The South Asia Channel

Six Killed in Ministry Attack in Kabul; Pakistan Sending Small Arms to Saudi Arabia; India Introduces New Direct Tax Code Bill

Bonus Reads: "Afghanistan is Ready for 2014," Shahmahmood Miakhel (SouthAsia); "Why Pakistan Fear Indo-Afghan Ties," Amanullah Ghilzai (SouthAsia).

Afghanistan 

Six killed in suicide attack outside Ministry of Interior

Six policemen were killed and four were wounded in Kabul on Wednesday when a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of the Ministry of Interior (Pajhwok, TOLO News). According to reports, the bomber, who was wearing a military uniform, approached the building on foot and walked through several checkpoints before detonating his explosives, blending in with other uniformed men who were entering the compound (Post). Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack within minutes of the blast (Reuters). According to the Washington Post, Mujahid's statement came shortly after he issued a warning of more violence to come ahead of Saturday's presidential election. 

With attacks on Afghan citizens and foreigners increasing, particularly in Kabul, the New York Times reported on Tuesday that the Afghan government has issued an order closing hangouts that are popular with foreigners (NYT). The Times' Rod Nordland noted that uniformed and plainclothes officers circulated through Kabul on Tuesday, closing at least 11 restaurants and several guesthouses until after the election. It is unclear when exactly they will reopen.

Women, youth to play bigger role in elections 

As voter registration for Afghanistan's upcoming presidential elections ended on Tuesday, the country's Independent Election Commission reported that around 3.8 million new voters have registered to vote on Saturday, and more than one-third of those are women (VOA). Some observers have commented that this is likely due to the fact that women are trying to protect the gains they have made since the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban in 2001, but many media outlets have noted that women are also playing a more public role in general in these elections, with more women running for office than ever before.

For instance, three hundred women are running for provincial council seats around the country, and three presidential contenders have selected women to be their second vice presidential candidates (BBC, NYT). The most prominent of these running mates is Habiba Sarabi, the former governor of Bamian province, who is on Zalmai Rassoul's ticket; Rassoul is one of the three frontrunners. Even some of the candidates' wives are more active this time around, with Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai's wife Rula making a campaign speech at an International Women's Day event a few weeks ago (WSJ). Bonus read: "Afghanistan's First Lady," Malali Bashir (SouthAsia).

While many of the female candidates admit that they have faced some resistance from male voters, Sarabi told Reuters that: "I'm persuading women to vote for me so they can recognise they are part of the political power" (Reuters). 

With more than 60 percent of the Afghan population under the age of 25, youth voters are also expected to play a larger role in Saturday's election and candidates have been actively appealing to the bloc with promises of stability and jobs (TOLO News, VOA). Bonus read: "What if the Afghan elections actually work?," Peter Bergen (CNN).

Insurgents kills provincial candidate, eight others

Afghan officials told reporters on Wednesday that nine people who were kidnapped in the northern Sar-i-Pul province over the weekend had been killed by their abductors (Pajhwok, RFE/RL, TOLO News). Abdul Jabar Haqbeen, the provincial governor, confirmed that Hussain Nazari, a provincial council candidate, was among the dead. No one has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings or killings.

No U.S. casualties occurred in March

According to iCasualties.com, which tracks U.S. fatalities in Iraq and Afghanistan, no American service members were killed in either country in March 2014 (CNN, TIME). The last time there were no casualties in Afghanistan was February 2003, 133 months ago.

Pakistan

Aziz: Pakistan is selling small arms, jets to Saudi Arabia 

Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's advisor on foreign affairs and national security, told the BBC on Tuesday that Pakistan is "making efforts" to sell small arms and fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, while trying to maintain a balance in its ties with the Saudi kingdom and Iran (Dawn). Aziz added that, like any country with "a flourishing arms industry," Pakistan was simply trying to sell excess armaments and that there was "nothing dubious" about Saudi Arabia's interest in the weapons.

When asked if Pakistan would also send arms to Syria, Aziz replied that there was no Syria-specific agreement at this time and reiterated Pakistan's neutral stance on the four-year civil war, saying: "We shall continue the policy of non-interference. We shall correct our internal matters. In the past, we interfered to serve the agenda of another country. We have been impartial and will remain impartial on issues that do not directly concern us" (ET).

Differing opinions on Musharraf concession 

Pakistan's Dawn newspaper reported on Wednesday that most officials within Sharif's administration are against allowing former president Pervez Musharraf to travel to the United Arab Emirates to see his ailing mother and seek treatment abroad for his own heart condition (Dawn). According to a source who was at a meeting with Sharif and his top aides on Tuesday, the discussion over Musharraf lasted about three hours. A source for Pakistan's Express Tribune added that the people who spoke in favor of removing Musharraf's travel ban argued that after his formal indictment for treason on Monday, Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League party had achieved its stated goal of putting the ex-military ruler on trial and that it was time to "move on" (ET).

Three people killed in Quetta incident 

At least three people were killed and three others were injured in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province, on Wednesday when unidentified gunmen opened fire on the car they were traveling in (Dawn, ET). Imran Qureshi, the superintendent of police, told reporters that the victims have not yet been identified, and it is unclear who was targeted. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.

-- Bailey Cahall

India 

India proposes new Direct Tax Code

A draft of India's new Direct Tax Code Bill released on Wednesday holds tougher implications for foreign companies and high income earners, media outlets reported (Mint, Reuters). Under the proposed bill, foreign companies with at least 20 percent of their total assets in India will be required to pay taxes on income derived from it; a previous version of the bill had set the limit at 50 percent. The move has implications for tax battles currently being fought in court against Vodafone Plc. and Hutchison Telecommunications Ltd., which claim that, as they are non-resident companies, they are automatically exempt from paying capital gains taxes. 

The new code also proposes a 35 percent income tax for those individuals earning above Rs. 10 crore ($1.676 million). The bill also seeks to add wealth taxes to financial assets with a proposal to levy an additional 10 percent tax on dividend payments where dividend income exceeds 1 crore. At present, only physical assets invite wealth taxes. Other changes include lowering the age of eligibility for tax paying senior citizens from 65 to 60 years.

The new direct tax code was first introduced at the beginning of the current ruling coalition's term in August 2009. Since then, the government has incorporated several changes, including 153 of 190 proposed changes by the Standing Committee on Finance. While the draft has been released for comments, it is unclear whether the next government is likely to stick to the proposed text or bring in a new draft entirely (Business Standard).

Election Commission permits RBI to grant banking licenses

On Wednesday, India's Election Commission granted the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) permission to issue licenses to a third set of private banks (Economic Times, Mint). While the RBI has insisted that the granting of new banking licenses was not a political process, the commission had been hesitant for fear that the move was in violation of the election code of conduct. The 25 companies under consideration include Reliance Capital Ltd., Bajaj Finserve Ltd., Aditya Birla Financial Services Group, LIC Housing Finance Ltd., and Muthoot Finance Ltd. India's postal service is another frontrunner to receive a banking license based on its strong reach in rural India. The country's stock markets continued its record rally, rising to an all-time high of 2,592 points when the news broke (Hindustan Times).

In other banking news, it has been reported that Indian banks have rewritten the terms of loans amounting to Rs. 1 trillion, ($16.7 billion), making it the largest loan restructuring exercise to date. In comparison, Rs. 1.24 trillion ($20 billion) worth of loans has been restructured over the last three years. It is estimated that 12 percent of all loans with Indian banks fall in the stressed asset category (Mint).

The RBI has also been taking a cautionary stance towards its monetary policy, announcing on Tuesday that it left its policy rates unchanged (repo rates stayed at 8 percent, its cash reserve ratio at 4 percent), a move in line with most analyst's expectations (Economic Times).

-- Shruti Jagirdar

Edited by Peter Bergen.

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