Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Afghan Forces Withdraw from Helmand Districts; Raheel Sharif Visits Qatar Ahead of Kabul Talks

Topline

  • Afghan forces withdrew from the Helmand districts of Musa Qala and Nawzad on Saturday, a move military officials said was taken in order to secure other priority areas in the province. Efforts continue in Baghlan to restore a power link to Kabul; Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs Gulab Mangal defended his earlier efforts to negotiate a local ceasefire with the Taliban last year in the Dand-e-Ghori district, which have come under heavy criticism as operations to retake the area continue. Pakistani officials claim that an investigation team will visit India as part of the investigations into the Pathankot Airbase attack; India’s defense minister told an interviewer on Sunday that the registration of a case by Pakistani police was “merely a step ahead” and that there needed to be a “serious investigation”. The Quadrilateral Coordination Group will meet in Kabul tomorrow for talks that are expected to focus on setting a date for direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban; Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif arrived in Qatar on Monday for meetings focused on the Afghan talks. An indefinite curfew has been put in place in Mohmand following recent attacks on paramilitary forces there; three separate roadside bombings in Mohmand and North Waziristan on Friday killed three people. Imran Khan condemned Prime Minister Sharif’s recent remarks on the National Accountability Bureau, and defended Khyber Paktunkhwa’s amendments to its own anti-corruption body. Sindh government officials called for the formation of a judicial commission to investigate their complaints that the Federal Investigation Agency was overstepping its authority by conducting provincial-level corruption investigations. Pir Syed Ahmad Gailani has reportedly been appointed as head of the Afghan High Peace Council; several deputies have also reportedly been appointed, although there are conflict accounts as to how many. Special elections were held on Sunday in Khyber Paktunkhwa for empty local government seats; turnout was reportedly low. Pakistan formally lifted sanctions on Iran on Friday, opening the way for renewed economic and commercial ties. A lack of available military personnel to provide security for a Pakistani national census planned to be held in March will likely delay that effort; Sindh officials called for equal representation on the census commission, and for briefings on current plans. A Council on Common Interests meeting between the federal and provincial governments is reporteldy planned for the end of the month. The government has directed Pakistan Steel Mills to cut its staff to a “bare minimum” as the facility lies dormant.

Pakistan — Security

  • Pathankot Investigations: An anonymous Pakistani diplomatic source tells Dawn that a Pakistani investigation team “is expected” to visit India next month to collect evidence in connection to the Pathankot airbase attack, suggesting that agreement had been reached based on conversations between Indian National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and Pakistani National Security Advisor Nasir Khan Janjua. No date has been set; Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told reporters on Sunday that India had agreed to allow the investigators to visit, but did not clarify whether they would have access to the airbase itself. In a tv interview on Sunday, Indian defense minister Manohar Parrikar said that the official registration of a police case by Pakistan “is merely a step ahead, but it won’t do. There should be serious investigation.” A group of attacked an Indian paramilitary convoy and killed five people in an attack on a government training center in Indian Kashmir that began Saturday and continued into Sunday; no claim of responsibility has been reported. Train and bus service between India and Pakistan was suspended following riots in Haryana. [Dawn] [Dawn]
  • FATA Attacks and Operations: A drone strike in the Khurram Agency on Monday near the border with Afghanistan wounded one militant suspect and destroyed several hideouts, Dawn reports; no further details have been reported. Frontier Corps officials claimed to have killed five militants in Mohmand in search operations on Saturday after an attack last week that killed two paramilitary Khassadars. Three people were killed and four injured in three separate roadside bombings in North Waziristan and Mohmand on Friday. An indefinite curfew has been imposed in Mohmand. The TTP Sajna faction claimed responsibility the destruction of a newly-built government girls’ school in South Waziristan on Friday evening; no casualties were reported. Officials with the Ministry of States and Frontier Regions tell Dawn that security and financial constraints will prevent the completion of the repatriation process for displaced FATA residents by the end of this year, as originally planned. [Dawn]
  • Counterterrorism Operations: Three Punjab Highway Patrol police officers were killed in a driveby shooting near Faisalabad on Friday; the attackers left pamphlets claiming responsibility on behalf of the Islamic State’s regional affiliate. The National Counter Terrorism Authority is seeking a budget of Rs 1.86 billion for the next fiscal year. The Express Tribune reports that more than 97% of the calls received by a NACTA hotline set up last year were not related to terrorism. At a meeting on Friday, Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah ordered increased police and paramilitary deployments to provide additional school security. A special court set up under the Protection of Pakistan Act held its first hearings on Friday, in case involving the distribution of hate material in Lahore. [Reuters]

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Corruption Investigations: Speaking on Saturday, Imran Khan condemned Prime Minister Sharif’s criticism of the National Accountability. Khan also pushed back against criticisms of the Khyber Paktunkhwa provincial government’s amendments to its own anti-corruption body, saying he would “personally head a committee to review the amendments and see if they really affect the process of accountability”. The Jamaat-e-Islami echoed Khan’s criticism, accusing the PML-N and PPP of “supporting each other against accountability”. Speaking at a public forum on Saturday in Karachi, former Pres. Musharraf also voiced support for the NAB, saying it should not be “diluted”. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told reporters on Sunday that the government had “no intention” of curbing the NAB’s powers. Separately, Sindh Chief Minister Qaim Ali Shah issued a statement on Saturday saying that the province would seek a judicial commission to review the Federal Investigation Agency’s actions in the province, as Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan professed lack week he would accept in order to resolve PPP complaints that the FIA was overstepping its authority in carrying out provincial-level anti-corruption investigations. On Friday, the NAB approved additional corruption charges against PPP leader Asim Hussain. [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn] [Dawn]
  • MQM Protests: The MQM carried out a token 12-hour hunger strike in Karachi on Friday to protest restrictions on the broadcast of remarks by party leader Altaf Hussain. Party activists also demonstrated outside the UN building in New York. Separately, the Express Tribune reports that the government will hold a “final round” of talks with the UK to determine whether investigators there will seek the extradition of the suspects held by Pakistan in connection to the 2010 murder of former MQM leader Imran Farooq in London; if not, prosecution in Pakistan is planned. [Dawn]
  • Elections and Other Political Activity: Special elections were held for vacant local council seats in districts across Khyber Paktunkhwa on Sunday, which were previously postponed after the attack on Bacha Khan University in Charsadda. Over 40,000 security personnel have been deployed for the polls, with army personnel on standby. Low turnout was reported. Separately, MQM mayoral candidate Wasim Akhtar denied that there were any ongoing negotiations about the possibility of the party’s return to the governing coalition in Sindh. [Dawn] [ET] [ET] [ET] [Dawn]

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • Iran Ties: On Friday, Pakistan formally lifted sanctions on trade with Iran, with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcing Pakistan’s intention to revive “all economic and commercial relations” between the two countries. [Dawn]
  • Census Plans: Sindh assembly lawmakers have called for a closed-door briefing on plans for the national census, originally planned to begin in March; as many as 400,000 army personnel are reportedly required to provide security during the census-taking effort, a deployment army officials say they cannot sustain in light of other requirements. The PPP led a multi-party conference in Karachi on Sunday to demand equal representation on the census commission. A Council on Common Interests meeting has reportedly been scheduled for February 29 to discuss an alternative timeline for the census. [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn]
  • Privatization Plans: On Saturday, a spokesman for Pakistan International Airlines announced that the carrier had registered “Pakistan Airways” as a “premium service subsidiary” of the PIA. Meanwhile, the government has directed Pakistan Steel Mills to cut workforce staff to a “bare minimum”, given that the mills have been effectively closed since June 2015. On Saturday, the Senate finance committee issued a report heavily criticizing the government’s botched privatization of the Heavy Electrical Complex in Taxila, recommending investigations by the National Accountability Bureau and Federal Investigation Agency against the Privatization Commission for “willful and criminal negligence” in their evaluation of the bidder, whose payments for the HEC later bounced. On Friday, the Supreme Court upheld a previous 2011 ruling that held that employees of Pakistan Telecommunications Company Ltd who were hired prior to its privatization retained the protections of their original service term. [Dawn]
  • Polio Crisis: A new polio case was reported in Khyber Paktunkhwa’s Nowshera district on Friday, bringing the national total so far this year to three. The Khyber Paktunkhwa police Counter Terrorism Department arrested four members of an unspecified banned militant organization who had been recruiting members and preaching against polio vaccination.

Pakistan — Remainders

  • Wife of Warren Weinstein Criticizes US Government Efforts [60 Minutes]
  • Interior Minister Orders Investigation into UK Embassy Visa Issuance Under PPP Government [Dawn]
  • Pakistan Tenth Largest Arms Importer in 2015 [Reuters]
  • Lyari Gang Leader Arrested in Peshawar [Dawn] [ET]
  • Imran Khan Accuses Government of Blocking Oil and Gas Exploration in Khyber Paktunkhwa [Dawn] [ET]
  • Punjab District Courts Clear Major Case Backlog [Dawn]
  • Sindh Seeks Council of Common Interests Meeting on CPEC Project [Dawn]
  • Court Issues Arrest Warrant Against Musharraf in Lal Masjid Case [Dawn]
  • Railways Seeks Investigation into Locomotives Procurement [ET]
  • Karachi Real Estate Market Sees Boost as Dubai Slows [Dawn]

Afghanistan — Security

  • Afghan Forces Withdraw from Musa Qala: The commander of the Afghan National Army’s 215th Maiwand Corps confirmed on Saturday that Afghan forces had withdrawn from Helmand’s Musa Qala district, saying the move had been taken to secure other bases around the province and that forces were not needed in the area. Spokesmen later clarified that forces had also been withdrawn from the adjacent Naw Zad district. TOLO puts the total number of withdrawn forces at approximately 1200. Members of the provincial council expressed alarm at the move, although the provincial governor said that he had “no concerns”; a presidential spokesmen denied that any deal had been reached with the Taliban regarding the withdrawal. The Taliban later claimed to have seized armored personnel carriers and other equipment at the abandoned checkpoints.
  • Baghlan Operations: Minister of Borders and Tribal Affairs Gulab Mangal issued a statement on Saturday defending his efforts last year to negotiate a cease-fire agreement with the Taliban in Baghlan’s Dand-e-Ghori district, attributing the breakdown of the agreement to “some enemies and some biased individuals”. The agreement has come under renewed criticism as Afghan forces battle to retake the district from Taliban control; the DABS electric utility said on Sunday that work to restore power to Kabul after attacks damaged power lines in the Dand-e-Shahabuddin area would be completed by Monday, although Baghlan electric utility officials estimate that full repairs will require at least another week. One person was killed and two wounded in a rocket attack on the Baghlan governor’s compound on Monday. [AP] [TOLO]
  • Russian Support: The NYT notes statements by Russia’s special envoy on Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, last month indicating that Russia would not participate in quadripartite talks seeking to open negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and reports that Russian officials are increasingly dropping past cooperative efforts with the U.S. on Afghanistan — in part due to new U.S. sanctions measures that targeted the head of Russia’s counternarcotics agency, a previous area of alignment.
  • Child Combatants: In a statement on Saturday, visiting UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Leila Zerrougui said that she had been “encouraged” by government commitments to end the recruitment of child soldiers by Afghan regular and irregular forces. [TOLO]
  • Other Attacks and Operations: On Saturday, the Ministry of Defense claimed to have cleared all villages in Nangarhar’s Achin district of Daesh-affiliated militants, and said that around 1,000 families displaced from the area had returned to their homes. Ghor provincial officials claimed to have arrested an unidentified Daesh leader on Saturday. The Ministry of Interior announced that it had arrested a man identified as the Taliban’s shadow district governor for Kunduz’s Chahardara district on Saturday; military officials estimate that as many as 3,000 militants, including roughly 200 foreigners, remain active in Kunduz. The families of twelve ANA soldiers kidnapped after their helicopter crashed in Faryab three months ago called on the government to take action to secure their release, saying they had received no information. On Monday, the NDS announced that it had freed a hostage in Wardak; no details were released on his captors or the operation to free him. [TOLO] [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press] [TOLO]

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Quadrilateral Coordination Group to Meet Again: The Quadrilateral Coordination Group will meet in Kabul on February 23, at which officials plan to set a date for the formal initiation of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. An anonymous Pakistani source tells the Express Tribune that a ceasefire announcement will be made by the Taliban and the Afghan government will take unspecified confidence-building measures. Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan, Omar Zakhilwal, told an Express Tribune interviewer that there was “overwhelming support” in Afghanistan for peace talks, and that “a visible progress and reduction in violence during the talks will further strengthen the national consensus”. On Monday, Pakistani Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif arrived in Qatar for a one-day meeting that will reportedly focus on the Afghan peace talks.
  • Gailani Appointed as High Peace Council Chief: Members of the High Peace Council reported on Sunday that Pir Syed Ahmad Gailani had been appointed as head of the council; a spokesman for Chief Executive Abdullah confirmed the appointment, and said that six deputies had also been appointed, including former Vice President Karim Khalili. TOLO reports that conversations about the deputies’ appointment are ongoing, and Pres. Ghani has not issued a formal announcement regarding the council. [Khaama Press] [TOLO]

Afghanistan — Economics and Development

  • Land Theft: TOLO reports that researchers with Freedom House have documented the theft of more than 1.2 million jeribs (approximately 600,000 acres) of land over the past 14 years, in many cases by senior officials connected to the government.
  • Currency Support: Afghan Central Bank officials reported Sunday that they had injected $300 million in currency over the past three months into the Afghan market in order to maintain exchange rates with the dollar, and indicated their intention to inject another $300 million.

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • U.S. Drone Crashes at Kandahar Airfield [Reuters]
  • Deputy Speaker Warns of Pakistani Border Construction [TOLO]
  • Pakistani National Arrested in Kabul [Khaama Press]
  • Bodies of European Asylum Seekers Repatriated [TOLO] [Pajhwok]
  • Ghani Highlights Need for Agricultural Investment [Khaama Press] [TOLO]
  • National Procurement Commission Approves 25 Contracts Totaling Afs 636 Million [Khaama Press]
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