Welcome to the South Asia Foreign Policy Letter. I am Michael Kugelman, Assistant Director of the Asia Program and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington, and I am pleased to be the new author of this newsletter.
I have to fill big shoes when I take over Ravi Agrawal, now editor-in-chief of FP. I look forward to sharing news and analysis from a region with a quarter of the world's population – and an endless amount of fascinating stories.
The highlights of this week: The Biden administration is in charge difficult decisions in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan give a surprising truce in cashmere and why Bhutan has only recorded one COVID-19 death so far.
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Bidens Afghanistan swamp
The Biden administration is reportedly on the verge of finalizing a policy review on the war in Afghanistan – however, it faces a difficult decision as it lacks good options. No matter what it does, intense violence in the country is likely to increase. The decision that President Joe Biden makes will resonate at home, especially among his critics, as it will be one of his first major foreign policy decisions. In the words of a US official, Biden's choice amounts to a "shitty sandwich".
A year ago, the Trump administration signed an agreement with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, calling for the full withdrawal of US forces by May 1, 2021, as long as the insurgents kept their counter-terrorism commitments, including preventing al-Qaeda – Attacks on the US US or its allies from Afghan soil. The deal also obliged the insurgents to start peace talks with the Afghan government and put an end to the Taliban's attacks on US forces.
While the Taliban began talks with the Afghan government last September, six months later than foreseen in the Doha Agreement, they made little progress. Taliban violence against targets outside the US has increased over the past year. According to reports from the US government and the United Nations, the group continues to cooperate with al-Qaeda – which, while not against the agreement, certainly raises questions about its willingness to contain al-Qaeda attacks.
Given the upcoming May 1 withdrawal deadline, Biden has the following options.
First, Washington can withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops by May 1. This move carries the risk that the Taliban will use the battlefield advantage offered by the withdrawal of US troops to intensify their fight against the Afghan government and seize power by force.
Or the Biden administration can ignore the May 1st deadline and continue the troops. But the Taliban would likely accuse the United States of violating the Doha Accords, canceling the deal, sinking the peace process with Kabul and re-declaring war on US forces. Stephen M. Walt's recent foreign policy column highlights the added risks of staying in Afghanistan.
Finally, a third option for the United States is to negotiate an extension of the withdrawal with the Taliban. This would give the Biden administration time to pave the way for a more orderly final withdrawal and a healthier environment for intra-Afghan peace talks, from reducing Taliban violence to continuing US support to Afghan security forces.
On February 23, Vox quoted an official as saying a full May withdrawal was "off the table". Last week, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin warned of a "hasty" withdrawal. Such news suggests that the administration doesn't feel constrained until May 1st.
But getting the Taliban to agree to an extension would be a major task. For nearly 20 years, the group's primary goal has been to drive foreign forces out of Afghanistan. The Taliban would demand substantial concessions even for a brief delay, including Doha deal commitments that Washington has not yet fulfilled, such as removing the Taliban from the United States' sanctions lists.
If the Biden government makes such concessions, it will have less influence later, especially as it tries to force the Taliban to agree to a ceasefire – a US critical target. In addition, the Taliban would likely demand the formation of a new transitional government, which Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has categorically rejected. Back home, Biden will be under political pressure from Democrats and Republicans to both up the ante and stay on course.
Then there is the regional challenge. Administration officials say they advocate a "robust and regional diplomatic effort" in support of the peace process in Afghanistan. But the major regional players – China, Iran, Russia – are America's bitter rivals. Neighboring Pakistan gains influence over the Taliban from the sanctuary it offers to the leadership of the group. Washington can pressure Islamabad to persuade the Taliban to remain engaged in the peace talks, but its ability to do so remains unclear.
Ironically, India, Washington's main regional partner and close friend of the Afghan government, can play only a limited role in promoting the peace process because it has no relationship with the Taliban. Any possible endgame – whether a collapsed peace process and worsening civil war that is undermining Kabul, or a political settlement that gives the Taliban a share of power and thus more influence over Pakistan – will put New Delhi at a disadvantage.
Biden has never supported a large, long-term military presence in Afghanistan. He opposed Barack Obama's 2009 swarm and has long favored a small, counter-terrorism-focused force. If the president chooses one, however, the Taliban's firm commitment to a full US withdrawal means he risks torpedoing the fragile peace process and putting US forces back in the Taliban's crosshairs.
February 25-27: Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammed Haneef Atmar visits Russia for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
February 29: One year anniversary of the signing of the US-Taliban deal.
March 3: The Wilson Center hosts a webinar about Relations between India and Taiwan.
March 5th: Turn on for FP Subscriber call in South Asiawith insights from Michael Kugelman, Editor-in-Chief Ravi Agrawal, and Executive Editor Amelia Lester.
A surprising truce. A day before the second anniversary of the worst military crisis between India and Pakistan in nearly 30 years, when India launched air strikes across the border for the first time since 1971, the two countries announced a ceasefire along the controversial line of control dividing Kashmir. The ceasefire is the first along the border since 2003, and the timing is remarkable: tensions between India and Pakistan are currently high due to the 2019 military crisis and India's decision to revoke the autonomy of India-administered Kashmir.
Experts have made statements, including India's desire to free up bandwidth for its border dispute with China and the Pakistani army's conclusion that improving relations with India will better serve its interests. The ceasefire cannot last due to persistently high tensions and previous precedents. Given the dangerous development of bilateral relations over the past two years, including around 5,000 more ceasefire violations in 2020, the highest number in nearly two decades, an exit could not come at a better time.
According to Shishir Gupta of the Hindustan Times, further steps to ease tensions could be taken in the coming months. We will watch this room.
India and China break up. On February 19, Indian and Chinese soldiers completed a retreat from the Pangong Tso sea area in the Ladakh region along its disputed border. The decline comes eight months after a deadly border conflict in the Galwan Valley, elsewhere in Ladakh, brought India-China relations to their lowest level in decades. The withdrawal and New Delhi's decision this week to give the green light to 45 Chinese investments that were postponed last year indicate a possible thaw.
Elsewhere along the 2,100 mile line, troops remain huddled and security is tense. Last month, satellite imagery showed that China had built an entire village on what India believes is its own in the state of Arunachal Pradesh. Indian and Chinese soldiers also briefly clashed in the Sikkim region along India's eastern border.
Imran Khan visits Sri Lanka. The Pakistani Prime Minister visited Sri Lanka this week to discuss economic cooperation between the countries. Islamabad already has warm relations with Colombo. As early as 2009, Pakistan provided security assistance to Sri Lanka in the final phase of its efforts to quell the Tamil Tiger uprising.
Khan's visit appears to be part of a broader effort to strengthen regional diplomacy. In the past few weeks, Pakistan has taken steps to strengthen ties with Afghanistan and Bangladesh. A 45-nation naval exercise was held last week that included Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
There have been many success stories of coronavirus pandemics from Asia – Taiwan, Vietnam, New Zealand – but one small country has remained largely unknown: Bhutan. Despite its poverty, the ratio of 1 doctor to 2,255 people, and its shared border with China and India, Bhutan has only recorded one COVID-19 death.
In the Atlantic, science journalist Madeline Drexler brings Bhutan's success back to swift action from top officials, clear and consistent messages from health officials, and strong public confidence in the government. But it also identifies another factor that can only be found in Bhutan: the spirit of compassion and altruism, which reflects the index "Gross National Happiness". The index considers non-economic aspects of well-being, including health, to be essential for sustainable development.
“As long as I live, you won't see a transitional government. I'm not like these willows that bend with the wind. "
– Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is responding to the Taliban's call for a new interim administration to oversee the country's fragile peace process
Free speech advocate appears in the Daily Star Faruq Faisel deplores Bangladesh's crackdown on online content, including the recent removal of a documentary from social media platforms.
B.N. sable, an Indian Army veteran who writes on the Indian Express, opposes the distribution of military-themed video games that simulate real battles, arguing that the "development and marketing" of such games on "politically volatile and emotionally stressful topics" for the military is disrespectful.
Kishwar EnamThe Pakistani pediatrician is campaigning in Dawn to end the usual practice of wealthy Pakistani children hiring children as housekeepers. "[P] People who hire domestic help for children see themselves as the saviors of these unhappy children," she writes.
In the Kathmandu Post the Nepalese management Sujeev Shakya explains how his country's economy managed to overcome the pandemic storm.
That's it for this week.
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