• Religious Extremism
• Peace and Reconciliation
• COVID-19 Pandemic
II Developments in Pakistan
According to a report of IMF, Pakistan’s growth during the current financial year (July 2020 to June 2021) is expected to be 1% as against minus 0.4% during the last financial year. In the budget passed by Parliament in June this year, the government had projected growth of 2.1% for 2020-21, which was widely seen as overoptimistic. A debt bulletin issued by State Bank of Pakistan shows that since coming to power in 2018, the Imran Khan government has added 44% to Pakistan’s public debt. Over the last one year, the federal government’s long term debt went up substantially, while short term debt contracted. This was on account of government’s decision to convert its short term borrowing to long term debt to increase its maturity period. However, this has also increased the cost of debt servicing. Pakistan’s tax to GDP ratio dropped to 9.5% in the last financial year (2019-20) as against 9.9% in the preceding year. This was the second straight year of contraction of the tax to GDP ratio in spite of the reform programme initiated by the Imran Khan government to broaden tax base.
The UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the “heinous and cowardly” terrorist attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi on June 29. It underlined the need to bring perpetrators of acts of terrorism to justice and urged all states, in accordance with their obligations under international law and relevant security council resolutions, to cooperate actively with the government of Pakistan in this regard. The statement had been circulated to the Council members by China. It would be recalled that the terror attack had been claimed by the Balochistan Liberation Army, which has attacked Chinese targets in Pakistan earlier also. The 1267 committee of the UN Security Council designated the Tehrik-i-Taliban (TTP) leader Noor Wali Mehsud as a global terrorist. The move was welcomed by the US, which had domestically designated Noor Wali Mehsud as a terrorist in September 2019. TTP has been responsible for a series of terror attacks in Pakistan. Prime Minister’s adviser on Finance, Abdul Hafeez Sheikh said that Pakistan had already addressed 14 out of 27 recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and progress had been made in addressing the remaining 13. At the end of July, the Pak Parliament passed two bills to fulfil requirements of the FATF. The legislation would empower the federal government to direct authorities to implement various measures, such as freezing and seizure of assets, travel ban and arms embargo on entities and individuals, who are on the sanctions list of the UNSC.
An Ahmadi accused of blasphemy was shot at and killed in the Peshawar court complex, where his case was to be heard, by the person who had registered the blasphemy complaint against him. In a repeat of the aftermath of killing of the then Punjab governor Salman Taseer by his bodyguard in 2011, the killer in this case was widely lionised in the social media and by members of the community.
The construction of a Hindu temple in Islamabad ran into opposition by religious zealots. A video of youngsters from the neighbourhood pulling down a half-erected boundary wall of the under construction temple was widely circulated in the social media. Petitions against allotment of land for construction of the temple in 2017 and its proposed funding by the government were also filed in the Islamabad High Court. The court dismissed the petitions after the authorities contended that construction had been halted because no formal approval of the building plan had been obtained from the relevant authorities and the issue of funding by the government had been referred to the Council of Islamic Ideology for its opinion. However, the government also averred that subject to necessary approvals and the Hindu community funding the construction on its own, there was no bar on construction of a temple. Nonetheless the project continued to face opposition. Senior PML (N) leader Khawaja Asif, who criticised those opposing temple construction, came in for attacks by religious fanatics.
Pakistan’s high-pitched rhetoric against India continued in July.
Elections to the Legislative Assembly of the illegally occupied Gilgit-Baltistan, which were scheduled to be held on August 18, were postponed by the GB Election Commission on the plea that preparations for holding the polling in August were incomplete, adding that it needed to be delayed by at least two months so that appropriate arrangements could be made. However, independent observers were of the view that the delay was because PTI, the ruling party in Islamabad was not sure of a victory and needed some more time to engineer defection of electable candidates from other parties.
Pakistan took some steps in an attempt to implement the judgment of the International Court of Justice in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case. It was stated that the government had promulgated the International Court of Justice (Review and Reconsideration) Ordinance in May this year, providing that a foreign national – either on his own or through an authorized representative or a consular officer of his country – could approach a High Court for review and reconsideration of the decision of a military court. It further provided that the High Court would examine whether any prejudice had been caused to the foreign national in respect of his right of defence as a result of denial of consular access under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. The Pak authorities maintained that Jadhav had refused to file a plea before High Court and wanted his mercy petition before the army chief to be pursued. They also called upon India to file a plea on behalf of Jadhav. The Spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs said that Kulbhushan Jadhav had been coerced into refusing to file a plea in High Court and Pakistan was creating only an illusion of a remedy. He added that India had conveyed its serious concerns at the contents of the ordinance, had been denied unimpeded access to Jadhav and had repeatedly asked to be allowed to appoint a lawyer from outside Pakistan to appear for Jadhav. When the ordinance came for approval to the Parliament, opposition parties accused the government of enacting a ‘secret’ ordinance to save the life of “an Indian spy”. Pakistan claimed that it had provided “unimpeded and uninterrupted” consular access to Indian High Commission officials in mid-July, but the Indian officials left without hearing him. Foreign Minister Qureshi said that Pakistan was willing to provide another consular access without the presence of Pakistani security officials. India, however, stated that the meeting of Indian officials with Jadhav had been scuttled by Pakistan, they were not allowed to hand over documents to Jadhav and were not allowed to obtain a power of attorney from him. India further stated that a Pakistani lawyer appointed by it had been denied the relevant case documents. The Spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs said that in the light of these developments, India reserved its position in the matter which includes the right to avail further remedies and stood committed to protect the life of Jadhav. In a separate move, the Pakistani authorities moved the Islamabad High Court for appointment of a state counsel for Jadhav.
The Chinese and Pak Foreign Ministers had a phone conversation on July 3. According to a readout issued by the Pak Foreign Office, the Chinese FM briefed FM Qureshi about the regional situation, lauded Pakistan’s sincere efforts to promote peace and stability in the region and appreciated its support to China during difficult and challenging times. Both sides reaffirmed their resolve to support each other at multilateral institutions. Other points of note made in the readout were: Pakistan underscored the need to resolve regional disputes through peaceful means and agreed mechanisms rather than resorting to “unilateral, illegal and coercive measures” reflected in India’s decision of 5th August 2019, the Chinese FM said that the second phase of CPEC would complement Pakistan’s efforts aimed at job creation, enhancing agricultural productivity, reducing poverty and economic recovery, determination of the two sides to promote peace and development in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s firm support to ‘one-China policy’ and to China’s core interests including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang.
PM Imran Khan vowed to complete the CPEC project at any cost and described the Gwadar port as a guarantor of future development and prosperity. Asim Bajwa, the retired Lt. General, who heads the CPEC authority said that Pakistan’s civil and military authorities were on the same page concerning the project.
In an outreach to Bangladesh, PM Imran Khan had a phone conversation with PM Sheikh Hasina on July 22. According to a Radio Pakistan report, besides discussing the Coronavirus pandemic, Imran Khan commiserated with the Bangladesh PM on human and material loss due to recent floods in her country and apprised her of his global Initiative on debt relief for developing countries. The report added that the Pak PM also shared Pakistan’s perspective on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and highlighted the importance of a peaceful resolution of the crisis, reaffirmed Pakistan’s commitment to SAARC and underlined the importance of both countries working for enhanced regional cooperation for sustainable peace and prosperity. He extended an invitation to Sheikh Hasina to visit Pakistan and told her that Pakistan wanted a relationship with Bangladesh based on trust, mutual respect and sovereignty. A Dhaka Tribune report, however, quoted the Press Secretary of the Bangladesh PM as saying that the two leaders exchanged pleasantries during the phone call and Imran Khan enquired after Sheikh Hasina’s health following her eye surgeries in May and July.
The relationship between the two countries has gone through a difficult phase over the last decade, particularly on the issue of war crime trials in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh had refused to accept the High Commissioner designated by Pakistan last year.
III Developments in Afghanistan
Peace and Reconciliation
Commencement of intra-Afghan negotiations envisaged in the US-Taliban deal remained blocked because of Afghan government’s reluctance to release around 400 Taliban prisoners on account of their having committed serious crimes. These prisoners form part of the list of five thousand given by the Taliban, whose release is a pre-condition to commencement of the negotiations as per the deal. There was speculation that the government might release an alternative set of Taliban prisoners to pave the way for the negotiations. The Taliban, however, continued to insist that the list of five thousand prisoners given by them originally was not open to change. Faced with an impasse and under US pressure to remove the hurdle for start of intra-Afghan negotiations, President Ghani said that he would convene a consultative Loya Jirga (grand assembly) to take a decision on release of the four hundred prisoners in question.
Security situation in Afghanistan remained precarious, with no let-up in the Taliban violence. Eight mortar rounds landed up in Logar city in the beginning of July as President Ghani made a visit to his home province and pledged improved security. Later in the month, the President said that since the signing of the US-Taliban deal on February 29, Afghan National Security and Defence Forces had lost 3560 soldiers to Taliban attacks and another 6781 had been wounded. The casualty figure for civilians was 775 killed and 1609 wounded. A report submitted to the UN Security Council by a UN monitoring team stated that Al Qaeda was covertly active in twelve Afghan provinces and Ayman al-Zawahiri remained based in the country. It added that the Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan was in touch with the Haqqani network. Some respite from violence came when the Taliban announced a three day ceasefire for Eid, a step welcomed by the Afghan government.
Following a virtual trilateral meeting of China, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the first two had urged the Taliban to reduce violence to pave the way for intra-Afghan dialogue. The Foreign Ministry statement added that China would continue to play a constructive role in improving Afghanistan-Pakistan relations.
President Ghani said that while it was the responsibility of his government to merge the Taliban into the Afghan political system, the final decision about peace would be taken by the people of Afghanistan. He had earlier ruled out the formation of an interim government following negotiations with the Taliban, thus making it clear that he expected the Taliban to merge with the existing power structure. Speaking at the end of the meeting titled ‘Strengthening Consensus for Peace’ attended by around twenty countries and international organisations, Abdullah Abdullah, head of the High Council for National Reconciliation said that there was need for negotiations in good faith, with flexibility and readiness to make compromises to achieve the higher shared objectives. He, however, added that compromises did not mean any damage to the achievements of the people of Afghanistan or to the universal values that they believe in. In his Eid message, the Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada said that the jihad of his movement was to establish a pure Islamic government in Afghanistan, but they were not looking for monopoly of power because all the Afghan tribes and ethnicities were in need of one another.
The Afghan Red Crescent Society said that Afghanistan faced a catastrophe as growing COVID-19 cases overstretched an already weak health infrastructure. It added that the real toll of the pandemic on the Afghan population remained underreported due to limited testing and weak health systems. World Bank approved a grant of $200 million to Afghanistan to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and provide relief to vulnerable people and businesses. The Bank painted a grim picture of the economic outlook, stating that Afghanistan’s economy was expected to contract between 5.5% to 7.4% in 2020, compared with growth of 2.9% in the previous year and 70% of the population was expected to slip below the poverty line.
Pakistan Foreign Office announced that Afghan exports to India through the Wagah border, in terms of the Pakistan-Afghanistan Transit and Trade Agreement (APTTA), would recommence on July 15. Exports through this route had been suspended in March this year after the COVID-19 outbreak. The Foreign Office statement added that with this step, Pakistan had restored the Afghan transit trade to the pre-COVID status.
According to the local Afghan officials in Kunar province, at least eight civilians were killed and eleven injured following mortar attacks by the Pakistani forces in mid-July on the Sarkano district in Kunar as well as the provincial capital, Asadabad. They added that Afghan military personnel were also killed in the attack and several Afghan check posts were destroyed. The mortar attack followed an attempt by the Pakistani forces to create a check post in Afghan territory – a move resisted by the Afghans. Members of the Afghan Parliament condemned the Pakistani shelling. Visiting the area later on, the Afghan National Security Adviser, Hamdullah Mohib said that the Pakistani attacks will not go without a response. He vowed to defend each inch of Afghan territory. At least 9 civilians were killed and 50 wounded in another Pakistani attack in Spin Boldak district of the Kandahar province at the end of July. The Afghan National Security Council said in a statement that the Afghan government would follow up the matter through relevant channels and take the required action. Pakistan said that its forces had opened firing in self-defence as some people had tried to cross the Chaman border forcibly and at the same time gunshots were fired from the Afghan side. Casualties were also reported on the Pakistani side.
Participating in the meeting on ‘Strengthening Consensus for Peace’, India expressed support for a constitutional order in Afghanistan, which would protect the interest of all sections of Afghan society, including women, children and minorities. India highlighted the fact that in order to achieve durable peace in Afghanistan, putting an end to terrorist sanctuaries and safe havens is an essential pre-requisite.
India and Afghanistan signed five MOUs for Indian assistance of $2.6 million for development of educational infrastructure in the Afghan provinces of Nuristan, Farah, Badakhshan and Kapisa. According to the statistics of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Investment, Afghanistan exported $460 million worth of products to India in 2019 and India remained one of the largest markets for Afghan exports. Officials of the chamber also said that Afghan exports to India had doubled since 2016.