The highlights this week: Why Pakistan and the Taliban are clashing over a border fence, former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani breaks his silence, and the omicron variant surges in the region.
If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.
Last August, prominent Pakistanis celebrated after the Taliban seized power in Kabul, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, leaders of Islamist political parties, media personalities, and retired military officers. The group had long received Pakistani backing, and its victory delivered some strategic triumphs to Islamabad: It ensured a friendly government in Kabul and a reduced role for New Delhi, a close partner of non-Taliban governments after 2001.
But recent days show that Pakistan’s engagements with the Taliban regime won’t be a cakewalk. Taliban fighters have clashed with Pakistani soldiers putting up fencing along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, known as the Durand Line. Pakistan began the fencing in 2014 to reduce cross-border militancy and smuggling. It says 94 percent of the border has been fenced.
On Dec. 19, Taliban members seized barbed wire put up by Pakistani troops in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan, and warned them not to do more fencing. On Dec. 30, a similar incident took place in Nimroz province. Taliban officials played down the significance of the first clash, but the second incident produced a stronger reaction.
An Afghan defense ministry spokesperson said on Sunday that Pakistan has “no right to erect barbed wire along the Durand Line and separate the tribes”—a reference to ethnic Pashtuns, who live on both sides of the border. Another top Taliban spokesperson, Zabihullah Mujahid, rejected the fencing and the border itself: “The Durand Line has divided one nation along both sides. We do not want it at all.”
The Durand Line emerged from an 1893 agreement between Afghanistan and a colonial British official, but Afghan governments have disputed the border since Pakistan’s independence in 1947. The Taliban, including founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, have too—an opposition the group has seemingly maintained now that it is leading the government.
However, the Taliban have other possible motivations for resisting the fence construction. They could be asserting their independence to prove they are not Pakistan’s proxy and playing the Pashtun nationalist card to earn legitimacy from Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. There are other practical considerations, as well. Fencing constrains border trade and human transit—no small matter given that Taliban members still have businesses and family in Pakistan.
This week, Pakistan and the Taliban government pledged to resolve the border tensions with talks. But Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi didn’t sound fully convinced. “We are … in contact with the Afghan government,” he said. “Hopefully, we would be able to resolve the issue diplomatically.” He added that the fencing would continue.
Sources in Pakistan tell me Islamabad hopes to reach an understanding to continue the fence construction while making concessions that enable more cross-border transit. But this won’t address the deeper issue of the Taliban’s opposition to the border. Maybe the group won’t push any harder because of its dependence on Islamabad for economic and diplomatic assistance. But its recent willingness to criticize Pakistan on other issues shows it is no pushover.
Pakistan has a lot at stake in the dispute. Tensions with the Taliban could complicate Islamabad’s efforts to rein in the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), an Afghanistan-based terrorist group that has ramped 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 fresh talks.
The alternative—asking the Taliban to expel the TTP from Afghanistan—is unlikely. The Taliban harbor longstanding links to the TTP, and any punitive move could exacerbate internal divides. This leaves the option of Pakistan targeting TTP bases in Afghanistan, something it has done in the past and may have repeated in recent days. Such a military move wouldn’t sit well with the Taliban.
As I wrote in September 2021, Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban isn’t about to stumble, much less fall apart: The two are too important to each other. But when it comes to Pakistan’s interests in Afghanistan under the new regime, Islamabad is learning that the Taliban can be a liability as well as an asset.
Week of Jan. 10: India’s election commission is expected to announce the poll dates of five state elections held in 2022.
Jan. 11: The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee receives a closed briefing on U.S. policy in Afghanistan, with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expected to speak.
Jan. 12-13: The People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists hears a case against Sri Lanka for failing to achieve justice in the 2009 murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge.
Indian Muslim women targeted online. Last weekend, photos of more than 100 prominent Indian Muslim women—many critics of the Indian government—appeared on a website without their permission as part of a fake online auction. The website’s name is a vulgar reference to Muslim women. Even more troubling is that this has happened before: A similar site surfaced in June 2021 and remained online for weeks; no arrests were ever made.
The latest news follows a flurry of violent and hateful incidents against religious minorities in India, including a conference where speakers called for genocide against Muslims, that has prompted no response from the government. This bigotry and impunity appear to have provided fertile ground for the fake auction site.
This time, authorities acted more quickly: Two people were arrested on Tuesday for their alleged roles in running the site. According to police, the perpetrators used fake names to pass the scheme off as run by a Sikh separatist movement. The hosting platform GitHub has now shut down the website.
Omicron update. The omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading across South Asia. On Monday, Pakistan recorded the highest number of new cases in two months, and its lead official on the pandemic response said genome sequencing showed a rising number of omicron cases. On Tuesday, India reported the most new COVID-19 cases there since September 2021.
Medical experts warn it is only a matter of time before other South Asian states, especially Nepal, get hit hard. Most have already detected omicron cases. One of the biggest early tests of omicron’s spread will be India, where campaigning is underway for five state elections. Crowded political events in part accelerated India’s devastating surge last year.
New Delhi hasn’t announced new restrictions on campaign events, but the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is making contingency plans for more virtual campaigning. The opposition Congress Party is already planning to hold off on large rallies in Punjab state.
Ashraf Ghani breaks his silence. Afghanistan’s former President Ashraf Ghani fled the country on Aug. 15, 2021, as the Taliban approached Kabul. He broke a long public silence with a BBC radio interview that aired last Thursday. His comments, which often appeared at odds with the truth, are unlikely to rehabilitate his image.
Ghani sought to justify his departure as a move to save Kabul from destruction. However, reporting by the Washington Post last August revealed that Ghani had actually agreed to a U.S.-brokered deal that would have kept the Taliban out of Kabul if he had stepped down to make way for a new interim government. According to the Post, Ghani fled because his advisors told him that Taliban fighters had entered the presidential palace when they had not.
“I am married and educated, and still I have no rights. … My husband is with me today, but what if he wasn’t? How would I get out of the house?”
—Shaqaf Salah, a former pre-med student in Kabul, reacting to new Taliban restrictions on women’s freedoms
Like much of the world, South Asia has experienced pandemic-influenced economic stress—including high inflation. Poverty, water shortages, and losses of agricultural land make food security in the region tenuous during the best of times. But these struggles are exacerbated by an overlooked factor: insufficient fertilizer supplies.
It’s no coincidence that Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the two countries in the region hardest hit by inflation, have both experienced major fertilizer shortages. Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal have also reported issues with supplies. These shortages contribute to lower crop yields, fewer food products, and inflation.
Global fertilizer shortages are a big reason for availability problems in South Asia. But to some extent, so is government policy. In Pakistan, wasteful use, smuggling, and hoarding are cited as reasons for the shortage. Sri Lankan officials banned chemical fertilizers altogether last year, but they failed to prepare farmers for the transition to organic farming. They reversed the ban in December 2021 after plummeting crop yields.
Journalist Arifa Noor, writing in Dawn, seeks to explain a puzzle about Pakistani politics: Why are the country’s leaders so old? “Over the years, it seems, as we begin to be seen as a country with a young population, that those leading us have grown older and older,” she writes.
A Daily Mirror editorial laments how Sri Lankan government officials enjoy impunity after recent scandals tied to food and commodities. “When decisions taken by [p]oliticians and high ranking officials go wrong[,] negatively affect[ing] millions of people, they are just forgotten, without holding anybody responsible or accountable,” it argues.
Tasneem Tayeb, a columnist for the Daily Star, argues for revitalizing a Bangladeshi e-commerce sector hit hard by scandal and loss of consumer confidence. “With the pandemic set to stay for the long haul, e-commerce has become one of the preferred options for customers worldwide,” she writes. “We need to utilize these opportunities.”