• PTM in the crosshairs of the Pakistan army
• Opposition parties
• Senior army officers convicted of espionage
• IMF bailout
• Mega CPEC projects inaugurated
• Peace and Reconciliation moves
• Extension of President Ghani’s term criticized
II Developments in Pakistan
An explosion triggered by a suicide bomber on May 8 close to an Elite Force van, stationed near the Sufi shrine Data Darbar at Lahore for its security, killed 11 persons, including security personnel and injured many more. The shrine has been witness to terror attacks earlier also. A few days later, on May 12, the Pearl Continental hotel at Quetta came under a terror attack. Security forces managed to save the hotel guests, but four hotel employees and a navy man were killed. PM Imran Khan described the attack, which was claimed by Balochistan Liberation Army, as a bid to “sabotage prosperity” in the area. Two more terror attacks in Quetta on May 14 and 24 claimed the lives of 4 policemen, 3 civilians and wounded many more. A blast at a bank in Sadiqabad, Punjab, on May 16 injured at least 20 persons. With an eye on the Quetta attacks, speaking to a group of Chinese media persons on May 19, DG (ISPR), Major General Asif Ghafoor said that Pakistan was fully committed to the security of the CPEC projects. He added that the Pakistan army had raised a division size force to protect these projects and was planning to deploy another division for this purpose.
Under pressure from the FATF, the Pakistan government banned eleven Lahore based organizations for their links to JeM, JuD and Falah-e-Insaniyat foundation. They also arrested the senior JuD leader Abdul Rehman Makki, who is the brother in law of Hafiz Saeed.
PTM in the crosshairs of the Pakistan army
Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) continued to be in the crosshairs of the Pakistan army. In separate statements at the beginning of May, PM Imran Khan and COAS Bajwa alleged that external forces were at work to stir up trouble in Pakistan’s tribal areas. General Bajwa said that PTM itself was not an issue and the issues being highlighted were genuine and natural in the post-operation environment in the tribal areas. However, a few individuals playing in foreign hands were by design exploiting the sentiments of the people who had suffered at the hands of terrorism. These statements came within a few days of the military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor threatening legal action against the leadership of PTM. Subsequently, on May 26, the army issued a statement saying that a check post in North Waziristan was assaulted earlier in the day by a group led by Mohsin Dawar, a member of the National Assembly and Ali Wazir- both leaders of PTM, resulting in death of 3 persons and injuries to 15, including 5 army soldiers. The motive of the alleged attack was described in the statement as an attempt to exert pressure for release of suspected terrorists in the army’s custody. Mohsin Dawar denied that the protesting group had opened fire and accused the army of initiating violence. PTM sources stated that the protest was by residents of the area against assault on a local woman. A curfew was imposed in North Waziristan after the incident and security was also tightened in South Waziristan. Condemning the attack, the Pakistan Cabinet stated that while Pakistan stood by the tribal citizens, no restraint would be observed against those insulting the national flag and threatening national security. Mohsin Dawar later surrendered to the local authorities and was placed in the custody of the Counter-Terrorism Department for eight days. One soldier was killed in an alleged terror attack against another check post on May 27. The incidents were a reminder of continued violence in North Waziristan and growing trouble between the army and PTM.
In the face of growing legal troubles for the Sharif brothers, the PML (N) leadership was restructured, even as Shehbaz Sharif stepped down as head of the Public Accounts Committee, a position that the government had conceded to him in the face of persistent opposition demands. Former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was named the Senior Vice President of the party. Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz and Shehbaz’s son Hamza Sharif were among the sixteen Vice Presidents named in the restructuring. Ahsan Iqbal, a Nawaz loyalist, was made the Secretary General. The restructuring came as Shehbaz Sharif, the Party President, went abroad reportedly for medical treatment and Nawaz Sharif went back to jail on rejection of his plea for permanent bail on medical ground by the Supreme Court. Some media analysts saw the above changes as Nawaz Sharif and his daughter coming out of the shadows after a period during which the party had placed its faith in the unsuccessful manoeuvres of Shehbaz Sharif, himself facing corruption cases, and his contacts in the army to put an end to the legal troubles of its leadership, as against the more assertive approach advocated by the senior Sharif. With an eye on the mounting economic troubles of the country and the tough economic decisions lying ahead for the government in view of the IMF bailout package conditions, the major opposition parties- PML (N) and PPP- sensed an opportunity to target the government and seemed to move closer for the purpose. In the light of continued legal troubles of Asif Ali Zardari, PPP too saw no point in an accommodating approach towards the government. The leaders of PPP and PML (N) gathered at a much publicized Iftar dinner hosted by PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto and announced an all-party meet after Eid to decide the mode of protest against the government inside and outside Parliament. Leaders of both the parties also attacked the National Accountability Bureau for its alleged partisan actions.
Senior army officers convicted of espionage
The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) announced at the end of the month that the Chief of Army Staff had endorsed the punishment awarded by the Field General Court Martial to two army and one civilian officers on charges of espionage/leakage of information to foreign agencies, thereby prejudicing national security. Those convicted are retired Lt. General Javed Iqbal, who was awarded 14-years rigorous imprisonment, retired Brig. Raja Rizwan and one Dr. Wasim Akram, who were awarded death sentence. In a subsequent opinion piece, Husain Haqqani, the former Pak envoy to the US, stated that the persons concerned were convicted of passing nuclear secrets to an American intelligence agency. Lt. Gen. Iqbal had served as DGMO, Corps Commander and Adjutant General before retiring from service in 2015. Haqqani claimed that several other individuals were under investigations and more convictions might follow.
After months of discussions, the technical teams of the IMF and Government of Pakistan reached an agreement on a bailout package under which Pakistan will receive $6 billion over three years from the IMF and an additional $2 to 3 billion from the World Bank. The staff level agreement is subject to approval of the IMF board of directors. On being asked to spell out the conditions imposed by the IMF for the package, the Advisor to Prime Minister on Finance, Dr. Abdul Hafiz Shaikh, said that there were many things desired by the IMF that the government already saw as being in the country’s interest, such as aligning expenditure with resources, improvement in the functioning of loss making state owned enterprises, curtailment of subsidies to the richer class and imposition of more taxes on them. He also hinted that the programme would entail higher prices in some areas to recover costs. While Dr.Shaikh claimed that no additional burden would be put on the common man, the programme is expected to burden common people by increasing the cost of utilities and curtailing the funds available for welfare schemes. The IMF mission chief said that “a comprehensive plan for cost-recovery in the energy sector and state-owned enterprises will help eliminate or reduce the quasi fiscal deficit that drains scarce government resources.” Former Finance Minister and noted economist, Dr. Hafeez Pasha said that the reference in the IMF press release on the bailout package to the need for Pakistan to show commitment against money laundering and terror financing implied that clearance of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) would be necessary to qualify for the programme. He further stated that the actual IMF assistance would amount to $3 billion as Pakistan was due to repay $3 billion to the Fund over the next three years. This amount, claimed Dr. Pasha, would not help Pakistan bridge its financing gap. He stated that rollover of its loans from other countries, including China, by Pakistan will also be one of the prior actions to be taken by it to qualify for the programme. He added that China’s loans to Pakistan stood at around $19 billion, mainly in project financing, $7 billion are from Chinese commercial banks and $4 billion of Chinese money is parked in the foreign exchange reserves. Saudi Arabia has given Pakistan $3 billion and UAE $2 billion. Repayment of all these loans will have to be rolled over.
Pakistani media reports suggest that Pakistan, for the first time, also fully disclosed information concerning the borrowing from China to the IMF on their insistence for the same.
The sanctions committee of the UN Security Council listed the JeM chief, Masood Azhar, as a global terrorist at the beginning of May after China lifted its technical hold. While saying that Pakistan would take the consequential steps to impose sanctions on Azhar, the Pak Foreign Office spokesman added that the listing was done only after removal of all “political references, including attempts to link it with Pulwama and maligning the legitimate struggle of the Kashmiris” in the original proposal of the sponsors. He vowed to continue support to “the Kashmiri freedom movement by providing diplomatic, political and moral support.” However, it would be clear to every neutral observer that Masood Azhar’s listing was the result of his heinous terror activities against India and the involvement of his terror group, JeM in the Pulwama terror attack.
On May 15, Pakistan decided to extend the ban on use of its airspace by the flights to and from India, which has been in force since the Balakot strike, to May 30. It seemed to link the lifting of this ban to a thaw in the bilateral relationship, when commenting on the issue, the spokesman of the Pak Foreign Office said that Pakistan wanted de-escalation and if it took place, the ban would not last for a single day. He added that for this purpose, India would have to talk to Pakistan as this and other issues would not be resolved through confrontation. On May 31, the Indian Air Force announced that all temporary restrictions on use of Indian air space, imposed post the Balakot strike, had been removed. However, Pakistan opened only two of the eleven routes through its airspace, both through the southern part of the country, and extended the ban on the remaining routes till June 14. The ban entails heavy additional costs for the flights to and from India.
The Pak Foreign Office claimed in the third week of May that Foreign Minister Qureshi had met the then EAM Sushma Swaraj on the margins of the SCO Foreign Ministers meeting in Bishkek and had made it clear to her that Pakistan wanted all the matters to be resolved through dialogue. Prime Minister Imran Khan telephoned Prime Minister Modi on May 26 to congratulate him on his victory in the election. Recalling his initiatives in line with his government’s neighbourhood policy, Prime Minister Modi referred to his earlier suggestion to the Prime Minister of Pakistan to fight poverty jointly. He stressed that creating trust and an environment free of violence and terrorism were essential for fostering cooperation for peace, progress and prosperity in the region.
Mega CPEC projects inaugurated
Vice President of China, Wang Qishan paid a visit to Pakistan in May. Prime Minister Imran Khan and the visiting Chinese dignitary unveiled the plaques of the following four mega CPEC projects in Islamabad during the visit: a transmission line to carry power from coal based power plants in Sindh and Baluchistan to Lahore, Rashakai Special Economic Zone in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Confucius Institute at the University of Punjab and Huawei Technical Support Centre to be set up in Pakistan by the tech giant to make investments in the country.
Pak media reports in May quoted the Managing Director of Inter State Gas as saying that it was impossible to execute the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project in view of the US sanctions on Iran and this position had been conveyed by Pakistan to Iran in writing. Pakistan had given its approval to the project in January 2013. According to the above media reports, Tehran had earlier issued a legal notice to Pakistan that it would take the matter to the arbitration court in the event of non-construction of the portion of the pipeline in the Pakistani territory within the time frame stipulated in the bilateral agreement and Pakistan was required to respond to the legal notice and resolve the matter till August this year. In a separate statement, Foreign Minister Qureshi said that Pakistan was in touch with Iran to sort out the matter.
Foreign Minister Qureshi stated on May 14 that Pakistan was concerned at the rising tensions between the US and Iran, but would not take sides in the matter. He added that Pakistan would evolve its strategy with an eye on protection of its interests. In a subsequent statement, the Pak Foreign Office Spokesman said that the Hormuz Strait was an important passageway for shipping, war was not an option and Pakistan desired that all issues be settled through peaceful dialogue.
The Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif paid a visit to Pakistan later in the month to hold consultations on the escalating tension between his country and the US. At the end of his meetings, IRNA quoted him as saying that he was happy that Pakistan understood Iran’s position and considered the US pressure on Iran unjustified.
III Developments in Afghanistan
Peace and Reconciliation moves
A new round of talks between the Taliban and the US started in Qatar on May 1. At the commencement of talks, the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that it was absolutely vital that two key points of the agenda- full withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan and preventing Afghanistan from harming others be finalized, thereby confirming that the Taliban focus remained on withdrawal of foreign forces. However, the US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad said that he had told the Taliban at the opening session that it was time to put down arms, stop the violence and embrace peace. He added that it was essential to find common ground on four inter-connected issues: troops withdrawal, counter-terrorism assurances, intra-Afghan dialogue and reduction in violence leading to a comprehensive ceasefire. Nothing, he said, would be final until there was an agreement on all four issues. Reacting to the above statement of Khalilzad, the Taliban spokesman asked him to tell the United States to end the use of force instead of calling upon the Taliban to lay down their arms. The Taliban also rejected a call for ceasefire during the month of Ramadhan from the Afghan High Peace Council and said that jihad would bring more rewards during Ramadhan. The Qatar talks ended on May 9. Reuters quoted an unnamed Afghan official as saying that some progress had been made on a draft agreement on withdrawal of foreign troops. Khalilzad tweeted that steady but slow progress had been made on aspects of the framework for ending the Afghan war, the two sides were getting into the nitty gritty, but the devil was always in the details. He added that the current pace of talks was not sufficient when so much conflict raged and innocent people were dying. He called for faster progress and reiterated his proposal for all sides to reduce violence. According to some media reports, the round of talks ended prematurely when the Taliban attacked the premises of an aid group in Kabul on the ground that they were spreading western culture.
Khalilzad used a one day break in the talks to visit India and met, among others, the then EAM Sushma Swaraj to brief her on the peace efforts. The US Embassy in New Delhi said in a statement that during his meetings with his Indian interlocutors, Khalilzad welcomed expression of support for the Afghan peace process, which strengthens an emerging international consensus for peace efforts. He also recognized the many important contributions made by India for Afghanistan’s development. He discussed with his interlocutors the many benefits that peace would bring, including: preventing use of Afghanistan by international terrorists, improved prospects for regional peace and security, increased regional connectivity and trade. According to the above statement, the two sides agreed that Afghan gains of the last 18 years should be preserved and built upon and that Afghanistan’s future was for the Afghans to decide through an inclusive and legitimate process. The statement concluded that Khalilzad would continue to consult with Indian interlocutors as the peace process moved forward.
Speaking at the meeting of the SCO Foreign Ministers at Bishkek on May 22, the then EAM Sushma Swaraj said, “India stands committed to any process, which can help Afghanistan emerge as a united, peaceful, secure, stable, inclusive and economically vibrant nation, with guaranteed gender and human rights. I wish to once again underscore the importance India attaches to SCO Afghanistan Contact Group and welcome an early conclusion of the Draft roadmap of further actions of the Contact Group.” Some media reports noted the fact that EAM’s speech referred to “any process” instead of the earlier formulation “an Afghan led and Afghan owned peace process.” It would be recalled that speaking at the India- Central Asia dialogue at Samarkand in January 2019, the EAM had stated, “India supports all efforts for peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan which are inclusive and Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled.”
A Taliban delegation, led by Mullah Baradar, met a group of senior Afghan politicians, including former President Karzai towards the end of May. In a short joint statement at the end of the two-day meeting, it was stated that both sides discussed the continuation of intra-Afghan talks, ceasefire, release of prisoners, protection of civilians, foreign troops withdrawal, end of ‘foreigners’ interference’, preservation of national sovereignty and women’s rights. Both sides made some progress on a number of issues but no agreement was made because this would need some more discussions. Atta Mohammad Noor, Chief Executive of Jamiat-e-Islami said that although they had a lengthy discussion with the Taliban to reach an agreement on a ceasefire, it remained fruitless. It would be recalled that a group of Afghan politicians had met the Taliban in Moscow in February also. However, the Taliban have refused to engage with the Afghan government. Speaking at the opening session of the meeting, the Russian Foreign Minister said that there was no military solution to the Afghan conflict and called for a total pull-out of foreign forces from the country.
Extension of President Ghani’s term criticized
The extension of President Ghani’s term of office, which came to an end on May 22, till the holding of the Presidential election scheduled in September this year under a ruling of the Afghan Supreme Court came in for criticism by the other Presidential candidates. As per Afghan media reports, at least 12 out of the 18 Presidential candidates suggested the constitution of a caretaker government rather than continuation of President Ghani in office beyond May 22. They stated that the President could head such a government provided he did not contest the Presidential election. The candidates also said that they had asked their supporters, including government employees in Kabul and other provinces to start civil disobedience against the government. The Stability and Partnership election team led by the Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah said that it regarded the question of continuation of the National Unity Government beyond May 22 as negotiable and agreed with the part of the concerns raised by Presidential candidates. It called upon the political parties and Presidential candidates to discuss the issue and not let the disagreements negatively impact the country’s stability and security. The Presidential palace, however, stated that a caretaker government would not be in accordance with the constitution and the incumbent government would continue its work based on the directive of the Supreme Court.
The Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) of Pakistan said at the beginning of May that three Pakistani soldiers were killed and seven injured when a group of 60 to 70 terrorists from bases in Afghanistan attacked Pakistani troops doing fencing work along the Pak Afghan border in North Waziristan. Subsequently, the Afghan Foreign Ministry summoned the Charge d’affaires of Pakistan to protest against violation of Afghan airspace and cross Durand Line shelling by Pakistan in some areas.
President Ghani phoned Prime Minister Imran Khan in the first week of May. As per a statement released by the Prime Minister’s office in Islamabad, the two leaders vowed to strengthen bilateral ties and restore peace in Afghanistan and the region. Prime Minster Imran Khan assured the Afghan President that Pakistan would spare no effort to advance the objective of building peace in Afghanistan and reiterated his invitation to President Ghani to visit Pakistan. The two leaders also met on the sidelines of the 14th Islamic Summit held at Makkah on May 31. In a statement issued after the meeting, the office of the Pakistani Prime Minister said that the forthcoming visit of President Ghani to Pakistan would provide an opportunity to further discuss political, security, economic and people to people aspects of the Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. President Ghani has stated subsequently that he would visit Afghanistan on June 27.