February 16, 2019

The Balochistan Insurgency and the Threat to Chinese Interests in Pakistan


By: Adnan Aamir

February 15, 2019 04:02 PM Age: 16 hours

Smoke rises over the PRC Consulate in Karachi after an attack by militants of the Baloch Liberation Army, November 23, 2018. (Source: Twitter)


On November 23, 2018, insurgents of the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) attacked the PRC Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan. The assault resulted in the deaths of seven people, including two police officers and three of the attackers (Dawn, November 23 2018). One month after this incident, the BLA commander responsible for the attack—Aslam Baloch, alias “Achoo”—was himself killed in a suicide attack in the Afghan city of Kandahar (Tolo News, December 26 2018). Despite the death of their leader, the BLA has vowed to continue attacks on Chinese interests in Balochistan (Balochistan Post, December 26 2018).

The BLA is one of the oldest, and arguably the largest, of at least six nationalist-separatist militant groups fighting against the Pakistani government for an independent Balochistan—a large province occupying the southwestern region of Pakistan, with its provincial capital in the city of Quetta (Terrorism Monitor, January 25). The November 2018 incident in Karachi raised the question as to why the BLA would seemingly turn aside from its struggle with Pakistan’s government in order to make a symbolic attack against a foreign country. The answer is found in the PRC’s extensive investments in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and how Baloch nationalists view the Chinese presence in their region.

Why Would Baloch Insurgents Target Chinese Interests in Pakistan?

Inaugurated in April 2015, CPEC is a bilateral agreement between Pakistan and China to develop an extensive economic and infrastructure corridor through Pakistan—one which will ultimately connect the port of Gwadar in southern Pakistan to the city of Kashgar, in China’s Xinjiang Province (China Brief, July 15 2015; China Brief, January 12 2018). Under the CPEC program, China is to provide $62 billion USD to Pakistan to develop port facilities in Gwadar, energy generation projects, transportation infrastructure, and industrial zones (Business Recorder, April 13 2017; Express Tribune, April 17 2017). The stated aim of CPEC is to uplift the economy of Pakistan, and to allow the country to serve as an effective corridor for China’s broader “Belt and Road Initiative” (Planning Commission of Pakistan, December 19 2017).

Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan is currently experiencing an armed insurgency that started in 2005, when veteran Baloch leader Nawab Akbar Bugti became embroiled in a dispute with then-President of Pakistan General Pervez Musharraf. The differences initially centered around royalties from natural gas mined in the resource-rich town of Dera Bugti, in northeast Balochistan. Later on, the building of military cantonments in Balochistan, and the development of Gwadar port by China, also became reasons for conflict (The Quint, August 26 2017). On August 26, 2006, Nawab Akbar Bugti was killed in a mountainous region of Balochistan; although the Pakistani government denied killing Bugti, Baloch groups blamed the state of Pakistan for his assassination, and thus the armed insurgency was further intensified (Dawn, August 27 2006).

Since that time, Baloch insurgents have alleged that the PRC is a “partner in crime” with Pakistan’s national government in looting the natural resources of Balochistan (The Balochistan Post, November 25 2018). China has been involved in projects affecting southwest Pakistan even before the advent of CPEC: for example, in addition to the development of Gwadar, the PRC state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) received a contract in the 1990s to extract gold and copper from the Saindak mine in Balochistan. Baloch nationalists allege that such projects represent exploitation of the mineral resources of Balochistan by Chinese interests (Dawn, January 7 2018).

Additionally, Baloch rebels believe that China is militarily supporting Pakistan’s government in its efforts to crush the Baloch insurgency. In a 2018 interview, the slain BLA commander Aslam Baloch stated that “China is looting resources in Balochistan in the name of mega projects by calling it CPEC,” and that elements of the Chinese Army were present in Balochistan to support the government (ANI News, November 27 2018). However, the claim of Aslam Baloch that the Chinese military is present in Balochistan has not been substantiated by other sources.

As a result of such stated grievances against the Chinese government, the BLA and other Baloch insurgent groups have conducted a series of attacks against Chinese interests. In August 2018, the BLA carried out its first ever suicide attack, targeting a bus carrying Chinese engineers; the bomber failed in the attempt, and only six people were wounded without any loss of life (Xinhua, August 11 2018). The attack on the PRC consulate was also explicitly part of a strategy to pressure Chinese companies to leave Balochistan: a BLA video recorded before the attack warned Chinese investors to stop exploiting the resources of Balochistan, or else the attacks would continue (Aditya Raj Kaul Tweet, November 23 2018).

Pakistan’s security agencies have claimed to foil at least one additional major attack directed against Chinese residents in Pakistan. In December 2018, Pakistan officials foiled a plan to attack Chinese workers on the East Bay Expressway in Gwadar, seizing weapons and ammunition that Baloch insurgents had stockpiled for that purpose (Samaa Digital, December 6 2018). This attempt by Baloch insurgents was thwarted, but it is unlikely to be the last of its kind.

Have Attacks by Baloch Insurgents Affected the Progress of CPEC in Pakistan?

The attacks mounted by the BLA and other Baloch insurgent organizations have significantly impacted PRC economic projects—most particularly, by inhibiting the free movement of Chinese persons in the region. In June 2017, a Chinese couple was abducted from Quetta; their dead bodies were subsequently discovered in the Balochistan town of Mastung (Dawn, June 9 2017). Under these circumstances, the PRC issued a security advisory in December 2017, which warned its citizens to limit their travel in Balochistan and to exercise utmost precaution (China Daily, December 9 2017). Chinese remain present in Gwadar, where they work under strict security protection. In Quetta, Chinese persons are unable to move freely, and must travel with security squads whenever they meet officials of the Balochistan government [1].

Moreover, the attacks by Baloch insurgents have increased the security costs of CPEC. In order to protect Chinese personnel working on CPEC projects, Pakistan has raised a special security division comprised of more than 15,000 personnel. This division is entrusted with the task of protecting Chinese personnel so that they can work on CPEC projects without being harmed. In addition to this security division, Chinese firms working in Pakistan have also hired private security guards. In the wake of the BLA attack on the PRC consulate, the security costs of CPEC are likely to increase even further (South China Morning Post, November 27 2018).

What Is the Impact on Pakistan-China Relations?

Statements issued by the governments of both Pakistan and China in the aftermath of the Karachi consulate attack indicate that relations between the two countries are still strong. The PRC Embassy in Islamabad expressed its trust in the ability of Pakistan to protect its citizens and institutions, and stated that attempts to undermine China-Pakistan relationships are “doomed to fail” (PRC Embassy in Pakistan, November 23 2018). Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan, described the consulate attack as a conspiracy to sabotage the economic and strategic cooperation between Pakistan and China; Pakistani officials have further alleged that the consulate attack was orchestrated from India (South China Morning Post, November 25 2018).

However, other developments indicate that the relationship between the two countries may not be as good as the aforementioned statements suggest. In the autumn of last year, Pakistan was facing a severe balance of payment crisis: Pakistan only had foreign exchange reserves sufficient to finance two months’ worth of imports (Asia Times, October 12 2018). In these circumstances, Prime Minister Khan traveled to China to ask for a bailout package. However, China refused an urgent bailout package for Pakistan, and stated that further negotiations would be required before reaching an agreement to financially bailout Pakistan (South China Morning Post, November 3 2018). Subsequently, Pakistan was left with no choice but to ask Saudi Arabia for a bailout package, which the oil-rich kingdom agreed to  provide (Dawn, October 24 2018).

The Afghanistan Angle

The impact of the Balochistan insurgency on Pakistan-China relations is further complicated by factors connected to Afghanistan. On Christmas Day 2018, BLA commander Aslam Baloch reportedly called a meeting of his lieutenants in the Aino Mina neighborhood of Kandahar, in order to decide upon their future courses of action. A suicide bomber disguised as a beggar exploded himself near Aslam Baloch, killing both the BLA leader and his deputies (Times of Islamabad, December 26 2018). The news of this suicide attack went viral on social media in Pakistan on December 25, and was confirmed by Afghan media the next day (Tolo News, December 26 2018).

The assassination of Aslam Baloch in Kandahar appears to support Pakistan’s longtime claim that Afghan territory is being used by Baloch insurgents to launch attacks inside Pakistan. The Pakistani foreign office demanded that the Afghan government investigate the matter, and explain the presence of a wanted terrorist on Afghan soil (Dawn, January 4).

Furthermore, the issue of Baloch insurgents has been raised in the ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and the U.S Government. Taliban representatives have reportedly demanded that the United States must ensure that Baloch insurgents are not allowed to use Afghan soil to launch attacks in Pakistan (Global Village Space, January 28). Experts in Pakistan believe that with the help of China, Pakistan’s government can achieve a diplomatic victory by using its influence with the Taliban to ensure that the Afghan and U.S. governments agree on evicting Baloch insurgents from Afghanistan—and that this will ensure security and smoother implementation of the CPEC program in Pakistan (Dawn, January 20).


The resolve of the BLA to attack Chinese interests has not fully diminished, and the organization will likely continue to target Chinese interests. Given the extent of China’s economic presence in the region, and the vast and sparsely populated land areas of Balochistan—both of which present a challenge to government security forces—the BLA will likely find future opportunities to strike out at CPEC. The capability of the BLA to effectively plan and organize deadly attacks has likely been reduced—at least temporarily—by the death of its leader Aslam Baloch, but it has not been defeated as an organization.

Additionally, the future course of the Baloch insurgent threat to CPEC projects will be dependent in part on the outcome of peace talks in Afghanistan. If Taliban demands are implemented, then the capability of the BLA to shelter in Afghanistan will be further diminished. However, if the Afghan negotiations break apart without a settlement, then the BLA will likely continue to use Afghanistan as a safe haven from which to attack Chinese interests. Ultimately, the ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and the United States may be the single most important factor affecting the security of CPEC projects and Chinese residents in Pakistan.

Adnan Aamir is a journalist and researcher based in Pakistan. He has written extensively on the Belt and Road Initiative for Nikkei Asian Review, Financial Times, South China Morning Post, Lowy Institute, CSIS and Asia times among others. He was a Chevening South Asian Journalism Fellow 2018 at the University of Westminster, London. Follow him on twitter; @iAdnanAamir

February 15, 2019

Donate to Martyrs' families: Bharat Ke Veer



14th feb'19 was a very sad day in Indian history, when 44 soldiers were martyred in Kashmir ( a figure which might go up ), and many others wounded . They died fighting an enemy whom they did not know, had not seen. They died fighting for our country and us, so that we could live peacefully with our families and children, without giving a second thought as to what would happen to their families and children if they did not return.We are forever in their debt , but merely accepting this fact is not enough……we need to do our bit too in whatever way possible.

We have all heard horror stories as to how relief , both financial and in kind, has been misused whenever given to government agencies,but now we have a choice. Most of you are aware of the joint venture launched by actor Akshay Kumar and MoD-Bharat Ke Veer . For those who are not, this is a venture in which Rs. 15 lacs is transferred directly into the accounts of the martyrs next of kin.This amount is over and above all the emoluments and benefits given by the central government to their families.The minimum amount accepted is Rs.10/- .You can contribute to any individual whose name is listed there, or to the corpus fund. Once the martyr’s family is given the amount, his/her name gets automatically removed from there.The link to the website is-


I would request that even if you don’t contribute, please forward this to as many as possible so that more people get to know of this noble cause.

GCSC Cyberstability update, February 15th, 2019

GCSC Cyberstability Update, February 15th, 2019

Your weekly news updates on the GCSC, its members, and relevant developments in the field of international cyber affairs. For more information about the GCSC, please visit www.cyberstability.org.


Europe Hopes to Fend Off Election Hackers with ‘Cyber Sanctions’

The article by Laurens Cerulus was published in Politico, 11 February 2019
A regime for "cyber sanctions" is taking shape — and it could already hit mischievous election hackers in May. The European Union is closing in on a procedure that would allow it to sanction foreign hacker groups when they target the upcoming EU election. The measures would not only allow EU countries to slap sanctions on hacker groups that succeed in intruding into IT systems, but also those attempting to get in, like the suspected Russian intelligence officers who allegedly plotted but failed to hack into the Hague-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons last year. In this article, Commissioner Christopher Painter elucidates the utility and effectiveness of imposing sanctions.

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Trying to Craft Global Cyber Limits

This article by Derek B. Johnson was published in GCN, 4 February 2019


Cyberattacks may not meet the traditional definition of war, but they can have serious physical and financial consequences. But U.S. officials, international organizations and independent experts have so far been unable to come to consensus about where to draw that line. In a series of meetings in Geneva, the nongovernmental Global Commission on Stability in Cyberspace hashed out fundamental principles that states, non-state actors and private industry should follow in the digital domain.

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Michael Chertoff on the Growing Threats to Our Privacy Today


This interview with Hari Sreenivasan was published in KSMQ, 12 February 2019
In this interview, Hari Sreenivasan sits down with former US Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, who authored the USA Patriot Act which led to a massive expansion of government surveillance. He joins the program to discuss growing threats to our privacy today.

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Election Security: Questions for the House Homeland Security Hearing

This article by Joshua Geltzer, Beth George and Jonathan Zittrain  was published in Just Security, 12 February 2019

The U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security conducted a hearing on election security on Wednesday February 13th. It’s part of a series the new Democratic majority in the House is holding related to the H.R. 1 legislation on election security, campaign funding, and government ethics, entitled the “For the People Act.” Just Security asked several experts what questions they think would be fruitful for discussion at the hearing. One of these experts, Commissioner Jonathan Zittrain, stressed the precarious balance between intelligence sharing and the protection of civil liberties. Furthermore, he raised questions with regard to public-private interaction and its implications for civil liberties.

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D.C. Metro System Beefs Up Supply-Chain Cybersecurity Provisions for New Railcars

The article by Sean Lyngaas was published in Cyber Scoop, 6 February 2019
The Washington, D.C. area’s Metro system, in response to U.S. senators who raised security concerns about a new line of railcars, now says it will use the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s cybersecurity framework to vet software and hardware proposed for the project. The senators had expressed security concerns over the railcar procurement after reports that a Chinese state-owned manufacturing company could win the bid. They asked if Metro would consult with defense officials before allowing foreign-government-built railcars to stop at the Pentagon, which is part of the Metro system. Alluding to China, the senators wanted to know if Metro would consider a company’s ties to foreign governments with a history of industrial and cyber-espionage when assessing bids.


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Russia to Disconnect from the Internet as Part of a Planned Test

The article by Catalin Campanu (for Zero Day) was published in ZDNet, 11 February 2019
Russian authorities and major internet providers are planning to disconnect the country from the internet as part of a planned experiment, Russian news agency RosBiznesKonsalting (RBK) reported last week. A date for the test has not been revealed, but it's supposed to take place before April 1. The Russian government has been working on this project for years. In 2017, Russian officials said they plan to route 95 percent of all internet traffic locally by 2020.

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Cyber Resilience in the Electricity Ecosystem: Principles and Guidance for Boards

The report by the World Economic Forum was published on their website, 13 February 2019
Cyber resilience is a challenge for all organizations, but, due to its vital role as a societal backbone, it is of particular importance for the electricity ecosystem. This report developed by the World Economic Forum in collaboration with electricity industry partners and Boston Consulting Group offers principles to help board members meet the unique challenges of managing cyber risk in the electricity ecosystem.

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Routing Security - Getting Better, But No Reason to Rest


This article by Andrei Robachevsky was published in MANRS, 5 February 2019

In this article, Andrei Robachevsky assesses changes in routing security in 2018, compared to 2017. He thereby sketches an image of an overall move in the right direction. The overall number of incidents was reduced, but the ratio of outages vs routing security incidents remained unchanged – 62/38.  In spite of the abovementioned positive development, Robachevsky calls for more awareness and attention to the issues of routing security in the network operator community.  

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Administration Readies Order to Keep China Out of Wireless Networks

This article by Julian E. Barnes was published in The New York Times, 12 February 2019
The Trump administration is moving closer to completing an executive order that would ban telecommunications companies in the United States from using Chinese equipment while building next-generation wireless networks, according to American officials. The executive order, which has been under discussion for months, is aimed largely at preventing Chinese telecom firms like Huawei from gaining access to the fifth-generation — or 5G — wireless networks that companies are beginning to build in the United States. American intelligence officials have grown increasingly concerned about Huawei and other Chinese telecom companies, saying their inclusion in American networks pose security risks that could jeopardize national security.

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EU Considers Response to China Hacking after U.K. Evidence, Sources Say

This article by  Natalia Drozdiak, Nikos Chrysoloras, and Kitty Donaldson was published in Bloomberg, 11February 2019
European Union member states are considering a possible joint response to cyber attacks allegedly conducted by a Chinese state-linked hacker group after the U.K. presented evidence last month about network infiltration, according to people familiar with the matter. For any retribution against China tied to cyber attacks, the EU would need to agree unanimously that the country was responsible and not all EU members currently agree, according to one of the people familiar with the matter. The EU is developing protocols to respond to malicious cyber activities, for instance by imposing sanctions, but it can be challenging to clearly attribute actions to any individuals or nation-state.

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Maria Ressa: Editor of Rappler News Website Arrested on 'Cyber-Libel' Charges

This article by Hannah Ellis-Petersen was published in The Guardian, 13 February 2019
The editor of an online newspaper in the Philippines has been arrested on charges of cyber-libel as part of what the country’s journalists’ union said was a campaign of intimidation against voices critical of President Rodrigo Duterte. The charges against Ressa relate to a story published on Rappler’s website in May 2012 that alleged ties between a Philippine businessman, Wilfredo D Keng, and a high court judge. The controversial cyber-libel law under which she is being prosecuted, was enacted four months after the story was written.

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Researchers Use Intel SGX to Put Malware beyond the Reach of Antivirus Software

This article by Peter Bright was published in ARS Technica, 12 February 2019
Researchers have found a way to run malicious code on systems with Intel processors in such a way that the malware can't be analyzed or identified by antivirus software, using the processor's own features to protect the bad code. As well as making malware in general harder to examine, bad actors could use this protection to, for example, write ransomware applications that never disclose their encryption keys in readable memory, making it substantially harder to recover from attacks.

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India Proposes Chinese-Style Internet Censorship

This article by Vindu Goel  in The New York Times, 14 February 2019
India’s government has proposed giving itself vast new powers to suppress internet content, igniting a heated battle with global technology giants and prompting comparisons to censorship in China. The new rules could be imposed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government anytime after the public comment period ends on Thursday night. The administration has been eager to get them in place before the date is set for this spring’s national elections, which will prompt special pre-election rules limiting new policies.

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Facebook Allowed Fake News Ads ahead of Nigeria Vote

This article by Yarno Ritzen  in Al Jazeera, 14 February 2019
Facebook's automated ad approval system can be tricked fairly easily, making it possible to buy ads to spread misinformation and fake news in advance of the Nigeria elections, an Al Jazeera investigation has found. Last month, Facebook said it would temporarily disallow political ads targeting Nigeria from being purchased outside the country in an attempt to prevent foreign influence in the February 16 elections.

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Undercover Spy Exposed in NYC Was 1 of Many

The article by Raphael Satter was published in AP News, 11 February 2019
When mysterious operatives lured two cybersecurity researchers to meetings at luxury hotels over the past two months, it was an apparent bid to discredit their research about an Israeli company that makes smartphone hacking technology used by some governments to spy on their citizens. The Associated Press has now learned of similar undercover efforts targeting at least four other individuals who have raised questions about the use of the Israeli firm’s spyware. The details of these covert efforts offer a glimpse into the sometimes shadowy world of private investigators, which includes some operatives who go beyond gathering information and instead act as provocateurs. The targets told the AP that the covert agents tried to goad them into making racist and anti-Israel remarks or revealing sensitive information about their work in connection with the lawsuits.

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Athens at the Center of European Cyber Security Strategy

This article by Yiannis Mouratidis was published in Forbes, 10 February 2019
To address the issue of cybersecurity effectively, the European Union Agency for Network and Information Security (ENISA) recently took a big step in terms of efficient European cooperation. ENISA has taken the opportunity to work closely with its partner organizations: the European Defense Agency EDA, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation Europol, and the Computer Emergency Response Team for the E.U. Institutions, Agencies and Bodies CERT-EU. In this regard, ENISA has signed a memorandum of understanding, which establishes a framework promoting cooperation on cybersecurity and defense.

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Cybersecurity Workers Scramble to Fix a Post-Shutdown Mess

This article by Lily Hay Newman  was published in WIRED, 10 February 2019
Two weeks out from the longest government shutdown in United States history—and with the possibility of another still looming—government employees are still scrambling to mitigate impacts on federal cybersecurity defenses. And the stakes are high. The effects of the shutdown extend even to agencies that were funded throughout, like the military and intelligence community, thanks to interdependencies and network connections between agencies. The only potential silver lining? The risk management firm SecurityScorecard suggests that threats like spearphishing may have been less effective during the shutdown, since furloughed employees literally weren't in the office to check their email. Though government employees and contractors who were furloughed have now spent more than two weeks rebuilding from the shutdown, it will be months or even years before the full toll of the incident is understood. And if another shutdown comes next week, count on erasing whatever little progress has been made.

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Four Opportunities for State’s New Cyber Bureau

This article by Robert Morgus and Justin Sherman in New America, 11 February 2019
In 2017, the Trump administration eliminated the position of cybersecurity coordinator at the White House and closed the cyber coordinator office at the State Department. This was a decision that undoubtedly harmed the United States’ ability to preserve a global and open internet and promote democratic norms around technology writ large. But now, the State Department is reportedly standing up a new cybersecurity bureau. The exact details and timeline are still unclear, but a spokesperson has at least clarified it will be run by “an ambassador-at-large for cyberspace security and emerging technologies.” Leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee have also introduced a Cyber Diplomacy Act that would create a cyber diplomacy office at State, slightly modifying a bill from last year. This article outlines four opportunities for the new bureau moving forward.

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The Future of Cybernorms: European Perspectives on Responsible Behavior in Cyberspace

On the 6th of March, the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) will be hosting a seminar on Europe’s role in promoting responsible behavior in cyberspace.

Since the UN Group of Governmental Experts on Information Security failed to reach agreement in 2017, the global, multilateral efforts to promote responsible behavior in cyberspace have tried to regain the political momentum. However, several initiatives have been introduced at both state, non-state and intergovernmental level. The EU has introduced a cyber diplomatic toolbox, Microsoft continues to promote a digital Geneva Convention, the Global Commission on the Stability of Cyberspace proposed six cyber norms, and Denmark has introduced the world’s first Tech Ambassador.

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The economic war on Syria: Why Europe risks losing



Nour Samaha 
11th February, 2019

Ron Van Oers via Wikimedia Commons (cropped) - CC BY 3.0

Sanctions can never be ‘smart’; new EU and US measures on Syria are only likely to strengthen the regime, not weaken it

As the frontlines in Syria largely fall silent and the Syrian government works on reasserting its control across the country, a new war is in the making: that of the West on the Syrian economy.

Over the last few months several new punitive measures have been inflicted on the Syrian state. In November the US Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control issued a new advisory threatening sanctions on ships transporting oil and gas to Syrian ports. And this month the European Union issued new sanctions against several Syrian businessmen and companies operating inside the country. In the United States an expansive bill is awaiting Senate approval, one which would see crushing sanctions not just against Syrian government entities and affiliates, but also third parties and states that take part in reconstruction. These are on top of the numerous sanctions imposed over the last eight years. The new measures aim to ensure that Western actors do not play any role in strengthening the reconstituted Assad order; they seek to pressure the Syrian government into changing its behaviour in return for sanctions relief and reconstruction aid.

These targeted sanctions criminalise the Syrian government as a whole, and consequently those who do any work in government-held territories

Yet this policy reveals a dangerous and fundamental misreading of both the Syrian government’s proven history of seeking to withstand pressure – at the expense of the Syrian population – and the extent to which the government’s allies will step in to ease the pressure – increasing their own influence within the country in the process. Not only will this policy prove ineffective in shifting the government’s behaviour towards the West’s desired goal, it will also have a hugely detrimental impact on the most vulnerable members of Syria’s population, significantly increasing the likelihood of further flight from Syria to countries with more opportunities and stability.

Sanctions often serve as an expression of moral outrage for Western policymakers.  And certainly, moral outrage is justified. The Syrian regime has committed enormous crimes against its own people. But outrage is not a strategy and Western sanctions as currently envisioned reveal a scorched earth policy that indiscriminately and arbitrarily punishes ordinary Syrians and threaten legitimate businesses.

Sanctions impact

While the government’s behaviour plays a central role in creating the desperate conditions on the ground, the sanctions on Syria have also exacerbated this suffering, as UN officials point out. Described by experts as the “most complicated and far-reaching sanctions regimes ever imposed”, the mixture of targeted, financial, and sectoral sanctions has created a situation today where Syrians are being punished twice: once by an authoritarian and corrupt government, and again by the international community through the imposition of inhumane and destructive sanctions.

And this is only getting worse. The latest OFAC advisory led to Syria’s most serious gas crisis in recent years, in the peak of winter. Within 48 hours of its issue, insurance companies cut their ties with vessels going to Syria, ships stopped sending their cargo, and the gas all but dried up. In an effort to deal with the crisis, the Syrian government asked prominent businessmen to buy vessels and transport gas from Iran and Russia, uninsured, which is highly risky and expensive. The cost of shipping has now soared due to the risk.

Inside the country today, ordinary Syrians are queueing for hours to buy a canister of gas to heat and cook with. Electricity cuts are plaguing the country. There is growing and very public discontent among the population. The situation has become so dire that government officials are acknowledging it and warning the population to brace themselves for ‘storms ahead’. As one Syrian official pointed out to this author, “the economic war is far worse than the military one, as the economic one enters into every single household and no one is untouched by it.”

Sanctions have left a larger and, in some cases, fatal impact beyond their intended goals: much has been reported about critical medical equipment and pharmaceuticals still being prevented from reaching Syria, including life-saving cancer medication and hospital equipment, because of the terms stipulated in the sanctions.

After eight years of conflict it is clear that sanctions have made absolutely no impact on shifting government positions. Meanwhile, sanctioned figures remain the dominant business actors in Syria today and, where it closes off opportunities for some, other government-affiliated figures quickly rise up in their place. The recent visit to the United Arab Emirates by a large delegation of Syrian businessmen and officials to drum up investment in Syria’s private sector was headed by Mohammad Hamsho – who has been on the sanctions list since 2011. Some actors are now profiting as a direct result of the sanctions-based economy, while average Syrians are forced to find alternative – and increasingly expensive – ways to bring in basic materials in order to survive.

A major flaw in the recent EU sanctions and the proposed US sanctions is that they fail to distinguish between the regime, the government, and non-official institutions. They do not define what the regime is, and what behaviour and business practices they accept as legitimate. Essentially these targeted sanctions criminalise the Syrian government as a whole, and consequently those who do any work in government-held territories.

The most recent instance saw several wealthy Syrian businessmen, including prominent Samer Foz, named in the recent EU sanctions. Foz rose to prominence when he became one of the very few businessmen to stay in Syria in 2012 following massive flight of the Syrian business community. Foz is listed because he is one of several developers who has invested in the Marotta Project, which is frequently conflated with Law 10, a recently introduced measure which is seen as an ‘anti-opposition’ bill that legalises the deliberate displacement of opposition supporters from certain areas.

In theory, Law 10 is based on an international practice that has been widely used across continents for decades. This provides a model through which countries affected by war and destruction can rebuild, using minimal state investment and depend instead on the private sector to invest. Meanwhile, the Marotta City project is a luxury real estate development project based on the notion of buying plots of land in return for shares in the project. It is not a project based on Law 10 – it was developed prior to the law’s creation. While it has bought out those who lived there, it is not an anti-opposition political project, rather a project that should be defined as neoliberal, serving upper-class investors at the expense of the lower classes.

What the Syrian government did was take the international practice and develop it into very poorly constructed legislation; it saw the Marotta City project as a viable redevelopment project that could be applied across the country in order to extract money from private investors and limit its own funding in reconstruction. What subsequently came out was a bill that discriminates against the poor and sees all land seized for small entitlements that will not be enough to secure their access to the newly developed residential areas.

For the government, Foz and others are useful as their businesses and investments inside the country contribute towards keeping the economy running. But at the same time, there is no friendship or loyalty to the top businessmen. Like the population as a whole – rich or poor – they are viewed as a resource to plunder.

In this context the sanctioning of Foz effectively represents a European attempt to crack down on business activity in government-held territories, equating it with “regime” efforts. It also implies that Syrian businessmen are guilty of regime crimes simply for participating in business opportunities inside Syria, warning them it is now illegal to work with local governing bodies and institutions. Such targeted sanctions also fuel the businesses of less savoury characters who are wholly embedded with the regime.

This may, in part, be the Western objective, but it risks debilitating the entire economy for which the wider population will pay the largest price. Foz and others like him represent an important source of wider economic activity and jobs, which risk now being curtailed.

The view from Damascus

The perspective from Damascus is that the Syrian state, and the population living under its control, will weather the sanctions storm. Not because people necessarily support the government, but because there is no alternative – both the state and the population know this. Indeed, this provides an easy alibi for the government to blame its own shortcomings on the actions of hostile external actors. In fact, the government’s control of patronage networks means that increased shortages caused by sanctions will help further solidify its control.

The Syrian government will continue to seek out partners to help alleviate the pressure, and today there are more actors willing to work with it, with few or no preconditions, in an effort to secure their own interests and get a slice of the post-conflict Syria pie. There are now ongoing talks between Iran, Iraq, and Syria to boost energy links between the three countries across their land borders. Within a week of the new EU sanctions, the Syrian government signed nine memoranda of understanding with Iran.  If successful, all these business ventures will address a number of the economic issues inside the country, including the gas shortage, removing this pressure from the government, while also giving Iran more access to the Syrian market.

The Syrian government has been under various sanctions since the 1980s and is therefore used to them. These new sanctions, and the possibility of even wider sanctions that would place punitive measures on partners who are looking to participate in reconstruction and investment opportunities in the country, will only strengthen interdependence between actors in Syria that the West considers to be problematic.

Moving forward

Sanctions are not ‘smart’. They create and empower oligarchs who, when targeted by sanctions, double down, become more powerful, and multiply in number. Sanctions also force the worst impulses of economic interaction across the entire market and destroy legitimate businesses while strengthening illegitimate ones. And many small- and medium-sized enterprise owners in Damascus are today suffering because of the rise of war profiteers, who have been enabled by the sanctions. These sanctions are likely to make life miserable for the ordinary Syrian, which in turn will feed ongoing instability and the prospect that some may choose to migrate to Europe.

In recognition of the dilemma of how to deal with Syria’s post-conflict phase with the Assad government still in place, the West clearly does not need to actively do business with Assad or “regime” elements. Nor does it need to actively fund reconstruction. But, even as it maintains this distance, it needs to be far more honest about the counter-productiveness of a tool, and particularly sectoral sanctions, which will produce little in its stated intentions and instead have a detrimental impact on the wider population.

February 14, 2019

India strongly condemns the cowardly terrorist attack on our security forces in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir

India strongly condemns the cowardly terrorist attack on our security forces in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir

February 14, 2019

The Government of India condemns in the strongest possible terms the cowardly terrorist attack on our brave security forces in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir earlier today (14 February 2019).

This heinous and despicable act has been perpetrated by Jaish-e-Mohammed, a Pakistan-based and supported terrorist organisation proscribed by the United Nations and other countries. This terror group is led by the international terrorist Masood Azhar, who has been given full freedom by Government of Pakistan to operate and expand his terror infrastructure in territories under the control of Pakistan and to carry out attacks in India and elsewhere with impunity.

The Government of India is firmly and resolutely committed to take all necessary measures to safeguard national security. We are equally resolved to fight against the menace of terrorism. We demand that Pakistan stop supporting terrorists and terror groups operating from their territory and dismantle the infrastructure operated by terrorist outfits to launch attacks in other countries.

We strongly reiterate our appeal to all members of the international community to support the proposal to list terrorists, including JeM Chief Masood Azhar, as a designated terrorist under the 1267 Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council and to ban terrorist organisations operating from territories controlled by Pakistan. 

We express our sincere condolences to the family members of our fearless security personnel who have made the supreme sacrifice.

New Delhi
February 14, 2019

February 13, 2019

Vasant Panchami is Indian Day of Love and Devotion; Valentine’s Day is drab, without substance

Vasant Panchami is Indian Day of Love and Devotion; Valentine’s Day is drab, without substance


Written by Mamta Upadhyaya

Long before Valentine’s Day happened to India there was already a day which stands for love and devotion. Vasant Panchmi (or Basant Panchmi) the fifth day of the Magha month (Indian traditional calendar month) is though traditionally celebrated as a day of Goddess Saraswati in every part of India and several other countries, it is also the day of Kamadeva. It was on this day that Kamadeva played cupid to bring Lord Shiva and Parvati together.

The story goes such that grief-stricken Shiva had become ascetic and retreated to the Himalayas to meditate for penance after Sati (his first wife) immolated herself at her father’s palace. Parvati who was a reincarnation of Mahadevi and Sati in her previous life was born to King Himavat (King of Himalayas) and wife Menaka to fulfil her duties of the world and also to marry Shiva. Ever since her childhood Parvati was a devotee of Lord Shiva. When it was time for her to get married she told her parents that she would marry Lord Shiva. King Himavat who was also a staunch devotee of Lord Shiva agreed and took Parvati to the Himalayas where Shiva was meditating. After a long wait, Shiva opened his eyes and asked King Himavat about his purpose of visit. The father told Shiva about his daughter’s desire to marry him. Shiva did not even look at Parvati or consider the marriage proposal. However, on Parvati’s insistence, King Himavat left her behind to take care of Shiva’s place while he meditated. Years passed and Parvati worked hard but she couldn’t win over Shiva. Now the Gods decided to intervene and they approached Kamadeva (son of Lord Brahma) to act as a cupid to wake Shiva from his deep meditation and marry Parvati.

It was on Vasant Panchami that Kamadeva agreed and shot five arrows decorated with mango and jasmine flowers, Ashoka leaves, and buzzing bees from his heavenly sugarcane bow. One of the arrows distracted Shiva and for the first time he looked at Parvati and admired her beauty. However, soon after he regained his senses and got angry with Kamadeva for his mischief. He opened his third eye and reduced Kamadeva into ashes. The ‘God of Love’ was brought back to life after Shiv married Parvati.

Vasant Panchami also marks the beginning of the ‘spring’ a season which brings newness, freshness, colour, warmth and sunshine after the chills and glooms of the winter. It is the season in which flowers bloom, trees bear new leaves, birds sing and bees buzz. Every human being feels a new energy and warmth in his heart. This is also a reason that Vasant Panchami is celebrated as a day to remember your loved ones (spouse) and express love and emotions. In Maharashtra, it is a custom for the newlywed couple to wear a yellow dress on their first Vasant Panchami and offer prayer at a temple. In parts of Gujarat people decorate their house with bouquets and garlands of flowers and set it with mango leaves. They wear saffron or yellow outfits and sing songs of Krishna and Radha (the epitome of pure love). In Rajasthan, people wear garlands of sweet-smelling jasmine. In central India, people worship Shiva and Parvati and offer mango flowers and ears of wheat. It is also an auspicious day wherein marriages can take place irrespective of what the planetary/constellation positions.

In Bengal, the girls wear basanti saris, bindi and jewellery and men wear traditional kurtas. On Valentine’s Day, it is all about couples and if you are single, it is something to be ashamed of. But Basant Panchami is about feeling special with someone in the midst of friends and relatives. Compared to Basant Panchami, Valentine’s Day is shallow and without substance. It doesn’t have a spiritual or social content; it’s all about show of superfluous show of affection and lust.

Widening wealth disparities will drive populist voting

Source: Oxford Analytica

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Wealth is more unequal than incomes; countries with stable or falling income inequality will increasingly address wealth

Source: Rosatom; Income Gini coefficients from the World Bank, wealth Gini coefficients from the 2018 Credit Suisse Global Wealth report, top 10% wealth and income shares from the World Inequality database.


Wealth inequality is surging across advanced, emerging and former communist countries, in contrast to income inequality, which eased from a global Gini coefficient of 68% in 2005 to 65% in 2016 (nearer 100% is more unequal).

The top 10% hold more than 70% of Russian and US private wealth and over ➡50% in the United Kingdom, India and France. However, public wealth is plunging as a share of these countries’ GDP, reducing the resources with which governments can invest in identifying wealth holders and planning politically palatable redistribution.

Research into the relationship between wealth and political preferences confirms that the less wealthy favour populist policies, signalling more nationalist voting ahead.


Research using seven countries’ house prices and voting to proxy wealth and preferences suggests weaker property growth fuels populism.

Houses can proxy wealth but logging other data better will augment estimates -- 28% of US wealth is houses; in France and China, over 60%.

Technology will be increasingly used to help record wealth holdings; for example, drones are used to check property sizes in the Caribbean.

The relation between wealth inequality and political preferences signals populist voting, but polarisation hinders agreeing redistribution.

February 12, 2019

India-Iran relations must move beyond symbolism

Hindustan Times

Underscoring Iran-India historical and cultural relations has always been the headline of every bilateral meeting between the officials of both countries.

Chabahar port enjoys special strategic status and is the gateway to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Caucasus, Russia and Europe. (File Photo)

Updated: Feb 10, 2019 13:59 IST

By Ali Chegeni

Underscoring Iran-India historical and cultural relations has always been the headline of every bilateral meeting between the officials of both countries. In my view, these inherent advantages cannot be taken away, because apart from the foreign policy agenda, these ties have pushed the relationship forward. These civilisational ties are the cornerstone for drawing a multidimensional and longstanding relationship.

From Sanskrit ties in the Vedic era and “Hindi Style” in Persian poetry in the late medieval period to partnership engagements in contemporary times, mutual interactions have shaped an Indo-Persian culture of which we have every right to be proud. Our modern engagements have brought remarkable results as India and Iran have always shared deep social, cultural, economic and political relations. Our nations and peoples are bound by strong ties of friendship, mutual sympathy, trust, and respect for each other’s cultures, traditions and interests.

How best can we move beyond a situation described as symbolism in the bilateral relations of both sides? I think the answer lies partly in Iran’s view on global and regional issues.

In this context, Iran and India also have common ground based on shared interests, particularly in Afghanistan.

The Islamic Republic of Iran strongly believes that preserving the achievements of the Bonn Agreement on Afghanistan, supporting the continuation of the democratic process, strengthening the current political order and structure, and facilitating the peace process within the Afghan-led, Afghan-owned and Afghan-controlled framework can help safeguard stability and security of the region.

To reach these goals, Iran and India, with the assistance of the other countries, must cooperate closely to improve the capabilities of the Afghan government, especially Afghan security forces, and to enhance combating terrorism and illicit drugs.

In another transition, West Asia is moving to Asianisation of its economy in such a way that today East Asia and India are the largest oil importers from the region. Iran has also placed India in its priority in the line of Look East Policy, the respect for which, the supreme leader of the Islamic revolution has time and again advised to successive Iranian governments. One can say with certainty that there is consensus within Iran’s establishment for strengthening engagement and cementing partnership with New Delhi. From our perspective, the rise of India will be positive in the path of multilateralism.

Many political and strategic issues could be listed to underscore the importance of both countries for each other. India, as one of largest economies, can be a part of Iran’s growth story. One of the most important points of strength in bilateral ties is the geographical closeness of the two countries that can generate many opportunities for both sides, specifically in respect of economic and trade relations. Besides, India and Iran enjoy potential connectivity assets in the region. In my opinion, if both sides try to boost their economic profiles, the strategic dimension will ensue soon.

Chabahar port enjoys special strategic status and is the gateway to Afghanistan, Central Asia, Caucasus, Russia and Europe. It should not be forgotten that Chabahar is a free economic zone and given India’s growing appetite for energy, it could turn into the largest industrial complex especially on the downstream and upstream oil and gas sector in the region.

The International North–South Transport Corridor (INSTC) is another axis of partnership. If cultivated properly, this connectivity project would be a game changer in the region.

Despite the fact that connectivity and energy will continue to be the basis of the relations, there are many opportunities in the non-oil sectors, direct investment or joint ventures targeting the big market of the region. We need some drivers and incentives in many areas such as biotechnology, IT, car manufacturing and so on.

It is essential to overcome barriers such as bureaucracy and third party. We have already signed several MoUs in all the above areas during the visit of Prime Minister Modi to Tehran in 2016 and President Hassan Rouhani to New Delhi in 2018. We must translate these good intentions to actions.

(Ali Chegeni is ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran in India The views expressed are personal)

February 11, 2019

Older doesn’t mean wiser when it comes to fake news

The sources of ‘fake news’ have been much studied since the British referendum on leaving the European Union and the US election that brought Donald Trump to power. 

Researchers from New York University and Princeton have now crunched the numbers of Americans who shared fake news in the run up to the 2016 presidential election and come up with some surprising conclusions. 

The research, published in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances, found that those who identified themselves as ‘conservative’ or ‘very conservative’ were the most likely to share content from fake news sources. This is to be expected, given that the vast majority of fake news came from conservative, pro-Trump sources. 

While conservatives shared more fake news links than liberals, and Republicans more than Democrats, the best predictor of who shares fake news online is not your political party, it is your age. 

The researchers found that people over 65 were three times more likely to share fake news sources on Facebook than those aged between 45 and 65, while the millennial generation barely figured. 

  More than 8,000 people participated in a survey during the 2016 election, and about 1,300 of the participants allowed access to their Facebook profile for researchers to study what they shared and posted.

While the number of people sharing fake news on Facebook was relatively low, researchers said the  most robust and consistent finding was that older Americans were more likely to share articles from fake news domains. ‘This relationship holds even when we condition on other factors, such as education, party affiliation, ideological self-placement, and overall posting activity,’ they said. 

The findings pose a challenge to political scientists who have tended to favour explanations based on deeply held or ideological predispositions.  The study has potential ramifications for those who create  fake news and those who want to suppress content designed to manipulate voters’ choices. If older people are more susceptible to sharing fake news, there is a danger that they will become the primary target during misinformation campaigns. 

There was a surge in over-55 users on Facebook last year, making it the second largest demographic on the platform. Several studies have identified Facebook as a perfect breeding ground for the spread of fake news. The over-65 demographic has a proven ability to shape politics – take Brexit, for example. Some polls suggested that support for leaving the EU was roughly 19 per cent in the 18-24 age group compared with 59 per cent within pensioners, who are in any case much more likely to vote. 

The researchers had no evidence why older  people were more likely to share fake news, and called for more research into whether this was due to lack of digital literacy compared with younger people or to an age-related decline in cognitive abilities. 

Since 2016, Facebook has taken steps to combat the sharing of fake news  but they have yet to be proved effective. With the advent of ‘deep fakes’ – doctored video and audio, which are close to impossible to separate from the real thing – fake news has the potential to evolve into something even more disruptive to the electoral process.


America's Mideast retreat


Paul Salem looks at how the region will fare if Trump carries out his threatened withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan

US soldiers board a plane at Baghdad. Salem says Iraq could be the most significant country to watch

At the end of last year, President Donald Trump shocked US allies by declaring his intention to withdraw all US troops from Syria and to reduce by half the US military presence in Afghanistan. With Trump one can never tell if he will follow through on his promises or change course, and this policy has already been slowed down by his advisers. 

Nevertheless, this bald statement of the president’s ambition to end US military entanglements in the Middle East – and the subsequent resignation in protest of Defence Secretary James Mattis – raised questions about the US commitment to the troubled region. So how have the political dynamics of the Middle East changed, and what can be expected in 2019? 

A US withdrawal from Syria would affect all the global players in the region. It would give Russia both more sway and more
responsibility over the outcome in that country, and it would further consolidate the Assad regime’s rolling victory in that civil war and bolster the hand of Iran and Hezbollah. 

The withdrawal would have far less predictable results for the Kurds of Syria who would have to negotiate a rapprochement with the Assad regime, while avoiding potential attack from Turkey. It also puts Turkey in a challenging position, having to make good on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s promise to contain the Syrian Kurds either through a buffer zone or something more ambitious. Either attempt would be a military adventure with unpredictable outcomes. 

The announcement of a partial pull-out of US troops from Afghanistan may turn out to be the first step towards a full withdrawal. If this happens, it is not likely to lead to an agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government, but rather a weakening of the Afghan state. Without the US contingent, the other allied troops deployed there might not stay, putting the Kabul government in a very precarious position.

Aside from questions of US deployment in Syria and Afghanistan, the elements of continuity in the region outweigh the changes. Sanctions on Iran will remain in place, as will US long-term air, land and sea deployments throughout the region. The strong relationships with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will remain despite turbulence with Riyadh over the Khashoggi murder and tensions over the prosecution of the war in Yemen. The Trump administration might finally unveil its long-promised ‘deal of the century’ over Israel and Palestine, but the proposal is most likely to be stillborn.

The Russian re-entry into the Middle East is significant but should not be overestimated. Russia will have its hands full managing its ‘success’ in Syria and trying to move the country towards stability and reconstruction. Vladimir Putin’s prestige has been riding high in the Middle East, especially in comparison with feckless US leadership. Several Arab countries have rebuilt strong ties with Moscow by buying arms or civilian nuclear reactors, or coordinating energy policy to manage oil prices. Arab leaders also favour the strong authoritarian model that Putin embodies. But Moscow does not have the interest, ambition or capacity to be a region-wide alternative or challenger to the US as it was during the Cold War. 

China might have that interest and capacity one day, but not in the near future. While the US has already identified China as its main national security challenge globally, China’s geopolitical footprint and ambitions in the Middle East remain circumscribed despite China relying on Middle Eastern energy supplies and investing heavily in regional infrastructure. China’s military expansion is real but it will be felt first in the Asia-Pacific region, where tensions are already mounting. And although China has a base in Djibouti and arms deals with several Middle Eastern countries, it still does not exhibit any interest in projecting large-scale military power or engaging in intense political or diplomatic activity in this region. China’s decade might be approaching, but it is not this decade.

At the regional level there is some change, but existing trends continue. The regional proxy war over Syria is virtually at an end; Turkey has accepted the persistence of the Assad regime and is focused on stabilizing its border in northern Syria. Key Arab states that had backed the rebels in Syria have accepted the painful outcome and have moved to normalize relations with Assad; we can expect the re-admission of the Assad regime to the Arab League in the not too distant future. This might have significant effects on the final ending of the Syrian conflict and movement towards reconstruction, but it is unlikely to alter the broader regional status quo, and Iran’s dominant position in Syria and Lebanon is unlikely to be fundamentally challenged.

The deep rift inside the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council between Qatar and countries allied with Saudi Arabia will continue, as will the broader intra-Sunni split between Turkey and Qatar on one side, and Egypt and the UAE on the other, over support for or opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. More broadly, the heightened regional tensions between Arab Gulf countries and Iran, made only more intense by renewed US sanctions, will persist. As for the prospects of regional conflict, a sudden escalation into war between Israel and Iran and/or its proxies in Syria and Lebanon remains one of the highest risks. 

The conflicts in Yemen and Libya might continue to de-escalate in 2019. Talks in late 2018 relating to both conflicts showed a degree of willingness among parties – and their backers – to reduce the level of armed conflict and explore the potential of negotiations. Talks might not lead to final resolutions of these conflicts, but it will be significant if they help ease the catastrophic humanitarian tragedy in Yemen and edge Libya towards greater stability. 

Not all events are driven by the ambitions of regional or global powers. Among the most important developments to watch are the protests in Sudan against the 30-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir. These have been violently repressed but they might lead to political change. If the Arab uprisings of 2011 taught us one thing, it is how unpredictable these outbursts of political unrest can be. 

It is important to note, also, that the majority of countries in the Middle East are likely to have more ‘normal’ years, far from the cataclysms of state failure and civil war. Morocco will continue to evolve its promising experiment in political and economic diversification. Algeria, where a presidential election is scheduled in April, has to contend with a succession problem and a restive population but has resources to meet popular needs. Tunisia remains an inspiring example of democratic transition in acute adversity and should maintain its democratic trajectory despite serious economic and security challenges. Egypt will, unfortunately, see no easing of authoritarian rule but is likely to maintain stability and modest economic growth. Jordan will remain afloat despite tight economic stresses as it is too valuable to its allies to be allowed to fail. Lebanon has had dysfunctional government and public finances for years but is likely to muddle through, unless Israel and Hezbollah stumble into another war. 

Iraq might be the most significant country to watch in the long run; it represents a communal microcosm of the region, is a central and rich country, and is one which is struggling with an inclusive, constitutional and ‘democratic’ – with many failings and caveats – system. Iraq will be focused on reconstructing the areas previously held by the Islamic State group and repatriating the displaced as well as managing tense inter-communal relations and improving government performance and service provision. These are huge tasks, but Iraq’s long-term success or failure will be an example around the region of a less authoritarian system of government. Among the Gulf countries, Oman faces an uncertain succession in the eventuality of the death of the current sultan, and Saudi Arabia still has to learn the lessons of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s troubled attempt at consolidation of power.

The Turkish economy will have a difficult year after economic contraction at the end of 2018, and this will spell further trouble for Erdogan. Iran is likely to witness intermittent protests over its gathering economic problems, exacerbated by US sanctions, but these are unlikely to weaken the state’s hold on power, or lead to fundamental political change. Israel will face the political drama of the race between prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s possible indictment and his re-election bid in April.

In the broader picture the region will still continue to suffer from four basic challenges: political systems that remain widely authoritarian and have resisted and reversed attempts at political evolution; economies that show some pockets of striking growth, but generally remain crony-capitalist in structure and reliant on oil and gas; a non-existent regional order – rather a regional disorder – in which several axes of proxy conflict persist; and several ongoing civil wars that have created horrific humanitarian crises, generated refugee outflows, and provided the ungoverned space and desperate populations in which radical and terrorist groups thrive. The short-term policy prescriptions are not hard to discern: ending civil wars, de-escalating regional proxy conflicts, attending to urgent humanitarian needs, and continuing to push for both political and economic reform. The question is which among the regional and global powers has the energy and determination to pursue these goals. 


AUTHOR: Paul Salem is the President of the Middle East Institute in Washington DC

AfPak Digest: Ananta Centre

  Ambassador Sharat Sabharwal 
Adviser, Ananta Centre 
Former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan

• Overview 
• Developments in Pakistan 
• Developments in Afghanistan 

I Overview


• 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.