The South Asia Channel

Afghan Presidential Candidate Survives Assassination Attempt; India’s Lower House Elects Speaker; Militant Clashes in Pakistan


Adbdullah survives assassination attempt

Afghan presidential front-runner Abdullah Abdullah said he escaped an assassination attempt on Friday when his campaign motorcade encountered a mine after leaving an election rally in Kabul (AFP, Pajhwok, Dawn). At another election rally that was broadcasted on Afghan television, Abdullah said: "A few minutes ago, when we left a campaign rally our convoy was hit by a mine," adding that some of his guards were wounded, but he was unhurt. The attack, which no one has claimed responsibility for, comes ahead of the run-off presidential election to be held on June 14. Abdullah's opposition in the election, Ashraf Ghani, condemned the attack on Twitter, saying: "This is the act of the enemies of Afghanistan to disrupt the democratic process in the country."

Conditions on Taliban prisoners' release

The five senior Taliban leaders released to Qatar after years of detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in exchange for Taliban prisoner Bowe Bergdahl are subject to strict bans, the Washington Post's Anne Gearan reports (Post). Although the Obama administration has kept the document detailing the terms of the conditions of release confidential, those familiar with the talks and classified information said that the prisoners are banned from militant incitement, fundraising, and travelling from Qatar for at least a year. "It's possible someone will see them on the streets of Qatar," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. "But those types of activities don't threaten our national security interests, and that's the standard here about substantially mitigating the threat that they will pose."

According to Peter Bergen and Bailey Cahall, the number of Guantanamo detainees who return to militant activities is much lower than many government officials are citing (CNN). Of the 620 former detainees who have been transferred from the prison camp, the public record confirms that only 15 are confirmed to have engaged in terrorist activities against the United States and there are 18 former detainees who are confirmed or suspected of involvement in attacks against non-U.S. targets. These total only a third as many Guantanamo prisoners who are confirmed or suspected to "have returned to the battlefield," compared to the U.S. government estimate of 30 percent, cited by Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

Bergdahl wandered away before, report says

According to a classified military report, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was just released by his Taliban captors after five years, had wandered away from assigned areas before he disappeared from his outpost in Afghanistan in June 2009, reports the New York Times (NYT).  The 35-page report, written two months after Bergdahl left his unit, concluded that he most likely left of his own free will and criticized the lax security practices in his unit. In support of this conclusion, the report points out that Bergdahl left a training range in California and his outpost in Afghanistan before, but returned each time. Whether Bergdahl was a deserter who never intended to go back, or simply slipped away from his unit for a short adventure is one of the many unanswered questions about his disappearance.

According to U.S. officials and a former Afghan official, Bergdahl also wandered away from his Taliban captors twice during his five years of captivity (DailyBeast). In his first escape attempt, he was found after three days, exhausted and hiding in a shallow trench he had dug with his own hands. In his second escape attempt, Bergdahl was able to make it to a remote village in a mountainous region of Pakistan, according to a former Afghan official, but the villagers simply turned him over to his captors.  

In response to the negative reactions and remaining questions surrounding Bergdhal's release, Bergdahl's hometown, Hailey, Idaho, has canceled plans for a celebration later this month, citing security concerns (Post). The town was inundated with negative emails and phone calls, and organizers released a statement saying that the small town, with just a population of around 8,000, did not have the requisite infrastructure to support a large event. The town has hosted an event called "Bring Bowe Back" for several years and it was scheduled for June 28 this year, but after news broke of his release, organizers announced it would be a welcome home party instead.

-- Emily Schneider


India's Lower House to elect eight-time BJP MP its Speaker; Modi sets ground rules

Sumitra Mahajan, an eight-time Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of Parliament (MP), was unanimously elected Speaker of the 16th Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) on Friday (Times Of India, DNA, NDTV). Mahajan, a 71-year-old from Indore, is the longest-serving woman MP and the second woman presiding officer of the lower house after her predecessor Meira Kumar. She is also the first BJP leader to be elected as the speaker of the Lok Sabha and the first person from Madhya Pradesh to become its speaker. Fondly called ‘tai' (sister), mild-mannered Mahajan is known for her simplicity, clean image, honesty, and strong winning record at parliamentary debates.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued fresh directives to BJP MPs on Friday during the BJP Parliamentary party meeting (Times Of India, Indian Express, Business Standard). Modi strongly urged his party's newly-elected MPs to stay connected to the ground, come prepared for parliament debates, and not let any complacency weaken the party's performance. In what appears to be an attempt to end a culture of sycophancy, Modi asked BJP MPs to stop greeting senior leaders by touching their feet.

Central government offices in Delhi were busy on Thursday as top officials scanned corridors and parking lots, and prepared for Modi's visit. He was expected to inspect hygiene and cleanliness of the buildings (Times Of India, Economic Times, FirstPost). Since he became prime minister last month, Modi has been busy implementing his own working style. With eighteen-hour workdays, Modi has asked ministers and secretaries to come prepared for meetings, make bulleted powerpoint presentations, be ready for follow-up meetings, suggest actionable policies rather than theories, and keep their offices clean. Modi's long working days has resulted in longer working hours for ministers, officers, and government employees. Modi's small team of cabinet ministers is also set to reduce government spending (Times Of India). According to senior finance ministry officials, expenditures on the Council of Ministers and the prime minister's office are likely to fall in half because of Modi's small cabinet size. After becoming prime minister, Modi cut his cabinet to the smallest in 16 years with just 23.

Modi chooses Bhutan for his first foreign trip

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first visit abroad will be to neighbouring Bhutan to hold bilateral talks on key regional issues, top government sources said on Friday (Times Of India, Indian Express, Hindustan Times). India is Bhutan's largest trade and developmental partner. Modi's decision to visit Bhutan first is a clear indication that South Asia is his topmost foreign policy priority. It was speculated that Modi's first foreign visit would be to Japan or Bangladesh. Nepal and Afghanistan were also considered according to government officials. Modi briefly met Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay after his swearing-in ceremony on May 26. During that meeting, Modi had indicated that Indian authorities will start building four hydropower projects in Bhutan. The two countries had strained relations in 2013, when India suspended supply of subsidized liquefied petroleum gas and kerosene, which hit Bhutan's poorest the most.

According to Japanese media reports on Friday, Japan could be the first foreign destination outside of South Asia for Modi (Livemint, The Straits Times). "Prime Minister Abe has invited new Prime Minister Modi to visit Japan, and the two countries are making final adjustments for that," Yoshihide Suga, a top government spokesman, told a press conference on Friday in Tokyo.

Violent clashes in the Golden Temple on Operation Blue Star anniversary

Several people were injured inside the Golden Temple Amritsar on Friday after Sikh groups carrying swords and sticks clashed as people had gathered to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Operation Blue Star, a notorious military operation (BBC, DNA, Hindustan Times). Groups started a fight over the microphone used to address the gathering at the temple, which is the Sikhs' holiest shrine. Tensions prevailed inside the temple complex and shops were shut down in Amritsar.

Operation Blue Star, an Indian military operation carried out in June 1984, was ordered by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to raid militants living in the Golden Temple. According to the Indian government, hundreds of people including soldiers were killed. Sikh groups, disputing the figures, say the number of casualties was in thousands. Months after the operation, Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards in what was believed to be an act of retaliation.

-- Neeli Shah and Jameel Khan


Bonus read: Will Karachi Become the Next Waziristan?" Michael Kugelman (South Asia).

Seven militants die in clashes

Seven militants were killed and at least three others were wounded on Friday during clashes between the Pakistani Taliban and a breakaway faction (Dawn, ET). The fighting eruped in the Wacha Mela area, 40 miles west of Miramshah, the capital of North Waziristan. Almost 100 militants have been killed since supporters of the commander Khalid Mehsud began fighting in April. Mehsud's group split from the umbrella Pakistani Taliban group last week.

Geo TV's license suspended

The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) suspended Geo TV's license for 15 days and fined the company Rs10 million on Friday in response to a complaint filed by the Pakistani defense ministry (ET). The fine must be paid before the suspension period ends, and if Geo TV violates any of PEMRA's rules again, proceedings for the revocation of the license will be initiated. Geo News responded by announcing that, in an unprecedented move, they are suing the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan's powerful spy agency, for defamation. Geo TV has also said that the ISI has 14 days to issue a public apology.

In April, the defense ministry demanded that Geo News' license be suspended after it reported that ISI was behind the shooting Hamid Mir, of one of its senior journalists. Since the dispute began, Geo News has been taken off the air in several parts of the country and last month, the channel apologized for the allegations it made against the ISI.

-- Emily Schneider

Edited by Peter Bergen 

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images