The South Asia Channel

Obama Announces Post-2014 Afghan Troop Plan; Modi Meets Regional Leaders; Pakistani Woman Stoned to Death in Lahore

Bonus Reads: “Rebelling Against Abuse, Afghan Women See Signs of Change,” Alissa J. Rubin (NYT); “Pakistani government feels weight of army's heavy hand,” Mehreen Zahra-Malik (Reuters). 

Afghanistan 

Obama announces post-2014 troop presence

President Barack Obama announced on Tuesday that he would push to keep a force of 9,800 soldiers in Afghanistan after 2014, with the U.S. military commitment in the country fully ending in December 2016 (Reuters, RFE/RL, VOA, WSJ). Speaking in the White House's Rose Garden, he said that, starting next year, American troops would take on more of an advisory role, training the Afghan security forces and conducting counterterrorism missions against "the remnants of al-Qaeda" (Post). He added that those troop levels would be reduced by half at the end of 2015, with the rest of the soldiers coming home at the end of 2016, minus a small military presence at the embassy in Kabul. There are currently 32,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. 

While Obama's plan is close to what his generals have recommended, Republican senators criticized the announcement, arguing that "the rigid deadline for the troops' departure could expose Afghanistan to the same violence and instability that has erupted in Iraq since the pullout of the last American soldiers in 2011" (NYT). In his speech, Obama noted that: "Afghanistan will not be a perfect place," but added that: "it is not America's responsibility to make it one" (AP).

All of this, however, is contingent on having a signed bilateral security agreement between Washington and Kabul (BBC, Pajhwok, TOLO News). While current Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long refused to sign such a security pact, both presidential contenders -- former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai -- have said they would sign the agreement.

The two frontrunners also welcomed Obama's announcement, while the Afghan Taliban condemned the speech, calling the plan a "continued occupation" of the country (AFP, RFE/RL).

Two Americans wounded in Herat province 

Hours after Obama made his announcement, two American citizens were wounded in Herat province on Wednesday when unidentified gunmen fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. consulate vehicle (Pajhwok, Reuters). The embassy provided few details about the attack, but media outlets reported that the occupants were on their way to the airport in Herat city when the attack occurred (RFE/RL, TOLO News). While no one has claimed responsibility for the incident, it came five days after insurgents attacked the Indian consulate in the city.

Taliban frees 23 police officers held captive in Badakhshan 

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the Afghan Taliban has freed 23 of the 27 police officers its fighters kidnapped last week in Badakhshan province, "a rare move by the insurgents who have long been known - and maligned - for killing prisoners" (Post). The local officers were captured last week after the Taliban overran the district headquarters in Yamgan.

In a statement e-mailed to media outlets late Monday night, the Taliban said they released the captives as a gesture of "mercy" and that the prisoners had pledged not to rejoin the government. Provincial Governor Shah Waliullah Adeeb confirmed the releases, and said local elders were working to free the remaining prisoners.

-- Bailey Cahall 

India

Modi meets Sharif, Karzai, regional leaders on first day

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first day in office was filled with a series of meetings with South Asian leaders and his cabinet (NDTV, Live Mint). Atop Modi's busy day was his closely watched meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. According to reports, Modi urged Sharif to crack down on militants and increase trade to put the "legacy of mistrust behind" the two countries (BBC, India Today). Sharif replied that both countries should focus on cooperation, rather than confrontation.

In his meeting with Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Modi acknowledged Afghanistan's efforts and assistance in repelling the attack on the Indian consulate in Herat last week (The Hindu). He added that India was committed to the development and reconstruction of Afghanistan. 

Modi also had a fruitful meeting with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, where the two leaders discussed issues of rehabilitation and reconstruction regarding the Tamils in Sri Lanka, and security cooperation between the nations (Daily News). In a goodwill gesture, the Sri Lankan government had released all of the Indian fishermen in their custody before Rajapaksa's visit to New Delhi. India has also agreed to release 85 Sri Lankan fishermen in their custody.

Modi ended his day by having bilateral talks with leaders from Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, and Mauritius, in which he shared his vision of mutual prosperity. He also made a special courtesy visit to exiting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at his residence, where he was received by Singh and his wife, Gursharan Kaur (Indian Express).

On its first day in office, Modi's cabinet decided to form a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to unearth India's black money market, which is cash that has not been declared or taxed and is primarily deposited in foreign banks (Economic Times, BBC). The SIT will be led by retired Supreme Court judge M.B. Shah and his vice-chairman will be former judge Arijit Pasayat. Last week, the Supreme Court gave the central government one week to constitute the SIT for monitoring black money cases.

Article 370 sees row between RSS and Abdullah

Jitendra Singh, the minister of state from the prime minister's office (PMO), triggered a controversy on Tuesday when he said the process of abrogating Article 370 had already begun, and that the PMO had started discussing the issue with several stakeholders in the state (Hindustan Times, Economic Times, Live Mint, DNA). Article 370 of the Indian Constitution grants the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) special autonomous status, and states that, except for foreign affairs, defense, communications, and ancillary matters (those specified in the instrument of accession), the Indian parliament needs the state government's concurrence for applying all other laws. 

Singh said Article 370 was a psychological barrier rather than a physical one. He added further that the Modi government was open to discussing the pros and cons of retaining or withdrawing Article 370 with all stakeholders. J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah responded in a series of tweets, saying: "Article 370 is the ONLY constitutional link between J&K & rest of India," and "Long after Modi Govt is a distant memory either J&K won't be part of India or Art 370 will still exist."Abdullah also asked the newly-elected government to specify the "stakeholders" it was engaging on the contentious issue.

The debate escalated further on Wednesday when Ram Madhav, a spokesperson for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), accused Abdullah of "making a mountain out of a molehill." Madhav also asked whether Abdullah thought the state was his "parental estate." The RSS is the Hindu nationalist organization from which the Modi government, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), draws its ideological roots. 

India's iconic Ambassador car nears journey's end

India's oldest carmaker, Hindustan Motors Limited, has suspended production of its Ambassador car 56 years after it was first assembled, attributing its decision to financing problems and lack of demand for the iconic car (BBC, Live Mint, Hindustan Times, WSJ). Once the vehicle of choice for Indian politicians and bureaucrats, the Ambassador was modeled on the British-designed Morris Oxford. The company only sold 2,200 Ambassadors in the previous financial year ending March 2014, reflecting a steep decline from average production levels of 24,000 vehicles a year in the 1980s.

-- Neeli Shah and Jameel Khan

Pakistan

Pregnant Pakistani woman stoned to death outside of high court

Farzana Parveen, a pregnant 25-year-old Pakistani woman, was stoned to death in a so-called "honor killing" outside of the high court in Lahore on Tuesday for marrying the man she loved, against her family's wishes (BBC, ET, Post, NYT, VOA). Parveen had been engaged to marry to her cousin, but married another man instead. Mustafa Kharal, Parveen's lawyer, told reporters that her father had filed an abduction case against her husband, which the couple was contesting. As they arrived at the courthouse for a hearing, nearly 20 members of her family attacked them with bricks. Parveen, who was three months pregnant, died of her injuries at a local hospital. All of the suspects in the stoning, except her father, escaped.

The Aurat Foundation, a Pakistani human rights organization, estimates that around 1,000 Pakistani women are killed by their families every year in similar honor killings, but since the foundation only compiles its figures from newspaper reports, Reuters noted that number is likely far greater (Reuters).

Key faction of Pakistani Taliban splits from group

Azam Tariq, a spokesman for the powerful Mehsud faction of the Pakistani Taliban, told reporters on Wednesday that the group is formally splitting from the militant organization (AP, Dawn, VOA). Tariq said the group, headed by Khalid Mehsud, had tried to reform the organization, but that ideological differences with the Taliban's central leadership, as well as disagreements over peace talks with the Pakistani government -- the Mehsud faction is in favor of the talks -- had caused the rift (ET, Reuters).

While tensions between the Mehsud faction and supporters of Khan Said Sajna, another Taliban commander, first emerged after leader Hakimullah Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone strike last November, the rivalries have intensified in recent weeks, with regular clashes between the groups' members. Pakistan's Express Tribune noted that the groups had brokered a truce about two weeks ago, but that the ceasefire ended on Tuesday, with fighters taking positions against each other (ET). At least six militants were killed and seven were injured in the resulting clashes, though it was unclear which group suffered which casualties.

***

A tree grows in Afghanistan

Ghulam Sakhi, a 70-year-old Afghan man, "has no home of his own, but spends his life putting down roots" by planting mulberry, cherry, plum, willow, or polar trees "whenever and wherever he can" (RFE/RL). A native villager from Banoo, in the northern part of the country, Sakhi has created 13 orchards in Baghlan province over the past four decades. Spending almost all of his wages to buy saplings and transport them to the different places where he wants to plant them, Sakhi said: "I want passersby to enjoy fruit, or just rest in the shade of trees," adding that: "If there is no brook or spring nearby, I dig a well there to water the trees." In describing his hobby, he told RFE/RL: "When I was young, once I heard elderly people talking about the benefits of doing good things to others. That day I decided to dedicate my life to planting trees because I couldn't think of doing anything else to benefit others. 

-- Bailey Cahall

Edited by Peter Bergen.

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