Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
I’m Michael Kugelman, the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. I’ve succeeded Ravi Agrawal, now FP’s editor in chief, as the writer of this newsletter. I look forward to sharing news and analysis from a region with one-quarter of the world’s population—and an endless supply of fascinating stories.
The highlights this week: What comes next after the India-Pakistan cease-fire, Chinese malware is uncovered in Indian electricity infrastructure, and why Kabul’s water crisis is only getting worse.
If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.
In the aftermath of the India-Pakistan cease-fire along the Line of Control, assessed in Foreign Policy this week by both Sushant Singh and columnist Sumit Ganguly, a key question is what will come next. Can observers be optimistic? Will the cease-fire lead to additional steps to strengthen bilateral ties, or will it amount to a damp squib that fails to improve the tense relationship?
On one level, skepticism is in order. While the joint statement accompanying the cease-fire pledges to tackle “core issues,” neither side is likely to address the other’s core issue to its satisfaction anytime soon.
India’s chief concern is Pakistan-based terrorism. Islamabad has recently taken encouraging steps, such as sentencing the leader of the Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group, Hafiz Saeed, to prison on terrorist financing charges. But India won’t be satisfied until Pakistan dismantles terrorist networks on its soil. That’s a tall order, given Islamabad’s long-standing use of India-focused militants to compensate for New Delhi’s superior conventional military power.
Pakistan’s core issue is Kashmir. One day after the truce was announced, Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted that any further progress would require India to take steps toward giving Kashmiris the right to self-determination. This is a non-starter for New Delhi: Its 2019 decision to revoke the autonomy of Indian-administered Kashmir effectively closed off the possibility, from its perspective, of revisiting the region’s status.
The cease-fire won’t be a precursor to peace, but it does create opportunities for confidence-building measures in other spaces. Cooperating to combat the coronavirus presents the most immediate opportunity. Momentum was already building before the cease-fire. On Feb. 18, the Pakistani representative at a regional health workshop endorsed a plan proposed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to ease visa regulations on medical workers to facilitate regional travel.
The cease-fire also creates potential for more India-Pakistan engagement over shared goals within multilateral settings, from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which promotes South-Central Asia cooperation, to the Heart of Asia-Istanbul Process, which focuses on stabilizing Afghanistan. The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, which depends on unanimous decision-making, has long been paralyzed by the India-Pakistan rivalry.
Finally, India and Pakistan have never normalized trade relations, but commercial ties have previously flourished, even during tense periods. In 1965, a year in which India and Pakistan fought a war, six Indian banks operated in Pakistan. Months after another conflict in 1972, the two sides signed a deal leading to the resumption of limited trade. However, in recent years trade volume has amounted to about $2 billion—far short of the nearly $40 billion that the World Bank projects could be achieved with more trade facilitation.
The benefits of more trade could extend from macroeconomic boosts to relief for local communities. According to fieldwork conducted by the researcher Nikita Singla, 75,000 Indians living along the border in Punjab state and Indian-administered Kashmir suffered financially after the suspension of border trade in 2019. “We need to look at trade from the lens of livelihoods,” Singla told me this week.
New Delhi and Islamabad may choose not to capitalize on these opportunities. Amid continued high tensions, they may conclude that it’s pointless to pursue confidence-building measures when neither is willing to budge on the core issues. But they do have a window of opportunity to ride on the coattails of the cease-fire and pursue broader cooperation—so long as the volatilities of the relationship don’t cause that window to slam shut.
March 5: Tune in for an FP subscriber call on South Asia, with insights from Michael Kugelman, Editor in Chief Ravi Agrawal, and Executive Editor Amelia Lester.
March 8: The Stimson Center hosts a webinar on attitudes and threat perceptions of the Indian and Pakistani armies.
Chinese malware in India’s power grid. Analysis by Recorded Future, a U.S. company that researches how countries use the internet, has found that Chinese malware was injected into “nearly a dozen critical nodes” of India’s electricity infrastructure after the deadly border clash between Indian and Chinese troops last June. The New York Times raises the possibility that a power outage in Mumbai last October is linked to the intrusion.
Unfortunately for India, the discovery may be the tip of the Chinese malware iceberg. One day after the Times report, Reuters revealed that Chinese hackers had targeted the IT systems of two Indian COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers. These revelations risk aggravating India-China tensions at a sensitive moment, just days after Chinese and Indian troops disengaged from parts of their disputed border and the countries’ foreign ministers held a 75-minute call.
Pakistan’s Senate elections. In Senate polls in Pakistan on Wednesday, the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party won the most seats but suffered a blow with the defeat of Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, the incumbent finance minister, to Yousaf Raza Gillani, a former prime minister and now a leader in the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party. Moreover, the PTI is not expected to gain the majority it sought in the Senate.
Unseating Sheikh was a major goal of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an opposition alliance established last year. While Khan is likely to win a vote of confidence in Parliament, Sheikh’s defeat will galvanize the PDM, which—as I wrote for Foreign Policy in October—had lost momentum in recent months due to internal disputes.
Postal problems in Nepal. This month marks one year since any mail has left Nepal. Between March and September 2020, pandemic-induced suspensions of foreign air travel meant that Nepal couldn’t send or receive international mail. While incoming mail resumed in September, outgoing mail remains suspended because Thai Airways—with which Nepal is currently contracted—filed for bankruptcy and can no longer provide the service.
Nepal’s government has not found a replacement carrier, according to the Kathmandu Post. Predictably, private courier services have now made a killing, while the government has lost revenue. But the postal problems are not just a tale of the pandemic’s toll on Nepal’s economy. They also reflect South Asia’s transportation and connectivity constraints: The region is described as the world’s least integrated.
India leads the region in COVID-19 vaccinations, but many millions more will be required to reach its population. Bangladesh is the only other country in the region to have distributed more than 1 million shots, and its population is far smaller.
The data above also captures the large fluctuations between countries: Bhutan has recorded only one coronavirus death, while the Maldives has the region’s smallest population but the highest rates of cases and deaths per million people.
Kabul is experiencing a serious water crisis. In some areas, groundwater levels are plummeting by more than six feet per year. Only 30 percent of residents in the Afghan capital can access a piped water supply, and only 10 percent can now access potable water, according to the water expert Mohsin Amin.
Population growth, high demand, and unregulated drilling for groundwater are driving the crisis, which is being exacerbated by climate change. It has serious implications—not only for economics and public health but also for Kabul’s very structural foundations. Najib Fahim Agha, a former Afghan disaster management minister, told the Telegraph last month that falling groundwater tables make the ground more fragile and could even lead to the toppling of buildings.
Other South Asian cities face water crises, but Kabul’s is made worse by an interminable war that relegates the water crisis to the policy back burner—though President Ashraf Ghani did acknowledge the seriousness of the problem in a speech several weeks ago. In Afghanistan, water stress—and other non-security crises like child malnutrition—warrant more attention than they receive.
“Every day I hear of another friend, journalist, academic, women’s rights activist or businessperson leaving the country. Their departures are creating an absence that will take another generation to fill.”
—Shaharzad Akbar, the director of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, writing in the Washington Post about Afghans fleeing intensifying violence
It’s not often that a four-second video goes viral. But that’s what happened with a seemingly mundane clip by a young Pakistani woman, Dananeer Mobeen. Pointing to a car and speaking in Urdu, she says, “This is our car, this is us, and this is our party taking place.” Mobeen uses the English word “party” but mispronounces it, presumably as a joke about Pakistanis trying to adopt English accents. The video has inspired copycat videos in both Pakistan and India.
The English language can be a weighty matter on the subcontinent, where debates rage over its place in schools and whether it is a status symbol of the elite. It’s nice to see it featured in a lighthearted moment that gives Indians and Pakistanis something to chuckle about together. Party on.
That’s it for this week.