The South Asia Channel

U.S. Soldier Freed by Afghan Taliban; India Creates 29th State; Pakistan Launches Airstrikes into Afghanistan

Bonus read: The Wrong Afghan Friends, Anand Gopal (NYT). 

Afghanistan

Taliban releases American soldier

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who had been held captive by the Taliban for nearly five years, was released to a team of U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan on Saturday morning (Post, NYT). His release, part of a diplomatic negotiation reached through Qatari government intermediaries, was made in exchange for five high-profile Afghan inmates held by the U.S. military in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. After U.S. officials received confirmation that Bergdahl was in the Special Operations forces' helicopter, U.S. military personnel loaded the five prisoners, including the former head of the Taliban's army, onto a U.S. military aircraft bound for Qatar where they will be subjected to a year-long travel ban.

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel briefed members of Congress on Saturday about the prisoner swap. The administration is required by law to notify Congress about its intentions to release Guantanamo detainees 30 days in advance, but anonymous officials cited the "unique and exigent circumstances" that prevented the President from adhering to the notice requirement in the law (Post). President Obama hailed Bergdahl's release as a triumph for diplomatic efforts, saying: "He wasn't forgotten by his country...the United States of America does not ever leave our men and women in uniform behind." But top Republicans on the Senate and House armed services committees raised the question of whether it is sound policy for the United States to have, in the words of House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), "negotiated with terrorists." Bonus read: Prisoner Trade Yields Rare View into the Taliban, Matthew Rosenberg and Carlotta Gall (NYT).

Hagel visits Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made an unannounced stop in Afghanistan on Sunday (NYT). In addition to addressing U.S. troops at Bagram Air Force base and thanking them for their service, Hagel met with American military commanders to discuss the progress Afghan forces are making as the United States looks to withdraw all but about 10,000 troops by the end of 2014. According to the Associated Press, Hagel wanted to hear how the Afghans are doing and what improvements they have made in their air force (AP).

-- Emily Schneider

India

India's 29th state, Telangana, born in Andhra Pradesh

India's southern state of Andhra Pradesh formally split on Monday to create the new state of Telangana (Economic Times, BBC , The Indian Express). Celebrations began in pink-hued Hyderabad on Sunday night with perfumed fireworks and balloons -- and amid student protests and agitations. Telangana ends the decades-old struggle for statehood by people in the northern region of Andhra Pradesh who have felt neglected by the state. 

Kalvakuntla Chandrashekar Rao of the Telangana Rashtra Samithi party (TRS), who led the movement for a separate state of Telangana since 2001, was sworn in as the state's new chief minister. The bifurcation process started on December 9, 2009, when the then Manmohan Singh government promised Rao, who had undertaken an indefinite fast, that a new state will be created. Hyderabad city will serve as a joint capital for both Andhra Pradesh and the newly formed Telangana for 10 years. E S L Narasimhan, the new Governor of Telangana will administer Hyderabad until Andhra Pradesh builds a separate capital within 10 years.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Rao on becoming the first chief minister of the 29th state, and promised central government support to Telangana (Hindustan Times). The President's rule imposed earlier this year in united Andhra Pradesh was partially revoked to facilitate the swearing in of the new government. The President's rule will continue in residual Andhra Pradesh until the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) Chief N Chandrababu Naidu takes charge as chief minister. 

Modi abolishes all ministerial groups

Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday abolished all the existing nine Empowered Group of Ministers (EGoMs) and 21 Groups of Ministers (GoMs) in an effort to "expedite the process of decision-making and usher in greater accountability in the system" (Economic Times, DNA, Times Of India).

The panels were set up by the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government to take decisions on issues like corruption, inter-state water disputes, gas and telecom pricing, and administrative reforms before bringing them for the Cabinet's consideration. The Indian Express reports that many of these panels hardly met, and that some panels delayed the decision-making process (The Indian Express). According to sources, the GoM never met on issues such as interlinking rivers, increasing public health specialists for the Central Health Service, and setting up the Amritsar-Kolkata Industrial Corridor. 

By abolishing these panels, the prime minister will have the authority to make decisions in the event of differences among ministries. According to a Press Information Bureau (PIB) release: "Wherever the ministries face any difficulties, the Cabinet Secretariat and the Prime Minister's Office will facilitate the decision-making process." 

Supreme Court stays Yakub Memon's execution in 1993 Mumbai blasts case

India's Supreme Court on Monday upheld the execution sentence of Yakub Memon, a key conspirator in the March 1993 Mumbai blasts that killed 257 people and injured 700 others (The Hindu, The Indian Express, NDTV). A court bench added Yakub's petition to a list of other pending cases and referred it to a constitution bench, which will decide whether the review petition should be heard in an open court. The court also issued notice to the Maharashtra government on the plea of Memon, saying that "execution proceedings will remain stayed" in the meantime. 

Memon is challenging his presidential pardon rejection, stating that others convicted over the blasts have had their death sentences commuted. In his petition to the Supreme Court, Memon stated that he had been jailed for over 20 years, which is more than the typical term awarded for life imprisonment of 14 years.

Memon, a chartered accountant and brother of fugitive terrorist Tiger Memon, was sentenced to death in 2007 by the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (TADA) court, a special anti-terrorism court. Memon was found guilty of criminal conspiracy and for arranging and managing finances in the Mumbai serial blasts case. In March 2013, the Supreme Court had upheld the 2007 TADA court decision. In October 2013, President Pranab Mukherjee rejected Memon's presidential pardon based on the recommendations of the Maharashtra Government and the Home Ministry.

-- Neeli Shah and Jameel Khan 

Pakistan

Pakistan launches airstrikes into Afghanistan

Taliban militants attacked several Pakistani military outposts along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border on Saturday, sparking a gun battle that included Pakistan launching airstrikes into Afghanistan (AP, ET). Pakistan claims that 16 militants were killed in the offensive, while Afghan officials say that five civilians were killed by the airstrikes. The fighting is the latest incident in recent cross-border attacks along the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border that has been testing the two countries' relations. 

Pakistani prisoners released

Pakistan says India released 37 Pakistani prisoners -- five civil prisoners and 32 fishermen -- on Friday (VOA, Dawn). The release comes just days after Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif held talks with the new Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, after attending his swearing-in ceremony  in New Delhi last week -- the first time a Pakistani leader has done so. Approximately 484 Pakistani prisoners remain in Indian jails.

Pakistani cricketers take part in polio drops publicity stunt

Pakistani cricketers who are attending a training camp in Lahore were administered polio drops on Friday to support UNICEF's polio immunization program (Dawn). Cricketers hoped that their actions would create awareness about the devastating impact of the virus, according to the Pakistan Cricket Board spokesman. The publicity campaign came just days before travel restrictions on Pakistan recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) take affect due to the rising number of polio cases in the country. Starting on Sunday, people traveling abroad from Pakistan should present a polio vaccination certificate in compliance with WHO restrictions (Dawn, ET).

-- Emily Schneider

Edited by Peter Bergen 

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