welcome to Foreign police‘s South Asia Brief.
Highlights of the week: Why Pakistan and the Taliban clash over border fence, former Afghan president Achraf Ghani breaks his silence, and the omicron variant outbreaks in the region.
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The Taliban clash with Pakistan across the border
In August, prominent Pakistanis celebrated the Taliban seizure of power in Kabul, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, leaders of Islamist political parties, media figures and retired military officers. The group had long received Pakistani support, and its victory brought some strategic triumphs in Islamabad: it ensured a friendly government in Kabul and a reduced role in New Delhi, a close partner of non-Taliban governments after 2001.
But the last few days show that Pakistan’s engagements with the Taliban regime will not be easy. Taliban fighters clashed with Pakistani soldiers who erected fences along the Afghan-Pakistani border, known as the Durand Line. Pakistan began the fence in 2014 to reduce cross-border activism and smuggling. He says 94% of the border has been closed.
On December 19, members of the Taliban seized barbed wire installed by Pakistani troops in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, and warned them not to do more fencing. On December 30, a similar incident took place in the province of Nimroz. Taliban officials downplayed the significance of the first clash, but the second incident prompted a stronger reaction.
A spokesperson for the Afghan Ministry of Defense noted Sunday that Pakistan has “no right to erect barbed wire along the Durand Line and separate the tribes” – a reference to the ethnic Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the border. Another Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, rejected the fence and the border itself: “The Durand Line divided a nation on both sides. We don’t want it at all.
The Durand Line emerged from an 1893 agreement between Afghanistan and a British colonial official, but Afghan governments have challenged the border since independence from Pakistan in 1947. The Taliban, including founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, have also an opposition that the group has apparently maintained now that he heads the government.
However, the Taliban have other possible motivations for resisting the construction of the fence. They could claim their independence to prove that they are not Pakistan’s proxy and play the card of Pashtun nationalism to gain the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. There are also other practical considerations. The fences limit border trade and human transit, which is not insignificant given that members of the Taliban still have businesses and families in Pakistan.
This week, Pakistan and the Taliban government pledged to resolve border tensions through talks. But Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi did not seem totally convinced. “We are… in contact with the Afghan government,” he said. “I hope we will be able to resolve the matter diplomatically.” He added that the fencing would continue.
Sources in Pakistan have told me that Islamabad hopes to reach an agreement to continue construction of the fence while making concessions that allow more cross-border transit. But that will not solve the deeper problem of Taliban opposition on the border. Perhaps the group will not push harder due to its reliance on Islamabad for economic and diplomatic assistance. But his recent desire to criticize Pakistan on other issues shows that this is not child’s play.
Pakistan has a lot at stake in the dispute. Tensions with the Taliban could complicate Islamabad’s efforts to curb Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an Afghanistan-based terror group that has stepped up attacks in Pakistan in recent months. Taliban-mediated talks led to a brief truce in November 2021, but the TTP refused to extend it; Pakistan must now hope for further negotiations.
The alternative – asking the Taliban to expel the TTP from Afghanistan – is unlikely. The Taliban have long-standing ties to the TTP, and any punitive action could exacerbate internal divisions. This leaves the possibility for Pakistan to target TTP bases in Afghanistan, which it has done in the past and possibly repeated in The last days. Such a military initiative would not suit the Taliban.
As I wrote in September 2021, Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban is not about to stumble, let alone crumble: the two are too important to each other. But when it comes to Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan under the new regime, Islamabad learns that the Taliban can be both a liability and an asset.
Week of January 10: The Indian Election Commission is expected to announce the polling dates for five state elections held in 2022.
January 11: US Senate Armed Services Committee receives closed-door briefing on US policy in Afghanistan, with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin expected to speak.
January 12-13: the People’s Court for the Murder of Journalists hears a case against Sri Lanka for failing to obtain justice in the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009.
Targeted Indian Muslim Women Online. Over the weekend, photos of more than 100 prominent Indian Muslim women – many critics of the Indian government – appeared on a website without their permission in a bogus online auction. The name of the site is a vulgar reference to Muslim women. What is even more disturbing is that this has happened before: a similar site surfaced in June 2021 and remained online for weeks; no arrests were made.
The latest news follows a wave of violent and hateful incidents against religious minorities in India, including a conference in which speakers called for genocide against Muslims, which has elicited no response from the government. This bigotry and impunity seem to have provided fertile ground for the bogus auction site.
This time, the authorities acted more quickly: two people were arrested Tuesday for their alleged role in the management of the site. Police say the perpetrators used false names to convey the program as being run by a Sikh separatist movement. The GitHub hosting platform has now shut down the website.
Omicron update. The omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading across South Asia. Pakistan recorded the highest number of new cases in two months on Monday, and its senior pandemic response official said genome sequencing showed a growing number of omicron cases. India reported the most new cases of COVID-19 there on Tuesday since September 2021.
Medical experts warn it is only a matter of time before other South Asian states, especially Nepal, are hit hard. Most have already detected cases of omicron. One of the most important early tests of the spread of omicron will be India, where a campaign is underway for five state elections. Overcrowded political events partly accelerated India’s devastating surge last year.
New Delhi has not announced new restrictions on campaign events, but the ruling Bharatiya Janata party is making contingency plans for a more virtual campaign. The opposition Congress party is already considering suspending large rallies in the state of Punjab.
Ashraf Ghani breaks his silence. Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on August 15, 2021, as the Taliban approached Kabul. He broke a long public silence with a BBC radio interview that aired last Thursday. His words, which have often appeared to contradict the truth, are unlikely to rehabilitate his image.
Ghani sought to justify his departure as a gesture to save Kabul from destruction. However, reports from the Washington post Last August, he revealed that Ghani had in fact accepted a US-brokered deal that would have barred the Taliban from entering Kabul if he had resigned to make way for a new interim government. According to To post, Ghani fled because his advisers told him that Taliban fighters entered the presidential palace when they did not.
“I am married and educated, and yet I have no rights. … My husband is with me today, but what if he is not? How could I get out of the house?
–Shaqaf Salah, former pre-med student in Kabul, react the Taliban’s new restrictions on women’s freedoms
Like much of the world, South Asia has experienced economic stress influenced by a pandemic, including high inflation. Poverty, water shortages and loss of agricultural land make the region’s food security precarious at the best of times. But these struggles are exacerbated by a neglected factor: insufficient supplies of fertilizers.
It is no coincidence that Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the two countries in the region most affected by inflation, have both experienced severe fertilizer shortages. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India and Nepal also reported supply problems. These shortages contribute to declining crop yields, declining food products and inflation.
Global fertilizer shortages are one of the main reasons for the availability problems in South Asia. But to some extent government policy is too. In Pakistan, waste, smuggling and hoarding are cited as the reasons for the shortage. The Sri Lankan authorities completely banned chemical fertilizers last year, but they have not prepared farmers for the transition to organic farming. They overturned the ban in December 2021 after crop yields fell.
Journalist Arifa Noor, written in Dawn, seeks to explain a conundrum about Pakistani politics: why are the country’s rulers so old? “Over the years it seems, as we start to be seen as a country with a young population, that those who run us have aged more and more,” she writes.
A Daily Mirror The editorial laments the impunity of Sri Lankan government officials after recent food and commodity scandals. “When the decisions taken by [p]politicians and senior officials are wrong[,] affect negatively[ing] millions of people, they are simply forgotten, without holding anyone responsible or accountable, ”he says.
Tasneem Tayeb, columnist for the Star of the day, calls for the revitalization of a Bangladeshi e-commerce sector hard hit by the scandal and the loss of consumer confidence. “With the pandemic expected to last for the long term, e-commerce has become one of the preferred options for customers around the world,” she writes. “We have to use these opportunities. “