Biden’s defense secretary pick says will focus on improving ties with Pakistan military

U.S. Army (retired) General Lloyd Austin (L) speaks after being formally nominated to be Secretary of the Department of Defense by U.S. President-elect Joe Biden at the Queen Theatre on December 09, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (AFP)
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Updated 20 January 2021

Biden’s defense secretary pick says will focus on improving ties with Pakistan military

  • General Austin says building relations with Pakistani army would provide openings “to cooperate on key issues“
  • Says will focus on shared interests which include training future Pakistan military leaders through International Military Education and Training funds

ISLAMABAD: Retired United States Army General Lloyd Austin, President-elect Joe Biden’s defense secretary pick, said on Tuesday he believed continuing to build relations with the Pakistani military would allow the two nations “to cooperate on key issues,” saying he would focus on training future Pakistan army leaders.
The outgoing government of President Donald Trump had quietly cut scores of Pakistani officers from coveted training programs — including the International Military Education and Training program (IMET) — that have been a hallmark of bilateral military relations for more than a decade. It also canceled hundreds of millions of dollars in security and military aid.
“I will press Pakistan to prevent its territory from being used as a sanctuary for militants and violent extremist organizations,” Austin said at a confirmation hearing for the post of secretary of defense before the United States Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. “Continuing to build relationships with Pakistan’s military will provide openings for the United States and Pakistan to cooperate on key issues.”
“I will focus on our shared interests which include training future Pakistan military leaders through the use of International Military Education and Training funds,” the general said. “Pakistan will play an important role in any political settlement in Afghanistan. We also need to work with Pakistan to defeat Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (Daesh-K) and to enhance regional stability.”
“Pakistan is an essential partner in any peace process in Afghanistan,” he added, referring to ongoing US-brokered peace talks between the Kabul government and Taliban insurgents to end almost two decades of war. Pakistan is considered key in helping bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.
“If confirmed, I will encourage a regional approach that garners support from neighbors like Pakistan, while also deterring regional actors, from serving as spoilers to the Afghanistan peace process,” the general added.
Austin said Pakistan had taken “constructive steps” in recent years to meet US requests in support of the Afghanistan peace process.
“Pakistan has also taken steps against anti-Indian groups, such as Lashkar-i-Taiba and Jaish-i-Mohammad, although this progress is incomplete,” Austin said.
“Many factors in addition to the security assistance suspension may impact Pakistan’s cooperation, including Afghanistan negotiations and the dangerous escalation following the Pulwama terrorist attack,” he added, referring to a suicide attack in which at least 40 Indian security personnel were killed in a town in Indian-administered Kashmir last year.
When asked what options the US had to influence Pakistan, the general said: “Pakistan is a sovereign country.”


Pakistani director’s film on harassment against women in running for Dubai awards

Updated 04 March 2021

Pakistani director’s film on harassment against women in running for Dubai awards

  • “I am a speaker for 509” has been directed by Anwar Al Amin in collaboration with BBDO advertising agency and NGO Women in Struggle for Empowerment
  • Film submitted to Dubai Lynx Awards, winners to be announced in April

DUBAI: A short film on sexual harassment at the workplace, made by a Dubai-based Pakistani film maker and director, is in the running for the Dubai Lynx Awards, which celebrate “creative excellence” in the MENA region.
The film, “I am a speaker for 509,” has been directed by Anwar Al Amin, founder of Film House, and made in collaboration with BBDO, an advertising agency based in Pakistan, as well as WISE (Women in Struggle for Empowerment), a Pakistan-based non-governmental organization formed in 2011 and led by Bushra Khaliq. 
“The idea was conceived by BBDO and we got WISE on board since they empower women in Pakistan and raise awareness on the issue,” Anwar told Arab News on Thursday. 
The film, starring Pakistani actors Ghana Ali and Fawad Jalal, shows a female model who is seeking work and is asked by a director to meet him in private rather than at a studio, with promises that she will be cast in a film. It ends with a tea boy speaking up against sexual harassment and encouraging others to do so as well.

Screengrab of a short film on sexual harassment at the workplace titled "I am a speaker for 509". (Photo courtesy: Anwar Al Amin)

“We were in the midst of releasing the film when the pandemic happened but now it is the right time to give it another push,” Amin said. “We have also submitted the film for some awards.”
On February 3, the film was submitted to the Dubai Lynx Awards. In reply to questions by Arab News, Lynx Awards said that they only could “help provide jury quotes for any film that wins. Winners will be announced at the beginning of April.” 
“Our idea basically is to enhance the image of Pakistan in the international market. There is a very wrong perception of Pakistan and it is viewed as a state where there are no rights for women,” Amin said, explaining why he had focused on taking the film to the international market instead of Pakistani audiences. 
In January this year, the film was also listed among the top five socially responsible ads worldwide by Adforum which recognizes the best ad films in the world based on their execution and creativity. The director was listed among the top five worldwide and the film was also an Editor’s Pick for February.
“Pakistan is a male dominated society and we are facing centuries old patriarchal structures here, so the impact of this on women’s daily life is very much obvious,” Khaliq said. “Every day women complain about these issues and we wanted to create more awareness around this.”


Pakistan Super League cricket series postponed with ‘immediate effect’

Updated 33 min 51 sec ago

Pakistan Super League cricket series postponed with ‘immediate effect’

  • PCB says decision made after seven coronavirus cases reported in the competition
  • Says will focus on the secure passage of all participants, arrange tests, vaccines 

KARACHI: The Pakistan Cricket Board announced on Thursday it had decided to postpone the ongoing Pakistan Super League cricket series after a number of players tested positive for the coronavirus.
Three players tested positive for COVID-19 on Thursday. Islamabad’s two foreign cricketers, including Australian leg-spinner Fawad Ahmed, and another unnamed foreign player, are already in isolation after testing positive earlier this week.
“Following a meeting with the team owners and considering the health and wellbeing of all participants is paramount, the Pakistan Cricket Board has decided to postpone the HBL Pakistan Super League 6 with immediate effect,” the PCB said in a statement. “The decision was made after seven cases were reported in the competition, which had started on 20 February.”
“The PCB, as an immediate step, will focus on the safe and secure passage of all participants, and arrange repeat PCR tests, vaccines and isolation facilities to the six participating sides,” the statement said.
PCB has also decided to offer coronavirus vaccine doses to all participants of PSL, becoming the first cricket board to do so.
“The decision has been made in the line with the PCB’s duty of care policy and to ensure all participants of the league remain safe and healthy during the event, which concludes on 22 March,” PCB said in a separate statement on Wednesday. “The vaccine doses will be administered on Thursday and will be offered to all those inside the biosecure bubble. However, it will solely be the players and officials’ decision if they want to get the vaccine shots.”
PCB Chief Executive Wasim Khan said the cricket board took the “health, safety and wellbeing of its players and officials very seriously.”


PSL hangs in the balance as three more cricketers test COVID-19 positive

Updated 04 March 2021

PSL hangs in the balance as three more cricketers test COVID-19 positive

  • Pakistan Cricket Board says will vaccinate all willing players and officials
  • PSL organizing committee calls meeting of team owners and management today to discuss developing situation 

Islamabad: Three more players tested positive for COVID-19, Pakistan’s cricket board announced on Thursday, raising questions about whether the hugely popular tournament would continue or be postponed over coronavirus fears. 

Islamabad’s two foreign cricketers, including Australian leg-spinner Fawad Ahmed, and another unnamed foreign player are already in isolation after testing positive earlier this week.

Defending champions Karachi Kings defeated Peshawar Zalmi by six wickets while Quetta Gladiators beat Multan Sultans by 22 runs on Wednesday. Lahore Qalandars and Islamabad United are the other two teams competing in Pakistan’s premier Twenty20 league.

“Pakistan Cricket Board has confirmed three more players from two different teams have tested positive for Covid-19 and they will now self-isolate for 10 days,” the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) said in a statement. “The three players were not part of the sides that featured in Wednesday’s HBL Pakistan Super League 6 double-header and had been tested in the afternoon after showing symptoms.”

It added that PSL’s sixth edition “organizing committee will hold a virtual meeting with the team owners and management later on Thursday, following which a further update will be provided.”

The Pakistan Cricket Board has also decided to offer coronavirus vaccine doses to all participants of PSL, becoming the first cricket board to do so. 

“The decision has been made in the line with the PCB’s duty of care policy and to ensure all participants of the league remain safe and healthy during the event, which concludes on 22 March,” PCB said in a separate statement on Wednesday. “The vaccine doses will be administered on Thursday and will be offered to all those inside the biosecure bubble. However, it will solely be the players and officials’ decision if they want to get the vaccine shots.”

PCB Chief Executive Wasim Khan said the cricket board took the “health, safety and wellbeing of its players and officials very seriously.”


'Extraordinary' loan delinquency forces Pakistani state-owned bank to close Bangladesh branch 

Updated 04 March 2021

'Extraordinary' loan delinquency forces Pakistani state-owned bank to close Bangladesh branch 

  • The National Bank of Pakistan has branches in 21 countries and assets worth $20 billion
  • As of December last year, NBP Bangladesh’s defaults amounted to $164 million, or 97.7 percent of its total loans

DHAKA/KARACHI: The National Bank of Pakistan (NBP) is closing one of its Bangladesh branches after failing to recover nearly 98 percent of its loans from Bangladeshi debtors, the bank’s country head has said.
The Pakistan government-owned NBP has branches in 21 countries and assets worth $20 billion. It has been operating in Bangladesh as NBP-BD since 1994, with four branches in three cities, serving about 8,000 customers.
The bank ran into trouble in 2013-24, after numerous debtors — mainly from the apparel sector — failed to meet loan obligations, Bangladesh central bank data shows. In December last year, NBP-BD’s defaults amounted to $164 million, or 97.7 percent of its total loans.
“We are going to close the operations at our Sylhet branch due to an extraordinary situation,” Mohammad Quamruzzaman, NBP-BD chief executive, told Arab News earlier this week. “The headquarters in Pakistan has given us the approval, and the shutdown process is underway.”
In the past six years, the bank has filed 143 cases against loan defaulters, recovering about $23 million, Quamruzzaman said, adding that the bank was now trying to recover more without litigation and had suspended loan disbursement last year.
“Our high priority now is to recover the non-performing loans. We are focusing on an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process where we sit at the negotiation table with the clients,” he said. “The good news is that we are receiving some positive results in the ADR process where the banks offer concessions to the defaulters and they, in turn, get the opportunity to have a clear banking credit record.”
Without clearing their records, Quamruzzaman added, businesses “can’t avail loans from any other banks in the future.”
Manzoorul Alam, managing director of Ibrahim Composite Textile mill (ICTM), which borrowed $8.5 million from NBP-BD in fiscal year 2012-13, said negotiations with the bank were underway.
“During negotiation we offered the bank to repay around $16.5 million. We sent this proposal in December 2019 and there was no work last year due to coronavirus pandemic,” Alam told Arab News. “I had a discussion with the bank around three weeks back and they assured to resolve the matter shortly according to our negotiations.”
Pakistani officials at the NBP’s head office in Karachi were unavailable for comment despite repeated requests. Bangladesh Bank, the central bank, declined comment.
Zahid Hussain, former lead economist of the World Bank in Dhaka, said the Bangladeshi central bank should create a safety net for lenders by enhancing its supervision, and “save the NBP-BD from the deep crisis.”
“There are few options which the central bank may consider, like injection of new funds, merger with a solvent bank, the appointment of an administrator etc. In the current scenario, NBP should run its operations under the close supervision of the central bank,” he told Arab News.
Another Bangladeshi economist, Policy Research Institute executive director Ahsan H. Mansoor, said the NBP’s situation was extraordinary as defaulted loans are about 10 percent of all loans at banks in Bangladesh.
“This is an extraordinary situation that NBP-BD is struggling with around 98 percent defaulted loans,” he said. “There should be an investigation [into] who were these borrowers and how it took place.”
As per the NBP-BD’s Annual Report 2019, its branches recorded a net loss of BDT 664 million in 2019, up 60 percent Year-Over-Year (YoY) as compared to BDT 415 million of 2018.
“The main reasons for this loss were a 20 percent YoY jump in interest expense to BDT 1.6 billion and a whopping increase in total provisioning to BDT 137 million (CY19: nil),” Sana Tawfik, Banking sector analyst at Karachi-based Arif Habib Limited, told Arab News.
The branches incurred an OPEX of BDT 197 million compared to BDT 174 million recorded in the same period last year, marking an increase of 13 percent YoY, which “increased pressure on the bottom-line.” 
“As of Dec. 2019, the cumulative ADR and IDR of the branches stood at 74 percent and 79 percent, respectively,” Tawfik said. “Going forward, a turnaround in the overall earnings is dependent upon successful recovery of loans and advances, increasing business volumes, the success of commercial and strategic initiatives and financial and liquidity support from concerned stakeholders, as per the Annual Report (2019).”


All eyes on Pakistani prime minister after senate election setback 

Updated 04 March 2021

All eyes on Pakistani prime minister after senate election setback 

  • Yousaf Raza Gillani’s success in senate poll suggests some ruling party lawmakers revolted and didn’t vote for Sheikh for key seat reserved for Islamabad
  • Foreign Minister Qureshi says Khan will seek a vote of confidence from National Assembly to prove he still enjoys a majority in parliament

ISLAMABAD: All eyes are on Prime Minister Imran Khan after his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party announced he would seek a vote of confidence from parliament following a major setback to the government in a landmark senate poll on Wednesday.
Opposition politician Yousuf Raza Gillani defeated finance minister and key Khan aide Hafeez Sheikh, receiving 169 votes to Sheikh’s 164. Gillani’s success suggested some ruling party lawmakers had revolted and didn’t vote for Shaikh for the key seat reserved for the capital Islamabad, analysts said. 
“PM Khan will take a vote of confidence from Parliament,” the ruling party said in a tweet, quoting Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi.
The announcement came after Pakistan Peoples Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari urged Khan to accept defeat and resign as the opposition would seek a motion of no confidence against him.
“We will choose our timing when to use the option of no-confidence against the prime minister,” Bilawal said while addressing a press conference along with Gillani after the announcement of results by the Election Commission of Pakistan. “He should morally resign now, but we know he neither did it before nor will do it now … We will now get Yousuf Raza Gillani elected as Chairman Senate.”
Speaking on the occasion, Gillani said credit for his victory goes to “all the democratic forces” in the country.
“It’s a victory of democracy and it’s a victory of the parliament,” he said.
Despite winning the 2018 general election, Khan’s coalition does not have the majority in the upper house of parliament needed to pass key legislation.
The electoral college for the senate elections, which are held every three years on half of the chamber’s strength, comprises Pakistan’s four provincial assemblies and the lower house of parliament. With opposition parties controlling the senate, the government has had to pass interim legislation through presidential ordinances, which expire in 120 days.
The government’s legislators and allies in the lower house of parliament voted to make Khan’s finance minister Shaikh a senator.
At the end of polling, Khan’s ruling party had bagged 18 new seats, the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party got eight new senators elected and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz only won five seats. The Balochistan Awami Party — an ally of the ruling PTI — secured six more seats.
In Pakistan, a senator serves a term of six years, barring resignation, disqualification, or other extraordinary circumstances. Half of the senators are elected at one time, and the other half three years later.
This year, 52 senators elected in 2015 are set to retire; the other 52 will retire in 2024. However, elections are being held only for 48 seats after Pakistan’s northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were merged with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2018. The senate thus now comprises 100 lawmakers: 23 each from all the provinces and four from Islamabad. The remaining four senators from FATA will retire in 2024.
The Pakistani Supreme Court ruled this Monday that senate elections would continue to be held through a secret ballot as per the constitution but directed the election commission to use technology to check against corrupt practices in the polls.
The court’s 4:1 verdict came in response to a presidential reference filed in December, seeking the court’s opinion on whether voting in senate elections could be held through an open ballot.
The government of PM Khan has argued that open balloting would introduce transparency into a voting process that has long been plagued by irregularities, with national and provincial lawmakers accused of selling their votes.
Leaders of the opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), have opposed the government’s move to try to hold senate elections through an open ballot.
On Tuesday, the election commission said senate elections this year would be held as “per past practices,” saying it was setting up a monitoring mechanism to identify corrupt practices in the elections.
On Tuesday night, a video surfaced showing the son of Gillani explaining to lawmakers how they can waste their vote during the election. The government has since demanded the election commission declare Gillani ineligible and has filed a reference with the commission seeking his disqualification for being involved in “corrupt practices.”