The South Asia Channel

More than 240 prisoners freed in brazen attack by the Pakistani Taliban

Massive jailbreak

Around 243 prisoners, including 30 "hardcore militants," escaped from the heavily guarded Central Prison in the city of Dera Ismail Khan in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province on Monday night when more than 100 militants armed with rocket-propelled grenades and heavy arms attacked the facility (AFP, AJE, AP, Dawn, VOA).  The highly coordinated assault began when the attackers blew up the prison's electricity line, detonated bombs they had planted around the facility to breach its external wall, and opened fire on the prison's security forces.  According to multiple reports, around 70 of the militants were in police uniforms, and they used megaphones to call out to specific prisoners, freeing them from their cells with hand grenades.  At least 14 people were killed in the attack, including six policemen and six Shi'a prisoners whose throats were slashed by the gunmen. 

Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, contacted multiple news agencies to claim responsibility for the assault, which comes a little more than a year after the group attacked the Central Jail in Bannu and freed about 400 prisoners.  Dera Ismail Khan and the neighboring town of Tank have been placed under a curfew while a search operation for the escaped prisoners continues.  Those released include Abdul Hakim and Haji Illyas, two local Taliban commanders, as well as Waleed Akbar, a sectarian militant suspected of killing Shi'a mourners during an attack last year (BBC). 

Reactions to the attack from Pakistani officials were mixed, with some saying the "attack was so sudden and big. Probably, no one suspected it was around the corner," and others suggesting that they had "timely intelligence" that an attack was imminent and had visited the prison to check its security (NYT, Reuters). According to Pakistan's Express Tribune, an inquiry into the attack found that "there were far fewer guards on duty than there should have been and that those who were there lacked sufficient ammunition" (ET).

Presidential elections

According to unofficial results, Mamnoon Hussain was elected as Pakistan's new president on Tuesday when he received 277 votes from the country's National Assembly and Senate (Dawn).  A candidate for the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, Hussain's only competition for the position came from Wajiuddin Ahmed of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party (BBC, ET).  The voting was skewed heavily in Hussain's favor after several groups, including the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Awami National Party, boycotted the election (Dawn, ET). 

In Balochistan, a doctor with the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that a rare and dangerous strain of a mutated polio virus has reappeared in Pakistan (Dawn).  Dr. Alias Durray, the chief of the WHO's polio eradication program, said a virus with close genetic similarities to the P2 polio strain has paralyzed a baby boy in the Mastung district of the province, and follows a similar case that was reported in the nearby Jafarabad district in May.  The polio virus has three different strains, though P2 has been eradicated in most parts of the world.  It persists in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan, where polio health workers are increasingly under attack by militants who see the campaign as part of a larger Western conspiracy.  Bonus read: "Pakistan's health workers under attack," David Sterman (AfPak).

U.S. presence needed

In an interview with the New York Times on Sunday, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, sought to counter increasingly negative news about the war and the so-called "zero-option," and make a case for why American troops should remain in the country after 2014 (NYT).  Dunford argued that Afghans are already doing most of the fighting in the country, but that they "won't be completely independent" when the combat mission ends next year and will need an American presence to sustain the "gains we have made to date."  He added that American forces will play a critical behind-the-scenes role for at least another three or four years to help Afghans master the "nuts-and-bolts of running a military," including analyzing intelligence, developing an air force, and running logistics.  Dunford's comments came as a Washington Post/ABC poll showed an increasing number of Americans believe the Afghan war is no longer worth fighting.

While much has been made of the effects of the U.S. drawdown on Afghan forces, less attention has been paid to how it's affecting America's diplomatic presence in the country.  According to a report by the Washington Post on Monday, nearly all U.S. diplomats in the country are confined to Kabul because they lack the level of protection once provided by the military, making it harder for them to provide effective oversight on projects worth billions of dollars (Post).  To combat this challenge, the State Department is planning to utilize technological solutions, such as having private contractors submit site photos with time and location stamps, and assessing the progress of dams or roads by capturing aerial images of the projects. 

Afghanistan began preparing for the U.S. civilian drawdown by signing 60 Memoranda of Understanding with India on Tuesday for different projects related to the Small Development Projects scheme (Pajhwok).  The scheme, which was first proposed in May 2011 when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the country, is focused on building primary and secondary schools, hospitals, veterinary clinics, bridges, protection walls, and other construction projects in several Afghan provinces. 

In preparation for next year's presidential election, Afghan President Hamid Karzai appointed nine members to the country's Independent Election Commission on Monday, just one day after he received a list of 28 potential candidates (Pajhwok).  The committee members include the country's chief justice, human rights campaigners, parliamentary speakers, and other government officials.  There are also a few remaining places for members of different Afghan civil society groups, which have not yet named their representatives. 

Swan boats

Some of the most surreal scenes in war-torn Afghanistan occur in the country's Band-e Amir National Park, where families camp, hike, swim, and meander along the area's gorgeous blue lakes in bright-colored swan-shaped paddle boats (McClatchy).  In five years, attendance to the park in Bamyan province has grown exponentially from 200 a month to about 4,000 a weekend, and visitors say they feel safer there than anywhere else in the country.  The Afghan government is supporting nearly all of the operations for the park, and recently approved the addition of female park rangers, a boon for the park's many female visitors.  Bonus read: "Bamyan after the Buddhas," Whitney Grespin (AfPak). 

-- Bailey Cahall