Karzai in Secret Contact with Taliban; Pakistan Peace Talks Delayed; British Role in 1984 Golden Temple Attack
Event Notices: "Churchill's First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans," a book discussion with Con Coughlin, WEDNESDAY, 12:15 - 1:45 PM (NAF); "Afghanistan: A Distant War," a book discussion with Robert Nickelsberg, WEDNESDAY, 4:30 - 6:00 PM (SAIS).
Karzai conducting secret talks with Taliban
Afghan President Hamid Karzai "has been engaged in secret contacts with the Taliban about reaching a peace agreement without the involvement of his American and Western allies, further corroding already strained relations with the United States," the New York Times reported on Monday (NYT). According to Afghan and Western officials who spoke to the Times, the contacts were initiated by the Taliban in November 2013, shortly before the loya jirga (grand council) met to discuss the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). While the contacts have not yielded any tangible agreements, causing some to question the seriousness of the Taliban's intentions, Aimal Faizi, Karzai's spokesman, confirmed the talks were ongoing, saying, "The last two months have been very positive." He added that: "These parties were encouraged by the president's stance on the bilateral security agreement and his speeches afterwards," helping to explain some of Karzai's more bellicose rhetoric.
The Times' report comes as President Obama is expected to meet with senior defense officials on Tuesday to discuss the future of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (Reuters, TOLO News). The meeting will occur one day after White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters at his daily press conference: "We're not renegotiating the BSA," reiterating the government's stance that the security pact - which will determine the size and scope of any U.S. troop presence within Afghanistan once the NATO combat mission ends in December - needs to be signed in a matter of weeks, not months (Pajhwok). Karzai has so far refused to sign the BSA, saying it is a matter for the next president to consider; national elections will be held in April.
Without a signed BSA, the United States is quietly continuing to drawdown its forces, Pajhwok Afghan News reported on Tuesday (Pajhwok). While current troop levels are at 34,000 -- a target set by President Obama -- officials said the drawdown is expected to continue until later this summer, or until they reach the troop levels outlined in the BSA, should it be signed.
Report: U.S. troop morale remains high
While a recent opinion poll conducted by the Pew Research Center and USA Today found that approximately 40 to 50 percent of Americans believe the United States has failed to achieve its goal in Afghanistan, a new report by the U.S. Army shows that American troops in Afghanistan had higher morale and suffered fewer mental health issues in 2013, as they handed off more security duties to the Afghan forces and saw less combat themselves (AP). Based on a battlefield survey of and personal interviews with nearly 900 soldiers that were conducted in June and July, the report says the rates of soldiers with depression, anxiety, acute stress, and suicidal tendencies were lower than in previous surveys. And 20.2 percent of those surveyed said their morale was high or very high, as compared to 14.7 percent and 16.3 percent in 2012 and 2010, respectively.
Peace talks with Taliban delayed
After reports that the recently-formed government and Taliban peace committees would meet in Islamabad on Monday and then Tuesday to discuss a plan for the talks, multiple media outlets reported on Tuesday that the preliminary discussions have been called off (BBC, VOA). According to the reports, the four-member government committee has sought clarification from the Pakistani Taliban on a number of issues. While the government committee has not provided further details about what those issues are, the Washington Post's Tim Craig reported on Monday that some Taliban officials have begun circulating a list of "demands they want to pursue in the talks, including a ban on women appearing in public in jeans or without head scarves, the release of all Taliban prisoners, immunity for the group's commanders, the establishment of Islamic courts, a complete withdrawal of the Pakistan army from tribal areas and compensation for the victims of U.S. drone strikes," a list that "has shocked Pakistan's political and cultural elite" (Post). Irfan Siddiqui, a member of the committee, said they would release a more detailed statement about the talks later on Tuesday (Dawn).
The delay was another early blow to the Pakistani government's most recent attempts at peace talks with the militant organization, with Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, and Mufti Kifayatullah, a leader of Jamaat-e-Ulema Islam religious party, both refusing to be a part of the Taliban's peace committee. While former ambassador Rustum Shah Mohmand will represent the PTI on the government's committee, no replacement has been announced for Kifayatullah (BBC, Dawn).
Religious cleric Maulana Samiul Haq -- known as the "Father of the Taliban" and a member of the Taliban's committee -- expressed his disappointment in the government's decision to delay the meeting on Tuesday, saying the negotiators should have shown up, even if only for a few minutes (ET). He also said the government committee should have contacted them first, noting that the Taliban committee, which includes former cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz and Muhammad Ibrahim, a leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami religious party, waited for two hours, wondering if the government's team would appear or not. Bonus read: "The Pakistani Taliban's P.R. Offensive," Huma Yusuf (NYT).
Security for Musharraf tops Rs.100 million
Pakistan's Express Tribune newspaper reported on Tuesday that the country's expenses to provide security for former president Pervez Musharraf have crossed the Rs.100-million-mark (approximately. $950,000) in just nine months (ET). Musharraf, who has been under house arrest since April 2013 in connection to a number of ongoing legal cases against him, is currently being guarded by over 400 police officers and Ranger personnel. According to police sources that spoke to the paper, the "extraordinary security given to a single person has taken a heavy toll on the overall performance of the Islamabad Police, which are facing an acute shortage of security staff;" each police station in Islamabad has about 50-60 staff members, making Musharraf's security detail the equivalent of about eight stations. The sources added that for every hearing in the different cases against the ex-military ruler, whether he appears in court or not, Pakistani security agencies have to make arrangements that cost around Rs.100,000 (nearly $950) a day.
Rock the vote
As the 2014 campaign season kicks off in Afghanistan, music promoters Argus and Sound Central announced on Monday that they will be holding a "2014 Election Anthem" contest, an effort "to prove that democracy is cool" (RFE/RL). The contest allows Afghans of any age and gender to upload their own lyrics over ready-made rock, rap, "fusion," or traditional music tracks. While the lyrics must be election-related and can be in Pashtu or Dari, the contest organizers emphasized that they cannot promote or refer to any specific political parties or individual candidates. The winner, which will be selected from a list of 10 finalists, will receive $1,000.
-- Bailey Cahall
Britain admits to role in planning 1984 raid on Golden Temple
In a statement to the British parliament on Tuesday afternoon, the United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary William Hague admitted to Britain's role in helping plan an attack on Amritsar's Golden Temple in 1984 (Reuters, Telegraph). Hague said an official investigation had proved British military officials had advised India on removing dissident Sikh forces then housed inside the Amritsar shrine, but said this advice had "limited impact on the tragic events that unfolded three months later" where over a thousand people were killed in a military offensive named "Operation Bluestar." Hague added that the United Kingdom had received no advance warning of the attack and that there had been no link to British defense sales. The statement follows last month's revelation, in which documents released under Britain's 30-year rule showed that former prime minister Margaret Thatcher had sent an officer from the Special Air Service to advise India on the raid on the Golden Temple.
Delhi cabinet clears Jan Lokpal bill
The Delhi cabinet cleared the Jan Lokpal bill on a Monday, marking the passage of landmark anti-corruption legislation that appoints an independent body to investigate corruption cases (The Hindu, Economic Times, First Post). The bill provides legal protections, for the first time, to whistleblowers and other witnesses in corruption trials, requires timely investigations and filings of charges, and bars "special privileges" for officials, including the chief minister and council of ministers. Those found guilty of corruption may receive a sentence of life imprisonment, while business entities found guilty of corruption will be liable for five times the loss they cause to the exchequer.
Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, whose Aam Aadmi Party made passing the Jan Lokpal bill a key election promise, presided over the bill's signing on Tuesday. Kejriwal had promised to pass the bill by the first week of February, after assuming office in December 2013. The bill will now go directly to the state assembly, to be convened on Feb.13. Hours after the bill was passed, the Congress party criticized Kejriwal's government for "flouting Constitutional norms" by not sending the proposed legislation to the Union Home Ministry for approval first (Financial Express).
Government slashes gas prices to woo voters
The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government slashed the prices of compressed natural gas by 30 percent and piped cooking gas by 20 percent on Monday, moves that were widely seen as attempts to woo voters in the run-up to parliamentary elections (CNN-IBN, Indian Express). The central government will cut the amount of gas supplied through an administered pricing mechanism to non-core sectors such as petrochemical plants, steel units, and refineries, instead channeling the cheaper gas toward city distribution networks.
The changes will only last until the end of March, however, after which new pricing guidelines for domestically produced gas will take effect. Under this formula, gas prices are expected to double to $8.40 per million British thermal units.
"It has nothing to do with the elections," Petroleum Minister Veerappa Moily said of the decision. "Our target is always to benefit the common man. If it helps the common man, we are happy. If some political party also stands to benefit, it is incidental."
Row over Italian marines could stall India-EU agreement
Recent statements by European officials suggest that a lack of resolution over a dispute involving two Italian marines may affect discussions over the India-European Union Free Trade Agreement (FTA), already stalled for months (Times of India, NYT). In an address to journalists on Tuesday, Germany's Ambassador to India Michael Steiner said there could be progress on the FTA if "the atmosphere was right" and that it was in the interest of India, Italy, and the European Union that the matter be resolved smoothly. The union's Industry Commissioner Antonio Tijani had previously tweeted: "can we keep negotiating FTA India when death penalty is considered against EU citizens fighting sea piracy?"
The case involves two Italian marines aboard the merchant vessel Enrica Lexie who, in February 2012, fired at and killed two Indian fishermen on suspicion of being pirates. The two marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, were arrested shortly after in Kochi on grounds that the incident took place within Indian territory. The case turned into a major diplomatic row when the marines returned to Italy to vote but refused to return to India to face trial; India detained the Italian ambassador in retaliation. The two marines are presently housed at the Italian embassy in New Delhi.
Sachin Tendulkar, C.N.R. Rao receive Bharat Ratna
A ceremony was held Tuesday morning to award the Bharat Ratna, India's highest civilian honor to Indian cricket hero Sachin Tendulkar and eminent scientist C.N.R. Rao (Times of India, Indian Express). The recently retired Tendulkar is the first sportsman to receive the award and, at 40, is also its youngest recipient. Rao is the fourth scientist after C.V. Raman, M. Visvesvaraya, and former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to receive the award. The ceremony took place at the Indian presidential palace, Rashtrapati Bhavan, and the awards were presented by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee. Only 41 people have received the Bharat Ratna thus far.
-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson
Edited by Peter Bergen.
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