The South Asia Channel

U.S. Continues to Weigh Afghan Options; Thousands Protest Shi'ite Killings in Quetta; Gang Rape Ordered in West Bengal

Bonus Read: "Karzai's Calculated Delay Requires Intelligent U.S. Action," Ronald E. Neumann (SouthAsia).

Afghanistan 

U.S. continues eyeing options for Afghanistan

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney tried to distance the White House on Wednesday from recent news reports that said the Pentagon had presented President Obama with two post-2014 troop options in Afghanistan: 10,000 U.S. forces or none at all (Pajhwok). Speaking at his daily news conference, Carney told reporters: "The President has not made any decision and I'm not going to discuss the ongoing deliberations." He added that the White House would weigh inputs from U.S. military commanders and the intelligence community, as well as diplomats and development experts before making a decision about a continued troop presence in the country. However, Carney also noted that the United States would initiate planning for a future with no U.S. or NATO troop presence in Afghanistan if the Bilateral Security Agreement between Washington and Kabul cannot be finalized.

Administration officials are also "considering ways to ensure future financial assistance for Afghanistan after U.S. lawmakers halved development aid to the country" last week (Reuters). According to Reuters, the massive spending bill President Obama signed into law on Friday provided $1.12 billion of "overall civilian assistance" to Afghanistan for fiscal year 2014, a 50 percent reduction from fiscal year 2013, but it is unclear how much aid the country would actually receive. Officials at the U.S. Agency for International Development said they are looking into the details of the bill, and whether or not they can use unspent money from other programs to supplement the funding for Afghanistan.

NATO defense ministers discuss Afghan mission, election security

As the United States weighed its options for a continued troop presence in Afghanistan, NATO defense ministers met in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss their own post-2014 mission, as well as April's presidential elections (Pajhwok, TOLO News). In his opening remarks at the alliance's annual two-day meeting, Military Committee Chairman Gen. Knud Bartels said the coalition should continue its current operations, noting that "Now is not a time for complacency or a lack of resolve." He also said that the alliance would be taking stock of the progress in Afghanistan, with a particular focus on security preparations for the upcoming election. As for NATO troops remaining in the country once the alliance's combat mission ends in December this year, Bartels told attendees that the organization was working with Afghan authorities to establish a legal framework for any future mission, saying: "We will continue to develop our plans so that we are ready to deliver when required."

Pakistan

Thousands protest Shi'ite slayings

Thousands of Pakistanis held sit-ins across the country on Thursday to protest Wednesday's deadly suicide attack on a bus carrying Shi'ite pilgrims near Quetta (BBC, ET). According to reports, the protests occurred in Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore -- some of the country's largest cities -- as well as Hyderabad and Multan. Members of the Hazara Shi'ite minority community also held a sit-in in Quetta, carrying the coffins of the victims with them. Syed Musarrat Agha, the acting president of Balochistan's Shi'ite conference, said the protests would continue and the dead would not be buried until Pakistani security forces launched an operation against those responsible for the attack (Dawn).  

The deadly week in Pakistan continued on Thursday, with at least seven people killed and 11 others injured in an explosion in Peshawar (ET). While the exact nature of the blast is not yet known, police had cordoned off an area in the city's Scheme Chowk district. No one has claimed responsibility for the incident, and an investigation is ongoing. 

Military releases new details about North Waziristan airstrikes 

Pakistan's military released new details on Wednesday about the airstrikes it conducted in North Waziristan on Monday, noting that the offensive -- which is reportedly ongoing -- is meant to punish those behind a number of recent suicide bombings and other deadly attacks that killed a number of Pakistan troops (VOA). As such, both Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the military dismissed reports that a full-scale offensive in North Waziristan was underway, choosing to describe the airstrikes as a "surgical" operation instead. According to the military, 33 Uzbek nationals and three Germans are among the dead, which also includes several militant commanders (Dawn).

While some of the strikes hit the home of Adnan Rashid, a key Pakistani Taliban commander who escaped from a Bannu prison in April 2012 after militants launched a successful attack on the facility, local residents told the Wall Street Journal that he escaped with only minor injuries (WSJ). However, Pakistani security officials confirmed on Thursday that Asmat Shaheen Bhittani, the head of the Pakistani Taliban's Supreme Shura council, and Wali Mohammad, the group's "master trainer" of suicide bombers, were killed during the offensive (ET). They also said Maulvi Farhad Uzbek, allegedly the head of al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters who were operating in Pakistan's restive tribal regions, was also "eliminated."

Foreign Office: Dr. Shakil Afridi will not be released 

Pakistan's Foreign Office said on Thursday that there was no chance the country would release Dr. Shakil Afridi -- a Pakistani doctor who was recruited by the CIA to launch a vaccination drive in Abbottabad that many incorrectly believe led to information about Osama bin Laden and is currently in a Pakistani jail -- despite recent pressure from the United States (Dawn). Speaking at a weekly press conference, Foreign Office spokesperson Tasneem Aslam said the Afridi case was sub judice (under judgment), adding that Pakistan rejected America's demand that Afridi be released in exchange for aid. While the $1.1 trillion dollar spending bill President Obama signed into law last Friday included both military and non-military aid to Pakistan, near the end of the 1,582-page document, the bill warned that the United States could withhold $33 million "until the Secretary of State reports to the Committees on Appropriations that Dr. Shakil Afridi has been released from prison and cleared of all charges relating to the assistance provided to the United States in locating Osama bin Laden" (ET). Afridi was convicted in May 2012 for allegedly having links to a banned militant organization in Pakistan, a sentence he is appealing; he is also facing murder charges related to the death of a patient in 2005. 

-- Bailey Cahall 

India 

Gang rape meted out as village punishment 

Thirteen men were arrested in Birbhum, West Bengal as suspects in the gang rape of a young woman that was allegedly ordered as punishment by a village council (AP, BBC, Guardian, Post, VOA, WSJ). The 20-year-old woman had been accused of having an affair with a man of a different religion and ordered to pay a fine of Rs 25,000 ($400), C. Sudhakar, a local police official, said on Thursday. When her family said it could not afford the fine, the council ordered the gang rape on Tuesday. The woman has been hospitalized and is in serious condition. India's National Commission for Women, as well as politicians across all party lines, condemned the incident and urged justice to be ensured (NDTV).

All 13 men accused in the rape, including the village head who allegedly ordered it, were arrested on Wednesday and sent to jail for 14 days (The Hindu). While not legally binding, local village councils wield great influence over life in rural India. High-profile rapes in India over the past year have sparked outrage over chronic sexual violence and government failures to protect women. Reports of crimes against women, including rape, dowry deaths, molestation, and sexual harassment, rose 6.4 percent in 2012 from the previous year, the government said. 

Pressure grows on AAP to sack law minister

India's ruling Congress party asked Lt. Gov. Najeeb Jung on Thursday to direct police to take action against Somnath Bharti, the law minister who allegedly led a group in a midnight raid without a warrant last week (Times of India, Economic Times, The Hindu, Hindustan Times, BBC, Live Mint). Bharti clashed with Delhi police last week after they refused to raid an alleged drug and prostitution racket. The Congress, which supported the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in forming a government in Delhi, sought an impartial probe into the case and action against Bharti based on "available evidence." "The law minister is not above the law," Arvinder Singh Lovely, the Congress leader who led the delegation, told the press. 

Television footage showed Bharti ordering police officers last week to raid a house whose inhabitants were suspected of involvement in prostitution and drug use. The police refused, saying they had no warrant. In a report to the magistrate, a Ugandan woman identified Bharti on Tuesday as one of the men that barged into her house, attacking her and three other African women in a late night raid (NDTV, Economic Times, Times of India). "We were attacked on Wednesday night [Jan. 15-16] by Indians who were led by Somnath Bharti ... They said we should leave their country or they will kill us one by one," the woman told reporters after recording the statement. Bharti denied the allegation.

Various individuals and groups, including the Delhi Commission for Women, called for Bharti to step down to allow a fair probe into the alleged misconduct (Indian Express, Times of India, NDTV, The Hindu, Times of India). The criticisms of Bharti add to the recent woes of the AAP, which was criticized by many for inciting chaotic street protests earlier this week. 

India discussions at Davos center on AAP, election

Discussions on India at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland are centering on the rise of the AAP and the prospects for the next Lok Sabha election (Times of India). Indian leaders are facing tough questions in Davos about whether the next elections could result in a fractured mandate, forum participants said. According to them, the AAP's emergence has further added to the uncertainty about the outcome of this year's election, and business leaders are looking into the possibility of engaging with the AAP.

India has sent about 125 business and political leaders to the annual meeting, making India's presence the fourth largest after the United States, the United Kingdom, and host country Switzerland (Zee News). Attendees include Tata Group chief Cyrus Mistry, Bharti Group's Sunil Mittal, and a host of top executives from other firms. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and other government figures are also in attendance.

Speaking from the forum, Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma said that India is looking to create as many as 100 million skilled jobs in manufacturing by raising the sector's share of GDP to 25 percent from 16 percent (The Hindu). India needs to expand its manufacturing sector to boost exports and ensure sustainability, the minister said while addressing a forum session on manufacturing.

Don't ask, don't tell (me how to practice my religion)

The Pentagon has issued new instructions that will allow troops to display their religious beliefs outwardly, such as wearing a turban, scarf or beard, to comply with their religious requirements (Economic Times, Hindustan Times, Post, WSJ). "The new policy states that military departments will accommodate religious requests of service members unless a request would have an adverse effect on military readiness, mission accomplishment, unit cohesion and good order and discipline," Pentagon spokesman Nathan J. Christensen said in a statement yesterday.

The decision may have a far-reaching impact on Sikhs, who will be allowed to wear turbans over long hair. Both Sikhs and Muslims have long lobbied for the Pentagon to ease restrictions on wearing or showing their "articles of faith." However, regulations still require troops to wear protective equipment like helmets, and some Sikh activists criticized the rules as not going far enough. Jasjit Singh, the executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund, called the ruling a "steppingstone" in a long lobbying process.

-- Ana Swanson

Edited by Peter Bergen. 

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