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.


Pakistan approves imports in local currency from neighboring Afghanistan

Updated 12 sec ago

Pakistan approves imports in local currency from neighboring Afghanistan

  • The move is mainly aimed at buying coal to help ease energy shortages
  • Pakistan has shortage of forex reserves to buy LNG, oil in international market 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Tuesday approved imports from neighboring Afghanistan in exchange for local currency, a move mainly aimed at buying coal to help ease an energy shortage.
The decision was taken in a meeting of Pakistan’s Economic Coordination Committee (ECC), a finance ministry statement said.
The ECC approved amendment in the Import Policy Order 2022 “to allow import of goods of Afghan origin against Pak Rupee” for a period of one year, it said.
The move is aimed at importing Afghan coal for Pakistan as it faces an energy crises due to a shortage of foreign reserves to buy LNG or oil in the international market to run its power plants.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif announced plans last week to import coal from Afghanistan using local currency to save foreign reserves.
Islamabad has already announced an easy visa regime for Afghan nationals to help facilitate trade on both sides of the border. An Afghan finance ministry spokesman did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Customs duties from coal exported to Pakistan are a key source of revenue for cash-strapped Afghanistan. Sanctions on the banking sector and the cut in development aid since the Taliban took control last August year have severely hampered its economy.
No country has officially recognized the Taliban government, which has meant international financial assistance has dried up while Afghanistan faces a humanitarian and economic crisis.
The Afghan Taliban have lately stepped up coal exports to Pakistan to generate more revenue from its mining sector in the absence of direct foreign funding.
Kabul has raised duties on sales and increased rates recently.
Pakistan has also been facing an economic crises, with foreign reserves falling as low as hardly enough for 45 days of imports.


Media watchdog demands Pakistan ensure safety as two reporters killed in two days

Updated 05 July 2022

Media watchdog demands Pakistan ensure safety as two reporters killed in two days

  • Gunmen killed Ishtiaq Sodharo of Sindhi weekly Chinag in Khairpur district in Sindh province on July 1
  • Iftikhar Ahmed from Daily Express shot dead in northwestern Pakistani district of Charsadda the next day

ISLAMABAD: The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) on Tuesday demanded the Pakistani government ensure the safety of journalists, days after gunmen killed two reporters within two days in two separate incidents.

Unidentified assailants killed Ishtiaq Sodharo, associated with the Sindhi weekly Chinag, in Khairpur district of the southern Sindh province on July 1. A day later, Iftikhar Ahmed, a reporter for the Daily Express, was shot dead in the northwestern Pakistani district of Charsadda. Police are investigating the motive behind Ahmed’s death, including personal enmity, while Sodharo’s wife has alleged he was killed on the orders of a local policeman. 

The IFJ condemned the murders and called on the Pakistani authorities to fulfil their international obligations under Pakistan’s constitution to safeguard press freedom.

“Pakistan’s government must take appropriate measures to ensure journalists’ safety and security, as required by law, and act to reduce assaults on journalists so that they may carry out their work without fear,” the IFJ said in a statement on its website.

Pakistan is considered a dangerous country for journalists who often have to face violence, legal cases, abductions, detentions and threats from both state and non-state actors. 

In May, the country fell 12 points on the World Press Freedom Index from 145 in 2021 to 157 in 2022.


Pakistan concludes Hajj flights, all 83,312 pilgrims arrive in Saudi Arabia

Updated 05 July 2022

Pakistan concludes Hajj flights, all 83,312 pilgrims arrive in Saudi Arabia

  • 34,453 pilgrims traveled under government scheme and over 48,000 through private operators
  • 52 flights have utilized the Route to Makkah immigration facility at Islamabad airport this year

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s director-general of Hajj in Jeddah said on Tuesday the country’s Hajj flight operation was complete and all 83,312 Pakistani pilgrims had arrived in Saudi Arabia. 

One of Islam’s five main pillars of faith, the Hajj was restricted over pandemic fears to only 1,000 people living in the Kingdom in 2020 and to 60,000 domestic participants last year, compared with the pre-pandemic 2.5 million pilgrims annually. 

This year, after Saudi Arabia lifted COVID-19 restrictions, the kingdom will welcome one million domestic and foreign pilgrims. A quota of 81,132 pilgrims was initially allocated for Pakistan this year, which was later increased by 2,000.

“Our Hajj flights have been completed and all 83,312 Pakistani pilgrims have arrived in Makkah,” DG Hajj, Abrar Ahmed Mirza, told Arab News over the phone from Makkah.

He said 34,453 pilgrims had traveled under the government scheme and over 48,000 through private operators.

“We are now giving them training on Hajj rituals which are starting from Wednesday especially preparing them for Mina, Arafat, and Muzdalifah where pilgrims from all over the world move at the same time,” Mirza said.

Haseeb Ahmed Siddiqui, the director of the Hajj Complex in Islamabad, said 52 flights had utilized the Route to Makkah facility at Islamabad airport this year. 

The Route to Makkah initiative allows pilgrims to fulfil all immigration requirements at the airport of origin. This saves them several hours upon reaching the kingdom since they can enter the country, having already gone through immigration at home. 

“17,077 pilgrims proceeded to the Kingdom under Route to Makkah project using 52 flights this year,” Siddiqui told Arab News.

Adeel Ahmed, a pilgrim from Rawalpindi, said he had no words to express his happiness at being selected for the pilgrimage.

“My name was not part of the first draft and I got a chance at the last moment,” Ahmed told Arab News. “I am unable to share my feelings and happiness as Allah has granted me this privilege to fulfill my dream.” 

Sumera Kiran, another pilgrim from Rawalpindi, expressed satisfaction with arrangements at the airport.

“The [Saudi] government and Pakistani authorities have done very good arrangements at the airport,” she said, adding that she had received her luggage at the hotel.


Pakistan central bank may raise rates by 125 bps to tame 13-year high inflation

Updated 05 July 2022

Pakistan central bank may raise rates by 125 bps to tame 13-year high inflation

  • The South Asian nation is wrestling with economic turmoil, a fall in reserves and a weakening currency
  • Another hike would increase government debt servicing costs as well as hurt industries, says an economist

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s central bank looks set to raise its key policy rate by 125 basis points at its review on Thursday, as it attempts to tackle 13-year high retail inflation, according to the median estimate in a snap poll of 10 economists and market watchers. 

The economists, analysts and senior professors surveyed were widely split on the quantum of increase by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP), with views ranging from 50 to 200 basis points. 

Two respondents did not see a need for a rate increase. 

The central bank raised the benchmark interest rate by 150 bps in May, taking the total increase to 400 bps so far this year to counter rising inflation. 

The South Asian nation is wrestling with economic turmoil, a fall in reserves and a weakening currency. 

Data on Friday showed consumer prices in June leapt 21.3 percent from a year earlier, largely on account of a 90 percent spike in fuel prices since the end of May after the government scrapped costly fuel subsidies. 

With the current policy rate at 13.75 percent and inflation running well above, real interest rates in the economy have turned sharply negative. 

“The last monetary policy committee statement is proof that the State Bank of Pakistan is way behind the curve on anticipating inflation,” said Yousuf Nazar, an economist who writes for various publications and formerly with Citigroup. 

“Another hike would increase government debt servicing costs as well as hurt industries. 

It is not going to have much of an impact on exchange rate or overall demand,” he added. 

Most believed a hike was inevitable, given persistently high global energy prices, the abrupt ending of fuel subsidies as well as the need to control demand after SBP said in its last policy statement the economy had rebounded much more strongly than anticipated. 

“The overall policy mix is geared toward stabilization and demand management,” CEO of Macro Economic Insights Sakib Sherani said, adding that this will induce a sharp slowdown in the economy, possibly a recession, in the short run. 

But Fahad Rauf, head of research at Ismail Iqbal Securities, said he does not see the need to increase rates further. 

“The economy is already slowing down. The layoffs have started and are expected to increase further. 

Further cost pressures would only enhance the burden on industries and workers,” Rauf said. 

“The fiscal arm is working now, tough measures have been taken. SBP needs to wait for the results before further tightening,” he added. 

With Pakistan expecting a restart of the much-awaited bailout package from the International Monetary Fund after the country agreed on some tough economic policy adjustments to promote stability, the SBP’s decision is being closely watched. 


Dubai-bound Indian airline plane makes ‘emergency landing’ in Karachi

Updated 05 July 2022

Dubai-bound Indian airline plane makes ‘emergency landing’ in Karachi

  • India’s SpiceJet airline says plane diverted to Karachi due to indicator light malfunctioning
  • The B737 aircraft landed at Karachi airport at around 9am where it’s currently being repaired

ISLAMABAD: A Dubai-bound Indian airline plane on Tuesday made an “emergency landing” in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi, the Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority (PCAA) said. 

The B737 aircraft flew from New Delhi for Dubai this morning, according to the PCAA. The pilot requested Pakistani aviation authorities for an “emergency landing” because of a fuel leak. 

“An aircraft of SpiceJet going from Delhi to Dubai sought permission for emergency landing which was granted and the aircraft with 138 passengers on board landed at Karachi airport after 9am today,” PCAA spokesman Saifullah told Arab News. 

“The aircraft was diverted to Karachi airport for landing after fuel leakage.” 

SpiceJet, however, said the plane was diverted due to “indicator light malfunctioning.” 

“No emergency was declared and the aircraft made a normal landing. There was no earlier report of any malfunction with the aircraft,” the airline said in a series of tweets. 

“A replacement aircraft is being sent to Karachi that will take the passengers to Dubai.” 

 

 

The PCAA spokesman said all passengers had been moved to the transit longue of the airport, where they were provided food and refreshments. 

“The aircraft is currently being repaired,” Saifullah added.