Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Nicholson Says ‘Thousands’ More US Troops Needed; Dostum Seizes Kabul Checkposts

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Note: The news returns to its regular daily update schedule from today; a summary of coverage since Friday follows below. Apologies again for last week’s interruptions in service, and thanks for reading.

Topline

  • Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan Gen. John Nicholson criticized the previous administration’s drawdowns in forces in Afghanistan, saying there was a “shortfall of a few thousand” U.S. troops in the country, which he suggested could be used to “do more advising below the corps level”. Secretary of Defense Mattis is visiting Europe this week, and spoke by phone with Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff Bajwa on Thursday. In his remarks, Nicholson called for a “holistic review” of U.S. policy towards Pakistan. Presidents Ghani and Trump spoke by phone on Thursday evening, with the Afghan presidency and ministry of defense welcoming the prospect of additional U.S. forces.
  • Vice President Dostum has blocked the arrest of nine of his bodyguards charged with abusing former Jawzjan governor Ahmad Eschi and has seized control of two checkposts in Kabul, the WSJ reports.
  • The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for an attack on a Samaa TV news van in Karachi on Sunday that left one cameraman dead.
  • The family of activist Samar Abbas, the last of five high-profile activists detained extrajudicially last month, have petitioned the Islamabad High Court for his release.
  • U.S. airstrikes in the Sangin district in Helmand may have killed more than twenty Afghan civilians, reports suggest; on Saturday, the Taliban attacked a Kabul Bank branch in Lashkar Gah, killing at least six, including several soldiers.
  • Chief of Army Staff Bajwa announced a series of promotions on Thursday and Friday, including naming new Rawalpindi, Multan, and Karachi Corps Commanders.
  • The U.S. embassy has declined to issue a visa for Pakistani senate deputy chairman Abdul Ghafoor Haideri of the JUI-F, prompting Senate chairman Raza Rabbani to halt official interactions with the U.S. Congress and the JUI-F to demand action from the PML-N government in response.
  • The prime minister’s office said Thursday that the cabinet would consider proposals on FATA reforms at its next meeting; during a visit to South Waziristan on Sunday, Chief of Army Staff Bajwa voiced support for “mainstreaming of FATA by the government as per the aspirations of the local tribes”, and on Monday JUI-F leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman reiterated calls for a public referendum on FATA’s proposed merger with Khyber Paktunkhwa.
  • Pres. Ghani is visiting the UAE, where he met with families of the victims of last month’s attack and the Kandahar governor’s compound.
  • Pakistan reportedly plans to borrow $600 million from China as its foreign exchange reserves have shrunk since the conclusion of an IMF loan program last fall.
  • National unity government leaders, UN officials, and foreign diplomats met with Independent Election Commission officials on Friday to discuss plans for stalled parliamentary elections; the IEC said that it would announce an electoral schedule after the government made a decision on whether to switch constituency boundaries to single-member districts, and that elections would take place in the “spring of the next solar year or in fall”.

Pakistan — Security

  • Attack on Journalists: Gunmen opened fire on a Samaa TV news van in Karachi’s Nazimabad neighborhood on Sunday, killing a cameraman; the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for the attack on Monday, saying that “the media is not impartial and we’ve issued several warnings to them.”
  • Extrajudicial Detentions: The family of Samar Abbas, the last of five activists detained earlier this year to remain in custody, petitioned the Islamabad High Court for his release on Saturday. Separately, family members of two of the three men arrested in Azad Jammu and Kashmir and linked to a 2009 sectarian attack in Muzaffarabad disputed those charges and the account of their arrest, saying they had been held since April of last year.
  • FATA Attacks: A roadside bombing at a checkpost in South Waziristan on Sunday killed three Frontier Corps soldiers; the TTP claimed responsibility. TTP Jamaat-ul-Ahrar militants attacked a Pakistani army checkpost in the Mohmand Agency on Friday evening; the group acknowledged the death of two of its fighters. A student was killed and three injured in a roadside bombing in the Bajaur Agency on Friday. [AFP]
  • U.S. Defense Cooperation: U.S. Secretary of Defense Mattis spoke by phone with Chief of Army Staff Bajwa on Thursday, their first reported interaction since Mattis assumed office. The Pakistani military’s readout of the call said that “both reaffirmed their commitment towards the common goal of peace and stability in the region and discussed measures towards that end”, but provided few details. The Pentagon readout noted that Mattis had “expressed appreciation for the Pakistan military’s recent support for efforts to defeat ISIS-Khorasan Province”. [Dawn]
  • Military Promotions: On Thursday, Chief of Army Staff Bajwa promoted 37 brigadiers to major general rank; on Friday, Bajwa appointed Lt. Gen. Nadeem Raza to head the Rawalpindi X Corps and Lt. Gen. Sarfraz Satta as commander of the Multan II Corps. Raza’s predecessor Lt. Gen. Zafar Iqbal was named Director General of the Joint Staff at the Joint Staff Headquarters. Lt. Gen. Shahid Baig Mirza was earlier named corps commander for Karachi, and Sindh Rangers director Bilal Akbar was promoted to lieutenant general rank. [Dawn]
  • Naval Exercises: Pakistan hosted the “Aman-17” joint naval exercise beginning Friday, with 37 countries taking part, including the United States, China, the UK, and Russia; Prime Minister Sharif is expected to observe the exercise on Tuesday. Separately, foreign advisor Sartaj Aziz told a conference on Saturday that Pakistan was “strengthen[ing] our capacity to ensure that we remain ready to meet the emerging maritime security challenges”, noting concerns over the “the militarization of the Indian Ocean region, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, increased missile capabilities and power projections by foreign militaries”, as well as the “nuclearization” of the Indian Ocean region by India. [Dawn] [ET] [ET] [Dawn]
  • Gilgit Political Party Leaders Arrested: On Sunday, police in Gilgit-Baltistan arrested two leaders of the Balawaristan National Front, a nationalist political party that currently holds one seat in the Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly; police provided no detail on the charges, but last month arrested a group of twelve people linked to the party, who were charged with having ties to India’s RAW intelligence service.
  • Counterterrorism Response: On Thursday, National Security Advisor Janjua chaired a meeting of provincial, federal, and military officials to review the implementation of the National Action Plan against terrorism. Separately, Sindh police officials reported on Thursday that six men, identified as having links to Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, were killed in a raid in Karachi’s Gadap Town neighborhood.
  • Border Clashes: Officials in Balochistan’s Panjgur district reported that Iranian border forces fired at least four mortars across the border on Friday; no casualties were reported.

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • US Visa Dispute: U.S. officials refused a visa for Senate deputy chairman and JUI-F secretary general Abdul Ghafoor Haideri to attend a New York-based conference of the International Parliamentary Union, prompting Senate chairman Raza Rabbani to order a freeze on any trips by Pakistani senators to the United States and for “no delegation, member of Congress or diplomat of the US [to] be welcomed by the Senate of Pakistan, Senate standing committees and senators in their official capacity [until] this issue is resolved”. Haideri’s visa application received a “technical refusal”, according to senate sources; the U.S. embassy declined to comment, citing privacy laws. The Express Tribune reports unhappiness from the JUI-F over the PML-N government’s response; JUI-F leader Fazlur Rehman said that “we will see what happens” and “whether you want to stay silent and submissive just because you are in power or you want to challenge the world powers.” [AP]
  • FATA Reforms: In a statement on Thursday, the prime minister’s office said that decisions on FATA reforms would be made at the next cabinet meeting, after discussion was deferred at last week’s meeting. Chief of Army Staff Bajwa visited troops in South Waziristan on Sunday, and was quoted saying that the army would support the “mainstreaming of FATA by the government as per the aspirations of the local tribes”. Speaking on Monday, JUI-F leader Fazlur Rehman said that his party was not opposed to a merger of the FATA with Khyber Paktunkhwa, but said the reforms committee tasked with preparing recommendations for the government had overstepped its mandate with such a proposal, reiterating calls for a public referendum. [Dawn]
  • Panama Papers Hearings: Dawn reports that hearings on the Panama Papers are set to resume on Feb 15, after a two-week recess period for the hospitalization at the end of January of Judge Sheikh Azmat Saeed. Separately, the Supreme Court halted operations at three sugar mills owned by the Sharif family as it considered a challenge against their construction brought by the PTI’s Jahangir Tareen, owner of a rival mill.

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • Borrowing from China: The Express Tribune reports that the government plans to borrow $600 million from China to shore up its dwindling foreign exchange reserves, which have declined by $1.7 billion since the completion of an IMF program last fall. Pakistan’s trade deficit grew to $17.4 billion during the first seven months of the current fiscal year, a 28.7% increase over the previous year driven by a 3.2% decline in exports and 13.7% increase in imports. [Dawn] [ET]
  • Regulatory Oversight: Dawn reports that the government is considering shifting oversight over the nominally independent regulatory bodies that were placed under direct ministerial control last December to the Inter-Provincial Coordination division of the civil service bureaucracy, as a precursor to the establishment of a permanent secretariat for the federal-provincial Council on Common Interests, which would assume responsibility for those regulatory bodies.
  • Energy Crisis: Pakistan State Oil is again at risk of defaulting on payments to international and domestic fuel suppliers and is itself owed Rs 277 billion in unpaid bills from power companies and other customers, the Express Tribune reports. [ET] [Dawn]
  • Afghanistan Trade Halted: Trade between Pakistan and Afghanistan at the Chaman border crossing was suspended throughout last week due to a dispute over the weighing system for trucks.

Pakistan — Remainders

  • PakTurk School Employees Seeking UNHCR Resettlement After Expulsion Order [Dawn]
  • Sindh Police Chief Calls for New Law to Ensure ‘Neutral Police Force’ [Dawn] [ET]
  • Karachi Anti-Terrorism Court Seeks Report on Police Shootings [Dawn]
  • Sindh Governor Meets with Prime Minister to Discuss Security and Provincial Investment [ET]
  • Election Commission Summons Balochistan Chief Secretary Over Appointment Violations [ET]
  • Lawyer Withdraws After Supreme Court Ruling Against Government Use of Private Counsel [Dawn] [ET]
  • MQM Pakistan Leader Vows Challenge Against ‘Pre-Census Rigging’ [Dawn]
  • PSP Defends Use of National Flag at Rallies [Dawn]
  • Seven Pakistani Fishermen Jailed for 10 Years in Yemen Freed [AP]
  • Authorities Vow Investigation into Pakistan Stock Exchange Brokerage Scams [Dawn]
  • Sindh and Balochistan Form Committee on Water Issues [ET]
  • ‘Perpetual’ Arrest Warrant Issued Against Former Pres. Musharraf in Judges Case [Dawn]
  • Finance Minister Reshuffles Division Heads [ET]
  • Polio Vaccination Efforts Focus on Afghan Migrants [Dawn]
  • Report: Pakistan Coercion, UN Complicity: The Mass Forced Return of Afghan Refugees – “In the second half of 2016, a toxic combination of deportation threats and police abuses pushed out nearly 365,000 of the country’s 1.5 million registered Afghan refugees, as well as just over 200,000 of the country’s estimated 1 million undocumented Afghans. The exodus amounts to the world’s largest unlawful mass forced return of refugees in recent times.” [HRW]

Afghanistan — Security

  • US Commander Calls for More Forces: Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, U.S. and NATO commander Gen. John Nicholson concluded that the conflict was in a “stalemate” and that “we have a shortfall of a few thousand” U.S. troops in theater to support the Afghan national security forces. Nicholson noted that reductions in U.S. troops had increased a reliance on private military contractors, which now number around 17,000. Nicholson said that he did not require additional forces for U.S. counterterrorism operations beyond existing levels but suggested that additional coalition forces would be used to “to thicken our advisory effort across the Afghan ministries and do more advising below the corps level”. He declined to specify a preferred force level, saying it would be discussed as part of an upcoming NATO conference this week. Secretary of Defense Mattis is departing on Tuesday for an official visit to Europe and meetings with European counterparts, but Pentagon officials said that they did not intend to make major policy announcements during the trip. During his testimony Gen. Nicholson criticized previous reductions, saying that the war should be managed “by objective, not force-manning level”, and called for a “holistic review” of U.S. policy towards Pakistan, noting that “it is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven”. Afghanistan’s ministry of defense welcomed the prospect of more international deployments in a statement on Friday, as did a spokesman for the presidency; Pres. Ghani and Pres. Trump spoke by phone on Thursday evening after Nicholson’s testimony, and a spokesman for Ghani suggested that the two leaders would “meet each other in the near future”. [LAT] [TOLO] [Khaama Press] [Defense Tech]
  • US Investigating Helmand Airstrike: The NATO coalition is investigating reports that U.S. airstrikes in the Sangin district on Thursday night killed as many as 22 Afghan civilians, the NYT reports, although a spokesman for the coalition said that “at this point we have no indication at all that civilians were killed”. Some Afghan officials also disputed the claims, but Helmand security chief Jabar Qahraman confirms the deaths in comments to the AP. A UN inquiry has concluded that at least 18 civilians were killed. The U.S. conducted at least 30 strikes in the district over the last week, and the Afghan Air Force has carried out 114 airstrikes in all of Helmand over the past three months. On Saturday, Afghan army officials claimed to have killed nearly 60 Taliban fighters who were preparing an attack on the district. Separately, a Taliban suicide bomber killed at least six people when he detonated outside a Kabul Bank branch in the Helmand provincial capital of Lashkar Gah on Saturday; as many as twenty were reportedly wounded, and initial reports put the death toll higher, at eleven or more. [WAPO] [Guardian] [Khaama Press] [TOLO]
  • Other Attacks and Operations: A magnetic bomb planted on a truck parked near the Ministry of Defense building in Kabul exploded on Saturday; no casualties were reported. U.S. airstrikes and Afghan ground forces killed as many as 33 Islamic State-affiliated fighters in the Achin, Rodat, and Kot districts in Nangarhar on Sunday, according to local officials. On Friday, a presidential spokesman said that Qari Munib, identified as an Islamic State operative responsible for planning several of the group’s major bombings in Kabul, had been killed in an operation in Achin earlier in January. A Taliban shadow district chief in Paktika’s Barmal district was killed in a U.S. airstrike on Saturday, along with four other fighters. [TOLO] [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press]

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Dostum Blocks Arrest of Guards, Seizes Kabul Checkposts: The WSJ reports that Vice President Dostum has blocked the arrest of nine bodyguards charged with abuse of former Jawzjan governor Ahmad Eschi, and that militia forces loyal to him have seized control of at least two checkposts on a strategic hilltop in Kabul. Dostum himself is said to be holed up in his personal residence in Kabul, and has not responded to summons relating to the abuse charges; the presidential palace has not commented on the reports. [TOLO]
  • Ghani Visits UAE: Pres. Ghani visited the UAE on Saturday, accompanied by National Security Advisor Hanif Atmar, NDS Chief Masoom Stanekzai, and other advisors; a spokesman said talks would focus on “security issues and other issues of mutual interest”. Ghani also met with families of the victims of last month’s attack at the Kandahar governor’s compound. [TOLO]
  • Refugee Repatriation: The AFP profiles a man injured in last week’s attack the Kabul Supreme Court building, who had been deported from Germany in January after his application for asylum was denied. Demonstrations were held in several German cities on Saturday, calling for a halt to deportations; after a meeting with state premiers on Thursday, Chancellor Merkel agreed to a plan to increase the pace of deportations from Germany.
  • Electoral Reforms: Pres. Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah, UN, diplomatic officials, and the Independent Election Commission met on Friday to discuss plans for parliamentary elections, which a spokesman for the IEC said would be held “either in the spring of the next solar year or in fall”. A final election schedule has not yet been announced; the IEC said it had presented a series of recommendations on whether to switch to single-member districts or retain current province-wide constituencies, and would announce a timeline after the government had made a decision on which system to adopt.
  • Political Reforms: A spokesman for Chief Executive Abdullah told Ariana News on Friday that he was “not demanding a parliamentary or federal system” and that “in the current situation, a presidential system is in interest of the country,” but that “we want decentralized system” with more power for provincial governors.

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Shifting Frontlines Make Aid Work More Dangerous [Reuters]
  • Russia ‘Ready to Cooperate’ with US and NATO in Afghanistan [TOLO]
  • Man Killed by Atta Mohammad Noor’s Security Guards in Mazar-e-Sharif [Khaama Press]
  • ‘Tight Security’ Planned for Hekmatyar Return to Kabul [TOLO]
  • Snowfall Death Toll Hits 191 [AFP]
  • Number of Women in Government Declined Under NUG, Women’s Affairs Ministry Says [TOLO]
  • Ministry of Defense Pledges Action Against Corruption [TOLO]
  • Commentary: Hekmatyar Taken Off UN Sanctions List: Paving the Way for His Return – and Hezb-e-Islami’s Reunification? – “If his return to Kabul does bring the different groups into which the legal Hezb wing had splintered over the past decade closer together, it would give the party additional political weight.” [Thomas Ruttig, AAN]
  • Commentary: Afghan Asylum Seekers in Europe – The Changing Situation – “Numbers of arrivals – both in general and in terms of Afghans – have dropped significantly, compared with the peak in late 2015, as European countries have since made getting, staying and integrating there more complicated.” [Thomas Ruttig, AAN]
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