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Explainer: What Pakistan’s political instability means for the rest of the world

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan faces a no-confidence vote in parliament on Saturday which he is widely expected to lose.

If that happens, or he resigns before then, a new government would be formed most likely under opposition leader Shehbaz Sharif, but it was unclear how long it could last or whether elections expected to take place later this year would bring greater clarity.

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The nation of more than 220 million people lies between Afghanistan to the west, China to the northeast and India to the east, making it of vital strategic importance.

Since coming to power in 2018, Khan’s rhetoric has become more anti-American and he expressed a desire to move closer to China and, recently, Russia – including talks with President Vladimir Putin on the day the invasion of Ukraine began.

At the same time, US and Asian foreign policy experts said that Pakistan’s powerful military has traditionally controlled foreign and defense policy, thereby limiting the impact of political instability.

Here is what the upheaval, which comes as the economy is in deep trouble, means for countries closely involved in Pakistan:

Afghanistan

Ties between Pakistan’s military intelligence agency and the Taliban have loosened in recent years.

Now the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan and facing an economic and humanitarian crisis due to a lack of money and international isolation. Qatar is arguably their most important foreign partner.

“We (the United States) don’t need Pakistan as a conduit to the Taliban. Qatar is definitely playing that role now,” said Lisa Curtis, director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security think-tank.

Tensions have risen between the Taliban and Pakistan’s military, which has lost several soldiers in attacks close to their mutual border. Pakistan wants the Taliban to do more to crack down on extremist groups and worries they will spread violence into Pakistan. That has begun to happen already.

Khan has been less critical of the Taliban over human rights than most foreign leaders.

China

Khan consistently emphasized China’s positive role in Pakistan and in the world at large.

At the same time, the $60-billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which binds the neighbors together was actually conceptualized and launched under Pakistan’s two established political parties, both of which are set to share power once he is gone.

Potential successor Sharif, the younger brother of three-time former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, struck deals with China directly as leader of the eastern province of Punjab, and his reputation for getting major infrastructure projects off the ground while avoiding political grandstanding could in fact be music to Beijing’s ears.

India

The nuclear-armed neighbors have fought three wars since independence in 1947, two of them over the disputed Muslim-majority territory of Kashmir.

As with Afghanistan, it is Pakistan’s military that controls policy in the sensitive area, and tensions along the de facto border there are at their lowest level since 2021, thanks to a ceasefire.

But there have been no formal diplomatic talks between the rivals for years because of deep distrust over a range of issues including Khan’s extreme criticism of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his handling of attacks on minority Muslims in India.

Karan Thapar, an Indian political commentator who has closely followed India-Pakistan ties, said the Pakistani military could put pressure on the new government in Islamabad to build on the successful ceasefire in Kashmir.

Pakistan’s powerful army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa said recently that his country was ready to move forward on Kashmir if India agrees.

The Sharif dynasty has been at the forefront of several dovish overtures towards India over the years.

United States

US-based South Asia experts said that Pakistan’s political crisis is unlikely to be a priority for President Joe Biden, who is grappling with the war in Ukraine, unless it led to mass unrest or rising tensions with India.

“We have so many other fish to fry,” said Robin Raphel, a former assistant secretary of state for South Asia who is a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank.

With the Pakistani military maintaining its behind-the-scenes control of foreign and security policies, Khan’s political fate was not a major concern, according to some analysts.

“Since it’s the military that calls the shots on the policies that the US really cares about, i.e. Afghanistan, India and nuclear weapons, internal Pakistani political developments are largely irrelevant for the US,” said Curtis, who served as former US President Donald Trump’s National Security Council senior director for South Asia.

She added that Khan’s visit to Moscow had been a “disaster” in terms of US relations, and that a new government in Islamabad could at least help mend ties “to some degree.”

Khan has blamed the United States for the current political crisis, saying that Washington wanted him removed because of the recent Moscow trip.
Washington denies any role.

Read more: Pakistan top court rules against PM, restores Parliament

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IAEA loses transmission from Ukraine’s Russian-held nuclear plant surveillance system

The UN atomic watchdog said on Wednesday it had again lost its connection to its surveillance systems keeping track of nuclear material at the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine, Europe’s largest, which the watchdog wants to inspect.
“The fact that our remote safeguards data transmission is down again –- for the second time in the past month –- only adds to the urgency to dispatch this mission (to Zaporizhzhia),” the
International Atomic Energy Agency said in a statement.

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The connection was lost on Saturday “due to a disruption of the facility’s communication systems,” it added.

Read more: UN watchdog ‘concerned’ about Ukraine nuclear plant access

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Anti-coup protesters in Sudan shot dead: Report

Four protesters were killed in Sudan on Thursday, medics said, as large crowds took to the streets despite heavy security and a communications blackout to rally against the military leadership that seized power eight months ago.

In central Khartoum, security forces fired tear gas and water cannon as they tried to prevent swelling crowds from marching towards the presidential palace, witnesses said.

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They estimated the crowds in Khartoum and its twin cities of Omdurman and Bahri to be in the tens of thousands. In Omdurman witnesses reported tear gas and gunfire as security forces prevented protesters from crossing into Khartoum.

The protests mark the third anniversary of huge demonstrations during the uprising that overthrew long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir and led to a power-sharing arrangement between civilian groups and the military.

Last October, the military led by General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan toppled the transitional government, triggering rallies that have called on the army to quit politics.

Some protesters carried banners calling for justice for those killed in previous demonstrations. Others chanted, “Burhan, Burhan, back to the barracks and hand over your companies,” a reference to the Sudanese military’s economic holdings.

Earlier, protesters barricaded some of the capital’s main thoroughfares with stones and burning tires.

It was the first time in months of protests against the October coup that internet and phone services had been cut. After the military takeover, extended internet blackouts were imposed in an apparent effort to hamper the protest movement.

Staff at Sudan’s two private sector telecoms companies, speaking on condition of anonymity, said authorities had ordered them to shut down the internet once again on Thursday.

Bridges shut

Phone calls within Sudan were also cut and security forces closed bridges over the Nile linking Khartoum, Omdurman and Bahri – another step typically taken on big protest days to limit the movement of marchers.

In recent days there have been daily neighborhood protests in the build-up to Thursday’s rallies.

On Wednesday, medics aligned with the protest movement said security forces shot dead a child during protests in Bahri. Thursday’s four deaths, all in Omdurman, brought the number of protesters killed since the coup to 107.

There was no immediate comment from Sudanese authorities.

The United Nations envoy in Sudan, Volker Perthes, called this week on authorities to abide by a pledge to protect the right of peaceful assembly. “Violence against protesters will not be tolerated,” he said.

Military leaders said they dissolved the government in October because of political paralysis. As a result, however, international financial support agreed with the transitional government was frozen and an economic crisis has deepened.

Burhan said on Wednesday the armed forces were looking forward to the day when an elected government could take over, but this could only be done through consensus or elections, not protests.

Mediation efforts led by the United Nations and the African

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UN: Almost 16 million people in Ukraine need humanitarian aid

As Russia presses on with its invasion of Ukraine, some 16 million people inside the country need humanitarian aid, the UN humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine said Thursday.

“Almost 16 million people in Ukraine today need humanitarian assistance: water food, health services,” Osnat Lubrani told a press briefing.

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Six million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes for other parts of the country since the war started, though around 5 million have since returned, she said.

But “many know that they might be forced to flee again,” she added.

Over 5.3 million more Ukrainians have fled abroad, Lubrani said.

She said the UN tally of casualties since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 was likely much higher.

“The number we have of almost 5,000 civilians killed and more than 5,000 injured is just a fraction of the frightening reality,” she said.

She also said it was “extremely difficult if not… impossible” for humanitarian groups to access areas that are no longer under Kyiv’s control.

Lubrani called on Russia and Ukraine “to do more to protect the people of this country and to make our work possible.”

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