- Two TTP Jamaat-ul-Ahrar suicide bombers struck two churches in Lahore on Sunday, killing at least fifteen people and injuring dozens more; members of the community rioted in response, demanding security from the government. The AP reports that the White House is preparing to leave force levels in Afghanistan largely unchanged this year, keeping roughly 12,000 U.S. soldiers there through spring 2016. Pres. Ghani traveled to Saudi Arabia and Chief Executive Abdullah to India over the weekend. Rangers arraigned an MQM activist in a Karachi anti-terrorism court on Saturday, who implicated senior MQM leadership in the 2012 Baldia Factory Fire and confessed to involvement in more than 120 murders; party leaders denied affiliation with him and suggested his statements were coerced through torture. Pakistan successfully test-fired a laser-guided missile from an indigenously-produced unmanned drone on Friday. The NYT reports that the Afghan government paid $5 million in ransom to Al Qaeda, through Haqqani network intermediaries, for the release of ambassador Abdul Khaliq Farahi after his kidnapping in 2008, and that at least $1 million of this came from CIA slush funds for the Afghan presidency. Lashkar-e-Taiba operative Zakiur Rehman Lakvhi was again placed under month-long detention following an Islamabad High Court order for his release; his lawyers say he will challenge the order again, while Pakistan’s foreign ministry dismissed Indian objections to his release as “unwarranted and immature”. Afghan security officials report that they have killed the successor to Helmand commander Abdul Rauf Khadim, who switched affiliations from the Taliban to Daesh and was killed earlier in February. Veteran mujahedeen leaders rallied in Herat on Sunday to commemorate the anniversary of the 1979 uprising against the Soviets, where they reiterated criticism of the government and warned against their marginalization. The phased repatriation of roughly 40,500 families to parts of the FATA began on Monday.
Pakistan — Security
- Suicide Bombings Strike Lahore Churches: Two suicide bombers struck separate Catholic and Protestant church services in Lahore’s Youhanabad neighborhood on Sunday, killing at least fifteen people and injuring more than 70. The attacks are the worst to strike Pakistan’s Christian commhnity since a double bombing at a Peshawar church in 2013. Police officers guarding both churches died attempting to stop both bombers. A spokesman for the TTP Jamaat ul Ahrar faction, which recently announced its reunion with the main TTP, claimed responsibility for the attacks. Provincial government officials have pledged compensation for the affected survivors and vowed to take action. A large crowd of Christian protestors rioted in the wake of the attack, damaging a metro bus facility, and are reported to have killed two people at the site of the bombings suspected of having aided the attackers; crowds had reportedly cleared roadways by 6:00 pm after negotiations with police. Smaller protests were held in other cities around the country. [WSJ] [BBC] [AJE] [Dawn] [Dawn] [ET] [ET] [ET] [ET]
- Army Test-Fires Armed Drone: Pakistani military officials announced Friday that they had successfully test-fired a laser-guided missile strike from a domestically-built unmanned surveillance drone, the “Burraq”. Chief of Army Staff Sharif attended the test and commended the results. [ET] [Reuters] [WAPO]
- Lakvhi Again Placed Under Detention: On Saturday, the Punjab Home Ministry issued a fresh month-long detention order against Lashkar-e-Taiba operative Zakhiur Rehman Lakvhi, a day after the Islamabad High Court overturned a previous detention order against him and ordered him freed. Lakvhi’s lawyers say they will appeal the latest order. Following strong protests by Indian officials against the earlier release order, Pakistan’s foreign ministry countered by summoning India’s ambassador on Friday to convey the message that “the Indian reaction is unwarranted and immature”, and to place the onus on India for not sharing evidence in connection to the 2008 Mumbai attacks that could be used in Lakvhi’s trial. Foreign advisor Sartaj Aziz characterized the Indian reaction as “irrational”. [Dawn] [ET] [Dawn] [ET]
- TTP Divisions: Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan faction Jamaat-ul Ahrar, confirmed on Thursday that four TTP militants, including senior leadership shura members Qari Shakeel Ahmad Haqqani and Tariq Ali, were killed in a clash in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province; Ehsan attributed the deaths to an unspecified intelligence agency, but Dawn reports that fighting between the TTP and an unspecified Punjabi Taliban faction was responsible.
- FATA Operations: Local residents in the Shaktoi region of South Waziristan tell Reuters that they discovered the bodies of 13 men who had been detained by the military in January; anonymous intelligence sources deny involvement but say the men were militants. On Saturday, Khyber Paktunkhwa governor Sardar Mehtab Ahmed Khan announced that the first stage of a phased repatriation program for families displaced by fighting from South Waziristan, North Waziristan, and Khyber would begin Monday and continue through the end of the month, comprising 40,500 families out of over 300,000 in total; he estimated that total repatriation and reconstruction costs would amount to Rs 80 billion. Families began repatriation from the Tank district to parts of South Waziristan on Monday. [Dawn] [ET] [ET]
- Surveillance Programs: The Pakistan Telecommunications Authority announced Saturday that it had verified phone SIM cards for more than 70 million subscribers and had blocked another 11 million unverified SIMs, setting an April 12 deadline for phone users to complete the verification process. PTA Chairman Ismail Shah indicated that roughly 30 million SIMS remained unverified for lack of verifiable thumbprints, and would need to secure new computerized national ID cards through the National Database Registration Authority. Meanwhile, Punjab officials are reportedly considering plans to implant tracking RFID microchips in listed terrorism suspects, drawing objections from human rights activists. On Friday, the Balochistan provincial apex committee of civil and military leaders approved plans to collect biometric data from all Afghan clerics living in the province. [ET]
- Detainee Transfers: On Sunday, the Interior Ministry announced that Pakistan had temporarily halted prisoner exchange agreements with other countries, pending a revision of current policies; Dawn suggests that the decision was made out of concern that Pakistani prisoners who had been convicted in other countries were escaping detention after being transferred to Pakistani custody. [Dawn]
- Executions: The AFP interviews family members of Shafqat Hussain, whose execution in connection to the killing of another boy in 2004, carried out when he was a teenager, was cleared to proceed by a Karachi anti-terrorism court on Thursday. PPP vice president Sherry Rehman joined other human rights activists calling for clemency in a statement on Saturday. Hussain’s lawyers will file a stay of execution appeal on Monday.
Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy
- MQM Under Pressure: On Friday, the Rangers released roughly 20 suspects detained during their raid earlier in the week on the MQM’s headquarters in Karachi; as many as 86 suspects have been remanded to custody for periods up to 90 days. The Sindh High Court is due to hear MQM challenges against the detentions on Monday. At a press conference on Friday, party leaders accused the Rangers of detaining innocent party activists. On Saturday, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan criticized the MQM for using “inappropriate language” against the Rangers, noting that the party had itself in the past endorsed military and paramilitary actions against “target killers and terrorists”. Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid said Sunday that operations would continue in Karachi and that “nobody will be allowed to indulge in criminal activities on the pretext of religion and politics”. The Rangers issued a press release on Saturday stating that Umair Siddiqui, an MQM activist apparently arrested in mid-February, had confessed to involvement in more than 120 targeted killings against MQM rivals, and had also implicated a party leader, Rehman Bhola, in the 2012 Baldia Town factory fire, echoing previous charges that the party had been carrying out an extortion threat against the factory owners. Siddiqui was arraigned before an anti-terrorism court the same day. MQM leader-in-exile Altaf Hussain denied any connection to Siddiqui, calling for an “open trial” against him, but also suggested that his confession had been obtained by torture, and warned of a reprise of previous crackdowns against the party in 1992. The Express Tribune reports that the Rangers plan to target other parties who maintain militant wings as well. Separately, an MQM party activist was killed and 11 people injured when a bomb went off at a market in the Orangi Town neighborhood on Saturday evening; police suggested that the blast was not targeted. [ET] [Dawn] [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn] [Dawn] [Dawn] [Dawn]
- Shahbaz Sharif Testifies in Model Town Investigation: On Saturday, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif recorded a statement before a Joint Investigation Team reinvestigating the June 2014 attack by police on Pakistan Awami Tehreek supporters of Tahirul Qadri in Lahore, in which at least 14 were killed. Sharif denied any connection to the police actions. The PAT has denounced the investigation and continues to lay blame on Sharif for the incident. [Dawn]
- Election Complaints: Mediators from the PPP and JI finalized a set of guidelines on Friday for the proposed judicial commission to investigate PTI charges of election rigging in the 2013 general elections. Meanwhile, the National Database and Registration Authority began collecting disputed election records in the NA-122 constituency for review on Monday.
- Other Political Activity: On Monday, the Sindh High Court fined Imran Khan Rs 50,000 for failing to appear and record statements in a libel case brought against him by the MQM in 2013. On Saturday, the PPP moved to establish committees in Khyber Paktunkhwa and Punjab to prepare for upcoming local body elections later this year; the PTI has set a deadline of March 25 for candidates to apply for party backing in the local polls. The Express Tribune reports that PPP chairman Bilalwal Bhutto Zardari will not attend death anniversary ceremonies for party founder Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto on April 4. A longer Express Tribune tally reports that the PPP approved more than Rs 125 billion in public spending on development projects in their constituencies during their term in power from 2008-2013, with little electoral impact. Separately, the PML-N and Quami Watan Party moved to dismiss provincial assembly members in Khyber Paktunkhwa who violated party voting guidelines in the senate elections. [Dawn] [ET] [ET] [ET]
Pakistan — Economics and Development
- Schooling Shortfalls: The Khyber Paktunkhwa government has concluded that nearly 275 schools throughout the province are “non-functional” for lack of staff or due to concerns over security or land disputes, 160 of them girls’ schools and 115 boys’.
- Polio Crisis: Karachi carried out a four-day polio vaccination drive, begun last Wednesday, seeking to reach more than 240,000 children; the Express Tribune notes that vaccination programs in rural Sindh have been limited, where all of the province’s four polio cases so far this year have been recorded. A planned vaccination drive in Islamabad that would have begun Monday has been delayed for lack of available security personnel, who have been reassigned to the Pakistan Day parade on March 23. A new polio case was registered in Quetta on Monday. [Dawn] [Dawn] [Dawn]
Pakistan — Remainders
- Peshawar Corps Commander Dismisses Daesh Threat in Pakistan [Dawn] [ET]
- Pakistan Does Not Wish to Join ‘Anti-Iran Alliance’ [Dawn]
- Five Rangers Injured in Attack on Checkpost Near Diamer-Bhasha Dam [ET]
- Government Seeks to Fast-Track LNG Payments [ET]
- NEPRA and K-Electric Dispute Banking Charges [Dawn]
- Khyber Paktunkhwa Police Seek Pay Scale Increases [Dawn] [ET]
- Nuclear Regulator Discounts Radiation Leak Dangers from Karachi Nuclear Plants [Dawn]
- Higher Education Commission in Limbo [Dawn]
- PTI Backs FATA Legal Reforms [ET]
- Punjab Police Dismiss Allegations of Trainee Sexual Harassment [Dawn]
- More Than 86% of Top Banks’ Assets are Government Securities [ET]
- Balochistan Chief Minister in London for Reko Diq Talks [Dawn]
- Pakistan Seeks to Boost Mango Exports to Europe [ET]
- Finance Ministry to Reconsider Tobacco Packaging [ET]
- 75% of Drinking Water Sources in the Country Found to Be Unsafe [ET] [ET]
- Commentary: Trying Times for MQM – “The contending centres of power within and the reported ill-health of the leader can weigh against it as it goes forward.” [Abbas Nasir, Dawn]
- Commentary: Reimagining Karchi and Urban Pakistan – “For several years, it’s been clear that the MQM leadership faces serious challenges in managing the delicate balance between its non-violent political legitimacy in Karachi, with the violent criminals upon whom it has relied on for two generations to enforce various codes of behaviour in the city.” [Mosharraf Zaidi, The News]
Afghanistan — Security
- Force Levels: The AP reports that the Obama administration, facing requests from the Pentagon and the Afghan government to alter its drawdown plans, is near a decision not to significantly cut U.S. force levels in Afghanistan this year, leaving most of the roughly 9,800 American forces in country into the spring 2016, rather than halving them by the end of 2015. A “steady number” of troops devoted to counterterrorism missions — who currently number around 2,000 in-country — may also remain past 2016. Although the piece casts the decision as having effectively been made, it also says “no final decision” has been reached, and notes that other administration officials, including National Security Advisor Rice, remain opposed to any changes to the post-2016 timeframe.
- CIA Funds Contributed to Afghan Diplomat’s Al Qaeda Ransom: Drawing on Al Qaeda correspondence released in the federal court trial of Abid Naseer last month, the NYT reports that a $5 million ransom payment was made by the Afghan government to Al Qaeda, through Haqqani network intermediaries, for the release of Afghan ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Khaliq Farahi, who was kidnapped in September 2008 and only freed in March 2011. At least $1 million of the total payment was made with CIA slush funds directed to the Afghan presidency; Pakistan is reported to have contributed half of the total payment. Although Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda officials expressed concerns about the money, they appear to have been unaware of the funds’ ultimate provenance. Afghan officials tell the NYT that CIA payments to the presidency “has slowed” since the election of Ashraf Ghani, without elaborating.
- Islamic State in Afghanistan: On Monday, Afghan defense ministry officials claimed to have killed Hafiz Waheed during operations in Helmand, who they identified as the successor to Abdul Rauf Khadim, a former Taliban commander who switched affiliations to become the most prominent representative of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. [AFP]
- Other Attacks and Operations: On Sunday, a group of ten Hazara travelers were abducted by an unidentified group of gunmen in Ghazni’s Jaghori district; all but one were freed hours afterwards. Details on their captors’ identity are limited, and any connection to the kidnapping of 31 Hazara men in Zabul earlier this month is unclear; the Ghazni deputy governor tells Khaama Press that Sunday’s kidnapping was carried out by the Taliban. On Saturday, the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Interior reported killing 34 insurgents in countrywide operations over the past 48 hours; four soldiers were killed during the same period. [TOLO]
Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy
- Ghani Visits Saudi Arabia; Abdullah Visits India: On Saturday, Pres. Ghani made his third visit to Saudi Arabia since taking office; his visit has been described as an umrah pilgrimage, but includes meetings with King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, and Organization of the Islamic Conference secretary general Iyad bin Amin Madani, and is assumed to be focused on securing Saudi backing for negotiations outreach to the Taliban. Among other aides, he was accompanied by National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar, who visited Qatar mid last-month; TOLO, without offering details suggests that Atmar did in fact meet with Taliban representatives during that trip. On Friday, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah traveled to India for a three-day visit to address a conference sponsored by the magazine India Today. He told the conference that China had, in recent meetings with Taliban representatives, “asked the Taliban to have talks directly with the Afghan government,” which he said was a “good message”; the outcome was, however, unclear. Publicly, the Taliban have denied interest in holding talks with the government. Abdullah also downplayed Indian concerns over improving Afghan relations with Pakistan. [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press] [TOLO] [Khaama Press]
- Herat Rally: The WSJ covers a rally held in Herat on Sunday to commemorate the anniversary of the Herat uprising of 1979, at which veteran mujahedeen leaders like Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Ismail Khan reiterated their criticisms of the current government, warning against their marginalization. Most provincial leadership positions in Herat remain vacant after Pres. Ghani dismissed them in December. [TOLO]
- Refugee Repatriation: The AP reports that nearly 50,000 Afghans living in Pakistan have returned to Afghanistan since January after facing increasing scrutiny and harassment from Pakistani security services in the wake of the December Peshawar Army Public School attack.
Afghanistan — Economics and Development
- Ministry of Public Works Accused of Corruption: The head of the Meshrano Jirga Complaints Commission, Zalmai Zabuli, accused top Ministry of Public Works officials, including acting minister Noorgul Mangal, of corruption and neglect of their duties after an inspection visit at the Salang Highway pass last week, charging them with stealing funds appropriated for the corridor’s upkeep and calling for an investigation by the attorney general. Mangal dismissed the charges.
Afghanistan — Remainders
- Panjshir Residents Warn of Deadly Floods [TOLO]
- Former Ghani Spokesman Salarzai Appointed Ministry of Foreign Affairs Policy Director [Khaama Press]
- 40% of New Kabul City Project Land Reportedly Encroached Upon [TOLO]
- Uzbekistan Railway Enterprises to Maintain Mazar-e-Sharif Rail Link [TOLO]
- WHO and Ministry of Public Works Launch Polio Vaccination Initiative [TOLO]
- Commentary: Failings of Inclusivity: The Herat Uprising of March 1979 – “The essence of the [uprising] is often portrayed as an Islamist triumph, or at least a segue into the eventual Islamist triumph of the fight against the Soviets. … This narrative, however, ignores the role played in the [uprising] and the jihad by non-Jamiat and non-Islamist fighters and by ordinary Heratis.” [Charlie Gammell, AAN]