In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban

Army soldiers patrol in a market in Peshawar, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa on April 26, 2021. (AFP/File)
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Updated 29 September 2022

In Pakistan’s northwest, rise in extortion demands signals advance of Taliban

  • Arab News interviewed at least seven traders who had received extortion demands in recent months
  • Six of them said the callers identified themselves as militants belonging to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan

PESHAWAR: Soon after a grenade struck his house in Peshawar city three months ago, Ihsan Khan, a well-known trader in the capital of the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, received a phone call.

“Next time, the entire home will be blown up if you don’t pay Rs300 million ($1.2 million),” the voice on the other end said.

The menacing call was taken seriously in a northern pocket of the country where Pakistani Taliban, or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), insurgents, have carried out some of the deadliest attacks in Pakistan in past years and where officials as well as local residents widely say they are attempting to regain a foothold.

In the next few days, Khan held a series of phone negotiations with the caller and finally negotiated the demand down through the help of intermediaries, subsequently paying a smaller sum.

Last week, Arab News interviewed at least seven traders, transporters and business people who had received demands for protection money in recent months. Six said the callers had identified themselves as militants belonging to the TTP. It was unclear how many paid up.

The increasing demands for cash have stirred fears of the comeback of insurgents to the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province amid a stalled peace deal with Islamabad and drawn-out negotiations that began last year.

On September 20, the TTP said it was not linked to the extortion demands and issued a statement calling on the public not to pay up.

“If anyone asks you ... in the name of the Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP), please contact us so we can unmask them,” the statement said, offering a contact number.

In comments to Arab News, Abu Yasir, the head of the TTP’s grievance commission, said the group had a “clear-cut and strong stance” against extortion.

“We have neither allowed nor will we allow anyone to do so,” Yasir said. “We have stopped many. And in some cases, members of the Tehreek have also done it on an individual basis, but we have stopped them ... We have stopped our colleagues and asked others as well, when a complaint has been lodged with us.”

’TIP OF THE ICEBERG’

Attacks and threats of violence have been a part of life in northern Pakistan since at least 2010, including the attempted assassination of Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai in 2012 and an attack on an army-run school in 2014 in which at least 134 children were killed.

Though thousands of Pakistanis have been killed in militant violence in the last two decades, attacks declined in the last few years after a series of military operations that pushed most TTP insurgents in Pakistan’s northwest to find shelter in neighboring Afghanistan.

But many analysts and officials warn militants are attempting to return and are busily conducting kidnappings and extortion to stockpile cash for the fight ahead if peace talks with Islamabad fail. Their reach and their ability to carry out attacks was chillingly demonstrated earlier this month when eight people were killed in a roadside bombing that targeted an anti-Taliban village elder’s vehicle in Swat Valley, in what was the first major bombing in the area in over a decade. Taliban militants this month also kidnapped 10 employees of a telecom company and demanded Rs100 million ($418,000) for their release, according to a police report filed with the local counterterrorism department.

Concerns of a TTP resurgence have grown since August 2021, when the Afghan Taliban took over Kabul following the departure of US and other foreign forces. Pakistani officials have since variously spoken of fears of fighters from the Pakistani Taliban group, which is separate but affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, crossing over from Afghanistan and launching lethal attacks on its territory.

The Afghan Taliban have reassured their neighbor they will not allow their territory to be used by anyone planning attacks on Pakistan or any other country. Still, the TTP have managed to step up attacks in recent months and both police and government officials as well as locals report hundreds of insurgents have returned — as have demands for extortion.

Muhammad Ali Saif, a spokesperson for the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, said anonymous calls demanding protection money were being made both from Afghanistan and within Pakistan.

“Different people have received calls for extortion, some have registered FIRs [police reports] and others have not,” Saif told Arab News, saying the Counter-Terrorism Department (CTD) and police took immediate action whenever such cases were reported.

Not all calls, he said, were from TTP militants.

“Some calls are also made by criminals and extortionists,” the spokesperson said.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Inspector General of Police, Moazzam Jah Ansari, CTD Chief Javed Iqbal Wazir, and spokespersons for the Pakistani foreign office and army and Afghanistan’s information ministry did not respond to phone calls and text messages seeking comment.

But a Peshawar-based senior police official with direct knowledge of the issue, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the provincial police department had been registering at least four extortion cases a day in the city since July.

“This is just the tip of an iceberg,” he said. “Previously, traders, transporters and businessmen used to be the targets. Now, members of national and provincial assemblies as well as government officials are also asked to pay protection money … The situation is very bad and it’s deteriorating with each passing day.”

“Well-off people, including lawmakers, receive phone calls on a regular basis,” said another police official based in Swat valley. “Few report it and a majority of them pay the money.”

Since the start of August, Swat police have registered four cases of extortion, naming the TTP as suspects in their reports. In one such case, the Swat official said, militants were paid Rs25 million ($103,000) as protection money by a provincial lawmaker.

“Militants asked the lawmaker to remove CCTV cameras from his home before they arrived to collect the money at midnight,” the official said. “The lawmaker opted not to report the incident.”

’PREDICTABLE PHENOMENON’

Malik Imran Ishaq, president of the Industrialists’ Association Peshawar (IAP), said militancy and extortion had caused “severe damage” to the business fraternity in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

In Peshawar, extortionists targeted wealthy families, he said, with residents regularly finding small bombs outside their homes or businesses.

“Many of our association’s members have received [extortion] calls and many of them have been hit, targeted by rocket launchers and hand grenades,” the industrialist said.

Police had increased patrolling in the Hayatabad industrial estate area of the city but it had not resolved the issue, Ishaq said.

“I am clueless about how this issue will be resolved,” he said, lamenting that businesses worth billions of rupees in the Hayatabad industrial estate were on the verge of closure.

“Twenty-eight of our members have shut their industrial units in Peshawar and moved to Punjab to set up factories there,” Ishaq said, blaming the move on a resurgence of militancy and a rise in Taliban demands for cash.

“There is an evident surge during the last one year, particularly the last couple of months.”

The crime wave means the government and military could face a well-armed insurgency if the TTP is able to fully return to the country’s northern belt, experts warn.

Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based militancy expert, said an increase in demands for protection money was a tell-tale sign that Taliban were making serious attempts to regain control in Pakistan’s northwest.

“Militants require financial support for their operations,” he said, “and in this context, the rise of extortion incidents in these areas is a predictable phenomenon.”


Pakistan calls for ‘understanding, not more harsh conditionalities’ amid talks to revive stalled IMF bailout

Updated 40 min 37 sec ago

Pakistan calls for ‘understanding, not more harsh conditionalities’ amid talks to revive stalled IMF bailout

  • In interview to Arab News, Ahsan Iqbal says Pakistan has strong fundamentals which will never let it go into bankruptcy
  • Pakistan currently seeing a severe dollar crunch and looking for external financing to fulfill its international obligations

ISLAMABAD: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) should realize that Pakistan needs “more understanding, not more harsh conditionalities” after having suffered $30 billion losses due to last year’s flood, its planning minister has said, adding Islamabad is paying an economic cost for a delay in finalization of an IMF review of the country’s $7 billion loan program. 

In addition to the economic losses, the devastating floods claimed more than 1,700 lives and affected 33 million people in the South Asian country, already witnessing decades-high inflation and fast depreciating national currency. 

Amid the economic crisis, Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves have depleted to $3 billion — barely enough to cover 18 days of imports — leading to fears of a default. 

To mitigate the situation, Islamabad is currently holding talks with an IMF mission, which arrived in the country last month, to discuss the resumption of the $7 billion loan program, stalled since November. 

“The IMF program which should have been finalized earlier has taken a little longer and I hope that IMF also realizes that by delaying the finalization of the program or review of the program, markets get more uncertainty at an economic cost,” Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal told Arab News in an exclusive interview on Saturday. 

“After Pakistan being subjected to $30 billion loss due to climate change, Pakistan needs more understanding, not more harsh conditionalities.” 

A successful review of the program will result in the release of more than $1 billion to Islamabad, while Iqbal said there was no chance of a default as the South Asian country had strong fundamentals that would never let it go bankrupt. 

“I am very hopeful that the IMF program will be finalized and as soon as the review is finalized, we will see that all the multilateral inflows will start coming in which have been held up due to uncertainty about program,” he said. 

“We should be able to turn around the situation in the next couple of months or maybe a year.” 

Just like climate disaster, the government was facing an economic disaster for no fault of it, but because of “someone else’s wrongdoings,” according to Iqbal. 

The Pakistani planning ministry has worked at the 5E framework which rallies around exports, e-commerce, energy, environment and education. 

“The government is looking at a more comprehensive reform package that will not only fix our immediate problems, but also provide us a solid foundation for sustainable and fast growth in the future,” the minister said. 

On the question of a surge in militant attacks in Pakistan, Iqbal said a small group of militants could not dictate Pakistan and the government had resolved to defeat militants through a comprehensive internal security policy. 

“The national action internal security policy envisages many non-kinetic measures so that we can also make and take more preventive measures in the future for such groups to find no support in the society,” he said. 

“We will continue our vigilance and we will continue our operations to eliminate any trace of these extremist elements which enter Pakistan from Afghanistan.” 

The South Asian country witnessed 254 militant attacks last year, according to the Islamabad-based Pak Institute for Peace Studies think tank, with most of them linked to the Pakistani Taliban, or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), that unilaterally ended a cease-fire with the government in November. Pakistani officials have previously vowed to show no leniency to militants and fight them out. 

On the possibility of talks with former prime minister Imran Khan who has been agitating against the government, Iqbal said the coalition government always asked Khan to hold talks with it and take the path of consensus-building, but unfortunately, he did not do it. 

“He is a lonely voice standing on the one side, the rest of all democratic parties on the other side and they are realizing that,” the minister added. 


Pakistan extends condolences over deaths from Turkiye earthquake, offers assistance

Updated 06 February 2023

Pakistan extends condolences over deaths from Turkiye earthquake, offers assistance

  • A 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit Turkiye early Monday, toppling buildings
  • Several people died as a result of the quake, with death toll expected to rise

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistani government on Monday extended its condolences over the loss of precious lives and expressed sorrow over extensive infrastructure damage due to a massive earthquake in Turkiye, offering its support to Ankara for relief efforts. 

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit southeast Turkiye and Syria early Monday, toppling buildings and sending panicked residents pouring outside in a cold winter night. At least 100 were killed, and the toll was expected to rise. 

The quake, felt as far away as Cairo, was centered north of the city of Gaziantep in an area about 90 kilometers (60 miles) from the Syrian border. 

Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif said his government he was “deeply saddened” and extended his sympathies to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. 

“Deeply saddened by the news of a massive earthquake that struck southeastern region of Türkiye,” Sharif said on Twitter. 

“I send my profound condolences & most sincere sympathies to my brother President @RTErdogan & brotherly people of Türkiye on the loss of precious lives & damage to infrastructure.” 

The people of Pakistan stand in complete solidarity with their Turkish brethren in this hour of grief, the Pakistani foreign office said in a statement, offering Islamabad’s all possible support in the relief effort. 

“We extend our deepest condolences to the bereaved families and pray for early recovery of those injured,” the statement read. 

“We are confident that the resilient Turkish nation will overcome this natural calamity with characteristic grit and determination.” 


Pakistan says prioritizing medical imports as hospitals, labs ration devices, diagnostic equipment

Updated 06 February 2023

Pakistan says prioritizing medical imports as hospitals, labs ration devices, diagnostic equipment

  • Pakistan spends about $1.1 billion annually to procure devices and diagnostic equipment from abroad 
  • There is an unofficial import restriction in Pakistan as foreign reserves have plunged to dangerous levels 

ISLAMABAD: Millions are at risk in Pakistan as hospitals, laboratories and clinics face an acute shortage of medical devices and diagnostic products due to unofficial import restrictions, local suppliers and health care practitioners have said, while the government says it has ordered the central bank to prioritize medical imports. 

Pakistan imports over 90 percent of its medical devices and diagnostic equipment from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and China to meet its domestic medical requirements. According to official statistics, the country spends about $1.1 billion annually to procure these products from abroad. 

The South Asian country is struggling to quell default fears in domestic and international markets, with its forex reserves diminishing to $3.09 billion and a $1.1 billion bailout tranche from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) stuck since November. Meanwhile, the government has also placed a ban on the import of goods, including industrial raw materials, to stop dollar outflows. 

“We have urged the government and the central bank several times to allow the import of medical devices as it is a matter of urgent public importance, but to no avail so far,” Masood Ahmed, chairman of the Healthcare Devices Association of Pakistan, told Arab News. 

The medical devices that Pakistan imports range from simple tongue depressors and bedpans to complex programmable pacemakers and closed-loop artificial pancreas systems. These devices also include in-vitro diagnostic (IVD) products, such as reagents, test kits and blood glucose meters as well as life-support equipment like ventilators, incubators and heart, lung and dialysis machines. 

The government slapped the ban on imports in December last year after the nation’s foreign exchange reserves started depleting because of external debt repayments. The country’s current forex reserves are barely enough to cover only about 18 days of imports. 

Islamabad is currently negotiating with the IMF for the resumption of its stalled $7 billion bailout program to avert the looming default. 

Ahmed said he was not expecting the government to lift the import ban anytime soon, even if it reached an agreement with the global lender to secure the next tranche of more than $1 billion. 

He said the depreciation of the Pakistani currency had also made it impossible for them to supply the products. The Pakistani currency has depreciated by around Rs100 against the greenback over the last one year amid a drop in export revenue, remittances and foreign direct investment. 

“We cannot meet the demand of public and private hospitals, clinics and medical labs in this situation,” he continued. 

“Ultimately, patients have been suffering since the prices of medical tests, surgeries and treatment have already increased exponentially.” 

The Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) said the shortage of devices was “severely impacting” the wellbeing of patients, who needed advanced respiratory support or intensive care due to cardiac arrest or for major surgeries. 

“Stents for heart patients and necessary equipment for ventilators are unavailable in the market,” PMA secretary-general Dr. Abdul Ghafoor Shoro told Arab News. 

“There is a crisis-level shortage of health care devices and doctors are resorting to rationing and triage to save lives of critical patients.” 

When approached, the Pakistani health ministry said it had already written a letter to the central bank to include “imports of medicines and health care devices in the priority list.” 

“We are aware of the situation and tracking it on daily basis with all stakeholders,” Sajid Hussain Shah, a health ministry spokesperson, told Arab News. 

“Yes, the cost of everything has gone up with the rupee’s depreciation, but public hospitals are still trying their best to provide maximum services and treatment for free.” 


Pakistan divided on legacy of military ruler Musharraf

Updated 06 February 2023

Pakistan divided on legacy of military ruler Musharraf

  • Musharraf, 79, passed away in Dubai after losing battle to rare disease, amyloidosis
  • He ruled Pakistan for nearly a decade from 1999 to 2008 as chief executive, president

ISLAMABAD: Pervez Musharraf was a polarizing figure in Pakistani politics, returning the country to a period of economic stability while accused of rampant abuses and weakening democracy.
The nation’s most recent military leader governed for nearly a decade after seizing power in a bloodless coup in 1999.

His rule was marred by repeated allegations of abuses, including ruthlessly rounding up his opponents as well as being accused of involvement in former prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s assassination.

The effects of his decision to back the United States in its invasion of Afghanistan — albeit in the face of threats of bombing and in return for a massive aid injection — continue to reverberate.

“Musharraf boosted education standards and infrastructure in Pakistan. He brought development to the country,” 24-year-old student Mohammad Waqas told AFP in Islamabad.

“But on the other hand, the country suffered losses in the face of terrorism. Entering America’s war weakened our own country.”

Pakistan is currently undergoing yet another economic crisis, and widespread political uncertainty ahead of elections due later this year.

In the face of the turmoil, some remember Musharraf with a certain fondness.

“He was a good ruler. There has not been a leader like him before and there will never be one like him again,” said 70-year-old Islamabad shopkeeper Muhammad Khan.

Veteran Pakistani politician and Musharraf ally Parvez Elahi told AFP: “He was a ruler with a lot of depth, who loved hard work and he would appreciate new initiatives.”

In 2006 — at the height of their alliance — US President George W. Bush called Musharraf “a strong, forceful leader [who] has become a target of those who can’t stand the thought of moderation prevailing.”

US President George W. Bush (C) arrives with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (R) and Pakistan's Gen. Pervez Musharraf to make a statement in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on September 27, 2006. (AFP)

His moves to overthrow an elected government and to suspend the constitution for long periods, however, also frame his legacy.

“His one act, which will be remembered throughout history, was he violated the constitution,” retired civil servant Naeem Ul Haq Satti told AFP.

“The most important thing a country has is its constitution,” the 69-year-old added.

As he faced growing pressure for democratic elections, Musharraf’s oppression of critics worsened.

He suspended the constitution for a second time in 2007, rounded up thousands of opponents and sacked the chief justice, leading to widespread protests.

“General Musharraf was one of the military dictators who misruled the country by... bringing in a group of sycophants,” businessman Abdul Basit told AFP in the Balochistan provincial capital of Quetta.

Pakistani anti-Musharraf lawyers carry pictures of arrested lawyers and shout slogans in protest against the sacking of the top judge of the Supreme Court by President Pervez Musharraf during a demonstration in Islamabad on 13 December 2007. (AFP)

Under Musharraf, Pakistan stepped up its war against ethnic Baloch separatists, with a military operation killing key separatist leader Akbar Bugti in 2006, an assassination that further fanned the flames of that movement.

“People do give credit to General Musharraf for developing the country but on the other hand, like his predecessors, he played havoc,” said Basit.

Musharraf resigned in 2008 and faced years of legal wrangling, finally being found guilty in absentia and sentenced to death for treason. That ruling was later nullified.

The former ruler ended his days in Dubai, having failed to launch a political comeback and finding himself, and his All Pakistan Muslim League party, sidelined from political relevance.


Pakistan announces three-match T20 series against Afghanistan in UAE

Updated 06 February 2023

Pakistan announces three-match T20 series against Afghanistan in UAE

  • Pakistan to play T20 series against Afghanistan in Sharjab by end of March, says PCB boss
  • Pakistan says will play series to “compensate” Afghanistan after Australia pulled out of series

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan will play three T20Is against Afghanistan in Sharjah by the end of March, Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) boss Najam Sethi announced on Sunday, a day after the Asian Cricket Council (ACC) meeting took place in Bahrain. 

Australia were scheduled to play three One Day Internationals (ODIs) in the UAE in March. However, Cricket Australia announced they were withdrawing from the series in protest against the Taliban government’s restrictions on women’s education and employment in the country. 

Sethi, who serves as the chair of the PCB’s managing committee, wrote on Twitter that Pakistan would play three T20Is against Afghanistan to “compensate” Afghanistan for the Australia pullout. 

“Pleased to announce PCB will play 3xT20s against Afghanistan in Sharjah end March to compensate Afghanistan following Australia’s pullout from bi lateral series against it,” Sethi said. 

Sethi’s announcement comes on the heels of the ACC’s executive board meeting held in Bahrain on Saturday. During the meeting, the issue of the upcoming Asia Cup 2023 venue also came up for discussion, according to the PCB. 

Pakistan are slated to host the Asia Cup 2023 tournament. However, the matter became controversial in October last year after Indian cricket board chief and ACC president, Jay Shah, said India would not travel to Pakistan to take part in the tournament. Shah suggested a neutral venue for the tournament. 

“The Board agreed to continue discussions on operations, timelines, and any other specifics with a view to ensure the success of the tournament,” the PCB said in a statement last week. “An update on the matter would be taken on the next ACC Executive Board Meeting to be held in March 2023.”

As per various international media reports, Sethi told Shah point-blank that if India does not play Asia Cup 2023 in Pakistan, the green shirts would consider not going to India for the 50-over ODI World Cup scheduled to be held in India later this year.