, the army chief had asked leaders of opposition parties not to involve the army in politics. There were selective leaks from army sources regarding the secret meetings of political leaders with senior army officers.

The government also intensified persecution of prominent opposition leaders. PML (N) President Shehbaz Sharif was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau and non-bailable warrants were issued against his wife and daughter. Asif Ali Zardari and his sister were indicted in a money laundering case.

While the opposition parties have come together to fight the collective persecution of their leaders by the government, their unity cannot be taken for granted  and the effectiveness of PDM will be known only in coming months. The opposition parties that are completely out of power may not be averse to going all out to create political turmoil. However, PPP has a government in Sindh and may not like to lose it by getting into big trouble with the army.

Pakistan-India

Pakistan’s India obsession was visible yet again in its pronouncements at the UN General Assembly session. Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told the Assembly that UN was now derided across the world as a “talk shop”, which could not implement its own resolutions. He described Jammu and Kashmir and Palestine “disputes” as the organisation’s most glaring and long-standing failures. In his virtual address to the Assembly, PM Imran Khan demanded justice for Kashmiris and the Palestinians and warned against increased threat of nuclear war. He alleged “state sponsored Islamophobia in India”. Describing Kashmir as a nuclear flash point, he said that there would be no durable peace and stability in South Asia until “the Jammu and Kashmir dispute is resolved” on the basis of international legitimacy. He called upon India to rescind the measures taken by it since August 5, 2019 and agree “to resolve the Jammu and Kashmir dispute in accordance with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions and, of course, the wishes of the people of Kashmir.” Exercising its right of reply, India called Imran Khan’s speech as “an incessant rant,” adding that he had no reasonable suggestions to offer to the world and his words demeaned the very essence of the UN.

The “Minister of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan Affairs” in the Imran Khan government said that the government had decided to elevate Gilgit-Baltistan to the status of a full-fledged province with all constitutional rights, including its representation in Parliament. He added that the government had consulted all stakeholders. Media reports stated that the army chief had also met some opposition leaders on this issue and all parties had agreed to the above change, with the opposition insisting that it should be brought about only after the elections to the Gilgit-Baltistan assembly due in November so that Imran Khan’s PTI could not take electoral advantage of it. It was reported that the provincial status to be given to Gilgit-Baltistan would be described as provisional in keeping with Pakistan’s position that the status of the entire territory of the state of Jammu and Kashmir is to be decided in keeping with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions. India strongly opposed the above move, saying that it would have “no legal basis whatsoever” since the region has been militarily occupied. India described the elections to be conducted to the Gilgit-Baltistan assembly in November as a “cosmetic exercise” intended to camouflage Pakistan’s illegal occupation of the region. Indian NSA walked out of a virtual meeting of National Security Advisers of SCO member countries in protest against the Pakistani representative projecting a map that inaccurately depicted the borders of the two countries.

The government told Parliament in September that there had been 3186 ceasefire violations by Pakistan along the LoC during the first eight months of 2020. In addition, there were over two hundred incidents of firing across the international border in the Jammu sector. This was reported to be the highest number in a year since the ceasefire of 2003. Pakistan summoned an Indian diplomat in Islamabad to protest alleged ceasefire violations by India. Speaking to a private TV channel, the spokesman of the Pak army alleged that India was using all kind of weapons, ranging from sniper fire, normal artillery ammunition to air-burst and smart ammunition. He described it as a “massive escalation”.

A three member bench of the Islamabad High Court constituted to review the conviction of the Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav by a military court, in keeping with the decision of the International Court of Justice, was told by the Pak government at the beginning of September that both the government of India and Jadhav had been informed again about appointment of a defence counsel, but had not done so. The court adjourned the matter to October. In view of the lingering case, Pakistan extended the tenure of the ordinance providing for a review of Jadhav’s conviction by four months. It would be recalled that India has referred to the sham nature of the review offered by Pakistan by not providing unfettered consular access to Jadhav, not disclosing any details of the conviction or providing any case documents to India.

Pakistan-China

Pak media reports quoted the Chinese Ambassador to Pakistan  as saying that visit of President Xi Jinping to Pakistan, in response to the invitation extended to him by PM Imran Khan during his visit to China, had not taken place due to the Coronavirus pandemic and the two governments were working to finalise its dates. Some reports at the beginning of the year had indicated that the Chinese President was likely to visit Pakistan in May or June.

Participating in a virtual meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum, Foreign Minister Qureshi supported China on resumption of Code of Conduct negotiations on South China Sea and said that the concerned parties may find a solution through consensus.

In its 2020 report to the Congress on “Military and Security Developments”, The US Department of Defence stated that Pakistan is among the countries where China has likely considered locations for military logistics facilities. The report further stated that China’s Strategic Support Force (SSF) runs tracking, telemetry and command stations in Namibia, Pakistan and Argentina.

III Developments in Afghanistan

Peace and Reconciliation

Following the clearance given by a Loya Jirga held in August to release four hundred Taliban prisoners, accused of serious crimes, to pave the way for intra-Afghan negotiations, the Afghan government released most of the prisoners in spite of objections of France and Australia to the release of some of them who were involved in killing their citizens. Six of the prisoners with particularly serious charges against them were transferred to Qatar. Finally, peace talks between delegations representing the Taliban and the Afghan government started in Doha on September 12, with representatives of many countries and international organisations either attending the opening ceremony or speaking virtually at it. India was represented at the ceremony by a senior official of the Ministry of External Affairs, while External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar spoke at the ceremony virtually from New Delhi. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended the ceremony in person.

Head of the Afghan High Council of National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, said in his opening remarks that the Afghan people want a constitutional system and stability because they have suffered so much in the past due to lack of a system. He emphasised that he and his delegation had come to Doha on behalf of a political system which has the support of millions of men and women of the country and represents the cultural, social and ethnic diversity of Afghanistan. He added that there have been tremendous changes in the lives of the Afghan people over the years and a return to the past will not be acceptable to them. Speaking for the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar assured the gathering of  all efforts on their part to achieve positive results in the talks. In his remarks, Secretary Pompeo welcomed the Taliban commitment not to host international terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, nor to allow them to use the Afghan territory to train, recruit or fundraise. He urged the two delegations to engage the representatives of all Afghan communities- including women, ethnic and religious minorities and the victims of Afghanistan’s long war and produce a political arrangement that accommodates competing views and rejects the use of violence to achieve political aims. Pak Foreign Minister Qureshi claimed credit for his country for having facilitated the process that led to the US-Taliban peace agreement and the Doha talks.

In his address, External Affairs Minister Jaishankar spoke of India’s strong and unshaken friendship with Afghanistan and  expressed the expectation that the soil of Afghanistan would never be used for any anti-India activities. He reiterated that the peace process should be Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled and should promote the values of human rights and democracy that can foster development. The interests of women, minorities and vulnerable must be ensured. The peace process must respect sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan. The Minister also spoke of India’s development assistance that has not left any part of Afghanistan untouched. The US Special Representative, Zalmay Khalilzad visited New Delhi for consultations soon after the commencement of Doha talks.

Violence in Afghanistan picked up after commencement of talks at Doha. At least 57 members of the Afghan security forces were killed and dozens injured in overnight clashes with the Taliban barely a week after the talks began in Doha. Violent clashes continued thereafter. A Taliban spokesman said that they would not agree to a ceasefire unless the main cause of the war in the country was discussed. He claimed that the Taliban had reduced the level of violence with the start of talks. He described end to the “invasion of Afghanistan” and establishment of a true Islamic system as the Taliban objectives. US Special Representative Khalilzad said that the Taliban would not accept a permanent ceasefire until there is a political settlement, adding that this was not unprecedented in similar conflicts elsewhere. He seemed to aim for reduction in violence.

Afghanistan’s First Vice President Amrullah Saleh said in the course of a TV interview in the beginning of September that despite withdrawal of US forces, the US will not leave Afghanistan because it has geostrategic interests in the area and the two countries need each other. He also referred to his meeting with the Pak army chief Bajwa and DG (ISI) during their recent visit to Kabul and added that they had clearly accepted that the Taliban had safe havens on their soil. According to him, the Pakistani visitors acknowledged that they were with the Taliban, but added that they had come to Kabul for peace. They were apprehensive that if the US was disgraced in Afghanistan, it would take revenge on Pakistan because it knows that Pakistanis are with the Taliban. Saleh said that Pakistan continued to be a problem. He described the Durand Line as a boundary imposed on a weak government and added that it needed to be negotiated. Saleh’s convoy was attacked in Kabul three days before commencement of Doha talks, but he escaped unhurt.

In spite of the opening ceremony of the intra-Afghan negotiations held on September 12, substantive talks failed to commence till the end of the month because of disagreement on some preliminary issues that continued to be discussed in contact groups. There was disagreement especially on three issues. The Taliban insisted on the war in Afghanistan being described as a jihad and that Hanafi jurisprudence should be the religious basis for decision making in the negotiations. The latter demand would leave out followers of the Shia sect in Afghanistan. Yet another demand of the Taliban was that their agreement with the US be the basis of intra-Afghan negotiations, perhaps to ensure that they would not be under an obligation to continue with intra-Afghan talks in case the above agreement was violated.

Afghanistan-Pakistan

In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, PM Imran Khan warned against “a hasty international withdrawal” from Afghanistan, stating that peace was within Afghanistan’s reach and all parties should seek to continue the process rather than abandon it. He claimed that next to the Afghan people, Pakistan had paid the highest price for the conflict in Afghanistan. He spoke of an Afghan owned and Afghan led peace process and added that peace and political stability in Afghanistan could not be imposed from outside through the use of force. He also warned the world of regional spoilers who are not invested in peace and see instability in Afghanistan as advantageous for their own geopolitical ends.

Head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah paid a three day visit to Pakistan at the end of September. According to details made public by Pakistan, Foreign Minister Qureshi, while extending Pakistan’s support for a peaceful, stable, united, sovereign and prosperous Afghanistan,  told the Afghan visitor that past history should not be repeated, nor should it dictate the future course of action. He also warned him against the detrimental role of spoilers within and outside Afghanistan. A spokesman of the Afghan High Council for National Reconciliation said that Afghanistan expects that all countries, including Pakistan would play a constructive role in the Afghan peace process to ensure its success. Speaking at a government think tank in Islamabad, Abdullah Abdullah said that Pakistan had played a critical role in facilitating the talks and had an even more important role to play in supporting the process to a successful end. PM Imran Khan assured Abdullah Abdullah of Pakistan’s support in whatever the Afghans agreed on and for the post-conflict reconstruction phase.
 


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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.