Pakistan-Afghanistan Update: Supreme Court Orders Investigation Against Sharifs; Scores Killed in Balkh Army Base Attack

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Note: The news returns to its regular daily update schedule from today; coverage of the April 20-24 period follows below. Apologies for the interruption in service and resulting length of this brief, and thanks for reading.

Topline

  • Pakistan’s Supreme Court issued a 3-2 ruling in the Panama Papers case, stopping short of disqualifying Prime Minister Sharif and his family from office but ordering the formation of a Joint Investigation Committee to determine whether charges should be brought against him. Although both sides claimed victory in the verdict, opposition parties have begun mobilizing to demand Sharif’s resignation; both the PTI and PPP have suggested that the JIT cannot be independent as long as Sharif continues to serve in office. Although some smaller opposition parties have begun forming alliances over the issue, the PTI and PPP remain at odds, with Imran Khan suggesting he would “come after” former Pres. Zardari over corruption next.
  • A team of Taliban gunmen attacked the headquarters of the 209th Afghan National Army corps in Balkh on Friday, killing scores of soldiers; at least 140 are believed to have been killed, and some sources suggest the toll could exceed 200, the deadliest single incident for the ANA since the war began in 2001. On Monday, the Afghan defense minister and chief of army staff resigned, and Pres. Ghani replaced at least four corps commanders, including the former commander of the 209th.
  • Defense Secretary Mattis arrived in Kabul on Monday for talks with Ghani and other U.S. and Afghan officials.
  • Policing powers were extended for the Punjab and Sindh Rangers; Sindh officials did not restrict the force’s ability to conduct operations independent of the police, as reportedly had been under consideration.
  • Hezb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar reportedly returned to Afghanistan on Monday, meeting with party leaders in either Jalalabad or Laghman, depending on the local press account.
  • Former Pres. Karzai continues to criticize the U.S. presence in Afghanistan in the wake of the MOAB strike in Achin district; he met with China’s ambassador to Afghanistan on Monday, and Russia’s ambassador last week.
  • Newsweek, citing “several authoritative sources”, claims that Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is living under ISI protection in Karachi, and was previously the target of a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan in January 2016.
  • Former Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif departed for Saudi Arabia on Friday after receiving formal permission to assume command of the Saudi-led military alliance; Pakistani officials are continuing meetings with Iranian officials and are reportedly seeking to convince it to join the coalition.

Pakistan — Security

  • Rangers Authorities Extended: On Wednesday, the ministry of interior officially extended policing powers for the Punjab Rangers for a sixty-day period; speaking at a press conference on the same day, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan criticized the Sindh government for delaying the extension of the Sindh Rangers’ policing powers, suggesting that the federal government would “consider it options” if the provincial government did not make the extension request. A Sindh provincial cabinet meeting approved the extension of the Rangers’ authorities on Saturday, without placing restrictions on their ability to conduct operations without the participation of the provincial police as some PPP officials had reportedly been considering. On Friday, lawyers for the Rangers told a court hearing that they had not arrested an associate of former Pres. Zardari, who disappeared earlier this month. [The Nation] [Dawn] [Dawn]
  • Zawahiri Reportedly in Pakistan: Newsweek, citing “several authoritative sources”, reports that Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is living under the protection of Pakistan’s ISI intelligence service and living in Karachi, and was previously the target of a U.S. drone strike in North Waziristan’s Shawal Valley region in January 2016.
  • Raheel to Assume Command of Saudi Alliance: On Friday, Defense Minister Khawaja Asif told an interviewer that former Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif had been given formal permission by the government and the army to assume command of the Saudi military alliance, and had departed for Riyadh. Asif pledged to brief parliament on the issue after the alliance meets in May. Prime Minister Sharif met with the new Pakistani ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Khan Hasham. Earlier in the week, Iran’s ambassador to Pakistan met with Chief of Army Staff Bajwa to discuss the “evolving regional security matrix and other issues of mutual interest”; National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq is on a five-day visit to Tehran, meeting with Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on Sunday. The Express Tribune reports that Prime Minister Sharif has tasked attorney general Ashtar Ausaf with seeking to negotiate with Saudi Arabia and Iran for the latter’s participation in the alliance. [AP] [Dawn] [The Nation]
  • US Extradition: In Islamabad High Court hearings on Saturday, the interior ministry argued that Talha Haroon, a U.S. citizen of Pakistan origin whose extradition is being sought by U.S. officials in connection to plots to attack New York City targets on behalf of the Islamic State, could not claim rights as a Pakistani citizen to forestall his extradition.
  • Taliban-Affiliated Clerics Killed: The Express Tribune reports that at least three clerics, two Afghan nationals and one Pakistani, have been killed in Peshawar since mid-month, and that police believe they are being targeted by members of the Islamic State for their linkages with the Taliban and Haqqani network.
  • Blasphemy Killings: On Sunday, Mardan police announced the arrest of Bilal Baksh, a security officer at Abdul Wali Khan University who has been identified in previous accounts as the main instigator behind the lynching earlier this month of student Mashal Khan. At least 35 people have been arrested in connection to the incident, with three having made confessional statements. Separately, three women were arrested in Sialkot on Wednesday for the murder of Fazal Abbas Shah, who they accused of committing blasphemy in 2004. On Friday, a man survived a mob beating in Chitral after being accused of blasphemy; police say they believe he is mentally disabled, and a court hearing the case has ordered a mental evaluation. Heavy security patrols were put in place following the incident. [The Nation] [Dawn] [ET] [Dawn] [AFP] [Dawn] [Dawn] [Dawn]

Pakistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Supreme Court Issues Panama Papers Verdict: In a ruling on Thursday, the five-member Supreme Court bench issued a verdict in the Panama Papers case brought by several opposition parties against Prime Minister Sharif and his family. The 3-2 ruling stopped short of disqualifying Sharif, but ordered the formation of a Joint Investigation Team to investigate whether the prime minister and his family had accumulated wealth beyond their known sources of income. Judge Efzal Khan, the author of the main judgment, said that the court could not dispense with due process, saying that both sides had failed to authenticate their documents during court hearings. Judge Asif Saeed Khosa, who led the bench, was in the minority, and in his dissent called for Sharif’s immediate disqualification based on Article 62 of the Constitution; the Express Tribune notes that Khosa had, in previous rulings, described the article’s requirement that legislators be ‘Sadiq’ (truthful) and ‘Ameen’ (trustworthy) as “obscure and impracticable”. Dawn notes that Khosa is the second senior-most judge on the Supreme Court and is due to assume the position of Chief Justice in January 2019; he will be followed by Judge Gulzar Ahmed, who joined him in the dissenting opinion calling for the prime minister’s disqualification. The JIT will be led by a senior Federal Investigation Agency officer, and the court ordered its formation within a week, with a report due within 60 days; an army corps commanders meeting on Monday resolved that the military would “play its due role in a legal and transparent manner” in supporting the investigation. [NYT] [AP] [Guardian] [Dawn] [Dawn] [ET] [The Nation] [Dawn] [Supreme Court Ruling (pdf)]
  • Government and Opposition Both Claim Victory in Verdict: The PML-N and opposition parties both claimed victory following Thursday’s verdict, with PML-N officials insisting they welcomed an investigation. During a meeting of cabinet advisors and party leaders on Friday, Prime Minister Sharif reportedly directed PML-N leaders not to question the court’s verdict, and agreed on plans to hold public rallies in support of the government around the country. The PTI, PPP, and Jamaat-e-Islami, among other opposition parties, all called on Sharif to step down immediately following the court’s ruling, which the PML-N has rejected; opposition parties staged a walkout in parliament on Friday, demanding Sharif’s resignation. The Lahore High Court Bar Association has also called for Sharif to step down; other bar associations have yet to establish a position on the issue. On Friday, Imran Khan announced that the PTI would hold a rally in Islamabad this coming Friday to demand Sharif’s resignation, saying that a JIT investigation could not be conducted while he retained the office of prime minister. The PTI is reportedly debating filing a petition for the court to review its verdict, and on Monday filed a petition seeking the removal of National Accountability Bureau chairman Qamar Zaman Chaudhry for failing to investigate corruption charges against the Sharifs. Former Pres. Zardari also called on Sharif to step down, and questioned the independence of a JIT; the PPP has announced its own plans for nationwide protests against the government, and against ongoing power outages. PPP protests were held in several Sindh districts on Sunday; the PML-N held a rally in Karachi in support of the prime minister. Both the PTI and PPP are reportedly planning the formation of a “grand alliance” of opposition parties to pressure the government, but in remarks at a rally in the Dadu district on Saturday Imran suggested that he was “coming after” former Pres. Zardari next, accusing him of “unparalleled” corruption. A spokesman for the PTI said that the party “welcome[s] the PPP’s move to put pressure on the premier to resign but it is not possible for the PTI to go along with it in any anti-corruption drive”. On Sunday, the PML-Q, Sunni Ittehad Council, Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen and Pakistan Awami Tehreek parties announced the formation of an opposition alliance; Jamaat-e-Islami leader Sirajul Haq also met with the PML-Q leadership to discuss the issue. [Reuters] [The Nation] [ET] [ET] [Dawn] [Dawn] [Dawn] [ET] [ET] [ET] [ET] [Dawn] [The Nation] [The Nation] [The Nation] [ET] [ET] [Dawn] [ET] [ET] [Dawn]
  • Other Political Activity: On Wednesday, the Election Commission disqualified Abdul Munim, a PTI lawmaker elected to the PK-88 Shangla provincial assembly constituency an advisor to the chief minister on tourism, after a petition was brought by another legislator accusing him of continuing to draw a salary from a government school during the 2013 campaign period. On Sunday, the MQM-Pakistan staged a rally in Karachi to protest against the provincial government; the MQM-Haqiqi and Pakistan Sarzameen Party, rivals of the MQM, both voiced support for the demonstration. During an interview on Sunday, former Pres. Musharraf suggested that he would again seek to “relaunch my political career” and contest parliamentary elections in 2018. [ET] [Dawn] [ET] [The Nation] [Dawn] [ET]

Pakistan — Economics and Development

  • Energy Crisis: The Express Tribune reports that Water and Power Ministry officials are accusing the Finance Ministry of blocking the full disbursal of subsidies for the power sector; the Finance Ministry has instead reportedly proposed increasing electricity tariff rates to offset electricity distribution company losses. On Wednesday, Water and Power Minister Khwaja Asif vowed to reduce electricity outages within the coming week. [Dawn] [Dawn]

Pakistan — Remainders

  • Four Soldiers Transferred to Court Martial On Charges of Murdering Police Constable [Dawn]
  • Baloch Militants Surrender; Four Frontier Corps Killed in Kech [Dawn] [The Nation] [Dawn] [The Nation]
  • One Killed, Two Injured in Bajaur Roadside Bombing [ET]
  • Sheikhupura Police Kill Eight TTP Suspects [Dawn]
  • Government Proposes Formation of ‘Evening Courts’ in Islamabad [Dawn]
  • Former Prime Minister’s Son Among Nine Indicted in Ephedrine Smuggling Case [Dawn] [ET]
  • Punjab Government Plans to Disburse 100,000 Cars to Unemployed Youth [Dawn]
  • Finance Minister Discusses Peshawar-Kabul Highway Project with World Bank [Dawn] [ET]
  • ‘Super Tax’ for Security Expenditures to Continue for Another Year [ET]
  • Khyber Paktunkhwa Plans to Extend Taxes, Labor Laws to Provincially Administered Tribal Areas [ET] [ET]
  • Current Account Deficit Widens in July-March Period [Dawn]
  • Commentary: The World Must Secure Pakistan’s Nuclear Weapons – “Having served in senior roles in Afghanistan’s intelligence services, I have good reason to be skeptical about Pakistan’s ability to keep its nuclear weapons safe from extremists.” [Rahmatullah Nabil, NYT]

Afghanistan — Security

  • Scores Killed in Attack on Balkh Army Base: A group of at least ten Taliban fighters wearing army uniforms infiltrated the main base of the Afghan National Army’s 209th Corps outside Mazar-e-Sharif on Friday, bypassing as many as seven checkpoints before opening fire on soldiers emerging from midday prayers. Most of the soldiers were unarmed at the time; fighting continued for at least five hours, with at least two of the attackers detonating suicide vests. At least 140 Afghan soldiers and officers are reported to have been killed in the attack, with some sources suggesting the death toll may exceed 200. It is the deadliest single attack on the Afghan army since the beginning of the war; a small contingent of American and German military advisors were present on the base at the time of the attack but were not harmed. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying they had been aided by four infiltrators serving as soldiers inside the base, and that the attack was carried out in retribution for the deaths of senior Taliban leaders in northern Afghanistan. Anonymous U.S. military sources tell the AP they believe the Haqqani network was responsible for the attack, and that planning for it likely took 4-6 months. Pres. Ghani visited Balkh on Saturday, meeting with provincial security officials and condemning the attackers as “infidels”. Chief Executive Abdullah also condemned the attack, and Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Noor vowed that Afghan security forces would take revenge for the attack. Pakistani Prime Minister Sharif and Chief of Staff Bajwa issued separate statements on Saturday condemning the incident and pledging to defeat a “common enemy”. Ghani ordered a national day of mourning on Sunday. [NYT] [WSJ] [WAPO] [Reuters] [Reuters] [TOLO] [TOLO] [TOLO] [TOLO] [TOLO] [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press]
  • Defense Officials Resign: Members of parliament and former security officials have criticized the government for the security lapse, and top defense officials, including 209th Corps commander Maj. Gen. Mohmand Katawazai, have been summoned to appear before parliament on Wednesday. TOLO notes Katawazai previously received permission from Pres. Ghani to continue service past the mandatory age of retirement. On Monday, Ghani announced that Defense Minister Gen. Abdullah Habibi and Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qadam Shah Shahim had resigned, and that the commanders of four army corps, including Maj. Gen. Katawazi, had been replaced. [NYT] [TOLO] [Reuters] [Guardian]
  • Mattis Visits: U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis arrived in Kabul on Monday at the tail end of a six-country tour; he is expected to meet with U.S. and Afghan officials. U.S. National Security Advisor McMaster also spoke by phone with his counterpart Hanif Atmar on Monday, condemning the attack in Balkh and pledging that the U.S. would continue to support Afghanistan. [WAPO]
  • MOAB Strike Aftermath: Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, a spokesman for the U.S. military said that U.S. special forces had withdrawn from the site of a U.S. bomb strike earlier this month but were continuing combat operations in the broader area, reiterating that the U.S. had “high confidence” no civilian deaths had been caused by the strike. Afghan Ministry of Defense officials said Thursday that they were still assessing the impact of the blast, and were in the process of clearing the area of Islamic State mines. Nangarhar provincial officials claimed that 28 Islamic State fighters had been killed in airstrikes in the Achin and Haska Mina districts on Friday, and another eight killed by air and artillery strikes in Achin on Saturday; on Monday, the ministry of defense put total Daesh casualty numbers in the two districts over the preceding 48 hours at 70. [Khaama Press]
  • German Officials Warn of Taliban Migrants: Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees is investigating at least 70 Afghan men suspected of being former Taliban fighters who had sought asylum in Germany, Der Spiegel reported on Saturday; “thousands” of migrants are reported to have acknowledged previous affiliations with the insurgency.
  • Other Attacks and Operations: A suicide car bomber struck an American military base in Khost on Monday; a U.S. military spokesman said that there were “a number” of Afghan casualties but details remain sketchy. On Saturday, the Pentagon announced that Qari Tayib, identified as the Taliban shadow governor for Takhar province, had been killed in an airstrike in Kunduz on April 17; officials said that Tayib had been involved in the deaths of U.S. servicemembers and had been a “target of interest” since 2011. Eight other Taliban fighters were reportedly also killed in the strike. On Sunday, the Afghan Defense Ministry claimed that five Al Qaeda members and five Taliban fighters were killed in airstrikes in Zabul’s Shahjoi district. On Thursday, Afghan Air Force planes reportedly killed four Taliban fighters in airstrikes on the outskirts of the Uruzgan provincial capital of Tirin Kot. [Guardian] [TOLO] [Khaama Press] [Khaama Press]

Afghanistan — Politics and Diplomacy

  • Hekmatyar Reportedly Returns: Qariburrahman Saeed, a Hezb-e-Islami spokesman, told TOLO on Friday that Gulbuddin Hekmatyar would return to Afghanistan “in the next few days”, suggesting that HIG prisoners were set to be freed over the weekend. Pajhwok reports that Hekmatyar arrived in Jalalabad on Monday and met with senior party leadership there; Ariana News reports the meeting took place in Laghman province.
  • Karzai Criticism Continues: Former Pres. Karzai continued to criticize the Achin bombing, saying Thursday that Pres. Trump had committed “an immense atrocity against the Afghan people” by approving the strike, and telling VOA on Wednesday that the Islamic State was a “tool” of the United States and that he “do[es] not differentiate at all between Daesh and America.” At a press conference on Sunday, former Pres. Karzai said that he could “no longer call the Taliban brothers” after the attack in Balkh, which he said “served the interests of outsiders”. Karzai met with China’s ambassador to Afghanistan on Monday, afterwards blaming “the presence of the US and their false actions” for an increasing in deaths in Afghanistan; he met with Russia’s ambassador to Afghanistan last week.
  • Former Education Minister Gets New Appointment: On Wednesday, Pres. Ghani appointed former education minister Farooq Wardak to become minister of state for parliamentary affairs; Ghani also appointed Ghulam Nabi Farahi, who previously held the parliamentary affairs portfolio, as minister of state for tourism, a new ministry. [Khaama Press]
  • Refugee Repatriation: Norwegian Refugee Council officials tell the AFP that an average of a thousand people a day returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan during the first two weeks of April, following the reopening of the formal repatriation process; more than half a million registered and unregistered refugees are believed to have returned to Afghanistan during 2016. [Dawn]
  • Electoral Reforms: The committee tasked with assessing proposals for the introduction of electronic voting systems concluded on Thursday that doing so would not be practical; a spokesman for Chief Executive Abdullah said that the government “is still committed to conduct the elections with an e-voting system to prevent fraud in the elections and ensure transparency”, however. [TOLO]

Afghanistan — Economics and Development

Afghanistan — Remainders

  • Ahmad Zia Massoud Calls for Early Elections After Dismissal [TOLO]
  • Russian Ambassador Says ‘Not Interested in Challenging US’ in Afghanistan [TOLO]
  • Students and Families Protest Transfer of Turkish School Network to Government Control [TOLO]
  • Interior Minister Pledges Action Against Police Corruption [TOLO]
  • Japan Pledges $3.6 Million in Aid [TOLO]
  • Ghani Inaugurates Kamal Khan Dam Project [TOLO] [Khaama Press]
  • Old, Ill, and Ordered Deported from Denmark to Afghanistan [NYT]
  • Commentary: Torture as Prevalent as Ever: New UN Report Finds No End to Impunity for Afghan Torturers – “UNAMA’s latest report on the treatment of conflict-related detainees shows that the government has not yet taken the difficult, but necessary steps to reduce the use of torture.” [Kate Clark, AAN]
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