Kabul Recognizes Crimean Annexation; India Arrests Alleged Terrorists; Pakistani Peace Committees to Meet This Week
Bonus Read: "Illusion of Safety at Afghan Haven Is Shattered," Matthew Rosenberg and Azad Ahmed (NYT).
Afghanistan recognizes Crimea's right to self-determination
In a snub to its Western backers, Afghanistan joined Syria and Venezuela this weekend to become one of the few countries to publicly support Russia's recent annexation of Crimea (TOLO News). On Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office released a statement saying: "[W]e respect the decision the people of Crimea took through a recent referendum that considers Crimea as part of the Russian Federation" (NYT). In an email to the New York Times, Aimal Faizi, Karzai's spokesman, argued that the Russian annexation of Crimea was a "legitimate move" and that "Afghanistan always respects the free will of the nations on deciding their future."
The Times' report also notes that while "becoming the first Western-backed democracy to express support for the widely denounced referendum in Crimea might seem an odd tack for Afghanistan, which is heavily dependent on assistance from the United States and European countries," "Russia's insistence that it is righting a historical wrong" and that Crimea should have never been ceded to Ukraine, resonates with Afghans, who have long believed they "were unjustly cut off from their brothers and sisters" in Pakistan when Britain created the Durand Line separating the two in 1893.
The move also comes as Moscow is ramping up its investment in Afghanistan. The Washington Post's Kevin Sieff noted on Friday that Russia is "rebuilding the relics of the Soviet occupation and promoting its own political and cultural prowess," by delivering new equipment to old Soviet factories, building a Russian Cultural Center in Kabul, and rehabilitating rundown housing complexes (Post).
Election watchdogs pull observers
Two foreign election observer and support missions pulled their staffs out of Afghanistan over the weekend after Taliban fighters attacked a luxury hotel considered one of the most secure buildings in Kabul last Thursday (Guardian). The moves by the National Democratic Institute and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe come less than two weeks before Afghans head to the polls to vote in the 2014 presidential election, and could undermine confidence in the vote. Jandad Spingar, the director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, told the Guardian newspaper: "It's really bad news. Having international observers in the election is really, really important ... [to] give legitimacy to the process." Many are concerned that the election, which could mark the first peaceful transfer of power between two democratically elected governments, will be a repeat of the 2009 election, when there was widespread fraud and about 20 percent of the votes were thrown out.
Karzai, U.S. delegation discuss BSA
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a bipartisan U.S. congressional delegation met in Kabul on Saturday, but while they discussed the bilateral security agreement (BSA) that would determine the size and scope of any U.S. troop presence that would remain in Afghanistan once the NATO combat mission ends in December, no progress was made. The delegation, led by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), called on Karzai to sign the BSA and asked him to review Afghanistan's repeat releases of prisoners Washington considers security threats (RFE/RL, VOA).
A presidential statement released after the meeting said Karzai "reiterated that the long-standing position of the Afghan people towards the BSA remains unchanged," maintaining his refusal to sign the security pact, though it was approved by a Loya Jirga (grand council) of thousands of Afghan leaders last November. As for the prisoner releases, the statement noted that Karzai "reaffirmed that the releases are conducted on the decision by the relevant judicial and security entities."
While Ayotte stressed that no U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan without a BSA, she also called on President Obama to announce a decision of his plans for future troop levels, saying: "I believe that it is time for our president to do this so that the people of Afghanistan understand that we remain committed in Afghanistan" (AP).
-- Bailey Cahall
India arrests four alleged terrorists, says major attack averted
Indian authorities arrested four alleged members of the banned Indian Mujahideen (IM) group this weekend, averting what they called "a spectacular terror attack" ahead of general elections (BBC, Business Standard, Times of India, Hindustan Times, NDTV, WSJ).
Zia-ur-Rahman, alias Waqas, a Pakistani national, was arrested on Saturday morning at the train station in Ajmer in the northwestern state of Rajasthan. Rahman provided input that led to the arrest of three other suspected IM operatives. "[Rahman], along with his accomplices, was planning a major attack in the country," said S.N. Srivastava, the special commissioner of police in Delhi. Police said they had searched the homes of the men and recovered a huge amount of explosive material, detonators, electronic circuits, and other equipment.
Waqas is one of the most wanted people in three coordinated bomb attacks in Mumbai in 2011, which killed 27 people and injured 130. The U.S. State Department classified IM as a terrorist organization in 2011, saying the group has "close ties" with terrorist groups based in Pakistan, including Lashkar-e-Taiba. Polling for India's new Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament, will be held from April 7 to May 12.
Congress minister urges supporters to vote twice
Indian cabinet minister Sharad Pawar, head of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), is at the center of controversy after asking supporters to vote twice for his party in elections next month (AFP, Times of India). Speaking at a rally in Maharashtra on Sunday, the agriculture minister urged voters to wash off the ink that will be dabbed on their fingers after casting their ballots and then go to a different constituency and vote again for the NCP. Pointing out that voting in two neighboring parts of Maharashtra was taking place on different days, Pawar told his supporters: "Vote for the Clock [his party's symbol] there and come back to vote for the Clock here as well."
Other parties seized upon the comments as a clear call for bogus voting. The rival Aam Aadmi Party said it would complain to the Election Commission over the "blatant contravention" of the code of conduct for the election. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also approached the Election Commission seeking action against Pawar under the Representation of People's Act (Indian Express). Pawar later said the comment was meant as a joke.
Jaswant Singh breaks with BJP
The BJP experienced another high-profile political divide on Monday as 76-year-old politician Jaswant Singh filed to contest the Lok Sabha polls as an independent candidate from Barmer in Rajasthan (India Today). Singh, a BJP party member for three decades and the former defense, finance, and external affairs minister, was passed over for the seat in favor of Sonaram Chowdhry, a Jat leader who recently joined the BJP after quitting the Congress party. "I am not a piece of furniture," Singh said about his decision to break with the party. The party was embroiled in controversy last week after the BJP overruled a request by senior leader L.K. Advani to contest a seat in Bhopal.
-- Ana Swanson
Shah: Direct peace negotiations to occur this week
Rustam Shah Mohmand, a member of the Pakistani government's peace committee, told Pakistani newspapers on Monday that direct negotiations between the Pakistani government and the Taliban could occur as early as tomorrow (Dawn). Mohammad Ibrahim, a representative for the Pakistani Taliban, confirmed that he was in continuous contact with the government's negotiators and that a date for holding the talks would be finalized today. A deadlock over the location of the talks was broken on Saturday, but neither committee has revealed where the negotiations will be held (ET).
In addition to demanding an indefinite ceasefire from the militants, sources told Pakistani journalists that the government would also negotiate the return of Syed Ali Haider Gilani, the son of former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani; Shahbaz Taseer, the son of former Punjab governor Salman Taseer; and Ajmal Khan, the vice-chancellor of Islamia College University in Peshawar -- all three men were kidnapped by the Taliban last year (ET).
Dozens killed in roadway accident
At least 35 people were killed and more than 20 were injured in Balochistan province on Saturday in a multi-vehicle collision that involved two trucks and two passenger buses along a coastal highway (AP). According to Ahmed Nawaz, a local police chief, a "bus bound for the port city of Karachi first collided head-on with a truck coming from the opposite direction." A second bus and truck then crashed into the vehicles and all caught fire as the buses were also smuggling Iranian gasoline and had diesel-filled canisters on board.
Mohammad Hasan Lehri, a bus driver that works the Quetta-Karachi route, told the Associated Press that thousands of people are involved in the illegal trade of Iranian gasoline, and that "we are compelled to do this, even though it is illegal and dangerous."
All the news that's fit to print?
A recent article by veteran New York Times journalist Carlotta Gall, which stated that Pakistani officials knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding, was censored from the front page of about 9,000 copies of the International New York Times on Saturday (NYT). According to a note by the Times', the story was removed by Pakistan's Express Tribune, which distributes the paper locally. Though the article appeared to be available to readers online, paper copies featured a large blank space where the article should have been. Eileen Murphy, a spokesman for the Times, said the decision to remove the article had been made "without our knowledge or agreement." The Tribune's parent company, the Lakson Group, has not commented on the censored story. Bonus read: "Pakistan sheltered Bin Laden? Prove it," Peter Bergen (CNN).
-- Bailey Cahall
Edited by Peter Bergen.
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images