The Rack: Michael Hart, "West's Afghan Hopes Collide with Reality" (National Interest).
Setbacks: The Afghan Taliban said in a statement released Thursday that it has withdrawn from preliminary peace talks with the United States, and cancelled its plans to open an office in Qatar because of the U.S. government's "alternating and ever changing position" (Post). The statement did not link directly to the recent killing of 16 Afghan civilians or the Quran burnings at a U.S. base in Afghanistan, but the two incidents both worsened NATO's image in the country. And U.S. officials are confused by the outpouring of anger from the Afghan populace after the Quran burnings, but relative lack of reaction over the murder of civilians by a U.S. service member, while Afghan religious figures explain to reporters that religion is even more important than life itself (NYT).
An Afghan interpreter at Camp Bastion in southern Afghanistan attempted to run over a group of U.S. Marines gathered on the runway to meet the visiting U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, but missed the soldiers and crashed his stolen vehicle (Post,Reuters, AFP, Tel, AP, BBC, LAT). The man appeared to accidentally set himself on fire as he tried to torch the vehicle, and later died from his severe burns. A "newly planted" roadside bomb in Uruzgan Province killed 13 Afghan civilians -- all of them women and children -- on Thursday, according to a police spokesman (Reuters, AFP). And Reuters' Jack Kimball has a must-read on the varying amounts of money paid by different NATO member countries to the families of civilians killed by their soldiers (Reuters).
U.S. defense officials said Wednesday that the U.S. Army staff sergeant accused of massacring 16 Afghan civilians on Sunday has been flown out of Afghanistan, possibly to Kuwait (CNN, LAT, AP, BBC). Afghan legislators reacted to the news with anger, saying the government should not sign a strategic partnership agreement with the United States unless the soldier is brought to justice in Afghanistan (AP, Tel). And two military officials told McClatchy Newspapers Wednesday that there was "no smoking gun" in the soldier's medical records that could explain his actions (McClatchy).
Finally, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday it is in Russia's "national interest" to allow NATO the use of an air base in southern Russia for the transport of non-lethal NATO supplies out of Afghanistan, and a formal deal will be considered by the Russian Cabinet soon (Reuters, NYT, AP).
Catch and release
Two Swiss citizens, Daniela Widmer and Olivier Och, showed up at a military checkpoint in North Waziristan Thursday after being kidnapped in Balochistan and held hostage by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for eight months (NYT, Tel, AJE, Dawn, LAT, CNN, AP, BBC). Local TTP commanders said the couple had been freed after a ransom was paid, while Pakistani Army official Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas said the two had escaped. Later, a suicide bomber killed a prominent anti-Taliban police commander in Peshawar, Superintendent Kalam Khan (AFP, AP, CNN, ET).
Pakistan's top civil and military leaders came to an agreement during a meeting Wednesday on the reopening of NATO supply routes through the country, though their proposal on the "tough conditions" of unblocking the routes still has to get parliament's approval in a session scheduled for next week (ET, ET, Dawn, Dawn, AP, The News). Pakistan's top military official, Maj. Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, warned Thursday that critics should be careful not to undermine national institutions with accusations, in reference to the current charges against Pakistan's intelligence agency for its involvement in detaining Pakistanis and holding them without charge (ET). And Pakistani Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani claimed Thursday that what the Supreme Court is asking him to do -- request that Swiss authorities reinstate a graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari -- is an egregious violation of the Constitution that could bring him the death penalty (ET).
A group of Pakistani officials are due to arrive in Mumbai today after delaying their trip for several months, and will collect statements from the Indian doctors and officials involved in investigating the 2008 Mumbai attacks for use in the trial against the one surviving attacker (BBC, DT, AFP, AP). The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan this week condemned the government's establishment of an internet filtering system capable of blocking up to 50 million different websites that it considers "undesirable" (Dawn, ET, LAT, DT).
Students at Islamabad and Rawalpindi schools have complained about the poor quality of the food served in the canteens, which are often run by outside vendors who produce cheap, unhealthy items (DT). A doctor told the Associated Press of Pakistan that he would advise students to avoid canteen food entirely, or risk stomach trouble, obesity, and diabetes.
-- Jennifer Rowland