21 Afghan Soldiers Killed by Taliban; Modi Talks Tough on China; Taliban Commander Killed in Pakistan
Bonus Read: "Keeping Calm and Carrying On in Afghanistan," Michael Keating and Matt Waldman (SouthAsia).
21 Afghan soldiers killed in Taliban attack
Twenty-one Afghan soldiers were killed and three were wounded in Kunar province on Sunday when hundreds of Taliban militants attacked an army outpost near the Pakistani border; it was the deadliest single assault on Afghan security forces since last September, when 18 soldiers were killed in Badakhshan province (BBC, Pajhwok, Reuters, TOLO News). A search-and-rescue mission is underway for six soldiers who were also taken hostage (Pajhwok). A battalion of Afghan troops sent in to provide reinforcements was also ambushed by a suicide bomber, though no one was injured in the attack, which occurred two days after Taliban suicide bombers attacked a police compound in the Surobi district just outside of Kabul, killing one Afghan officer and wounding two (WSJ, BBC, RFE/RL).
While the Taliban claimed responsibility for both attacks, Zahir Azimi, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense, also blamed foreign fighters for the assault in Kunar (RFE/RL). One Afghan soldier who was taken prisoner and escaped added that he believed the insurgents had inside help in gaining access to the fortified base (NYT).
The victims of the Kunar attack were honored and remembered on Monday, with Gen. Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, Afghanistan's defense minister, presiding over an honor-guard ceremony in Kabul (AP, Pajhwok, RFE/RL, TOLO News). Mohammadi told the soldiers' family members that: "We will follow their path and defend their blood" (NYT). People also changed their Facebook profile pictures to images honoring the slain soldiers and began raising money for the victims' families in an effort to supplement the meager $1,800 they will receive in death benefits.
Taliban suspend talks with U.S. over prisoner exchange
The Taliban also told international media outlets on Sunday that it had decided to halt Qatari-mediated talks with the United States over a possible prisoner swap due to "complexities," less than a week after the Washington Post reported the Obama administration was considering releasing five Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the United States' only prisoner of war (RFE/RL). According to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, the decision was a result of the "current political crisis in Afghanistan," and a U.S. official confirmed that the suspension was not due to any issue between the Taliban and the United States (AP).
Bergdahl, who is believed to be held by the Haqqani network in Pakistan, has been missing since 2009.
U.S. considers new post-2014 troop option
The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung reported on Sunday that one of the four troop options President Obama is considering for Afghanistan once the NATO combat mission ends in December would leave behind 3,000 troops, though they would be restricted to Kabul and Bagram (Post). While military commanders have repeatedly recommended leaving 10,000 troops in the country, the Defense Department has also been "studying what kind of reduced counterterrorism and training operations it could conduct under the smaller option" favored by some in the White House. While the Pentagon, State Department, and U.S. intelligence community are concerned that anything less than 10,000 troops would severely circumscribe their efforts in other parts of the country, Rear. Adm. John F. Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, reiterated that without a signed security pact with Afghanistan, "[W]e're going to have to start planning for a complete withdrawal."
-- Bailey Cahall
Modi talks tough on China
Narendra Modi, the front-runner to become India's next prime minister, warned Beijing to abandon its territorial ambitions this weekend in a rare foray into foreign policy on the campaign trail (WSJ, FT). China "will have to leave behind its mindset of expansion" and should work for "development and prosperity," Modi said in a speech given from the Himalayan border state of Arunachal Pradesh. Modi sought to portray himself as strong on defense and unafraid of other regional powers, saying, "No power on earth can take away even an inch from India." China refers to Arunachal Pradesh as south Tibet and claims some 35,000 sq. mi. of territory there.
China responded on Monday by saying that it was committed to good neighborliness and cooperative relations (Times of India, NDTV). "I believe all of you can see that China has never waged a war of aggression to occupy an inch of land of other countries," Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters while responding to questions on Modi's remarks. She highlighted that there had been no major confrontation at the India-China border since the 1962 war, calling that "very strong evidence that we have the capability to maintain peace there."
India becomes biggest customer for U.S. weapons
India became the biggest foreign buyer of U.S. weapons in 2013, displacing Saudi Arabia in the top spot after purchasing $1.9 billion in American military equipment, according to research from IHS Jane's (FT). The United States overtook Russia to become India's biggest arms supplier, due partly to Indian purchases of the Boeing C-17A strategic transport aircraft and P-81 Maritime Patrol Aircraft last year. India outpaced China as the biggest arms importer in 2010, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and accounted for nearly 10 percent of the $63 billion international defense market in 2013.
India drops anti-piracy charge for Italian marines
The Indian government on Monday told the Supreme Court not to use a harsh anti-piracy law to try two Italian marines accused of killing two Indian fishermen in 2012 (BBC, Mint, Indian Express, Times of India). The potential use of the law had sparked a diplomatic row between India and Italy: The law carries the death penalty, though the government has previously said it would rule out the death penalty. The two marines, Massimiliano Latorre and Salvatore Girone, remain on bail pending trial at the Italian Embassy in Delhi. The men were guarding an oil tanker off the coast of Kerala when they opened fire on the fishermen, mistaking them for pirates.
So long, good riddance
India marked the end of the 15th Lok Sabha on Friday, as the lower house of parliament concluded its last session. Indian media generally lambasted the parliament, dubbing it the "most disrupted" and "least productive" in history and lamenting the decline of both rhetoric and democracy (BBC, The Hindu). "The 15th Lok Sabha has statistically proved to be the worst in history in terms of passage of bills to become laws," said an editorial in the Asian Age (Asian Age). "The Lower House has many firsts to its credit - and discredit," said the Tribune, noting it was the first time a woman, Meira Kumar, occupied the speaker's chair, as well as the first use of pepper spray in the house (Tribune India). The Tribune said the parliament spent 79 percent of its time on "din," such as the creation of the new state of Telangana and various scams over the 2G and telecommunications networks and coal mine allocations. However, it did pass significant legislation on anti-corruption, food security, land acquisition, foreign investment in retail, the right to education, the protection of whistle-blowers, and the prevention of rape.
"It's no exaggeration to say that India's well-being hinges on the next Parliament walking a healthier route," said the Times of India (Times of India). The next Lok Sabha will form after the conclusion of India's parliamentary elections, which are due by May.
-- Ana Swanson
Senior TTP commander killed in Pakistan
Multiple media outlets reported on Monday that Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, a senior Taliban commander, had been shot and killed by unknown gunmen in North Waziristan (AFP, BBC, Dawn). According to the reports, Bhittani's drivers and two bodyguards were also killed in the incident, which occurred near Miran Shah. While Bhittani's family has confirmed his death, the Taliban have not yet commented on the reports (AP).
Serving as the interim chief of the Taliban after the death of leader Hakimullah Mehsud last year, Bhittani had been on the Pakistan Army's list of 20 most-wanted Taliban commanders and had a $120,000 bounty on his head (RFE/RL). But according to RFE/RL, Bhittani had also been playing a key role in the militant organization's efforts to restart peace talks with the Pakistani government.
Explosion at bus terminal kills 12
At least 12 people were killed and 15 were injured in northwestern Pakistan on Sunday when a bomb ripped through a commuter van at a busy bus terminal in Kohat, around 100 miles from Islamabad (AP). The traffic square is near a police building and several government offices, though Nasir Khan Durrani, the provincial police chief, said the attack seemed to have no specific target (NYT). No one has claimed responsibility for the incident, which occurred as Pakistani forces continued to launch airstrikes against suspected militant compounds, killing nearly 40 insurgents (RFE/RL, VOA).
With militant attacks surging in Pakistan and talks between the government and Taliban peace committees stalled, RFE/RL reports that many Pakistanis are looking for someone to blame (RFE/RL). And according to Twitter, that person appears to be Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan, with #BlameItOnImran trending upwards. While the hashtag, created on Feb. 17, was originally used by users to vent legitimate grievances about Khan and the PTI party, it has "quickly become a catchall," with people blaming him for everything from Pakistan's battered economy and tensions with Iran to the deaths of beloved pets and coffee that tastes like dish water.
-- Bailey Cahall
Edited by Peter Bergen.
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images