The South Asia Channel

U.S. Considers Taliban Prisoner Swap for American POW; Pakistani Peace Talks Suspended; Telangana Vote Clears Lok Sabha

Bonus Read: "Empty Economics: Unfortunately for Congress and the BJP, Sloganeering Won't Bring Economic Growth," Milan Vaishnav (Foreign Affairs). 

Afghanistan

U.S. considers swapping Taliban prisoners for American POW

The Washington Post reported on Monday that the Obama administration has decided to try to resume talks about a prisoner swap with the Afghan Taliban in an effort to free Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009 and is thought to be held by the Pakistan-based Haqqani network (Post). According to officials familiar with the talks, the U.S. government would release five members of the Afghan Taliban who have been held at the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba into Qatari custody. Instead of freeing the men "by ones or twos as a test of Taliban and Qatari intermediaries' ability to make sure the men did not return to militancy," the United States would release them simultaneously. However, the renewed offer has not yet been formally made, and there are no immediate plans for State Department or other officials to travel to Qatar to discuss the plan.

Karzai orders changes in women's rights law

Afghan President Hamid Karzai ordered lawmakers on Monday to make changes to a proposed bill that was criticized for being a major setback for women's rights in Afghanistan (AFP, AP, TOLO News). Article 26 of the new "criminal procedure law" would have prohibited prosecutors from questioning relatives of an alleged abuser, which human rights groups said would strip Afghan women of protections against domestic violence and forced marriages. Aimal Faizi, a spokesman for Karzai, said the draft law would not be enforced unless the Ministry of Justice made certain amendments. While it was unclear what exactly those amendments are, Faizi said the law "will not bar any relative or any family member from testifying against each other or another member of family" (RFE/RL). 

The news came one day after women's rights activists gathered in Kabul and announced that they had created the first Afghan Women Charter (TOLO News). While the charter requires Karzai's signature to become official, those gathered also called on all of the Afghan presidential candidates to be more explicit about their plans to address women's issues in the country. A number of government officials were in attendance, but did not participate in the discussions.

Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan endorses presidential candidate

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan political party endorsed presidential candidate Qutbuddin Hilal on Saturday, according to Ghairat Baheer, a party representative. Hilal, who had entered the race as an independent candidate, previously served as the head of the organization's political commission. Baheer, who holds that position now, told Afghanistan's TOLO News that the decision was made during a party meeting and asked "all of our allies to respect the decision and support him" (TOLO News). Hekmatyar, whose Hezb-e Islami militant group is fighting coalition forces in the country, had previously opposed the elections, but he asked members to take part earlier this year. The move "is likely to cause more problems for the insurgency and is expected to increase the legitimacy of the Afghan presidential elections" (VOA).

U.S. to target freed prisoners if they return to battlefield

The U.S. Defense Department warned on Friday that any of the 65 Afghan militants who were released from the Parwan Detention Facility last Thursday "risk being hunted down by U.S. forces if they return to the battlefield" (RFE/RL). While Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said none of the freed detainees are currently considered "legitimate targets," he indicated that they would be if they "choose to return to the fight." Kirby also took issue with the Afghan government's claims that there wasn't enough evidence to hold the men, saying: "All of these individuals are people who should not be walking the streets... And we had strong evidence on all of them, evidence that has been ignored, and that's unsatisfactory to us" (CNN).

Taliban mark 25th anniversary of Soviet withdrawal 

The Afghan Taliban celebrated the 25th anniversary of the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan by releasing a statement that said the United States would share a similar fate (Reuters). The group called on Afghans "to deal with today's invaders the same they did with the [sic] yesterday's invaders," and said that: "We want to remind the Americans that we did not accept invaders with their sweet and nice slogans in the past. We eliminated them from the world map. God willing, your destiny will be the same." Bonus read: "Soviet-Era Journalist, Face Of Afghan War, Looks Back On Pullout," Claire Bigg (RFE/RL). 

Pakistan

Peace talks suspended over soldiers' deaths

Reconciliation talks between the Pakistani government and the country's Taliban fighters were suspended indefinitely on Tuesday after members of the militant organization's Mohmand faction said late Sunday night that they had killed 23 soldiers in their captivity since 2010 (AP, Dawn, ET, NYT, VOA). After the announcement, Irfan Siddiqui, a member of the government's peace committee, said there was no point in meeting the Taliban's representatives as planned on Monday, but Mohammad Ibrahim, an intermediary for the Taliban, said the two groups should have still met and discussed the issue (ET). Maulana Yousuf Shah, another Taliban negotiator, said it was "regrettable" that the government committee had branded the mediators as the Taliban, when they are simply the group's representatives in the talks (Dawn). However, Shah noted that all of the Taliban negotiators believed in maintaining contacts with the government team. 

While a Taliban faction claimed responsibility for the killings -- which have not yet been independently verified -- it was unclear if the group's central command had endorsed the action (Post, Reuters). Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the central organization, said Monday that the killings "appear to be connected to the killing of 23 of our people by the Pakistani forces since 28 January," but added that they were contacting the group in Mohmand for more information (BBC, ET). The incident came as the two sides were close to negotiating a ceasefire for the duration of the talks.

Former Afghan Taliban minister killed in Peshawar 

Maulavi Abdul Raqib, a former minister for the Afghan Taliban, was shot and killed on Monday by unknown gunmen in Peshawar (ET, Pajhwok, RFE/RL, VOA). Raqib, who was the refugee minister for the Taliban and the only Tajik member of their cabinet, was running the Madrassa-e Sultania, a religious seminary in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province's capital city. No one has claimed responsibility for his death.

Raqib was one of several powerful senior Taliban figures that have been meeting in the United Arab Emirates in hopes of re-launching peace talks with Afghanistan's High Peace Council, defying orders by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to avoid direct contact with the government (AP, WSJ). It is unclear what effect his death will have on those efforts. 

Iran threatens to send guards to Pakistan 

Iran's Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli announced on Monday that the country would send its forces into Pakistan to free five kidnapped border guards if Islamabad doesn't take measures to secure their release (BBC, RFE/RL). Fazli's comments came about a week after a little-known Sunni Islamist Baluch militant group called Jaish-ul Adl published photos of the soldiers on its Facebook page.

According to reports, the guards were captured on Feb. 6 in Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan province and then taken across the border into Pakistan (Reuters). 

Musharraf appears in court for first time 

Former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf appeared in court in Islamabad for the first time on Tuesday to face treason charges related to his suspension of the constitution and enforcing a state of emergency in 2007 (AP, BBC, RFE/RL, VOA). The ex-military ruler was first ordered to appear in court on Dec. 24, 2013, but missed several hearings due to repeated bomb scares and health issues. However, Musharraf was not indicted by the court and returned to the Armed Forces Institute of Cardiology in Rawalpindi, where he has been seeking treatment for heart trouble since Jan. 2 (Dawn, ET). 

Drone activist released in Rawalpindi

Kareem Khan, an anti-drone activist from North Waziristan, was released in Rawalpindi late on Thursday night, more than a week after he had been abducted from his home (AJE). Khan, who lost his brother and son in a 2009 drone strike, told reporters that between 18 and 20 armed men kidnapped him from his home on Feb. 5 and tortured him while he was in captivity. According to Khan, his interrogators "didn't mention drones... [They only] asked me about some names I couldn't recognize and what connection I had to them" (CNN). While it is still unclear who kidnapped Khan, his release came just days after a Pakistani court ordered the government to release him or provide some explanation for his abduction. 

-- Bailey Cahall 

Telangana bill passes India's upper house

The Lok Sabha, India's lower house of parliament, passed a controversial bill on Tuesday, creating the new state of Telangana amid protests from central ministers and some members of parliament (Business Standard, Economic Times, Times of India). The Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Bill of 2014 was adopted by voice vote after the main opposition BJP lent its support to the ruling Congress party. However, an amendment to make Hyderabad, the current capital of Andhra Pradesh, the capital of Telangana was defeated. 

Parliamentarians from Seemandhra, the parts of Andhra Pradesh that will remain after the creation of Telangana, opposed the bifurcation, carrying placards and shouting slogans in favor of a unified state. The Indian government blocked television channels from broadcasting the proceedings, a move which provoked objections among the opposition. The bill will immediately go to the Rajya Sabha, India's upper house of parliament, according to Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath. Sixteen members of parliament were suspended last Thursday after a protest of the bill turned into pandemonium, as one parliamentarians sprayed his colleagues with pepper spray.

India announces interim budget, rallies markets

India's Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram announced an interim budget on Monday, the tenth to be overseen by the current Congress-led coalition, for the April-June quarter. The budget of 5.6 trillion rupees ($90.4 billion) was a narrower figure than analysts expected, and included tax cuts on some goods (AP, Economic Times, Post, WSJ). In his speech, Chidambaram blamed a shaky global macroecenomic climate for being the most decisive factor facing India's economy and declared the primary objectives for the 2014 budget to be fiscal consolidation, price stability, self-sufficiency in food production, and quicker project implementation among others.

Spending on government subsidies for food and fuel remained steady, including an estimated $20 billion program to subsidize grains approved last year, while defense spending rose 10 percent. The budget also included temporary cuts in excise taxes on capital goods, automobiles, motorbikes, and locally made cell phones, as well as a temporary tax hike for those with incomes over $186,000 (BBC). 

Chidambaram projected a budget deficit of 4.6 percent of GDP for the financial year ending March 31, below the government's target of 4.8 percent. He also predicted that the new budget, if carried out for the full year, would bring the deficit down further to 4.1 percent of GDP by March 2015. India's savings rate, at 30.1 percent, is a slight reduction from the previous year's 34.8 percent.

After the Indian elections in May, the new government will determine the full-year budget. India's markets have rallied nearly 300 points since the government announced its interim budget of 2014. Global rating agency Moody's said Tuesday that the budget was in line with policy assumptions underpinning its' rating for India, but that the country's fiscal position remains "weak" (Business Standard).

Kejriwal resigns after two months in office

After a dramatic legislative session on Friday, in which the introduction of the Jan Lokpal Bill was struck down several times, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and every elected member of his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) resigned in protest (The Hindu, Guardian, NYT). Speaking to the press about his resignation, Kejriwal blamed his decision to go after one of the country's biggest industrialists, Mukesh Ambani, saying it caused the Congress party and BJP to work together to stall legislative reform. Kejriwal has now recommended the assembly be dissolved and fresh elections held. A senior policy official from the AAP, Aatishi Marlena, reacted to the news by saying that: "Everyone in the AAP is very happy with this decision. There is clearly no point in being in government when you can't pursue your core agenda." In the absence of a clear majority, a system of ‘President's Rule' has now been imposed on Delhi, effectively putting Lt. Gov. Najeeb Jung in charge of the state (NDTV).

Italy protests marine case delay, recalls Ambassador

A delay in resolving the court case involving two Italian marines has caused further strain in Indo-Italian relations (Times of India, WSJ). On Tuesday, a hearing in the Supreme Court was postponed by a week because the Indian government has not yet decided which law it would try the marines under. In response to the "new and unacceptable delay," Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino released a statement saying: "given India's evident incapacity in handling this case, Italy will continue and intensify action to defend its sovereign rights in line with international law." Italian ambassador to India Daniele Mancini has also been called to Rome to take part in fresh consultations on resolving the case. The Supreme Court will now hear the case on Feb. 24, when it is expected to give its final order. The marines are being tried for killing two fishermen whom they thought were pirates off the Malabar coast in February 2012.

Tarun Tejpal charged with rape 

Tarun Tejpal, the editor of India's Tehelka magazine who was charged with raping and sexually assaulting a staff reporter during a November encounter, alleged on Tuesday that the case against him is a political vendetta (Times of India). "There is no piece of evidence against me. Ask for CCTV footage," Tejpal told reporters as he was escorted out of the high court on Tuesday; his bail plea was deferred until March 4.

Police in the coastal state of Goa filed a 2,846-page charge sheet against Tejpal on Monday, including testimony from 152 witnesses (NYT, WSJ, Guardian, BBC). The document charged Tejpal with "outraging the modesty of a woman," sexual harassment, wrongful restraint, wrongful confinement, rape, rape by a person in a position of trust or authority, and rape by a person in a position of control or dominance. If convicted, he could face a prison sentence of more than seven years. In keeping with Indian law, the name of the woman he is accused of attacking has not been released. Tejpal, one of India's most prominent journalists, had spent 76 days in jail before Tuesday's hearing.

Death sentence commuted for Rajiv Gandhi killers

India's Supreme Court commuted the death sentences for three men found guilty of killing former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi on Tuesday, citing delays in the case (Guardian, BBC, Telegraph, WSJ, Times of India). Justice P. Sathasivam sentenced the three to life in prison on the grounds that it had taken 11 years for successive Indian presidents to grant a mercy plea. In January, the Indian Supreme Court commuted the death sentences of 15 convicts due to delays in their prosecution, a decision that has prompted many to ask if the world's largest democracy is rethinking its laws on capital punishment. The three killers -- Murugan, Santhan, and Perarivalan, all of whom go by only one name -- were members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a mainly Sri Lankan-based separatist movement. 

-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson

Edited by Peter Bergen. 

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