The South Asia Channel

Militants Attack Election Office in Kabul; IM Chief Arrested Near Border; Pakistan Rejects Afghan Claims About Serena Attack

Bonus Read: "The Days of Saffron and Roses," Douglas Ollivant (SouthAsia). 

Afghanistan

Militants attack election commission office 

Taliban fighters attacked one of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission's regional offices in Kabul on Tuesday, less than two weeks before Afghans head to the polls to vote for current President Hamid Karzai's successor (AFP, BBC, Pajhwok, Reuters, VOA). The office was next to the home of presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, though the former finance minister was not home at the time of the attack. 

According to Sayed Gul Aga Hashmi, a local police official, the one suicide bomber detonated a car bomb, while another set off his explosives-packed vest (RFE/RL). Witnesses reported hearing heavy gunfire for hours after the initial explosions, and police are currently looking for a third suspect. Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack in a text message sent to journalists (WSJ).

The attack occurred one day after the commission acknowledged that security issues could undermine the voting process in the upcoming election in a number of regions across the country (TOLO News). Speaking at a religious gathering in Kabul on Monday, Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail, the head of the commission, called on religious scholars and tribal elders to help persuade people to vote and prevent voting irregularities.

In a separate incident, three suicide bombers entered a branch of Kabul Bank, one of Afghanistan's largest banks, in Kunar province on Tuesday, killing at least three security guards and injuring two bank workers. Militants also attacked a police outpost along the Pakistani border in Khost province on Tuesday (Pajhwok). One police officer was killed and four others were wounded. The attackers also made off with several police vehicles and a number of weapons.

Lawmakers urge Karzai to reassess policy towards insurgents

Afghan legislators urged Karzai on Monday to review his policy towards the Taliban after last week's attack on the Serena Hotel, calling his conciliatory approach "unacceptable" (TOLO News). While Afghanistan's National Security Council has alleged that foreign intelligence agencies were behind the attack that left nine civilians dead, the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has maintained that the Taliban was involved; the Taliban also claimed responsibility for the hotel assault last week. Fatima Aziz, a member of parliament, told Afghanistan's TOLO News that when "we call [militants] 'brother' and 'friends' [as Karzai has in the past], when we release their prisoners without conducting an investigation and face a reaction such as Serena, I think the politics in Afghanistan have become mysterious and dangerous."

Pentagon criticizes Karzai for Crimea comments

U.S. Rear Adm. John Kirby told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday that recent comments by Karzai approving Russia's annexation of Crimea were "clearly not helpful" (Pajhwok, RFE/RL). Kirby added that: ""While he's certainly entitled to his opinion, it's our opinion here in the United States -- and I believe I can speak for us as a NATO partner, that it's the opinion of the alliance -- that Russia is absolutely in violation of international obligations, violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine" (VOA). Over the weekend Karzai snubbed his Western backers and joined Syria and Venezuela in supporting Russia's actions in Europe.

Qanuni approved as first vice president

Afghanistan's Wolesi Jirga (lower house of parliament) approved former speaker Yousuf Qanuni on Tuesday as Karzai's First Vice President, two weeks after his predecessor, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, died from a heart attack (Pajhwok). With a relatively short time in office, Qanuni said his top priority would be to prevent the "expansion of crisis" during Afghanistan's upcoming elections (TOLO News).

-- Bailey Cahall 

India

Indian Mujahideen chief arrested 

On Tuesday, the Special Cell of the Delhi police arrested Tehseen Akhtar, the alleged head of terror outfit Indian Mujahideen (IM), along the Indo-Nepal border (WSJ, Mint, Indian Express, NDTV). Akhtar was allegedly responsible for bomb blasts in Varanasi in 2010, Mumbai in 2011, and Hyderabad in 2013, among others. Also known as Monu, Akhtar had been the head of the IM since co-founder Yasin Bhatkal was arrested last year. Akhtar's arrest comes days after the capture of another high profile IM operative, Zia-Ur-Rehman, also known as Waqas, along with three associates in Ajmer. Indian police told reporters that with their arrests, the entire top leadership of the IM is now behind bars. Officials speaking to the press had hinted that the IM had been planning attacks to coincide with India's general elections taking place next month, although there has been no official confirmation of this.

BRICs jointly oppose G-20's Putin ban 

Ministers from Brazil, Russia, India, and China -- known collectively as the BRICs -- meeting on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague issued a joint statement on Tuesday condemning Australia's threat to bar Russian President Vladimir Putin from attending the G-20 summit in Brisbane later this year (Economic Times). Signatories to the statement included Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The statement reads in part: "The Ministers noted with concern the recent media statement on the forthcoming G20 Summit to be held in Brisbane in November 2014. The custodianship of the G20 belongs to all member-states equally and no one member-state can unilaterally determine its nature and character." India has already indicated it is unwilling to support "unilateral action" against Russia.

SC order: Soldiers can vote in place of posting

A Monday order by the Indian Supreme Court permitted soldiers not stationed in active conflict zones to vote in the upcoming Indian election. Previous rules had only allowed soldiers to vote after being stationed in the same post for three years, or required them to use an uncommon mail-in ballot (Mint, Indian Express). As of January 1, 2014, any soldier posted at such stations will be eligible to cast a vote as a general voter in constituencies where the polling process has not yet begun. In its order, the Supreme Court chastised the Indian Election Commission for "coming in the way of the right to vote (for service personnel)." This election season has seen several overtures by political parties to the armed forces, including Rahul Gandhi's call for a one-rank one pension scheme and the induction of former army chief V.K. Singh into the rival Bharatiya Janata Party. 

-- Shruti Jagirdar 

Pakistan

Pakistani officials reject Kabul's Serena claims

Pakistan's Foreign Affairs Ministry rejected claims by Afghan President Hamid Karzai that the country was somehow involved in last Thursday's attack on the Serena Hotel, saying in a statement released on Monday that: "It is highly disturbing that attempts are being made to somehow implicate Pakistan in this terrorist incident. We reject the insinuation." It added that the "tendency to immediately blame Pakistan is unhelpful and should be discarded." Tasneem Aslam, a spokesperson for the ministry, also noted that Pakistan had condemned the attack and that a Pakistani national who sustained serious injuries in the incident "remains under treatment" (Dawn).

The statement was released two days after Afghanistan's National Security Council said the attack was planned "outside the country" -- a veiled reference to Pakistan -- and claimed a Pakistani diplomat was seen surveying the hotel the night before the assault (AFP, RFE/RL, TOLO News). 

Abu Ghaith trial heads to jury

Closing arguments made in the trial of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, Osama bin Laden's son-in-law, on Monday "painted contrasting portraits" of the al Qaeda spokesman, "with prosecutors calling him instrumental in recruiting followers for al Qaeda and defense lawyers saying their client was being railroaded for making unsavory speeches on the Islamist network's behalf" (WSJ). Jurors in the New York federal court are expected to begin their deliberations on Tuesday.

Abu Ghaith is charged with two counts of providing material support to al Qaeda and one of conspiring to kill Americans. The Wall Street Journal reports that: "If convicted, the first two counts carry a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison, while the third could bring a life sentence." 

Sharif and Kerry discuss terrorism, normalizing ties with India

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met on the sidelines of a nuclear summit at The Hague on Monday and discussed their joint fight against terrorism (RFE/RL). Kerry told reporters that the two countries were going to discuss "important issues of cooperation with respect to extremism, terror, counter-terrorism, and Afghanistan," and that Washington has "great confidence" in Pakistan's nuclear security.

According to Pakistani media outlets, Sharif also asked Kerry for U.S. help in normalizing Pakistan's relationship with India, saying that he was hesitant to resolve the long-standing dispute over Kashmir bilaterally (Dawn).

*** 

Coming home

Abdulahad Momand, Afghanistan's first and only astronaut, recently returned to the country with the BBC's Jenny Norton, 25 years after he was forced to flee to Europe (BBC). Momand, who went into space in 1988, hadn't been to Afghanistan since 1992 and was uncertain about he would be received, fears that were relatively short-lived. In her profile on Momand's visit, Norton notes that he had barely arrived in Kabul when President Hamid Karzai's office called, inviting him to lunch. He also went star gazing with a group of young astronomers, inspiring a new generation of space travelers. Though Momand, a former deputy civil aviation minister, has lived in Germany since 1992, he said visiting the youngsters in Afghanistan was "something that makes me happy. It gives me hope for a better future." Bonus read: "The stargazer," Jeffrey E. Stern (SouthAsia).

-- Bailey Cahall

Edited by Peter Bergen.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images