Welcome to the South Asian Foreign Policy Letter. The highlights of this week: Russia shows its growing influence on the subcontinent, Pakistan's anti-government alliance suffers a severe blow, and Maoist insurgents in India kill 22 security guards
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Lavrov makes a stopover in South Asia
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited India and Pakistan this week, underscoring Moscow's growing clout in South Asia. Russia's recent influence in the region includes brokering border talks between India and China and its increasing role in an Afghan peace process with major Pakistani involvement.
Lavrow's first stop was New Delhi. Russia and India formed a strong friendship during the Cold War, but one that has lost momentum over the past decade as both sides strengthened ties with each other's rivals: India with the US and Russia with China. In recent years, the partnership has seemed more nostalgic than substance-driven. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in 2014: "If asked who is India's best friend (a child in India), he will reply that it is Russia because Russia was with India in times of crisis."
It is noticeable that Lavrov did not meet Modi this week. Indian media reports suggest that the Indian government was unhappy that Lavrov's trip to India was combined with a trip to Pakistan. Another theory is that Washington urged New Delhi not to let Modi Lavrov hit. US Climate Envoy John Kerry also held a brief meeting with Lavrov while both officials were in India. The official explanation was that they happened to meet and talk about climate change. But they may have talked about other topics as well, including the Iranian nuclear deal.
Russia and India are still working together on several levels. According to the Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, he and Lavrov discussed the existing partnership in the nuclear, space and defense sectors and promised to expand security cooperation. India's planned purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia carries the risk of triggering US sanctions. Lavrov avoided questions about the deal during his visit.
New Delhi's willingness to make major arms purchases from a US rival despite its growing defense partnership with Washington underscores its continued confidence in Russia's military support – and Moscow's continued influence over New Delhi. As Emily Tamkin wrote for Foreign Policy last year, India also has strong incentives to maintain ties with a partner like Russia, which it considers reliable and low maintenance.
Lavrov's India visit covered two issues that illustrate Moscow's growing regional influence: the China-India border talks and the Afghan peace process. Russia, one of the few world powers with warm ties with India and China, tacitly eased bilateral negotiations between the two countries after a deadly border conflict last June. Beijing was a key agenda item at Lavrow's meeting in New Delhi. In an interview with the Hindustan Times, he said that Russia is "closely monitoring the normalization process along the border".
Meanwhile, three decades after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, Moscow has become a major player in its peace process. Russia has hosted several Afghan reconciliation meetings over the past two years, including one last month with Taliban leaders and representatives from Kabul, Beijing, Islamabad and Washington – but not from New Delhi. On this trip Lavrov – accompanied by the Russian special envoy for Afghanistan to New Delhi – demanded an outstanding Indian role in the peace process.
Lavrov's second stop was Islamabad, the first visit by a Russian foreign minister in nine years. In private discussions, Russian analysts downplayed the idea of deepening relations between Russia and Pakistan. Lavrov's visit, coupled with growing counter-terrorism collaboration, emerging energy collaborations, and convergent views on Afghanistan tells a different story. Its meetings resulted in pledges to strengthen military cooperation.
Afghanistan was high on the agenda for Lavrov in Islamabad, which, unlike New Delhi, is heavily involved in the peace process due to its close ties to the Taliban. (And Russia, unlike India, is not against Pakistan's ideal endgame: a future government with a role for the Taliban.) In Islamabad, Lavrov articulated common interests in identifying conditions that reduce conflict, including "creating inclusive power structures." This was likely indicative of an unelected transitional government to oversee the peace process, an idea that was rejected by Kabul and rejected by New Delhi.
Energy was another important topic. This summer, a Russian consortium will begin construction of a 680-mile natural gas pipeline north of Port Qasim in southern Pakistan to the eastern city of Lahore. Russian support for the Pakistani energy sector, which includes new plans to invest $ 14 billion in gas infrastructure, will increase its hold on the country as it seeks to diversify its energy partners.
Lavrov's trip shows that Moscow's footprint in South Asia will deepen. The impending withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan, coupled with Russia's close ties with the region's largest nations and China, puts Moscow in a strong position to shape the region's geopolitics. This influence will not please the United States, but South Asia is unlikely to fight it.
Pakistan's opposition alliance is splitting. Last September, 11 Pakistani opposition parties formed a new alliance. It was brave in its message and ambitious in its goals. The movement specifically criticized the Pakistani army chief – a rarity – and promised to hold large rallies across the country to force the government to resign, including a march against Islamabad. But this week five parties announced they were leaving.
The breakup is not surprising. As I wrote for foreign policy last October, the alliance has always been fragile. Two key members – the country's main opposition parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz – meet regularly. Internal rifts have grown in recent months and Alliance protests have been more sparse than before.
The impending demise of the alliance is a clear victory for Prime Minister Imran Khan. While it doesn't solve the challenges for the last three years of his tenure, including a worsening pandemic and a difficult economy, it does away with what threatened to become a major pressure point.
Fatal attack on Indian security forces. On April 3, Maoist insurgents attacked Indian security forces in Chhattisgarh state, killing 22 workers. The attack is a tragic reminder of the threat to internal security posed by left-wing militants known as the Naxalites in central India. As I wrote in a 2011 study, by that time the Naxalite movement had spread to more than two-thirds of the Indian states. Hundreds of people died from Naxalite violence in 2009.
In the past decade the threat has decreased – except in Chhattisgarh. Indian security analysts attribute this to the state's failure to use kinetic operations effectively used elsewhere by the police. However, this assessment overlooks the drivers of the uprising. Naxalites say they fight for poor tribal communities who have been denied constitutional rights and who are falling victim to industrial production and the extraction of raw materials. Until these abuses are resolved, India cannot assume that better police tactics alone will eradicate the Naxalite threat.
Kerry visits India and Bangladesh. US Climate Commissioner John Kerry visited New Delhi and Dhaka this week to discuss President Joe Biden's virtual global climate summit, due later this month. India and Bangladesh were two of three South Asian countries invited to the summit. (Bhutan is the third.) Kerry spent four days in India, emphasizing the importance the Biden government attaches to climate change in bilateral relations. India is after all the third largest carbon emitter in the world.
Kerry's one-day visit to Dhaka is more modest, although US relations with Bangladesh are advancing. On April 6, the new US-Bangladesh Business Council was launched, which will strengthen a business partnership that is already the sweet spot of the relationship. The United States is the largest market for Bangladeshi goods and the largest source of FDI in Bangladesh.
In the diplomat, the Afghanistan-based journalist Franz J. Marty revealed that Pakistan had secret talks with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), also known as the Pakistani Taliban, last year. The TTP was the deadliest terrorist group in Pakistan before a 2014 counteroffensive weakened it. There has recently been a comeback, increasing attacks on Pakistani security forces in areas bordering Afghanistan.
According to Marty's report, the negotiations were brokered by the Haqqani Network, the notoriously brutal Afghan Taliban faction, and focused on the TTP stopping attacks in Pakistan, releasing Islamabad TTP prisoners and Pakistani security forces evacuating several border regions with the TTP taking over Border security.
Talks collapsed, which could indicate further TTP attacks in Pakistan. It could also undermine the Afghan peace process, in which Islamabad plays an important role due to its links with the Afghan Taliban. The peace process would benefit from more friendly relations between Kabul and Islamabad, but Pakistan accuses Afghanistan of providing a haven for the TTP – making the failed negotiations with the TTP a risk.
“We decided to focus on Sufiana music because every musician these days leans towards contemporary music. People have forgotten. We decided to start a band and revive the dying music. "
– Irfana Yousuf, a member of a Kashmiri ensemble for women who plays Sufiana music, a form of local classical music
What we read
Do you enjoy ?, by Mira Sethi
Are You Enjoying ?, a new book of short stories by actress, writer and former Wall Street Journal editor, Mira Sethi, focuses on the lives of young people in Pakistan today – from budding movie stars to radicalized students. The book is reminiscent of Daniyal Mueenuddin's In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, another collection of vignettes from today's Pakistan, published in 2009.
While Mueenuddin's stories all offer poignant depictions of a wealthy patriarch and his employees, Sethi's stories apply an admirably sharp and witty lens to a spectrum of young, urban Pakistani people. This is an important demographic that deserves to be presented to a global audience that is often exposed to reductive media portraits of Pakistan.