• Status of “Gilgit-Baltistan”
• Blasphemy Law- acquittal upheld
• Proposed extension of term of military courts
• Pakistan at the Financial Action Task Force
• Indo-Pak relations
- Peace and Reconciliation
• Presidential election
• Results of Parliamentary election
• India and Afghanistan
II Developments in Pakistan
Supreme Court extends its jurisdiction to “Gilgit-Baltistan”
Delivering a judgment on January 17 on a set of petitions challenging the Gilgit-Baltistan Order, 2018 and Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment Order, 2009 and praying for the right of the citizens of the area to be governed through their chosen representatives, a seven member bench of the Supreme Court ruled that its powers extend to the so called ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’ (“GB”) also. The above impugned orders had been issued by the President of Pakistan, devolving certain powers upon the area. The Court approved the reforms draft proposed by the federal government, in which it stated that it intends to grant “GB” the status of a provisional province, “subject to the decision of the plebiscite to be conducted under the UN resolutions”, with all the privileges provided by the Constitution. The move, however, would require an amendment to the Constitution, which needs a two-thirds majority in the Parliament and would take time. Therefore, as an interim measure, the government proposed to give such fundamental rights to the “GB” residents as enjoyed by the people of any other province. While directing the government to issue the necessary order for the above purpose, the Court clarified that no changes would be made to the current status of “GB” and Kashmir and the constitutional status of these areas shall be determined “through a referendum”. It also observed that India and Pakistan are responsible for giving more rights to the areas under their control and “until the referendum happens, Pakistan is bound to give Gilgit-Baltistan as many rights as possible.” The people of “GB” will now be able the challenge the decisions of their appellate court in the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
The ruling led to a number of protests by the “GB” residents on January 20 in Skardu, Islamabad and Karachi. They called for internal autonomy and pledged to oppose any executive order issued to govern “GB”. Local leaders of “GB” accused Pakistan of depriving the people of “GB” of their rights. In Islamabad, a multi-party conference of the “GB” residents issued a joint declaration rejecting the Supreme Court ruling and expressing their intention to launch a joint movement to secure the rights of the people of “GB”. They demanded that the elected representatives be empowered to deal with all the subjects barring foreign affairs, currency and defence and a separate Supreme Court be set up in the area. A meeting held by the Gilgit-Baltistan Youth Alliance in Karachi demanded, inter alia, that the policy of bringing about demographic change in the region through influx of settlers from outside, particularly Punjab, be put an end to immediately. Clearly, the steps taken by the federal government fall far short of the aspirations of the people of “GB”. Raja Farooq Haider, the so called ‘Prime Minister’ of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir called upon the federal government not to implement the above Supreme Court order and empower the “GB” legislative assembly in all internal matters.
India lodged a protest against the above order of the Supreme Court of Pakistan and reiterated that “the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, which also includes the so-called ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’ has been, is and shall remain an integral part of India. Pakistan Government or judiciary have no locus standi on territory illegally and forcibly occupied by it. Any action to alter the status of these occupied territories by Pakistan has no legal basis whatsoever.” India also rejected such continued attempts by Pakistan “to bring material change in these occupied territories to camouflage grave human rights violations, exploitation and sufferings of the people living there.” Pakistan was asked to immediately vacate all the areas under its illegal occupation.
Supreme Court upholds its earlier verdict acquitting Asia Bibi in the blasphemy case
The Supreme Court dismissed an appeal against its earlier order acquitting the Christian lady, Asia Bibi, of blasphemy charges, which had led to widespread protests across Pakistan, spearheaded by the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan. According to press reports, Asia Bibi left Pakistan to join her family in Canada. The decision of the Supreme Court did not result in any protests this time. The Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan leaders, including its head, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, arrested in November last year, remained under detention. Some opposition leaders alleged that the silence of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan on the above Supreme Court decision is indicative of the fact that their earlier protests, particularly against the previous PML(N) government, were successful due to the tacit support of the security establishment.
Extension of term of military courts proposed
The Pakistani law empowering military courts to try civilians accused of terrorism (which had been enacted in January 2015 following the Pakistani Taliban attack on the military school in Peshawar resulting in large scale casualties) for a period of two years and extended for a further period of two years in 2017, expired on January 7 (though there were some claims that since the last extension of two years was given at the end of March 2017, the law would expire in March this year). It was reported that the PTI government had decided in principle to extend the tenure of the courts and would engage with the two main opposition parties- PPP and PML (N)- to build consensus on the issue. Political observers were of the view that the vote of the above parties on the proposed extension would be an indicator of how they propose to handle their troubled relationship with the military establishment. PPP, which had initially decided to oppose the move, changed its stance and agreed to hold talks with the government. It was reported towards the end of January that both PPP and PML (N) wanted Prime Minister Imran Khan to take up the matter with them, while the government was of the view that there was no need for the Prime Minister to get involved in the discussions on the issue.
FATF reviews the Pakistan case
Pakistan’s case came up for review at the meeting of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) held in Sydney, Australia in January. According to Pak media reports, the Pakistani delegation informed the meeting that there was no need to amend the anti-money laundering laws. They identified the Pak-Afghan and Pak-Iran borders as the key routes for terror financing and money laundering and claimed that a large number of transactions were identified. The Indian delegation filed a total of 28 questions, relating essentially to the action taken to block terror financing and the Pakistan delegation gave the assurance that a response would be provided at the next review meeting due to be held in Paris in mid-February. A more detailed examination of compliance by Pakistan with its international commitments will take place at another meeting to be held in May this year.
Indo-Pak relations- irritants continue
The Pak Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on January 21 that Pakistan had shared the draft of an agreement on the Kartarpur corridor with India through the Indian High Commission in Islamabad and had also asked India to urgently send a delegation to Islamabad to discuss and finalize the agreement. Separately, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a press release on January 22 that pursuant to the decision taken by the Government of India to expeditiously realize the long pending proposal to establish Kartarpur corridor, India had shared the coordinates of the crossing point of the corridor with Pakistan and also proposed two sets of dates, February 26 and March 7 for the visit of a Pakistan delegation to New Delhi to discuss and finalize the modalities so that the Indian pilgrims could visit Gurudwara Kartarpur Sahib using the corridor at the earliest. Speaking a few days later, the Pak Foreign Ministry Spokesman described the Indian response as “childish”, adding that Islamabad’s reply would be “mature”.
Reports in the Afghan media stated that Pakistan had been preventing Indian cargo flights bound for Afghanistan from using its airspace. The reports mentioned in particular that the Pakistani authorities had denied permission to Spicejet cargo flights from India thrice in the last week of December and twice in January.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi called Mirwaiz Umar Farooq of the All Parties Hurriyat Conference at the end of January to brief him on “the efforts of the government of Pakistan to highlight the gross human rights violations” in Jammu and Kashmir and inform him about the events being organized in London, including at the House of Commons and an exhibition on February 4-5. The Indian Foreign Secretary summoned the Pakistan High Commissioner to convey the Government of India’s condemnation in the strongest terms of the “latest brazen attempt” by Pakistan to subvert India’s unity and violate India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by none other than the Pakistan Foreign Minister. The Pakistan High Commissioner was also informed of the Government of India’s expectation to desist forthwith from such actions and cautioned that “persistence of such behaviour by Pakistan will have implications.” Separately, the MEA spokesman said that India had told the United Kingdom quite strongly that their territory must not be used for anti-India activity, conferences or rallies. The UK High Commission in New Delhi stated that Foreign Minister Qureshi’s visit to the UK in February was a “private” visit and there were no plans for meetings with the UK government during this visit. They also reiterated the long standing position of UK that it is for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution to the situation in Kashmir “taking into account the Kashmiri people’s wishes.”
On the positive side, it was announced that India and Pakistan had agreed to the visit of a Pakistan delegation to some hydroelectric projects on the Chenab river on the Indian side under the Indus Waters Treaty. The visit took place from January 28 to 31.
III Developments in Afghanistan
Peace and Reconciliation efforts
The US Special Representative, Zalmay Khalilzad continued his hectic diplomacy in the region. Following the December meeting between him and the Taliban at Abu Dhabi, in which the representatives of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Pakistan had also participated, it was expected that the next one would be held in Saudi Arabia in January. However, it did not take place. A subsequent proposal to hold the meeting in Pakistan also did not materialize. The Taliban reportedly wished to focus only on withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and accused the Americans of trying to expand the agenda. They were also not willing to meet the representatives of the Afghan government. Some media reports suggested that Pakistan was exerting pressure on the Taliban to adopt a more flexible approach. Hafiz Mohibullah, a senior military commander, who has been involved in the talks with the US was arrested in Peshawar and subsequently released and raids were conducted by the Pakistani authorities on the houses of some other Taliban. Finally, the talks between Khalilzad and the Taliban commenced on January 21 in Qatar, even as in a show of force, the Taliban attacked the training school of the National Directorate for Security in Maidan Wardak province, killing a large number of persons. Initially slated for two days, the talks continued for six days. At the end of the talks, Khalilzad told New York Times, “We have a draft of the framework that has to be fleshed out before it becomes an agreement” and added that the Taliban had committed to the satisfaction of the Americans “to do what is necessary that would prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a platform for international terrorist groups or individuals.” There was, however, no sign that the Taliban had agreed to the other US demands of a ceasefire before the withdrawal of US forces or dialogue with the Afghan government to discuss a power sharing arrangement and arrive at a political settlement. It was reported that the Taliban wanted withdrawal of foreign forces before committing to a ceasefire. Taliban sources told Reuters that the US had agreed to withdraw foreign troops within 18 months of the conclusion of an agreement, but the US officials said that a timeline was not discussed. The Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid said that there was progress in talks revolving around the withdrawal of foreign forces and talks on unresolved matters would resume in future meetings. He added that the Taliban position was clear that progress on other issues was impossible until the issue of withdrawal of foreign forces was agreed upon. Khalilzad on his part stated that meetings had been more productive than they had been in the past and “we made significant progress on vital issues”. He added that talks would be resumed shortly. A number of issues were yet to be worked out and “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, and “everything” must include an intra-Afghan dialogue and comprehensive ceasefire.” President Trump tweeted that the Afghan talks were proceeding well. Reuters quoted a Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying that both the parties had tentatively agreed to reconvene on February 25.
In a significant development, the Taliban appointed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar as the head of their Political Office in Qatar. The appointment of Baradar, who co-founded the Taliban with Mullah Omar, would lend weight to the Afghan delegation at the talks. He replaces Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai.
In a statement issued after the meeting of Khalilzad with President Ashraf Ghani to brief him on the talks in Qatar, the Presidential palace maintained that Khalilzad had told the President that the US had insisted that the only solution for lasting peace in Afghanistan was intra-Afghan talks, no agreement had been reached on withdrawal of foreign troops and any such decision would be coordinated and discussed with the Afghan government. In a subsequent address to the nation, President Ghani assured people that their rights would not be compromised in the name of peace and the country’s sovereignty would be upheld. He said that the Taliban had two choices: to stand with the people of Afghanistan or be used as a tool by other countries. About foreign troops, he stated that no country wants such forces indefinitely, but Afghanistan needed them for the moment. Ghani also insisted that the Taliban engage with Kabul. However, sceptics were of the view that in the event of an understanding between the US and the Taliban, the Kabul government may be left with very little influence in the matter.
The above account clearly brings out the large gap that remains between the two sides on issues such as a ceasefire, the Taliban insistence on withdrawal of foreign forces before progress on any other issue, their reluctance to engage with the Afghan government and uncertainty concerning their willingness to live with a power sharing arrangement. An Associated Press report quoted the Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen as saying that they were not seeking a “monopoly on power”, but were looking to live along with their countrymen “in an inclusive Afghan world.” Their past record would, however, warrant a radical change in their attitude to validate the above words. The ongoing process could, therefore, face serious hurdles as it moves forward.
Afghan media reported concerns amongst people regarding the protection of their rights that have accrued to them under the Afghan constitution. Concern was also caused in Kabul by the reports of the deal between the US and the Taliban involving the setting up of an interim government, which were reinforced by the peace plan included in a document circulated by the RAND Corporation that envisages, inter alia, adoption of a new constitution with an 18 months transitional period and a transitional government to be led by a rotating chairman. Addressing the Raisina Dilogue in New Delhi, former President Hamid Karzai stated that the Americans were not going to leave Afghanistan and were discussing military bases with the Taliban. He added that what was needed was not a deal between the US and Pakistan on Afghanistan, but a peace process in which Pakistan plays an important role along with the other countries.
Russia publicly expressed its dissatisfaction with the ongoing peace moves of the US. Reacting to the postponement of the Presidential election, a Russian Foreign Ministry statement attributed the move to the influence of the US, which needs additional time to prepare for holding the voting “in accordance with its patterns and building a peace process in Afghanistan according to its own scenario.” The statement added that the US was also looking to create, in the context of the planned reduction of its military contingent in Afghanistan, some Afghan ‘counter-terrorist units’, which will not be controlled by Kabul but will operate in the interests of the US special services. Russia’s envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov visited Pakistan soon after the Qatar talks to get a briefing on the latest developments. A Russian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, while welcoming the US resolve to launch a peace process in Afghanistan, noted that Khalilzad’s attempts to convince the Taliban to engage with an official delegation from Kabul had failed despite the pressure exerted on the Taliban by the Americans, several Gulf States and Pakistan. The spokesperson added that it was clearly premature to talk about the results of the “US unilateral effort” to launch the peace process in Afghanistan, “which reaffirms the need to find a collective solution that would take into account the interests of all the neighbouring countries and main partners of Afghanistan.” It was further stated that the Moscow format is optimal for consultations on Afghanistan and during the last meeting of the format, the participants had achieved greater success than the US alone. Media reports at the end of the month revealed that a meeting of the Taliban and some politicians opposed to President Ghani would be held in Moscow in February. A US official described it as an attempt to muddle the US-backed peace process. The Afghan Foreign Ministry stated that the holding of such meetings would not help the peace efforts and the Afghan government would not attend it. The statement expressed the hope that Russia like other countries would recognize Afghanistan’s role as leader and owner of the peace process. The meeting in Moscow is being organized by the “Council of the Afghan Diaspora in Russia.” Besides former President Karzai, it is likely to be attended by Mohammad Mohaqiq, Mohammad Ismail Khan and Atta Mohammad Noor.
Candidates for the Presidential Election
The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan has announced that 18 potential candidates have successfully completed the requirements of nomination of the Presidential election due in July this year and have been officially registered. Following the review of their documents, the preliminary list of the Presidential candidates would be published. The 18 candidates include: Zalmai Rasool, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Gulbadeen Hikmatyar, Ahmad Wali Masoud, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani. However, the reports of a possible US-Taliban deal involving the setting up of an interim government continued to cast a shadow over the holding of the Presidential election.
Final results of Parliamentary election
By the end of January, the Independent Election Commission had declared the final results of the Parliamentary elections held in October last year only in respect of 18 of the 33 provinces that went to poll. A number of candidates have accused the Independent Election Commission and the Independent Electoral Complaint Commission of influencing the final results.
India and Afghanistan
The Afghan NSA visited India at the beginning of January and held talks with his Indian counterpart. The Indian Army Chief, General Rawat said in the course of the army’s annual press conference that if several countries were talking to the Taliban and if India had interests in Afghanistan, it could not “be out of the bandwagon.” A day earlier, while speaking at the Raisina Dialogue, he had supported talks with the Taliban so long as they did not come out with any preconditions and so long as they were looking at lasting peace in Afghanistan. Asked about the comments of the Army Chief, the Spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs stated that India’s position on Afghanistan has been very clear and consistent. India supports peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan through a process “which is inclusive towards achieving this goal and there has been no change in this position.” In a media briefing at the end of the month, the Spokesman stated that India supports efforts that can achieve an inclusive political settlement in Afghanistan and in this context it is important that the Presidential election takes place as per schedule. He added that India continued to support an Afghan owned, Afghan led and Afghan controlled peace process and believed that for enduring peace in Afghanistan, the terrorist safe havens and sanctuaries needed to be eliminated. He further stated that India “will participate in all formats of talks which could bring about peace and security in that region.”
Addressing the India-Central Asia Dialogue in Samarkand, in which the Foreign Minister of Afghanistan also participated, External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj said that India was committed to the economic reconstruction of Afghanistan and to promote an inclusive Afghan led, Afghan owned and Afghan controlled peace and reconciliation process. Speaking at the same conference, the Afghan Foreign Minister stated that his country could provide the most cost effective transit routes, serving as a hub for energy supplies from Central Asia to the energy markets of South Asia.