South Asia Brief
News and analysis from India and its neighboring countries in South Asia, a region home to one-fourth of the world’s population. Delivered Wednesday.

Terror Attacks Surge in Afghanistan as U.S. Withdraws

Washington hopes to reduce spiraling Taliban violence, but it is losing its most potent leverage: troop presence.

Michael Kugelman
By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief and the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center.
Onlookers stand near the site of multiple blasts outside a school.
Onlookers stand near the site of multiple blasts outside a school.
Onlookers stand near the site of multiple blasts outside a girls’ school in Dasht-e-Barchi, Kabul, on May 9. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan plays out against a rapidly deteriorating security situation, Nepal confronts simultaneous political and COVID-19 crises, and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visits Saudi Arabia.

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Afghanistan’s Worsening Violence

Even by its own standards, Afghanistan has seen a horrifically violent few weeks. Nearly 400 security forces and civilians were killed in April, according to New York Times data—the largest monthly total since November 2020. And the violence appears to be getting worse: Nearly 200 people were killed during the first week of May alone, including students killed near their school this week in the worst attack in 2021 so far.

On April 30, a car bomb near a guesthouse in Logar province killed 27 people, many of them high school students. On Sunday, a roadside bomb ripped through a passenger bus in Zabul province, killing at least 11 people. And last Saturday, the country suffered its deadliest terror attack in months when a blast outside a school in Kabul killed 85 people, most of them young girls. With dozens more injured, the death toll is expected to rise.

Increasing violence is not a new trend: The number of civilian casualties in Afghanistan has increased in the last year, and the last six weeks have been especially brutal. What makes these attacks even more terrifying is no group has claimed responsibility. The Taliban and the Islamic State are possible candidates as are other actors trying to disrupt the already troubled peace process. Many Afghans have taken out their anger on the government for not protecting them—discontent that benefits insurgents and others seeking to undermine Kabul.

The surge in violence won’t change U.S. plans to withdraw all troops in Afghanistan by Sept. 11 at the latest and possibly as soon as early July. On Monday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price confirmed the plans are on track, and U.S. President Joe Biden has justified his withdrawal decision by citing the diminished terrorist threat to the United States. Relentless attacks on Afghans, horrific as they are, will not affect the U.S. exit strategy.

The only conceivable scenario that could delay the U.S. drawdown is if Taliban fighters turn their guns onto U.S. troops. The Taliban have largely held their fire since signing a deal with Washington last year. And although the insurgents have threatened to attack U.S. forces for overstaying that accord’s May 1 withdrawal deadline, they haven’t followed through—likely because they know the drawdown will soon be completed.

As a result, the United States will pursue a cease-fire or other violence-reduction arrangements even as it continues its withdrawal. Washington hopes to secure a major concession from the Taliban, but the U.S. troop presence is its most potent tool of leverage. Skeptics might liken the strategy to trying to ride a bicycle with no wheels. Moreover, violence is the Taliban’s most potent form of leverage, and the group won’t relinquish it for long.

Recent days have brought new opportunities to lessen the violence, but each has limits. The Taliban announced a three-day truce to coincide with Eid al-Fitr, from May 13 to May 15. Even a brief extension of the truce, which insurgents haven’t previously granted, could bring some much needed relief to Afghans and inject momentum into a floundering peace process. The best hope of getting insurgents to reduce violence and lay down their arms is to exploit their desire for recognition. This is already a common theme in U.S. public messaging. (The first day of the Eid truce was not free of violence. Four separate bomb attacks were reported on Thursday, with at least 11 civilian deaths.)

Additionally, the United States and Britain are trying to broker a new security agreement between Afghanistan and Pakistan, according to Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation. An Afghanistan-Pakistan security accord would entail each side preventing militants from staging cross-border attacks. Khalilzad mentioned the plan in a Der Spiegel interview on Monday, when Pakistani Army Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa and British chief of defense staff Gen. Nicholas Carter met Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.

Admittedly, enforcing such an accord would be difficult. Pakistan and Afghanistan have a tense relationship and share a porous, disputed border. The proposed agreement also wouldn’t address the tens of thousands of Afghan Taliban fighters based in Afghanistan. But it could modestly ease violence by reducing the number of militants entering Afghanistan from Pakistan.

Furthermore, Pakistan’s close ties to the Taliban make it a key player in the peace process, and a new Afghanistan-Pakistan accord could boost those efforts. With Afghanistan brought to its knees by the latest violence, any conciliatory step could be a good thing.

The Week Ahead

May 13 to May 15: The Taliban has announced a three-day truce in Afghanistan to coincide with Eid al-Fitr.

May 18: U.S. Special Representative on Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad appears before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

May 21: The Atlantic Council hosts a conversation with Iram Parveen Bilal about her new film, I’ll Meet You There, about a Pakistani American family in post-9/11 Chicago.

What We’re Following

Nepal’s twin crises. Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli lost a vote of confidence on Monday, plunging Nepal into political uncertainty as it suffers one of the world’s worst coronavirus surges. Nepal’s COVID-19 curve currently resembles a vertical line. Its new cases have soared from fewer than 200 daily cases at the beginning of April to more than 9,000 daily cases this week, and its test positivity rate is a whopping 47 percent, indicating many cases may go uncounted.

Sharma Oli appealed for global assistance in a Guardian op-ed this week, but his political challenges predate the current health crisis. Feuding within the ruling Nepal Communist Party prompted the prime minister to dissolve parliament last December, though the Supreme Court later reversed the move. Some analysts say Sharma Oli may survive to form the next government.

The bigger concern is Nepal’s leaders will be so distracted by political maneuvering that they won’t focus on reining in the virus. Many countries have faced acute pandemic challenges, but few have simultaneously witnessed the collapse of their governments.

A man loads cylinders with medical oxygen for coronavirus patients in Kathmandu, Nepal, on May 13.
A man loads cylinders with medical oxygen for coronavirus patients in Kathmandu, Nepal, on May 13.

A man loads cylinders with medical oxygen for coronavirus patients in Kathmandu, Nepal, on May 13.BIKASH KARKI/AFP via Getty Images

No end in sight for India. Meanwhile, India is finally seeing a decrease in daily recorded COVID-19 cases, but with the virus now rapidly spreading in rural areas where testing is more limited, the real numbers are likely much higher. The World Health Organization has now designated the COVID-19 variant in India as of “global concern.” It estimates the variant has now been detected in more than 44 countries.

This week has also brought more harrowing images and stories, from the discovery of bodies in the Ganges river to a jailed civil society activist who was refused permission to speak to her dying father.

Pakistan-Saudi Arabia reset. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Saudi Arabia last week to patch up ties. The long-standing allies had a rare spat last year, when Islamabad accused Riyadh of not taking a strong enough stand on the Kashmir issue. Pakistan’s army chief and the country’s most powerful leader visited just prior to Khan, underscoring the importance of the trip.

Khan’s visit yielded new agreements on combating drug trafficking and financing energy and water projects. Riyadh also announced it would finance the construction of a new mosque, named after King Salman, on the campus of the International Islamic University in Islamabad.

The trip puts the relationship back on level ground, but shifting geopolitical winds suggest more turbulence ahead. Saudi Arabia is pursuing deeper ties with India. Its rivalry with Iran is intensifying, which risks putting more pressure on Islamabad to formally align with Riyadh. Pakistan, however, seeks to remain neutral.

Under the Radar

Bangladesh’s government is cracking down hard against Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh, a hard-line Islamist group. Dhaka took action after Hefazat staged violent protests against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited Bangladesh in March, during which at least 10 people died. Dhaka has jailed top Hefazat leaders, prompting the embattled group to dissolve its central committee.

The crackdown marks a major policy shift for Bangladesh’s government, which has previously treated the group with kid gloves. Hefazat has ample clout, mobilizing tens of thousands in the streets to rail against secularism. In recent years, it successfully pressured Dhaka into removing poems and stories by non-Muslim writers from school textbooks and into relocating a statue of Lady Justice away from the front of the Supreme Court.

Bangladesh’s muscular moves offer a useful lesson for Pakistan, which continues to appease its own hard-line Islamist groups. Last month, after protests by Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan killed several police officers and wounded hundreds more, Islamabad agreed to the group’s demand to introduce a resolution in parliament calling for the expulsion of the French ambassador. But Pakistan is more religiously conservative than Bangladesh, and such a crackdown could pose a risk of social and political backlash.

Quote of the Week

“I am scared. It will be difficult to return. But I will. I want to be a doctor to make sure that Amina’s dream does not go away.”

Masooma, a 17-year-old survivor of a May 8 attack near her Kabul school, speaking to Reuters about her determination to return to school in honor of a friend who died in the attack.

What We’re Reading

There is contentious debate about foreign media coverage of India’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Some observers have lambasted it as insensitive and sensationalist, a position articulated in an impassioned piece for Project Syndicate by Brahma Chellaney. He slams the foreign press corps for “lurid Orientalism” and for “trafficking in images of death, suffering, and private acts of mourning” that would never be featured in coverage back home.

Others reject this position. Rama Lakshmi, a former Washington Post India correspondent, wrote a rebuttal for the Print, an Indian outlet, showing that Western media covers death and suffering at home in similar ways. “If this is the biggest human tragedy of our times, then journalists have to show it, tell it, write it,” she writes.

Regional Voices

A scathing editorial in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror denounces Colombo’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic: “Just like war, [the] pandemic is good for business and good for corruption.” It warns the pandemic could be like the 2004 tsunami and the 2019 Easter bombings—“two catastrophes that could have been averted or their impact minimized, if not for negligence, official incompetence, and political greed.”

Fizza Batool, a doctoral candidate at the University of Karachi, lays out a new strategy for how Pakistan can tackle Islamist militancy in South Asian Voices. “Both traditional approaches to militancy—appeasement and military force—weaken the power of the government,” she argued, calling for a middle-ground approach that emphasizes dialogue and negotiations.

Writing in the Dhaka Tribune, Salma Tareen, chair of the Dhaka Stock Exchange board, highlights success stories of women’s political and corporate leadership during the current pandemic, both in South Asia and beyond. “COVID-19 is the greatest challenge for the whole world, especially for the women,” she wrote. “Despite these challenges, women are shining examples for dynamic and effective leadership.”

Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman

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