Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Slower US Troop Drawdown Under Consideration; Taliban and Afghan Govt Move Closer to Talks

Topline

  • U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited Afghanistan for meetings with senior Afghan officials and U.S. commanders on Saturday and Sunday; in a joint press conference with Pres. Ghani, he confirmed that the U.S. was considering slowing the pace of its drawdown of forces between now and 2016, although the withdrawal of all forces at the end of 2016 so far remains firm. Pres. Ghani’s office issued a statement welcoming Pakistani support in “paving the ground” for peace and reconciliation talks with the Taliban; anonymous Taliban sources speaking to the press suggest that they have been “given the green light” by the insurgency’s senior leaders to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government. The Election Commission of Pakistan completed its review of senate candidate applications, disqualifying 38, and will begin hearing appeals of its decisions today. The ECP appears to have relaxed restrictions on candidates contesting from provinces where they are not residents. The MQM and PPP have yet to finalize the terms of their coalition government agreement in Sindh. Prime Minister Sharif deferred a proposed gas tariff increase until April at earliest, despite warnings from gas utilities that they are facing “financial collapse” at current rates; plans for integrating newly imported liquefied natural gas into the system have yet to be finalized. A spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa said that the group would appeal its UN ban, claiming to have no links to Lashkar-e-Taiba or other terrorist organizations.

Pakistan — Security

  • Policing and Counterterrorism Response: Security was stepped up in Peshawar on Friday in the wake of last week’s attack on a Shia mosque. The Express Tribune reports that a Khyber Paktunkhwa provincial investigation into the Army Public School attack in December has not charged any officials with negligence. A separate report notes that many schools in the Swat area remain closed for lack of approved security plans. Elsewhere, the Sindh government announced plans to recruit 1,500 additional female police officers; at a meeting of senior government and PPP officials on Saturday, former Pres. Zardari called for the establishment of a provincial counterterrorism force and a women’s anti-terrorism force. Sindh also reportedly plans to establish at least two dedicated police stations in Hyderabad and Sukkur and a separate jail in Karachi to focus on terrorism issues. [ET] [ET] [ET]
  • Chaman Bombing: A bomb planted inside a car exploded at the Chaman border crossing on Sunday, killing one child and injuring at least nine other people. No claim of responsibility has been reported. [ET]
  • FATA Operations: A Pakistani army major was killed in a search operation near Datta Khel, North Waziristan on Friday, military officials reported; at least five militants were reported to have also been killed in the engagement. [ET] [Dawn]
  • Banned Organizations: A spokesman for Jamaat-ud-Dawa said that the organization plans to renew an appeal to the UN to lift a international sanctions ban, claiming that the organization has no linkages with Lashkar-e-Taiba, Al Qaeda, or the Taliban. Separately, in remarks to reporters in Washington on Friday, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan suggested that the arrest of Lal Masjid leader Maulana Abdul Aziz, as sought by civil society activists, “will create a diversion and benefit the militants… we do not want to take a decision that we have to review later.”

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Senate Elections: The current senate will hold its final session on February 27, and following elections March 5, new senators will be sworn in March 12. On Friday, the Election Commission of Pakistan cleared 144 candidates to contest the 52 senate seats up for election, rejecting 38. 23 out of 43 candidates from the FATA were rejected, the highest of any province. The Express Tribune reports that the ECP relaxed restrictions on candidates contesting elections from provinces where they are not registered residents; two PML-N candidates for reserved women’s seats from Islamabad are from Khyber Paktunkwha and Sindh. The ECP will begin hearing appeals and challenges to its decisions on Monday. Speaking at a press conference on Sunday, Imran Khan called for open balloting on the senate vote, which is conducted by members of the provincial assemblies, and also called for a future constitutional amendment instituting direct elections for the upper house. [Dawn] [Dawn] [Dawn] [Dawn] [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn] [Dawn] [ET] [Dawn] [ET]
  • MQM Manuevers: The Express Tribune reports that, despite an earlier agreement between the PPP and the MQM to rejoin in coalition government in the Sindh assembly, the two parties have not reached a final agreement on power-sharing and appointments; meanwhile, the PML-F has reportedly reached out to the MQM to propose an alliance in the senate elections against the PPP. Meanwhile, in a statement on Saturday, MQM leader Altaf Hussain called for the army to conduct an investigation into the 2012 Baldia factory fire, in which party affiliates have been implicated. [ET] [ET] [ET] [Dawn]

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • Energy Crisis: Prime Minister Sharif deferred a proposed increase in gas tariff rates until April, despite warnings from the ministry for petroleum and natural resources that the gas sector is facing “financial collapse” for lack of revenues. Imports of liquefied natural gas from Qatar are due to begin as soon as February 28, but Dawn notes that purchasing and pricing of the gas by the country’s primary gas distribution utilities has not been finalized. Separately, Dawn reports that Aamir Naseem, the acting head of the Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority, has been replaced by Babar Yaqoob; Naseem’s appointment to the body had previously been challenged last November in light of his role as a manager for the Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Ltd. [ET] [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn] [Dawn]
  • Economic Corridor Project: Pakistan’s Environment Protection Agency has rejected an environmental impact study prepared for the construction of a highway linking Raikot and Islamabad, part of the overall Pakistan-China economic corridor project. [Dawn]
  • Tax Revenues: Federal Board of Revenue officials acknowledged in a presentation to the Economic Advisory Council on Saturday that the government would struggle to meet its already-revised tax collection target for the current fiscal year. [Dawn] [Dawn]

Pakistan — Remainders

  • HRW Urges Halt to Crackdown on Afghan Refugees [ET]
  • President Rejects Six Death Row Clemency Pleas [Dawn]
  • Deadline for Challenging Expanded Musharraf Treason Trial Passes Without Challenge [Dawn]
  • Quetta Train Derailed in Bombing [ET]
  • Chinese Ambassador Meets with Chief of Army Staff to Discuss Xi Jinping Visit [ET]
  • Chief of Army Staff Visits Abu Dhabi Defense Expo [Dawn]
  • Foreign Service Objects to Political Diplomatic Postings [ET]
  • Government Aims to Raise $600M from Habib Bank Ltd Stake Sale [ET]
  • Iran Electricity Import Plan Stalls Under Sanction Threat [ET]
  • Pakistan Preparing to Release Indian Fishing Boats [ET]
  • Commentary: How ISIS Could Become a Potent Force in South Asia – “Even if ISIS fails to comfortably set up shop in South Asia, its mere attempt to assert itself could bring much bloodshed.” [Michael Kugelman, South Asia Channel]

Afghanistan — Security

  • Carter Visits Afghanistan, Suggests Slower Troop Drawdown: Shortly after being sworn in, new U.S. secretary of defense Ash Carter visited Kabul on Saturday, for talks with U.S. commanders and senior Afghan officials. Speaking at a joint press conference with Pres. Ghani, Carter confirmed that “Pres. Obama is considering a number of options to reinforce our support for Pres.  Ghani’s security strategy, including possible changes to the timeline for our drawdown of U.S. troops”. In response to questions about former Taliban commanders pledging affiliation with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Carter also indicated that “we are discussing and rethinking the details of the counter-terrorism mission and how the environment has changed here with respect to terrorism”. Previous reports have suggested that the U.S. is debating slowing the withdrawal pace of its currently roughly 10,000 troops in theater, but no reports have yet indicated that the administration’s end-2016 deadline for the withdrawal of all forces is under reconsideration. Pres. Ghani is due to visit Washington in March, at which point some reports suggests an announcement on a modified drawdown plan might be made; in the joint press conference Ghani said that “our relationship is not defined by the number of troops, but by the comprehensive nature of the partnership”. On Sunday, Carter visited U.S. and Afghan forces in Kandahar; while Carter has yet to make any public conclusions on the pace of the drawdown, officials tell the WSJ that the Kandahar Airfield facility’s closure would likely be delayed by a year until the end of 2016. [AP] [WAPO] [BBC] [TOLO]
  • Attacks and Operations: The Helmand police chief told reporters on Sunday that ongoing military operations in the Sanging district had killed at least 160 Taliban fighters since February 15, with only two police officers killed. Separately, local officials report that a Daesh-affiliated group of militants had destroyed shrines in Logar province’s Charkh district. Logar provincial police officials also report that they have arrested 14 police officers in connection to the attack on police headquarters there earlier this month, on suspicion of aiding the attack. Meanwhile, Alexis Prem Kumar, an Indian aid worker kidnapped in Herat eight months ago, was freed on Sunday; details of his release have not been disclosed. [Khaama Press] [TOLO] [Khaama Press] [TOLO]

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Taliban Talks: While speaking during Saturday’s joint press conference with Sec. Carter, Pres. Ghani expressed optimism on peace efforts, saying that “the grounds for peace have never been better than they are today” in the past thirty years. In the day prior, Ghani’s office issued a statement welcoming “Pakistan’s recent efforts in paving the ground for peace and reconciliation”; he met with representatives of the High Peace Council on Friday to discuss the peace process, which he said was his highest priority. During a separate meeting  in Washington on Friday with Pakistani interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Sec. Kerry also credited Pakistan with “an unprecedented level of effort to try to produce cooperation”. On Sunday, Chief Executive Abdullah told a Kabul audience that “peace doesn’t mean to make a deal on honor, prestige and rights of the people”, which he said would be protected; at a cabinet meeting on Monday, Abdullah said that peace talks would begin soon but “no compromise would be made with the thirteen years of achievements”. Anonymous officials told the Express Tribune on Friday that the Ghani administration had begun “preliminary contacts” with Taliban representatives, but stressed that “this is only the beginning”. Another source indicates that China has agreed to host direct talks in Beijing. Anonymous Taliban sources tell the Express Tribune that the senior Taliban leadership “has now given the green signal” for direct talks with the Afghan government, and that Qari Din Mohammad, who was previously a Taliban representative at the group’s Qatar political office, is visiting Pakistan and plans to hold follow-up discussions with China at a later date. Publicly, the insurgency has yet to confirm any interest in talks. On Friday, Reuters reported that Afghan security forces had cracked down and arrested at least 15 Uighurs linked to militancy, in a bid to garner additional Chinese support for a peace effort and for pressure on Pakistan to curtail the Taliban. [AFP] [TOLO]
  • Electoral Reforms: TOLO reports that Pres. Ghani may appoint the special commission on electoral reforms as soon as Wednesday; the commission is expected to comprise between nine to eleven members and to carry out its work for 4-5 months.

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Afghan Economy in Crisis after US Troop Withdrawal [AJE]
  • Breshna Warns Against Altering CASA-1000 Route [TOLO]
  • Mining Minister Says Contracts will be Reviewed [TOLO]
  • UNESCO to Construct Bamiyan Museum [TOLO]
  • Commentary: China’s Role in Afghanistan – “China’s willingness to cooperate with the governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan may enable it to reduce significantly the degree of threat that the Pakistani elite sees from Afghanistan and the U.S.” [Barnett Rubin, NYT]
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