The South Asia Channel

India's RSS Terror Links Allegedly Exposed; Pakistan Peace Talks Begin; Sayyaf Starts Afghan Presidential Campaign

Event Notices: "Surge: An Insider's Account of the Controversial Strategy that Changed the Outcome of the Iraq War," a book discussion with Col. Peter R. Mansoor, TODAY, 12:15 - 1:30 PM (NAF); "Afghanistan Development Goals: 2014 and Beyond," a discussion about USAID's future goals in Afghanistan with Donald "Larry" Sampler Jr., the Assistant to the Administrator in the agency's Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, MONDAY, 12:15 - 1:45 PM (NAF).


RSS terror links allegedly exposed in magazine interview

An interview in India's Caravan magazine with jailed Hindu monk Swami Aseemanand allegedly implicates the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group, in several terror attacks that targeted Muslims (Economic Times, Indian Express, Firstpost, NDTV). The interview describes a 2005 meeting Aseemanand had with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, in which Bhagwat allegedly gave his "blessings" to the attacks and said: "It is very important that it be done. But you should not link it to the Sangh." The attacks in question are the 2007 explosions on board the Samjhauta Express train, in Hyderabad's Mecca Masjid, and in Rajasthan's Ajmer Sharif Sufi shrine. 

Aseemanand is in jail for his role in the blast on the Samjhuata Express, a train that ran between India and Pakistan, which killed 70 people. The interview has created a political firestorm since the RSS's political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is the largest opposition party and faces national elections in less than three months. Aseemanand's lawyers have denied the interview ever took place. To prove the veracity of its claims, Caravan has said it will release transcripts of the interview shortly. The magazine has also been receiving threatening calls and throngs of pro-RSS supporters have been protesting outside its offices in Mumbai and Delhi (Hindustan Times)

Supreme Court halts potential Delhi blackout

India's Supreme Court ordered state-run power producer NTPC Ltd. on Friday to continue supplying power to two distribution companies in New Delhi until March 26, a move that averts a potential blackout in the capital next week (Live Mint, Business Standard, WSJ, Economic Times). The ruling was the result of an escalating conflict between the newly elected Aam Aadmi Party, which has promised New Delhi residents cheaper electricity, and distributors, who complain that low, government-set prices are straining their finances and leading to power cuts. The next hearing for the case is set for March 26.

The judges also ordered BSES Yamuna Power and BSES Rajdhani Power, both units of the Reliance Infrastructure energy company, to pay roughly $8 million to NTPC as part of its outstanding dues. NTPC, which is owed $70 million by the two companies, threatened to cut off supply to BSES Yamuna Power beginning Feb. 11 if the company did not pay its bills. The company had complained that lower tariffs and a revenue shortfall left it unable to pay. BSES said on Tuesday that it had incurred losses of more than $2.4 billion by selling electricity to consumers at below cost. On Monday, the Delhi government asked the local electricity regulator to revoke the distributors' licenses if they halted their supplies to the city. 

India to double foreign service posts 

The Indian government has decided to double the strength of its 845-person diplomatic corps in the next few years to engage more proactively with the world, the Economic Times reported on Friday (Economic Times). According to the paper, Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid announced the plans at a meeting chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in January, as India's diplomatic corps looks weak when compared to other emerging markets.

Singh's United Progressive Alliance government had earlier diluted a 2008 plan by the foreign ministry to double the corps' strength, instead deciding to expand the agency by adding 32 new inductees each year over a 10-year period. This plan was been fully implemented, but the foreign ministry struggled to find 32 worthy candidates each year. Between 2011 and 2013, however, the government recruited 107 diplomatic officers at a rate of nearly 36 per year. 

-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson


Government peace committee lays out conditions for talks 

With the first meeting between the Pakistani government and Taliban peace committees successfully concluded, details are starting to emerge about the government's conditions for future talks. The government's peace committee said it wants the talks to take place within the limits of Pakistan's constitution, and has called for restricting the scope of the talks to the areas most affected by militancy, as well as a ceasefire (BBC). It also asked the Taliban to clarify the role of a separate nine-member committee they have created, and said the talks should not be protracted (Pajhwok). However, the government also indicated that if talks fail, it will launch a military offensive against the group.

According to the reports, the Taliban's representatives did not make their own conditions on future talks, though past demands have included the imposition of strict Islamic law, the release of Taliban fighters from Pakistani jails, and the withdrawal of government troops from the country's tribal region (VOA). Instead the Taliban representatives are traveling to North Waziristan to discuss the government's position with the militant organization. Rahimullah Yousafzai, one of the government negotiators, said: "They will convey our position, and whatever response they have to that, it will be discussed in the next meeting" (WSJ).

The two teams have also expressed a desire to meet with the other's direct leadership. Maulana Samiul Haq, one of the Taliban negotiators, said they would like to meet with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif (no relation), and Lt. Gen. Zahir ul-Islam, the head of the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (AP, Dawn, NYT). The government team has also said it wants to meet directly with the Taliban's shura council.

While both peace committees described the talks as "positive," "cordial," and "friendly," outside reactions to the first day of talks were mixed. Afghanistan's High Peace Council welcomed the talks and said that Afghanistan's own Taliban militants could "learn a good lesson" from their Pakistani counterparts (RFE/RL). Imran Khan, the leader of the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party which controls the government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told Bloomberg News that he thinks the talks will fail and a subsequent military operation will bring more terrorism (Bloomberg). Khan's comments to the paper came days after he was nominated by the Taliban to serve on their peace committee and he turned down the position.

Changes being made to U.S. "kill list" 

Shortly after the Washington Post reported that the United States' had dramatically curtailed its use of drone strikes in Pakistan, at the Pakistani government's request, the Wall Street Journal noted on Wednesday that changes are also being made to the CIA's "kill list," narrowing the scope of the controversial program (WSJ). A senior U.S. official told the Journal that the list is not self-replenishing, that names aren't being automatically added as other names are removed. The official went on to say that the change will enable the CIA to focus on a more limited number of high-value targets and ultimately, help them conclude the program. The CIA has not commented on the report. 

When asked about the Post's report, Tasnim Aslam, a spokesperson for Pakistan's Foreign Office, said the government had not asked for a decrease in the number of U.S. drone strikes in the country, but a complete halt to the operations (ET). In her weekly press briefing, she reiterated the government's stance that the strikes violate Pakistan's sovereignty.

Going for the gold

Mohammad Karim, Pakistan's sole representative in the 2014 Winter Olympics, told Pakistan's Express Tribune that he "can't wait to ski on the Sochi snow" (ET). Living in Gilgit-Baltistan, Karim, only the second Pakistani to compete in the winter games, first learned to ski on some of the world's highest mountains -- and on wooden skis. Now, as a member of the Pakistani ski federation, which is run by the country's air force, he has been able to train in Japan and Austria and compete internationally. Karim admits that "it will be tough among the world's best but I have practised hard and I will do my best to leave my mark at the highest level." He will be competing in the giant slalom and is hoping for a top 50 finish; Mohammad Abbas, the first Pakistani winter Olympian, finished 79th in the men's giant slalom at the 2010 games in Vancouver.


Sayyaf kicks off presidential campaign 

Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, a man who "has been called a mentor to accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed," launched his presidential campaign in Kabul on Thursday before thousands of supporters (AP). Though Sayyaf is a former warlord, accused of numerous war crimes, the Associated Press notes that his platform closely resembled those of some of the more moderate candidates. At his first political rally, Sayyaf spoke of fighting corruption, boosting security and the rule of law, and possibly signing a security deal with the United States (Pajhwok, TOLO News). While he has promised to implement strict Islamic law throughout the country, he also pledged his support for women's rights saying: "Sisters who hear us in their homes should be confident that we won't only defend your rights, but we will also protect your honor and dignity" (WSJ). Western officials and Afghan observers, however, remain skeptical of a Sayyaf presidency. Bonus read: "'The Swordsman:' The Taliban's public enemy number one," Ahmad Shafi (SouthAsia). 

ECC may not be ready for April elections 

Afghanistan's Election Complaints Commission (ECC) may not be ready in time for April's presidential election, Reuters reported on Thursday, due to a number of funding and staffing problems (Reuters). With the two-month campaigning season officially beginning on Sunday, the ECC "says it has received only a fraction of its funding from foreign donors because the [Afghan] government has yet to approve the appointment of provincial officials." The ECC's nearly $13 million budget is managed by the United Nations, which has said it cannot release the money pledged to the election watchdog until those positions are filled. With this election marking the first political transition between two elected leaders in Afghanistan's history, the inability of the ECC to open provincial offices is raising concerns about transparency as the election proceeds (TOLO News).

Dogs of war

News broke on Wednesday that the Taliban had captured one of the coalition's military working dogs, something the Washington Post's Ernesto Londoño says "seems to be a first" in "the annals of prisoner-of-war videos" (Post). The Belgian Malinois, who holds the rank of colonel, looks more confused than terrified in the video posted on the militant organization's Twitter account (AFP, VOA). Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said the dog was captured after a long firefight between coalition forces and Taliban fighters in Laghman province last December; Lt. Col. Will Griffin, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, confirmed that a dog has been missing since Dec. 23 but provided no further details. While no one has publicly confirmed the nationality of the dog, officials say "Colonel" was attached to a British special forces unit (BBC, Telegraph).

-- Bailey Cahall 

Edited by Peter Bergen.