The South Asia Channel

Obama: Troops “Could Stay in Afghanistan”; Delhi is World’s Most Polluted City; Pakistan Names Taliban Peace Committee


Obama says U.S. troops "could stay in Afghanistan" with signed BSA

During his fifth State of the Union Address, President Obama told U.S. lawmakers and the American people that a small contingent of U.S. troops "could stay in Afghanistan [after 2014] with NATO allies to carry out two narrow missions: training and assisting Afghan forces, and counter-terror operations to pursue any remnants of Al Qaeda," but only "if the Afghan government signs an agreement that we have negotiated" (Pajhwok, TOLO News). With the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) -- which will determine the size and scope of any U.S. troop presence that remains in Afghanistan once the NATO combat mission ends in December -- seemingly stalled, some Afghan observers had speculated that Obama would use the address to announce his support for pulling all U.S. troops out of the country at the end of the year. Instead, he was, as Michelle Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says, "low-key" and he "didn't go into much detail" about the current stand-off over the security pact (RFE/RL).

Faizi: "Foreign intelligence services" behind attacks, not U.S.

Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, told reporters on Tuesday that there is no evidence to prove that the United States was behind the recent suicide attack on La Taverna du Liban, dismissing a report in the Washington Post that said Karzai was keeping a list of "insurgent-style" attacks he believes were perpetrated by the United States. Faizi added that: "The accusation is reported by a foreign newspaper. If there are questions on who provided the information, you can go and talk to them" (VOA). However, he also said that "some attacks launched in Kabul and other provinces have the work of foreign intelligence services behind them," claiming that they have been " the name of the Taliban" (TOLO News). He did not provide further details. 

SIGAR: Afghan literacy project falling short of goal

The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), a U.S. watchdog agency, released a new report on Tuesday that shows a $200 million program designed to improve the literacy of Afghan soldiers appears to be falling short of its goal (Bloomberg, RFE/RL). While the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had set a goal in 2009 of having 100 percent of the Afghan security forces able to read and write at a basic level by the end of this year, the SIGAR report says that as of February 2013, around half of the troops were still illiterate. It added that reaching 100 percent literacy may be "unrealistic," and that there is no way to independently determine how many soldiers have actually become literate over the course of the program.

The Associated Press notes that: "The impetus for the literacy program was based on the ideabelief [sic] that literate security forces are easier to train, more capable and better understand rule of law" (AP). With first-grade reading levels -- reading and writing short words and one's name, as well as counting to 1,000 -- Afghan troops would be better able to track their equipment, weapons, and pay. 

ISAF released a response to the report, stating that it has implemented new literacy and language training contracts -- reportedly awarded hours before the report's release -- that will improve the delivery and oversight of the program (USA Today).

-- Bailey Cahall 


Delhi is world's most polluted city

According to a study recently released by the Yale University's Center for Environmental Law and Policy, Delhi is the world's most polluted city, with air pollution levels being twice that of Beijing (NYT, Yale). India was also one of the worst performers when judged on "overall environment" and, at 155 of 178 countries, has slipped 32 spots in the global Environment Performance Index 2014 (Hindustan Times, NDTV). High levels of air pollution in Delhi have been blamed on high vehicle density and industrial emissions, which have compounded by the cold weather to create a hanging "winter smog." According to the Hindustan Times, which cited the Lancet's Global Health Burden 2013, air pollution was the sixth biggest killer in India last year. When D. Saha of India's Central Pollution Control Board was asked for his opinion by the authors of the study, his response was: "It is a non-issue, we have other pressing problems like poverty, focus on them." 

Trouble in Congress-National Conference coalition 

Media reports suggest that the alliance between Jammu and Kashmir's (J&K's) National Conference (NC) party and the Congress Party is on the brink, even as senior leaders moved to settle existing differences (Hindustan Times, Mint). A dispute between the coalition partners emerged over the formation of 700 new administrative units in the state, a project Congress seemed less inclined to support. J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had threatened to resign from his post, further straining relations, but an intervention by NC leader Farooq Abdullah and the Congress's high command resolved the deadlock over the creation of the new units on Wednesday (Hindustan Times). Differences between the parties had previously cropped up over issues of autonomy and the revocation of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which grants members of the Indian armed forces protection from prosecution in combat areas.

In his recent interactions with foreign press, Abdullah has also outlined his ideas for Kashmir in the near future. In an interview with journalist Mehr Tarar, he remarked that the "only solution to the Kashmir issue" was making the Line of Control "irrelevant" (Hindustan Times, India Today). In another interview with the BBC's "Hard Talk," he added that no prime minister could revoke the state's special status, responding to remarks made by BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi that special provisions for the state could be debated (Economic Times).

Rahul Gandhi's 1984 remarks cause a stir

Rahul Gandhi's recent comments, which appeared to absolve the Congress party of culpability in the 1984 Sikh riots, have caused outrage among political leaders and the Sikh community. In his first televised interview, Gandhi drew a distinction between the 1984 riots and 2002 riots in Gujarat by saying the Congress government had tried to prevent the riots, while the Gujarat government deliberately abetted them (Reuters, WSJ). The opposition BJP's Arun Jaitley responded to the remarks, saying: "Congress leaders were seen leading the mobs. Nowhere did the police fire a single bullet to disperse mobs. Cases were not investigated." Meanwhile Delhi's Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has asked that a Special Investigation Team be set up to investigate the 1984 riots which triggered after then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was killed by her two Sikh bodyguards (NDTV). 

-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson


Sharif names committee to pursue peace talks with Taliban

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced on Wednesday that his government wanted to give peace another chance and would continue pursuing reconciliation talks with Taliban militants operating within the country, despite a number of recent attacks (Dawn, ET). He added that he has created a four-member committee to facilitate these talks - authorizing Irfan Siddique, his Advisor on National Affairs; Rahimullah Yusufzai, a veteran journalist; Rustam Shah Mohmand, a former Pakistani ambassador and an expert on Afghanistan; and Maj. Amir Shah, a former ISI official to speak with the militants. Sharif also called on Taliban fighters to observe a ceasefire while talks were ongoing. The Taliban have not yet commented on this latest overture from the Pakistani government.

The announcement came one day after Rana Sanaullah, the law minister in Pakistan's Punjab province, told Britain's Guardian newspaper that the country was being put on a "war footing" to counter the recent surge in terrorist attacks -suggesting the government is going to pursue both talks with and military operations against the militants (Guardian). While opposition politicians are concerned that a new anti-terror law that was passed last week without parliamentary approval could turn Pakistan into a "police state," Sanaullah said: "This [Protection of Pakistan Ordinance (PPO)] should have been done 10 years ago. Even if it is 5% misused, then we must support it anyway because without it there is no chance that you can fight terrorists." PPO provisions include the use of secret courts, greater shoot-to-kill freedoms for Pakistani police officers, house raids without warrants, and detaining terror suspects for three months without filing charges against them. 

Sharif's announcement occurred as three separate blasts rocked the Nazimabad section of Karachi, killing at least three people and injuring 11 others (Dawn, ET). According to reports, the first two "cracker attacks" on a security checkpoint killed one Pakistani Ranger and wounded six others, while a suicide attack targeting the Rangers headquarters left two dead and five injured. Investigations into both incidents are ongoing.

U.S. and Pakistan reiterate support for Afghan peace process

U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Sartaj Aziz, Sharif's advisor on national security affairs met in Washington on Tuesday and reiterated their support to the Afghan-led peace and reconciliation process (Pajhwok). According to Patrick Ventrell, a spokesman for the National Security Council, the two leaders discussed ways to increase the effectiveness of counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and Pakistan, as well as how to promote stability throughout the region. Aziz also discussed Afghanistan when he met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon; Pakistani Defence Minister Asif Yasin Malik, Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Nadeem Ishaq, and Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Jalal Abbas Jilani were also in attendance. 

Aziz's visit began on Monday when he met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss how best to move relations between the countries beyond security concerns to issues of trade, energy, and education, their first "strategic dialogue" session in more than three years (ABC News, Pajhwok, RFE/RL, TOLO News, VOA). 

A lost generation

Over the past three decades, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have attempted to avoid the ongoing conflicts in their country by fleeing to Pakistan, making it home to one of the world's largest refugee communities (AP). While nearly 3.8 million Afghans have returned since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, nearly 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees remain in Pakistan, and another million are living there illegally. The Associated Press notes that: "Whole generations of Afghan children have been born and raised in Pakistan, often living in poverty and uncertainty," and cannot imagine returning home. To highlight their plight, Muhammed Muheisen, a photographer for the news wire, took a series of portrait shots of such children in a slum outside of Islamabad. His photos can be seen here.

-- Bailey Cahall

Edited by Peter Bergen.

Larry Downing-Pool/Getty Images