Pakistani Official: Major Military Op in N. Waziristan; Obama to Pentagon: Prepare Full Afghan Withdrawal; Indian Polling Flawed
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Pakistan prepares for military operation in N. Waziristan
A Pakistani official told the Washington Post's Karen DeYoung on Tuesday that the "government is on the verge of launching a major military offensive in the North Waziristan tribal region after brutal Taliban attacks in recent weeks" (Post). The official added that: "It could be any day," noting that the plans have been shared with senior U.S. officials. Planning for the security operation comes as a halt in U.S. drone strikes enters its third month and high-level meetings between security officials in both countries. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of U.S. Central Command, and CIA Director John Brennan were in Pakistan last week, meeting with their counterparts, and Asif Yasin Malik, Pakistan's defense secretary, is bringing a security delegation to Washington later this week.
A day after news about the operation broke, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Pakistan's Interior Minister, revealed a new national security policy on Wednesday and told the country's National Assembly that the government has made a major shift in how it will tackle terrorism (Dawn). According to Khan, attacks from militant fighters will now be met with an appropriate military response, though he did not provide more information about what exactly that meant.
The 100-page document is divided into three parts: day-to-day policies, strategic planning, and operational guidelines (ET). Stressing that Pakistan's national security is of "grave importance," Khan added that the policy was still in draft form and that the government would appreciate input from all lawmakers. The policy will undergo a legislative review for about six months and then be formally implemented.
Taliban reject ceasefire, confirm Bhittani's death
Shahidullah Shahid, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, rejected the government's call for an unconditional ceasefire on Tuesday, telling Pakistan's Dawn newspaper: "If this is what we have to do, we would have done it 10 years ago" (Dawn). Shahid added that it is the Pakistani "government which has waged a war against us and it is for the government to end it now." He also confirmed the death of Asmatullah Shaheen Bhittani, a senior Taliban commander, blaming U.S. and Pakistani intelligence agencies for the attack (ET).
Shahid's comments came as the Taliban and government peace committees held an informal meeting on Tuesday, the first time the two groups have met since the process stalled after the Taliban's Mohmand faction killed 23 Pakistani soldiers on Feb. 17 (ET). However, a ceasefire remains one of the government's preconditions to restarting formal negotiations.
Obama orders Pentagon to prepare for full withdrawal
After months of increasingly acrimonious relations between Washington and Kabul, the White House reported on Tuesday that President Barack Obama called Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- the first time the two leaders have spoken since June 2013 -- and told him that he has ordered the Pentagon to formally begin planning for a full withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of the year (AFP, BBC, Pajhwok, RFE/RL, VOA). According to a statement released by the White House press office, Obama's decision was based on the fact that Karzai has "demonstrated that it is unlikely that he will sign" the bilateral security agreement, which would determine the size and scope of any post-2014 U.S. troop presence. However, the press release also said the United States remains ready to keep a "limited" force in Afghanistan after the NATO combat mission ends in December, should "a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government" -- a reference to Karzai's successor -- sign the security pact (NYT, Post).
Obama's call to Karzai comes ahead of key military meetings on Afghanistan, with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, arriving in Afghanistan on Tuesday, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel set to meet with his NATO counterparts in Brussels on Wednesday (AP, Guardian, WSJ). Speaking to reporters in Kabul about Obama's decision on Wednesday, Gen. Dempsey said that: "All this planning for  is important, but we have some really heavy lifting to do for the Afghans this year, and I want to make sure we stay focused on it," noting that U.S. troops would work with Afghan forces to ensure the safety of the presidential elections scheduled for April 5 (DoD, Pajhwok).
When asked about the call on Wednesday, Aimal Faizi, Karzai's spokesman, reiterated that the Afghan president isn't "in a hurry to conclude the security pact," and said he is more focused "on launching a practical reconciliation process" with the Taliban (Pajhwok).
Afghan soldiers dismissed over Kunar attack
Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense dismissed nine army officers on Tuesday for negligence related to a Taliban attack on an army outpost in Kunar province that left 21 soldiers dead on Sunday; several others were kidnapped (BBC, RFE/RL). According to a ministry statement, brigade, battalion, and unit commanders and several military intelligence chiefs were among those to lose their jobs; the officers could also face prosecution. The attack was the deadliest single assault on Afghan security forces since September 2013, when 18 soldiers were killed in Badakhshan province.
AP photographer Muhammed Muheisen, known for his haunting images of Afghan refugee children in Pakistan, has released a new series of images -- focusing this time on the lives of trained monkeys in Pakistani cities (AP). Though animal rights advocates argue that the training of monkeys is in violation of the country's wildlife laws, Muheisen notes that they can be an important source of income for their trainers. According to Ataullah Niazi, one such trainer, it can take more than "three months to train a monkey to dance, salute, shake hands and perform the other tricks needed." But once trained, Niazi's monkeys help him earn around 500 rupees ($5.00) a day, which helps him feed his family of eight.
-- Bailey Cahall
Sting operation proves opinion polls fake
A Hindi TV channel, News Express, carried out a sting operation on eleven polling agencies and discovered that the opinion polls were willingly manipulated. Reporters posing as lobbyists from political parties were offered different sets of data, based on whether or not they were willing to pay a higher rate for a more favorable poll result (Hindustan Times).
Reacting to the news, Election Commissioner V.S. Sampath told reporters that the voting watchdog had warned the government about spurious polls in the past, and had addressed the issue with political parties in 2004. "The ball is now in the government's court," he said. The Election Commission had previously suggested that opinion polls be banned ahead of elections, a move that has been under consideration with the government for over a month (Times of India). However, the Aam Aadmi Party's Yogendra Yadav did not support an outright ban, instead suggesting that a regulatory body was needed to oversee the polls (NDTV).
Modi win unlikely to lift economy, says Moody's
Even a win by Narendra Modi, the BJP's "business-friendly" pick for prime minister, is unlikely to lift the Indian economy in 2014, a new report by rating agency Moody's said on Wednesday (Economic Times). The report, titled "India Underwhelms," noted that: "The May elections offer the chance for better governance, especially if the business-friendly Narendra Modi becomes prime minister, but it will be a long road for the economy...as there is little on the horizon to lift the economy in 2014."
Although inflation and the current account deficit have receded in recent months, growth seems unlikely to pick up much from the current rate. The report said GDP figures are likely to show that the economy grew at about 4.8 percent in the third quarter, slightly below the government's estimate of 4.9 percent growth for the year. The report also projected that the current account deficit will narrow further to 2.4 percent of GDP in 2014, down from 4.8 percent last year.
BJP reaches out to Muslims with apology
The BJP reached out to Muslims on Tuesday, ahead of parliamentary elections, and apologized for any "mistake" or "shortcoming" in the past, asking the community not to listen to "propaganda" spread by the rival Congress party (Times of India, NDTV). "Please note that whenever, wherever if there has been any mistake and shortcoming on our part, I assure you that we will apologize to you by bowing our heads," said BJP chief Rajnath Singh while addressing a gathering of Muslims in New Delhi. The party plans to convene at least 1,000 conferences over the next few months to woo Muslims and allay their "misconceptions." Many Muslims have opposed the BJP due to Narendra Modi's controversial role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, an ethnic clash in which thousands, mostly Muslims, were killed.
As India's elections draw closer, political spoofs are becoming increasingly popular on YouTube, attracting millions of viewers (WSJ India Realtime). A Congress ad declaring that "it's not rocket science" to justify why a country with half its population under 30 needs a young leader, was turned into a spoof by Modi supporters in Dubai titled: "it's not rocket science, it's pocket science," taking potshots at the Congress-led government's management of the economy. Another by comedy troop, All India Bakchod, pokes fun at former Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who is given the moniker "Yo Yo Kejru Singh" and has him rapping about his "middle class homies" and "aam honeys" while cruising the mean streets of Delhi in his humble Wagon R.
Another parody, by Hindi channel Aaj Tak, shows a cartoon Modi dreaming of becoming prime minister, visiting the White House, and addressing the country from the parapet of the Red Fort-- only to be woken from his slumber by current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress leader Sonia Gandhi.
-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson
Edited by Peter Bergen.
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