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US withdrawal limits counter-terrorism choices

News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region with a quarter of the world's population. Delivered Thursday.

June 10, 2021, 5:06 pm

Welcome to Foreign Policy's South Asia Brief.

This week's highlights: The United States is fighting for security new counter-terrorism regulations for Afghanistan, Pakistan suffers from one Mass accident in the train wreck, and India is expanding its free COVID-19 vaccination program.

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When it comes to fighting terrorism, the US has few good options

When US President Joe Biden announced a full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by September 11, he said he planned to fight terrorism without boots on the ground. "We will reorganize our counter-terrorism capabilities and substantial resources in the region to prevent terrorist re-emergence," he said in April. In the last few days it has become clear that this is easier said than done.

On Sunday, the New York Times reported that US officials were holding talks with Pakistan about the use of nearby Pakistani military bases for US terrorist operations in Afghanistan. This option makes sense: Pakistan has the advantage of the location and the precedent. It previously granted US security personnel basic privileges to eavesdropping posts during the Cold War and drones in the post-9/11 era.

But against the US The mood is deep in Pakistan. The public strongly opposes base agreements for the United States. Prime Minister Imran Khan is a vocal opponent of US drone strikes and his administration has taken a populist position on the issue of US bases and has publicly rejected the possibility of an agreement. According to the Times story, talks between the US and Pakistan did not get very far.

A basic agreement isn't impossible if the U.S. accepts Pakistani terms, such as approving U.S. targets in Afghanistan, and offering additional incentives, like restoring security assistance suspended in 2018. All negotiations are led by the Pakistani Army, which has a more optimistic view of military cooperation with Washington than the civilian leadership and has signed earlier basic agreements.

The political risks of a basic agreement could still be prohibitive. A secret agreement would likely be exposed at some point. Pakistan would also be pressured by its close ally China to avoid a deal. And US-Pakistan counter-terrorism cooperation has had mixed records. The countries have worked together successfully to arrest al-Qaeda leaders, but US officials also believe Pakistan has notified militants in Afghanistan of upcoming raids.

Pakistan's longstanding patronage over the Taliban, who are still working with al-Qaeda, is a major tension. Mistrust remains, particularly against Biden administration officials who witnessed this tension firsthand while serving in the Obama White House. Such a mood could work against a new basic agreement.

Washington's other options are also problematic. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan border Afghanistan and previously allowed US military personnel on their soil – but only for refueling in Tajikistan. If they take on US troops now, they face the unpleasant prospect of provoking Russia. In addition, Tajikistan has strained relations with Washington, and Uzbekistan has a law prohibiting foreign troops on its territory.

India, the United States' closest partner in South Asia, might look like a fascinating option. But despite deepening military cooperation with Washington, New Delhi is avoiding alliances and would likely oppose the US on its soil. India does not border Afghanistan either. The most direct route to Afghanistan is actually through Pakistan, which probably does not grant overflight rights to US military air forces such as drones that originated in India.

After all, the United States has military facilities in the Persian Gulf, but their distance from Afghanistan would make surveillance and targeting difficult. These bodies may just have to do. In a speech to the Senate Defense Committee on Funds on June 8, incumbent Air Force Secretary John Roth said that the existing US bases will initially be used for anti-terrorism activities “across the horizon” in Afghanistan.

A more realistic option for the United States is to sign new intelligence-sharing agreements with Pakistan and the Central Asian states. And while other major regional players – including China, Russia and Iran – are US rivals, they all have compelling reasons to contain transnational terrorist threats in Afghanistan. Washington has the opportunity to lead multilateral diplomacy focused on this common interest.

But as long as US negotiators struggle to reach new base deals near Afghanistan, their counter-terrorism capacity will be constrained, and Biden's assurances may ultimately sound hollow.

Wednesday-Friday, 9.-11. June: Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar visits Kuwait.

Friday-Sunday 11-13 June: London hosts a G-7 summit, with India as a virtual guest.

Tuesday June 15th: The anniversary of the fatal Border conflict between India and China in Ladakh.

Train accident in Pakistan. In a train wreck in southern Pakistan, almost 60 people were killed on Monday when one train derailed and crashed into another. Unfortunately, such tragedies are known. According to official figures, nearly 350 people have been killed in at least 19 train accidents since 2013, eight of them since 2018 when Khan's government took office. The authorities usually cite poor track conditions as the main cause of accidents, also this week.

These accidents underscore the human cost of poor infrastructure, one of Pakistan's greatest development challenges. They also show why Chinese rail projects, an important part of the Belt and Road Initiative, are attracting Pakistan. Last year the government signed a $ 6.8 billion deal for China to modernize Pakistan's main railroad lines, but funding is still being negotiated.

India Announces Free COVID-19 Vaccines. On Monday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that starting June 21, all Indians over 18 will be able to receive free COVID-19 vaccines at state vaccination centers. Only the elderly and frontline workers are currently receiving free vaccines. The cost of vaccination has risen to as high as $ 20, an prohibitive fee for many people in India, where the per capita income is less than $ 2,000.

The government will begin sourcing 75 percent of vaccines direct from manufacturers and distributing them to states. The remaining 25 percent goes to the private sector, which may still be able to levy a fee. However, under the new policy, private hospitals will not be allowed to charge patients more than $ 2 as a service fee.

Access to free doses can potentially give India's vaccination campaign a shot in the arm. Even with nearly 3 million vaccines given daily, only 3 percent of the Indian population is fully vaccinated.

New Delhi reaches the Taliban. The Hindustan Times reported this week that Indian security officials have opened channels of communication with the Afghan Taliban, which is closely allied with Pakistan. Insurgents deny India reaching out, but the Hindustan Times report suggests that New Delhi only works with factions that are considered "nationalist" and less close to Pakistan.

India's calculation is likely driven by the realization that the Taliban's clout will increase no matter what happens after the US pulls out of Afghanistan. New Delhi is already a close partner with the Afghan government and could expand its influence and connections in the country by building ties with the Afghan Taliban.

A Rohingya refugee family collects rice after a fire in a refugee camp in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, on March 25th.MUNIR UZ ZAMAN / AFP via Getty Images

The monsoon season that began in Bangladesh this month poses great risks for Rohingya refugees. Almost 1 million Rohingya live in a confined space in the world's largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in southern Bangladesh, where many fled the violence in neighboring Myanmar in 2017. The camp is also one of the most vulnerable to natural disasters. On Saturday, two refugees were killed in landslides after monsoon rains, and 45,000 people were displaced by a massive fire in March.

The 20,000 Rohingya refugees who relocated from Cox’s Bazaar to the flood-prone island of Bhasan Char last year are most at risk. A Human Rights Watch report based on interviews with refugees on the island found that they lack "adequate health care, livelihood or protection." In the past week, several thousand refugees protested on Bhasan Char against their living conditions. Undeterred, Dhaka is ultimately planning to relocate 80,000 more people to the island.

"Like a frog that catches the fly despite being half swallowed by a snake, he's still engaged in such political gimmicks that embarrass everyone equally."

– Nepalese scholar Jiba Raj Pokharel criticizes the recent moves of Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, who heads a transitional government until the November elections.

A new World Bank report, edited by Mandakini Kaul and Nikita Singla, includes case studies written by local residents on how interpersonal activities can help strengthen South Asia's regional integration. The case studies range from music and menstruation to science and commerce. It's educational reading as South Asia is one of the least integrated regions in the world. “Regional cooperation is not easy,” write Kaul and Singla. “It takes visions. It also requires innovation and, above all, perseverance to bring people, companies and nations together. "

Im Daily Star, Development Analyst Mohammed Norul Alam Raju warns Bangladesh is threatened by a major earthquake. He calls on the country that has recently experienced minor quakes to better prepare for a possible disaster. "If it strikes, only developing a culture of resilience can help reduce the loss of life and property," he writes.

Yeshey Jamtsho, a city planner for the Bhutanese government, writes in Künsel about the challenges of urbanization in the country, which, with an urban growth rate of 2.8 percent, is one of the fastest in the region. He calls for better local public transport and a more pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.

The diplomatic editor of the Times of India Indrani Bagchi describes the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad as "the core of the new global geopolitics". She notes, however, that the Quad's increasing global influence presents its member India with a "complex web of foreign policy moves" in relation to Russia and China, both of which are Quad opponents.

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