A new day or another day?
Reports about the first day of the U.S. and Pakistan’s ‘strategic dialogue’ talks in Washington were mixed: although the U.S. has agreed to speed up delivery of some $2 billion in back military aid and equipment for Pakistan’s operations in the tribal areas, U.S. officials continue to be noncommittal about Pakistan’s desire for a civilian nuclear deal mirroring the one reached by India and the United States several years ago (McClatchy, WSJ, AP, FT). Officials also danced around details about the touchy subject of Islamabad’s ties with the Taliban and its involvement in the Afghan reconciliation process (Wash Post, Pajhwok).
But officials on both sides were enthusiastic about the progress being made, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hailing a "new day" in U.S.-Pakistan relations and her Pakistani counterpart Shah Mehmood Qureshi declaring himself a "happy man, a satisfied man" (AFP, State, BBC, AJE). One of the items on the agenda as the talks enter their second day is the case of Dr. Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who was recently convicted in New York of attempting to kill U.S. servicemen and could face life in prison at her sentencing on May 6 (AFP, The News, VOA). Siddiqui’s guilty verdict sparked outrage in Pakistan, and protests broke out across the country.
Back in Pakistan, security forces continued to batter extremist strongholds in the northwest tribal agency of Orakzai, killing more than 20 suspected militants (AP). And nearly a year after the Pakistani military concluded operations in the Swat Valley, the government is struggling to rebuild, and the chief regional minister said the first phase of reconstruction will cost around $1 billion (Reuters).
"No enemy is an enemy forever, no friend is a friend forever"
A delegation from Afghanistan’s second-largest insurgent group, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, has reportedly met with U.N. chief in Afghanistan Staffan de Mistura today, following talks earlier this week between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the HIG negotiators (AP, AP, Guardian, Reuters). An HIG spokesman said yesterday that the group is ready for peace talks and to act as a "bridge" to the Afghan Taliban. The Afghan Taliban, on the other hand, continue to reject the notion of any talks about reconciliation, and issued a statement a few days ago denying any contact between de Mistura’s predecessor, Kai Eide, and leaders of the movement (AFP).
The U.N. has also just condemned a controversial amnesty law giving blanket immunity to accused war criminals in Afghanistan (AFP). The country’s electoral commission announced a "reshuffle" of its provincial chiefs, firing at least five, after last summer’s fraud-ridden elections (AFP).
Dexter Filkins and Pir Zubair Shah have more details about the appointment of a new deputy for the Afghan Taliban after the recent arrest of the movement’s second-in-command, Mullah Baradar (NYT). Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, a former Guantanamo detainee with a reputation as a tough fighter, was reportedly appointed by Mullah Omar directly without convening the group’s shura, a sign that the militants are concerned about the security risks of gathering in large numbers.
Two more stories round out the day: the Afghan National Army is still struggling with drug use, theft, and questionable work ethic (McClatchy); and coalition forces seem to have decided not to focus right now on eradicating the pervasive poppy that is the main source of income for many Afghan farmers across the country’s south and east (USAT, AP). One U.S. commander commented, "We just let them grow it. If we just went in and destroyed every poppy field, then they’d immediately turn against us."
We could be champions
The LA Times continues its interesting series of offbeat South Asia stories, writing about Afghanistan’s would-be judo champions who practice in a gym at Kabul University (LAT). One of the black belts wisely observed, "We cannot build an economy or even strong Olympic teams in one or two years. It’s a long trip, but we go day by day."