Editor's Note: Next Monday, November 25, the AfPak Channel will be relaunched as the South Asia Channel on foreignpolicy.com. While we will continue to provide you with news and commentary from and about Afghanistan and Pakistan, the New America Foundation has partnered with the South Asia Program at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies to provide our readers with key stories and insights from India as well. Beginning this week, the daily brief will include an India section, with India-related posts to appear on the redesigned brief and site next week.
At least seven members of the Pakistani Taliban were killed in North Waziristan on Wednesday when a suicide bomber drove an explosives-laden vehicle into the truck they were traveling in (BBC, ET). According to intelligence officials, Qari Saifuddin, a local Taliban commander, was among those killed in the attack near the town of Mir Ali. It is unclear who was behind the bombing, and no one has claimed immediate responsibility for the incident.
Elsewhere in North Waziristan, along the Bannu-Mir Ali road, at least two Frontier Corps security personnel were killed and seven others were injured Wednesday morning in a suicide attack on their checkpoint (AFP, Dawn, RFE/RL). The area has been cordoned off and a curfew has been imposed, as an investigation into the attack is ongoing. Abu Baseer, a spokesman for the little-known Ansarul Mujahideen group, called several media outlets to say the group was responsible for the attack, which he claimed was revenge for the death of former Pakistani Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud in a U.S. drone strike on November 1 (AP).
Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Special Advisor on Foreign Affairs, told the Pakistani Senate's Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs on Wednesday that the United States has promised it will not carry out any drone strikes in Pakistan while the government conducts peace talks with the militant organizations operating in the country, though he did not provide further details about when these assurances were given (Dawn). According to Aziz, a team of government negotiators had been prepared to hold talks with Mehsud on November 2, the day after he was killed, and the peace process has been on hold since then. Aziz "quoted President Obama as saying that America does not want 70 percent of Pakistanis to hate it, but it was desperate" (ET). Administration officials in Washington have not commented on Aziz's claims.
One day before the Loya Jirga (grand council) is set to meet in Kabul to discuss the Bilateral Security Agreement between Afghanistan and the United States, it seems that the two countries have still not agreed to a final version of the security pact (AJAM). Despite an early report on Tuesday from Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, that both sides had agreed to a deal that gave U.S. troops immunity from Afghan law and allowed them to enter and search Afghan homes under exceptional circumstances only, the day ended with statements from U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki and Faizi himself saying that no final text had been agreed to (Reuters, Reuters, VOA).
The backtracking seems to be caused by a fresh impasse over the agreement that will determine the size and scope of any U.S. troop commitment after the NATO combat mission ends in 2014, namely a request from Afghan President Hamid Karzai that President Obama writes a personal letter acknowledging U.S. military mistakes in the country (BBC). According to the New York Times, which quotes Faizi, Karzai would end his opposition to U.S. raids on Afghan homes, in exchange for U.S. recognition that military mistakes have hurt Afghans (NYT). U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice, however, said that no letter had been or would be drafted, telling CNN: "There is not a need for the United States to apologize to Afghanistan. Quite the contrary," while an anonymous State Department official told the Times that a letter acknowledging civilian casualties was a possibility that was being weighed by the administration (AFP).
The back-and-forth continued Wednesday morning with the Washington Post reporting that Obama "is not averse to signing" a letter that pledges U.S. troops will only enter Afghan homes to save lives in exceptional circumstances, and includes "a standard U.S. expression of regret for Afghan suffering and the loss of innocent lives" in the 12-year war (Post). However, two paragraphs after saying the proposed letter will be read to the jirga, the Post noted that top Afghan officials participating in the council meeting had abruptly canceled a scheduled news conference that would have outlined the five-day event, an indication that the matter is still unsettled.
Despite the conflicting statements, which will likely continue until the jirga officially starts on Thursday, the Afghan government announced on Wednesday that the next six days will be holidays in Kabul, enabling Afghan soldiers to address traffic jams and reinforce security in the city (Pajhwok).
Human rights abuses
Human Rights Watch released a report in Kabul on Wednesday criticizing Iran for deporting "thousands of Afghans to a country [Afghanistan] where the danger is both real and serious" without giving them chance to apply for asylum (AP, BBC, Pajhwok, RFE/RL). The 124-page report, "Unwelcome Guests: Iran's Violation of Afghan Refugee and Migrant Rights," notes that Iran, which has housed Afghan refugees for nearly three decades, is starting to push them out as economic "sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear program have...hampered Tehran's ability to care for its most vulnerable inhabitants" (Reuters). Physical abuse, detention in unsanitary and inhumane conditions, forced labor, and forced separation were among the abuses cited by the report. According to Iran's immigration bureau, of the 2.4 million Afghans living in Iran, a little over 840,000 are registered as refugees.
Southern Afghanistan has gone a full year without a new case of poliovirus, UNICEF said on Tuesday (Time). While there have been 334 cases reported this year worldwide by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, only nine were in Afghanistan's eastern region, near the border with Pakistan. That number is one-third of the total reported from 2012. Meanwhile, Pakistan launched a three-day anti-polio drive to vaccinate over 220,000 children in the northwest region, where a vaccination ban has been imposed by the Taliban (Business Standard). There were 62 new cases of polio reported in Pakistan so far this year, four times more than reported last year. Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria are the only three countries where polio is still endemic.
-- Bailey Cahall and Emily Schneider
Assembly elections continue
The second and final phase of polling ended in the central Indian state of Chattisgarh on Tuesday, with a record 75 percent of those registered coming out to vote and women outnumbering men by a small 0.3 percent margin (BBC). It is expected that 78 percent of the electorate voted in both phases, up from 70.51 percent in the last round of elections in 2008. With 100,000 security personnel standing on guard, elections proceeded with few incidents of violence, despite threats to disrupt the electoral process from the local Maoist cadre (Times of India). Meanwhile, the campaign in Delhi began to heat up as the newly formed Aam Admi party released its manifesto on Wednesday, promising free water, cheaper electricity, better security for women in the capital, and passing a law to create an anti-corruption architecture in the state (Times of India, Daily Bhaskar). The party's leader, Arvind Kejriwal, rose to prominence in 2011 during a nationwide protest when he demanded the creation of an anti-corruption ombudsman or ‘Lokpal,' but has since been in a public spat with the social activist and leader of the 'Lokpal' movement, Anna Hazare (Times of India).
The Indian Army began increasing its troop presence along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China to defend against possible Chinese attacks, the Times of India reported Tuesday (Times of India). As part of a plan cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security on July 17, a new "mountain strike" corps will be created to increase the Indian Army's ability to act in case of a Chinese strike in the Tibetan Autonomous Region. Two independent infantry brigades and independent army brigades are also being organized, which will raise the total Indian troop presence along the LAC to 80,000 soldiers.
Warnings by the Indian Meteorological Department on Wednesday suggest that the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh is bracing itself for a "severe cyclonic storm" that is expected to make landfall in the next 24 hours. Named Cyclone Helen, it is expected to bring heavy rainfall and wind up to 75 kmph (46 MPH) to southern Andhra Pradesh and northern Tamil Nadu (Hindustan Times). The cyclone warning comes a little over a month after Cyclone Phailin, a Category 4 hurricane, hit the eastern state of Odisha and parts of Andhra Pradesh (CNN).
India may cut government spending by nearly 600 billion rupees ($9.64 billion) this year in an effort to restrain its rising fiscal deficit, the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday (WSJ). Officials are weighing the cuts after the country's fiscal deficit in the first six months of 2013 reached 78 percent of its yearly target of 4.8% of GDP. In a move that is also likely to help pare the deficit, India will deregulate diesel prices over the next six months by gradually relaxing state price controls, India's oil minister, Veerappa Moily, said on Wednesday (Times of India, Hindustan Times). Moily said retailers will continue to increase prices by about half a rupee per liter per month, and that he is counting on rupee appreciation and a fall in the price of oil to help prices reach market levels. Price controls have resulted in big losses for the state-run fuel retailers that control 95 percent of petrol pump sales; however, they have also helped to dampen inflation (WSJ). Moily added that India will auction 86 oil and gas blocks in January, the first sale in more than two years as the country looks to attract investment and boost domestic production (The Hindu).
The Indian economy is likely to grow by 3.4 percent in 2014, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said in a report it released on Tuesday on global growth (The Economic Times). The projected growth rate is nearly flat from the 3.3 percent growth recorded in the country last year, and is below the IMF's May forecast of 5.7 percent GDP growth. Rupee depreciation, an increase in infrastructure projects, and declining political uncertainty after the elections are all likely to contribute to an economic recovery in India, the report said. However India's Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said last week that he expects the economy to grow by 5.5 percent this fiscal year (Economic Times).
Twenty-four gold bars worth $1.1 million were found in the toilet of a commercial airline in east India (BBC). Cleaning staff noticed the two bags the bars were found in on board a Jet Airways flight reportedly coming in from Bangkok. The Indian government recently passed strict measures curbing the import of gold, which reduced import volumes from $6.85 billion in 2012 to $1.37 billion this year, but has also raised the fear of smuggling (WSJ).
-- Shruti Jagirdar
KARIM ULLAH/AFP/Getty Images