Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights of this week: Turkey wants to play a bigger role in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal, NATO is examining the possibility of training Afghan troops in Qatar, and Pakistan presents its budget for the next financial year.
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The Turkey Factor in Afghanistan
Much of the debate over which countries will seek to replace US influence in Afghanistan when it withdraws completely has centered on its rivals: China, Iran and Russia. Analysts have said less about Turkey, which clashes with the United States over Russia and Middle East policies, but remains an ally of NATO. However, recent developments suggest that Ankara could play a role in diplomacy and security in Kabul in the future.
In addition to training Afghan soldiers, Turkey has long been ensuring security at Kabul airport and offers to continue to do so with financial support from the USA. US President Joe Biden and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed the issue at a NATO summit in Brussels this week, but failed to come to an agreement.
Turkey’s offer of airport security could be in part a goodwill measure to convince Washington to relax sanctions on Ankara after acquiring Russia’s S-400 missile defense system and reintroducing it into a US-led F-35 fighter program . In a media briefing on Tuesday, an anonymous Biden government official denied any connection between the S-400 deal and Turkish airport security in Kabul.
After the US withdrew, the Taliban refused a Turkish security presence at the airport. However, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced this week that the alliance had agreed to transitional funding for the airport and indicated that Turkey would play a key role, suggesting that negotiations will continue.
Securing Kabul airport is an important goal for NATO after the withdrawal: the airport is an important entry point for diplomats and aid workers, and the spikes that are likely to occur after a full US withdrawal underscores its critical role as an evacuation point.
Turkey’s non-security role in Afghanistan has more legs. It is well positioned to play a third role in the stalled peace process as it has already hosted meetings between the Taliban and Afghan politicians. As early as 2010, the then Afghan President Hamid Karzai endorsed the idea of Turkey-sponsored peace talks.
Ankara also has warm relations with Kabul and the Taliban. It accepted a request from the Biden government to hold a peace conference with the Taliban in April, although it was canceled when the group refused to attend. Turkey also has close ties with key regional actors China and Pakistan and helped establish the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, an Afghanistan-focused regional organization that was launched in 2011.
As part of a trilateral forum with Islamabad and Kabul, Ankara could also mediate tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, an ally of the Taliban. The United States has tried to play a similar rule as it sees stronger Afghan-Pakistani relations as key to supporting the Afghan peace process.
There are limits to the future role of Turkey in Afghanistan. Persistent tensions with Washington over the S-400 deal could limit its diplomatic efforts, and the Taliban will curtail Turkey’s security role. More pressing priorities in the local area, particularly in Syria and Iraq, will limit the political leeway that the Turkish government intends to give Afghanistan.
But for the United States, any increased post-consequences role of a NATO ally would be one that it collides with.
NATO tracks base in Qatar. Kabul airport security is not the only item on NATO’s Afghanistan agenda this week. Reuters reported that allies have reached out to Qatar to provide NATO with a base for training Afghan forces, which will include the UK, the United States and Turkey. NATO has already expressed its wish to continue its training and advisory mission in Afghanistan through remote channels and in third countries.
Qatar is the seat of the Taliban’s political bureau and the venue for the latest talks between the insurgents, the US government and, more recently, the Afghan government. A Taliban spokesman told Reuters that foreign-trained Afghan soldiers “don’t trust us”. But the Taliban’s 2020 deal with the US says nothing about training Afghan forces abroad, so the group has no reason to reject such an agreement.
Pakistan presents budget. Last Friday, Pakistani Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin presented encouraging new economic data. Despite the pandemic, the country’s GDP grew nearly 4 percent in the first nine months of fiscal 2020-2021 that ends this month – significantly higher than previous targets of 2.1 percent. Tarin attributed this success to strong performance from the Pakistani industrial and service sector.
Tarin also presented the state budget for the next fiscal year and set a GDP growth target of 4.8 percent. Budget highlights include increased development spending, 10 percent increases for government servants, and emergency spending on agriculture. But such generous spending is not guaranteed as Pakistan’s participation in an International Monetary Fund bailout program may require further austerity measures.
Pakistani economists also warn that this budget will not address the country’s longstanding structural constraints, including its inability to generate tax revenue.
Anniversary of the Indo-Chinese border conflict. On Monday, it was a year since 20 Indian and five Chinese soldiers were killed in a clash in the disputed Ladakh border region, the deadliest conflict between the countries in more than 40 years. The incident exposed India’s vulnerabilities in the region, which likely prompted New Delhi to close a border deadlock with Pakistan in February in order to pay attention to its border with China.
On Sunday, the Hindus reported that Chinese soldiers remained mobilized along the disputed border months after the Chinese military withdrew from areas near the clash. Indian government sources fear they could squat until winter.
If you didn’t know about a high-level call earlier this month between the U.S. Department of Defense’s junior officer and the Maldives Secretary of State, you are not the only one. But the exchange between Colin Kahl and Abdulla Shahid on U.S. pandemic aid and shared interests in the Indo-Pacific region could point to an emerging policy by the Biden government in South Asia.
Most high-level government engagements in the region so far have taken place in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, with the exception of a trip to Bangladesh by the climate kazar John Kerry. But South Asia is becoming a major battleground for the rivalry between India and China, with several small South Asian nations – including the Maldives – entering strategic competition. Washington has a keen interest in looking into them more.
These plans were foreshadowed at the end of the Trump era: One of the last major political decisions by the government in Asia was the announcement of the intention to build the first US embassy in the Maldives.
“What happened here comes very close to a nuclear disaster. Only in Sri Lanka this is not a problem. This will be a regional problem in the coming weeks. “
—Muditha Katuwawala, a coordinator of a volunteer group that protects marine life, assesses the damage caused by the sinking of a container ship full of toxic materials off the coast of Sri Lanka earlier this month
In a dawn op-ed, Maleeha Lodhi, a former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and the United Nations, wrote that Islamabad’s decision to shift the focus of its foreign policy from geopolitics to geoeconomics was lacking in clarity to be effective. “With these official statements yet to be worked out or the means by which the policy will be pursued needs to be specified, the ‘postponement’ is for now a wish, not a strategy,” she wrote.
Former Pakistani Senator Afrasiab Khattak wrote for Afghanistan’s Tolo News on how US withdrawal from Afghanistan could transform and destabilize Central Asian politics. He argued that “Turkish nationalism combined with Islamic zeal can be a deadly political tool in Central Asia,” and said that militant groups could benefit from it.
An editorial in Bangladesh Day star complains that the government has not provided enough pandemic aid to impoverished border areas, where COVID-19 test positive rates are around 30 percent. It found that the regional health infrastructure is heavily burdened. “If steps are not taken immediately to increase the number of healthcare workers in these hospitals, things could soon get out of hand,” she warned.