Pakistani FM says Islamabad and Washington entering new engagement after years of strain

Pakistani Foreign Minister Bhutto Zardari speaks during his meeting with Secretary of State Antony Blinken at UN headquarters, May 18, 2022. (AP)
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Updated 21 May 2022

Pakistani FM says Islamabad and Washington entering new engagement after years of strain

  • Bilawal Bhutto Zardari says United States and his country must move beyond past tensions over neighboring Afghanistan
  • Recalls legacy of his mother and grandfather, calls them “towering figures on world stage” and says he feels “burden of history”

UNITED NATIONS: Pakistan’s new foreign minister says the United States and his country must move beyond past tensions over Afghanistan and are entering a new engagement after years of strained relations under former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 33-year-old son of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, spoke in an interview with The Associated Press in New York, where he was attending meetings this week on the global food crisis at UN headquarters. He has also held talks with top diplomats, including a one-hour discussion with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Bhutto Zardari called the meeting with Blinken “very encouraging and very positive and productive.”

“We believe that Pakistan must continue to engage with the United States at all levels,” he said. “This meeting was indeed an important first step.”

Bhutto Zardari co-chairs one of the two largest parties in Pakistan’s disparate governing coalition, which spans the political spectrum from the left to the radically religious. The coalition removed Khan in a no-confidence vote on April 10. Shahbaz Sharif, the leader of the other major party, replaced Imran Khan as prime minister.

US-Pakistani ties deteriorated under Khan, who as prime minister tapped into anti-American sentiment in Pakistan that has spread ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda, and the US war on terror. The 2011 American raid that killed Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan angered many hard-liners in the country.

Khan accused the Biden administration of colluding with the opposition to oust him, a claim the administration denies.

Afghanistan also raised mistrust between the two countries. Washington felt Islamabad did too little to help ensure peace as the US and NATO withdrew their troops from Afghanistan; Pakistan insists it did all it could to broker peace and blamed the abrupt US pullout. During the final weeks of the American withdrawal, the Taliban overran Kabul in mid-August and seized power.

Bhutto Zardari said the Pakistan-US relationship in the past had been “too colored by the events in Afghanistan, of the geopolitical considerations, and it’s time for us to move beyond that to engage in a far broader, deeper and more meaningful relationship.”

Under Khan, Pakistan pushed hard for the world to engage with Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers, and Bhutto Zardari said his country continues to do so.

“Regardless of what we feel about the regime in Afghanistan,” the world can’t abandon the Afghan people and must immediately address the country’s humanitarian crisis and crumbling economy, he said. A total collapse of the Afghan economy would be a disaster for Afghans, Pakistan and the international community, he said, expressing concern that many Afghans would flee the country.

Pakistan is also insisting the Taliban live up to their international commitments that the country not be used for terrorism, that girls and women be able to pursue education, and that they form an inclusive government, he said.

The Taliban, however, have taken a more hard-line turn in recent weeks, imposing new restrictions on women. At the same time, tensions have grown between the Taliban and Pakistan over militants based in Afghanistan carrying out attacks in Pakistan.

Bhutto Zardari said the more the humanitarian crisis is alleviated and the economy is saved from collapse, “the more likely we are to succeed in our pursuit for women’s rights and the more likely we are to succeed in our efforts against terrorism.”

He said his focus in talks with Blinken was on increasing trade, particularly in agriculture, information technology and energy. He said he is looking forward to working with the US on an initiative to empower women, including women entrepreneurs.

On economic, defense and military coordination, “if we continue to engage, then we can move forward in a more positive direction,” Bhutto Zardari said.

Asked about Khan’s anti-US rhetoric, Bhutto Zardari dismissed the ex-premier’s accusation of American collusion, calling it a “fanciful conspiracy theory based on a big lie” to explain his removal.

“I am particularly anti the politics of hate, division and polarization,” the foreign minister said. “If we consistently pursue the politics of `you’re with us or against us,’ whether that’s on an international level or a domestic level, I don’t believe it serves the interests of the people of Pakistan.”

He said he believes Pakistanis understand their country needs to engage with the US and all countries, in order to become democratic and progress economically.

President Joe Biden has strengthened ties with Pakistan’s arch-rival India, but Bhutto Zardari said Pakistan is not “jealous” of their relationship. “We believe the world is big enough for both Pakistan and India,” he said.

Biden will meet Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the leaders of Australia and Japan at a summit in Tokyo on May 24 of the so-called Quad, an Indo-Pacific alliance which China sees as an attempt to contain its economic growth and influence.

Pakistan has a very close economic and military relationship with neighboring China, where Bhutto Zardari is heading to on Saturday. He told the AP he didn’t think the growing relationship with the US would hurt its ties to Beijing.

Pakistan has abstained on UN General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and withdrawal of its troops. Bhutto Zardari said Pakistan used to rely a lot on Ukrainian wheat and fertilizer and has been affected by rising food prices and calls for diplomacy to end the war.

The lives of the Bhutto Zardari family have in many ways reflected their country’s turbulence. Bhutto Zardari took over his mother’s Pakistan People’s Party after she was killed in a suicide bombing in December 2007.

The daughter of Pakistan’s first democratically elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who led Pakistan in the 1970s and was overthrown and executed by the military, Benazir Bhutto was Pakistan’s first woman premier and twice served as head of government.

At the time of her assassination, she was rallying in a third bid for premiership. Bhutto Zardari’s life in politics was also shaped by his father, Asif Ali Zardari, who served as Pakistan’s president from 2008 to 2013.

In the interview with the AP, Bhutto Zardari recalled the legacy of his mother and grandfather. He called them “towering figures on the world stage,” and said he feels “the burden of history.”

“What motivates and drives me is the pursuit of their unfulfilled mission,” he said. “I hope that we live up to the expectations of the people of Pakistan” who have longed for true democracy and struggled for their economic, political and human rights.

“These are the ideals that we hold dear and we work toward every day,” Bhutto Zardari said.


CASA-1000 power line, connecting Pakistan with Central Asia, stalled over Afghanistan turmoil

Updated 19 August 2022

CASA-1000 power line, connecting Pakistan with Central Asia, stalled over Afghanistan turmoil

  • The project aims to allow Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to sell excess energy to Pakistan and Afghanistan in summer months
  • Tajik official says work on project, scheduled to be completed next year, continued in three states but not in Afghanistan

DUSHANBE: A $1.2 billion Western-backed project to build a power line between Central Asia and South Asia has been stalled by turmoil in Afghanistan, a project official told Reuters on Friday. 

The CASA-1000 project aims to allow Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, former Soviet republics with an extensive network of hydroelectric power plants, to sell excess energy to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the summer months. 

Faizali Samiyev, the head of the Tajik project implementation office, said work on the project, originally scheduled to be completed next year, continued in three countries, but not in Afghanistan. 

While the World Bank, a key CASA-1000 backer, continues financing projects in Afghanistan, it has decided to focus on urgently needed education, agriculture, health and family programmes and bypass sanctioned Taliban authorities by disbursing the money through United Nations agencies and international aid groups. 

Funding for the CASA-1000 project - which was designed to provide Pakistan with 1,000 megawatts (MW) of power and Afghanistan with 300 MW - has been suspended, Samiyev said. 

"(We hope that) contacts will be established with the Afghan side and ways to implement the project will be worked out," he said. 

The project could be a boon for the two Central Asian nations which have excess power in the summer but suffer from shortages in the winter unless they can buy fuel or power from neighbours. 

The United States was involved in financing the project when it was launched in 2016 as part of its New Silk Road initiative to integrate Afghanistan with Central Asia. Other project sponsors have included the Islamic Development Bank, the UK Department for International Development, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. 


Roadside bombing kills two policemen in northwestern Pakistan

Updated 19 August 2022

Roadside bombing kills two policemen in northwestern Pakistan

  • Police say bomb was remotely detonated, search for perpetrators was underway
  • No one has claimed responsibility for attack in Bajaur district bordering Afghanistan

PESHAWAR: A roadside bombing on Friday killed two policemen in a former militant stronghold in northwestern Pakistan, police said. 

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack in Bajaur, a district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that borders Afghanistan. The district’s police chief, Abdus Samad Khan, said the bomb was remotely detonated. A search for perpetrators was underway, he added. 

Bajaur has long served as a sanctuary for the Pakistani Taliban militant group — known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP — until the military declared the region was cleared of local and foreign militants following a series of military operations in 2010. 

However, isolated militant attacks have continued in the region, though the Pakistani Taliban have not claimed responsibility for any of the attacks since May, when talks started between the TTP and Pakistani government officials in Kabul. A cease-fire has also been in place since then. 

The talks in Kabul are hosted by the Afghan Taliban, a separate group but allied with the Pakistani Taliban. The Taliban seized power in Afghanistan a year ago as the US and NATO troops were in the final stages of their pullout from the country. 

That takeover has emboldened the Pakistani Taliban, whose fighters and leaders, officials say, have been hiding in Afghanistan. 


Islamabad police deny allegation of 'sexual abuse' of ex-PM Khan aide in custody

Updated 19 August 2022

Islamabad police deny allegation of 'sexual abuse' of ex-PM Khan aide in custody

  • Islamabad police deny allegation of 'sexual abuse' of ex-PM Khan aide in custody
  • Gill has been in custody since last Tuesday for comments deemed as ‘seditious’ by the authorities

ISLAMABAD: The Islamabad police on Friday denied the allegations of “torture” of former Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan’s chief of staff, Dr Shahbaz Gill, which Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party says also included “sexual abuse” and has announced a protest rally against it in Islamabad on Saturday. 

Gill, a senior member of Khan’s PTI party, has been under arrest since last Tuesday for comments he made during a news bulletin that the national electronic media regulator dubbed as “seditious.” 

The PTI leader was admitted to Islamabad's Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) for a check-up late Wednesday, while a district court in Islamabad on Friday suspended his physical remand and ordered police to keep him in hospital until Monday. 

In a Twitter post on Friday evening, Khan accused the Islamabad police of subjecting Gill to "sexual abuse," but the police denied the allegation and described it as “absurd.” 

"We have repeatedly rejected all these allegations," Taqi Jawad, Islamabad police director for public relations, told Arab News Friday evening. 

"Shahbaz Gill isn't tortured in police custody and allegation of sexual abuse is totally absurd. These allegations should be avoided as they can cause public unrest." 

On Friday evening, Khan and other senior members of his party tried meeting Gill at the hospital, but they were barred by the police. It followed an announcement by Khan of the rally to protest alleged torture of his chief of staff. 

"I want to convey a message to my entire nation that tomorrow, I am holding a rally in Islamabad for Shahbaz Gill," the former premier told reporters outside the PIMS hospital. 

"I invite all the people of Islamabad to my rally because if a political worker can be subjected to such torture, then anyone can be subjected to it." 

In a Twitter post, Khan said the Islamabad police had subjected Gill to "sexual abuse" in order to “break him down.” 

"All the pictures & videos show clearly Gill was tortured both mentally & physically incl sexual abuse - most too gruesome to relate. He was humiliated to break him down. I now have full detailed info," the former premier said. 

 

Also on Friday, Amnesty International, a human rights watchdog headquartered in the United Kingdom, said it was "concerned" about the torture allegations levelled by Gill's lawyers and called for an impartial inquiry into the matter. 

"Amnesty International is concerned about the allegations of torture being made by the lawyers of @SHABAZGIL, and calls for an immediate, effective and impartial inquiry investigating these claims," the global watchdog said on Twitter. 

 

Last Friday, after Gill had been in police custody for two days, a court sent him to jail on judicial remand, rejecting a request by the police to extend the suspect’s physical remand. But in a rare move on Wednesday, a local court remanded Gill back into police custody. 

A government prosecutor had argued that Gill needed to be remanded in police custody for an additional two days so that police could complete their investigation into a sedition case filed against him. The PTI leader was admitted to PIMS hospital after the Islamabad police took over his custody following the court order.  

Earlier today, the Islamabad police said on Twitter Gill was "pretending to be ill under false pretences." 

 

“After reviewing the reports and opinions from cardiologist and psychiatrist, patient [Gill] is clinically stable,” a six-member medical board of senior doctors said in its report dated August 18. “Although he is a known case of bronchial asthma, currently he has no signs of exacerbation of acute asthma.” 

“Pulmonologist advised and discharged on medication,” the report, a copy of which is available with Arab News, said. 

Video footage made outside a local court on Friday and widely shared on social media showed Gill in a wheelchair, surrounded by policemen, and saying “I can’t breathe.” 

The case against the Khan aide relates to comments made on ARY News last Monday asking army officers not to follow orders of their top command if they were “against the sentiments of the masses.” 

The country’s national media regulator described the statement as “seditious” and said it was tantamount to inciting revolt within the military. The regulator also issued a show-cause notice to the channel, ARY News, for airing the “illegal” content. The channel has since been off air.


Pakistani currency, stocks stabilize after IMF deal and financing assurances from friendly states

Updated 19 August 2022

Pakistani currency, stocks stabilize after IMF deal and financing assurances from friendly states

  • Pakistan’s weekly inflation recorded an increase of 3.35 percent on Friday, mainly due to hike in food item prices
  • Analysts say taming inflation, shoring up forex reserves will be key challenges for incoming central bank governor

KARACHI: Pakistan’s currency and stocks have stabilized after months of poor performance as the country expects to receive $1.17 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and $4 billion inflows from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), traders and analysts said on Friday, hoping for further consolidation in the coming days. 

The Pakistani currency appreciated by 0.14 percent as the US dollar closed at Rs214.65 in the interbank market on Friday. The local currency has appreciated by 11.7 percent since July 28, when it had hit an all-time low of Rs239.94 against the greenback. 

“The development at the IMF front and the arrangement of financing from friendly countries to fill financing gap of $4 billion played a key role in rupee's stabilization during the recent trading sessions,” Samiullah Tariq, research director at the Pakistan-Kuwait Investment Company, told Arab News.   

After a staff-level agreement in July, the IMF has scheduled its executive board meeting for August 29 for the combined seventh and eight reviews of the $6 billion Extended Fund Facility (EFF) Pakistan availed in 2019. The South Asian country is expecting $1.17 billion from the Fund after its board's approval that would unleash further funding from multilateral donors. 

Pakistan’s finance minister, Miftah Ismail, on Thursday reiterated that all actions had been taken to meet the IMF conditions for the revival of $6 billion loan program, which was halted in March this year. 

The finance minister confirmed that $4 billion for bridging the budget financing gap had been arranged through Saudi Arabia and the UAE, ahead of the IMF meeting.   

In another move ahead of the IMF board meeting, the government on Friday appointed Jameel Ahmad as the central bank’s new governor for next five years.  

The appointment on the post, which had been vacant since the retirement of Reza Baqir in early May, comes at a time when the South Asian nation is battling historic inflation. 

Analysts say the key challenges the incoming central bank governor would be facing include taming high inflation and shoring up forex reserves.   

“The top most challenge the governor of central bank would face is to control inflation as in July 2022 it was recorded at 24.9 percent and it is expected that it would remain high in August,” Tahir Abbas, research head at the Karachi-based Arif Habib Limited brokerage firm, told Arab News. 

“The second top most challenge would be to build up country’s forex reserves that are at very low level [barely enough] to cater imports of less than two months. The third challenge would be setting a monetary policy that enables to counter inflation by avoiding recession,” he said. 

“The fourth challenge would be to review the schemes announced by the central bank, including the Roshan Digital Accounts to reverse the withdrawal trend with attractive rate offerings.”          

Pakistan’s weekly inflation rose by 3.35 percent to reach 42.31 percent on a yearly basis, mainly due to hike in food prices, according to data released by the country's statistics bureau on Friday. 

Amid higher inflationary trend, the central bank is scheduled to announce on August 22 its monetary policy for the next two months. 

According to a survey conducted by Topline Securities brokerage house, 56 percent of the participants expect no change in the policy rate, which stands at 15 percent. Around 43 percent participants anticipate an increase, whereas 1 percent expect a decrease in policy rate. 

Pakistan’s stock market also stabilized during the week though it closed bearish with 210 points down on Friday, mainly due to profit-taking and investors remaining on the sidelines ahead of the monetary policy announcement on Monday. 

“Continuing its momentum, KSE-100 Index gained 0.96 percent on WoW (week-on-week) basis, which can be attributed to the news that the IMF has scheduled its board meeting for August 29 after getting confirmation from bilateral friends such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar for bridging the financing gap of $4 billion,” the Topline Securities report said. 

Pakistan's stock index increased by 6.74 percent over the course of first two weeks of August and recorded a gain of 376 points during the week ending on Friday. 


PM launches cash relief program as death toll from Pakistan rains tops 670

Updated 19 August 2022

PM launches cash relief program as death toll from Pakistan rains tops 670

  • Monsoon downpours have ravaged large swathes of land across Pakistan since June
  • Government will distribute $171 million among 1.5 million families affected by floods

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on Friday distributed compensation cheques among families affected by the recent floods in Pakistan as the death toll from monsoon downpours exceeded 670 in the South Asian country. 

Torrential rains have triggered flash floods in several parts of Pakistan since June 14. At least 674 people have died and 1,128 injured in various incidents across the country so far, according to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). 

Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province has been worst hit by rains, with 202 rain-related casualties. Sindh has reported 149 deaths, Punjab 144, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa 135, Azad Kashmir 34, Gilgit-Baltistan nine, and the federal capital of Islamabad has reported only one death. 

On Friday, a ceremony was held at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in Islamabad, at which the premier said a total of 1.5 million families in the country will be entitled to Rs37 billion ($171 million) in cash aid. 

“We have decided to issue this instalment of Rs25,000 [per family],” PM Sharif said at the event. 

“Within the next three days, Rs37 billion will be given to every household in Pakistan that has been affected by floods.” 

The cash assistance will be disbursed to flood-hit families through the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) — a federal cash transfer program for poverty alleviation — in coordination with the NDMA.  

Sharif said after the distribution of cash, an assessment of damages in flood-hit areas would be carried out with the help of provincial governments and international partners. 

During the first phase of cash distribution, the government would provide cash assistance to people in 724 worst-affected union councils across Pakistan, said Shazia Marri, federal minister for poverty alleviation and social safety. 

“The Benazir Income Support Program is going to ensure that whatever is announced and whatever has been allocated for the relief work is disbursed to the victims of the recent floods transparently,” she added.