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]
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