The South Asia Channel

Pakistani Taliban, army exchange prisoners to build confidence in talks

The Rack: "Drone Wars," Peter Bergen and Jennifer Rowland (TWQ). 

Prisoner exchange

Just days after the Pakistani government endorsed holding peace talks with the militant groups operating in the country, the army and the Pakistani Taliban exchanged prisoners on Wednesday in an confidence-building measure, intelligence officials and militant commanders said (AP, ET, RFE/RL).  The exchange, which took place in the Shawal area of South Waziristan, included six militants and two soldiers from the paramilitary Frontier Corps.  The military's public affairs office denied that the swap had taken place, but intelligence officials confirmed the releases to multiple news outlets.

While the released Pakistani militants were immediately taken to North Waziristan, the Afghan Taliban told reporters on Wednesday that the seven prisoners who were released by Pakistan on Saturday have yet to return home to their families (ET).  Janan Mosazai, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Foreign Ministry, said on Sunday that none of the freed Taliban fighters had been handed over to the Afghan embassy in Islamabad or to any of the country's consulates, making it unclear where exactly they are. 

Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry, a spokesman for Pakistan's Foreign Office, told reporters on Thursday that the government will be raising the issue of U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani territory at the United Nations (Dawn, ET).  While he did not elaborate on the details of that case, Chaudhry said there was no secret agreement between Pakistan and the United States regarding the drone strikes, and that the government has no idea where the weapons platforms are being flown from.  The statement followed earlier comments by Amb. Zamir Akran, the Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations in Geneva, who said the strikes violated international laws, as well as Pakistan's sovereignty and territorial integrity. 

The Anti-Terrorism Court in Karachi on Thursday ordered a week-long physical remand for Nadim Hashmi, a former Muttahida Qaumi Movement lawmaker who was arrested on Tuesday in connection with the deaths of two policemen (Dawn, ET).  Hashmi's arrest came as the Sindh Rangers, a provincial paramilitary group, began launching targeted security operations to restore law and order in the city, which has recently been wracked by violence.  These operations led to the arrests of 34 other people on Wednesday, many of whom belong to banned outfits and political parties, and are involved in extortion and other criminal activities (ET).  

Clear and hold

A piece in the New York Times on Thursday details the difficulty Afghan security forces are having clearing and holding Helmand province's Sangin district, widely considered the most critical battlefield in the country (NYT).  The report notes that more Afghan forces have died in Sangin than in almost any other district in the country, the local Nolay Base takes direct fire from the Taliban almost every day, and many of the soldiers stationed there refuse to conduct missions because the environment is "too dangerous."  According to local residents and Afghan officials, Taliban fighters have cleared out several local villages, displacing nearly 1,000 people and overrunning several security checkpoints in the last week alone - a troubling sign as coalition forces prepare to withdraw at the end of next year. 

A week after the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released an audit criticizing the U.S. Agency for International Development for providing millions of dollars in aid to the Afghan Ministry of Public Health, an organization that has been repeatedly cited for fraud and abuse, government officials have begun publicly airing their grievances about the watchdog agency (NYT).  Over the last year, John F. Sopko, who runs the SIGAR office, and his team have aggressively documented waste and mismanagement in Afghanistan, including a $34 million military headquarters that will never be used.  While Sopko's supporters say the SIGAR audits are on target, his detractors say the reports are sometimes inaccurate, highlight problems they are already correcting, and undermine U.S. efforts to build stronger civilian institutions in Afghanistan. 

A day after James Cunningham, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, was summoned to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office to explain recent comments by Amb. James Dobbins, the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the U.S. embassy in Kabul released a statement saying: "Ambassador Dobbins was not attempting to define the conflict in Afghanistan, nor to suggest that the United States is involved in a civil war" (Pajhwok).  The controversial comments came during a recent interview Dobbins gave to the Voice of America, where he said: "There already is, of course, a civil war in Afghanistan."  Afghan officials responded angrily to the term, which the embassy said was used in a "standard academic" context and was intended to reflect the fact that "terrorists continue to murder civilians, including women and children." 

Goal! 

Afghanistan's soccer team made history on Wednesday when it defeated India 2-0 to win the South Asian Football Federation championship and bring home the country's first soccer trophy (Dawn, Pajhwok, RFE/RL).  The result triggered widespread celebrations across the country, with fans cheering, blowing horns, firing guns into the air, and waving Afghan flags throughout the night (AFP, AP, Pajhwok).  After being greeted at the Kabul International Airport by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the team headed to Ghazi Stadium, once the site of Taliban executions, where they were met by thousands of ecstatic fans (Pajhwok). 

-- Bailey Cahall 

TARIQ MAHMOOD/AFP/Getty Images