PR Editorials

Balochistan: Who kills Whom, Where and Why?

Photo: Dawn

On 18 October, a truck carrying police officials was targeted by the Pakistani Taliban in a suicide attack, killing seven. 

Balochistan has been witnessing violence and insurgency in waves since independence. The present phase of insurgency has been going for the last fifteen years, led by Baloch insurgents for a secular ethnic cause. The above attack was not a part of the Baloch insurgency.

In the recent years, there have been two new actors – the Pakistani Taliban and the sectarian militants – especially the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The latter primarily target the Hazara community in Balochistan, especially around Quetta. The Hazaras are Shias and have their links to Afghanistan. While they have been living in Quetta peacefully with the local communities for more than a century, in the recent years (since 2012), they have been targeted by the LeJ. The latest attack on the Hazaras took place few days earlier, when two militants in bike opened fire on Hazara vegetable vendors. The LeJ has its base in Punjab.

The Pakistani Taliban has been targetting the security forces, as a part of their anti-State campaign all over Pakistan. In the recent years, they have increased their activities within Balochistan. The TTP has its base primarily in the KP and FATA. Most of the suicide attacks in Balochistan were carried out by the TTP.

How do the TTP and LeJ who do not have their bases in Balochistan succeed in carrying out attacks in Quetta, the provincial capital? 

It is no coincidence that the violence led by non-Balochi groups have increased since Afghan Taliban moved into Balochistan and the Quetta Shura became a force. Quetta Shura is bound to encourage and provide space to other militant groups.

Also the State, especially the Establishment in its myopic view, decided to ignore the sectarian ingress and overlook the violence against the Shia communities in Balochistan, and also the Shia pilgrims from Gilgit Baltistan who travel to Iran via Balochistan. The blowback is bound to happen. And grow bigger.

ISIS should be considered as the fourth non-State actor in Balochistan, besides the Baloch militants, TTP and LeJ. Some of the recent suicide attacks in Balochistan have been claimed by them.

Recent statistics would reveal, the violence in Balochistan is shifting from tribal to urban regions, and from the Baloch to non-Baloch perpetrators. What does this mean? Is the new violence and the perpetrators likely to deflect the original question in Balochistan? Is there an orchestration? Or, do groups play their own little games and wage small wars under the larger violence in Balochistan?

Af-Pak: Drones return to target the Huqqani Network

Photo: The News

According to news reports from Pakistan, over the last two days, there were three US drone attacks on the Af-Pak border regions, killing more than 30 people.

It should be more than a coincidence that there were three drone attacks following the US delegation meeting Pakistani officials a week earlier in Islamabad, and the Afghan Quadrilateral Contact Group (QCG) resuming after a year.

Obviously, the issue of drone attacks should have been discussed in the meetings. Did Pakistan also share some intelligence regarding the militant hideouts and movement, as a quid pro quo? 

According to a media report, the drones targeted the hideouts belonging to the militants of JuA and the Huqqani network. It is not clear, whether those who got killed were the foot soldiers or leaders of any importance. Quoting Taliban sources, the report mentioned that 18 members of the Haqqani militants were killed, but “no prominent militants were in the area when the drones targeted two or three different compounds” - mud-built houses used by the mujahideen.

It is also not clear whether the attacks on both days took place on the Afghan side of the border, or the Pakistani side. Official Pakistani reports for political reasons would like to deny that the attacks took place in the FATA region in Pakistan. But, what is clear is the resumption of drone attacks, and the militants belonging to the Huqqani network getting targeted. 

Is Pakistan yielding to the American pressure on the Huqqani network? Or, is Pakistan playing another dirty trick, by providing intelligence on the foot soldiers of the Huqqani network and deflect the criticism that the latter is a “veritable arm” of the former?

Afghanistan: The QCG returns, but without the Taliban

Photo: The Express Tribune

Almost after a year, the Quadrilateral Contact Group (QCG) involving Afghanistan, Pakistan, US and China met, this time in Muscat Oman on 16 October 2017. There was no statement at the end of the meeting either reviewing the talks so far, or presenting a new road map. 

The meeting is important – for this is the first meeting after Trump taking over. This is also the first meeting of the killing of Taliban leader in 2016 by an American drone, which led to the collapse of the QCG initiative. One of the primary focus of the previous QCG talks was getting the Afghan Taliban to the table. 

Pakistan was expected to use its influence on bring the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. More than other three countries, Pakistan is excited about the resumption of the QCG, for two reasons. First, there is a general perception within Pakistan that the QCG is a Pakistani initiative. Second, the resumption of QCG provides an institutional mechanism for Pakistan to set an agenda, or dismiss another. 

For Pakistan, QCG is a diplomatic leverage, not only vis-à-vis Kabul, but also vis-à-vis Washington. In this context, the recent meeting of an American delegation in Islamabad led by Lisa Curtis should have broken the ice, after a thaw in relations between US and Pakistan, following the harsh statement by Trump.

So what next for the QCG and Pakistan? Much would depend on the Taliban leadership – whether they would like to take part in the negotiations, and what will they demand in return for the same. One is also not sure of the influence of Pakistan over the present Taliban leadership; after the killing of Mullah Mansour, the Taliban is also wary of Pakistan. Within Afghanistan, taking part in a negotiations would be a political disaster for the Taliban. 

Much would also depend on how far Kabul is willing to play along the QCG. 

Civil-Military Rumbling: The War of Words

Photo: The Express Tribune

Ministers of the Government and the military officials are continuing their tirade against each other through the media. The latest one is on the nature of Pakistan’s economy.

During the last one month, the PML-N has made few statements hinting at military’s involvement in civilian governance. It started with Nawaz Sharif alluding to the role played by the Establishment leading to his ouster. His statements even hints at a collusion between the judiciary and the military. Later, Ahsan Iqbal, as the interior minister questioned the stationing of paramilitary on a court premise without his order and preventing him from entering. The Prime Minister made a statement that a government by technocrats may not solve the problems being faced by Pakistan. Ahsan Iqbal, again, this time as Finance Minister asked the military not to comment on Pakistan’s economy, as “such irresponsible statements can dent Pakistan’s global image.”

DG ISPR is on the other side of the War. The Army Chief Gen Bajwa last week in a conference commenting on the need for Pakistan to expand its tax base, was quoted to have said that “the economy is showing mixed indicators…Growth has picked up but the debts are sky high…infrastructure and energy have improved considerably but the current account balance is not in our favour.” He was addressing businessmen in a conference organised by the Federation of Pakistan Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FPCCI) in Karachi. The DG ISPR Maj Gen Ghafoor's in a TV interview later said: "If the economy is not bad, it is not doing so well either." Ahsan Iqbal exploded.

The DG ISPR could have let is pass. But he didn’t. There was another long press conference on Saturday. Disappointed as “a soldier and a citizen of Pakistan” by the comment made by the Ahsan, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor said economy is linked to security.

He also commented that there should be “no reservations, fears or apprehensions.” But there is, as one could be seen from the front page stories and editorials in the leading news papers on the subject. Given the history and civil-military relations in Pakistan, it would not be easy for the PML-N to easily agree with Gen Ghafoor’s statement: “Everything is under civilian supremacy and the army does not take decisions on its own. Institutions do not operate in isolation.”

Pakistan is facing elections within a year. Any overt intervention by the military would only make things worse – both internally and externally. Unless, the Establishment has a plan, and what we see is a process in slow motion to achieve the same. It would be useful to forecast this plan, and the implications of the process.

Joshua and Caitlan: Three Questions for Pakistan

Photo: Dawn

Joshua Boyle and Caitlan Coleman – a Canadian-American couple was kidnapped in Afghanistan in 2012. Following an operation by Pakistani security forces, with intelligence inputs, the couple was rescued in October second week, along with three children born during the captivity.

While the development is a welcome and everyone who is part of this process should be congratulated, this has also raised few uncomfortable questions for the US and Pakistan.

First, were the couple and children “secured” by an operation, or “released” by the Huqqani group, who is believed to be their captor? This is important, for the first one would suggest a positive and affirmative action by the security forces, and the latter a collusion. 

Second, the place from where the abducted family was secured/released. Did it happen, as they were crossing into Pakistani territory in the trial areas of FATA, or did it happen in the settled district of Kohat in Khyber Pakhtunkwa? The intelligence agencies in Pakistan seem to highlight the former, while news reports from Pakistan indicate the latter. According to an ISPR statement, “US intelligence agencies had been tracking them and shared their shifting across to Pakistan on 11 Oct 2017 through Kurram Agency border. The operation by Pakistani forces, based on actionable intelligence from US authorities was successful.” Clearly, the statement hints about the episode-taking place in the border.

Media reports suggests otherwise. According to available reports, drones were repeatedly spotted in the area where the abducted family was finally recovered. This would suggest a strong and irrefutable intelligence by the Americans that the Pakistani intelligence agencies could not refute, other than help secure the process.

Perhaps, for Pakistan the operation would help build its own image vis-à-vis the US; an American delegation led by Lisa Curtis was visiting Pakistan, when the hostages were secured/released. There is no proof to link the two, but a strange coincidence it is.

Third is a larger question: why would the captors bring their victims into Pakistan, after kidnapping them in Afghanistan five years ago? And when did they bring them into Pakistan? Once the dust settles, and the kidnapped couple starts speaking, one could get to know more about how they were kidnapped by the Huqqanis in Afghanistan, and transported into Pakistan. It would also reveal the safe havens that the group and its affiliates have with Pakistan.

Af-Pak Transit Trade: Why Islamabad blames India?

Photo: The Express Tribune

One step forward and two steps backwards. President Ghani met a Pakistan delegation in Kabul led by Gen Bajwa on 01 October. A week later, Afghanistan has cancelled a scheduled meeting of the Afghanistan-Pakistan Transit Trade Coordination Authority. Pakistan has responded negatively to this, blaming both Afghanistan and India for scuttling the Af-Pak bilateral trade.

The Afghanistan Pakistan Transit Trade Agreement signed in 2010 (perhaps under pressure from the US), has been strained since the beginning. Pakistan blames Kabul (and New Delhi) for demanding the inclusion of India into the agreement as the primary reason for the failure; however, there are serious internal issues that Pakistan has to address bilaterally. 

The failure to control the informal trade (outside the formal channels) between the two countries is the primary reason behind the failure of formal trade between the two countries. Informal trade (like in the case of India and Bangladesh) between Afghanistan and Pakistan thrives and is controlled primarily by businessmen and mafia from Pakistan. Smuggling feeds directly into the various Bara from Peshawar to Karachi. This network has a strong clout over the formal channels and is a primary factor to undermine any bilateral legal trade between the two countries. Reports would suggest that the intelligence agencies are aware of the problem, but ignore it; some would suggest collusion. 

Outside the smuggling, and the hold of informal trade over the formal one, there are serious legal issues in implementing the Agreement – from banking to visa procedures for the Afghan businessmen. During the recent years, businessmen from both sides of the border have been regularly threatening to stop the trade, unless their genuine demands and grievances are met. 

Pakistan would want not want to look into the real issues for the failure of the formal trade with Afghanistan. Blaming Kabul and New Delhi is an easier option, to take solid measures. Let Islamabad take measures to stop smuggling and the back end links of those Bara markets existing all over Pakistan.

The Milli Muslim League (MML): Challenging the Election Commission over Registration

Photo: The Express Tribune

The legal debate on Milli Muslim League (MML) has returned. The political face of the JuD and Hafiz Saeed suffered a legal setback, when the Election Commission of Pakistan refused on 11 October 2017, to recognize the MML as a political party. The MML candidate contested the recent election for the National Assembly against Kulsoom Nawaz as an independent. Later this month, there is another election for a National Assembly seat in KP (NA-04); the MML has already announced its decision to contest.

The decision of the Election Commission seems to be influenced by the note submitted by the Interior Ministry earlier. The note said, ““Recent political activities of the group [Milli Muslim League] have also been officially objected at diplomatic level—Ministry of Foreign Affairs has highlighted our international obligations and commitment to national action plan and recommended that Ministry of Interior should take up the matter of registration and activities of MML and its association with proscribed organizations with the Election Commission of Pakistan to avoid any negative consequences for Pakistan and therefore recommended that MML application for registration should not be supported for registration.”

The MML may have lost a legal position with the Election Commission refusing to register the same as a political party, but will continue to fight – both politically and legally. With the decision on Hafiz Saeed due by the end of this month (he is under house arrest), the legal struggle for the MML would be important. If Hafiz Saeed is to be released, then the MML is likely to argue that if the concerned person is free, then why should the registration of the party be questioned? Already, the party has objected being labeled as having links with a “proscribed” group.

The larger issue for the Election Commission and Pakistan would be the political support for the MML. In the Lahore election, it has polled higher than the Jamaat-e-Islami, a registered political party. The PPP’s performance was not that great either. If the MML affiliated independent is to perform better in the forthcoming National Assembly election for the NA-04 seat, it would add further pressure on the judiciary and the ECP on the question of registration.

Are the days of Pakistan depending on US over?

Photo: The Nation

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahif Khaqan Abbasi on 8 October, made a statement in public that the days Pakistan depending on the US were over. In the last few weeks, one could notice a high level of rhetoric in the Pakistani media; while some have been asking for a reset in US-Pak relations, majority have been asking for Islamabad sending a strong message to the US. 

Is the Prime Minister, playing to a local crowd, or is he signaling to the US? Can Pakistan afford to look beyond the US? Obviously, there is a new confidence for Pakistan; where does it come from?

The Prime Minister also have stated: “If one source dries up, we have no option but to go to another source…We have major US weapons systems in our military, but we’ve also diversified. We have Chinese and European systems. Recently, for the first time we inducted Russian attack helicopters.”

Perhaps, there is a conscious effort inside Pakistan to diversify their defence purchases. It needs a larger analysis to find out on the patterns of Pakistan’s defence procurement and whether there has been a substantial change in the pattern, which would give the above confidence to Pakistan. Just buying few attack helicopters does not mean, there is a larger defence partnership between Pakistan and Russia. 

Or, is Abbasi signaling to the US? There have been reports already that the high level US officials are coming to Pakistan later this month to deliver a tough message. Perhaps, the statement is aimed at upsetting the American threat and tell them – don’t push us, for we have others.

But, for Pakistan, where does this confidence come from? Does the CPEC and the growing China-Pakistan relations would substitute for Pakistan’s dependence on the US. If it does, what would that mean? This also needs a larger analysis from an Indian perspective. 
Click here for Pakistan Weekly Brief-01, “Repairing External Relations and Rupturing Internal Equations”
Click here for earlier Editorials from Pakistan Reader 

Pakistan’s “Legitimate” Concerns in Afghanistan

Photo: Dawn

In the recent weeks, especially after the harsh statement made by the American President Trump on Pakistan while announcing his new Afghan strategy, Pakistan has been repeatedly emphasizing about Pakistan’s “legitimate concerns” in Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Asif Khawaja during his two recent trips to the US made this point repeatedly. The same point will remain as the focus as two major US officials are visiting Pakistan during October 2017.

What are Pakistan’s legitimate concerns in Afghanistan? The Afghan population in Pakistan (refugees and otherwise) has been substantial since the 1980s. Though over 4 million Afghan refugees have been repatriated (according to UNHCR statistics), the Afghan population in Pakistan is substantial. Though primarily in KP and FATA, and substantially in Balochistan (due to geographic proximity), they have also moved into other provinces. Given the history, sociology, ethnicity and economy, this movement will continue for Pakistan. 

The second major legitimate concern should be those Pakistani militants (belonging to the TTP and its affiliates) hiding in Afghanistan and continuing violence against the State and Society. Pakistan would want to prevent this. 

And what cannot be considered as Pakistan’s legitimate concerns? Growing Indo-Afghan relations and the American acceptance of the same – why should these become Pakistan’s “legitimate concerns”? Pakistan cannot have a veto over Kabul and Washington on Afghanistan’s external relations. Would Pakistan like to accept a similar dictation by the US or even China? Even when Saudi Arabia wanted Pakistan to be a part of the Islamic Military Alliance, the debate in public and in media called for an independent policy. Afghans should be the only people to decide with whom they would work with.

Similarly a “friendly regime” in Kabul and using non-State actors to achieve the same (through the Afghan Taliban and Huqqani Network) cannot be considered as a legitimate concern. Certainly not using non-State actors and violence in Kabul and other places, against what Pakistan consider as not in their own interests. 

India will have to strongly voice its opinion and draw a stronger redline in Afghanistan. 

The Asif Ghafoor Press Briefing: What he spoke, what he meant and what he didn’t

Photo: The News

On 5 October 2017, Maj Gen Asif Ghafoor, the Director General of the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) in Pakistan addressed the media on a series of issues. The press briefing took place in the background of recent statement by Nawaz Sharif on not learning from the fall of Dhaka, the Rangers fiasco in not allowing the Interior Minister to enter into a court premises and their subsequent withdrawal from Parliament, meeting of Corps Commander and the statement by an US Official about the American concerns on the stability of government in Pakistan.

Maj Gen Ghafoor was quoted to have stated that there is no clash between the state institutions and the army is subordinate to the Constitution of Pakistan. He denied that the army was behind the accountability process (leading to the disqualification of the Nawaz Sharif) and refuted that the military is looking for a martial rule. According to him: “We obeyed the orders of Supreme Court and our two representatives became part of the JIT. The army did not produce anything during the process. It is our stand that the process should be carried out by those who have the domain to do so.”

On Sharif’s reference to not learning from the fall of Dhaka, he was quoted to have said: “So much has happened over the last 70 years… it is time to move beyond the past.” Clearly, the military is uncomfortable to look back. Worse to learn from the past.

Given the tension between the PML-N and the military, civil-military equation has assumed importance in the public debate in Pakistan. The military perhaps wants to totally brush off any debate when Ghafoor said: “these are things that should not even be spoken of.” His response to the absence of any statement after the Corps Commanders meeting was: “Silence is also expression, right?”.

The military in fact has been silent on the entire accountability process. Is that also an expression? If it is, what does that mean?

From an Indo-Pak perspective, what he said on Cross-LoC firings was important: “If they fired one bullet, our troops will respond with five…Unlike India, we cannot fire indiscriminately, as there are Kashmiri brothers on the other side, so when there are casualties on that side, it is soldiers and infrastructure. But war is not the solution.” 

Is it what we see along the LoC – that there are five bullets from Pakistan for one from India and those five are not indiscriminate, because they are worried about the Kashmiri brothers? Or is the ISPR statement is only for a Pakistani audience?

Suicide Attack on a Sufi Shrine in Balochistan

Photo: Dargah Fatehpur Sharif Facebook

On 5 October 2017, a suicide attack on a Sufi Shrine (of Pir Rakhel Shah in Fatehpur in the Jhal Magsi district of Balochistan) killed more than 20 people. 

The district borders Sindh and is dominated by the Magsi tribe of the Baloch. The district is predominantly rural; according to the 2017 census, of the total 72,300 population, 68, 400 lives in rural areas. Close to 70 percent speak Balochi, and the rest speak Sindhi and Seraiki. The district is neither a predominant part of the larger Baloch insurgency, nor a part of Pakistan Taliban’s focal area. Then why was there a suicide attack on a Sufi shrine in an insignificant district?

Two trends could be identified. First, there is a deliberate attempt in the recent years to expand sectarian militancy. Shia Hazaras have been under attack in Balochistan in the recent years. Though Balochistan have witnessed violence in the past, it was predominantly led by the secular and socialist Baloch groups. One could see a new actor – a radical one, backed by a particular religious ideology, targeting a section of the Baloch community. The Baloch were not known for their radical views with respect to the religion within Pakistan. 

Second, there is a deliberate attack on Sufi shrines all over in Pakistan. During early 2017, there was a major suicide attack in another Sufi shrine (Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan) in Sindh. Before, there were numerous other suicide attacks on Sufi Shrines in Sindh and Punjab. 

Clearly, the attack in Jhal Magsi is a part of a larger design. The statements made by the officials, linking to external sources show yet another trends – blaming the others for the violence inside Pakistan, and not looking inwards.

Repairing the Relations with the US

Photo: Dawn

Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif is back in the US, this time formally to discuss the bilateral relations between the two countries. Earlier, he was there few weeks ago, speaking at different institutions, trying to find the American mood, after the hard-hitting speech by Trump on Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s role.

Khawaja Asif seems to have done his home work. After his earlier visit to the US, there was an internal meeting in Pakistan; the National Security Council had a long discussion where Asif was present. Immediately after the NSC meeting, Pakistan’s Army Chief took a delegation to Kabul. Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan President talked about a “new season” after meeting with the Pakistani delegation. It is obvious, that Pakistan has taken the Trump threat seriously.

For Asif Khwaja, the assignment in Washington is likely to be four fold: Ensure Pakistan remains a part of major decision making process in Afghanistan and not seen as a problem. Maintain the sanctity of Durand Line and avoid any military confrontation between the Afghan-US and Pakistani troops in the future. Warn the US of expanding the drone programme beyond the tribal region. And more importantly, limit the Indian presence and engagement in Afghanistan.

So, what are his trump cards to convince the US on the above points? Obviously the TINA factor – There Is No Alternative for the US other than working with Pakistan in Afghanistan. Pakistan has been using this strategy well since 2001. There is an element of truth and bluff in the above Pakistan position. Will the US work on the first, and call off the second?
The statement made by the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on 4 October is interesting and goes beyond the bilateral relations. He was quoted to have said: “We have concerns about the future of Pakistan’s government too, in terms of them — we want their government to be stable. We want it to be peaceful. And many of the same issues they’re struggling with inside of Pakistan are our issues.” If the above is the American reading of domestic developments within Pakistan, what does this mean further? 

Nawaz Sharif re-elected as PML-N Head

Photo: The News

Immediately after the Parliament passed amending the Election Bill, the PML-N elected Nawaz Sharif as its leader. The new Act provides for electing a person to be the party chief despite his disqualification to be the member of legislature.

Though the PML-N would like to claim this as the choice of the people, it is clear that this is the party’s choice. The opposition parties in the Parliament did not support the Act in its present version. Some did suggest modifications and some did tore up the resolution. However, the PML-N succeeded in passing it, because of its majority in the Parliament.

Two statements made by Nawaz Sharif after getting re-elected as the Party Chief suggest his present position. He referred to “nothing being learnt from the fall of Dhaka” and the use of “Doctrine of Necessity” to oust him from being the Prime Minister. 

The first reference is obviously towards the role of the military in politics leading to the breakup of Pakistan. His statement of “ending a black law which was enacted twice by two dictators Ayub Khan and then Pervez Musharraf” links the new amendment not to his re-election, but to the strengthening of democracy.  

The second reference is aimed at the judiciary for being subservient to the dictators by inventing a doctrine of necessity. He stated: “In the past, the Doctrine of Necessity was introduced (to legitimise martial law)…Those who violated the constitutional oath remained Sadiq and Ameen. No action committed during dictatorial rule was taken notice of under Article 184(3) of the Constitution.” He has also called for creating a similar Doctrine of Necessity “to respect people’s mandate and democracy.”

The above two statements clearly reflect the present mood of Nawaz Sharif. ≈The larger question is, whether bulldozing an act in the Parliament despite resentment from the opposition parties will strengthen the case of democracy and supremacy of institutions. Whatever may be the strength of the case leading to his ouster, he should have waited and cleared his name in all those cases before getting re-elected as the party chief. But he is a man in a hurry. For what? What will he do next?

Rangers defy Interior Minister

Photo: The Express Tribune

This could happen only in Pakistan democracy. The para military forces defying their political boss – the interior minister, from entering into a court premise. Neither the interior ministry ordered them, nor the Courts requested them. The interior minister had no clue under whose orders the Rangers were deployed in the Court premises, and has threatened to resign!

It all started on 02 October morning, when Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s Interior Minister was accompanying Nawaz Sharif to a court proceeding in Islamabad. The Rangers, who function under the interior ministry, prevented their minister from entering into the Courts.

The primary question in the immediate context is: who had deployed them? The Court officials have made it clear that there was no request from them. A letter issued later from the Office of the District Magistrate of the Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) says: “Rangers was not requisitioned by the ICT for any kind of deployment in the premises of the Court on 2nd October 2017”.  Then on whose orders were they deployed?

The larger question is what does this mean for the ongoing cases against Nawaz Sharif. He has been complaining about a conspiracy by certain actors outside the political institutions. In the public literature, there is adequate reference to actors who tried to influence the entire process through and outside the Courts. The October 2 incident would further question the entire judicial process leading to the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif.

Finally, what will the political institutions do further on this case – from the Parliament to government and the opposition? The interior minister has threatened to resign; perhaps, he would be asked to remain silent. He roared about an inquiry into the incident. Pakistan’s shelves are full of such inquiry reports, which never saw the light of the day. The interior minister also said: “I cannot be a puppet interior minister… There can’t be a state within state.” 

Perhaps, there is. Will the opposition parties come together and make a stand in the Parliament and ensure that the latter remains supreme? Or, given Pakistan’s history, will this issue also die subsequently?

Khilafat is Coming

Photo: Dawn

End September, a flag similar to that of the Islamic State was spotted by a citizen flying in the national capital – Islamabad. It screamed: “Khilafat is coming”. The flag was subsequently removed, but has brought back the debate on the Islamic State with a clear divide between the State and the society on the IS presence.

A formal statement was made by the State, strangely by the Foreign Service. It made an even curious point that there is no “organized presence” of the IS in Pakistan, and “media reports do not warrant any response.” 

This is not the first time one has found an IS flag in Pakistan. There have been numerous reports and graffiti about the IS in major cities. Ample statements from different militant leaders have been already made on the intention.

While the earlier statements from the State totally negated the idea of IS being present in Pakistan, the latest one refers to the absence of an “organized presence”. Does this mean that there is an IS presence, even though it may not be organized?

Ever since the formation of al Qaeda, the militant strategy has been evolving. The evolution of sleeper cells, use of internet and foreign fighters, the threat from international groups such as the Islamic State is becoming more nebulous. Hence, the absence of an organized presence, may be a strategy in itself by the militant groups. The State will have to look at the intentions and not the presence in this context.

Af-Pak: The New Season

Photo: The Express Tribune

The Pakistani delegation led by its Chief of Army Staff met the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on 01 October 2017.  Ghani called the meeting as a “new season of relationship” and discussed issues “including security in the region, bilateral relationship, peace and stability, anti-terror efforts, business and transit relationship, and mid- and long-term ties between Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

Will this become a “new season” for Pakistan and Afghanistan? Did Gen Qamar Bajwa visit Kabul with an objective to start a new relationship? Or the visit was under pressure from the US, especially before Islamabad attempts a course correction with the present American administration?

The immediate requirement for both sides would be to target the militant safe havens in respective countries and prevent any major attacks across the Durand Line. And the second requirement would be to stabilize the Line itself. While the first issue is straightforward, the second issue is sociological and political.

While both countries need to work together on the first issue, Pakistan will have to be more accommodative on the second issue. Currently, Pakistan has been using the second issue as a trump to pressurize Afghanistan on the first issue. Closure of border at will has not only been increasing the political distance between Islamabad and Kabul, but also the Pashtun population across the Durand Line. 

It is Pakistan’s sovereign right to control its borders. But the Durand Line is no ordinary border. For Kabul, it is not a border at all, as they politically dispute it. For the people across both sides, it does not exist sociologically. Pakistan wants to impose a military solution to the above, by constructing a fence.

If the Durand is stabilized a “new season” will automatically evolve. And this needs a political approach. It is unfortunate, that the Parliament in Pakistan has abdicated this responsibility to the military. Until the two Parliaments connect with each other, Afghanistan and Pakistan would remain a repeat of the previous seasons.

COAS to Visit Afghanistan

Photo: The Express Tribune

Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Gen Qamar Bajwa is visiting Kabul on 01 October 2017. According to a news report, he is expected to discuss border relations including border fencing, and militancy.

While the above issues have assumed a perennial nature in Pak-Afghan relations, the real reason behind Gen Bajwa’s visit seems to be preparing the ground for the next Pak-US discussion. Following Trump’s hard-hitting statement on Pakistan, as a part of his new surge in Afghanistan, he has also welcomed India to play an increasing role. Both the positions of the American President, if pursued seriously by the US would seriously jeopardize Pakistan’s preeminent position in the region, and thereby Islamabad’s international status. A reduced status will undermine Pakistan’s bargaining position vis-à-vis the US.

To restart its discussions with the US, and build a working relationship with the Trump administration, Pakistan will have to start from the ground. In this context – Afghanistan. The visit of Foreign Minister’s to the US recently was a part of this strategy - to find the American pulse on what is expected and what would be acceptable. 

Gen Bajwa is expected to break new grounds in Afghanistan, primarily for the sake of repairing Pak-US relations. A positive joint statement, or an announcement by the Afghan President on Af-Pak relations would help Pakistan at this juncture. Though Pakistan would prefer to claim, this is a part of larger interaction with Afghanistan, the timing and the chronology of events since Trumps’ Afghan speech, Khawaja’s US visit, the NSC meeting in Islamabad would prove otherwise.

NSC on Afghanistan and Kashmir

Photo: The News

The latest meeting by the National Security Council (on 29 September, Friday) seems to have discussed Afghanistan and J&K, besides other issues. The backdrop for this meeting is important. Starting with Trump’s new Afghan strategy, to the recent addresses/statements/responses in the United Nations by Pakistan’s Prime Minister and the Special Representative Ambassador Maleeha Lodhi, there have been numerous developments at the international level for Pakistan.

The NSC should have discussed the recent visit of Khawaja Muhammad Asif to the US, where he met numerous officials and addressed think tanks. He should have briefed the NSC about his discussions and the new American positions on the region. Though few statements made by Asif in the US about “Pakistan’s Liabilities” (referring to Hafiz Saeed and the Lashkar-e-Toiba) have created a stir within, his visit was well coordinated and exploratory to read the American minds, before Pakistan finalise the next steps towards its eastern and western neighbours. According to a report, the NSC considers Kashmir and Afghanistan among the cardinal points of Pakistan’s foreign policy and there can be no external pressure. 

Perhaps the focal point of the NSC meeting should have been the proposed visit of the Foreign Minister in early October to meet Rex Tillerson. The meeting was scheduled in September and was postponed. The NSC wants to prepare for this crucial meeting, as it would place a substantial pressure on Pakistan by the US on do’s and don’ts. Khwaja’s September visit to the US is a curtain raiser and feel the American pulse on various issues.

The NSC though includes the Prime Minister, Finance Minister and the Foreign Minister, is dominated by the Establishment through the Chiefs of Army, Navy and Airforce Staffs. The fact that the NSC had discussed the above issues would underline that the Establishment and not the offices of the Prime Minister and Foreign ministry lead the policy towards Pakistan’s neighbours.  

A series of meetings on Afghanistan and with Afghans, along with a “Special Envoy on Kashmir” are likely to be Pakistan’s responses. The first will be aimed at appeasing the Americans in Afghanistan, and the second will try to present the Pakistani case on Kashmir and "internationalise" the issue.