News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to a quarter of the world's population. Delivered Thursday.
May 20, 2021, 6.30 p.m.
Welcome to the South Asian Foreign Policy Letter.
This week's highlights: Assessing the impact of the Gaza crisis for South Asia is the Taliban say they are ready to return to peace talks, and Bangladesh arrests a prominent journalist.
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The ripple effects of the Gaza conflict
With the recent Israel-Palestine conflict nearing the two-week mark, it is worth asking what the crisis means for South Asia, which borders the Middle East. India and Nepal have long-standing ties with Israel, and Bhutan normalized relations in December 2020. Meanwhile, the Muslim-majority countries of South Asia, particularly Pakistan, are advocating the Palestinian cause.
The conflict, terrible as it is, opens up some diplomatic opportunities for India and Pakistan and enables both countries to play a role in containing the crisis. It also poses greater security risks in the region, including violent protests and terrorist attacks, than during the last major crisis in Gaza in 2014.
India's balancing act with the Israelis and Palestinians – it has robust ties with both sides – gives it the diplomatic flexibility to deal with them on an equal footing. Relations between India and Israel have deepened under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Bilateral trade reached nearly $ 6 billion in 2018. In 2017, Modi became the first seated Prime Minister of India to visit Israel.
But Foreign Affairs Sumit Ganguly and Nicolas Blarel argued this week that Modi is walking a political tightrope in his relationship with Israel. It's worth noting that India has long been a supporter of the Palestinian cause as well, support that has not waned even though its relations with Israel have intensified. In 2018, Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to also visit the Palestinian Territories.
Unsurprisingly, India's ambassador to the United Nations made a balanced statement on the conflict this week, condemning Palestinian violence and calling Israel's use of violence "retaliation", while India's "strong support for the Palestinian just cause" and a two States solution were reaffirmed. By maintaining the goodwill of both sides, New Delhi has positioned itself as a potential mediator in the crisis. Last year the United Nations looked into how India could play such a role and sent a delegation to New Delhi to discuss the prospect with Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar and other senior officials.
India's diplomatic advantage is stronger than it was during the 2014 crisis as it has significantly strengthened its ties with Israel. During the 2014 conflict, Pakistan was less diplomatic due to urgent domestic issues, including a counter-terrorism initiative.
Pakistan could now build further support for the plight of the Palestinians, which it often advocates in global forums. In contrast to his longstanding advocacy of the Kashmiris, the Palestinian issue is likely to receive considerable attention abroad. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi is already employed. He has spoken to his Palestinian, Egyptian, Saudi, Chinese, Afghan and US colleagues about the conflict. Earlier this week, he traveled with the Palestinian and Turkish foreign ministers to New York to attend a special United States session on the crisis.
The Gaza crisis will also dispel ongoing speculation that Pakistan could be one of the next countries to normalize relations with Israel. Pakistani and Israeli foreign ministers met publicly in Turkey in 2005, and informal contacts date back to the 1940s, researchers say. Pakistan's official position, however, is that Israel will only be recognized if a Palestinian state is established. Given Israel's current attack on Gaza, the idea that Islamabad is even considering formal relations with Israel is contrary to belief.
With no signs of stopping, the current conflict also poses security risks for South Asia. It could spark pro-Palestinian protests by hardline Islamists leading to violence. Protests in the region have so far been peaceful, but Indian security forces have still cracked down on pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Kashmir. Pakistan faces a test on Friday. Qureshi called for nationwide peaceful protests that day, but they could spawn religious extremists like those who killed four people and wounded hundreds of protesters and police officers last month.
Terrorism poses another security risk, albeit further away. The Al Qaeda media wing issued a statement on May 17 calling on Muslims to attack Jews and their allies. This threat is of particular concern to India, Israel's closest South Asian partner and home to a small Jewish community. In a broader sense, Israel's relentless violence against Palestinians could encourage terrorist groups in the region and lead to attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets. India and Nepal are believed to be home to the largest number of Israelis in the region.
The threat of terrorist violence in South Asia outside of Afghanistan has decreased since the last major Gaza conflict. However, the increasing power of social media to spread images of Israeli violence, the proliferation of new religious parties in the region, and growing Islamophobia increase the risk that some protests will turn violent, especially if the Israeli-Palestinian crisis persists. South Asia is not a party to the Gaza conflict, but the region is still vulnerable to its potentially destabilizing effects.
May 26: The Stimson Center is hosting a 2020 discussion Border conflict between India and Chinaone year later.
May 26: The US Peace Institute is holding a discussion on how Afghan history can think about the uncertain future of the country.
A glimmer of hope in Afghanistan? When the Taliban returned to the battlefield earlier this week after a three-day ceasefire for Eid al-Fitr, they also signaled their willingness to return to peace negotiations with the Afghan government. Afghanistan's TOLOnews reported that the Taliban met with government negotiators in Doha on May 14th. TOLOnews also announced that a Taliban delegation has been in Pakistan for almost three weeks to discuss the insurgents' participation in a future peace conference in Turkey.
Kabul and Islamabad have encountered diplomatic turmoil. Last Friday, after the head of the Pakistani army, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, visited Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani accused Pakistan in an interview with Der Spiegel of overseeing an “organized support system” for the Taliban uprising. His comments sparked an angry counter-argument from the Pakistani Foreign Ministry. New tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, closely linked to the Taliban, could adversely affect the peace process.
Journalist arrested in Bangladesh. On Monday, Rozina Islam, a reporter for the Bangladeshi newspaper Prothom Alo, was arrested and charged with stealing documents from the country's health ministry under the Official Secrets Act from the colonial era. Islam has investigated the corruption of the government and released a report critical of Dhaka's pandemic response. According to local press reports, health ministry officials locked her in a room for five hours before handing her over to the police. She reportedly fainted while in detention.
The Official Secrets Act carries the death penalty and the arrest of Islam caused a sensation in the Bangladesh media corps. A Bangladeshi editorial collective issued a statement calling their arrest "despicable" and a threat to "the very existence of the press".
This is not the first time Dhaka has targeted those who criticize its coronavirus policies. In 2020, authorities arrested Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer who alleged corruption in Dhaka's pandemic response in a post on Facebook under the Digital Security Act of Bangladesh. He died in prison in February. The latest press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders ranks Bangladesh 152nd out of 180 countries.
Regional coronavirus summary. India and Nepal remain two of the hot spots of the pandemic worldwide. Last Friday, the World Health Organization named Sri Lanka the third South Asian country to face serious pandemic threats. Although India's new cases have declined for the second straight week, the crisis is mounting in rural areas, where healthcare infrastructure is even weaker than urban. To make matters worse, the strongest storm to ever hit India's west coast landed on Monday, causing flooding, property destruction and at least 26 deaths.
In Nepal, the positivity rate is approaching 50 percent and the number of new cases has exceeded 9,000. The presence of the highly contagious Indian variant is likely to fuel the crisis in Nepal. Experts point to recent increases in Nepalese workers returning home after the lockdown in India preventing them from working there. Up to 400,000 people could return to Nepal in the next few weeks.
Two investigative reports by Pakistani officials in Rawalpindi have shown that a major road development project is marked by "billions of rupees of corruption, irregularities and illegal land acquisition". The reports implicated Zulfi Bukhari, a close adviser to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, in the program. Khan has now directed the National Accountability Bureau and the Punjab Provincial Anti-Corruption Agency to conduct additional investigations. Bukhari resigned on Tuesday but dismissed the allegations as "disgusting lies".
The results of the report are embarrassing for Khan's Pakistani party Tehreek-e-Insaf, which has made anti-corruption its mainstay since it was founded in 1996. They also threaten to undermine the prime minister while he experiences a political boom. In recent weeks, Khan has weathered a mass protest campaign led by a now-defunct opposition alliance and survived a parliamentary vote of confidence. However, Jahangir Khan Tareen – a leading party leader fighting corruption allegations – announced the formation of a separate party bloc this week.
“It's about complaining. I think Afghan culture in general is a culture of complaints. Even the poetry is full of complaints. "
—Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, answered a question about the current tone of the Taliban leadership when he appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee
Axios' Jonathan Swan and Zachary Basu published a long reading on Sunday setting out the unsuccessful urge of former US President Donald Trump during his final days in office to withdraw completely from Afghanistan by December 31, 2020. “When it came down to it, Trump was undecided. According to top officials, he did not seem to want the consequences of a steep retreat, ”they wrote.
Richa Sanwal, an independent journalist based in Mumbai, wrote for Al Jazeera English on volunteer networks, including one she started on Facebook that was mobilized to provide aid during India's COVID-19 crisis. But she argued that volunteering alone is not enough. "To dramatically slow and then stop the spread of this virus, we need a more coordinated effort from our leaders and the international community," she wrote.
A Pakistan today The editorial highlights the plight of the 2.5 million people in Pakistan who, despite decades of residence permits, are unable to obtain residence or citizenship – many of them of Afghan, Bangladeshi or Burmese descent. This makes them ineligible for the government's COVID-19 vaccination program. The editors argue that they deserve to be vaccinated because "this is not an immigration problem … it is a health emergency."
Anup Saikia, Professor of Geography at India's Gauhati University, wrote for the Indian Express on 18 elephants that were recently killed by lightning in the Indian state of Assam. He argued that deforestation had displaced elephants from their typical habitats, making them more vulnerable to lightning strikes. "Forests and sanctuaries … have landed on the short end of the stick as development, population pressures, and the need to plow more land are inexorably spiraling," he wrote.