'Bad idea': Pessimism over outcome as Pakistan formally okays talks with local Taliban 

Armed militants of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) pose for a photograph in Orakzai Agency, Pakistan, on November 26, 2008. (AFP/File)
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Updated 07 July 2022

'Bad idea': Pessimism over outcome as Pakistan formally okays talks with local Taliban 

  • Parliamentary Committee on National Security on Tuesday formally approved negotiations with TTP militants
  • TTP extended cease-fire indefinitely after talks with Pakistani tribal elders mediated by Afghan Taliban in June 

ISLAMABAD: Experts this week called holding negotiations with local Taliban militants “the only solution” for the government to end militancy in the country but many were skeptical about whether the process would lead to a positive outcome after having failed in the past.

The Pakistani Taliban — known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — has carried out some of the bloodiest attacks inside Pakistan since 2007, including a 2014 assault on a school in which 134 students were killed. The group is not directly affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, but pledges allegiance to them.

Pakistan has since 2007 carried out a number of military operations against the TTP, but, despite reducing the militant group’s footprint, with most fighters fleeing to neighboring Afghanistan, it has not been able to fully stop attacks, which had begun to rise again along its western border in recent months.

On June 4, the TTP extended a cease-fire with the government for an indefinite period, after two-day talks with a delegation of Pakistani tribal elders facilitated by the Afghan Taliban, who head the government in Kabul since US-led forces withdrew last year.

This week, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chaired an in-camera meeting in Islamabad attended by over 100 lawmakers and officials to deliberate on talks with the Pakistani Taliban. The Parliamentary Committee on National Security subsequently gave its formal approval to hold the talks and also set up a parliamentary committee to oversee the process and ensure it was carried out within the ambit of the constitution.

Pakistan media has widely reported that at the heart of talks is an offer to accommodate the TTP with a safe passage back to Pakistan from Afghanistan in exchange for the group agreeing to a long-term cease-fire, dissolving its organization and possibly even joining mainstream politics.

“Pakistan wants to do it [talks] because the militancy problem is not over and they have realized that the only solution to this problem is that local Taliban should be integrated into the mainstream,” Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador to Kabul, told Arab News on Wednesday.

“Because for how long can military operations go on?”

Though the Afghan Taliban were brokering talks with the TTP as they had to uphold an international obligation not to let any militants use Afghan soil to attack another country, Mohmand said the Kabul government also did not want to push the TTP forcibly to come to the table or agree to a deal.

Afghan Taliban leaders have in the past openly praised the TTP for its contributions to the insurgency against the United States and the former Afghan government, and hinted that it can’t abandon the Pakistani affiliate.

“Afghan Taliban are the facilitators and they are playing this role because for some time TTP fighters fought with them in Afghanistan,” Mohmand added. “But if they [Afghan Taliban] will force them toward Pakistan, then TTP will blame them for their arrests [in Pakistan].”
 
Speaking about the main demands of the militant group, the diplomat said the TTP wanted a resolution of the issue of missing persons, compensation for losses caused to them during military operations, and for Pakistan to scrap a 2018 law that did away with the semi-independent status of the former tribal regions, FATA, that dates back to British colonial rule.

The TTP also wants a substantial reduction of Pakistani military forces from the former tribal areas, which border Afghanistan and where the group was mostly harboring before being driven out through military operations.

“Government will not accept the revival of the tribal system as it requires a constitutional amendment,” Mohmand said. “Also, there is little hope on missing persons, so in reality, they can only move forward on the compensation issue.”

Abdul Basit Khan, a research fellow at the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the government’s negotiations with the TTP were a “sensible move” to reduce violence in Pakistan’s border regions.

“Pakistan wants to reduce violence and they have achieved it as due to the cease-fire, attacks have already gone down,” Khan told Arab News, adding that there was “no military solution” to the TTP problem.

“Parliamentary committee on national security has taken a clear position that only those demands which fall within the Pakistani constitutional framework will be accepted and any demand contradictory to it will not be accepted, such as reversal of FATA merger,” Khan said. “And TTP will also not be allowed to keep arms even if it is repatriated to Pakistan.”

Former diplomat, Ayaz Wazir, supported the talks but was skeptical there could be “permanent solution” unless the people of the former tribal regions were included in the decision-making process. 

“The real problem with the decision-makers is that they never take people of FATA into the confidence, neither at the time of military operations, nor during the merger, and that vacuum has always provided space to the TTP to resurface,” he said. 

Last year, the two sides had agreed to a cease-fire but talks broke down due to a disagreement over the release of TTP prisoners held by Pakistan, according to local media.

Another analyst, retired Brig. Mahmood Shah, a former chief of security in the tribal areas, said another round of negotiations with TTP after previous failures was a “bad idea” that was bound to fail. He also said the Pakistani constitution did not allow for talks with any group that challenged the nation’s sovereignty. 

“These talks cannot succeed and will never produce a sustainable solution as TTP will not back down from its core ideology and keep pursuing it with the use of violence as a tool,” Shah told Arab News.

Between 2006 and 2015, nearly 50 militant groups declared war on the Pakistani state, conducting over 16,000 terror attacks, according to government figures. More than 80,000 people have been killed in the violence, which cost over $150 billion in losses to the Pakistani economy and drove 3.5 million people from their homes in the tribal regions where military operations were carried out.

“Pakistan have thrown them [TTP] out of tribal areas after extensive military operations and a lot of sacrifices,” said. “What was the rationale of all those previous actions if they will now be allowed to return?” 


Ex-PM Khan aide Dr. Shahbaz Gill challenges sedition case in Islamabad court

Updated 15 August 2022

Ex-PM Khan aide Dr. Shahbaz Gill challenges sedition case in Islamabad court

  • Gill was arrested last Tuesday over comments on ARY News that the media regulator says are “seditious”
  • Gill had asked army officers not to follow top command’s orders if they were “against sentiments of masses”

ISLAMABAD: Dr. Shahbaz Gill, a senior Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader and former prime minister Imran Khan’s chief of staff, on Monday moved the Islamabad High Court against a sedition case filed against him, accusing the police of charging him at the federal government’s behest.

Gill was arrested last Tuesday, a day after he spoke on a talk show aired by ARY News, asking army officers not to follow orders of their top command if they were “against the sentiments of the masses.” ARY News has since also been taken off air by the electronic media regulator which has called Gill’s comments “seditious” and tantamount to inciting mutiny against the military.

“Islamabad Police registered the case to show its loyalty to the government,” Gill said in his plea, referring to the sedition case against him. “The case was filed just to satisfy the political agenda of the federal government.”

Senior PTI leader Fawad Chaudhry said the party stood with Gill, who he said was being persecuted as he was not among the “powerful.”

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority last week issued a show-cause notice to the ARY channel, saying Gill’s comments amounted to inciting mutiny within the army.

The channel’s top management told Arab News on Friday its no-objection certificate had been revoked suddenly and unilaterally.

“What crime have we committed,” its owner Salman Iqbal asked. “We are being punished for a statement by a politician which we have already disowned. But such stern action after a clarification shows that the government has made its mind to silence a critical voice.”

The channel was still off air in many parts of the country on Monday evening.


Pakistani Hajj pilgrims under government scheme to receive Rs150,000 in subsidy from August 17

Updated 15 August 2022

Pakistani Hajj pilgrims under government scheme to receive Rs150,000 in subsidy from August 17

  • The government will inform Hajj pilgrims about the disbursement by sending them text messages
  • Pakistani minister says the country saved substantial amount during Hajj due to Saudi assistance

ISLAMABAD: Federal Minister for Religious Affairs Mufti Abdul Shakoor said on Monday Pakistani pilgrims performing Hajj under the government scheme would start receiving a subsidy of Rs150,000 from August 17 as the country said it had completed of its Hajj operation this year.

The government announced a subsidy of Rs4.88 billion which would be disbursed among pilgrims who returned from the kingdom after performing the pilgrimage.

The total Hajj expenditure under the government scheme exceeded Rs860,000, though people will now be getting some financial relaxation after the announcement of the subsidy.

“Our Hajj operation has completed successfully and without any untoward incident,” the minister told Arab News on the sidelines of a post-Hajj news conference in the federal capital. “All people who performed their pilgrimage under the government scheme will start getting Rs150,000 back from August 17 and this disbursement process will complete by August 31.”

He said the pilgrims would be informed about the disbursement through text messages.

“They will get the amount by showing that message along with their national identity card and passport to the bank,” the minister continued. “The bank will transfer the amount into the pilgrim’s account after that.”

Saudi Arabia allowed about a million people to perform Hajj this year after lifting strict coronavirus restrictions which were imposed after the emergence of the pandemic.

Pakistan’s religious affairs minister said the kingdom supported his country’s Hajj mission in every possible way, adding it even increased the South Asian nation’s quota by adding 2,000 more people.

“Due to the hard work of our team and cooperation of Saudis, we succeeded in reducing the expenses by nearly 1,500 Riyal per pilgrim than we had initially anticipated,” he said.

The minister also informed that over 15,000 Pakistani pilgrims under the government scheme had also benefitted from the Makkah Route Initiative.

“The pilgrims were provided residences near the Grand Mosque [in Makkah] and four- and five-star hotels in Madinah,” he said. “Apart from that, they were given the best transportation and food services as well.”

The minister informed it was the first time pilgrims under the government scheme got their boarding passes 24 hours before their return to the country.
He added their luggage was also booked much ahead of their return flight, which saved them time at the airport.


Ruling PML-N party says ex-PM Nawaz Sharif to return to Pakistan in September

Updated 15 August 2022

Ruling PML-N party says ex-PM Nawaz Sharif to return to Pakistan in September

  • Ex-PM Sharif was sacked by Supreme Court in 2017 over corruption, has lived in exile in London since November 2019
  • PML-N hopes Sharif's return to Pakistan will galvanize the party's votebank ahead of general elections in late 2023

ISLAMABAD: Javed Latif, federal minister and senior leader of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), said on Monday the head of the party, Nawaz Sharif, who lives in self-exile in London, would return to the country in September.

Sharif, a three-time former prime minister of Pakistan, was sacked by the Supreme Court in 2017 on corruption charges and left for London in November 2019 for medical treatment. His brother Shehbaz Sharif became prime minister this April after Imran Khan was ousted from power in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence.

“The nation has announced its decision that Nawaz Sharif should come back," Latif told reporters, saying he would return in September.

Sharif was sentenced to seven years in prison in December 2018 and fined $25 million on corruption charges that he says were politically motivated.

The anti-corruption court in Islamabad said in its ruling that the three-time prime minister was unable to prove the source of income that had led to his ownership of a steel mill in Saudi Arabia. Under Pakistani law, this is taken to prove corruption.

Sharif had already been sentenced by the same court to 10 years in prison on charges related to the purchase of upscale apartments in London, after the Supreme Court removed him from power in 2017.

The 2018 court ruling came on two charges related to Sharif’s assets: the Al-Azizia Steel Mills in Saudi Arabia, set up by Sharif’s father in 2001, and Flagship Investments, a company established by his son, Hasan Nawaz, that owns luxury properties in Britain.

Sharif was found to have been unable to demonstrate that his family had acquired the steel mill legitimately, but was acquitted on the second charge, relating to Flagship.

Sharif denies all the charges which he says were politically motivated. He has. repeatedly accused the military and courts of working together to end his political career and destabilize his PML-N party. The military denies the charge.

The PML-N hopes Sharif's return to Pakistan will galvanize the party's votebank ahead of general elections in late 2023.


Bradlaugh Hall, hub of Indian freedom movement, now a crumbling ruin in Lahore

Updated 15 August 2022

Bradlaugh Hall, hub of Indian freedom movement, now a crumbling ruin in Lahore

  • Named after British MP Charles Bradlaugh, Hall has birthed many political movements and anti-colonial revolutionaries
  • Since partition, building used as shelter for migrants, warehouse for iron merchants and grain silo for food department

LAHORE: When you take a left turn on Lower Mall Road in Lahore and go down Rattigan Road toward the ancient city’s district courts, you pass by an imposing red-brick building, a picture of neglect with its peeling paint and raggedy doors.

A plaque outside the desolate structure reads: “This building was called Bradlaugh Hall.”

Indeed, though the structure that was once Bradlaugh Hall is still there, the buildings’ grandeur and stature as a host to the veritable “who’s who” of the movement for the independence of India is a thing of the past. The resplendence of a great political history is today only a memory.

“For almost half a century, this hall would play host to Indians of all cast, creeds and religions and their political sessions, receptions, literary sittings and even mushairas (poetry conference),” Wajahat Masood, a veteran journalist and historian, told Arab News.

The pictue shows an inscription on a plaque made of stone in Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, Pakistan, August 15, 2020. (Muhammad Imran Saeed/Facebook)

Seed money of Rs10,000 for Bradlaugh Hall was collected by Indian banker and activist Dayal Singh Majithia through a fundraiser at the Indian National Congress party’s annual session in Lahore in 1983, according to noted historian Dr. Tahir Kamran. The Congress party was the first modern nationalist movement to emerge in the British Empire in Asia and Africa.

“At the time, there were only two halls in Lahore, the Town Hall of the municipal office and Montgomery Hall in Lawrence Garden, which were owned by the government and not available for political events,” Kamran said.

Bradlaugh Hall, built at the tail end of the 19th century, was named after British MP Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), a notable freethinker of his era and a staunch supporter of the Indian struggle for independence from British rule. Bradlaugh wished for political activists of the time to have an administrative center where they could gather and discuss their political future.

The undated photo shows British MP Charles Bradlaugh. (Save Bradlaugh Hall, Lahore)

“Bradlaugh was a radical liberal of his time who vehemently advocated women voting rights, birth control laws and independence for Indians,” Kamran said. “Bradlaugh’s daughter wrote her father’s biography, in which she recalls him as an Indian.”

The Hall, which comprises several rooms, a pavilion and a vast area for public gatherings, was completed in 1900, nine years after Bradlaugh passed away in 1891. It was inaugurated by Congress President Surendranath Bannerji.

“PROMINENT POLITICAL HUB”

In its early years, the Hall “helped facilitate the labor and peasants’ movement, especially the influential movement of the peasants (known as “Pagri Sambhal Jatta”) of Lyallpur (Faisalabad), in 1905,” reporter Aown Ali wrote in 2015 in daily Dawn. 

“Later, in 1915, the ‘Ghadar Party’ also had its base in Bradlaugh Hall. By the 1920s, it had become well-known across India as a prominent political hub.”

Among those who visited and delivered speeches at the Hall are Allama Muhammad Iqbal, one of the subcontinent’s most celebrated poets, Maulana Zafar Ali Khan, a key member of the Pakistan Movement and widely considered ‘the father of Urdu journalism,’ and Jawaharlal Nehru, who would go on to become the first prime minister of India.

Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan and the leader for the movement for an independent homeland for the Muslims of India, also delivered at least one speech at Bradlaugh, on May 24, 1924, during the Khilafat Movement, a pro-Islamic campaign in the subcontinent to salvage the Ottoman Empire and its ruler after World War 1.

According to Haroon Khalid, author of the book ‘Imagining Lahore,’ Bradlaugh Hall was home to the National College, set up by Indian author and politician Lala Lajpat Rai “to prepare ‘intellectual revolutionaries’” such as Bhagat Singh, the famed hero of India’s freedom struggle. It also hosted the Indian National Congress’s historic 1929 Lahore session that culminated in the declaration of Purna Swaraj, or full independence, on December 31, which the party would celebrate as India’s symbolic Independence Day until 1947.”

In March 1926, young proponents of freedom from all over India, especially Punjab, formed the “Naujawan Bharat Sabha” with the objective of transforming their ideology into action. The left-wing association chose Bradlaugh Hall as its headquarter. 

The pictue shows exterior view of Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, Pakistan, August 15, 2020. (Muhammad Imran Saeed/Facebook)

On October 7, 1930, when freedom fighters Singh and two others were sentenced to death, the Sabha party was declared illegal. However, it was revived as a legal defense team for Singh and others under the name of the “Bhagat Singh Appeal Committees,” with sessions carried out at Sabha’s office in Bradlaugh Hall.

The building also served as a center of cultural activity.

“Apart from being the center of political activities, this historic hall also served as a center for activities related to literature, culture and arts,” historian Masood said.

To commemorate their victory in World War 1, the British organized a mushaira at the Hall in 1919 where Iqbal recited his famous poem Shoa’a-e-Aftab. It is also at Bradlaugh that during the first session of the Lahore Students Union, the poet Josh Malih Abadi recited his famous revolutionary poem: “Suno ay Bastgaan e Zulf Gaiti, Nida Ye Aa Rahi hai Aasman Se/ Kay Aazadi ka ik Lamha hai Behter, Ghulaami ki Hayaat e Jawidaan Se” (Listen! You slaves of the times, such is the order of the day coming down from skies/ A moment of independence is far better than the eternal life in slavery).

The Parsi Theatrical Companies of Cowasjee and Habib Seth were very popular, and both used to perform at Bradlaugh Hall. In 1903, Narayan Prasad Betab’s drama Kasauti was played here. Legendary singer and dancer Gauhar Jaan Kalkattewali performed to a sold-out Hall in 1912.

But the building’s golden years came to an end in 1946 when the All-India Muslim League, formed out of the need for the political representation of Muslims in British India, won majority in the 1946 provincial elections, which is believed to have laid the path for Pakistan. After that, the rival Indian National Congress stopped meeting at Bradlaugh.

“NEGLECT AN INSULT TO REVOLUTIONARIES”

The Hall was managed by the Bradlaugh Hall administrative committee till the 1947 Partition of India, and for a decade after independence was used to provide shelter to migrants from Amritsar, as a warehouse for iron merchants and as a grain silo for the food department.

“The Government of Pakistan handed over the hall to the food department and it was converted into a wheat storage center,” Wasif Naqi, a historian and journalist who grew up in a neighborhood located behind the Hall, told Arab News. 

The pictue shows Bradlaugh Hall in Lahore, Pakistan, August 15, 2020. (Muhammad Imran Saeed/Facebook)

“For a long time, the hall also served as a car workshop. We would hear the din of hammers used by mechanics all day,” Naqi said.

Flooded in a rain storm in 1956, Bradlaugh Hall could no longer be used for food storage and was turned into the National Technical Institute in 1957. The Institute had the building until the 90s, which writer Aown Ali described “as the worst period for this historic building, as it was in this period that all the land grabbing and illegal interventions took place … the area was being exploited all for personal and monetary interests.”

Since 1997, the building has been sealed.

This April, however, the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA) and the Evacuee Trust Property Board (ETPB) said they would join hands to restore the original façade and the internal and external portions of the structure to return Bradlaugh Hall to its former glory. 

“Ideally, a library should be built within Bradlaugh Hall, including a space for political activity,” Kamran the historian said. “But what we have done to our other libraries is no less shameful to what we’ve done to this historical building which once helped bring revolution and thus independence.”

“More important is to return to the ethos this building once embodied, though restoring the structure is also vital,” journalist Masood said. “This act [of neglect] is an insult to the efforts and sacrifices of the revolutionaries who broke the chains of slavery for us.”


Analysts call Pakistan’s currency, stocks international ‘top performers’ in August

Updated 15 August 2022

Analysts call Pakistan’s currency, stocks international ‘top performers’ in August

  • Stocks surge by 22 percent while rupee appreciated by 11 percent since the beginning of this month
  • The change in market sentiment owes to expected revival of IMF program, financing from other nations

KARACHI: Local traders and analysts on Monday described Pakistan’s currency and stocks as global ‘top performers,’ saying they had recovered much of their value since the beginning of August after months of depressed trading against the backdrop of political and economic uncertainty in the country.

Pakistan’s main stock index rose by 764.25 points to close at 43,621 while the currency appreciated by 0.71 percent to close at Rs 213.98 against the US dollar in the interbank market on Monday.

The stocks and the Pakistani rupee have appreciated by 22 and 11 percent, respectively, during the ongoing month in a consistently bullish spell.

“After months of economic and political uncertainty, the rupee and stock market have emerged as top performers in August so far, beating all other countries,” Muhammad Sohail, chief executive officer of Topline Securities, a Karachi-based brokerage firm, said while referring to Bloomberg data. “The rupee is up 11 percent while KSE100 Index has surged by 22 percent in dollar terms.”

The rupee has appreciated by 11.58 percent, or Rs25.97, against the greenback in the last ten trading sessions that remained bullish.

Prior to that, Pakistan’s national currency lost its value by 17.51 percent since January due to economic concerns related to the revival of the support program of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the political situation that led to the ouster of former prime Minister Imran Khan in April.

The recent appreciation of the rupee is mainly due to the revival of the IMF program after Pakistani authorities and officials of the global lending agency reached a staff-level agreement for the seventh and eighth review of the loan program on July 13.

The agreement has paved the way for the disbursement of $1.2 billion by the IMF at the end of August after the approval of its executive board.

Pakistan is also expected to get some financial assistance from friendly countries, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is desperately required to bridge the financing gap recently mentioned by senior IMF officials.

These developments have also had a positive impact on the country’s equity market which had a bullish close on Monday, said analysts.

“The bullish market sentiment owes to the strengthening of the national currency along with the IMF’s letter of intent for the revival of the bailout program,” Ahsan Mehanti, chief executive officer of Arif Habib Corporation, said. “Reports of additional financial support from Saudi Arabia after the finance minister hinted at $1 billion UAE investment through Pakistan Stock Exchange [PSX] have also helped the situation.”

He added that other factors that benefitted the market included a positive sentiment in global equities and renewed foreign interest in PSX ahead of the IMF bailout receipt expected this month.

Pakistani analysts expect the rupee to stabilize between Rs200 and Rs210 against the US dollar.

“The Pakistani rupee was undervalued against the greenback which is expected to stabilize at around Rs210 after recent prospects of inflows from the IMF and friendly countries,” Samiullah Tariq, director research at the Pakistan-Kuwait Investment Company, told Arab News.

However, currency dealers said the rupee was likely to find support somewhere around Rs200 after the revival of the IMF program and expected import cuts.

“The rupee was depreciating due to the uncertainties surrounding the IMF program, though the fundamentals were sound and now the national currency is appreciating on mere promises since we have not received the funds so far,” Zafar Sultan Paracha, general secretary of the Exchange Companies Association of Pakistan (ECAP), said.

“The pressure on the Pak rupee will further ease off in the coming days due to the reduction in global commodity prices, including oil and other energy products along with freight cost cuts,” he added.

Fitch Ratings in its latest Economics Dashboard released on Monday said global supply chain disruptions were beginning to unwind as shipping rates were gradually declining while the time taken to deliver goods was also falling quickly.

It added that port congestion had eased and the backlog of orders was getting cleared, raising the prospect of lower core goods inflation ahead.

“The cost of shipping freight has declined by as much as 70 percent on some routes since September 2021 while transporting cargo now takes around 90 days instead of 122 days in April 2022,” the international rating agency said. “Congestion at US ports has dropped significantly, falling by close to 80 percent since last November.”