Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Agreement Reached on Direct TTP Talks; Election Observer Group Pulls Out After Kabul Serena Attack

Topline

  • Pakistani government and Pakistani Taliban negotiators say they have reached an agreement on direct talks with TTP leaders, but have offered no details on when or where this will take place. Election observer groups have withdrawn from Kabul after one member of the National Democratic Institute’s election team was killed in last Thursday’s shooting at the Kabul Serena Hotel. Afghan reporters say they will boycott coverage of the Taliban for 15 days to protest the death of reporter Sardar Ahmad and his family. Afghan National Security Council officials say that “foreign intelligence services” were responsible for the attack. The Khyber Paktunkhwa assembly passed a resolution backed the PTI calling for the creation of a separate province out of the former Hazara division. Sindh has set local government elections for November. The Afghan interior ministry is reviewing security preparations for the upcoming polls and the Independent Election Commission may reduce the number of poling centers as a result.

Pakistan — Security

  • TTP Talks: Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan convened a meeting of the government and Taliban negotiating committees on Saturday; Maulana Sami-ul Haq afterwards told reporters that a location had been chosen for direct talks between the government and Pakistani Taliban leaders, but no details were offered. The Express Tribune suggests that Mir Ali, North Waziristan, is the most likely venue. Rustam Shah Mohammad, a member of the government negotiating committee, said that talks would likely take place within the next three days, and that the government would push the TTP to extend its ceasefire indefinitely. Government negotiators will also seek the release of Ali Haider Gilani and Shahbaz Taseer. In remarks to reporters on Saturday, TTP spokesman Shahidullah Shahid accused the government of continued military operations despite a ceasefire agreement announced earlier this month. [ET] [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn]
  • Missing Persons: The Khyber Paktunkhwa police have, under court order and at the request of the defense ministry, formally initiated an investigation against army officers linked to the extrajudicial detention of 35 detainees taken from a Malakand internment center, in what appears to be the first instance in Pakistan’s history in which a criminal case had been filed by the defense ministry against military officials.
  • NYT Story Censored in Pakistan:, An excerpt published in the NYT last week of reporter Carlotta Gall’s forthcoming book “The Wrong Enemy,” was censored from publication on Saturday in the Express Tribune, which serves as the Pakistani distributor of the International Herald Tribune. The book excerpt, among other charges, alleged direct knowledge by the ISI of Osama bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan. [Bloomberg]

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Sindh Provincial Politics: Following last week’s Supreme Court rulings, the Sindh provincial government has announced that local government elections will be held in November; a precise date has not been announced, although the Supreme Court set a November 15 deadline. The PPP and MQM are now reportedly near a power-sharing agreement; the MQM will reportedly receive five ministries in the provincial government. PPP parliamentary opposition leader Khurshid Shah dismissed those reports on Sunday, saying MQM leader Altaf Hussain should take back remarks endorsing military rule. [ET]
  • Khyber Paktunkhwa Provincial Politics: The Express Tribune reports that Khyber Paktunkhwa assembly opposition leader Sardar Mehtab Abbasi is the leading PML-N candidate to replace current governor Shaukatullah Khan. On Friday, the provincial assembly passed a PTI-initiated resolution calling for the creation of a separate province in the former Hazara division; a separate resolution calling for the change of the province’s name to Hazara Paktunkhwa was also approved. Chief Minister Pervaiz Khattak did not participate in the vote. Former PML-N national assembly member Gohar Ayub Khan tells the Express Tribune that his party will support the new  province’s creation in the national assembly. [The Nation]
  • Musharraf Trial: On Friday, lawyers for former Pres. Musharraf called for the dismissal of Akram Sheikh, the lead prosecutor in the treason case against him, and the immediate suspension of the special court hearing charges against him, alleging that the government was colluding with the judiciary to “fix and manipulate” trial proceedings, which have yet to begin.

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • Vaccination Campaign: The Khyber Paktunkhwa’ government’s Sehat Ka Insaf vaccination program will expand outside Peshawar beginning Monday, officials say. On Sunday, a group of gunmen kidnapped a polio vaccination worker from her home in the outskirts of Peshawar; no claim of responsibility has been reported.
  • Energy Crisis: The government has revised its gas distribution schedule for the start of April, and are expected to announce expanded gas service at compressed natural gas service stations. However, the Khyber Paktunkhwa provincial government is refusing to provide its share of gas production to other provinces. [Dawn]
  • State Owned Enterprises: On Friday, the Economic Coordination Committee of the cabinet approved the payment of salaries for Pakistan Steel Mills workers dating back to December 2013 and January 2014, at a cost of Rs 960 million. The mills are currently running at approximately 3% of capacity. [ET]
  • Education Spending: The Punjab assembly has approved a 30% increase in provincial education spending as part of negotiations over the coming fiscal year budget, to Rs 41 billion. A new study estimates that 11% of school-age children in Lahore are out of school.

Pakistan — Remainders

  • Interior Minister Rebuffs ‘Disinformation’ About Madrassah Regulations [Dawn] [Dawn]
  • Khyber Paktunkhwa Seeks Rs50 billion for Security Budget [Dawn]
  • PPP Opposition Eases Criticism Of Government Over Saudi Ties [Dawn]
  • Iran Deports Pakistani Nationals Living in Sistan-Balochistan [ET]
  • Nawaz Sharif to Speak at Nuclear Security Summit [ET]
  • JUI-F Seeks Ministry Appointments [ET]
  • NADRA Employees Barred from Contacts with Foreign Nationals [Dawn] [Dawn]
  • Islamabad Slum Clearance Operation Cancelled [ET]
  • National Accountability Bureau Officer Killed in Karachi [Dawn]
  • Five Militants Killed in Kech District Operations [Dawn] [ET]
  • Prime Minister Sharif Inaugurates Rawalpindi-Islamabad MetroBus Project [ET]
  • FBR Identifies 40 Fake Firms Receiving Tax Refunds [Dawn]
  • Auditor General Under Scrutiny for Salary Increase [Dawn]
  • Gwadar ‘Free Trade Zone’ Plans Due by May [ET]
  • Bond Investors Shift to 12-Month T-Bills in Anticipation of Interest Rate Cut [ET]
  • Commentary: Pakistan Sheltered Bin Laden? Prove It – “Based on the bewildered reactions of top Pakistani officials to the events on the night that bin Laden was killed, it was obvious to U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter and to U.S. officials monitoring communications in Pakistan that the Pakistanis had not had a clue about bin Laden’s presence there.” [Peter Bergen, CNN]
  • Commentary: Crimson Tide – “With the prolonged dialogue-dance between the government and the Pakistani Taliban, out-of-the-bottle genies such as proscribed terrorist groups are now claiming space as legitimate actors.” [Sherry Rehman, Newsweek Pakistan]

Afghanistan — Security

  • Serena Attack Aftermath: The WSJ and NYT reconstruct last Thursdsay’s attack on restaurant-goers at the Kabul Serena hotel, which left nine people and four Taliban gunmen dead. Sardar Ahmad, a senior reporter for AFP, his wife, and two children were killed in the shooting; at his funeral on Saturday, a group of Afghan journalists issued a statement indicating that they would boycott coverage of all Taliban-related news for 15 days as a means of protest. The Taliban’s main spokesman has claimed that Ahmad and his family were killed in a crossfire, contradicting eyewitness accounts that they were shot point-blank by the four gunmen. Also among those killed was Luis Maria Duarte, a Paraguayan national and observer with the National Democratic Institute’s election observation mission. Both NDI and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have since pulled their election observer teams out of the country. Investigations are still ongoing as to how the gunmen managed to evade the Serena security; Al Jazeera reports that video surveillance footage indicates that they were searched twice before being allowed into the restaurant, smuggling small pistols inside their shoes. In a statement on Saturday, the National Security Council concluded that “this terrorist attack was directly executed or carried out by foreign intelligence services outside the country”. [TOLO] [TOLO]

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Election Campaign: Independent Election Commission officials report that it is still possible that the number of polling stations will be reduced due to security concerns and constraints on the delivery of ballot materials; a new Ministry of Interior security assessment of that 6,775 polling centers is due to be completed within three days. Zalmay Rassoul made his first visit to Paktia province at a campaign rally on Saturday, vowing to expand local electrification efforts. Also on Saturday, Ashraf Ghani held a rally in Logar; Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf met with supporters in Parwan; and Abdullah Abdullah visited Baghlan accompanied by Mohammad Mohaqiq, his second vice presidential running mate. [ET] [Khaama Press]
  • Russian Relations: The Post reports on the return of Russian aid to Afghanistan, interviewing several workers and government officials who credit the 1980s Soviet intervention with making important investments in the country. Russia has increased scholarships for Afghan nationals, and Pres. Putin exchanged Nowruz greetings with Pres. Karzai last week. During a meeting with a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation on Sunday, Karzai endorsed the contested Crimean referendum to join with Russia, which the NYT suggests resonates in Afghanistan due to the country’s own experience with the contested Durand Line.

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Sen. Ayotte, on Visit to Afghanistan, Calls on Obama to Announce Decision on Future Troop Levels [AP]
  • Two Police Officers Killed, Eight Wounded, in Friday Bombing in Kandahar [TOLO]
  • Group of Would-Be Suicide Bombers Arrested in Helmand [Khaama Press]
  • Afghan Ambassador Holds Joint Economic Commission Talks with Pakistani Finance Minister [ET] [The Nation]
  • Adib Fahim, Son of Late Vice President, Appointed Head of Presidential Public Affairs [TOLO]
  • Commentary: The Provincial Councils’ Fight for Extended Authority – “PC candidates and voters face one difficulty: the councils lack clearly defined authorities, which somewhat diminishes interest in these polls.” [Thomas Ruttig and Ehsan Qaane, AAN]
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