• Pakistan Democratic Movement running out of steam?
• Peace and Reconciliation
II Developments in Pakistan
Pakistan Democratic Movement running out of steam?
Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of eleven opposition parties formed in September 2020 to, inter alia, press for the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan and an end to the role of army in politics, had put up an impressive show of strength through well-attended rallies in various cities of Pakistan in October and November and threatened to take a long march to Islamabad in January to secure the ouster of Imran Khan from power. However, it seemed to be running out of steam in December because of internal differences and no imminent threat to the survival of the Imran Khan government, which continued to enjoy support of the army. One of the steps to pressurise the government, spoken of in PDM circles, was mass resignation of members of the opposition parties from the national and provincial assemblies and obstruction of by-elections to the seats falling vacant. A prominent leader of Nawaz Sharif’s party – PML(N)- announced at the beginning of the month that all constituents of PDM had reached a consensus to resign from the national assembly in the first phase in an attempt to force a fresh election. However, he acknowledged that PPP, which is ruling in Sindh, had reservations regarding resigning from the provincial assemblies and, therefore, the plan to resign from these assemblies might not materialise immediately. According to subsequent reports, a proposal concerning members of assemblies from PDM parties to hand over their resignations to the PDM head, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, for future use by him also fell through due to opposition of PPP, which was not in favour of leaving the legislative space entirely to Imran Khan’s PTI. Instead it was decided that resignations would be submitted to the respective party heads for use by them as considered necessary. Some observers attributed PPP’s foot dragging to Asif Ali Zardari’s desire to use the pressure generated by PDM to get relief from the establishment for himself and his party colleagues in the corruption cases against them. Sounding a note of confidence, Prime Minister Imran Khan said that his government would proceed to hold by-elections in the event of the opposition members resigning their seats. He also brought in Sheikh Rasheed Ahmad, a maverick close to the army and hitherto in charge of the Railways, as his Interior Minister in anticipation of the PDM march on Islamabad.
In the above backdrop, the much touted rally of PDM at Lahore, Nawaz Sharif’s stronghold, on December 13 failed to have the desired impact. It was reported not to have attracted the attendance that PML(N)’s hold on the city would have warranted, inter alia, because of the cold weather and obstructions created by the government. All speakers threatened a long march on Islamabad, but without announcing a precise time frame for it. No announcement could be made about resignations from assemblies. It was only a day later that it was announced that if the government did not quit by January 31, a meeting of PDM leaders on February 1 would announce a long march and its date. Meanwhile, the establishment continued to work to weaken PDM. There was a split in Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s party – JUI (F)- with some dissidents forming their own faction.
In spite of the threats held out by PDM leaders to Imran Khan and the army, the future of PDM and its impact remains uncertain – a reminder that it is not easy to take on the army controlled establishment in Pakistan.
The Pakistani economy continued to show the signs of deep seated structural weaknesses and there was no indication of revival of the IMF programme that had been put in abeyance at the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic because of Pakistan’s inability to implement the IMF bailout conditionalities. With rapid growth in government expenditure in the first few months of the ongoing fiscal year (July 2020 to June 2021) and tardy growth of revenue collection, Pakistan’s fiscal deficit for 2020-21 was expected to exceed the budgeted target of 7.5% of GDP by a wide margin. The overall Balance of Payments position also worsened. Pakistan’s heavy dependence on external borrowing to meet its foreign debt repayment obligations and finance its budget, development activities and imports continued and with cheaper and softer bilateral and multilateral flows becoming scarce, the share of expensive foreign commercial debt kept rising. In November 2020 alone, Pakistan was forced to borrow $1.1 billion from commercial lenders. According to the annual report on Foreign Economic Assistance for the fiscal year 2019-20, released by the government in December, foreign commercial loans constituted 32% of the total external loan inflows of $10.7 billion.
Joe Biden’s victory in the US Presidential election evoked a series of comments in Pakistan regarding its impact on US-Pakistan relations. In the on and off transactional relationship between the two countries, President Trump had set in motion another transaction with Pakistan by seeking its assistance to cut a deal with the Afghan Taliban and pull out the US troops from Afghanistan. He did so by initially pressurising Pakistan through suspension of security assistance in January 2018, followed by a request for its assistance to bring the Taliban to the negotiations table. The potential reward for Pakistan was accommodation of the Taliban in the Afghan power structure, if not their complete dominance in the country at the end of the negotiations process. The expectation in Pakistan is that Biden, who as Obama’s Vice President had opposed troops surge in Afghanistan, will not scrap the US-Taliban deal, even though his administration may not be as accommodating towards the Taliban as the Trump administration that was in a hurry to secure return of the US troops in time for the November 2020 Presidential election. At the same time, there is also a hope that the Biden administration may go back to the policy of using civil and military assistance to retain influence in Pakistan and restore a broader relationship rather than one focused only on Afghanistan.
In the course of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, Biden’s pick for Defence Secretary, said that his understanding was that Pakistan had taken constructive steps to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process as well as steps against anti-India groups, such as LeT and JeM, although this progress was incomplete. He listed suspension of security assistance besides Afghanistan negotiations and the “dangerous escalation” with India following the Pulwama terrorist attack as the factors that might impact Pakistan’s cooperation. He said that if confirmed, he would press Pakistan to prevent its territory from being used as a sanctuary for militants and violent extremist organisations and added that continuing to build relationship with Pakistan’s military would provide openings for the US and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues. Austin mentioned the following priorities with Pakistan: training future military leaders through the International Military Education and Training (IMET) programme (the Trump administration too had restored IMET for Pakistan), an important role for Pakistan in any political settlement in Afghanistan and working with Pakistan to defeat Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K to enhance regional stability. Noting that Pakistan is an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan, he said that he would encourage a regional approach that garners support from neighbours like Pakistan, while also deterring regional actors from serving as spoilers to the Afghanistan peace process. Going by Austin’s testimony, Pakistan’s above mentioned expectations from the Biden administration may not be altogether misplaced.
US designated Pakistan, along with nine other countries including China and Iran, as countries of particular concern under its International Religious Freedom Act. The American statement accused these countries of engaging in or tolerating systematic and egregious violations of religious freedom. However, immediately thereafter, the Trump administration issued a Presidential waiver, exempting Pakistan from the sanctions that follow the designation of a country as violator of religious freedom. Pakistan rejected the designation as an arbitrary and selective assessment, completely against the ground realities. It also criticised omission of India from the list!
China and Pakistan continued with joint exercises to increase the inter-operability of their armed forces. A joint air exercise Shaheen-IX was conducted in December with participation of Chinese combat pilots, air defence controllers and technical ground crew. This was ninth in the series of air exercises that are conducted annually, alternating between the two countries.
China continued to help Pakistan to shore up its Balance of Payments position. It did so again in December to enable Pakistan to repay $2 billion out of a loan of $3 billion given by Saudi Arabia in late 2018 to boost Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves before it got an IMF bailout ($1 billion had been returned earlier at the Saudi request). According to Pak media reports, China rendered help by augmenting the size of its currency swap agreement with Pakistan by around $1.5 billion, bringing the total facility to $4.5 billion.
China denied the media reports that it had sought additional guarantees for sanctioning a loan of $6 billion for the Main Line-1 project under the CPEC for upgrading the over 1800 kms. rail line from Peshawar to Karachi due to Pakistan’s weakening financial position. The Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that the CPEC projects were on track despite the pandemic. The Chinese statement also reiterated their commitment to implement the consensus of leaders of the two countries on carrying forward the CPEC, giving priority to industry, agriculture, science and technology and livelihood.
In a reminder of the serious security threats that the Chinese projects continue to face in Pakistan, reports have emerged that a fence is being constructed through the Gwadar city to cordon off the areas in which the Chinese are working to protect them from violent attacks by Baloch nationalists, who are reported to have carried out at least five major attacks in the area in the last three years. The 24 kilometres fence will reportedly cut the city into two parts, dividing in the process even some small habitations. The project is reported to have caused resentment among the Baloch.
III Developments in Afghanistan
Peace and Reconciliation
The banality of the agreement on procedural issues, which was arrived at by the Taliban and the Afghan government delegation at Doha after over two and a half months of talks, was an indicator of the degree of bickering involved in the discussions and the pitfalls that would lie ahead as the negotiators moved to more serious issues such as the agenda of talks, a comprehensive ceasefire and future political set up etc. Thus, as per media reports, the procedural agreement provided that discussions between the two sides would be carried out on the basis of the US-Taliban peace deal, the Afghan people’s aspiration for peace, commitment by the two sides for durable peace and the demand of the UN for durable peace in Afghanistan. Some other procedural rules were: mutual respect during the negotiations, demonstrating patience during speeches by each side and keeping media away from the location of the talks etc. The Taliban insistence on Hanafi jurisprudence being the basis of decision making during the negotiations, which was one of the major sticking points, seems to have been left unresolved, except for the procedural agreement providing that disagreements from the Sharia perspective would be settled by the joint delegations of the two sides.
Following the agreement on procedural issues, discussions started on the agenda of talks in the first week of December, even as the level of violence perpetrated by the Taliban remained very high. A number of attacks have been claimed by the Islamic state, without any clarity about who is behind them. According to media reports, the two sides exchanged documents containing their suggestions for the talks agenda. A permanent and countrywide ceasefire, preservation of national sovereignty, protection of the Islamic Republic system, the constitution of Afghanistan, civil liberties as well as the national and defence institutions, prohibition of activity by foreign fighters in Afghanistan and eliminating interference of foreigners are the main demands of the government delegation. The Taliban demands for the agenda include an Islamic government structure, establishment of an Islamic council and ensuring women’s rights and the rights of all citizens based on Islamic principles. They maintain that the ceasefire will follow an agreement on the establishment of an Islamic system in the country. Clearly, the priorities of the two sides are quite different. Members of the Afghan government team were quoted as saying that the Taliban have not spelt out the details of the Islamic political system that they seek. After some infructuous meetings on the agenda, the talks were paused in mid-December till the first week of January. However, the expectation was that serious discussions would not begin till the incoming Biden administration spelt out its position on the Afghan peace process.
Even while facing a formidable adversary in the Taliban, the Afghan political structure continued to show signs of fissures within it. The first meeting of the High Council for National Reconciliation, constituted in August last year and headed by Abdullah Abdullah, took place in early December, but some prominent leaders, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar of Hizb-e-Islami, Salahuddin Rabbani of Jamiat-e-Islami party and Marshal Abdul Rashid Dostum did not participate. Former President Karzai said that the meeting could have been more complete by including other personalities who have contributed to peace. Further, after the talks in Doha were paused, President Ghani said that future intra-Afghan negotiations should take place in Afghanistan. Reacting to the above statement, Abdullah Abdullah said that the venue of talks should not cause any delays for the next round. It was reported later on that Ghani had agreed to have at least the next round of talks in Doha.
A Taliban delegation headed by Mullah Baradar visited Pakistan in mid-December at the invitation of the Pakistan government. Speaking to the delegation, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi called for reduction in violence, adding that this responsibility could not be placed only on the shoulders of the Taliban. The visit was described as part of Pakistan’s outreach to all Afghan stakeholders for bringing peace to Afghanistan. The Afghan Foreign Ministry said that it was taking place after consultation with the government of Afghanistan and as a result of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Kabul in November. However, Reuters reported that the visit was also meant to hold a meeting of the Taliban leadership and military commanders in Pakistan before the next round of talks in Doha. Reuters quoted unnamed Taliban sources as saying that their field commanders had started carrying out more attacks, posing problems for their Doha office, and this issue would be discussed with the commanders. Afghanistan’s Tolonews claimed, based on a video released on social media, that while visiting wounded Taliban fighters in Karachi, Mullah Baradar stated that they share details of the Doha negotiations with the Taliban Ulema council in Pakistan and receive their guidance for future action. The Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the presence of Taliban leaders and fighters in Pakistan was a clear violation of Afghanistan’s national sovereignty and called upon Pakistan to prevent the insurgents from using its territory.
Afghanistan and Iran opened their first shared railway network when an Iranian goods train with agricultural products came to the Afghan town of Rozanak from the Iranian city of Khaf, covering a distance of about 150 kms. It was stated that the network would be extended in future to Herat. The project was initiated in 2007, with Iran funding construction on both sides of the border. President Ghani described the event as an important step for economic revival and development in both countries. President Rouhani said that Iran had succeeded in building the rail line in spite of the US sanctions.