Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Pakistan Considers Saudi Support; 20-Year Sentence for Gunman Who Killed AP Photographer

Topline

  • Saudi press services report that Prime Minister Sharif spoke by phone with King Salman on Saturday and pledged support for the Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen; a delegation of Pakistani defense officials will visit the kingdom either today or tomorrow to discuss cooperation. The Afghan Supreme Court upheld a 20-year sentence, the maximum provided for by law, for an Afghan officer who killed an AP photographer and wounded an AP correspondent last year. As many as 44 people have been referred for prosecution in connection to the lynching of an Afghan woman in Kabul earlier this month. Imran Khan warned the government against changes to the agreement reached last week for the creation of a special judicial commission to investigate election fraud; talks were held over the weekend. MQM leader Altaf Hussain resigned and then reversed his resignation on Monday; on Friday, President Mamnoon Hussain approved a 30-day stay of execution for MQM gunman Saulat Mirza. A suicide bombing in Kabul on Sunday targeting a member of parliament from Paktia killed three people. Two Czech women kidnapped in Balochistan in 2013 were freed on Saturday. Cabinet nominees are expected to be formally introduced before the Afghan parliament by midweek. Liquefied natural gas imported from Qatar was injected into the Pakistani gas network on Monday; Dawn reports that the purchase agreement is based on market spot pricing and does not guarantee a set level of supply. The IMF board approved the release of the next tranche of its loan program with Pakistan, bringing total disbursals to $3.7 billion. Army sources indicate that Bowe Bergdahl’s court martial defense will center around the contention that he left his post in 2009 to travel to another base and report allegations of leadership wrongdoing.

Pakistan — Security

  • Prime Minister Pledges Support for Saudi Coalition: The Saudi Press Agency issued a statement on Saturday indicating that Prime Minister Sharif had spoken by phone with King Salman and had pledged “full support” for Saudi-led operations against Yemeni rebels, saying that “all potentials of the Pakistani Army are offered to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”. Pakistani officials have not confirmed the account, although the Express Tribune reports that Pakistan has offered to provide special operations commandos and air support; another report indicates that Saudi Arabia has requested the service of an entire corps, for a period of 3-4 years. The Post notes the past history of Pakistani military support for Saudi Arabia and Sharif’s political ties to the kingdom. A planned visit by Defense Minister Khawaja Asif and foreign advisor Sartaj Aziz to Saudi Arabia on Friday was postponed; that delegation is now expected to depart Monday or Tuesday. Sharif has ordered evacuation measures for Pakistani nationals in Yemen; a PIA flight departed Hudaidah on Sunday carrying 480 Pakistanis. Pakistani officials estimate around 2,145 Pakistanis live in Yemen. Jamaat ud Dawa leader Hafiz Saeed led a demonstration in Lahore on Friday in support of Saudi Arabia, against what he said were “conspiracies being hatched by Jewish and Christian lobbies”. The PPP issued a statement on behalf of former Pres. Zardari on Monday backing Saudi operations against Houthi fighters in Yemen, which the Express Tribune notes contradicts statements by several other party leaders. Imran Khan, meanwhile, reiterated his opposition to Pakistani involvement in the Yemen conflict; the Majlis-i-Wahdatul Muslimeen party has also spoken out against Pakistani support for Saudi Arabia. The JUI-F and PML-F have called for an all-parties conference on the issue. [Dawn] [ET] [Dawn]
  • Czech Tourists Freed: Two Czech women who were kidnapped while traveling through Balochistan in March 2013 were freed on Saturday, officials announced. Their release was negotiated by a Turkish the group, IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation, which joined the women’s cause two months prior. Without providing further details, an IHH spokesman said that their kidnappers had been members of “a group linked to Al Qaeda”. [AFP]
  • FATA Operations: Military officials claim to have killed as many as 30 fighters who attacked their checkpost in the Tirah Valley on Saturday; a Lashkar-e-Islam spokesman denied taking any casualties. North Waziristan residents of the Spina Wam tehsil will begin repatriation on March 31; local elders tell Dawn that the government has placed the onus on tribal leaders to identify and take action against militants who may attempt to return to their areas, something they say they lack the means to do. [Dawn] [Dawn] [ET] [Dawn]
  • Counterterrorism Response: Unidentified anonymous authors of the government’s National Action Plan tell the Express Tribune that the plan was drafted in haste and is ultimately unfeasible to implement. A report to the prime minister on Saturday indicated that more than 32,000 people have been arrested in more than 28,500 operations carried out by the security services between December 24 and March 25, including 727 “hardcore terrorists”.  Separately, the Federal Investigation Agency has reportedly sought an expedited process for barring suspects from leaving the country, saying that it can take up to a month to add a name to the the current Exit Control List. [ET] [ET]

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • PTI Protests: Speaking at a press conference in Lahore on Friday, Imran Khan warned that the PTI would return to street protests if the PML-N failed to follow through on the agreed creation of a special judicial commission to investigate allegations of election rigging. Following meetings with other parliamentary parties, who had raised concerns over the possibility of assembly dissolutions in the event the commission backs charges of election fraud, the PML-N had reportedly proposed modifications to last week’s agreement. The two parties held talks over the weekend to discuss the agreement, which must be issued by executive ordinance before the senate resumes session on April 6. Meanwhile, PTI officials say that intra-party elections will not happen until next year at earliest. [ET] [ET] [ET] [Dawn]
  • Karachi Crackdown: On Friday, Pres. Hussain approved a 30-day stay of execution for convicted MQM gunman Saulat Mirza. Following a meeting between Prime Minister Sharif and MQM leaders in Islamabad on Friday, MQM leader Farooq Sattar told reporters that the prime minister had promised to investigate the circumstances surrounding the broadcast earlier this month of a confessional video by Mirza implicating senior party leaders. Sattar also denied that any criminals had been arrested at the MQM headquarters during a raid earlier this month, saying they had instead been picked up in “adjoining areas” that the MQM had no control over. MQM leaders continue to accuse the Karachi police of killing party activists in staged encounters with police. Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Sindh governor Ishratul Ebad again denied reports that he might be removed. On Monday, Altaf Hussain announced his resignation from party leadership before withdrawing it again a few hours later, a tactic he has used multiple times in the past year to reaffirm his position; on Sunday, Hussain warned party members that they would receive no support if involved in crime. [ET] [ET] [ET] [ET] [ET]
  • Elections: Sultan Mahmood, a PTI candidate seeking a return to his seat, reportedly beat out Chaudhry Mohammad Ashraf of the PPP in a by-election in Mirpur on Sunday, despite the PML-N’s withdrawal of its candidate in favor of the PPP. On Sunday, Imran Khan tasked PTI vice president Shah Mehmood Qureshi with leading the party’s planning for local government elections across all provinces. PTI leaders in Rawalpindi have petitioned for the army to deploy personnel inside polling stations to bar the ruling PML-N from influencing the outcome of local body elections in military cantonment areas. On Friday, the Lahore High Court ruled in favor of PTI petitioners who had challenged a 2013 amendment to Punjab’s local government laws, which restricted the appointment of polling officers to provincial government officials or Election Commission staff only. A dissident PPP group has reportedly split over the party’s alliance with the ANP and JUI-F in upcoming Khyber Paktunkhwa local body elections. [Dawn] [Dawn] [ET] [ET] [ET] [ET] [ET]

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • LNG Import: Dawn reports that Pakistan agreement with Qatar to import liquefied natural gas does not specify pricing, quantity, or duration of the contract, and will instead function effectively as a spot purchase at market price for each shipment. Pakistan has tens days after each shipment to make payment; the first arrived in Karachi last week, and was injected into the national gas network on Monday. Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah has called for a meeting of the Council on Common Interests and has announced intentions to challenge the import agreement before the Supreme Court, saying his government was not consulted during the process. [ET] [ET] [Dawn]
  • IMF Loan: On Friday, the IMF board approved the release of the latest $501.4 million tranche of Pakistan’s ongoing Extended Fund Facility loan, bringing total disbursements so far to $3.7 billion. Pakistan did not require a waiver on any of the target benchmarks during the past quarterly review; the Fund increased the net foreign currency reserve target for the State Bank of Pakistan by $600 million, to $5.2 billion, for the next quarterly review. [IMF Statement]
  • Polio Crisis: Roughly 430,000 children were missed in the most recent national polio vaccination drive, an increase of 19% from the previous national drive that ended in February. The highest number of parental refusals nationwide was reported in Khyber Paktunkhwa, although there was a decline from the previous drive. [ET] [ET]

Pakistan — Remainders

  • Final Arguments Sought in Model Town Inquiry Case [ET]
  • Former Attorney General Irfan Qadir’s Law License Suspended [Dawn]
  • Attorney General’s Office Seeks Report on Telephone Surveillance [ET]
  • Less Than 25% of Khyber Paktunkhwa Development Budget Spent [Dawn]
  • Special Guard Force Planned for Chinese Workers on Economic Corridor Projects [ET]
  • Balochistan Nationalist Groups Strike in Quetta; Four Killed in Kalat [Dawn] [Dawn] [ET] [ET]
  • TTP Claims Killing of Army Colonel Peshawar [Dawn] [ET] [Dawn] [ET]
  • Suspect Linked to Bilour Murder [Dawn] [ET]
  • Auditor General Criticizes Karachi Airport Land Deal [ET]
  • Developer Malik Riaz Loses Right to ‘Bahria’ Brand Name [Dawn] [ET]
  • Musharraf Summoned for Judges’ Detention Case Hearing [ET]
  • Commentary: Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistani Diversity – “One of the greatest threats to our vitality is a breach in Pakistan’s Shia-Sunni unity. For many of this country’s enemies, it is the grand prize.” [Mosharraf Zaidi, The News]

Afghanistan — Security

  • 20 Year Sentence for AP Photographer’s Killing: On Saturday, the Supreme Court of Afghanistan upheld a 20-year sentence for an Afghan police officer who shot and killed Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus and wounded correspondent Kathy Gannon last spring, overturning a death sentence issued by a lower court in July 2014. The twenty-year sentence is the maximum allowable by Afghan law; Nidringhaus’ family and Gannon had opposed the use of the death penalty but called for a law sentence.
  • Lynching Prosecutions: Khaama Press reported Saturday that Ministry of Interior officials had referred 28 suspects been arrested in connection to the lynching of a mentally ill woman in Kabul earlier this month to the Attorney General’s office for prosecution. TOLO puts the number at 44, and quotes Criminal Investigation Department chief Gen. Zahir Zahir, who noted concerns that some groups were attempting to secure acquittals for the suspect and vowed to prevent interference in the case. The NYT recounts how the woman, Farkhunda, “has been transformed from a woman so despised that officials had defended her lynching, into a celebrated martyr” [TOLO]
  • MP Targeted in Kabul Bombing: Three people were killed, including a child, and eight injured in a suicide bombing attack in Kabul on Sunday. Member of parliament Gul Pacha Majidi was the apparent target of the attack, which took place at a gathering of Paktia constituents; he was lightly injured. No immediate claim of responsibility has been reported; Pres. Ghani visited victims of the attack on Monday [TOLO] [AJE]
  • Other Attacks and Operations: Five passengers were kidnapped while traveling in the Sholgara district in Balkh on Monday, provincial officials reported. The Taliban released a group of 20 Orzugan residents who had been kidnapped last week in Daikundi province on Saturday. Also on Saturday, Nuristan acting provincial  governor Hafiz Abdul Qayoum told reporters that the Taliban had executed six former members on spying charges. [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press]

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Government Formation: Deputy minister for parliamentary affairs Mohammad Karim Baz said Friday that Pres. Ghani or one of the country’s vice presidents would likely formally present the 16 new cabinet nominees before parliament this Wednesday, and that documents related to their nomination would be shared by Saturday.
  • Taliban Talks: The AFP notes widespread skepticism of Pres. Ghani’s outreach efforts to Pakistan amongst Afghan analysts and political leaders; in remarks to TOLO, analysts blame Pakistan for the lack of progress on talks anticipated earlier this month. Former Taliban finance minister and dissident proponent of peace talks Agha Jan Motasim voices support for the current talks effort in a comment to the Express Tribune.
  • Bergdahl Defense: Anonymous U.S. Department of Defense officials tell CNN that Army investigations into Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s departure from his post in July 2009 concluded that he had done so with the professed intent of walking to a nearby U.S. military base to report command leadership wrongdoing in his unit.
  • U.S. Visit Concludes: Chief Executive Abdullah told TOLO upon return to Afghanistan on Saturday that his and President Ghani’s visit to the United States last week was a “step to restore friendly relations”. The Brookings Institute hosted Abdullah at a forum on Thursday, and has released video of his remarks.

Afghanistan — Economics and Development

  • Electricity Outages: Fighting between Afghan security forces and the Taliban has cut off almost all electricity supply to Helmand and Kandahar, the national power company Da Afghanistan Breshna Sherkat reports, after power lines from the Kajaki dam were damaged. Breshna officials meanwhile say they are continuing efforts to restore power supply to Kabul after lines were cut off by heavy winter weather earlier this month, and will have power restored within a week.

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Families of Hazara Abductees Protest Government Inaction [TOLO]
  • Minister of Hajj Briefs Parliament on Mosque Registration [TOLO]
  • Afghan Central Bank Finalizing Islamic Banking Laws [Reuters]
  • Oversight Office Calls for Former Officials to Submit Asset Declarations [TOLO]
  • Activists Criticize Delays in National ID Card Program [TOLO]

Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Pakistan Considers Joining Saudi Coalition in Yemen; Ghani Concludes US Visit

Topline

  • Prime Minister Sharif warned that any threats to Saudi Arabia’s territory would “evoke a strong response” from Pakistan, but has not committed the country to joining the Saudi coalition in Yemen; Defense Minister Khawaja Asif will visit Saudi Arabia on Friday for talks. Pres. Ghani concluded his visit to the U.S. with remarks in New York at the Council on Foreign Relations. The PML-N passed amendments to local government regulations in the Islamabad Capital Territory in the lower house of parliament on Thursday, but objections by the PPP to the polls being held on a non-party affiliated basis raise doubts about the bill’s prospects in the senate. Prime Minister Sharif will meet with MQM officials in Islamabad on Friday, after dodging meeting requests during his visit to Karachi on Wednesday. District officials in Helmand’s Garmser district have been dismissed on corruption and negligence charges, the deputy governor announced Thursday.

Pakistan — Security

  • Pakistan Considers Saudi Coalition in Yemen: Prime Minister Sharif met with senior military officials on Thursday and issued a statement afterwards saying that “any threat to Saudi Arabia’s territorial integrity will evoke a strong response from Pakistan”, although he stopped short of committing Pakistan to joining the international Saudi-backed coalition currently targeting Houthi rebels in Yemen. A contingent of Pakistani special forces are already in Saudi Arabia for a joint exercise, the WSJ notes, though officials say it is not involved in any combat. Defense minister Khawaja Asif will visit Saudi Arabia on Friday for talks on Pakistani assistance; he told the national assembly on Friday that Pakistan would “not take part in any conflict that could result in differences in the Muslim world, causing fault-lines present in Pakistan to be disturbed… the need of the hour is alliance and solidarity, not division.” [ET] [Dawn] [ET]
  • Karachi Bombing: At least two policemen were killed and 14 people wounded when a bomb planted on a motorcycle detonated as a Sindh police bus was passing nearby in Karachi’s Quaidabad neighborhood on Friday. A spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan has claimed responsibility. [ET] [Dawn]

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Local Elections: On Thursday, the PML-N passed a bill through the lower house of parliament that amends rules for local body elections held in the Islamabad Capital Territory, which rejected a proposal for those elections to be held on a partisan basis. The PPP, which has challenged non-party local body elections in military cantonment areas and which holds a narrow plurality in the upper house, rejected the amendments. The Lahore High Court heard challenges to non-party elections in cantonment areas on Thursday, where presiding judge Syed Mansoor Ali Shah suggested that depriving citizens of their rights to associate with a political party appear to be a violation of the constitution; he has not issued a stay order against polls proceeding, however. Dawn notes irregular ward sizes in Hyderabad. [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn]
  • Karachi Crackdown: Prime Minister Sharif will meet with an MQM delegation in Islamabad on Friday after skipping meetings in Karachi on Wednesday, a spokesman for the prime minister said. Sindh Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah told reporters on Thursday that there had been a 60% decline in targeted killings and a “significant” decline in street crimes and terrorism since the operation began, reiterating that it was not targeted at any specific political party. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sharif has reportedly sought a 30-day stay of execution for MQM gunman Saulat Mirza, who implicated top party leadership in a video confession earlier this month. [ET] [Dawn] [ET] [ET] [Dawn]
  • FATA Reform: On Thursday, the Supreme Court overturned a Peshawar High Court ruling extending the jurisdiction of the high courts over issues in the FATA, following government appeal that had challenged the PHC’s amendment of constitutional provisions.

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • Energy Crisis: Minister for Water and Power Khwaja Asif told parliament on Friday that the government had not cancelled its plans for the 6600 MW Gadani coal power project, but that it would not be completed by the end of the PML-N’s term in office and was no longer being expedited as a top priority project. Meanwhile, 100 MW of solar energy will come online at the Quaid-e-Azam Solar Park later in April. The Ministry of Water and Power has provided a list of electricity bill defaulters to the National Accountability Bureau, tasking the bureau with recovering Rs 580 billion in unpaid dues; previous efforts to recover Rs 110 billion in dues generated only Rs 5 billion. [ET]

Pakistan — Remainders

  • In Leaked Conversation from September Protests, Khan Praises PTV Attack [ET]
  • Government Plans to Outsource Airport Management [ET] [Dawn]
  • Four Policemen Killed in Loralai Checkpoint Attack [Dawn] [ET]
  • Asylum Applications from Pakistan Rise [ET]
  • Health Ministry Debates Improvements to Polio Vaccination Drives [ET] [Dawn]
  • China Pledges to Deepen Maritime Cooperation with Pakistan [ET]
  • Punjab Approves New Vehicles and Security for VIPs [ET]
  • Prime Minister Visits Peshawar, Vowing Development [Dawn] [ET] [ET]
  • JUI-F Leader Pushes Western Pakistan-China Economic Corridor Route [Dawn]
  • Musharraf Arrest Warrant in Lal Masjid Case Sent to Karachi Police [Dawn]

Afghanistan — Security

  • Force Drawdown: In a statement to reporters on Friday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Pres. Obama’s announcement earlier this week of plans to slow the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan this year.
  • Security Officials Dismissed: The district governor and police chief of Helmand’s Garmser district have been dismissed on charges of corruption and negligence, the deputy provincial governor said on Thursday.
  • Daesh in Afghanistan: In a TOLO interview, Sar-e-Pul member of parliament Mohammad Hassan Balkhabi claims that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria are “openly campaigning” for recruits in the province; several other MPs have raised warnings of increased activity by the group, although there is no corroboration.

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Ghani Wraps Up Visit: Pres. Ghani spoke at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Thursday, highlighting ambitions to turn Afghanistan into a regional transportation hub through rail and other transportation sector investments. [CFR Speech]

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Taliban Divided Over Leaders ‘Living in Luxury’ in Qatar [Newsweek]
  • Five Held in Connection to Central Bank Branch Robbery in Kandahar [TOLO]
  • Rare Charge of ‘Misbehavior Before the Enemy’ in Bergdahl Case [NYT] [AP]
  • Protests Over Farkhunda Lynching Continue in Kabul [Reuters]

Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Sharif Approves Expansion of Karachi Operation; Ghani Addresses Congress

Topline

  • Prime Minister Sharif approved an expansion of the Rangers-led operations in Karachi targeting criminal and military elements; requests from the MQM for a meeting with the prime minister were unsuccessful. Pres. Ghani addressed a joint session of Congress and a public forum at the US Institute of Peace on Wednesday, emphasizing his commitment to “self-reliance” and to outreach efforts to the Taliban. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s Jamaat-ul Ahrar faction has announced a leadership reshuffle, naming Asad Afridi as acting amir. Pakistan is considering a request from Saudi Arabia to join a coalition of nations conducting operations against Houthi rebels in Yemen, the foreign ministry said Thursday. Military operations continue in the Tirah Valley in Khyber Agency. The U.S. Army will charge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with desertion and misbehavior in the face of the enemy, which carries a potential life sentence. The first shipment of Qatari liquefied natural gas arrived in Karachi on Thursday, but confusion persists about its pricing, which officials say is still under negotiation.

Pakistan — Security

  • Jamaat-ul Ahrar Leadership Shuffle: On Wednesday, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan Jamaat-ul Ahrar faction announced a reshuffle in its senior leadership, saying that amir Maulana Qasim Khurasani and deputy amir Omar Khalid Khurasani had resigned and had been replaced by acting amir Asad Afridi. A spokesman described the change as “routine”.
  • Saudi Arabia Seeks Support in Yemen Operation: Pakistan’s foreign ministry confirmed on Thursday that Pakistan was “examining” a request from Saudi Arabia to join a coalition in operations targeting Houthi rebels in Yemen; no decision has been made, officials said, although a Saudi news agency said that Pakistan had “expressed desire to participate”. [Dawn]
  • FATA Operations: Military officials say they have taken control of two-thirds of the Tirah Valley and suggest that this is “the last of the major battles we have fought against militants” in the FATA. Officials claim that roughly 2,500 militant fighters affiliated with Lashkar-e-Islam, the TTP, Jamaat-ul Ahrar, and the Pakistani branch of Daesh are present in the valley, but say that heavy bombing and ground operations has started to break their positions. At least 46 militants were reportedly killed in airstrikes on Wednesday. On Thursday, a Lashkar-e-Islam spokesman denied earlier reports of his death. [NYT]
  • Lakhvi Detention: The Lahore High Court has sought response within five days from the Punjab home secretary to a legal petition brought by lawyers for Lashkar-e-Taiba operative Zakiur Rehman Lakvhi challenging his continued detention.

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Karachi Crackdown: Prime Minister Sharif met with senior military and civilian officials at the Faisal Airbase in Karachi on Wednesday, approving an expansion of operations targeting criminal and militant groups in the city. Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah attended the meeting but Governor Ishrat ul Ebad did not; requests from the MQM leadership for a separate meeting with Sharif were unsuccessful. MQM leaders deny ever supporting criminal activity and say they are being placed on “media trial”. Court hearings on Wednesday and Thursday extended the remand of several MQM operatives arrested during raids earlier this month on the party’s headquarters. On Wednesday, the Balochistan government dissolved a committee that had been formed to investigate the production of a last-minute confession video by former MQM gunman Saulat Mirza. Meanwhile, anonymous UAE intelligence sources tell the Express Tribune that Pakistan has been slow-walking its efforts to repatriate Lyari gang leader Uzair Baloch, who is challenging deportation orders in hearings today. [ET] [Dawn]
  • PTI Rallies: Imran Khan headlined a PTI rally in Mirpur in Pakistani-administered Kashmir on Wednesday ahead of by-elections scheduled for March 29, during which he said that MQM leader “Altaf Hussain’s time is up” and that the PTI would soon hold a rally in Karachi to challenge the MQM. [Dawn] [ET]
  • Other Political Activity: Former Pres. Zardari welcomed the agreement between the government and the PTI on the formation of a judicial commission to investigate allegations of election rigging, adding that broader electoral reforms were need. On Thursday, the PPP filed a legal challenge in the Supreme Court against the law governing local body elections in military cantonments, arguing that these should be held on a party affiliation basis. [ET]

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • LNG Import: The first shipment of Qatari Liquified Natural Gas arrived in Karachi on Thursday, where it will next undergo re-gasification. Despite earlier reports on the import deal, the government has not officially announced a final pricing; Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Shahid Khaqan Abbasi told the National Assembly on Wednesday that prices are still being negotiated with Qatargas. [ET]

Pakistan — Remainders

  • Islamabad High Court to Hear NAB Appeals Against Zardari Acquittals [ET]
  • More Arrests in Connection to Youhanabad Lynchings [ET]
  • Gates Praises Khyber Paktunkhwa Vaccination Efforts [Dawn] [ET]
  • OGRA Chairman Barred from Resuming Duties [Dawn]
  • Chinese Firms Express Interest in PIA Stake [ET]
  • Security Barriers Partially Removed from Musharraf Residence [ET]
  • Moody’s Upgrades Pakistan Bond Rating [ET]
  • $795M Tarbela Dam Extension Project Submitted [ET]
  • Crude Oil Find Announced in Sindh [Dawn]

Afghanistan — Security

  • Kabul Bombing: At least seven people were killed and more than 30 wounded in a suicide car bombing near the presidential palace and ministry of finance buildings in Kabul on Wednesday; the attack took place near a taxi stand and most victims appear to be civilians. As of this writing, the Taliban have not claimed responsibility for the attack. [NYT] [Reuters]
  • Bergdahl Charged with Desertion: On Wednesday, following a ten month investigation, the Army announced that it would charge Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl with misbehavior before the enemy and desertion, which potentially carries a sentence of life imprisonment. In his first public statement on his captivity, provided through his lawyer, Bergdahl recounted at least a dozen attempts to escape. Bergdahl’s lawyers say they are still considering their strategy, but could attempt to negotiate a discharge in lieu of court martial trial. [NYT] [WSJ] [BBC] [Guardian]

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Ghani Addresses Congress: Pres. Ghani continued his visit in Washington with a formal dinner at the State Department on Tuesday, an address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday morning, and a public question and answer session at the US Institute of Peace on Wednesday evening. The NYT notes the warm welcome for Ghani, and the already close ties with many U.S. officials that preceded his visit, gained in part through his long career here. In his address to Congress, Ghani reiterated profuse thanks to the U.S. military and to U.S. taxpayers for their support for Afghanistan since 2001, saying that “the people of Afghanistan recognize the bravery of your soldiers and the tremendous sacrifices that Americans have made to keep Afghanistan free.” Ghani also suggested that “we have no more interest in perpetuating a childish dependence than you have in being saddled with a poor family member who lacks the energy and drive to get out and find a job”, emphasizing a goal of “self-reliance” and vowing that Afghanistan would be able to pay for its own security and public services within the decade. Ghani also suggested growing concern over the presence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria affiliates in Afghanistan; in remarks at USIP, he contrasted the Taliban, which he suggested had some “legitimate political grievances”, with Daesh, and said that his government would continue efforts to open peace talks with the former. [Reuters] [TOLO]

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Election Observers Say Election Reform Commission Framework Unclear [TOLO]
  • The Afghan Translator Who Became a Post-9/11 Millionaire [BBC]
  • Wolesi Jirga Assigns Five Committees to Investigate Farkhunda’s Death [TOLO]
  • Commentary: The Unity Government’s First Six Months: Where is the Governance? – “The government itself if often described – by both Afghans and expats – as a ‘two-man government.’ This refers not to the president and the CEO, but rather to President Ashraf Ghani and Hanif Atmar, the head of the National Security Council, and, as one interlocutor put it, ‘the Minister for Everything.’” [Thomas Ruttig, AAN]

Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: US Agrees to Postpone Troop Drawdown in 2015; Sharif Visits Karachi to Review Operation

Topline

  • Presidents Ghani and Obama held meetings at the White House on Tuesday, and announced afterwards that the U.S. had agreed to slow the pace of its troop drawdown over the coming year, leaving most of the 9,800 troops currently in country there through the end of the year. No decision has been made on the pace of withdrawal in 2016, but Pres. Obama said that plans to withdraw almost all forces by the end of that year remained unchanged. Operations continue to target Lashkar-e-Islam fighters in the Tirah valley, with as many as thirty killed in airstrikes on Wednesday. Prime Minister Sharif traveled to Karachi on Wednesday to review the ongoing crackdown against criminal and militant activity there; Express Tribune sources suggest that he will approve more direct action against senior MQM political leaders linked to criminal elements within the party. The Afghan parliament may begin to review new ministerial nominees as early as today. The Election Commission of Pakistan formally announced the schedule for local body elections in Khyber Paktunkhwa, set for May 30. The Afghan ministry of finance indicated that revenue has fall short of target for the first three months of the fiscal year, although TOLO reporting is contradictory on by exactly how much.

Pakistan — Security

  • FATA Operations: Airstrikes continued in the Khyber Agency’s Tirah valley region on Wednesday, which military sources claim killed 30 Lashkar-e-Islam fighters, including Salahuddin Ayubi, the group’s spokesman. Speaking to the press on Tuesday, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said that there was no confirmation of press reports suggesting that TTP commander Maulana Fazlullah had been killed in operations over the weekend. Meanwhile, officials report that at least 1,300 families have returned to the Sarokai tehsil in South Waziristan since phased repatriation began on March 16. [ET] [ET]
  • Counterterrorism Response: National Counterterrorism Authority officials tell the Express Tribune that the government has frozen Rs 10.2 billion in assets linked to terrorist suspects; interior ministry officials report that at least 150 people, half of them religious clerics, have been arrested for money transfer violations. [ET]
  • Church Attack: Two bystanders were wounded in a shootout between unidentified gunmen and police stationed on guard at the St Peter’s church in Lahore on Tuesday; no claim of responsibility has been reported.
  • Prison Racket: Interior Minister Chaudhr Nisar Ali Khan announced Tuesday that the government is investigating a ring of government officials who had freed at least 15 prisoners convicted abroad, most on drug charges, upon their return to Pakistan; Pakistan temporarily suspended its prisoner exchange agreements with other countries earlier this month. [Dawn]
  • Lakvhi Detention: Lashkar-e-Taiba operative Zakiur Rehman Lakvhi has filed another challenge with the Lahore High Court against his continued detention, charging the Punjab home secretary with ignoring multiple Islamabad High Court orders allowing for his release.

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Karachi Operation: Prime Minister Sharif arrived in Karachi on Wednesday, where the Express Tribune reports he will approve a broader crackdown by paramilitary Rangers on MQM political leaders linked to the party’s militant and criminal activities. Speaking at the Karachi Stock Exchange, Sharif said that “we are not targeting a single party in the operation but we cannot spare any criminal”; he later met with the Karachi Corps Commander and Rangers director general. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told reporters on Tuesday that the government had discussed the possible extradition of MQM leader Altaf Hussain from the UK during recent meetings with British officials; he denied that senior MQM leaders had been placed on the Exit Control List, and confirmed that the interior ministry would likely seek a 90-day delay in gunman Saulat Mirza’s execution, which has been set for April 1. The Rangers failed to file a response in the Sindh High Court on Tuesday in response to a legal petition from the MQM challenging party members’ detention following the raid on their offices earlier this month; a Supreme Court petition has been filed seeking the removal of Sindh governor Ishratul Ebad and the extradition of Hussain. A Sindh assembly session has been called for April 6 at the MQM’s request to discuss law and order in Karachi. [Dawn] [ET] [ET] [ET]
  • Election Rigging Commission: Prime Minister Sharif met with other political party leaders on Tuesday to discuss the government’s agreement to form a judicial commission to investigate PTI charges of election rigging during the 2013 general elections; the MQM has objected to the commission, arguing that its formation violates the constitution.
  • Local Elections: The Election Commission formally announced the schedule for local body elections in Khyber Paktunkhwa on May 30, with candidate nominations due by April 17 and a final list of candidates to be announced by May 6. Elsewhere, Dawn reviews the upcoming cantonment elections taking place in Sindh (and also nationwide) on April 25. [ET] [ET]
  • PTI Divisions: On Tuesday, PTI leader Imran Khan warned all party members that they would face dismissal if they discussed “internal issues” with the media, following the leak over the weekend of an internal party report that had challenged the fairness of intra-party elections held in 2013, leading Khan to dissolve all elected bodies and offices, asserting the power to reappoint those members until new elections are held. [Dawn]

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • ADB Predicts Missed Growth Target: A new Asian Development Bank report projects that Pakistan will see 4.2% GDP growth for the current 2014-15 fiscal year, compared to government targets of 5.1% growth.

Pakistan — Remainders

  • Parliament Considers Revised Public Accountability Law [Dawn] [ET]
  • Pakistani Doctors Face Kidnapping Epidemic [AFP]
  • Seven Killed in Awaran District Clash [Dawn]
  • Six More Executions in Sindh and Punjab [ET] [Dawn] [ET]
  • Council on Islamic Ideology Chairman Seeks Parity with Parliament [ET]
  • Security Barriers Remain at PPP Headquarters in Karachi [Dawn] [ET]
  • Khyber Paktunkhwa Allocates Rs 200 Million for TB Program [ET]
  • Commentary: National Interest and Sentiment – “Someone must now lead Pakistan into visualising itself as a pragmatic territorial state that focuses on the security and prosperity of its people.” [Husain Haqqani, Dawn]
  • Commentary: Pakistani Christians Fight Back – “Last week’s riots, which were instigated by a religious attack, brought a long-oppressed community’s fury to the fore.” [Ali Sethi, NYT]

Afghanistan — Security

  • US Agrees to Slow Troop Drawdown: Speaking at the White House on Tuesday following daylong meetings with Pres. Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah, Pres. Obama announced that the U.S. had agreed to modify its force drawdown plan in Afghanistan, extending the presence of roughly 9,800 troops through 2015, rather than having them by the end of the year as earlier planned. Administration officials tell the NYT that the decision to maintain those forces was driven to a significant extent by a desire to support military bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad that also serve as bases for CIA and special operations forces conducting “targeted counterterrorism operations”. A decision on the drawdown schedule in 2016 will be set later this year, Obama indicated, but “the [end-2016] date for us to have completed our drawdown will not change”. Obama acknowledged that “Afghanistan is still a dangerous place”, but said that “the way it’s going to become less dangerous is by Afghan security forces­ being capable of keeping law and order and security in the country, and that is not going to happen if foreign forces­ are continually relied upon.” Ghani addresses a joint session of Congress later today, and will hold a public event at the US Institute of Peace this evening. [BBC] [Reuters] [Khaama Press] [TOLO] [Joint Statement]

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Government Formation: Parliament formally received the nominations of sixteen cabinet ministers earlier this week, and scrutiny of their qualifications could begin as soon as today, officials indicate. Separately, Mahboobullah Mohibi was named acting governor of Kabul on Tuesday by presidential decree; he was previously the province’s deputy governor.
  • Lynching Protests: Protests continued on Tuesday in front of the Supreme Court against the lynching of an Afghan woman on Quran desecration charges last Friday, calling for the arrest of those responsible and criticizing police bystanders. At least 20 police officers have now been fired in connection to the incident, including the district police chief and a spokesman for the Kabul police chief. The Taliban issued a statement on Tuesday offering condolences to the woman’s family, and calling for “severe punishment to those who are behind the killing of the innocent woman, provoked people for their sinister designs, and misused Quran for personal motives to avoid repetition of such incidents in future.” [WAPO] [Khaama Press]

Afghanistan — Economics and Development

  • Revenue Shortfall: A TOLO report quotes a spokesman for the ministry of finance who indicated that government revenue had fallen seven percent, or roughly Afs 2 billion, short of target during the first three months of the fiscal year, though the same report suggests that the absolute figures involved were Afs 100 billion in collections against an Afs 133 billion target. Officials expressed optimism that this was still more than the amounts collected during the same period last year.

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Signs of Growing Sectarianism Raise Concerns [The National]
  • Highway Attack Unnerves Travelers [NYT]
  • Nangarhar Bombings Kill Four Civilians [Khaama Press]
  • 12,000 Afghans Die Annually from TB, Ministry of Public Health Reports [TOLO]
  • Air Transit Tax Increased to $500 [Khaama Press]
  • Commentary: Stop Putting Afghanistan On a Deadline – “In Afghanistan, U.S. policy has been a series of middle-ground compromises between complete commitment and complete disengagement, often with calendar deadlines unrelated to conditions on the ground.” [Stephen Biddle, DefenseOne]

Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: US Backs Continued ANSF Funding Through 2017; Khyber Operations Target Lashkar-e-Islam

Topline

  • Pres. Ghani thanked U.S. servicemembers during a visit to the Pentagon on Monday; following Camp David talks with Chief Executive Abdullah and Secretaries Kerry and Carter, U.S. officials announced that they would continue to support the Afghan National Security Forces at current force target levels through 2017. Military operations continue in Khyber; on Tuesday, a U.S. drone strike across the border in Nangarhar reportedly killed nine Lashkar-e-Islam and Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan militants. A new death warrant was issued for MQM gunman Saulat Mirza, setting an execution date of April 1; the Rangers presented eight more MQM activists arrested during the raid on party headquarters earlier this month before Karachi courts on Tuesday. Sindh assembly opposition leader Shaharyar Khan Mahar of the JUI-F endorsed the imposition of governor’s rule in the province in remarks on Monday. Protests were held in Kabul on Monday and Tuesday, accusing government and police officials of negligence in the death of an Afghan woman lynched by a mob on Friday.

Pakistan — Security

  • Khyber Operations: In announcements on Monday, military spokesmen said that forces had seized control of the Sokh pass linking the TIrah valley with Afghanistan as combined ground and air operations continue since Saturday. At least nine militants, including a driver for Lashkar-e-Islam commander Mangal Bagh and several TTP commanders, were killed in a U.S. drone strike in the Nazyan district on the Afghan side of the border on Tuesday. On Monday, a Lashkar-e-Islam commander was arrested in Peshawar. [ET] [Reuters]
  • Nuclear Policy: Speaking at a conference on Monday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, National Command Authority advisor retired Lt. Gen. Khalid Khidwai said that Pakistan needed to develop short-range tactical nuclear weapons as a means of deterring India, which “would make war less likely”.
  • Pakistan Day Parade: A military parade to commemorate Pakistan Day was held, under heavy security, in Islamabad on Monday for the first time in seven years; celebrations were also held around the country. Religious parties, including the Jamaat ud Dawa and Jamaat e Islami, led a rally in Karachi on Monday, underscoring their support for “the ideology of Pakistan”. Over 35 arrests were made in Sindh against Sindhi nationalist party demonstrators. President Mamnoon Hussain conferred 52 civil and 60 military awards during the ceremonies, listed in full here. [ET] [ET] [Dawn] [ET]

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Karachi Crackdown: An anonymous senior interior ministry official tells Dawn that of the 5,882 suspect criminals arrested since the launch of the current crackdown operation in Karachi in September 2013, 55% have been associated with political parties, suggesting that these cases would be sent to military courts. Sindh Assembly opposition leader Shaharyar Khan Mahar of the PML-F backed the imposition of governor’s rule in the province in remarks on Monday. On Tuesday, the Rangers presented an additional eight MQM party members who had been detained during a raid on the party headquarters earlier this month before a Karachi anti-terrorism court; details on their arraignment are limited as of this writing. A separate court reissued a death warrant against MQM gunman Saulat Mirza, setting his execution for April 1. On Tuesday, a Karachi police team returned from Dubai after completing extradition paperwork for Lyari gang leader Uzair Baloch; UAE authorities have reportedly indicated he will be handed over next month. [Dawn] [ET]
  • TV Censorship: Dawn reports that the government is considering amendments to the act governing the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority that would grant PEMRA the power to block specific satellite channels carrying “objectionable” or “unwanted” content, the definitions for which are vague.
  • Qatar Talks: Prime Minister Sharif met with visiting Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani on Monday, inviting increased Qatari investment in Pakistan, particularly in the energy sector. Current bilateral trade between the two countries is less than $300 million annually. [Dawn] [ET]

Pakistan — Remainders

  • Pakistani-Origin Parliamentarians Back Voting Rights for Overseas Nationals [ET] [ET]
  • Nominations Open for Cantonment Local Body Elections [Dawn]
  • Shafqat Hussain Execution Formally Halted for 30 Days [ET]
  • Gilgit Baltistan Locals Take on Illegal Logging [ET]
  • Khyber Paktunkhwa Distributes Revised Textbooks for Upcoming Academic Year [ET]
  • Supreme Court Updated on Government Appointments [ET]

Afghanistan — Security

  • U.S. Pledges Continued Support for ANSF: Pres. Ghani began Monday with a speech to American soldiers and their families at the Pentagon, thanking them for their service and support for Afghanistan and saying that “each one of you has left a legacy, but I also understand that Afghanistan has marked you.” Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah held day-long meetings at Camp David with Secretaries Kerry and Carter, announcing afterwards that the U.S. had agreed to continue funding the Afghan National Security Forces at a targeted peak level of 352,000 personnel through 2017, at a cost of roughly $4 billion annually. Kerry also announced that $800 million in U.S. non-military assistance for Afghanistan would be specifically directed to “promote Afghan-led reform and development work”, and the resumption of regular bilateral dialogues that had been suspended during the last years of the Karzai presidency. Ghani will meet with Pres. Obama on Tuesday, where he is expected to seek and receive an assurance of a modified drawdown plan for U.S. troops currently in the country. [NYT] [Reuters] [Guardian] [TOLO] [WAPO] [Camp David Press Conference Transcript] [SAO Background Briefing] [DOD Announcement on ANSF Support]
  • Attacks and Operations: Gunmen attacked a bus traveling on the Kabul-Ghazni highway in the Sayed Abad district of Wardak province, killing at least thirteen passengers. No claim of responsibility has been reported, and there is no confirmation whether or not the passengers, as in several other cases of bus kidnapping attacks, were members of the Hazara minority. In Helmand, local provincial council members and civil society activists have begun to raise concerns about casualties from the ongoing Operation Zulfiqar in Sangin district, and raise doubts about military officials’ claims of major victories over insurgents. [AFP] [BBC] [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press]

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Protest Over Lynching: Several hundred protestors demonstrated in Kabul on Monday to protest the lynching last Friday of a mentally ill woman accused of blasphemy at a Kabul mosque, accusing police and government officials of failing to prevent her death. Interior Minister Noor-ul Haq Ulumi told parliament on Monday that 13 suspects and 13 police officers have been arrested in connection to the incident, and that there was no evidence that the woman, Farkhunda, had burned a copy of the Quran as alleged. Protests continued on Tuesday.

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Parliamentarians Express Concerns Over Daesh Presence in Afghanistan [TOLO] [Khaama Press]
  • Commentary: Finally Towards a Complete Cabinet? The Next 16 Minister Nominees and Their Biographies – “It is again a list from which ‘big names’ are missing, there are again many new faces – and quite a few of the candidates are rather young.” [AAN]

Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Ghani and Abdullah Visit Washington; PML-N and PTI Agree on Election Rigging Investigation

Topline

  • The PML-N government and the PTI announced an agreement on Friday to form a judicial commission to investigate the PTI’s allegations of election rigging during the 2013 general elections. Separately, the PTI announced the dissolution of all internal committees and officers, who were reappointed in the same roles by Imran Khan pending new intra-party elections, a date for which has not yet been scheduled. Pres. Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah arrived in Washington on Sunday for a five-day visit, where they will meet with the administration, Congress, and the public to make a pitch for continued bilateral partnership. Prior to departing, Ghani nominated sixteen cabinet members, including three women, and announced the formation of a long-delayed electoral reform commission, headed by lawmaker Shukria Barekzai. The Pakistan Day military parade was held in Islamabad on Monday, ending a seven-year gap. The Pakistani military carried out fresh strikes in the Tirah Valley over the weekend; a TTP spokesman denied rumors that Mullah Fazlullah had been killed in the fighting. Repatriation of families displaced from parts of Khyber began on Friday. MQM leaders continue to challenge allegations raised against them; the PTI and JI have called for new elections in Karachi. Funeral services for a woman lynched on blasphemy charges by a Kabul mob were held on Sunday; her family, and police investigators, say she was mentally ill and innocent. On Friday, the Election Commission of Pakistan announced the schedule for local elections in military cantonment areas around the country. The first shipments of Qatari liquefied natural gas will arrive in Islamabad later this week; the Emir of Qatar arrived in Islamabad for a two-day visit on Monday.

Pakistan — Security

  • FATA Operations and IDP Repatriation: On Saturday, Pakistani military spokesmen announced that at least 80 militants and seven soldiers had been killed in ground operations in the Sipah area of Khyber Agency’s Tirah valley; another seven militants were killed in airstrikes carried out the same day. Operations continued through Sunday, with another 20 militants reportedly killed. A spokesman for local militant group Lashkar-e-Islam — which announced a merger with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan earlier this month — claimed to have killed as many as 20 soldiers. Unconfirmed reports suggested that the operation was targeting TTP commander Maulana Fazlullah; a TTP spokesman said that reports that he had been killed were “a complete lie”. Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif visited the Peshawar Corps headquarters on Sunday to review operations. On Friday, a group of 245 families — out of around 80,000 displaced — began the first phase of repatriation to the Bara area of Khyber. Al Jazeera interviews returnees to South Waziristan, who began repatriation last week. The resettlement program for those displaced from Khyber and North and South Waziristan is expected to continue through December 2016, at an estimated cost of at least Rs 175 billion. [Dawn] [ET] [Reuters] [AJE] [Dawn] [Dawn] [ET]
  • Pakistan Day Parade: President Mamnoon Hussain, Prime Minister Sharif, and Chief of Army Staff Sharif presided over a military parade commemorating Pakistan Day in Islamabad on Monday, the first such parade held in seven years. Pakistan’s new indigenously-produced armed drone was among those items appearing in the procession. Indian Prime Minister Modi extended greetings to Prime Minister Sharif on the occasion. Chinese Pres. Xi Jinping did not attend, but Dawn now reports he may visit in April. [ET] [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn]
  • Karachi Bombings: Hours after a bombing at a Bohra mosque on Friday evening, a suicide bomber targeted a Rangers vehicle in Karachi, killing two paramilitary personnel and injuring three, plus two civilian bystanders. No claim of responsibility has been announced, but investigators tell the Express Tribune that they believe the attack is linked to at least two other bombings targeting law enforcement agencies in the area in the past two months.  The Karachi Corps commander attended funeral services for the slain officers on Saturday, vowing that “their sacrifice will bear fruit and the operation in the city will continue as such attacks cannot deter our forces and soldiers”. [ET] [Dawn] [ET]

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • PML-N and PTI Reach Agreement on Judicial Commission: On Friday, PML-N and PTI leaders held a joint press conference, announcing that they had reached an agreement to form a judicial commission to investigate the PTI’s allegations of election rigging during the 2013 general elections. Finance Minister Dar, who led the government side in negotiations, said that the agreement would be shared with other parties before any ordinance was issued; ANP and JUI-F leaders have criticized the move, but most other parties have reportedly been supportive. The commission’s agreed terms of reference include a mandate to determine whether or not the elections “were organised and conducted impartially, honestly, fairly, justly and in accordance with the law”, if they “were influenced or manipulated pursuant to a systematic effort or by design by anyone”, and if “the results of 2013 general elections on an overall basis provided a true and fair reflection of the mandate of the people”. The commission will have powers of subpoena and investigation, and if it concludes that illegal rigging did take place, the assemblies will be dissolved and new elections called. PTI leaders welcomed the announcement as a victory for their protest movement; Vice President Shah Mehmood Qureshi said afterwards that the party would make a decision on whether its legislators would return to the national assembly after the commission was formed. [Dawn] [ET] [ET] [Dawn] [ET] [ET] [ET]
  • PTI Dissolves Internal Elected Offices: Meanwhile, the PTI has reportedly decided to accept the recommendations of an internal investigation into intra-party elections ordered by Imran Khan, which called for the dissolution of party committees and other leadership bodies; office bearers will be appointed by Khan until new intra-party elections are held.
  • Karachi Crackdown: Interior ministry sources confirm that the execution of Saulat Mirza, the former MQM gunman who implicated senior party leadership in directing targeted killings in a video confession made last week, has been postponed “until further orders”. Jail authorities have requested that the court renew the death warrant for Mirza’s execution when proceedings resume later this week, however. On Sunday, Karachi police arrested four accused gunmen associated with an unspecified political party. Meanwhile, the court hearing investigations into the 2012 Baldia factory fire, in which MQM party members have also been implicated, said it had not been notified of the Sindh government’s move to re-investigate the incident. MQM leaders continue to challenge Mirza’s accounts. Speaking on Saturday, Prime Minister Sharif again defended the Karachi operation, saying that “the crackdown is targeting only criminals and is an attempt to rid the city of the prevalent gun culture”. Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah confirmed Saturday that the PPP would not invite the MQM into the governing coalition “for the time being” as the investigations against the party proceed. Speaking at a separate press conference, PPP parliamentary oppositon leader Syed Khursheed Shah warned against the imposition of governor’s rule in Sindh and said that Mirza’s execution should not be postponed. PTI and Jamaat-e-Islami leaders have separately called for new elections in Karachi, accusing the MQM of seizing a “fake mandate” in the 2013 polls. [ET] [Dawn] [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn] [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn] [ET] [Dawn] [ET] [Dawn] [ET] [ET] [Dawn]
  • Local Elections: On Friday, the Election Commission announced the schedule for local body elections in 42 military cantonment areas around the country; nominations are due by March 31 and a final list of candidates will be published by April 10, with voting taking place April 25. The PTI has filed a challenge in the Lahore High Court, maintaining that polls should be held on a partisan basis; party sources tell Dawn that the PTI is divided and unprepared for the contest. The PML-N shows similar signs of internal division. Meanwhile, the Express Tribune reports that the PML-N has decided not to form an alliance with any other parties in the Khyber Paktunkhwa local body elections. The JUI-F, ANP, and PPP have announced an alliance to challenge the ruling PTI and JI. Former Pres. Musharraf spoke to supporters in Karachi on Sunday, and said his APML party would take part in local elections. [ET] [ET] [ET]
  • FATA Senators Elected: On Friday, Aurangzeb Khan, Taj Muhammad Afridi, Haji Momin Khan Afridi and Sajjad Hussain were elected to fill four vacant senator seats from the FATA. Only seven out of the eleven national assembly members from the FATA voted in the poll, with four others — who had supported a presidential ordinance, since withdrawn, that reduced the number of votes allocated to each national assembly member from four to one — boycotting. [Dawn]

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • LNG Import: The first shipment of Qatari liquefied natural gas will arrive in Karachi on March 26, Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources officials tell Dawn, where it will be re-gassified and injected into the Sui Southern Gas Company Ltd’s network. The Emir of Qatar arrived in Pakistan on Monday for a two day visit. The Express Tribune reports that the government has exempted fertilizer manufacturers from paying a special gas infrastructure development tax. [ET]
  • Revenue Sharing: On Friday, Khyber Paktunkhwa provincial government and Ministry for Water and Power officials announced an agreement on increasing the province’s share of net hydroelectric power profits, increasing it from Rs 6 billion — a level at which it has been capped since 1991 — to Rs 16-17 billion annually.
  • Tax Revenues: The Express Tribune reports that the government plans to withdraw Rs 150 billion worth of tax exemptions, the equivalent of around 0.5% of GDP, beginning in the next fiscal year, in order to meet IMF reform benchmarks.
  • Polio Crisis: The international Independent Monitoring Board will meet April 24 to review Pakistan’s efforts at combating polio, in a meeting that will for the first time include representatives from provincial as well as the federal health department. [ET] [Dawn]

Pakistan — Remainders

  • Balochistan Oil Tankers Attacked [Dawn]
  • Little Progress in Madrassa Scrutiny [Dawn]
  • National Reconciliation Ordinance Case Records Missing [ET]
  • UN Accepts Expanded Territorial Water Claim [ET]
  • India Reiterates Objections to Meetings with Hurriyat Leaders [ET] [ET]
  • Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly Elections Scheduled for June 8 [ET]
  • Medical Board Expected to Determine Shafqat Hussain’s Age [Dawn] [ET] [ET]
  • New Aviation Policy Announced [ET] [Dawn]
  • Finance Ministry Pursuing $1.4B in WB and ADB Loans [ET]
  • Only 40% of FATA Development Funds Spent [Dawn]
  • Interest Rate Cut to 8 Percent [Dawn] [ET]
  • Sindh Aims to Fund Bus Rapid Transit After ADB Withdraws [ET]
  • New Testing System Introduced for Khyber Paktunkhwa Teacher Hires [ET]
  • Indian Fishing Boats Released [AFP]
  • Commentary: Sharif, Sharif and Us — Again – “Pakistan will never change if militancy of all types is not crushed once and for all. Can Sharif the civilian do it?” [Fahd Hussain, Express Tribune]

Afghanistan — Security

  • Force Level Debates: Jeff Eggers, the US National Security Council director for Afghanistan, told reporters on Friday that while it “still remains the intent to consolidate and complete the retrograde down to a Kabul-based security cooperation office mission in 2017,” there was a “intent to maintain this ongoing dialogue” with the Afghan government through the coming year on ongoing U.S. military assistance. A NSC spokeswoman said that “President Obama has not opened the door to anything larger than an embassy force after 2016.” The administration is expected, but has not yet announced, to make a decision to slow the pace of drawdown in 2015, and leave most if not all current forces in country through 2016. Officials cite requests for additional assistance from the Afghan government as a primary factor in reassessing drawdown plans. Pres. Ghani spoke to reporters in Kabul on Saturday, ahead of his departure for the United States, saying that troop numbers were “a very complicated domestic issue in the United States and we do not want to get into”; he told CNN that “we are very satisfied with the way the non-combat mission is shaping. But the primary duty of defending Afghanistan and securing its future is that of the Afghan people, the Afghans soldiers, policemen and of the Afghan government.” [AFP]
  • Islamic State in Afghanistan: Ghani also cited concerns about the potential for an expansion by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria into Afghanistan, describing it as a “man-eating”  group that “swallows it competitors”. Reuters reports that Hazara community leaders in Ghazni have begun outreach to local Taliban commanders, seeking to ally against their common enemy in Daesh. [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press]
  • Funeral for Woman Lynched in Kabul: Pres. Ghani has ordered an investigation into the “heinous” mob lynching of a woman accused of burning a copy of the Quran at a Kabul mosque on Thursday. Thirteen policemen and officials have been suspended in connection to the incident. The police criminal investigation department top chief told reporters that there was no evidence that she had carried out any blasphemous act, a statement echoed in a separate TOLO interview by deputy minister of Haj and religious affairs Daiul Haq Abid. Neither official staffs the investigation commission ordered by Ghani. Her family also maintains that she was mentally ill but was “deeply religious” and did not carry out the alleged burning — they tell TOLO that she had confronted the mosque leader over his issuance of luck tokens, prompting retaliation. Funeral services were held on Sunday. Despite widespread condemnation, the NYT, Reuters, and Khaama Press note some public support for the lynching. [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press]

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Ghani and Abdullah Arrive for US Visit: Pres. Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah departed on Sunday for a five-day visit to Washington DC, where they will meet with senior U.S. administration officials, commemorate U.S. military sacrifices in a visit to Arlington cemetery, Ghani will give an address to a joint session of Congress, and both leaders will speak at a variety of think tanks and other forums. The NYT, WSJ, Post, Guardian, and AP, among others, all preview the visit and profile the president to varying degrees, noting Ghani’s close ties to the Washington pocliy community, the shift in tone from his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, and the importance of rebuilding the relationship given the Afghan state’s continued dependency on U.S. support. In an NPR interview, his first after arriving on Sunday, Ghani highlights anti-corruption efforts. [TOLO] [TOLO]
  • Government Formation: In a lengthy report, the NYT assesses signs that Pres. Ghani is moving to centralize power in the presidency and its Office of Administration, noting new controls over ministerial procurement decisions, vacant or acting subnational governance appointments, and continued struggles to define the role of the chief executive. On Saturday, acting Nangarhar governor Ataullah Ludin announced his resignation, charging the central government with interfering with his duties. Immediately prior to departing for the U.S., Pres. Ghani formally nominated sixteen new candidates to head vacant cabinet ministries, who will now go to parliament for confirmation and approval. TOLO briefly profiles the nominees; three are women, which if confirmed would allow Ghani to fulfill a campaign promise to appoint four female ministers. Nominees for the ministry of defense, the Attorney General, and the Central Bank governor have yet to be named. [TOLO] [TOLO]
  • Election Reform Commission Announced: In a presidential announcement on Saturday, Pres. Ghani appointed a 15-member special commission on electoral reforms, chaired by lawmaker Shukria Barekzai; Sediqullah Tawhidi has been named as deputy head of the commission.
  • Taliban Talks: Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Pres. Ghani said that he was “cautiously optimistic” that direct peace talks between the government and the Taliban would take place, but said that “peace processes are not easy—they require strategic patience, and they require focus”. Ghani said that the government was still “preparing the conditions” for talks and that “barring major breakthroughs in the region, spring will be difficult”. Ghani described Pakistan as a “key partner” in the peace process, but said that military operations in Waziristan and Khyber were “pushing a major series of global terrorist networks onto us”. The LAT overviews the peace effort, noting that Ghani’s direct role has pushed aside the High Peace Council. [ET]

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Officials Commemorate Nowruz New Year [TOLO] [TOLO] [TOLO]
  • Kidnappings Hold Herat Hostage [AJE]
  • Kunduz District Police Chief Killed [AP] [TOLO]
  • NDS Arrests Suicide Bomber Targeting VP Dostum [Reuters] [Khaama Press]
  • Report: Taliban Resurgent: Threats to Afghanistan’s Security – “U.S. officials should consider whether Operation Resolute Support’s policy objectives, namely ensuring “stability” and “strong governance,” as well as U.S. long-term foreign policy goals can be realistically achieved in this two-year span. [ISW]
  • Commentary: The Importance of the US-Afghanistan Alliance – “The partnership between Afghanistan and the United States can make Afghanistan an enduring success, replacing conflict and violence with a legacy of justice and peace for our children.” [Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, Washington Post]
  • Commentary: Afghanistan and Pakistan: The False Promise of Rapprochement – “In its wishful attempt to make progress with the Taliban, Kabul is gambling precious political capital on superficial tweaks in Pakistan’s policy.” [Mohammad Umer Daudzai, NYT]
  • Commentary: High Stakes for President Ghani’s Visit – “The success of Ghani’s visit will ultimately be measured by the extent to which it helps ensure that both the U.S. and Afghan sides live up to their end of the bargain, and lays the foundation for a renewed partnership based on shared interests.” [Scott Smith and Andrew Wilder, Foreign Policy]
  • Commentary: Mr Ghani Goes to Washington – “Ghani may have many friends in Washington, both inside and outside government. Ultimately, however, it is his friends (and some foes) back in Afghanistan whom he will need to lean on if the country’s many challenges are to be overcome.” [Michael Kugelman, Foreign Policy]

Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Charges Against MQM May Broaden; Kabul Mob Lynches Mentally Ill Woman

Topline

  • Prime Minister Sharif and Chief of Army Staff Sharif met on Thursday and reaffirmed support for the ongoing operation in Karachi. Sources suggest that the crackdown could broaden beyond the MQM; Lyari gang leader Uzair Baloch, who has been detained in the UAE, may reportedly testify against PPP leaders. The MQM has postponed its plans to join the PPP in coalition government in Sindh; Sindh governor Ishratul Ebad denied reports that he was preparing to resign. A mosque serving the Bohra Shia minority community was bombed in Karachi on Friday, killing two. The NYT echoes recent reports that the Obama administration is planning to revise its drawdown timeline for Afghanistan forces. Limited additional details have emerged from the killing of Uruzgan police chief Matiullah Khan in Kabul earlier this week. A mob lynched a woman accused of burning a copy of the Koran at a mosque in Kabul on Thursday; her family members say she suffered from mental illness.

Pakistan — Security

  • Bohra Mosque Attacked: A bomb planted on a motorcycle outside the Saleh Mosque in Karachi’s Arambagh neighborhood exploded during Friday prayers, killing two people and wounding at least four. The mosques serves members of the minority Bohra community, a Shiite sub-sect. No claim of responsibility has been reported. [ET] [Reuters]
  • Lakhvi Petition Dismissed: Details of the court order are limited as of this writing but on Friday, a Lahore High Court judge dismissed a petition from lawyers from Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi challenging a renewed detention order against him issued on March 14, following an Islamabad High Court order voiding his earlier detention. [ET]

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • MQM Crackdown: Prime Minister Sharif and Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif met in Islamabad on Thursday and agreed that “come what may”, they would continue the current operation in Karachi targeting criminal and militant groups, which most recently has culminated in a number of arrests and charges against the dominant MQM party. Sources tell the Express Tribune that the two leaders agreed that the operation “was targeting militant wings of political parties and not specifically the MQM” and that it would be expanded to the other provinces. Other sources note the pending extradition of Lyari gang leader Uzair Baloch, and suggest that he will testify to carrying out targeted killings in the city on the orders of PPP leaders. Dawn also confirms that Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan raised the Imran Farooq murder case in his meeting with British ambassador Philip Barton earlier this week; Barton has since returned to the UK. Meanwhile, a Karachi anti-terrorism court remanded MQM activist Kaleem Karim, a suspect in the murder of PTI leader Zahra Shahid Hussain, to seven day’s additional custody; his lawyers say he has been detained extrajudicially since late February. A separate report, quoting MQM sources, says that the party has postponed its decision to join the PPP in a coalition government in Sindh; former Pres. Zardari, who had earlier this week pledged to stick to the alliance agreement, convened party leaders in Karachi on Thursday and agreed not to “make a decision in haste”. Sindh governor Ishratul Ebad of the MQM, who was implicated by death row convict Saulat Mirza in ordering killings, denied reports on Thursday that he was planning on resigning; Zardari is reported to have pledged his support for Ebad’s continued tenure, and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar reportedly spoke to him by phone to assure that the government was not considering any “extra-constitutional steps”. At a press conference on Thursday evening, MQM party leaders rejected Mirza’s allegations, which they said had no legal standing; on Friday, party leader Farooq Sattar alleged that “everyone has a Mirza” and accused the government of “putting the MQM against a wall”. Jail officials tell Dawn that they have requested a renewal of Mirza’s execution orders following a 72-hour stay issued Wednesday; Home Department officials report, however, that his sentence could be converted to life imprisonment in exchange for his testimony. Balochistan government officials could not offer explanations for how Mirza’s confessional video was recorded or disseminated, and have formed an investigation committee. [Dawn] [Dawn] [ET] [ET] [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn]
  • Local Elections: In Khyber Paktunkhwa, the PPP, ANP, and JUI-F announced an agreement to joint contest local body elections under a single electoral symbol. Dawn reports the PML-N also aims to ally with other political parties in the province. The Lahore High Court sought responses from the attorney general on a petition brought by the PTI seeking to bar the use of civil servants as returning officers at the local body polls. [ET] [ET]

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • Polio Crisis: National health services minister Saira Afzal Tarar chaired a meeting on Thursday on the provision of security for polio vaccination campaigns nationwide, following attacks earlier this week in Mansehra and Bajaur, and recommended closer coordination with security and law enforcement agencies by provincial and local body governments when formulating vaccination plans. Army representatives at the meeting offered their support for security polio vaccination workers. The second stage of a vaccination drive in Karachi was cancelled on Friday due to security concerns. [ET]
  • Coal Projects: The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China has signed a letter of interest for a 10-year, $1 billion loan to extract coal from the Thar coal field, with closure on the deal expected in the second quarter of this year. Commercial production is due to begin in the first quarter of 2018. Financing has yet to be finalized for the construction of four 350MW coal power plants at the mine, at an estimated cost of $2 billion. On Thursday, the Economic Coordination Committee approved the establishment of a revolving fund that will guarantee payments for the purchase of 22% of monthly electricity outputs from any new power plants created under the prospective Pakistan-China Economic Corridor.

Pakistan — Remainders

  • Supreme Court to Form Larger Bench to Hear Baloch Missing Persons Case [ET]
  • UN Calls for Death Penalty Ban [ET] [ET] [Dawn] [AFP] [ET]
  • 20 Militants Killed, 10 Soldiers Injured in Khyber Fighting [Dawn]
  • Kharan District Deputy Commissioner Attacked, Two Guards Killed [Dawn]
  • Man Behind Defamatory Banners Had Links with ISI, Court Told [Dawn]
  • PPP Struggles to Maneuver Following Senate Chairmanship Win [Dawn]
  • 265 Cases of Forced Conversion Reported Last Year [Dawn]
  • Sindh Government Transfers Hospital Management to NGOs [ET] [Dawn]
  • Negotiations Ongoing Over Heavy Electric Complex Privatization Price [ET]
  • Comment: Operation MQM? – “One can only hope that both the PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party will now re-engage with the MQM and bring it back on board the democratic ship, instead of using the army to settle old accounts.” [Laurent Gayer, Medium]

Afghanistan — Security

  • Mob Kills Woman Accused of Quran Desecration: On Thursday, a mob beat to death and then burned the body of a woman accused of entering the Shah-e-Do Shamshera mosque in and burning a copy of the Quran, an allegation that police say they have been unable to substantiate. The woman was identified by her family as Farkhunda, who said she suffered from mental illness. At least four suspects in the attack have been arrested. [BBC] [Khaama Press]
  • Force Levels: Echoing other recent reports, the NYT suggests that the Obama administration is preparing to alter its drawdown plans in Afghanistan and keep most of the 10,000 troops, thousands more civilian contractors, and roughly 2,000 members of the dedicated counterterrorism force in the country “well into 2016”. White House spokesmen said that no decision had been made yet but that the president’s drawdown plan also included a commitment that it “constantly be checked against the security situation inside Afghanistan.” Pres. Ghani’s appeal for a longer force commitment, and the expectation that talks with the Taliban will not bear fruit before the beginning of the summer fighting season, are said to be major factors in the revised planning.
  • Matiullah Khan Killing: Some additional details have emerged regarding the assassination of Urzugan provincial police chief Maitullah Khan in Kabul on Wednesday evening, although Interior Ministry officials have so far provided only minimal comment. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which was reportedly carried out by a man wearing a burqa and a suicide vest. [Reuters] [Guardian]

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Ghani Inaugurates New School Year [TOLO]
  • Journalists Survey Reports No Change in Conditions During First Six Months of Unity Government [TOLO]
  • Pakistani Foreign Advisor Aziz Pledges Support for Afghan Peace Talks, Trade [ET] [ET]
  • Commentary: Ghani Builds Momentum for Taliban Talks – “Though these steps show signs of promise and should be supported by U.S. policymakers, expectations about the talks’ prospects for a swift resolution to the Afghanistan War should be measured, given the history of breakdowns of past efforts and the potential for spoilers on all sides to derail them.” [Colin Cookman, World Politics Review]

Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Charges Against MQM Continue to Mount; Uruzgan Police Chief Killed in Kabul Bombing

Topline

  • The execution of MQM gunman Saulat Mirza over a 1997 murder was postponed on Wednesday after GEO News aired a statement by Mirza directly accusing MQM leader Altaf Hussain and other senior party members in directing that and other killings; the interior ministry ordered a 72-hour stay of execution for Mirza, although Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan later suggested this decision was made on health grounds. An arrest of another MQM activist implicated in the murder of PTI leader Zahra Shahid Hussain was announced by the Rangers on Wednesday; his lawyers say he has been held since late February and was tortured in police custody. A suicide bomber reportedly killed Uruzgan police commander Matiullah Khan in Kabul on Wednesday evening; details of the incident are limited. The federal-provincial Council on Common Interests has approved the conduct of a national population census beginning March 2016, which if completed would be the first full census since 1998. U.S. military forces will retain bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad into 2016 under revised force drawdown plans under consideration in advance of Pres. Ghani’s visit to Washington next week, Reuters reports. The TTP confirmed that commander Khawrey Mehsud, a former Hakimullah Mehsud aide, had been killed in a drone strike near the Kurram border on Wednesday. The execution of Shafqat Hussain was postponed for 30 days to reexamine evidence that he was a teenager when the murder for which he was convicted was carried out. Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Noor told a press conference on Wednesday that he would accept limited Taliban appointments in government as part of a reconciliation process but reiterated that talks should be “transparent”.

Pakistan — Security

  • TTP Commander Killed: A Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan spokesman announced Thursday that Khawrey Mehsud, a South Waziristan-based commander who previously served as a bodyguard to Hakimullah Mehsud, had been killed in a U.S. drone strike on the Afghan side of the border near the Kurram Agency on March 18. [Dawn]
  • Execution Halted: On Wednesday, Sindh government officials said that they had appealed to President Mamnoon Hussain for a stay of execution for Shafqat Hussain, whose pending death sentence has been criticized by human rights activists. Shafqat Hussain’s family produced a birth certificate earlier in the day attesting that he was underage at the time of the murder for which he was convicted. A 72-hour postponement was initially ordered later in the evening, and sources now report that the president approved a 30-day delay. On Thursday, four other prisoners were executed in Rawalpindi and Mianwali. [AJE] [NYT] [Reuters] [ET] [Dawn]
  • Nuclear Security: Speaking at a conference on Wednesday, retired Brigadier Tahir Raza Naqvi, who serves in the military’s Strategic Plans Division, confirmed that “some people” had been removed from working on the country’s nuclear program after the introduction of new screening programs in 2003-2004. He did not elaborate but said that “our checks are very solid”. [ET]

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • MQM Implicated in Killings: On Wednesday, GEO News aired a statement from Saulat Mirza, a former MQM member who faced execution on Thursday morning for charges related to the murder of Karachi Electric Supply Corporation managing director Malik Shahid Hamid in 1997. In the video, Mirza directly implicated MQM leaders Altaf Hussain and Babar Ghauri in ordering that and other killings, and further suggested that he continued to direct killings from prison thanks to interventions with police by Sindh governor Ishratul Ebad Khan. The accusations join multiple other legal challenges and investigations against the party and its leaders, culminating in a raid on party headquarters last week. Hussain, Ghauri, Ebad, and other party leaders denounced the allegations, denying connections to Mirza or his activities. Following the statement, Mirza was granted a 72-hour stay of execution at the request of the interior ministry; speaking to the national assembly on Thursday, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan attributed the decision to Mirza’s health. Earlier in the day, Chaudhry Nisar met with the British ambassador to Pakistan, Philip Barton, to discuss charges filed against Hussain by the Rangers the day prior over alleged threats he had made following the headquarters raid. Chief of Army Staff Sharif also met with the visiting UK Chief of General of Staff on Thursday, although the details of their conversations have not been disclosed. Speaking on those charges earlier, Hussain said that he did not want “to fight with the army or engage in confrontation with them…don’t consider me your enemy or a traitor”. Additionally on Wednesday, the Rangers announced the arrest of a suspect in the murder of PTI leader Zahra Shahid Hussain in May 2013, identified as an MQM activist, Abdul Kaleem, who was reportedly detained earlier in late February. His lawyers maintain that he was tortured by police. The interior ministry is meanwhile reportedly adding the names of several senior MQM party leaders to the exit control list, barring them from leaving the country. Prime Minister Sharif reiterated support for crackdown operations in Karachi on Thursday. Meanwhile, nominations are being filed for the NA-246 national assembly seat from Karachi’s Azizabad neighborhood, which became vacant after Nabeel Gabol’s resignation from the MQM; the PTI, among other parties, has filed to contest the seat. [ET] [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn] [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn]
  • Indian Talks: Prime Minister Modi has written to Prime Minister Sharif ahead of the SAARC Summit to be hosted in Islamabad early next year and has proposed bilateral talks between the two leaders at that time, the Express Tribune reports.

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • CCI Fixes Date for Census: On Wednesday, the Council on Common Interests agreed to hold a national population census beginning in March 2016, with the administrative support of the armed forces. The last Pakistani census was held in 1998; a previous attempt in 2011 was abandoned midway through. The Council also agreed to increase water use charges paid to the provinces by hydroelectric power producers and agreed “in principle” to the devolution of power grid regulation to the provinces. [Dawn]

Pakistan — Remainders

  • UN Global Education Envoy to Support Pakistan School Security Efforts [AP]
  • Supreme Court Seeks Information on Phone Tapping [ET]
  • 11 Security Personnel Injured in Khyber Bombing [ET]
  • Lahore Lynching Victims Had No Links to Attacks, Police Conclude [Dawn]
  • Salaries Suspended for Absent PTI Legislators [ET]
  • OGRA Chairman Barred from Returning to Duties [ET]
  • NEPRA Approves Electricity Tariff Rate Reduction [Dawn] [ET]
  • Khyber Paktunkhwa Bar Association Condemns Killing of Afridi Lawyer [ET]
  • Chief of Army Staff Visits Training Center for Law Enforcement Agencies [ET]
  • Electoral Reforms Committee to Require Polling Results Forms [Dawn]
  • Polio Vaccination Drive Halted in Mansehra After Shootings [ET] [Dawn] [ET]
  • Khyber Paktunkhwa Planning Department Objects to Funds for Higher Education Facility Funds [Dawn]
  • Sindh High Court Orders Pakistan Steel Mills Salary Payments [Dawn]
  • Commentary: Karachi’s Dragons – “If you want to understand why the thinking ones among us harbour some anxiety about the troubled waters the MQM finds itself in these days, take a look at PS-128.” [Khurram Hussain, Dawn]

Afghanistan — Security

  • Uruzgan Police Chief Killed in Kabul: A suicide bomber in the Qala-e-Ali Mardan area of Kabul killed himself and a suspected accomplice on Wednesday evening, but no other casualties are reported. Khaama Press reporting initially suggested that the bombers may have been seeking to target a nearby Shia gathering place. On Thursday, officials that Uruzgan provincial police chief Matiullah Khan, a leading power broker in the province, had in fact been the target of the attack, and had been killed. Details of the incident are still limited as of this writing. [TOLO] [TOLO]
  • Drawdown Plans: Reuters reports that the U.S. will likely keep its military bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad open past the end of this year, as it considers modifications to the force drawdown plan originally set out last year. While no details have yet been finalized in that regard, a senior U.S. official source says that “being responsive to President Ghani’s request for flexibility is an important part of the visit… I don’t think he’ll feel empty-handed.” Discussions have not focused on any changes to the plan to withdraw all forces save those required by a “normal embassy presence” after the end of 2016, however.
  • Ghani Meets Officers: Pres. Ghani addressed a graduation ceremony for 500 Afghan National Army officers at the National Defense University in Kabul on Wednesday, telling the audience that Afghans would continue to resist efforts to turn the country into a site for proxy wars. Ghani also vowed that any talks with the Taliban would not compromise “a single national value”. He obliquely criticized repeated military operations in a single area, saying that “once the operation is conducted, its result should be known,” and said that the army “should only focus on their main duties,” not contracts, which he has ordered a review of.

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Taliban Talks: Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani and representatives from the High Peace Council briefed parliament on Wednesday on the status of prospective talks with the Taliban, telling representatives that “the opportunity for peace has been provided, and we are still in the beginning of work”. Rabbani said that “at the moment, the talks have not started yet, and under no conditions will the achievements of the past be compromised.” Speaking at a separate press conference, Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Noor said that talks should be “transparent” and that “Afghanistan should not be sacrificed for the strategic and big plans of any country”. He also suggested that he would not object to limited Taliban representation in government, however, saying that “if the Taliban honestly join the peace process, and then if they are given a position, I am not against it…but this position should not be proven costly to our people and government.” Speaking to reporters in Islamabad on Thursday, Pakistani foreign advisor Sartaj Aziz reiterated Pakistan’s support for Afghan reconciliation and dialogue. [ET] [Khaama Press] [Dawn]

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Commentary: Ghani’s Gambit – “Much of the Afghan public is skeptical, because Pakistan has long treated Afghanistan like a client state. Mr. Ghani will need to show results fast.” [Barnett Rubin, NYT]

Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Lawyer for Shakil Afridi Killed; VP Dostum Complains of Marginalization

Topline

  • Gunmen killed the former lawyer for Dr Shakil Afridi, Samiullah Afridi, in a shooting in Peshawar on Tuesday; the TTP splinter groups Jamaat-ul Ahrar and Jundullah both claimed responsibility. On Wednesday, the TTP claimed responsibility for the killing of the PML-N’s Peshawar chapter president. Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is increasingly frustrated that he is being marginalized in government decision-making, the NYT reports. A spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah suggests that the government might nominate its remaining cabinet ministers before he and Pres. Ghani depart for the U.S., or otherwise after their return. A former deputy to North Waziristan commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur, Maulvi Aleem Khan, has announced a peace agreement with the government in Datta Khel. Three polio vaccination campaign workers were killed in separate attacks in Mansehra and Bajaur on Tuesday and Wednesday. A Taliban suicide car bombing near the governor’s office in the Helmand capital on Wednesday killed at least seven people. The Rangers have filed a case against MQM leader Altaf Hussain, charging him with making threats following the raid on party headquarters last week; former Pres. Zardari spoke with Hussain by phone on Tuesday and affirmed that the PPP still sought to form a coalition government with the MQM in Sindh. The UN Security Council renewed the mandate for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan for another year on Tuesday. Prime Minister Sharif will chair a meeting of the federal-provincial Council on Common Interests on Wednesday. Kabul will host a summit of TAPI partner countries on Thursday.

Pakistan — Security

  • Lawyer for Shakil Afridi Killed: On Tuesday, gunmen killed Saimullah Afridi, a lawyer for detained Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, who was earlier implicated in a CIA surveillance program that sought to confirm Osama bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad and who was sentenced on unrelated charges of supporting Khyber-based militant groups in 2012. Samiullah Afridi had received threats that led him to drop his representation of Dr. Afridi last year, and had only recently returned to the country after three months abroad; he was killed on his way home in Peshawar. Two Taliban splinter groups – Jundullah and Jamaat-ul-Ahrar — separately claimed responsibility for his assassination. [BBC] [ET] [ET]
  • North Waziristan Commander Reaches Peace Agreement: Maulvi Aleem Khan, identified as a former deputy to commander Hafiz Gul Bahadur who had split off to form his own militant faction, told RFE/RL on Monday that he had negotiated a peace agreement with the government on March 14, and that he would now “resist anyone who would attempt to create insecurity” in the Datta Khel region. Meanwhile, Pakistani military officials announced that they carried out new airstrikes in Khyber’s Tirah Valley, killing as many as 34 militants. [AP]
  • PML-N Leader Killed in Peshawar: On Wednesday, the PML-N’s Peshawar chapter president, Haji Sardar Mohmand Khan, was killed by gunmen in Peshawar; the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attack. [Dawn]
  • Lahore Church Attack Aftermath: Family members of the second victim of a mob lynching in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s suicide bombing attacks on two Lahore churches came forward on Tuesday, identifying him as Babar Noman, a garment worker from Sargodha. Lawyers filed charges in the Lahore High Court on Tuesday seeking an inquiry into the mob violence that followed the attacks. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif met with Christian community leaders on Wednesday, urging patience as the government seeks to confront domestic terrorism. [ET]
  • Executions: Nine more death row prisoners were executed on Wednesday, all having been sentenced on murder charges. The parents of Shafqat Hussain have appealed to the president for a clemency order, arguing that he had been convicted of murder as a teenager, and had been tortured by police to induce a confession. An EU spokesperson called for Pakistan to halt executions in a statement on Wednesday. [Dawn] [Reuters] [Dawn] [ET]
  • Polio Workers Attacked: Unidentified gunmen killed two female polio vaccination campaign workers near an Afghan refugee camp on the outskirts of Mansehra, Khyber Paktunkhwa, on Tuesday. Federal health officials expressed concerns in the aftermath that the three-day-long campaign in Mansehra had allowed militant organizers to plan for attacks during its later days, and are reportedly considering shifting to one-day vaccination campaigns. On Wednesday, a separate attack in Bajaur killed one vaccination worker and wounded another; the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility. [Dawn] [ET]

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Rangers File Charges Against Altaf Hussain: On Tuesday, the paramilitary Karachi Rangers filed a case against MQM leader-in-exile Altaf Hussain for alleged threats he made against the Rangers in remarks following their raid on party headquarters last week, charging him under Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act and section 506 of the Pakistan Penal Code. They are the first charges to be filed against Hussain since the passage of the 2007 National Reconciliation Ordinance. MQM party leaders aid they were “reviewing” the charges, noting he had faced similar charges in the past, and called on party members to “remain calm and united”. Despite the increasing pressure on the party, former Pres. Zardari reaffirmed the PPP’s desire to form a coalition government with the MQM in Sindh during phone conversations with Hussain on Tuesday; a meeting of Sindh PPP leaders also endorsed the coalition. Separately, the Express Tribune reports that the Sindh government plans to appoint Jam Mehtab Dahar, of the PPP, as home minister for the province, amidst a possible broader cabinet reshuffling. Meanwhile, a Karachi court issued an non-bailable arrest warrant for Rizwan Qureshi, a principal witness who earlier implicated MQM party leaders in the 2012 Baldia factory fire, who has failed to attend court hearings since late February. [ET] [ET] [Dawn]
  • Local Elections: On Tuesday, the Sindh government officially notified the number of union councils and union committees to be contested in upcoming local body elections, directing the Election Commission to begin the process of their delimitation. Election Commission officials say they have yet to receive the official notice, however. In Khyber Paktunkhwa, the PPP, ANP, and JUI-F have formed an alliance to challenge the ruling PTI-JI coalition in local government polls. [ET] [ET] [ET]
  • Council on Common Interest to Meet: Prime Minister Sharif will chair a meeting of the federal-provincial Council on Common Interest for the first time in ten months on Wednesday; Dawn reports that the agenda will likely cover the re-regulation of Liquified Petroleum Gas prices, water allocation for Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the absorption of federal civil service employees by provincial civil services following the devolution of federal ministries, the restoration of the executive magistracy system, and the conducting of a long-delayed national census, among other issues. [Dawn]

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • OGRA Chairman Reinstated: On Tuesday, the Islamabad High Court overturned the government’s suspension of Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority chairman Saeed Ahmed Khan, allowing him to return to work after he was placed on forced leave following the January petroleum crisis. The court did not overturn a government reference seeking Khan’s dismissal by the Federal Public Service Commission, however, which is apparently still under review. [ET]

Pakistan — Remainders

  • Election Commission Begins Scrutiny of PTI Audits [ET]
  • PPP and PML-N Yet to Agree on Senate Committee Chairmen [Dawn]
  • Suspect in Daniel Pearl Murder Case Missing [ET]
  • Four Children Wounded by Grenade in Multan [Dawn]
  • Police Prepare Security for Pakistan Day Parade [Dawn]
  • Air Marshal Sohail Aman Appointed New Air Chief [ET]
  • Finance Ministry to Finance Plans to Spend Pakistan Development Fund Payments from Saudi Arabia [ET]
  • Pakistan and Austria Sign Tax Protocol [ET]

Afghanistan — Security

  • Attacks: A suicide car bombing hit near the governor’s office in the Helmand capital of Lashkar Gah on Wednesday, killing seven people and wounding at least 21 others; a spokesman for the provincial governor was among those wounded, but the governor himself appears to be unhurt. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the blast, which comes amidst a monthlong Afghan National Army operation in the Sangin district. [TOLO] [AJE]

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Government Formation: A spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah tells TOLO that the government hopes to nominate remaining cabinet ministers for confirmation before Abdullah and Pres. Ghani depart for their visit to the United States next week, or otherwise after their return. Meanwhile, the NYT reports frustration on the part of Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has been vocal in government meetings of his complaints that he is being marginalized in government decision-making and who has attempt to start his own initiatives on establishing a paramilitary force — an initiative he has reportedly been dissuaded from — and, more recently, national fitness.
  • UN Mandate Renewed: On Tuesday, the UN Security Council endorsed the extension of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan’s mandate for another year. Speaking before the Security Council, UNAMA special representative Nicholas Haysom welcomed the government’s peace outreach to the Taliban, saying that Pres. Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah’s “collaborative leadership remains essential for any peace talks to progress.” [UN Resolution and Detailed Remarks] [Special Representative Quarterly Report (pdf)]

Afghanistan — Economics and Development

  • TAPI Summit: Representatives from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India will meet in Kabul on Thursday for a summit on the implementation of the TAPI gas pipeline.
  • New Kabul Bank Sale: Pakistan’s Muslim Commercial Bank has reportedly approached the Ministry of Finance with a proposal to purchase the assets of New Kabul Bank, which the government has owned since the bank nearly collapsed in 2010 and has recently sought, unsuccessfully, to sell off. The chairman of the Wolesi Jirga finance and budget committee tells TOLO that parliament would block the bank’s sale to Pakistan.

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Ministry of Interior Denies Police Chiefs Barred from Speaking with Press [TOLO]
  • Ghazni Demonstrators Protest Hazara Kidnappings [TOLO]
  • Counternarcotics Officials Report 508 Drug Trafficking Prosecutions in Past Year [TOLO]
  • Report: The A to Z Guide to Assistance in Afghanistan, 2015 – “The Guide provides: a wide-ranging glossary of assistance terms and actors, an overview of Afghanistan’s system of government, political provincial briefs, key primary documents, and an extensive contacts directory that includes government agencies, NGOs, donors, and international actors.” [AREU (pdf)]
  • Commentary: Talks with the Taliban, Again: This Time for Real? – “This push for direct talks with the Taleban reflects the president’s philosophy: Peace is a requirement for kick-starting the Afghan economy, which continues to be unsustainable and dependent on the West.” [Thomas Ruttig, AAN]
  • Commentary: Turning the Tide on Afghanistan – “At a time of security uncertainty, a renewed economic compact between Afghanistan and its largest international donor would signal strong support for the new government and instill confidence in the Afghan people.” [Ariella Viehe and Aarthi Gunasekaran, CAP]

Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Protests Continue Following Lahore Church Attacks; Taliban ‘Considering’ Talks with Govt

Topline

  • Protests continued, some violently, in the wake of yesterday’s bombings targeting two Lahore churches; family members of a man killed by a mob in the wake of the attacks deny that he had any connection to the attackers. Taliban spokesmen reiterate denials that they have engaged in any preparatory talks regarding negotiations with the Afghan government, but suggest that they are considering whether or not to take part in talks. Repatriation of families displaced by fighting in South Waziristan in 2009 began on Monday, with around 200 families initially taking part. The Sindh government replaced the head of its team re-investigating the 2012 Baldia factory fire. Elections for four senate seats from the FATA will be held March 20, the Election Commission of Pakistan has announced.

Pakistan — Security

  • Lahore Church Attacks Aftermath: Members of the Pakistani Christian community continued protest riots in Lahore, Faisalabad, and Gujranwala on Monday in the wake of Sunday’s double suicide bombing at two churches in Lahore. Protestors clashed with police, who dispersed them by force as they were blocking a major highway in Lahore; one protestor was killed and several injured after being hit by a car during the protests. Demonstrators withdrew in the evening following negotiations with police. At interfaith prayer services held on Monday, Church of Pakistan Bishop Samuel Azariah called on Christian community members to remain peaceful; several other peaceful protests have been held across the country. Separately, family members of a man who was lynched by a mob in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s bombings on suspicion of aiding the attackers identified him as Naeem Saleem, and insist that he was an innocent bystander. Speaking at the national assembly on Monday, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said that the lynching was “the worst form of terrorism” and that the government would take action against those responsible. [Reuters] [ET] [ET] [ET] [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn]
  • Security Review: Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told parliament on Monday that the government plans to review all major policies relating to arms licensing, armored vehicles, private security companies, prisoner exchange agreements, and travel controls in the next few months.
  • FATA Repatriation: Dawn reports that 206 families departed from IDP camps in the Tank district for South Waziristan on Monday, the first day of a repatriation program that will run through April 4. North Waziristan tribal elders protested outside the FATA Secretariat building in Peshawar on Monday, demanding their immediate repatriation; initial plans call for return to only a few select areas in the Mir Ali area later this month.
  • Executions: Twelve death row prisoners were hanged in separate executions around the country on Tuesday, including prisoners not convicted on terrorism charges. Reuters reports that at least 27 people have been hanged since the moratorium on capital punishment was withdrawn in December. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by MQM gunman Saulat Mirza. [ET] [Dawn] [ET] [BBC]

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • MQM Under Pressure: On Tuesday, the Sindh government replaced the head of the new Joint Investigation Team investigating the 2012 Baldia factory fire, transferring Rapid Response Force chief Aftab Pathan to replace Crime Branch Additional Inspector General Khadim Hussain Bhatti. Representatives have also been appointed from the major military and civilian intelligence agencies. On Monday, MQM leader-in-exile Altaf Hussain denied that his party maintained any militant wing, insisting that “if some people are taking the law in their own hands, then it is their personal conduct”. Dawn notes that MQM parliamentarians were “subduedon Monday during the first parliamentary session since the raid on party headquarters last week; Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan deferred a speech on the issue. [ET] [Dawn]
  • Elections: On Monday, the Election Commission announced that it would hold an election for senators from the FATA on March 20; following the withdrawal of a presidential ordinance altering the vote formula for FATA national assembly members, the eleven FATA parliamentarians will vote on four senate seats. Meanwhile, political party leaders are beginning to prepare for local body elections in military cantonment areas and in Khyber Paktunkhwa. [Dawn] [Dawn] [Dawn]

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • Polio Crisis: World Health Organization officials credit the improved security and greater access to FATA residents for a reduction in polio cases so far this year; a new vaccination campaign in the tribal areas began on Monday. Security concerns postponed a new vaccination campaign in Quetta on Monday, but vaccination will continue in 29 out of 32 Balochistan districts. [ET] [Dawn]

Pakistan — Remainders

  • Peshawar School Families Demand Answers From Government [ET]
  • Pakistani Man Held on Charges of Planning Attack on Toronto Consulate Held Without Bail [Reuters]
  • Prime Minister Convenes Council on Common Interest Meeting [Dawn]
  • Children Among Three Killed in Swat Bombing [Dawn]
  • Islamabad High Court Hears Government Challenge Against Former Chief Justice’s Perks [Dawn]
  • Planning Minister Reiterates No Change to Economic Corridor Route [ET]
  • Neelum-Jhelum Dam Will Not Be Completed Until 2016, Officials Say [Dawn]
  • Two Judges Confirmed for Peshawar High Court [ET]

Afghanistan — Security

  • Attacks and Operations: Ministry of defense spokesmen say that operations in Helmand, ongoing for the past month, have killed 212 Taliban fighters and arrested 17; at least 19 Afghan National Army soldiers have been killed in the fighting. On Tuesday, military officials reported that they had killed the Taliban shadow district governor in Faryab’s Dawlat Abad district. On Monday, six Hazara travelers were kidnapped on the Herat-Farah highway, the third such incident in the past month; a search operation has been launched for their rescue. [AFP]
  • ALP Militias: The NYT profiles two ALP militia leaders in Ghazni, who have taken over as a local strongmen following the withdrawal of American special operations forces from the area, extorting residents and clashing with Taliban forces.

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Taliban Talks: The WSJ reports that Afghan government officials had hoped to initiate direct talks with the Taliban prior to Pres. Ghani’s visit to Washington next week, but are unlikely to be able to reach any agreements to do so by that time; a Taliban source says that “we are considering the positive and negative consequences of accepting talks and of refusing the talks…a decision may [take] some more time.” Speaking at a seminar in Kabul organized by the Afghan ministry of foreign affairs’ Center for Strategic Studies and the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations on Monday, deputy foreign minister Hekmat Khalil Karzai said that talks would be held “in the near future”, and credited China with supporting the peace efforts. A Taliban spokesman disputed that, reiterating that contrary to multiple press reports, “representatives of the political office in Qatar have neither travelled to any country regarding peace talks nor discussed the issue”. Taliban spokesmen also denied that former military commander Abdul Qayyum Zakir had resumed his leadership role. [TOLO] [TOLO] [Dawn]

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Ministry of Mines Seeks to Stop Illegal Azur Mining in Badakshan [TOLO]
  • Ghani Expected to Visit India in Next Month [Khaama Press]