Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Pakistani Schools Remain Closed Over Security Concerns; Nicholson Confirmation Hearing Held

Topline

  • Confusion and uncertainty continues around school closings across Punjab and Sindh, apparently due to security concerns; Dawn reports that nearly 300 hundred schools in several Punjab districts have been ordered to remain closed until they upgrade their security. The newly nominated commander for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, telling senators that he would conduct a security review within 90 days of taking command. Lal Masjid leader Maulana Abdul Aziz released a message to supporters on Thursday, alleging than an unspecified ISI major, who Aziz implied to be Shia, was conspiring agianst him. A suicide car bomber struck a military cantonment in Balochistan’s Zhob district on Friday, wounding four; no claim of responsibility has been reported. Afghanistan’s Independent Directorate of Local Governance told a press conference on Thursday that they had set a goal of finalizing appointments for all district-level governors by March. The head of the Council on Islamic Ideology tells Reuters that the body is willing to review Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. The Pakistani cabinet approved new gas tariff surcharges to generate additional revenue for the construction of a gas pipeline network.

Pakistan — Security

  • School Closings and Security: The NYT notes the confusion and mixed messages from the government regarding school security, as Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan cautioned earlier this week against “an environment of fear” at the same time school closings remain in effect in Punjab, Karachi, and elsewhere around the country. ISPR spokesmen officially attribute the closure of the military’s own school network since Tuesday to bad weather, not to security issues. Sindh home minister Suhail Anwar Siyal and Karachi police officials met on Thursday and approved a “security audit survey” of schools across the province, to be conducted by local police superintendents. In Punjab, Dawn reports that at least 53 schools in Rawalpindi, 15 in Jhelum, and 205 schools in Attock have been temporarily closed by police and ordered to upgrade their security before reopening. On Thursday, Awami National Party leaders joined calls for a judicial investigation into the Bacha Khan University attack in Charsadda and the Army Public School in Peshawar. [Dawn]
  • Lal Masjid Cleric Alleges Conspiracy Against Him: Lal Masjid leader Maulana Abdul Aziz, who has faced renewed calls for his arrests by civil society activists in recent weeks and who appears to be operating under restrictions on his movement and broadcasts to supporters, released a video statement via Facebook on Thursday alleging that an unspecified brigadier in the ISI, who Aziz implied was a Shia, was “conspiring” against him. A spokesman for the ISI denied any contact with him
  • Balochistan Attacks and Operations: A suicide car bomber struck a military cantonment building in the Zhob district on Friday, wounding at least four security personnel; no claim of responsibility has been reported. Separately, Balochistan Chief Minister Sanaullah Khan Zehri met with the deputy governor of Iran’s Sistan-Baluchistan province on Wednesday evening, pledging cooperation on cross-border counterterrorism efforts.

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Karachi Operation: Karachi Corps Commander Naveed Mukhtar met separately with Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah and governor Ishratul Ebad on Friday to discuss security in the city; the meeting follows Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif’s meeting with top military officials in Karachi earlier this week. The Sindh Rangers reportedly interviewed MQM leader Wasim Jalil at length on Thursday, but did not arrest him; Jalil recently returned from a leadership position in the party’s London office and is expected to be nominated for a reserve local government seat and to take the Karachi District East council chairman’s position. On Friday, a small cracker bomb was thrown at a Rangers’ checkpoint in the North Nazimabad neighborhood; no injuries were reported. [ET]
  • CII Professes Willingness to Review Blasphemy Law: Muhamma Khan Shehrani, the head of the Council of Islamic Ideology, told Reuters that if the government referred the question for review, he would be willing to reassess current blasphemy laws, acknowledging that “there is a lot of difference of opinion among the clergy on this issue”, without clearly signaling what kind of modifications might be made. The council’s advice is not legally binding.

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • Energy Crisis: A power transmission line in Jamshoro tripped early Friday morning, apparently due to fog and high humidity, which triggered a failure in the Karachi Electric power grid that shut off power to as much as 90% of the city. Separately, while speaking to the national assembly on Thursday, minister of petroleum Shahid Khaqan Abbasi recommended a cut in petroleum prices of up to 17%, citing falling international oil prices and the lifting of US sanctions on Iran. On Thursday, the Economic Coordination Committee of the cabinet approved a Rs 101 billion tariff hike on gas consumers in order to support the construction of gas pipelines, supplementing an already-existing special Gas Infrastructure Development Cess. [APP]
  • Tharparkar Crisis: Six more child deaths were reported in the Tharparkar district on Thursday, bringing the reported total since the start of the month to 127.

Pakistan — Remainders

  • Attempted Railway Bombing in Jhelum Disrupted [Dawn]
  • President Says Government is Seeking to Resolve Gilgit-Baltistan Status Question [Dawn]
  • Chief of Army Staff Visits Hyderabad Garrison [APP]
  • Balochistan Chief Minister Urges Afghans to Register [Dawn]
  • PIA Continues Strike [Dawn]
  • Senators Seek Representation on Kashmir Committee [ET]

Afghanistan — Security

  • Nomination Hearing for New U.S. Commander: Lt. Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, a day after his nomination was announced to assume command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. Nicholson, who is expected to be confirmed and take up command in Marach, said that he would conduct a security assessment within his first ninety days and make a recommendation for future force levels at that point. Nicholson said that his “first and foremost” priority would be stopping the expansion of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and preventing the re-emergence of Al Qaeda, and voice support for an “enduring” commitment to Afghanistan. The Post profiles Nicholson, who has a cumulative three and a half years in previous Afghanistan postings. [Testimony Video]

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Nangarhar Residents Call for Action Against Daesh Radio [TOLO]
  • Civil Society Groups Accuse Government of Failing to Support Media [TOLO]
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