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Afghan Taliban rule out talks with US in Pakistan

PESHAWAR: The Afghan Taliban rejected media reports that they were prepared to resume meetings with US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Islamabad and repeated their refusal to deal directly with the Afghan government.

Media reports suggested that a meeting in Islamabad was in prospect following discussions between Khalilzad and Pakistani officials including Prime Minister Imran Khan on Friday.

Senior Taliban leaders said that regional powers including Pakistan had approached them and wanted them to meet the US delegation in Islamabad and also include the Afghan government in the peace process but that the approaches had been rejected.

“We wanted to make it clear that we will not hold any meeting with Zalmay Khalilzad in Islamabad,” Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement.

Talks between the two sides have stalled after the Taliban accused Khalilzad of straying from the agreed agenda and there is no clarity on when they may resume.

“We have made it clear again and again that we would never hold any meeting with the Afghan government as we know that they are not capable of addressing our demands,” said a senior Taliban leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

According to the US, any settlement in Afghanistan must be between the internationally recognized Afghan government and the Taliban, who have so far refused to talk to an administration they describe as an illegitimate puppet regime.

The Taliban leader said peace talks with the US delegation could resume if they were assured that only three issues would be discussed – a US withdrawal from Afghanistan, an exchange of prisoners and lifting a ban on the movement of Taliban leaders.

Afghan taliban

Khalilzad arrived in Islamabad on Thursday and met Prime Minister Imran Khan as well as the Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and other officials.

A foreign office statement said, “The two sides reviewed developments post-Abu Dhabi, in order to take the Afghan peace process forward”.

Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to hold 2nd summit

Kim and Trump

News of a second meeting with the reclusive North Korean leader came after Trump’s 90-minute meeting in the Oval Office with a North Korean envoy, Kim Yong Chol, who traveled to Washington to discuss denuclearisation talks.

Trump and Kim Jong Un are to meet near the end of February at a place to be announced later, said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

“The United States is going to continue to keep pressure and sanctions on North Korea until we see fully and verified denuclearisation,” Sanders said. “We’ve had very good steps and good faith from the North Koreans in releasing the hostages and other moves. And so we’re going to continue those conversations and the president looks forward to the next meeting.”

In May, North Korea released three American detainees and sent them home with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after his meeting with the North Korean leader in Pyongyang.

The second summit signals stepped-up efforts by both countries to continue talks. Trump has exchanged letters with the North Korean leader amid little tangible progress on the vague denuclearisation agreement reached at their first meeting last June in Singapore.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said “it’s high time” for serious negotiations between the US and North Korea to outline a roadmap for the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. The UN chief told a news conference at UN headquarters in New York on Friday that a roadmap would allow both sides “to know exactly what the next steps will be, and to have predictability in the way negotiations take place”.

On Friday, Pompeo met with the North Korean envoy at a Washington hotel before the White House meeting, and the two had lunch together afterwards.

Trump has spoken several times of having a second summit early this year. Vietnam has been considered as a possible summit venue, along with Thailand, Hawaii and Singapore.

Since their Singapore sit-down in June, several private analysts have published reports detailing continuing North Korean development of nuclear and missile technology. A planned meeting between Pompeo and the envoy, who is North Korea’s former spy chief, in New York last November was abruptly cancelled. US officials said at the time that North Korea had called off the session.

The special US envoy for North Korea negotiations, Steve Biegun, is set to travel to Sweden for further talks over the weekend.

The talks have stalled over North Korea’s refusal to provide a detailed accounting of its nuclear and missile facilities that would be used by inspectors to verify any deal to dismantle them. The North also has demanded that the US end harsh economic penalties and provide security guarantees before it takes any steps beyond its initial suspension of nuclear and missile tests.

Harry Kazianis, a North Korea expert at the Center for National Interest, said any talks between the two nations are a positive development, but the hard work of negotiating an agreement has only begun.

“Both nations must now show at least some tangible benefits from their diplomatic efforts during a second summit, or risk their efforts being panned as nothing more than reality TV,” Kazianis said.

As a possible first step, Kazianis said, North Korea could agree to close its nuclear centrifuge facility at Yongbyon in exchange for some relief from US sanctions or a peace declaration ending the Korean War. The three-year war between North and South Korea ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty.

“Such a deal allows both sides to come away with a much-needed win that can breathe new life into negotiations,” he said.

South Korea said it expects the second summit between Trump and Kim to be “a turning point in firmly establishing a permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula”.

Kim expressed frustration in an annual New Year’s address over the lack of progress in negotiations. But on a visit to Beijing last week, he said North Korea would pursue a second summit “to achieve results that will be welcomed by the international community”, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.

Kim’s latest trip to China, his fourth since last year, came as the North’s strongest ally has encouraged negotiations with the US while at the same time arguing in favour of an immediate easing of sanctions.

The US and North Korea seemed close to war at points during 2017. The North staged a series of weapons tests that brought it closer to its nuclear goal of one day being able to target anywhere on the US mainland. The two sides then turned to insulting each other: Trump called Kim “Little Rocket Man” and North Korea said Trump was a “dotard”.

Independent analysts are highly sceptical that North Korea will easily abandon a nuclear arsenal constructed in the face of deep poverty and probably seen by Kim as his only guarantee of his government’s survival. But Retired Gen Vincent Brooks, former US commander of American and allied forces in South Korea, told “PBS Newshour” that he believes Kim is serious about getting rid of his nuclear weapons.

“I do. I think that the dance is going to be very important here, though, as we think about how we go from where we were to where we all want to be,” Brooks said. “First, we ought to take him (Kim) at his word. And it’s not an easy thing to accept, especially given the track record of North Korea.

“But this is a new leader in North Korea … and, indeed, there’s evidence that he’s serious about committing to what he said. For example, we’ve now gone 415 days without a strategic provocation, test or demonstration. I think that’s a signal by itself that Kim Jong Un has moved in a different direction. “

Source from Dawn news

Pompeo in reassurance mission to Iraq over US Syria pullout plans

BAGHDAD: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sought to reassure Iraqi officials on Wednesday that Washington remained committed to fighting the Islamic State group, as he tours regional allies troubled by US plans to withdraw from Syria.

Pompeo’s unannounced visit comes less than two weeks after President Donald Trump drew criticism for failing to meet a single Iraqi official during a surprise Christmas trip to US troops at an air base in western Iraq.

The US top diplomat is in the Middle East to urge allies to continue to confront the “significant threats” posed by Iran and jihadists despite Trump’s shock decision last month to pull all US troops from Syria.

In Baghdad, Pompeo met a raft of senior officials including Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi and President Barham Saleh.

He underlined “US support for the new Iraqi government’s efforts to deliver stability, security and prosperity to all Iraqis,” a US official said.

Pompeo also “discussed the recent territorial defeat of ISIS in Syria and the continuation of our cooperation with Iraqi Security Forces to ensure ISIS’s lasting defeat throughout the region.”

He ducked reporters’ shouted questions about US pullout plans, but Saleh replied that Baghdad wanted Washington to remain engaged.

“We will need the support of the US,” he said, expressing “gratitude to the US for support over the years”.

“ISIS is defeated militarily, but (the) mission is not accomplished,” Saleh added, using an alternative acronym for IS.

Pompeo flew in from Amman and was also due to visit Cairo, Manama, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Riyadh, Muscat and Kuwait City on his longest trip since taking office last year.

– Rowing back –

Trump used his lightning December 26 visit — his first to US troops in a conflict zone since being elected — to defend his Syria withdrawal plans and declare an end to America’s role as the global “policeman.”

He caused a political storm when he announced the pullout, claiming IS had been defeated despite continued deadly fighting between US-backed forces and the jihadists in eastern Syria.

Trump has since rowed back, vowing the withdrawal will be done in a “prudent” way.

Members of his administration have gone further, saying that the timeline of any pullout remains dependent on events on the ground.

There are many in Iraq, particularly in pro-Iran factions, who would like an accelerated timetable for a US withdrawal from Iraq too.

But Trump has stressed that he expects US troops to remain in Iraq, from where they can carry out operations in neighbouring Syria if necessary.

Any failure to root out IS from border districts of Syria where they retain a presence poses a security concern for Iraq.

The 600-kilometre (375-mile) long frontier is porous and districts on the Iraqi side were the last from which Baghdad’s forces ousted the jihadists.

Iraq declared victory over IS in December 2017, but the jihadists retain a network of sleeper cells in major cities and continue to conduct hit-and-run attacks from mountain or desert hideouts.

On Tuesday, a car bomb killed two people in the city of Tikrit, north of the capital, police said.

– Difficult focus on Iran –

The Trump administration’s insistence on treating Tehran as a threat as big or even bigger than IS also poses major difficulties for Iraq.

Since the US-led invasion of 2003, Tehran has become a political force in Iraq with influence rivalling that of Washington.

Iran too provided support for Iraq’s fightback against the jihadists after they advanced to within striking distance of the capital in 2014.

And Iraq has developed a dependency on imports from its eastern neighbour that is difficult to break.

Iraq suffers from a chronic shortage of power that leads to routine outages lasting much of the day in many areas that have prompted angry protests.

It depends on imports from Iran of both electricity and gas to generate it, to maintain even existing supply.

Washington has granted Baghdad waivers from the crippling unilateral sanctions it reimposed on Tehran last year after Trump pulled out of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal agreed by his predecessor Barack Obama.

But members of his administration have put increasing pressure on the Iraqi government to stop seeking waivers and call in US firms to provide an alternative.

Pompeo and the Iraqi prime minister discussed on Wednesday “US support for Iraq’s energy independence,” the US official said.

Prudent initiatives PAK-UAE


In the backdrop of the inherited financial crisis Prime Minster Imran Khan visited China , Saudi Arabia and UAE to seek their help for bailing out the country from the difficult situation. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan also visited Pakistan on Sunday. He was given a red carpet welcome at the Nur Khan airbase.

Prime Minister Imran Khan not only received him personally but also drove him to the capital which reflected the warmth and depth of relations between the two countries. UAE has committed to provide $3 billion as a support for balance of payments and also agreed to establish a task force for taking all possible measures to enhance bilateral trade between the two countries giving a new direction to the strategic and all-round ties between the two countries.

UAE has also evinced interest in investing in oil, gas, logistics, ports and construction sectors of Pakistan which require huge financial resources. These sectors have enormous potential for nudging a process of sustained economic development but Pakistan lacks the financial resources to exploit the opportunities.

Relations between Pakistan and United Arab Emirates have always been cozy and mutually beneficial and the visit demonstrated once again that there was complete identity of views on various issues, which serves as the basis of long-lasting and trusted friendship.

UAE is one of the leading economic and development partners of Pakistan and has played active role in bailing out the country whenever it faced financial crisis or natural calamities. It is also one of the biggest destinations for foreign exchange remittances to Pakistan.

The presence of almost 1.6 million Pakistanis in the UAE is a reflection of the people centric nature of our relations between the two countries. It is also one of the important investors in Pakistan and its investments have helped create jobs and accelerate the pace of socio-economic progress of the country. Through meticulous planning and execution, the two countries can initiate a number of joint ventures in different fields meeting requirements of the two countries and also producing surplus for export to different regions. There are also bright prospects of UAE investing in CPEC economic zones to the mutual advantage.

The visit to Saudi Arabia was also very productive as the country not only provided $6 billion bailout package but also committed to make investments in the oil sector and setting up oil city at Gawadar. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed very cordial relations. Like UAE it is also a great source of foreign remittances.

Similarly prime minister’s visit to China produced very encouraging results. China committed to continue helping Pakistan in boosting the development process in the country and expand the ambit of CPEC to the social sectors.

Reportedly besides making increased investments in those sectors it is also extending $2 billion financial support to tide over the current financial crisis. China is a time-tested friend which has made tremendous contribution to development of Pakistan and also enjoys the distinction of strengthening defence capabilities of Pakistan. CPEC has not only taken the relations between the two countries to new heights but has added an element of eternity to them.

The assistance extended by all the three countries will surely help to a great extent in mitigating negative fallout of the current financial crisis as well as enable Pakistan to overcome the difficulties without incurring further burden of loans. It will also put Pakistan in a strong position to negotiate a possible package with the IMF if needed and avoid the harsh conditions which are usually attached to the bailout packages.

It was indeed a very prudent initiative by the PTI government led by Imran Khan to rely on the time-tested friends to winch itself from the perilous economic situation without the burden of more loans which can add to the economic vulnerabilities of the country.

Another hallmark of the strategy adopted by the PTI government in this regard has been to seek investments from all of them. Direct foreign investments are considered as one of the engines of growth which create more jobs and resources required to finance future development plans.

Though the help from friendly countries in times of crisis is welcome but it is not a permanent solution to the economic woes that the country is faced with. Pakistan needs drastic macro-economic reforms and an effective economic strategy that not only reduces reliance on loans and assistance from the friendly countries and the international lending institutions but also nudges the process of sustained economic development in the country.

Measures aimed at reducing the budgetary deficit through broadening the tax base and taking appropriate fiscal and monetary initiatives are absolutely imperative though they might hurt certain sections of the society in the short run. Pakistan is confronted with a very severe economic crisis and the remedy lies in some harsh and painful policy options. Though they might have some political repercussion but they have to be taken now.

The health of the economy cannot be made subservient to political considerations. The truth is that the economic melt-down that the country is going through at the moment is a consequence of politically motivated decisions made by successive governments to run the economy. That approach needs to be discarded for good if the country has to move forward.

A strong economy is also essential for successful diplomacy and managing the international affairs with greater aplomb as well as ensuring strong defence capabilities to ward off the dangers to the security of the country. The geo-political situation in the region also necessitates our focus on rectifying the maladies afflicting our economy and initiating a process of turn-around through courageous and prudent economic policies. Strong economy is also a key to promoting well-being of the masses, the fundamental responsibility of the state and the government.