The South Asia Channel

Peace Talks Begin in North Waziristan; Naeem to Withdraw Candidacy in Afghan Race; Kejriwal to Challenge Modi in Varanasi

Event Notice: "Rebuild Afghanistan Summit: Afghanistan 2014 & Beyond - Economic Growth and Stability," FRIDAY, 9:00 AM - 3:30 PM (SAIS).

Bonus Read: "Nine Key Questions for the Afghan Presidential Election," Jed Ober (SouthAsia).

Pakistan 

Negotiations begin in North Waziristan

Pakistani government officials, led by Pakistan's Secretary of Ports and Shipping Habibullah Khan Khattak, headed to North Waziristan on Wednesday for the first face-to-face talks between the Pakistani government and Taliban leaders since the peace process began last year (AP, BBC, ET). Ibrahim Khan, one of the Taliban's representatives, told reporters that the government delegation was taking a helicopter to the "peace zone;" the exact location of the meeting has not been disclosed.

To pave the way for talks, the Taliban announced a one-month ceasefire in February, and the government halted air strikes against militant compounds (RFE/RL). According to Pakistani media reports, the government has since demanded the Taliban declare an indefinite ceasefire and release several prisoners in their custody (Dawn). The Taliban has reportedly responded positively to these demands, though further information was not provided.

As for the Taliban's demands, Abdul Qadir Baloch, Pakistan's Minister for States and Frontier Regions, told an international seminar on Tuesday that the militants had asked for some kind of "political role in any future arrangement to stabilize the violence-plagued tribal territory on the Afghan border" (VOA). However, he ruled out the possibility of such concessions, saying: "Whatever I have learned in these eight or nine months that I have been the minister of FATA area [Pakistan's tribal regions], I don't find any place for them in that society, I just don't find any place for them. They just cannot be tolerated." 

Education survey reveals mixed results

Balighur Rehman, Pakistan's State Minister for Education, Trainings, and Standards in Higher Education, released the country's 2013 Education Atlas on Tuesday, providing a snapshot of education standards across Pakistan (ET). While the report shows that improvements in the country's education sector have moved "at a snail's pace," with 32 percent of children aged 5-9 years old still out of school, there were some bright spots as well: 91 percent of girls go on to middle school, a higher percentage than for boys (78 percent). In fact, the number of children making it to middle school increased across Pakistan, particularly in the tribal regions, which went from 44 percent in 2010 to 61 percent in 2013. However, a large number of schools still lack basic necessities, such as clean water and electricity, and Pakistan's adult literacy rate has held steady at 58 percent.

Afghanistan 

Naeem to withdraw from race, support Rassoul

The campaign team for Zalmai Rassoul, one of several candidates competing in Afghanistan's upcoming presidential election, announced on Wednesday that another contender is set to withdraw his candidacy in favor of the former foreign minister (Pajhwok). While Rassoul's office did not name the candidate, "a well-placed source" told Pajhwok Afghan News that the man in question was Sardar Muhammad Nadir Naeem, a former chief of staff for Afghanistan's King Zahir Shah.

Naeem's media managers confirmed that he would hold a meeting with Rassoul and Abdul Qayum Karzai, current President Hamid Karzai's brother, but gave no further details. Qayum Karzai recently withdrew from the race and gave his support to Rassoul as well. If true, Naeem would be the third candidate to withdraw from the race in as many weeks; Abdul Rahim Wardak withdrew his candidacy last week, but has not publicly supported any of the other presidential hopefuls. Bonus read: "Afghan Presidential Vote Will Also Determine Karzai's Next Role," Yaroslav Trofimov (WSJ). 

Death tolls from Tuesday attacks increase

Three separate suicide attacks rocked Afghanistan on Tuesday, and while the initial reports gave low casualty numbers, those increased throughout the day. 

Taliban fighters first attacked one of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission's regional offices in Kabul, killing two policemen, two civilians, and one provincial council candidate (Pajhwok). Sediq Sediqi, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, added that eight other people were also injured in the attack. 

In a separate incident, three suicide bombers entered a branch of Kabul Bank, one of Afghanistan's largest banks, in Kunar province, killing at least six members of the Afghan security forces who were in line waiting to receive their paychecks (Post). Sixteen people were also injured in the attack (Pajhwok).

Five civilians were killed and 20 others were wounded later Tuesday night in Kunduz province when a suicide bomber detonated his explosives amongst spectators watching a buzkashi game; buzkashi is similar to polo, but is played with a dead goat instead of a ball (Pajhwok). According to multiple reports, Mir Alam Khan, a former jihadi commander, was the apparent target, though he escaped unhurt. Gen. Ghulam Mustafa Mohseni, the provincial police chief, told Pajhwok Afghan News that Gen. Bashir Basharat, the commander of the Afghan National Coordination Centre, was among the injured.

While it is still unclear who was behind the Kunar and Kunduz incidents -- the Taliban only claimed responsibility for the attack in Kabul -- they come less than two weeks before Afghans head to the polls to vote for Karzai's successor. The New York Times notes that the attacks are "stirring unease among Afghan and international officials...and raising questions about security for an election seen as critical to the country's stability after the Western military pullout by year's end" (NYT). Though the Taliban have stated their interest in disrupting the vote scheduled for Saturday, April 5, officials hope that the violence will not keep voters from coming out to the polling stations.

The littlest survivor

The Associated Press's Kim Gamel reported on Monday that the youngest child of Agence France Presse reporter Sardar Ahmad and his wife Humira regained consciousness on Sunday after being shot five times by Taliban militants in last week's attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul (AP). The 2-year-old Abuzar is the sole surviving member of the family, which included two other children. Turaj Rais, Ahmad's nephew, told Gamel in a telephone interview that: "Abuzar gives me hope. We are looking forward to a bright future for him." He added that the extended Ahmad family would be meeting soon to determine who would take guardianship of the boy.

-- Bailey Cahall

India

Kejriwal to challenge Modi in Varanasi

The Aam Aadmi Party's Arvind Kejriwal announced on Tuesday that he will stand against BJP frontrunner Narendra Modi in the city of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh (NDTV, BBC, NYT, Indian Express). Speaking at a three-hour rally in the city, Kejriwal also challenged Modi to an open debate. Ahead of his election meeting, protestors from the BJP attacked Kejriwal with ink and eggs and shouted pro-Modi slogans. It is expected that Kejriwal would have the support of a Muslim voting bloc, as Modi's record in the 2002 Gujarat riots may alienate him from the community; Muslims currently make up 19 percent of the city's population. The Varanasi election is scheduled for May 12 and will be in the final phase of polling for the Indian elections.

Reserve Bank of India allows foreigners to open Indian bank accounts

India's central bank passed a new rule on Wednesday allowing non-Indians to open rupee and foreign currency accounts with local banks, making it easier to invest in Indian markets (Mint). Under the new scheme, foreign entities, now called Registered Foreign Portfolio Investors (RFPIs), could transfer money between foreign currency and Indian accounts at the prevailing exchange rate and make investments in the market without third party intervention, reducing costs of hedging and encouraging greater market participation. The move ends previous rules requiring a custodian bank to mediate this transaction. RFPIs may also offer up AAA rated sovereign securities or corporate and government bonds as collateral, something only domestic investors had been able to do. 

Double take

Election season in the state of Tamil Nadu has seen a rise in demand for look-alikes of famous south-Indian movie stars (BBC). A doppelganger of M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), a former movie star and former chief minister of the state, can be seen campaigning at several rallies for the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party. According to the look-alike, identified only as Mr. Thyagarajan: "I have already been booked by five people." Thyagarajan belts out popular tunes in his rallies for the party and expects to earn about $80 per appearance. In addition to rallies, look-alikes perform at festivals and weddings. Says Satish Kumar, owner of a talent agency with a roster of political and entertainer look-alikes, "As the demand increases during elections, we provide not just Thyagarajan but others too. We have three MGRs."

-- Shruti Jagirdar

Edited by Peter Bergen.

STR/AFP/Getty Images