The South Asia Channel

U.S. officials backtrack after diplomatic progress goes awry

Backwards scramble

After praising the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha, Qatar as an "important first step," senior U.S. government officials spent most of Wednesday scrambling to appease an Afghan president who felt betrayed by both parties (NYT, Pajhwok, Post, Reuters).  U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called President Hamid Karzai at least twice to defuse the situation, and publicly stated the president was "justifiably" upset over the Taliban raising their flag and standing under a banner reading "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" during their office opening.  Qatari officials met Karzai's demands to remove an "Islamic Emirate" plaque the Taliban had placed on the building and issued a statement saying it would be officially known as the "political bureau of the Taliban Afghan."

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman also stated that reports of a U.S. delegation meeting with the Taliban on Thursday were false (Pajhwok).  Jen Psaki told reporters that no meeting was "on the books" and that Ambassador James Dobbins, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who was supposed to lead the delegation was still in Washington.  She went on to say that the exact process for this discussions was still being figured out and that "if there's a role for the U.S. to play...that's up to the Afghans to decide."

In a call to the Associated Press on Thursday, Taliban spokesman Shaheen Suhail announced the group is ready to free a U.S. army solider held captive since 2009, in exchange for five senior operative imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay (AP).  The conciliatory offer came a day after the Taliban opened a political office in Doha, Qatar.  The only known American solider held captive is Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who disappeared on June 30, 2009.  Suhail said that Bergdahl "is, as far as I know, in good condition," and his parents received a note from him earlier this month via the International Committee of the Red Cross.  It is believed he is being held in Pakistan but Suhail did not comment on his whereabouts.

Silent partner?

As U.S. officials worked to save the budding peace talks, security experts began voicing opinions that Pakistan had likely played a crucial role in getting the Taliban back to the negotiating table (Dawn).  No one is entirely sure what happened behind the scenes but Scott Smith, a former U.N. official who worked in Afghanistan, noted that with a deteriorating security situation at home, Pakistani officials may have decided their ambivalence to the talks was "getting too dicey."  While these observers see Pakistan as a potential broker for the Taliban, Pakistan's legislators petitioned the government on Wednesday to know what its stance was on the Doha office opening, and if the government had been consulted in any way in the weeks leading up to its opening (Dawn).

Weeks after information on the National Security Agency's PRISM and Boundless Informant internet-monitoring programs was leaked to the press, a new report has found that Canadian software filtering technology has been used by the Pakistani government to create an Internet firewall that blocks sensitive political and social topics, including secessionist movements, religious discussions, and independent media (Dawn).  The technology has been installed on the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited's network, which provides broadband Internet connectivity to over one million subscribers, and blocks content from sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, and YouTube.  Previous reports from Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory in Toronto, found the Canada-based Netsweeper technology was also used in Kuwait, Qatar, Yemen, and the UAE.

Representatives from the new Pakistani government and the International Monetary Fund met in Islamabad on Wednesday, opening a week's worth of discussions on the country's latest fiscal and macroeconomic adjustments, as well as its request for a $5 billion bailout package (Dawn, ET).  Pakistan's main priority during the talks is securing a Letter of Comfort from the IMF that will allow Asian Development Bank and World Bank loan programs to resume.  The letter would be an official show of support for Pakistan's financing requests, and the resumption of these loan programs, which have been on hold since 2009, would open access to another $6 billion from other international lenders. 

General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, Pakistan's Chief of Army Staff, announced on Thursday that the Pakistani army will stay in Waziristan until peace is restored (ET).  He confirmed "the army is engaged in the area to bring peace and provide protection to the people," and encouraged people who had fled during the army's operation against militants to return home and resume their lives.  Gen. Kayani added that the government is working to provide civic amenities to the people of Waziristan, as well as construct roads that connect the area of the rest of the country.

At least six security personnel were killed and three others were injured on Wednesday when their convoy was ambushed by militants on the outskirts of Peshawar (Dawn, ET).  The army officers were conducting a routine patrol when their vehicles were hit by rocket-propelled grenades.  No one has claimed responsibility for the assault, but the Pakistani Taliban has launched similar attacks on military convoys in the past. 

-- Bailey Cahall

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