Af-Pak Digest by Ambassador TCA Raghavan

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


Pakistan
: The month saw Pakistan’s political class firmly in election mode with the usual cut and thrust associated with the weeks before polling. Caretaker governments were sworn in at the centre and the provinces. A former chief Justice Nasirul Mulk took oath on 1st June as caretaker prime minister along with a skeleton cabinet. A wider context is that this is the third continuous national assembly in Pakistan’s history that has completed its regular term. On the other hand, its tenure was frequently rocked by civil military turbulence and like its two predecessor assemblies continuity in the tenure of the prime minister could not be ensured.

After a long period of a frozen situation in India Pakistan relations with frequent clashes on the LOC, a telecon between the respective Director General of Military Operations with a reiteration of the need to uphold the 2003 ceasefire suggested a thaw. That this had largely coincided with the government decision of suspension of operations during Ramadan in J and K also suggested that a wider policy change may be afoot. Post Ramazan developments in J and K have however now suggest otherwise. The UN Human Rights Commissioner report on J and K coincides with this period and gets therefore greater amplification.

Afghanistan: Terrorist attacks and clashes with the Taliban in different parts of Afghanistan continued the trend of the past months of a deteriorating internal security situation and the failure of all political efforts to address this. Change however came on the 7th June with the government of Afghanistan announcing a unilateral ceasefire with the Taliban until June 20- broadly coinciding with the second half of Ramadan and Eid. What was unusual was that the Taliban reciprocated and also announced a three-day halt in hostilities against the country’s security forces -its first ceasefire in Afghanistan since 2001. There were attacks that disrupted the ceasefire yet the development itself was novel enough to hold attention. Post Eid the Government extended the ceasefire for a further period without any reciprocal decision emerging from the Taliban.

The ceasefire howsoever temporary and the fraternization that accompanied it is a significant development in itself. The overall context is also important since at around this time a major TTP leader was killed in a US drone strike in Afghanistan. These steps together suggest a overall improvement in regional atmospherics especially when compared to the past few months.

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II Developments in Pakistan


External:

Financial Action Task Force: According to press reports the National Security Committee (NSC) chaired by the caretaker Prime Minister in a meeting on 8th June has approved an action plan to be submitted to the FATF as part of the process for Pakistan to be placed on the organization’s ‘grey list’. The FATF meeting is scheduled to take place in the last week of June. According to reports Pakistan has so far had difficulties in persuading the FATF to accept earlier drafts of its action plan on the grounds that significant loopholes remained in its financial regulatory system w r t terror financing. Failure to have an agreed “Action Plan’ carries the risk of Pakistan being placed on a ‘black list’ that would increase transaction costs for a range of financial activities even more than being on the ‘grey list’. There is however considerable opacity on the exact sticking points. According to some reports in mid-May Pakistan had submitted some additional measures w r t terror financing by domestic groups but these were found to be insufficient requiring further approvals by the NSC.

India: Line of Control Ceasefire: Following a telecon on 29th May the DGMOs of the respective militaries agreed that the 2003 ceasefire would be maintained by both sides. The telecon was described as having been initiated from the Pakistani side. That the telecon was followed by near identical statements by both sides suggests some behind the scenes efforts to secure this outcome. The statement said: “Both DGs MO agreed to fully implement the ceasefire understanding of 2003 in letter and spirit forthwith and to ensure that henceforth the ceasefire will not be violated by both sides,” and “in case of any issue, restraint will be exercised and the matter will be resolved through utilisation of existing mechanisms of hotline contacts and border flag meetings at local commander’s level”. Although there have been breakdowns of the ceasefire within days of the agreement being reached nevertheless the ceasefire has held better in the past 3 weeks than any other time over the past few months. It is to be noted, although the two developments may not be directly related, that the understanding has as background the announcement of of the GOI announcement of ceasing of offensive operations during the month of Ramazan.

J & K: Developments w r t J and K merit mention. The release of a report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on the situation in J&K (and on POK) was welcomed by the Government of Pakistan and a statement issued by the Foreign Office  said that it “welcomes the proposal by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish a Commission of Inquiry for international investigation into human rights violations in the Indian Occupied Jammu & Kashmir (IoK).This proposal is consistent with Pakistan’s several calls to this effect since 2016, even as India has continued to ignore legitimate demands for probe into gross and systematic violations, including pellet guns, excessive use of force, arbitrary arrest and detentions as well as continued sexual violence as part of overall impunity enjoyed by Indian security forces.” W r t the references to the situation in Gilgit Baltistan and ‘Azad Kashmir’ the Pakistan government statement was to say “references to human rights concerns in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan should in no way be construed to create a false sense of equivalence with the gross and systematic human rights violations in IoK.” Many in Pakistan see the timing of the report coinciding with developments in J and K- the assassination of a senior journalist, ending of the Ramazan suspension of operations, reaffirmation of LOC ceasefire and fall of the state government and President’s rule in the state- as an opportunity to bring the J and K issue back on the international radar. The fact that there is a caretaker government in Pakistan at this time is not necessarily a drawback for this point of view. The opportunity is enhanced as currently India is not a member of the Human Rights Council while Pakistan is. The Human Rights Council is to meet in Geneva in the second week of July.

Kishan Ganga Hydro Electric Project: The inauguration of the project by PM Modi on 19th May led to expected comment and criticism in Pakistan – both against India for ‘violation’ of the Indus Waters Treaty and against its own government for being unable to stop the construction in time. Pakistan officials have been stating that the matter will be taken up with the World Bank but clearly its approach has not worked.

Internal:

Elections: Pre-election atmospherics have included speculation of possible postponements and numerous issues around the two principal parties- the PML(N) and the PTI- and their leaders. Imran Khan faced turbulence on account of revelations over his personal life as it became clear that his second wife had written a no holds barred memoir of their 9 month long marriage in 2015. Selections from the book have been circulating widely in the social media. To add to this former chief justice Iftikar Chaudhury has made a statement that he has proof of Imran Khan having an illegitimate child and therefore, by implication, is in violation of constitutional provisions that require elected representatives be sadeeq and ameen – righteous and truthful. Supposed infringement of these is what had led to Nawaz Sharif’s judicial ouster as Prime Minister. Whether all this translates into more than mild embarrassment for Imran Khan is however difficult to say. The real battle lies ahead in the villages and towns of Punjab against Nawaz Sharif. The latter has had his own set problems with accountability courts seeking to fast track his prosecution. Nawaz Sharif has hitherto successfully used this to project himself as the victim of the machinations of the military and the judiciary.

Long Awaited Constitutional changes: The outgoing PML (N) government was able to effect, virtually in its last days, two significant constitutional changes w r t the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and Gilgit Baltistan.

FATA: The constitution amendment bill for the merger of Fata with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formally known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas Reforms Bill, was passed in the national Assembly and the Senate and thereafter by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assembly. In effect it provides for the end of the British-era Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) with the territory getting merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. With the passage of the bill, the KP government’s administrative authority will now extend to the 27,220-square-kilometre tribal areas. The final step in the merger of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) was completed on 31st May with Presidential assent.

FATA reform or merger has been on the agenda in Pakistan since at least the 1970s and the inability to address its anachronistic status was part of larger strategic issues concerning Pakistan Afghanistan relations. While the merger will be a sequenced process nevertheless its formal approval implies that the process of the Pakistan military establishing itself strongly along the Durand line with Afghanistan has reached fruition. That there is however no early closure to Afghanistan related issues in the tribal areas was underscored by a statement from the Afghan president after the passage of the bill. The statement inter alia said that Pakistan’s decision is “against the 1921 agreement between the British India and Afghanistan”. The statement, posted online, also said that the decision was taken by Pakistan’s Parliament at a time when the “military was governing” the areas. It went on to say that “Every decision about the tribal regions should be made in normal situation and in accordance with the consensus of the tribal people,”; “The Afghan government believes that one-sided decision under the pretext to end the British-era laws and inhuman system is not solution to the problems,”, and; “We have always shared our concerns through diplomatic channels with Pakistan and international community about Pakistan’s military intervention across the Durand Line, especially in the tribal regions,”.

The Pakistan Foreign Office had tweeted in response that “Our parliament’s decision reflects the will of the people of Pakistan,” and “The principles of non-interference and non-intervention in the conduct of bilateral relations need be scrupulously adhered to by Afghanistan,”.

Gilgit Baltistan: Equally significant has been the outgoing government’s effort to address anachronisms pertaining to the status of Gilgit Baltistan in Pakistan. Here the choices are fewer as merging the territory with Azad Kashmir is not a realistic option given the local resistance likely to be aroused by such a move. Similarly, any move to declare the territory as a fifth province of Pakistan comes up against the assessment that such a move is not desirable as this would open a Pandoras box w r t Pakistan’s position on Jammu and Kashmir. Simultaneously however there have been pressures w r t ‘mainstreaming Gilgit Baltistan’ and expanding the powers of locally elected representatives.

In view of these conflicting pressures the government has sought to devolve an additional tranche of powers to Gilgit Baltistan by means of the Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) Reforms Order 2018, replacing the old GB Self Governance Order 2009. Under the new order, all powers earlier exercised by the GB council, including passing legislation regarding mineral, hydropower and tourism sectors, have been shifted to the GB Assembly.

Opposition parties in Gilgit Baltistan have protested against the order on the grounds that the federal government’s role and power have in fact expanded under the new order rather than substantive devolution being carried through.

The Ministry of External Affairs of the GOI expectedly protested regarded the passage of the GB Reforms Order 2018 saying “that the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir which also includes the so-called ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’ areas is an integral part of India” and “Any action to alter the status of any part of the territory under forcible and illegal occupation of Pakistan has no legal basis whatsoever, and is completely unacceptable”.

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III Developments in Afghanistan

Ceasefire: Afghanistan announced on 7th June that it would maintain ceasefire with the Taliban for Eid, though operations against other groups including the Islamic State would continue. The week-long ceasefire, backed by the US, was to extend “from the 27th of Ramazan until the fifth day of Eid ul Fitr”, according to a tweet from President Ashraf Ghani – the period indicated implying June 12-19. Ceasefire announcements from the Government are not in themselves new. It would be recalled that on February 28, President Ghani had made a renewed call for the Taliban to join peace talks without eliciting any response. This time around however, and for the first time, the Taliban also announced a three-day ceasefire with the Afghan government over the Eid holiday period. This was widely welcomed and during the ceasefire period scenes of fraternization have been reported between the Taliban and Government representatives leading to speculation, which may also be premature, that the brief ceasefire suggests that the dynamics of the conflict in Afghanistan may finally be changing. While that may be so it is also a fact that the past month had seen also many terrorist attacks and Taliban assaults of undiminished intensity. Some in Afghanistan had also voiced their objection to the Government’s unilateral ceasefire saying that this would allow Taliban insurgents to position themselves for future attacks.

Afghanistan reaction to FATA merger: See Pakistan section above. It does appear that Afghanistan’s protest on this was low key and that possibly can be explained by the general improvement in Pakistan Afghanistan atmospherics on account of the ceasefire and other developments listed below.

Pakistan COAS Visit: The Pakistan Chief of the Army Staff made a day long visit to Kabul on 12th June accompanied by the Pakistan Foreign Secretary, the  ISI chief and the  Director General Military Operations. Coincidentally, Gen Bajwa visited Kabul on the day the unilateral ceasefire by the Afghan government went into effect. Gen Bajwa, according to a ISPR statement, welcomed the ceasefire and “wished that these steps gain permanence ultimately leading towards an enduring peace”. The visit further strengthened the speculation that Pakistan had facilitated the ceasefire in Afghanistan by using the leverage it has with the Taliban and that it is continuing with efforts for more confidence-building measures by both sides. To an extent at least these moves are also made with a view to reassuring the US that it is not coming in the way of political moves being made by the Afghan Government to begin some kind of engagement process with the Taliban. According to Pakistan press reports the army chief during his talks also sought to dispel Afghan concerns about border fencing, which has been the cause of considerable friction in the relationship in recent months.

TTP Leader Mulla Fazlullah killed in US drone strike in Afghanistan: A spokesperson for the Pakistan army announced on 15th June that the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani had called the Pakistan COAS to convey the news of the killing of the commander of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan Mullah Fazalullah in a US drone strike. A similar call is believed to have been made to the caretaker PM of Pakistan.

Mullah Fazlullah, also known as Radio Mullah had come to prominence in Swat particularly from 2007 onwards and following a military operation and cleanup in May 2009 is believed to have moved to Afghanistan. A number of major terrorist attacks by the TTP within Pakistan are traced back to him including the attempted assassination of the noble laureate Malala Yusufzai, the massacre at the Army Public School in December 2015 etc.

The ‘bases’ of the TTP within Afghanistan has been a major Pakistani grouse vis a vis Afghanistan and talking point with the United States. Fazullulah’s elimination would be a major setback to the TTP and may well be the beginning of yet another concerted effort to harmonize the US Pakistan and Pakistan Afghanistan relationships.

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