Welcome to the South Asia Foreign Policy Letter.
This week’s highlights: What a new Afghan peace plan Funds for US relations with Kabul, tracking India’s economic recoveryand watched the region International Women’s Day.
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The US has a new peace plan. Do you need Ghani’s buy-in?
Last week, an Afghan television broadcaster published a letter from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in which he formulated a new plan to start the floundering peace process in Afghanistan.
Blinken’s letter calls for ambitious steps: a UN-brokered effort to build a regional consensus on Afghanistan, the establishment of guiding principles for talks between Afghan political leaders and Taliban representatives, a conference in Turkey to conclude a “peace agreement” in the coming weeks , And a 90-day violence reduction.
The new plan reflects Washington’s urgency to create better conditions on the ground for what Biden government officials have termed a “responsible” military retreat. The strategy, which expects significant results in a few weeks, doesn’t just call for the moon, however. There is also a risk of sparking a serious diplomatic crisis between the United States and Afghanistan – and a new political crisis in Kabul.
The letter urges Ghani to do something he refuses – to help form a transitional government currently threatened with loss of power – while threatening something he fears: the full withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan. Using a different language Ghani dislikes, Blinken notes that a “similar message” is being shared with Afghan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s bitter rival, suggesting that Washington not make Ghani’s presence at the Turkey conference mandatory looks at.
The letter represents an abrupt shift from previous administrative news. White House readings of a call between National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his Afghan counterpart on January 23, one between Blinken and Ghani on January 28, and one between Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Ghani on February 5, all underscore a promise to consult closely with Kabul. Few world leaders received as many calls as Ghani did in the early days of government.
Ghani is reportedly “deeply angry” at the letter. Vice President Amrullah Saleh, one of his allies, said Monday that the government “would never accept a forced and imposed peace”. But other political leaders have telegraphed the receptivity. Abdul Sattar Murad, a leader of the Jamiat-e Islami party (which includes several of Ghani’s best rivals), praised the letter’s emphasis on trying to end the war. Ghani’s own foreign minister, Mohammad Hanif Atmar, noted that he was focused on common US and Afghan interests. Pro-Taliban figures have also expressed their support.
These reactions could convince the Afghan president that Washington is bypassing him and joining his rivals – and even the Taliban. That perception would be bad not only for its relations with Washington, but also for the stability of the fragile political environment in Afghanistan.
Ghani’s relationship with Washington could take a similar course to that of his predecessor Hamid Karzai, who initially had good relations with Washington and strong support from then President George W. Bush. But by the end of his presidency, his ties with the Obama administration were downright toxic. US officials viewed Ghani, a former World Bank official with many friends in Washington, as a breath of fresh air, as I wrote in Foreign Policy in 2015. (Karzai strongly supported Blinken’s letter.)
Six years later, storm clouds hang over Ghani’s relationship with the United States. Biden’s government hopes Ghani will eventually agree to play ball amid pressure at home and abroad to support Blinking’s plan. If he refuses and Washington tries to work around him, it will make it even more difficult to implement an already ambitious peace plan.
March 12: The leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the United States meet for a meeting virtual quad summit.
March 18th: Moscow organizes a conference on the Afghan peace process.
March 19-21: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin Visits India during his first trip abroad as head of the Pentagon.
Virtual quad summit. On Friday, US President Joe Biden will have a virtual meeting with his colleagues from the other three quad countries – Australia, India and Japan. The meeting follows another meeting with foreign ministers last month. The fact that two quad meetings are taking place less than two months after Biden’s tenure underscores the new administration’s support for the young alliance, which received new impetus in the Trump era.
This forward move also shows that the four countries are strengthening their determination to level China as they each experience some of the worst tensions with Beijing in decades. Fear of fighting China once forced the group to limit their meetings. It works today under no such restrictions.
India’s economic recovery. At that time last year India’s economy was in a bad place. Key sectors, including manufacturing and telecommunications, stuttered. The labor economy struggled to recover from an unemployment rate that hit a 45-year high in 2019. The pandemic appeared to exacerbate those challenges, but new growth forecasts announced this week suggest a recovery is imminent.
Gita Gopinath, chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, predicted GDP growth of 11.5 percent for India’s next fiscal year, which begins in April, compared with an expected decline of 8 percent in the fiscal year that ends this month. In its latest economic outlook, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates even higher growth at 12.6 percent. If so, India would overtake China to regain its status as the world’s fastest growing economy – a sweet victory in the face of New Delhi’s increasingly fierce rivalry with Beijing.
Economists attribute the turnaround to strengthening manufacturing and construction, the return of economic activity that was curtailed during the height of the pandemic, and effective fiscal measures.
The gender gap. International Women’s Day was held in South Asia on March 8, with rallies focused on various causes, from better welfare benefits for women in Sri Lanka to the abolition of taxes on feminine hygiene products in Nepal. Women’s inequality remains a major challenge in the region. The 2020 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index rates every South Asian country with the exception of Bangladesh in the lower half of gender equality. (Afghanistan is not included in the ranking, though it would undoubtedly do badly too.)
Pakistan ranks 151st out of 153 countries, followed by Iraq and Yemen. However, it has a strong tradition of civil society advocacy for women’s rights. Some of the country’s best-known activists, including the late human rights crusader Asma Jahangir, were women. In cities across the country, Pakistanis celebrated International Women’s Day with an annual Aurat (“Women”) march, despite the threat of hardline religious and online abuse.
A joint investigation by Al Jazeera and Haaretz this week found that the Bangladeshi government invested in phone hacking technology manufactured by a private security company in Israel – a country that Dhaka does not recognize. The equipment that Hong Kong police used to break into the phones of pro-democracy protesters in 2019 can access any information embedded in a cellphone, from personal relationships to medical records.
The study underscores Bangladesh’s departure from democracy. And it’s not the first time Dhaka has used technology for anti-democratic ends. The Digital Security Act, passed in 2018, was used to tackle online dissent, sometimes with fatal consequences. Last month, a Bangladeshi writer arrested nine months earlier for a Facebook post criticizing the government’s pandemic was found dead in his prison cell.
“I was very nervous. I felt so emotional, but I had in mind that I had to overcome this ordeal, this final test.”
– Tashnuva Anan Shishir, who made her debut as Bangladesh’s first transgender TV newscaster on International Women’s Day
Jessica Donati, Eagle Down: The Last Special Forces to Wage Eternal War
This latest new book from Jessica Donati, a national security correspondent and former Kabul office manager for the Wall Street Journal, provides an exciting account of the actions and struggles of the US special forces in Afghanistan. Eagle Down chronicles the events of 2015 – the year after the official US combat mission in Afghanistan ended – and provides useful insight into the activities of these secret forces, including counter-terrorism.
The Biden administration must decide how or whether to maintain the counter-terrorism capacity in Afghanistan when considering whether to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US troops on the ground. Donati’s book shows the possibilities and great risks involved in pursuing covert operations in order to pursue counter-terrorism goals.
That’s it for this week.
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