TIME Afghanistan

How the Death of Mullah Omar Could Disrupt Progress in Afghanistan

The one-eyed leader died two years ago, it has emerged. The news could impact hopes for peace with the Taliban

Only two weeks ago, Mullah Omar’s name surfaced on a website linked to the Afghan Taliban in a message approving of the insurgents’ peace talks with Afghan government officials. There was no video or audio, just a short statement purportedly from the one-eyed leader of the militants who ruled Afghanistan before fleeing into hiding amid U.S. air strikes in late 2001. And there he stayed, appearing only as the shadowy signatory of occasional messages such as the one that appeared in mid-July.

But on Wednesday morning, days before the second round of peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban are due to get under way, the Afghan government said it believed that Omar had in fact died as far back as 2013. “The government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, based on credible information, confirms that Mullah Mohammad Omar, leader of the Taliban died in April 2013 in Pakistan,” a statement issued by the office of the Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, said.

Earlier, a spokesman for Afghanistan’s national intelligence agency said Omar, who carried a $10 million U.S. State Department bounty on his head, was believed to have died at a hospital in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. “He was very sick in a Karachi hospital and died suspiciously there,” Abdul Hassib Sediqi, the spokesman for Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, told the Associated Press.

Omar’s whereabouts have been the subject of speculation for years, with the Taliban repeatedly denying periodic reports and rumors about incapacitating illness or death. But this time, with the Afghan government confirming the news, “we can now finally be comfortable in our long-held assumptions that he’s been dead,” says Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

Questions, however, remain about how the announcement might impact the talks, which were due to resume this week with a second round of meetings between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives. Islamabad hosted the first set of meetings as Ghani seeks to broker a settlement with the insurgents, who stepped up violent attacks as most NATO forces left the country at the end of 2014. With over 10,000 civilian casualties — up 22% on 2013 — last year was the conflict-ridden country’s deadliest since the U.N. began keeping records in 2007.

Afghanistan’s government said it believes that confirmation of Omar’s death means that the “grounds for the Afghan peace talks are more paved now than before” and called on “all armed opposition groups to seize the opportunity and join the peace process.”

But it is possible that the opposite might happen, as news of a leadership vacuum fuels Taliban infighting and different factions openly jostle for position. “The talks are by no means dead, but the momentum has been lost. I think the Taliban will now be consumed by this crisis — and it is a crisis,” Kugelman says. “It is going to be very difficult for the Taliban to think about peace talks. I don’t see how they’ll be able to focus on talks anytime soon.”

The fear that their organization is going to be “torn asunder” by the public announcement of their leader’s death might also explain why some Taliban militants had earlier on Wednesday put out the claim that Omar was still alive. “It could really tear the organization apart,” says Kugelman, who adds that the denials might be an attempt by certain groups to maintain unity.

Already, various Taliban factions are said to be making a push for power, with recent Pakistani press reports highlighting opposition within the militant group’s ranks to the leadership of its acting chief, Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor.

The announcement of Omar’s death by Afghanistan’s government, Kugelman adds, could also prove to be a “big-time victory” for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which has expanded beyond its home ground in Syria and Iraq into Afghanistan in recent months. “You could argue announcing Mullah Omar’s death amounts to a recruiting tool for [ISIS],” he says, with the confirmed exit of Omar allowing ISIS to lure disaffected Taliban militants who were already concerned about his absentee leadership as foreign troops exited Afghanistan.

“I think you could have large numbers of these militants moving over to ISIS,” he says.

 

TIME Pakistan

Pakistani Police Kill Feared Sunni Militant Leader

Malik Ishaq
Khalid Tanveer—AP Malik Ishaq, center, a leader of the banned Sunni Muslim group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, in July 15, 2011

Ishaq operated freely for years in Pakistan

(MUZAFFARGARH, Pakistan) — Pakistani police gunned down one of the country’s most-feared Sunni militant leaders and 13 followers in a mysterious pre-dawn shootout Wednesday, killing a man believed to behind the slaughter of hundreds of the nation’s minority Shiites.

Malik Ishaq, who directed the operations of the Taliban- and al-Qaeda-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi group, was so feared in Pakistan that frightened judges hid their faces from him and even offered the unrepentant killer tea and cookies in court.

Yet Ishaq, believed to be either 55 or 56, operated freely for years in Pakistan as the country’s intelligence services helped nurture Sunni militant groups in the 1980s and 1990s to counter a perceived threat from neighboring Shiite power Iran.

Details of Ishaq’s killing remain cloudy in Pakistan, where extrajudicial slayings by police remain common — especially in pre-staged ambushes. Ishaq already had been detained by police, arrested two days earlier on suspicion of being involved in the slaying of two Shiites, police officer Bakhtiar Ahmed said.

Early Wednesday, as officers tried to transfer Ishaq from a prison in the city of Multan, gunmen ambushed the police convoy transporting him in an attempt to free the militant, Ahmed said. The ensuing gunbattle killed Ishaq and at least 13 of his associates, including two of his sons and his deputy, Ghulam Rasool, Ahmed said.

In a later statement, police said “14 or 15 unidentified armed terrorists” attacked police vehicles to free Ishaq when officers were returning from an area in Muzaffargarh after seizing weapons, explosives and detonators on information provided by Ishaq and some of his associates.

It also said Ishaq and his associates were killed by those who ambushed the convoy, without elaborating.

Shuja Khanzada, the provincial home minister in Pakistan’s eastern Punjab province, where the alleged ambush took place, said the shooting wounded six police officers who “demonstrated extreme bravery.”

No other witnesses to the shooting could be immediately located, nor could Ishaq’s family members.

“Malik Ishaq was behind many acts of terrorism and he was freed by courts in the past due to lack of evidence,” Khanzada told The Associated Press. “Finally, this symbol of terror met his final fate.”

Fearing violence in Punjab, long the home of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, police mounted a heavy security presence around the province and the morgue in Muzaffargarh that took Ishaq’s body and those of his associates.

Ishaq helped found Laskhar-e-Jangvi, which allies itself with al-Qaida and the Taliban. His group is blamed for scores of attacks on Shiites, regarded as infidels, and on Pakistani and U.S. interests. They’ve also been accused of carrying out attacks in neighboring Afghanistan. The U.S. State Department designated Ishaq as a terrorist in February 2014, ordering any U.S. assets he held frozen.

Ishaq was arrested in 1997 and accused in more than 200 criminal cases, including the killings of 70 Shiites. But the state could never make the charges stick — in large part because witnesses, judges and prosecutors were too scared to convict.

Frightened judges treated him honorably in court and gave him tea and cookies, said Anis Haider Naqvi, a prosecution witness in two cases against Ishaq who spoke to The Associated Press in 2011. One judge attempted to hide his face with his hands, but Ishaq made clear he knew his identity in a chilling way: He read out the names of his children, and the judge abandoned the trial, Naqvi said at the time.

Despite the lack of convictions, Ishaq remained in prison for 14 years as prosecutors slowly moved from one case to the next. Ishaq proved his usefulness to the army in 2009, when he was flown from jail to negotiate with militants who had stormed part of the military headquarters in Rawalpindi and were holding hostages

A behind-the-scenes effort by the government to co-opt the leaders of militant outfits and bring them into mainstream political life, or at least draw them away from attacking the state, helped Ishaq secure his release in 2011. He had been in and out of police custody since.

Pakistan is a majority Sunni Muslim state, with around 15 percent of the population Shiite. Most Sunnis and Shiites live together peacefully in Pakistan, though tensions have existed for decades and extremists on both sides target each other’s leaders.

Pakistan has intensified its campaign against militant groups since December 2014, when a Taliban attack on a military school in the northwestern city of Peshawar killed 150 people, mostly children.

The school attack also prompted the Pakistani government to lift its moratorium on the death penalty. It has executed scores of militants and other men charged in murder cases since then.

___

Ahmed reported from Islamabad.

TIME Bangladesh

Bangladeshi Opposition Leader’s Death Sentence Upheld

Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a senior opposition leader waves to the media after he arrives to the war crime tribunal in Dhaka.
Khurshed Rinku —REUTERS Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, a senior opposition leader, waves to the media after he arrives to the war crime tribunal in Dhaka October 1, 2013

Critics believe the case was politically motivated

Bangladeshi opposition leader Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury has had his appeal against his death sentence rejected by a Supreme Court judge.

Chowdhury, 66, a standing committee member for the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) whose father was formerly an acting President of Pakistan, was sentenced to death two years ago by a controversial domestic war crimes tribunal. He was convicted of nine different crimes, including rape, torture and genocide, allegedly carried out during the South Asian nation’s 1971 independence struggle, the AFP reports.

During that conflict, East Pakistan, as Bangladesh was then known, seceded from Islamabad’s control. Chowdhury’s subsequent conviction was the first time an opposition politician had been tried for related crimes and critics maintain the case was politically motivated.

Chowdhury’s BNP clashes regularly with the country’s ruling Bangladesh Awami League. The BNP has been significantly weakened in recent months after carrying out a three-month nationwide traffic blockade in an attempt to overthrow current Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.

Similar verdicts against Islamist politicians have previously sparked violence throughout the country. Security has now been increased in both the capital Dhaka and in Chowdhury’s hometown of Chittagong, police officials told the AFP.

[AFP]

TIME Pakistan

Why Pakistan Is Replacing English With Urdu

Pakistan is dropping English as its official language and switching to Urdu, a popular language in the Indian subcontinent.

The long-rumored change was confirmed by Pakistani Minister of Planning, National Reforms, and Development Ahsan Iqbal in an exclusive interview with TIME.

Iqbal said the change was being made because of a court directive. The Pakistani constitution, which was passed in 1973, included a clause specifying that the government must make Urdu the national language within 15 years, but it had not been enforced.

Still, Iqbal said the country is not entirely abandoning English, which will still be taught alongside Urdu in schools.

“It means Urdu will be a second medium of language and all official business will be bilingual,” he said.

Some Pakistanis fear that the move is part of an official backlash against the younger generation, which has been more open to Western culture.

But Iqbal argued that the move would help make Pakistan more democratic, since it will “help provide greater participation to people who don’t know English, hence making the government more inclusive.”

Urdu is just one of a number of languages spoken in Pakistan, but it retains a cultural cachet as the language of movies and music as well as the Islamic religion, while English has been more popular among elites and government ministries.

According to the CIA Factbook, nearly half of Pakistanis speak Punjabi, the language of the Punjab region, while only 8% speak Urdu. Several other languages are spoken by a fraction of the population.

The decision to break away from English creates a stark contrast with Pakistan’s neighbor and longtime rival India. English was the official language of the area that now comprises both countries under British rule, which ended in 1947.

Despite a similar language clause in its constitution, India continues to use both English and Hindi as its official languages.

TIME

Six Dead as Armed Gunmen Storm a Police Station in North India

India Punjab Terror Attack
Munish Sharma—Reuters Indian policemen take their positions as their colleagues watch next to a police station during a gunfight at Dinanagar town in Gurdaspur district of Punjab, India on July 27, 2015.

The attack took place in a small town near India's border with Pakistan

At least six people have died in the northern Indian state of Punjab after gunmen dressed in army uniforms opened fire at a passenger bus and a community health centre early on Monday morning before storming a police station, resulting in a siege that as security forces surrounded the area near India’s international border with Pakistan.

Five bombs were also found on a railway track near the site of the siege in Dinanagar, a small town located around 10 miles from the border. Local and federal officials said initial media reports suggesting that the gunmen might be holding hostages were false.

“We have been able to limit [the attack], they are surrounded, they are holed up in the police station. We are on top of the situation,” Harcharan Bains, an adviser to Punjab’s chief minister, the state’s top elected official, told the Reuters news agency. Indian TV later reported that the siege ended at 5pm local time.

As the siege continued, the country’s home minister, Rajnath Singh, ordered increased security on India’s border with Pakistan. India’s defense minister, Manohar Parrikar, said special forces had been dispatched to the site of the attacks. “The counter insurgency and counter terror special forces are there,” he told reporters in New Delhi.

“We are on alert,” Anil Paliwal, a senior officer from the country’s Border Security Force, told the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency. “We have enhanced vigil along the entire international border with Pakistan.”

India’s information ministry, meanwhile, was reported to have issued an advisory to television news channels to refrain from making live broadcasts from the scene as security forces attempt to bring the situation in Dinanagar under control.

According to PTI, the gunmen hijacked a small car with a Punjab registration number before opening fire on a passenger bus and targeting a community health centre adjacent to the police station. Two policeman and four civilians were killed in the attack, which also left several others wounded.

Although the identity of the gunmen remains unknown, local reports said they were suspected to have crossed into Punjab from the troubled northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, where attacks by gunmen dressed in police or army uniforms are more common.

The region is at the centre of a decades-old territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, tensions between whom have been rising in recent weeks despite a meeting earlier in July between their leaders that had triggered hopes of an improvement in relations between the two nuclear-armed South Asian neighbors.

Speaking to reporters in New Delhi, Jitendra Singh, a minister in the office of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who represents a nearby constituency, said “this is a zone which has been vulnerable for quite some time.” “There have earlier also been reports of Pakistan infiltration and cross-border mischief in this area,” he said.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Stays Death Sentence of Christian Woman Convicted of Blasphemy

Protesters hold up placards while demanding the release of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian sentenced to death for blasphemy in Karachi
Akhtar Soomro—Reuters Protesters hold up placards while demanding the release of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, at a rally in Karachi on Nov. 25, 2010

The mother of four was sentenced to death in 2010

Pakistan’s Supreme Court said Wednesday it would hear an appeal from Aasia Noreen, popularly known as Asia Bibi, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy.

Bibi’s lawyer Saif-ul-Malook said the court had stayed her death sentence until the appeal, Reuters reported.

“The execution of Asia Bibi has been suspended and will remain suspended until the decision of this appeal,” Malook said, adding that a date for her execution had not previously been set.

Bibi was sentenced to death in 2010 under Pakistan’s highly opaque and contentious blasphemy law, over an argument with a group of women who refused to drink the water she offered them because her status as a Christian made it “unclean.” The Muslim-majority country does not explicitly define blasphemy but stipulates the death penalty for acts deemed as such, leading to several instances of what activists say is manipulation of the law to settle personal scores or discriminate against minorities.

Bibi, a mother of four and the first woman to be so sentenced under the blasphemy law, has said in the past that she was implicated because of a personal vendetta that the group of women had against her.

Although the state has never actually carried out an execution for blasphemy, convictions are increasingly common, as are cases of mob justice. Those who speak out against the blasphemy law — including two politicians who were assassinated for trying to defend Bibi — become instant targets of religious fundamentalist groups. Pakistani lawyers often refuse to argue blasphemy cases out of a fear of being attacked, and death threats against those who do are a common occurrence.

Bibi’s husband and four daughters have also reportedly been living in hiding, fearing persecution after receiving several death threats.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistani Supermodel Ayyan Ali Released From Jail

Ayaan Ali
B.K. Bangash—AP Police officers escort Pakistan's supermodel Ayaan Ali to a court under tight security in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, on June 1, 2015

The 21-year-old was freed on bail but could face a lengthy prison term

Pakistan’s celebrated supermodel Ayyan Ali was escorted out of prison Tuesday, but she faces a possible 14-year sentence and hefty fine if convicted of money-smuggling.

Prosecutors say Ali was caught carrying a half-million dollars in cash in her suitcase when she was stopped in Islamabad Airport in March. The amount of cash one person is permitted to take out of Pakistan is limited to $10,000.

The Dubai-born 21-year-old was granted bail by a Lahore court before leaving a high-security jail in Rawalpindi, south of Islamabad, on Thursday, according to the BBC. She has denied the charges and intends to appear at any court hearings, her lawyer told the AP news agency.

Ali said the money came from the proceeds of property sales and that she was unaware of the customs rules.

The intense media coverage of the case has raised questions about how Pakistan treats its celebrities.

[BBC]

TIME South Asia

Pakistan Says It Shot Down a Drone Belonging to the Indian Military

The incident comes less than a week after a meeting between the Prime Ministers of the two hostile neighbors

Pakistan is claiming that it shot down a drone belonging to India on Wednesday that, it says, was being used to conduct aerial photography and surveillance near the border between the two countries.

India’s envoy to Islamabad has been summoned by the Pakistan government over the incident while the Indian army and air force both denied any of their drones was unaccounted for, the BBC reports.

The “spy drone,” according to a statement from the Pakistani army, strayed over the border into the Pakistan-occupied section of Kashmir — the heavily disputed territory that both countries lay claim to.

“Some reports of a drone crash in PoK [Pakistan-occupied Kashmir] are being referred to. No drone or UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] crash of the Indian Army has taken place,” an Indian army spokesman countered.

The alleged drone infraction comes less than a week after a seemingly positive meeting between the two countries’ leaders in Russia last Friday, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi accepted his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif’s invitation to visit Islamabad next year.

Wednesday also marked the latest in a long line of violent incidents on the border, with the Press Trust of India reporting that India lodged a formal protest following an alleged ceasefire violation by Pakistan’s security forces that killed a woman and injured several others. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), meanwhile, issued a statement saying India’s Border Security Force (BSF) killed four civilians in unprovoked firing on Thursday, according to Pakistani newspaper Dawn.

The ceasefire agreement — in force since 2003 — is frequently breached by troops manning both sides of the border, with each blaming the other for initiating the violence.

TIME India

India’s Narendra Modi to Visit Pakistan in 2016 as Regional Foes Continue Dialogue

BRICS 2015 Summit
Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images From left: Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pose for a photo during the BRICS 2015 Summit in Ufa, Russia, on July 9, 2015

The visit was announced after bilateral talks between Modi and Pakistan's leader Nawaz Sharif on Friday

Correction appended, July 11, 2015

The highly anticipated talks between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Ufa, Russia, on Friday appeared to produce a few tangible positive outcomes, other than the former officially accepting an invitation to visit Pakistan next year.

Modi will travel to Pakistan’s capital city Islamabad for the 2016 summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), of which both India and Pakistan are founding members, according to a statement from the Foreign Secretaries of both countries after the meeting.

The one-on-one meeting between Modi and Sharif, the first in more than a year, took place in the led up to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit. Modi’s visit to Pakistan in 2016 will be his first ever, and the first by an Indian Prime Minister since Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2004 (Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh never went across the border during his 10-year tenure).

The two leaders also made a renewed commitment to fighting terrorism — a thorn in the side of their bilateral relationship for several decades — announcing a meeting of their respective national security advisers in New Delhi to resolve security issues and enhanced cooperation regarding the 26/11 terrorist attacks of 2008 in Mumbai (which India has accused Pakistan of engineering).

The neighbors, which have fought three wars in the past six decades, also moved a step closer to resolving other long-standing issues. Sharif and Modi also pledged enhanced cooperation between security forces at the India-Pakistan border, where violent clashes between troops are a frequent occurrence, and the release of hundreds of fishermen from both countries — imprisoned for straying into the other’s international waters — within 15 days.

“Whatever was signed was welcome,” Gopalapuram Parthasarathy, a former High Commissioner of India to Pakistan, says to TIME in an interview. “Ultimately this relationship’s direction will depend on terrorism and the situation on the borders.”

However, given the fragile nature of similar bilateral agreements in the past, Parthasarathy does recognize the need to maintain “healthy skepticism” until concrete action is taken.

“The proof of the pudding is in the eating,” he says. “Don’t forget we had great agreements in Lahore [during Vajpayee’s visit] and then we had Kargil [war of 1999] within three months.”

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the year of the most recent visit of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It was 2004. The article also misstated the length of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s time in office. It was 10 years.

TIME India

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Meet Pakistani Leader Nawaz Sharif

Relations between the longtime South Asian rivals have been strained as of late

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will engage in bilateral talks with his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on Friday, at the sidelines of the ongoing Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Ufa, Russia.

The sit-down meeting — the first between the two South Asian leaders in more than a year — was initiated by New Delhi, according to Indian newspaper the Hindu. Modi’s Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar reportedly made a request to Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aizaz Ahmed Chaudhry through the Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan on July 3, just over a week after meeting the Pakistani High Commissioner.

“I think it’s significant, because in the last few months India has been the one basically setting the tone of what the relationship is all about,” said Samina Yasmeen, director of the Centre for Muslim States and Societies at the University of Western Australia, in an interview with TIME. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t also some counseling from the United States or even China.”

The U.S. and China are also overseeing negotiations between a government delegation from Afghanistan and representatives of the Taliban in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad this week, and Yasmeen says although the two may not be strictly correlated, they do indicate the growing need for stability in South Asia felt by global powers, particularly China.

“There’s also the reality of increased Chinese interest in the cross-section of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border,” she said. “If they want to have a westward presence it’s in their interest that the area through which they plan to have the presence is stable, and they are aware of the fact that Pakistan-Afghanistan relations haven’t been on a solid footing and the Pakistan-India relationship hasn’t been very good.”

The tone for Friday’s talks in Russia was set by a phone call from Modi to Sharif on June 16, which appeared to mitigate the long-standing tension between the two neighbors that had been escalating in recent months.

The last time the leaders met one-on-one was Modi’s first day in office in May 2014, and an effort to conduct a similar meeting at November’s South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Nepal was rebuffed because of various disagreements. Since then, the relationship has been marred by simmering clashes on the India-Pakistan border and in the disputed region of Kashmir, as well as flare-ups in rhetoric after Modi’s visit to Bangladesh and India’s covert operations in Burma, officially now called Myanmar, earlier this year.

“The best deliverable would be to bring down the [political] temperature, because there’s been accusations and counter-accusations,” says Yasmeen. “There’s a perception in Pakistan that India is pushing at Pakistan, and a perception in India that it is a global power so it can ignore Pakistan but also get Pakistan to shape up by building alliances with other countries,” she added.

The implicit expectation from Friday’s meeting is that concrete steps will be taken to ensure a bilateral dialogue is maintained, and agreements may be announced on relatively nonsensitive issues such as trade and bilateral visa exemptions. But if past bilateral meetings between the contentious neighbors are any indication, the resulting agreements are often short-lived.

“I think of it as like a jewelry box,” says Yasmeen. “They put it away and suddenly say ‘Oh, let’s talk about this’, then they forget about it because other things are drawing their attention. And then they open it up again.”

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