Afghanistan in disarray
Afghanistan has rarely been tidy or indeed at peace either with itself or its neighbours for most of the time it has existed as a state. It has been the victim of endless meddling by external forces and agencies for centuries, and in 2016 it once again finds itself mired in conflict, saddled with an unstable and ineffective government that was formed around an externally evolved model, and moving towards failed statehood. The Taliban insurgency is now in its 15th year and is currently on a roll, with a steady military advancement to bolster the already substantial gains it has made as a civilian administration, controlling in whole or part around 50 per cent of the country. The Quadrilateral Group which has the thankless task of crafting a cessation of violence if not peace has perhaps inevitably run into the sand; and on April 25, President Ashraf Ghani delivered what might be a mortal blow to it by saying that Kabul will no longer seek a role for Pakistan in the peace talks with the Taliban. The following day saw a robust rebuttal of President Ghani’s comments by the Pakistan Foreign Office.
Seemingly out of nowhere and on the same day that President Ghani was seeking to sideline Pakistan as a partner in peace brokerage, a three-man delegation from the Taliban arrived in Islamabad. The delegation comes from the Qatar office that the Taliban have set up, and is unlikely to be representative of the several groups currently fighting in Afghanistan, and almost certainly not representative of the Haqqani group with which Pakistan continues to maintain a somewhat opaque relationship. Afghanistan is of the view that the Haqqani network has its planning and logistics cells in Pakistan; and its actions are routinely condemned by Pakistan but there appears to be little by way of combating them or rolling back their presence.
All this has prompted the Americans to dust off the ‘Pakistan must do more’ mantra which chimes closely with the latest comments from President Ghani, who clearly has little confidence in Pakistan’s ability to positively influence any of the Taliban groups currently in play. The massive bombing in Kabul in the last week demonstrates just how weak is the grip of the government of President Ghani, and his assertion that the Afghan National Army is “doing better this year” is not borne out by ground realities. His words were relayed direct to the nation in a joint session of the Afghan parliament that was broadcast on all TV channels, public and private. He spoke of the Taliban leadership being based in Peshawar and Quetta saying that they were “slaves and enemies of Afghanistan who shed the blood of their countrymen” and called on Pakistan to wipe them out.
The implication was that the ‘slaves’ were in the ownership and control of Pakistan. He reiterated that there were no “good or bad” terrorists and that terrorists were bad — period — and Pakistan must “fulfill its promises”. Conversely, the Taliban describe the current government as being “slaves of the US” and that its members should suffer the same fate as Dr Najeeb who was publicly lynched in 1996.
The attempt to isolate Pakistan diplomatically is going to take nobody anywhere; and whether Afghanistan likes it or not, Pakistan is a part of the Afghan rebus. There may or may not be a meeting between elements of the Taliban and the Afghan government on April 27, but even if there is, no substantive changes or improvements may be expected. As each year arrives, it is said to be ‘a crux’ for Afghanistan, the year in which it is make or break, and each year passes with Afghanistan stumbling along with many of its people in abject misery, sick of war, sick of being pulled hither and thither and sick of the sticky fingers that poke and prod. It may be that 2016 really is a crux, but with four months gone the outlook is bleak.
Banks versus the FBR
The Pakistan Banks’ Association (PBA) and the FBR appear to have reached a deadlock over the issue of allowing the latter access to account-holders’ central database. Banks fear a breach of security if this access is allowed, while the FBR’s move comes as a part of its attempt to go after tax evaders. Given the Panama Papers fiasco, it is under increased pressure to show results after years of inefficiency, corruption and lack of will to go after tax evaders. A meeting between the PBA and the FBR on the issue ended inconclusively, indicating the country’s weak tax administration system where, even after the introduction of a new section in the Income Tax law that allows the FBR access to the banking system’s database, the issue remains pending.
The PBA has got stay-orders on the implementation of the law, insisting that access would only be given if an account holds deposits above Rs5 million. According to tax experts, this criterion would result in the access becoming useless as a single individual can easily open multiple accounts to remain under the Rs5 million benchmark. At the same time, the banks’ concerns on allowing the FBR access are also understandable as the latter is well known for harassing even honest taxpayers. However, the trenchant stance of the banks is no solution either. They say that their priority is to increase financial inclusion, but rural communities continue to rely on other methods to transfer money. There are few banks in these areas as it does not make business sense for the banks to spend millions in operating branches in areas where account-holders do not have a lot of cash to deposit. Banks in Pakistan essentially target an increase in deposits — to invest in riskless government securities when interest rates are low — and the FBR’s access to account-holders’ database threatens this. The solution to this predicament could be to require banks to impose higher standards when customers open accounts. A provision could be instituted requiring account-holders to declare their sources of income when they open bank accounts. At present, customer requirements are easily manipulated and even when there is an indication of wrongdoing, banks do little to alert the authorities. This state of affairs cannot be allowed to continue.