Pakistan is facing serious economic and political challenges within and outside its borders which call for urgent action at a time of international uncertainty and turbulence, the country’s new prime minister has stated.
Shehbaz Sharif, who took over four months ago from Imran Khan following a bitter standoff, spoke of the measures his government was taking to alleviate problems at home while urging foreign powers to engage with the Taliban regime in next-door Afghanistan to ensure stability in the region.
Speaking on the 75th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence, Mr Sharif outlined the issues facing his country, including the rise in energy prices following the Ukraine war, and the way he wanted to move forward.
“We need to learn from the mistakes of the past and move on, vowing not to repeat them,” he told The Independent.
Mr Khan was accused of attempting to carry out a constitutional coup after he orchestrated the dismissal of a no-confidence motion against him in the National Assembly. He claimed that a range of enemies, from the country’s military to the US administration, had conspired to carry out “regime change”.
The National Assembly eventually passed the motion, making Mr Khan the first prime minister of Pakistan to be removed from office through a no-confidence vote. The former cricketer said he accepted the outcome, but would “continue the fight until the last ball”.
Since then, Mr Khan has continued with his charges of foreign interference and domestic collusion.
Pakistan’s army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, and the Biden administration have vehemently denied playing any part in Mr Khan’s downfall. Russia, in confrontation with America and the West over Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, has charged Washington with complicity “for its own selfish purposes”.
Mr Sharif, the leader of the opposition who became prime minister after a National Assembly vote, held that Mr Khan’s actions were a damaging “distortion” of the political process based on “frivolous charges” which have been rejected by the Supreme Court.
He told The Independent: “You need to look at Imran Khan’s politics to make sense of what he has been saying all along since he was voted out. Distortion of facts on his part is unfortunate. Issues like national interest and security demand statesmanship and rising above narrow self-interest which, sadly, are not being demonstrated by him.
“The National Security Committee strongly rejected his charges, not once but twice. The Supreme Court of Pakistan refused to buy his arguments, terming them vague and unsubstantiated. All political forces of Pakistan have been unanimous in their assertion that there is absolutely no merit in his frivolous charges.”
He continued: “I am sure we will be able to bring about political and economic stability in the country very soon to put it back on track of sustainable development which is vital for the socio-economic empowerment of our people. Things have already started improving.”
Mr Sharif said the stability of the country depended on free and transparent elections. But, he added, “before the polls are held, it is important the economic threats facing the country are overcome.
There is a dire need to move beyond the confines of humanitarian assistance and help the Afghan people build a viable economy
“...The current crisis in Europe and rise in energy prices have put a huge strain on our limited resources. From the outset of the Ukraine conflict, Pakistan has been emphasising a diplomatic solution in accordance with relevant multilateral agreements, international law, and the provisions of the UN Charter. As regards trade with Russia, we engage with them keeping in view our best interests.”
His government, said the prime minister, “inherited an economy in a crisis characterised by challenges like shrinking fiscal space, inflationary pressure, mounting current account deficit, growing financing need, exchange rate pressure, and energy sector crisis”.
Measures being taken include the imposition of a phased petroleum levy, targeted subsidies to those most vulnerable to rising energy and commodity prices, a ban on the import of more than three dozen “non-essential luxury items” and rates rising to 15 per cent.
Longer-term measures including the establishment of special economic zones and export promotion and import substitution and youth development would seek to increase GDP to 6-7 per cent.
Pakistan’s Independence Day, 14 August, is the day before the first anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
Elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence service, ISI, have, it has been claimed, long links with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, which has a powerful presence in the new administration in Kabul.
Mr Sharif said: “We believe that the international community must continue practical and continuous engagement with Afghanistan. There is a dire need to move beyond the confines of humanitarian assistance and help the Afghan people build a viable economy.
“Unfreezing of Afghan assets and re-establishment of functional banking channels are aspects that the international community must seriously deliberate upon without prejudice to aiding the Afghan populace.”
A year after the Taliban takeover, around $7bn of Afghan assets in the US and $2bn in Europe remain frozen.
Joe Biden announced in February that $3.5bn of the money in America would be kept for potential claims by victims and bereaved families of the 9/11 attacks and $3.5bn for humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Talks are ongoing in Qatar between the Americans and the Taliban on how the humanitarian aid would be distributed.
Re-opening of girls’ secondary education ... is critical for the long-term societal development of Afghanistan
Despite pledges made on women’s rights, the Taliban has imposed draconian restrictions on female education. Afghanistan remains the only country in the world where girls are banned from high school.
At the same time, apprehension that the country may once again become a breeding ground for international jihad has risen after the US tracked down and killed Ayman al-Zawahiri, the successor to Osama bin Laden as al-Qaeda leader, in Kabul last month.
The Pakistani prime minister said: “It is important for the interim Afghan government [the Taliban] to fulfil the commitments it made post 15 August 2021 ensuring human rights, in particular female education, and inclusive governance. Re-opening of girls’ secondary education across Afghanistan would not only augur well for international engagement ... but, in our view, it is also critical for the long-term societal development of Afghanistan.
“The interim Afghan government had made a firm commitment to the international community that it would not allow their soil to be used against any other country. Therefore, the international community must remain engaged with the interim Afghan government to devise ways and means of strengthening collaboration in the counterterrorism domain. Pakistan’s principled position is that continuous and practical engagement with the interim Afghan government is the only way forward.”
In a surprise move, India, the traditional adversary of Pakistan, is opening a legation in Kabul at the invitation of the Taliban. Afghanistan’s new rulers also want Delhi to continue with its extensive aid projects in the country.
Islamabad has, in the past, accused India of carrying out anti-Pakistani activity from Afghanistan.
Mr Sharif said: “We do not see our bilateral relations with Afghanistan through the prism of a third country. That said, our views about India’s detrimental role using Afghan soil are well known.
“India has also been a spoiler as regards efforts for restoring peace and forging reconciliation in Afghanistan are concerned. We hope that the interim Afghan government would remain steadfast in its commitment regarding not allowing their soil to be used against any other country.”
The Pakistani prime minister’s brother, Nawaz Sharif, was overthrown by a military coup when he held the office in 1993. Asked whether possibilities of military takeovers have gone, Shehbaz Sharif said: “What happened in the past is documented in history. There is no point in regretting the past. We, as a nation, have made many mistakes. We need to learn from them and move on, vowing not to repeat them.”
“ .... South Asia is a dynamic region, full of huge potential and infinite opportunities. Pakistan is playing its role as a factor of stability in the region and beyond. Time has come for the south Asian countries to take a break from the past and think of the future, one which promises prosperity for the people. This alone should be the basis of inter-state relations.”