May 25, 2018

Af-Pak Digest: MONTHLY H I G H L I G H T S

Ambassador TCA Raghavan
Adviser, Ananta Centre 
Former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan

MAY 2018 | VOL 02 ISSUE 05 | MONTHLY H I G H L I G H T S  

 • Overview   

 • Developments in Pakistan                          
 • Developments in Afghanistan              

I Overview

Pakistan: It would be true to say that Pakistan headed into Ramazan 2018 with former PM Nawaz Sharif ensuring that the agenda for debate would continue to be set by him and that it would be on the issue of civil military relations. This was achieved through a press interview in which he spoke about Pakistani role in the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008 and the thwarting of the legal process to bring the conspirators to justice. The resulting storm will continue through the term of the current government and till the general elections. A caretaker government under a neutral prime minister is expected to take office in end May to conduct the elections and manage the transition till a new government takes over. How much Nawaz Sharif’s outspokenness will impact on the fortunes of his party remains the central question. 

An assassination attempt on the Interior Minister underscored the fragility of the security situation notwithstanding the stabilisation that has taken place. W.r.t. India the situation in the valley in early may saw a rash of statements from the Government of Pakistan. This was at the same time amidst moves that were widely interpreted as suggesting some slight loosening on positions of both sides. The plateau in relations with the US continued with no visible sign of any change. 

Afghanistan: Regular terrorist in different parts of the country including in Kabul continued to periodically punctuate the political chronology amidst continued intense fighting with the Taliban. This absence of any visible improvement in the security situation remains Afghanistan’s central challenge and there is no visible sign that there is any process underfoot that there will be a material change in the situation any time soon.


II Developments in Pakistan


India: An expected rash of high level Pakistan statements in early May accompanied security operations in Jammu and Kashmir. A statement by the Prime Minister on the 7th May referred to killing with ‘impunity’, ‘a reign of terror’, and that ‘peaceful protesters are being constantly terrorised and maimed by gunfire and pellet shots”. A Foreign Office statement on 9th May thereafter stated inter alia that “Kashmiri youth have been the deliberate target of this mindless killing spree, unleashed by the Indian occupation forces.” There have also been statements and protests over alleged Indian ceasefire violations on the LOC. 

All this is continuation of past trends and reflective of the tensions in the bilateral relationship. But what is new are some contrasting developments. In end April a meeting of the Neemrana Dialogue took place in Islamabad after a gap of some years. The origins of the Neemrana Dialogue go back to the early 1990s and was a US initiative to foster some India Pakistan contact at a non official level in a time of high tension. The meetings continued and over the years acquired the character of a government sponsored and approved non-governmental dialogue. For the past few years the Neemrana meetings have not been held regularly perhaps largely because of the proliferation of such meetings in third countries. Its ‘revival’ at this phase is therefore of interest.

Similarly, also of interest is the decision announced on 17th May to revive the Joint Judicial Committee on Prisoners and Fisherman in custody that had been set up in 2007 but which has not met since 2013. The MEA statement noted however that such a proposal had been made to Pakistan in October 2017 and was accepted in March 2018. India has now announced its members of the joint committee and sought dates from Pakistan for the Committee to meet.

United States: The US State Department imposed travel restrictions on Pakistani diplomats in Washington starting from 11 May 2018 in terms of which Pakistani diplomatic staff and their families will now have to seek prior permission for travelling outside the radius of 25 miles. The Pakistan F O announced that as a matter of reciprocity, US diplomats in Pakistan have been asked to seek prior permission for movement exceeding 25 miles limit while saying ‘We hope that the matter can be resolved through dialogue’. 

It was widely reported in the Pakistan media that the US placed a block in the UNSC Al-Qaeda/ISIL Sanctions Committee on the Pakistan proposal to list Umer Khalid Khurasani a.k.a Abdul Wali, the leader of Jamat-ul-Ahrar. The Pakistan Foreign Office statement said that it was “deeply disappointed over the failure of the Sanctions Committee to list Wali who is a known terrorist and has the blood of hundreds of innocent Pakistanis on his hands.” The statement pointed out that the organization Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has been listed by the Sanctions Committee and that this action “demonstrates the double standards prevailing in the international fight against terrorism and also show complete disregard of the sacrifices rendered by Pakistan in this fight”. (Incidentally Pakistan had effectively lobbied China earlier to block listing of Masood Azhar notwithstanding the fact that the organization he leads the Jaish-e-Mohammad already is under UNSC sanctions.) According to Pakistan media the US based its objection on the fact that the listing application showed Abdul Wali’s present location as Afghanistan. 

OIC Foreign Minister Minister’s Meeting Dacca: Pakistan was represented by its Foreign Secretary at the 45th OIC Council of Foreign Ministers (CFM) in Dacca that concluded on 6 May 2018. The lower than ministerial level participation possibly reflects the current state of Bangladesh Pakistan relations. The Pakistan Foreign Office spokesperson said that “The OIC position clearly is manifested by the five resolutions on Jammu and Kashmir dispute, which were unanimously adopted on 6th May during 45th CFM by all member states, including Bangladesh.” The underlying issues with Bangladesh however were revealed in a question put to the spokesperson that the Bangladeshi Minister called for reforms in the OIC to enable countries like India, to get an observer seat in the OIC. The spokesperson responded that “India cannot get representation in the OIC in any form. India, as an aggressor state is responsible for the massive Human Rights violations of the Kashmiri Muslims over last 70 years” and “India's inclusion in OIC as an Observer state has never been on OIC agenda. Any statement by the Bangladesh's Foreign Minister was given in individual capacity and doesn't reflect the principled stand of the OIC.” 



Civil Military Relations: Nawaz Sharif: In an interview to a newspaper the former P M made remarks whose intent could not have been anything other than to create a storm of controversy. Speaking to Cyril Almeida of the Dawn newspaper (and the choice of journalist is important), Nawaz Sharif said  “We have isolated ourselves. Despite giving sacrifices, our narrative is not being accepted. Afghanistan’s narrative is being accepted, but ours is not. We must look into it.”; “Militant organisations are active. Call them non-state actors, should we allow them to cross the border and kill 150 people in Mumbai? Explain it to me. Why can’t we complete the trial?”; “It’s absolutely unacceptable. This is exactly what we are struggling for. President Putin has said it. President Xi has said it”. The rest of the interview too struck all the notes of defiance that have characterized his statements since his ouster last year by the Supreme Court yet it was the Mumbai attack comments that were the obvious point over which the storm would obviously break. This was after all touching on two of the most sensitive issues in Pakistan today- relations with India and state support for extremists- and bringing them into play in election season and in the midst of Nawaz Sharif’s own personal campaign against the establishment he blames for his removal.  

Reactions to the press report published on 13th May were not slow in coming and their manner shows how deep Nawaz Sharif’s remarks had gone. An announcement came from the Army through the ISPR that the National Security Council would meet “to discuss recent misleading media statement regarding Bombay (Mumbai) incident”. The NSC, chaired by the Prime Minister thereafter described the statement as “incorrect and misleading,” and that the issue was presented by the former prime minister “in disregard of concrete facts and realities” because of “opinion arising out of either misconceptions or grievances” and finally that it “unanimously rejected the allegations and condemned the fallacious assertions”. The statement issued was also to state that it was India, and not Pakistan, that was delaying the finalization of the Mumbai attacks trial. 

The ruling party inevitably found itself between a rock and a hard place with the opposition jumping on to the former PM’s ‘betrayal’ and his ‘links with India’. Nawaz Sharif was however unmoved and his subsequent comments on the NSC statement were quoted in media reports as ‘rejecting the press release outright’. He was also quoted as saying: “It was painful and regrettable... I think time has come to tell the nation who had brought the country to this point. People should know who brought terrorism to our beloved country. It is equally painful to observe that we have also been isolated as not a single country [is] standing with us. This is the reason that I strongly demand formation of a national commission to differentiate between traitors and patriots.” The Prime Minister was subsequently to defend Mr Nawaz Sharif’s remarks saying that the ex PM did not say anything that had not been said earlier including by former Army Chiefs. 

It may be noted that the journalist to whom this interview was given is the same as who was responsible for the famous ‘Dawn Leaks’ story in October 2016 which had then led to intense civil military feuding leading to the dropping of the Information Minister from the Cabinet.

This latest duel between Nawaz Sharif and the Military may yet have other twists. Outcomes that are visible so far indicate the former PM’s combative frame of mind and the disquiet this is causing in his own party on the tactical wisdom of taking on the judiciary and the military just before an election. The question whether Nawaz Sharif does so out of political calculation, desperation or frustration remains to be answered. Whether this will energize Imran Khan’s campaign and if so to what extent is another imponderable.  

Asghar Khan Case: A Supreme Court Bench headed by the Chief Justice ordered that progress be intimated to it in the implementation of its 2012 verdict in the Asghar Khan Case.

The 2012 verdict had ordered the Federal Investigation Agency to initiate proceedings against the politicians, including former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who had allegedly been given a total of Rs 140 million with the objective of blocking chances of Pakistan Peoples Party’s victory in the 1990 general elections. The court had ordered the FIA to prepare cases for trial in case sufficient evidence was collected against the recipients of the funds. This latest order has now come by way of dismissing petitions filed by former army chief Gen Mirza Aslam Beg and former director general of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt Gen Asad Durrani for review of the verdict petition of retired Air Marshal Asghar Khan. Air Marshal Asghar Khan died on Jan 5, 2018.

This case in brief relates to the 1990 election in Pakistan following the dismissal of Benazir Bhutto. Nawaz Sharif was then head of the IJI- Islami Jamhoori Itihaad- a front believed to have been put together by the ISI to ensure that the PPP lost the election. Air Marshal Asghar Khan had filed a petition in the Supreme Court on the basis of revelations of Durrani that he had paid sums of money to identified politicians on the orders of the then army chief Aslam Beg.

The reopening of this case is somewhat out of the blue. It is an obvious embarrassment to Nawaz Sharif and this may well be the principal reason for the development. Nevertheless, it portrays the army in a bad light too although it is possible that its present leadership has no particular love lost for Durrani or Beg.  

National Accountability Bureau: The National Accountability Bureau meanwhile said that it was verifying whether Nawaz Sharif was involved in sending $4.9 bn to India. This is in the context of a 2016 World Bank migration and remittance study that the foreign exchange reserves of India had increased by $4.9 bn on account of remittances from Pakistan. The World Bank report has been criticized in the past for its flawed methodology derived in part from modelling persons who migrated during 1947! The State Bank of Pakistan was also to clarify that the estimates showed in the WB report were based on “assumptions” which did not reflect reality.

This somewhat obscure matter is of interest only to underline the obvious intent to put as much pressure on Nawaz Sharif as possible and on occasion even using cases that are implausible to create a climate of opinion against him.

Interior Minister assassination attempt: Ahsan Iqbal survived with minor injuries an assassination attempt during a constituency meeting on 6th May in Narowal. 

Islamabad Airport: A new international airport in Islamabad was formally inaugurated on 1st May. It has been described as the country’s first greenfield airport project.  



III Developments in Afghanistan


India: A direct flight between Herat in Western Afghanistan and Delhi was inaugurated on 30th April.

6 Indian nationals were kidnapped in Baglan province on 6th May. They were working for a company setting up power transmission lines.

Pakistan: A trade related meeting was held in Islamabad on 8th May between the Commerce Ministries of the two countries led by the respective heads of departments. According to a press release of the Pakistan Ministry of Commerce the two sides discussed sanitary and phytosanitary measures, quarantine certification, and removal of regulatory duties on selected items including fresh fruits and vegetables, dry fruit, etc. to facilitate Afghan exports to Pakistan. The meeting is significant because of the long hiatus in Afghanistan Pakistan contacts and friction on numerous trade related issues. In recent weeks the Government of Pakistan has tried hard to reset this phase as a means of reducing frictions in its own relations with the US.

This meeting was followed by a Foreign Secretaries meeting also in Islamabad on 14th May   on the new Pakistan-Afghanistan bilateral engagement framework — Afghanistan-Pakistan Action Plan for Peace and Solidarity (APAPPS). This plan was thereafter declared operational with a joint press statement in which “Both sides agreed that effective and full implementation of APAPPS would contribute towards the common objectives of eliminating terrorism and achieving peace, stability, prosperity and development of the people of the two countries”. It will be recalled that the Pakistan PM had visited Kabul last month and it was then agreed to expedite conclusion of the agreement. The two leaders had on that occasion agreed on the new framework and tasked their foreign ministers and national security advisers with concluding the agreement.


The internal security situation remained the dominant issue in all discourse around Afghanistan as the spate of terrorist that have characterized previous months and years continued unabated. On 30th April ten journalists and about 15 others were killed in an suicide attack in Kabul. Media reports have described this as the single most lethal single attack on the media since the fall of the Taliban. Responsible for the attack was the Islamic State (IS) group. Other attacks in different parts of the country also took place over the month. An attack on a cricket match in Jalalabad at the beginning of Ramadan on 19th May led to a number of fatal casualties and also suggested that there may not be any let up during the month of fasting and prayer. 

21st May, 2018

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