• Government’s hounding of opposition continues
• Army Chief’s tenure extended
• Pakistan’s troubles at FATF continue
• Peace and Reconciliation moves
• Uncertainty concerning the Presidential Election
II Developments in Pakistan
Government’s hounding of opposition continues
The Imran Khan government continued to target major opposition leaders through the accountability process. Releasing a secretly recorded video at a press conference, PML (N) leader Maryam Nawaz alleged that the accountability judge, who convicted and sentenced Nawaz Sharif to imprisonment, had admitted to an acquaintance that he had been blackmailed into giving the verdict. PML (N) leaders insinuated that the blackmailing had been done by the government along with the security establishment. In a well-attended public meeting in Punjab later on, Maryam called for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s resignation. Ruling subsequently on a clutch of petitions concerning the above video, the Supreme Court ordered disciplinary action against the accountability judge. However, the apex court did not give any relief to Nawaz Sharif, noting that the video might have relevance to his appeal pending in the Islamabad High Court against his conviction by the accountability court. In a separate move, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) started the process of freezing Shehbaz Sharif’s assets in connection with a corruption case against him. Former President Asaf Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister Shahid Khakan Abbassi remained under detention in connection with the corruption cases registered against them by NAB. In early August, Maryam Nawaz, who was out on bail granted by the Islamabad High Court pending consideration of her appeal against her conviction in a corruption case and was very vocal in criticizing the government, was placed under detention by NAB in connection with another accountability case. Media regulatory authorities targeted the media outlets giving publicity to the statements of prominent opposition leaders.
The much touted opposition unity against the government failed to take off. The very first opposition move to oust the pro-government Chairman of Senate failed because of fourteen senators from PPP and PML(N) failing to cast votes with their parties.
The IMF Executive Board approved the bailout package of $6 billion for Pakistan, on which a staff level agreement had been reached earlier. However, media reports pointed out that Pakistan’s net receipt under the package would amount to $1.65 billion only because while receiving $6 billion from IMF in the next three years, Pakistan is due to repay $4.355 billion in the next four years in respect of the funding received earlier. In a sign of increasing role of the army leadership in economic decision making, the army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, who was included by Prime Minister Imran Khan in the newly constituted National Development Council in June, defended the government’s tough economic measures as indispensable and essential to strengthen the economy in the long term. The statement seemed to be aimed at Imran Khan’s opponents, who see an opportunity in the discontent caused by the austerity measures to stir up trouble against him.
Army Chief’s tenure extended
Prime Minister Imran Khan extended the tenure of the army Chief Qamar Javed Bajwa by three years beyond the first tenure of three years, which he is due to complete in November this year. A notification on the above issued by the Prime Minister’s office added that the decision had been taken in view of the regional security environment. The decision was in keeping with the rumours circulating for some time that Bajwa was interested in an extension. Earlier in 2010, the former army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was also given extension for a full term of three years by the then PPP government. The reason then was the government’s desire to continue with a General with whom they had developed a working relationship rather than having to develop an equation with a new general all over again. That seems to be the motivation behind Imran Khan’s decision too. However, the latter part of Kayani’s tenure had proved to be devoid of energy and initiative.
Pakistan’s troubles at FATF continue
With the sword of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) blacklist hanging over its head, Pakistan continued to take reversible measures to create an impression of its seriousness to put an end to terror from its soil. In early July, the JuD head Hafiz Saeed and twelve other leaders of the terror outfit were booked for terror financing and money laundering. Later in the month, Hafiz Saeed was arrested by the Counter Terrorism Department. President Trump hailed his arrest, claiming that great pressure had been exerted (by the US) over the last two years “to find him.” However, there was no end to Pakistan’s troubles at the FATF. In an evaluation of its case in August, the Asia-Pacific Group (APG) of the FATF again identified deficiencies in Pakistan’s action against terror financing and money laundering. Out of 40 recommendations of the FATF, APG found Pakistan’s action as deficient in nearly two dozen cases. APG placed Pakistan in its enhanced follow up list and according to media reports, the Pakistani authorities will have to submit a new report to the APG on the implementation of its recommendations by February 2020. The above developments are likely to make it difficult for Pakistan to get out of the grey list, when the FATF takes up its case in October this year. It will have to avoid being placed on the FATF blacklist, as that would seriously jeopardise its ability to get financing from international lenders and could also derail the ongoing IMF bailout programme.
Faced with a precarious economic situation, FATF scrutiny and international opinion against its terror machine, Pakistan made some conciliatory gestures towards India in early July. Besides action against Hafiz Saeed, mentioned above, it showed greater flexibility during the second round of talks on the Kartarpur corridor held on July 14 and the two sides were reported to have reached an agreement on 80% of the issues. On July 16, it opened its airspace that had remained closed for flights to and from India since the Balakot strike.
On July 17, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) gave its ruling in the case filed by India against denial by Pakistan of consular access to the Indian national Kulbhushan Jadhav and the death sentence awarded to him by a military court. ICJ decided that Pakistan had breached its obligations under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR) by denying consular access to Jadhav. It directed Pakistan to provide, by means of its own choosing, effective review and reconsideration of the conviction and sentence of Jadhav, so as to ensure that full weight was given to the effect of violation of the aforementioned rights of consular access under the VCCR. ICJ also declared that a continued stay of execution constituted an indispensable condition for the effective review and reconsideration of the conviction and sentence of Jadhav. Pakistan stated that it would abide by the judgment of ICJ. However, for a long time, the two countries could not agree on the modalities of consular access. Eventually, it took place on September 2 in the presence of Pakistani officials and was recorded by the Pakistani authorities. In a subsequent press briefing, the Ministry of External Affairs stated that during the access, Jadhav appeared to be under extreme pressure to parrot a false narrative to bolster Pakistan’s untenable claims concerning him and a further view would be taken on receiving a detailed report from the Indian Mission in Islamabad, including to determine the extent of conformity of the access granted by Pakistan to the ICJ directives.
The apparent thaw resulting from Pakistan’s conciliatory gestures mentioned above evaporated when Pakistan reacted angrily to India’s decision to end the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and split the state into two union territories. A special report regarding Pakistan’s and international reaction to the move, manoeuvres at the United Nations (informal meeting of the UN Security Council) and India’s continued challenges concerning Kashmir was issued on August 21. Pakistan has persisted with inflammatory rhetoric against India and war mongering, including by Prime Minister Imran Khan, with emphasis on the nuclear dimension of any military conflict between the two countries, with a view to generate a sense of crisis and draw the attention of the international community. However, it has not achieved much success in this regard. Such criticism that came India’s way was focussed on the restrictions imposed in J&K following the above move. In an interview to BBC, Foreign Minister Qureshi said that Pakistan could talk to India if it lifts the “crippling curfew” imposed in Kashmir, “restores the rights of local residents, releases the entire imprisoned Kashmiri leadership” and allows him to meet them.
The above notwithstanding, Pakistan expressed its intent to go ahead with the Kartarpur corridor. Meetings on the subject between the two sides were held on August 30 and September 4. However, differences continued to persist on some issues.
Prime Minister Imran Khan, accompanied by the army chief Qamar Bajwa and DG, ISI paid a visit to the US from July 21 to 23. In a conciliatory gesture in early July, the US designated the Baluchistan Liberation Army (BLA), which has been attacking Pakistani and Chinese interests in Baluchistan, as a terrorist group. A senior US administration official stated on the eve of the visit that they wanted to send a message to Pakistan that “door is open” to repair relations and build an enduring partnership if Islamabad changes its policies about terrorists and militants. He added that President Trump was most interested in encouraging Pakistan’s assistance in the Afghanistan peace process. Ruling out resumption of suspended security assistance, the official said that the US administration would consider changing that suspension on certain items if Pakistan met their security concerns in Afghanistan and with regard to some externally focussed groups such as LeT and JeM. He stressed that the US would watch if Pakistan made some recent steps against terror groups irreversible and not just window dressing. In media comments after his meeting with Imran Khan, President Trump said that Pakistan was helping the US a lot on Afghanistan and relations between the two countries were much better than before. Alluding to the suspended security assistance, he added that all of that could come back depending upon what the two sides worked out. He also offered to mediate on Kashmir, claiming that he had been asked by Prime Minister Modi to do so. India denied this and emphasized bilateralism in addressing the issues between India and Pakistan. Imran Khan expressed the hope that Pakistan would be able to urge the Taliban to talk to the Afghan government and come to a political solution. Army Chief Bajwa had separate meetings with top military commanders at the Pentagon. Soon after Imran’s visit, the US approved $125 million for technical and logistical support for Pakistan’s F-16 aircraft. The American statement announcing the assistance said that the above support would protect US technology through the continued presence of US personnel “that provide 24/7 end user monitoring”.
In a tight rope walk, President Trump made some subsequent references to his willingness to assist India and Pakistan to resolve their issues. However, following his meeting with Prime Minister Modi in the margins of the G-7 summit at Biarritz (France), during which PM Modi stressed bilateralism to resolve Indo-Pak issues, Trump again alluded to his willingness to assist, but added that he believed that the two countries could resolve the Kashmir issue themselves.
III Developments in Afghanistan
Peace and Reconciliation moves
A meeting of US, Russian, Chinese and Pakistani representatives held in Beijing on July 10 and 11 urged immediate commencement of intra-Afghan dialogue among the Taliban, Afghan government and other Afghans. They asserted that peace negotiations should be Afghan led and Afghan owned. They called for a future inclusive political arrangement acceptable to all Afghans. They welcomed Pakistan to the consultations and noted that it could play an important role in facilitating Afghan peace.
The eighth round of US-Taliban talks commenced in Doha on August 3. A Taliban spokesman described it as long and useful. A statement of the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted reports of comprehensive progress in the talks and expressed the hope of reaching peace after intra-Afghan negotiations. The ninth round commenced on August 22. Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen stated that the two sides had agreed on a time frame for withdrawal of foreign forces and discussions were now focussed on its implementation mechanism. According to Pak media reports, the Taliban claimed on August 28 that they had concluded the talks with the Americans and 98% of issues had been resolved. They further claimed that the US had allowed them to use the title “Islamic State of Afghanistan”. They also stated that after signing the accord with the US, they would initiate talks with the Afghan political leadership, which could include people from the Afghan government, but participating in their personal capacity. Khalilzad said that the two sides were on the threshold of an agreement. In a separate statement to Fox News, President Trump said that he would reduce US troops from 14000 to 8600 and then make a determination “from there as to what happens.” He assured that the US would keep a presence in the country. Khalilzad later travelled to Kabul and briefed President Ghani on the draft deal arrived at with the Taliban. Reuters quoted him as saying that the US would withdraw almost 5000 troops from Afghanistan and close five bases within 135 days. In exchange for phased withdrawal, the Taliban would commit not to allow Afghanistan to be used by militant groups as a base for attacks. He declined to say how long the rest of the US troops would remain in Afghanistan after the first stage of phased withdrawal. He added that intra-Afghan talks, which might be held in Norway, would aim to reach a broader political settlement and end the fighting between the government and the Taliban. Even as Khalilzad continued to consult with Afghan political leaders and awaited a response from President Ghani, a Presidential spokesman said that the Afghan government was concerned about the consequences of the deal and wanted clarifications on its draft to study its consequences and prevent its risks.
Separately, an intra-Afghan dialogue, brokered by Qatar and Germany took place in Doha in the beginning of July. A 17 member group of the Taliban met a 60 strong Afghan delegation, which included some women and officials from the government participating in their personal capacity in view of the Taliban objection to talking to the Afghan government. The joint outcome of the meeting announced at its end was couched in generalities such as the warring parties shall “avoid threat, revenge and conflicting words and shall use soft words”, strong support to the ongoing US-Taliban talks, ensuring the safety of public institutions and reducing “civilian casualties to zero”, assuring women’s rights “within the framework of Islamic values”, institutionalization of Islamic system in the country and zero interference from neighbouring and regional countries in Afghan affairs. The outcome was silent on key issues such as a ceasefire and a future political set up. As stated above, Ghani has said that the next round of intra-Afghan dialogue might take place in Oslo, presumably after signing of the Taliban-US deal. Tolo news reported disagreements between Khalilzad and President Ghani on the draft agreement. It reported that Khalilzad wanted formation of an authorized and inclusive negotiating team for intra-Afghan negotiations, but without the President having the authority to reject its decisions. However, the President was reported to be insisting on a leadership role for the government in the negotiations. Tolo news further reported that the issue of terror hideouts and training camps in Pakistan had not been addressed in the draft deal. A Reuters report quoted a Taliban leader as saying that the Americans would not come to the assistance of the Afghan government and its forces after the deal was signed. Khalilzad, however, said that the Americans would defend Afghan forces after any agreement with the Taliban and Afghanistan’s future would be determined in intra-Afghan negotiations.
Even as the Taliban-US talks were ongoing, the Taliban stepped up violence, including major attacks against Kunduz city and Pul-e-Khumri city. As Khalilzad consulted with Afghan politicians on the draft Taliban-US deal, they perpetrated two major blasts in the Afghan capital, one of which killed an American soldier besides eleven others. Uncertainty surrounded the US-Taliban peace deal when President Trump revealed on Twitter that he had planned a secret meeting at Camp David with “major” Taliban leaders and the Afghan President on September 8, but called it off when the Taliban claimed the latest attack in Kabul. “If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” he added. However, given the US President’s oft repeated desire to pull out of Afghanistan and the expected electoral gains for him from such a move, we may not have seen the last of the lopsided Khalilzad-Taliban negotiations.
Uncertainty concerning the Presidential Election
An impending Taliban-US deal continued to cast shadow over the Afghan Presidential election due on September 28 and the election campaign remained lacklustre. The Taliban described the election as a sham and threatened to attack election rallies. Reports of the US-Taliban deal involving the setting up of an interim government raised the prospect of scrapping of the election. This impression was reinforced by the press reports that Khalilzad was pushing for intra-Afghan dialogue to settle a future political set up before the Presidential election. In early August, Haneef Atmar, former NSA and a Presidential candidate suspended his campaign in view of the evolving political situation in the country, though it was reported that divisions within this team had led to the suspension. Another Presidential candidate, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar said that the election might be postponed as peace with the Taliban and the Presidential election could not go together. Chief Executive, Abdullah Abdullah, who is also a Presidential candidate, said that he was willing to quit the election for the sake of peace.