German-Pakistani relations on sensitive diplomatic footing | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 18.07.2018
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German-Pakistani relations on sensitive diplomatic footing

Germany is an important partner and source of aid to Pakistan. However, even as officials in Berlin are wary of the Pakistani military's political power ahead of the July 25 elections, criticism has proven difficult.

On a late Friday afternoon in early July, many of the offices that house Germany's members of parliament in Berlin were deserted. As most MPs had already left for the summer recess, the hallways were eerily quiet.

Yet Tobias Pflüger, a member of Germany's Left Party Die Linke, was in no hurry to leave. The veteran politician, who sports a greying goatee, heads the German-South Asian parliamentary group. It's a position he's been holding for a few months. He pointed to a binder on his table, a briefing on Pakistan provided by the German foreign office.

In the briefing, he told DW, the German foreign office paints Pakistan as a strategic partner in the war against terror. "The German foreign ministry is too focused on military cooperation," he said.

He was referring to an agreement on bilateral cooperation between the German and Pakistani defense ministries signed in 2012. Aside from regular meetings between members of both armies, the cooperation is mostly geared towards training provided by Germany.

Read more: Why are Pakistanis so successful at finding jobs in Germany?

'Crackdown' on the media

A spokesman for the Germany's defense ministry told DW in a written response that the goal of German-Pakistani military cooperation is to "impart specialist knowledge and values, and build long-term relationships."

The cooperation also involves training courses for commanding officers at the German army's academy in Hamburg. However, the omnipotent presence of Pakistan's powerful military in the country's politics is a source of controversy.

The army, or Establishment, as it is frequently referred to, is often described as pulling the strings behind the scenes.

Many journalists, who prefer to remain anonymous, say the army has been behind an unprecedented crackdown on the media in recent months, including forced disappearances, as the country gears up for the general elections on July 25. Few of them dare to say so openly. The Pakistani army routinely denies this allegation.

The 2018 Pakistani elections are being held after months of political turmoil. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted from office last year following a corruption investigation. He was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for alleged corruption earlier this month.

Pakistan's most high-profile politician and three-time prime minister had antagonized generals with his attempts to improve relations with the country's arch-rival India. The two countries have been at loggerheads for decades.

His Pakistani Muslim League (Nawaz Group) is in a tight race with the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, Movement for Justice) party, headed by Imran Khan. The former cricketer-turned-politician is running on a socially conservative, anti-corruption platform and is often described as cozying up to the army.

Read more: German doctor and nun Ruth Pfau, Pakistan's 'mother of leprosy patients', dies

Watch video 03:10

EU election observers keeping a close eye on Pakistani media

Pakistan: 'too important to ignore'

And yet, the Pakistani army is an important ally in the international fight against terrorism and an important player in brokering peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Even though Germany has elevated Pakistan's archrival India to a strategic partner, Germany's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Markus Potzel told DW that "Pakistan is too important to ignore."

Pakistan, a nuclear power with a history of supporting Islamists operating in Afghanistan, first with American support in the 1980s, has long been seen as being too lenient on groups which aligned with the military's interests in Afghanistan and Kashmir.

But the last few years have seen a more concerted effort by the army to crack down on militant networks operating in and from Pakistan. And, as a result, attacks inside of the country have decreased considerably, even though the country is still seen as doing too little when it comes to cracking down on terror financing.

In January, the US announced that it was suspending military aid to Pakistan, claiming that Pakistan had not done enough against two groups, the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network, which Washington says launch attacks from Pakistan in Afghanistan.

Read more: Global terror watchlist: Will Pakistan change its Afghanistan policy?

It's a concern that German diplomats share. "As long as Taliban-linked Haqqani Network find shelter in Pakistan, we doubt that the fight against terrorism is being conducted with the necessary resolve," Potzel told DW.

Germany's concerns about NGOs

In 2015, Pakistan ordered all foreign NGOs to register with officials. According to the German development ministry, four German NGOs and five political foundations are still waiting for their registration to be granted.

Read more: Why Pakistan wants to rein in its civil society

Together with other international donors, the German government has been lobbying behind the scenes. And it's one of the topics that officials will bring up later this year when they meet their counterparts for a strategic dialogue that both countries conduct biannually.

It's also the reason why Germany – the country's fourth largest donor – has been withholding a loan worth 39 million euros, which was meant to go towards improving the country's energy sector. Germany's aid, which amounts to almost 84 million euros in 2017 and 2018, also focuses on good governance and sustainable economic development.

Germany is also an important trade partner with Pakistan. Germany exports machines, chemical and electrical goods as well as vehicles and imports textiles and leather goods to the South Asian country. In 2016, the bilateral trade volume amounted to 2.6 billion euros, according to the German foreign office.

"Germany does have some leverage," Saroop Ijaz, a Pakistani laywer who also works for Human Rights Watch, told DW. Next to France, he said Germany is one of the most important bilateral players in Pakistan.

But he added that Germany, or rather its embassy in Pakistan, has to be cautious when it comes to public criticism of the Pakistani government and state institutions.

"Bilateral criticism is difficult," he said. Rather, pressure is exerted behind the scenes, focusing on individual cases of human rights abuses, as well as labor and social rights.

In Berlin, the assumption is that Germany is likely to become a more important player in Pakistan once London, the former colonial power, withdraws from the European Union.

"We can't be indifferent to Pakistan and I am convinced that the Pakistanis aren't indifferent towards us either," special envoy Potzel said about the bilateral relationship.

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