Three major developments could be identified during the second week of October 2017 – a US delegation visiting Pakistan preparing for a high level visit later this month, securing of an American-Canadian family who were kidnapped by the Huqqani group in Afghanistan in 2012, and a new round of Af-Pak tensions following Afghanistan’s refusal to take part in the scheduled bilateral transit trade coordination meeting.
An important domestic issue, that is likely to expand further and even snowball, with international ramification would be related to the Milli Muslim League. During the second week of October, the Election Commission of Pakistan rejected the MML’s application to register as a political party.
Repairing the Relations with the US: Rhetoric and Concessions
Three major developments took place – all inside Pakistan involving Islamabad’s engagement with the US. The first one was a statement, high on rhetoric by Pakistan’s Prime Minister that it does not rely only on the US. Second was an US visit led by Lisa Curtis, preparing for a high level American visit later this month. And the last development was the securing of an American-Canadian family by the Pakistani security forces.
Pakistan’s Rhetoric: The Days of Pakistan depending on US over
Pakistan’s Prime Minister Shahif Khaqan Abbasi on 8 October, made a s
tatement in public that the days Pakistan depending on Pakistan 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.
Pakistan’s Reality: Towards Repairing the Relations with the US
After initial brouhaha a month earlier, Pakistan seems to be getting ready to host James Mattis soon. A delegation led by Lisa Curtis including the Ambassador Alice Wells and acting Assistant Secretary of Defence David Helvey was accorded a high level reception. The delegation held discussions with not only Pakistan’s Foreign Secretary Tehmina Janjua, Foreign Minister Asif Khawaja but also Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) General Qamar Bajwa.
Clearly, Pakistan despite the above rhetoric, cannot afford not to repair the relations with the US. The two visits by Asif Khawaja within a month to the US earlier should have already prepared the grounds for a more substantial talks with the Trump administration. Not only Khawaja visited the US, but the COAS visited Afghanistan as well. Pakistan has done its groundwork.
The above delegation is a trial run, for a larger reset with the US. Later this month, the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis are expected to visit Pakistan. The above meeting should be seen as an icebreaker.
If James Mattis statement in a US Committee meeting on giving one more chance for Pakistan has opened some space, the recovery of an American-Canadian family by the Pakistani security forces further has created an environment.
Where will the US-Pak relations go from here? An earlier analysis in Pakistan Reader mentioned about US-Pak Déjà vu; appears, this is a part of it.
Joshua and Caitlan: Three Questions for Pakistan
Just a day before the above visit by the US delegation, Pakistan's security forces rescued an American-Canadian family from their kidnappers. Coincidence?
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 Relations: One Step Forward, Two backwards
Af-Pak Transit Trade Troubles
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.
Pakistan’s fears over transit trade with Afghanistan have another component – Chahbahar. An Iranian exit for the Afghan goods would reduce the bilateral trade with Pakistan, undermine Pakistan’s plans for Gwadar port, reduce Pakistan’s influence on Afghanistan to open a land route to Central Asia, and more importantly undermine Kabul’s dependence on Pakistan for trade. The last part is what Pakistan fears the most.
Pakistan’s apprehensions are not over losing the trade with Afghanistan. It is on losing its influence on Kabul. Chahbahar provides an alternative to Kabul and will reduce its dependence on Pakistan for trade.
The Milli Muslim League (MML): To Register or Not To
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.