Poll: In Afghan Election, Abdullah Leads; AAP to Form Delhi Government; Mir Ali Residents Accuse Army of Civilian Casualties
Editor's Note: The South Asia Channel will be celebrating the holidays from Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, through Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014. We will resume regular briefs on Thursday, Jan. 2. In the meantime, please check out these bonus reads:
1. "Pakistani Taliban Tears Itself," Daud Khattak (South Asia).
2. "Afghans Looks on the Bright Side," Karl F. Inderfurth and Theodore L. Eliot Jr. (South Asia).
3. "The Blood Telegram," Meena Ahamed (South Asia).
4. "Don't Disturb the Consensus," Ishrat Husain (South Asia).
5. "The Best Deal on Offer," Michael Keating and Andrew Wilder (South Asia).
Presidential frontrunners emerge in survey
Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and the head of the National Coalition of Afghanistan, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister, are the top two presidential candidates, according to a recent poll conducted by ATR and TOLO News (TOLO News). The poll, which took place in all 34 Afghan provinces, shows Abdullah in the lead with 27 percent, followed by Ahmadzai, who has 19 percent. Abdul Qayum Karzai, current Afghan President Hamid Karzai's older brother, came in a distant third with 4 percent. With 104 days to go until nationwide elections are held in April 2014, the poll noted that people's interest in the candidates has increased, though 7 percent reported they didn't like any of the contenders.
NATO begins SOFA negotiations
NATO began its own talks on coalition troop levels in Afghanistan after 2014 with Kabul on Saturday, but emphasized that any accord it makes is contingent on the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Afghanistan and the United States (AFP, Bloomberg, NATO). The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) will lay out the legal framework by which international troops can remain in Afghanistan "to train, advise, and assist" Afghan forces once the alliance's combat mission ends next December. But NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the SOFA will not be signed until the stalled BSA is finalized by Karzai.
Rasmussen joined the growing number of people calling on Karzai to sign the BSA, including German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Lt. Gen. Murad Ali Murad, a top Afghan commander. Leyen, Germany's first female defense chief, spoke on Sunday during a surprise two-day trip to visit German troops in the town of Mazir-i-Sharif in Balkh province, saying that "an enormous amount has been achieved here and we want to protect that" (TOLO News). Speaking to the BBC, Murad, the head of Afghanistan's ground forces, said of the row over the BSA: "We don't share the view that Afghanistan will slip back into civil war but we need more support and resources so we can deal with the threat posed by the insurgents especially during elections. We need air support and transport" (BBC). Washington has insisted that the BSA is signed by Dec. 31, while Kabul says it is something for the next Afghan president to finalize.
NATO solider killed
NATO's International Security Assistance Force released a statement on Monday, confirming that one coalition service member had been killed in an attack in eastern Afghanistan (AP, Pajhwok, TOLO News). While the military alliance provided no further details about the nationality of the solider or the location of the attack, the statement said the victim was killed after coming under direct fire by enemy forces. The loss brings the total number of coalition deaths in December to eight.
-- Bailey Cahall
Aam Aadmi Party to form Delhi government
New entrant in the Indian political scene, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is set to form a minority government in Delhi, with the additional support of eight Congress Party legislators (BBC, NDTV). The party, launched a little over a year ago, won 28 seats of 70 in assembly elections earlier this month, riding a wave of support for its anti-graft stance. Former civil servant and anti-corruption activist Arvind Kejriwal is set to become Delhi's chief minister and at 45, will be the youngest person in India to hold the position. Falling short of a majority, the AAP had decried the possibility of aligning with the BJP or Congress, but was persuaded to do so through public meetings and online responses. Out of 280 public meetings held last week, 257 voted in favor of government formation. Over 74 percent of 265,996 online responses supported this measure (The Hindu).
The swearing in ceremony will likely be held at the Ramlila Maidan, which had been the site of major anti-corruption protests led by Kejriwal and activist Anna Hazare in 2011. Kejriwal also promised his MPs will eschew the trappings commonly associated with the political class, such as the use of red beacons on vehicles and government accommodations in tony parts of Delhi (Times of India). Former Chief Minister Sheila Dixit congratulated Kejriwal, but warned that the support of the Congress Party would be conditional on the government's performance. The BJP, which had won 31 seats in the elections, said the AAP had betrayed its electorate and had "compromised its principles for power" (NDTV). There has been no call to congratulate Kejriwal or the AAP from Hazare, who led the movement for a recently introduced bill to create anti-corruption ombudsmen in the country (NDTV).
Seeking protection, India transfers Khobragade to U.N.
Indian officials transferred Devyani Khobragade to a position with India's United Nations delegation on Monday, a move that could afford her more diplomatic protection from prosecution in the United States (NYT, Reuters, VOA). Khobragade, a former deputy consul general in New York, became the center of a diplomatic battle after she was charged on Dec. 12 with submitting false documents to obtain a work visa for her housekeeper. Indian officials have expressed outrage over the alleged humiliating treatment of Khobragade, who was strip-searched and handcuffed while in custody. Asoke Mukerji, the Indian ambassador to the United Nations, said the transfer would make Khobragade eligible for greater privileges, including diplomatic protection from the arrest. Indian media reported that Khobragade had been exempted from personally appearing at a New York court hearing following the transfer (Times of India, The Hindu, Hindustan Times).
Western media sources said that it was unclear whether the U.S. State Department would approve the transfer. State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the change in Khobragade's status would not provide a "clean slate from past charges." The U.S. embassy in India sought an extension on Monday for filing key details about the Indians it employs and its officers, which the Indian government asked for in response to the Khobragade case.
S. Jaishankar, India's new ambassador to the United States, will be tasked with dealing with the Khobragade conflict when he arrives in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 24 (Hindu Business Line). Jaishanker played a key role in the Indo-U.S. civilian nuclear deal and recently served as India's ambassador to China.
Ganguly protests sexual harassment case
Retired Supreme Court Justice Ashok Kumar Ganguly, who has been accused of sexual harassment by a former intern, wrote to the Indian Supreme Court on Monday, denying the charges and saying that his due process under the law had been denied (Times of India, The Hindu, Indian Express, NDTV). In his first response to the case, Ganguly claimed that the three-judge committee that had been formed to prove the allegations had no jurisdiction since he is a retired judge, the intern was not on the rolls of the Supreme Court, and she did not lodge a formal complaint. He also said he was not shown the intern's statement on the charges before he had to respond to them, and that he was "treated almost like a person in captivity." "There is a concerted move to tarnish my image as I had the unfortunate duty of rendering certain judgments against powerful interests," he wrote. Ganguly is also the chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission. A source close to Ganguly said that he had begun the legal preparation to fight the allegation.
India shuts South Sudan oil fields as violence mounts
Eleven Indian executives working in South Sudan's Greater Nile Oil Project and Block 5A were evacuated on Monday as violence continued to escalate in the country (The Hindu). The two projects have an output of 45,000 barrels per day and are partially owned by ONGC Videsh Ltd. (OVL), the international arm of India's public sector Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC) Ltd., which had a 25 percent stake in each project. The fields are located in South Sudan's state of Unity, which was recently under attack by rebel forces loyal to former Vice President Riek Machar. While none of the oil wells have been captured by rebel forces thus far, the fields have been closed down as a precautionary measure. Chinese and Malaysian fields in the vicinity have also been shuttered and the countries have moved to evacuate their officials from the region. Violence in South Sudan also claimed the lives of two Indian soldiers on Friday who working as UN peacekeepers in the state of Jonglei (BBC).
-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson
Casualties in Mir Ali operation disputed
Residents in Pakistan's North Waziristan tribal region accused government troops on Monday of killing dozens of civilians during last week's military operation against Taliban insurgents (Reuters). While a military spokesman said, "Security forces exercised utmost restraint to avoid any collateral damage," a tribal elder in Mir Ali -- the site of the operation -- said 70 residents had been killed. The reports, however, are hard to verify as journalists and independent observers are often not allowed to report from the area due to security concerns.
Hafiz Gul Bahadur, a Taliban commander, said the insurgents would respond to the operation by launching a full-scale counter-offensive on army positions, while a government official said a jirga would be held on Monday "to try to find a negotiated end to hostilities." The announcements came three days after nearly 300 people, mostly students from North Waziristan, protested against the operation in Peshawar, the capital of Pakistan's northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (RFE/RL).
Polio vaccination worker killed
Two unidentified gunmen shot and killed a health worker who was administering the polio vaccine to children in the town of Jamrud in Pakistan's Khyber tribal region on Saturday, and left a note on the body threatening "dire consequences" for anyone else trying to vaccinate the area's children (VOA). According to Dr. Sameen Jan, the top health official in Khyber, the gunmen ordered all of the women and children to leave the government-run facility before they killed the worker (AFP). No one has claimed responsibility for the incident, though the Pakistani Taliban has frequently targeted vaccination workers. Pakistan is one of three countries in the world where polio remains endemic.
As the Christmas holiday nears, Christian worshippers at Peshawar's All Saints Church are having a hard time celebrating the season after an attack by two suicide bombers in September killed 82 members (AFP). In his recent sermon, the Reverend Ejaz Gill tried to offer comfort to his parishioners, saying the victims were at peace and will "join their loved ones spiritually to celebrate Christmas," but for many, the wounds of the attack -- believed to be the deadliest against Pakistan's Christian minority -- are still too fresh. Nasreen Anwar, a local resident, explained that almost no Christian family in Peshawar was untouched by the attack, but she did note that the violence of that day had brought the local community together, and that they had received support from Muslims in Pakistan and Christians around the world.
Rachel Washburn, a former cheerleader for the Philadelphia Eagles football team, was recognized as a "Hometown Hero" on Sunday night during the team's game against the Chicago Bears for her efforts in Afghanistan as an Army intelligence officer (USA Today). While the 25-year-old first lieutenant notes that those two things don't often go hand in hand, she was an Army ROTC student all throughout school, and her father was an Army helicopter pilot and an Air Force fighter pilot. During her first deployment, in 2011 and 2012, Washburn was part of a "Cultural Support Team," which was designed to attach women to special operations units so they could better relate to Afghan women. Though she has one year left with the Army, Washburn is thinking about reenlisting.
-- Bailey Cahall
Edited by Peter Bergen.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images