Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's advisor on foreign affairs, told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday that Pakistan will release Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, an imprisoned senior Taliban commander, within the month (AFP, BBC, Dawn, Guardian, NYT, Post, Reuters, VOA). Aziz's announcement came a day after Pakistani political and military officials released a statement saying they would pursue peace talks with the militant groups operating within the country, and several days after seven Taliban fighters were released from Pakistani custody. Baradar, who was captured in Karachi in 2010, is seen as a potential linchpin in getting the Afghan Taliban back to the negotiating table and Kabul has long pushed for his release (RFE/RL). Afghan officials responded cautiously to the news of Baradar's impending release as specific details, including the date and condition of his release - whether into Pakistani territory or Afghan custody - were not given (Pajhwok).
Pakistan's Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, also told reporters on Tuesday that the government had finalized a framework outlining the process for beginning a dialogue with the Pakistani Taliban and other militant groups in the country (ET). While Khan did not provide further details of the framework, officials familiar with the government's plan told Pakistan's Express Tribune newspaper that it would entail five to six stages. According to them, a dialogue between government officials and militant fighters would only begin after a preparatory committee is formed, mediators are chosen, militant input is given, and a venue for the talks is identified.
The Pakistani Taliban welcomed the government's announcement of peace talks on Monday and is currently holding a meeting of the central shura council to create a formal response to the overture (Dawn). As for Baradar's release, Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said: "We hope that his imprisonment is over" (AJE).
Nadeem Hashmi, a former provincial legislator with the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), was arrested in Karachi late Tuesday night, prompting a violent response from the city's residents and a subsequent shutdown of parts of the city (Dawn, ET). While Hashmi was arrested for suspected involvement in the murders of two policemen in Karachi, Altaf Hussain, the MQM party chief, alleged that it was a punishment for the group's demands that the city's administration be turned over to the army. Karachi has been rocked by violent incidents for weeks and the Sindh Rangers, a provincial paramilitary force, is launching a number of security operations to restore law and order to the megacity.
Female officers needed
Oxfam, an international aid agency, released a new report on Tuesday calling on the Afghan government and international community to better "recruit, train, retain, and protect Afghan female police officers" (Oxfam). According to Oxfam, women make up less than 1% of Afghanistan's police force, making it hard for women in the conservative country to seek justice for violent crimes. And the women who do join the force often face sexual harassment and violence from their male counterparts. Sediq Sediqqi, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, admitted that there were problems involving women in the police force but said the government was determined to recruit more female officers (AFP). He said the government plans to double the number of female officers from 2,200 to more than 4,000 in time for next April's presidential and provincial elections.
The need for more Afghan officers in general was made clearer on Tuesday when the U.N. released a report stating that cannabis production in Afghanistan actually rose in 2012, despite the eradication efforts of Uruzgan province (Guardian, Pajhwok). Concerned that profits from farming the drug were financing the Taliban, officials in Uruzgan launched a fierce eradication campaign in 2012, reducing the amount of farmland used to grow the cannabis plants by a fifth; but a bumper crop meant that the drug's actual production grew. While cannabis production is still dwarfed by Afghanistan's opium trade, 1,400 tons of commercial cannabis resin were produced in 2012, bringing in nearly $65 million.
The U.S. State Department revealed on Wednesday that informal negotiations between U.S. and Afghan officials regarding the text of the Bilateral Security Agreement have been moved to Kabul (Pajhwok). Afghan President Hamid Karzai suspended formal negotiations over the agreement, which will determine the size and scope of the U.S. force that remains in the country once the NATO combat mission ends next December, after the opening of the Taliban's political office in Doha in June.
James Cunningham, the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, is one of the U.S. officials now leading the talks but his job is being complicated by remarks Amb. James Dobbins, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, made in a recent interview to Voice of America. Dobbins stated that: "There already is, of course, a civil war in Afghanistan." Afghan officials have lashed out against the comments and Cunningham was summoned to the Afghan presidency on Wednesday (AP, Pajhwok). The outcome of that meeting is not yet known.
At least 18 militants were killed in Afghanistan's Helmand province on Tuesday during an operation in the Bustanzo area of Sangin (Pajhwok). According to Mohammad Lal Ahmadi, a provincial official, two Taliban commanders - Mullah NImatullah and Mullah Jan - were arrested and 70 heavy and light weapons were seized during the incident. In the Musa Kala district of the province, four Afghan civilians were killed and eight were injured when their vehicle struck a landmine (BBC, Pajhwok).
The first painted portrait of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani schoolgirl who was shot in the head by Taliban fighters last October for championing girls' education, went on display Wednesday at London's National Portrait Gallery (AFP, RFE/RL). Painted by Jonathan Yeo, one of the country's leading artists, it shows Yousafzai doing her homework. It will be on display until January 2014, when it will be sold to raise money for the 16-year-old's education campaign. In describing the painting, Yeo said: "Hopefully [it] reflects the slight paradox of representing someone with enormous power and wisdom yet vulnerability and youth at the same time."
-- Bailey Cahall