Welcome to Foreign Policy's South Asia Brief.
The highlights of this week: The Taliban storms Afghan cities and threatens civilians; a bill would go to Pakistan new province, and Sri Lanka is in an overlooked state Economic crisis.
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The struggle for Afghanistan's cities
While the US forces are leaving Afghanistan, the Taliban are invading their cities. Last week insurgents attacked the provincial capitals of Lashkar Gah, Kandahar (the second largest city in Afghanistan) and Herat (the fourth largest city). These offensives mark a dramatic escalation – up until now the Taliban have mobilized around the cities but did not invade them – and signal a dangerous new phase of the war.
Civilians are at the most immediate risk. According to the United Nations, civilian casualties broke new records in the first half of 2021. Given the fighting by the Afghan armed forces and the Taliban in densely populated areas, this number will increase.
In Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand Province, the Taliban reportedly took over civilian homes and shot people in the street. But it is not only the Taliban that are endangering the civilian population. Last Saturday, the Afghan Air Force bombed a private hospital in Lashkar Gah because of inaccurate information about the insurgents' whereabouts. On August 3, the United Nations reported 40 civilian deaths in the city within 24 hours.
The Taliban's invasion of the cities could end a long standing stalemate. The insurgents have had influence and control in rural areas for years, but the Afghan government retains control of their cities. The only exceptions were in 2015, when the Taliban briefly captured the northern city of Kunduz, and in 2018, when they almost took the provincial capital Farah in western Afghanistan.
The urban offensives also have demographic effects. If the Taliban conquer cities, the insurgents would bring an even larger part of the population under their control. Given the high rate of displacement, it is difficult to estimate the number of Afghans living under the control of the Taliban – but the overwhelming majority of Afghans live in rural areas where the Taliban are already in charge.
For years, the US Air Force played an essential role in assisting Afghan soldiers in repelling Taliban troops from urban areas. That critical support will soon be lost. The Afghan air force has grown significantly over the past 20 years; it is the only branch of the Afghan military with a capacity advantage over the Taliban. But it is under pressure and its capacity will diminish without US training and advice.
There are two hopes of preventing the Taliban from taking Afghan cities. First, Washington will continue to fund the Afghan military, including its air force. In addition, in recent weeks there has been a resurgence of anti-Taliban militias capable of pushing back.
These militias have produced mixed results. The Taliban have advanced strongly in Lashkar Gah, with residents reporting their progress just meters from government facilities. On Monday, the group confiscated a state television station there. But in Herat, the Taliban are facing considerable resistance locally, including from militias set up by Ismail Khan, a former mujahideen fighter and long-time warlord. Journalist Lynne O'Donnell interviewed him for Foreign Policy this week.
The fate of the Afghan cities also depends on the Taliban's strategy. The group gained international legitimacy through the agreement it signed with the United States last year. Eventually, to maintain that legitimacy, it could suspend its urban offensives, pressure the Afghan government to re-enter negotiations, and use its strong negotiating position to force an agreement that gives it considerable power. But if the Taliban conclude that legitimacy is not that important, they could step up attacks in the cities and try to overthrow the government.
If there is one silver lining, it is the Afghan city dwellers' defiance of the Taliban. In Herat, people took to the streets on Monday and filled the air with shouts of “Allahu akbar” (or “God is great”) to show solidarity with the anti-Taliban forces. Similar calls can be heard in Kabul and beyond. This defiance will not drive the Taliban out of Afghan cities, but it does give a much-needed boost to the exhausted Afghan armed forces, which could face weeks of prolonged urban wars.
August 14: Pakistan celebrates its independence day.
15th of August: India celebrates its independence day.
Pakistan is looking for a new province. The Pakistani Ministry of Law and Justice has finalized a bill that would give the Gilgit-Baltistan region in the north provisional provincial status and establish a provincial assembly and representation in national law. The final status of the region is determined by UN resolutions. If the law is passed, it will deepen Indo-Pakistani tensions.
India regards Gilgit-Baltistan as its territory – a claim it has not pursued as vigorously as its claim to Pakistani-administered Kashmir, which borders Gilgit-Baltistan. But the current government in New Delhi has acted vigorously in disputed areas. It has previously warned Islamabad not to change the status of Gilgit-Baltistan and formally rejects the China-Pakistan economic corridor as it would run through the region.
A new Indian naval base? On Tuesday, Al Jazeera announced that India was building a marine facility on Agaléga, a Mauritian island hundreds of miles off the southeast coast of Africa. Citing satellite imagery, financial data and on-site evidence, the report finds that a runway and two piers are under construction and the base is being used by the Indian Navy for patrols and surveillance.
Such a facility would have significant geopolitical implications. The Chinese military has a base in Djibouti, some 2,500 miles north of Mauritius. Both are located in the western foothills of the Indian Ocean region, an important strategic battlefield for the Indo-Chinese rivalry – and a region Washington would like New Delhi to pay more attention to.
South Asia at the Olympics. All eight South Asian countries take part in the Olympic Games in Tokyo, although they did not excel in the medal standings. (India is currently the top performing country in the region at 65th.)
But South Asia has produced inspiring stories. The Indian men's and women's field hockey teams both reached the semifinals. Nigara Shaheen, who fled Afghanistan as a baby and grew up in Pakistan, made her Olympic debut in judo as a member of the refugee team. And an athlete was the first person from Bhutan to take part in archery, Bhutan's national sport, at the Olympic Games.
Under the radar
Sri Lanka threatens to become the economic weak point of South Asia. It is in a serious debt crisis and its budget deficit exceeded 11 percent of GDP for the last fiscal year that ended in March. The country's foreign exchange reserves can only pay for imports for three months, leading Colombo to cut down on many foreign imports, including turmeric, a staple food. Fitch Ratings has warned that failure is a real possibility.
Much of Sri Lanka's problems can be traced back to a stalled tourism sector. Tourism typically accounts for at least 5 percent of GDP, with some estimates as high as 12.5 percent. The sector's problems began before the coronavirus pandemic, when suicide bombers killed at least 290 people in churches and hotels and kept visitors away in April 2019. But the pandemic still dealt a big blow. An assessment for 2021 found that tourist arrivals fell nearly 100 percent between January and April compared to the same period in 2020.
This week, Sri Lankan economist Sirimevan Colombage urged Colombo to seek help from the International Monetary Fund to reduce its macroeconomic imbalances. The government rejected this idea, insisting that it had a better plan – but did not provide any details.
"I felt a sense of hope, community and belonging."
– Ahmadullah Azadani, a young resident of Herat, shares his reaction to the screams of "Allahu Akbar" that echoed across the city in Al Jazeera on Monday evening
Indian pollster Rajesh Jaina writes for ThePrint about a survey his company conducted on Indian views on the Pegasus spyware scandal. It is not surprising that only 15 percent of those surveyed know Pegasus, he says. "As we have seen repeatedly … the media in Delhi lives in its own cocoon and often the problems raised in Delhi do not reach the masses," he writes.
In the Dhaka Tribune, Bangladeshi economist Syed Akhtar Mahmood explains why poverty reduction rates were higher in eastern Bangladesh than in west. "The greater dependence on non-agricultural sources of income has enabled the eastern districts to achieve higher poverty alleviation rates," he writes.
Qudsia Naz, an official in Sargodha, Pakistan, speaks on News International about the recent establishment of a new botanical garden in the city. The project highlights how "there are a number of civil servants who are selflessly committed to serving the public" on issues of green governance – despite all perceptions, she writes.