The South Asia Channel

Karzai Advisor Upbeat on Basing Agreement; Pakistani Taliban Debate Peace Talks; India Raises Gas Subsidy

Bonus Read: "Bangladesh Falls Apart," Kathryn Alexeeff (SouthAsia).


Karzai's national security advisor optimistic about BSA signature

Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's national security advisor, told reporters on Thursday that he was optimistic that Karzai would sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) -- which will determine the size and scope of any U.S. troop presence that remains in the country when the NATO combat mission ends in December -- before he leaves office this year (AP). While Spanta did not go into much detail, he said that "We are working very intensively together with the United States authorities to reach and sign this agreement soon," and that he was "more optimistic compared to last week." His comments come weeks after deadlock over the security pact and anti-American rhetoric from Karzai and other government officials. 

However, Spanta also said that the United States must choose between Afghanistan and Pakistan before the BSA is signed, arguing that it could not be strategic partners with both countries (TOLO News). He claimed that the U.S. government "knows Pakistan is the main ‘obstacle' to the Afghan government's peace talks with the Taliban, yet refuses to acknowledge it." He also criticized Sartaj Aziz, Sharif's advisor on national security and foreign affairs, for interfering in Afghanistan's internal affairs when he told an audience at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C. that the Taliban will probably talk to the new government more (Pajhwok).  

As the rift between Kabul and Washington over the BSA continues, hard-line Taliban commanders are taking advantage of the dispute to minimize the power of moderate leaders who had been pushing for peace talks (WSJ). According to Salahuddin Rabbani, the chairman of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, "Those who believe they can win militarily are now more powerful than those pro-peace elements because of certain policies that our government unfortunately has lately taken, such as the delay in signing the bilateral security agreement."

U.S. cuts poll funding over concerns about bias 

A spokesman for the U.S.-funded Democracy International, an organization that works to promote free and fair elections, announced on Thursday that the U.S. government has canceled funding for opinion polls it and similar organizations were going to conduct ahead of Afghanistan's presidential election in April "after an initial poll in December triggered accusations of U.S. attempts to manipulate the outcome" (Reuters). The U.S. embassy in Kabul confirmed the funding cut, saying that: "Statements by some electoral authorities and candidates' camps suggested that there was ... a perception that the polling results were somehow biased." According to the Reuters report, Democracy International's first poll showed the presidential frontrunners were former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

Post: Afghan roads are falling apart

The recent criticisms of U.S. investment projects in Afghanistan continued on Thursday when the Washington Post's Kevin Sieff reported that motorists driving along the country's roadways -- built with $4 billion in U.S. and international aid -- often come to the hospital looking like "victims of an insurgent attack" (Post). According to Sieff and the Western officials he spoke to, "the Afghan government is unable to maintain even a fraction of the roads and highways constructed since 2001," turning "roads once deemed the hallmark of America's development effort...into death traps, full of cars careening into massive bomb-blast craters or sliding off crumbling pavement." Sieff also notes that the United States has refused to fund the Afghan government's road maintenance projects since 2012, as it had no faith in the country's ability to fix things like potholes, something Mohammad Aref Raiskhel, the director of maintenance at Afghanistan's Ministry of Public Works says has made their efforts that much harder. While Raiskhel said he has begged for help, the U.S. government has instead turned towards building new multimillion-dollar roads. Bonus read: "A dangerous drive on Afghanistan's Highway One," Kevin Sieff (Post). 


Taliban begins debate over peace talks

As Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif instructed a new four-member peace committee to hold reconciliation talks with the Pakistani Taliban immediately, a member of the militant organization told Pakistan's Express Tribune that it would be holding a shura council meeting on Saturday to discuss the government's latest offer (ET). According to the Taliban leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Qari Shakil Ahmed Haqqani, a commander from Mohmand Agency, will preside over the eight-person political council. As for their response, he said: "I think our response could be positive. But the Taliban are likely to make some demands." While he did not get into specifics, he indicated that the group could raise some questions about two of the members of the government's committee. 

Head of Pakistan's central bank resigns 

Yaseen Anwar, the head of Pakistan's central bank, resigned on Thursday as the country's "economy faces soaring inflation and a sharply weaker currency" (WSJ). While Anwar and Shafqat Jalil, a spokesman for the Pakistani Finance Ministry, said the resignation was for personal reasons, the Wall Street Journal notes that it comes "on the eve of a review of the country's performance by the International Monetary Fund." Anwar had been the governor of the State Bank of Pakistan since October 2011, and was the third consecutive bank governor to resign before his term was complete (Dawn). Ashraf Mehmood was appointed as the bank's acting governor on Friday (ET).

Three security officials killed in blast

At least three Pakistani Frontier Corps personnel were killed and four others were wounded in the Jahoo area of Balochistan on Friday when the military vehicle they were traveling in struck a roadside bomb (ET, VOA). A Frontier Corps spokesman said that militants fired upon the vehicle after the blast, though no one has claimed responsibility for the incident (Dawn).

Location, location, location

As the start of a Sindh cultural festival in Pakistan's Indus Valley nears, the fight over the festival's location is heating up, with conservationists asking UNESCO to stop the part of the event being held on a World Heritage site (BBC, Dawn, ET). The opening ceremony is scheduled to take place among the ruins of Mohenjo-daro, the world's oldest surviving city. The festival is the brainchild of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the head of the Pakistan People's party and the son of former president Asif Ali Zardari and former prime minister Benazir Bhutto. While Zardari has dismissed the criticisms over his choice of venue, saying that organizers are taking the utmost care to protect the ruins, others say that the historic city is no place for heavy spotlights and lasers. 

-- Bailey Cahall


India lifts gas subsidies in bid to woo voters 

India's cabinet agreed on Thursday to raise the cap on the sale of subsidized cooking gas from 9 to 12 cylinders per household per year, a move that is designed to win over voters but is likely to strain government finances (Indian Express, NDTV, WSJ, Live Mint, Times of India). The federal oil ministry estimated that the move would cost the government at least 33 billion rupees ($525 million), in addition to the 460 billion rupees ($7.34 billion) it already pays in cooking gas subsidies each year.

The government also suspended the transfer of the subsidy to bank accounts linked to Aadhaar unique identity numbers, ordering a committee to look into the system after complaints from consumers who don't have linked bank accounts (Economic Times, The Hindu). Consumers will instead pay the subsidized price to oil marketing companies, which will receive a subsidy from the government.

Raghuram Rajan, the governor of the Reserve Bank of India, questioned the decision in an interview on Thursday evening, calling it a "misdirected subsidy" (Business Standard). A portion of the country's population benefits from subsidized gas, he said, but "beyond a certain point, you are reaching people who can afford to pay for it... If you are subsidizing 97 percent of the population, you are basically subsidizing people who are paying for it themselves." 

The increased subsidy is expected to put further pressure on India's already-strained government finances. Government data released on Friday showed that India had already spent 95.2 percent of its full-year deficit target in the nine months from April 2013 to December 2013 (Economic Times, Business Standard). Finance Minister P. Chidambaram has repeatedly committed to not exceeding the deficit target of 4.8 percent of GDP for the fiscal year, which ends March 31. Instead, officials said the deficit would likely be met by cutting funds for ministries like rural and urban development, as well as defense and education.

Trade ministry seeks to limit Chinese FDI in railways

India's trade ministry has revised a proposal to allow 100 percent foreign direct investment (FDI) in its domestic railway system, after the home ministry raised concerns that Chinese firms may invest in projects near the India-China border (Live Mint). Instead, the ministry has proposed setting up a commission under the railways ministry to evaluate FDI proposals on an individual basis for national security concerns, according to an internal ministry note. The department sought approval for 100 percent FDI in railway projects, including elevated railway corridors, freight terminals, and high-speed train systems in order to modernize and expand India's rail network, in August 2013 (Business Standard).

Five India-made cars fail crash tests 

Five of India's most popular car models have failed independent crash tests, a British car-safety group said Friday (VOA, WSJ, Live Mint). The Global New Car Assessment Program said five models -- the Tata Nano, the Maruti Suzuki Alto 800, the Ford Figo, the Hyundai 110, and the Volkswagen Polo -- collapsed in ways that would likely lead to fatality or serious injury in collisions of 40 miles per hour or more. India is now a major global market and production center for small cars, and the five models together made up about a fifth of the new cars sold in India in 2013. None of the entry-level models had airbags as a standard feature. The cars had apparently been stripped of safety features to make them cheaper for Indian buyers, the BBC reported (BBC). 

U.S. authorities also downgraded India's aviation safety ranking after conducting an audit of the country's regulators in 2013, a move that puts India's ranking on par with that of sub-Saharan Africa countries (NDTV, Economic Times). The downgrade will bar companies such as Air India and Jet Airways from increasing flights to the United States, impose additional safety checks on existing flights to the United States, and force Indian airlines to stop code-sharing agreements with U.S. partners. India's aviation minister called the move "disappointing" and "surprising" on Friday.

Environmental group denies report that Delhi pollution is worse than Beijing

Angel Hsu, the head of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy has denied recent media reports suggesting that it found air quality in the Indian capital, Delhi, to be worse than that of Beijing (BBC). "The EPI [Environmental Preference Index] does not rank cities, nor do the data in the EPI provide any information on city-level performance," Hsu said; the center runs the index. According to Hsu, the index provides country-level, not city-level, performance. On a national scale, India ranks 174 out of 178 countries for air quality, while China ranks at 176. Hsu said a lack of accurate data from India creates a problem for comparison: Beijing reports pollution data on an hourly basis, whereas Delhi's reporting is not consistent or transparent.

-- Ana Swanson

Edited by Peter Bergen.