South Asia Brief
What Does the Gaza Crisis Mean for South Asia?
The latest Israeli-Palestinian clashes could pose security risks in the region.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Assessing the implications of the Gaza crisis for South Asia, the Taliban say they are ready to return to peace talks, and Bangladesh arrests a prominent journalist.
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The Gaza Conflict’s Ripple Effects
As the latest conflict between Israel and Palestine approaches the two-week mark, it’s worth asking what the crisis means for South Asia, which borders the Middle East. India and Nepal have long-standing links to Israel, and Bhutan normalized ties in December 2020. Meanwhile, South Asia’s Muslim-majority countries, especially Pakistan, champion the Palestinian cause.
The conflict, horrific as it is, raises some diplomatic possibilities for India and Pakistan, placing both countries in a position to play a role in helping mitigate the crisis. It also poses bigger security risks within the region, including violent protests and terrorist attacks, than during the last major crisis in the Gaza Strip in 2014.
India’s balancing policy with the Israelis and the Palestinians—it maintains robust relations with both sides—gives it the diplomatic flexibility to engage with them on equal terms. Relations between India and Israel have grown stronger under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with bilateral trade reaching nearly $6 billion in 2018. In 2017, Modi became the first sitting Indian prime minister to visit Israel.
But Foreign Policy’s Sumit Ganguly and Nicolas Blarel argued this week that Modi walks a political tightrope in his relationship with Israel. It’s worth keeping in mind India has also long supported the Palestinian cause, support that hasn’t abated even as its ties with Israel have intensified. In 2018, Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit the Palestinian territories too.
Unsurprisingly, India’s ambassador to the United Nations issued a balanced statement on the conflict this week that condemned Palestinian violence and described Israel’s use of force as “retaliatory” while affirming India’s “strong support for the just Palestinian cause” and a two-state solution. By maintaining goodwill with both sides, New Delhi has positioned itself as a potential mediator in the crisis. Last year, the United Nations explored how India could play such a role, sending a delegation to New Delhi to discuss the prospect with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and other senior officials.
India’s diplomatic advantage is stronger than during the 2014 crisis because it has strengthened its ties with Israel significantly. Meanwhile, Pakistan wasn’t as diplomatically active during the 2014 conflict because of pressing issues at home, including a counterterrorism initiative.
Pakistan could now build further support for the plight of the Palestinians, which it often champions in global forums. Unlike its long-standing advocacy on behalf of Kashmiris, the Palestinian issue is likely to get significant traction abroad. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi is already busy. He has spoken to his Palestinian, Egyptian, Saudi, Chinese, Afghan, and U.S. counterparts about the conflict. Earlier this week, he traveled alongside the Palestinian and Turkish foreign ministers to New York for a special U.N. session on the crisis.
The Gaza crisis will also put to rest any lingering speculation that Pakistan could become one of the next countries to normalize ties with Israel. The Pakistani and Israeli foreign ministers met publicly in Turkey in 2005, and informal contacts date to the 1940s, according to researchers. But Pakistan’s official position is it will only recognize Israel when a Palestinian state is established. Given Israel’s current assault on the Gaza Strip, the idea of Islamabad even contemplating formal relations with Israel defies belief.
With no signs of stopping, the current conflict also poses security risks for South Asia. It could spark pro-Palestinian protests by Islamist hard-liners that lead to violence. Protests in the region have so far been peaceful, but Indian security forces still cracked down on pro-Palestinian demonstrations in Kashmir. Pakistan faces a test on Friday. Qureshi has called for nationwide peaceful protests on that day, but they could bring out religious extremists like those who killed four people and wounded hundreds of protesters and police last month.
Terrorism presents another security risk, albeit more remote. Al Qaeda’s media wing released a statement on May 17 calling on Muslims to attack Jews and their allies. This threat is of particular concern for India, Israel’s closest South Asian partner and home to a small Jewish community. More broadly, Israel’s relentless violence against Palestinians could embolden the region’s terrorist groups and inspire attacks on Israeli and Jewish targets. India and Nepal are believed to host the largest number of Israelis in the region.
The threat of terrorist violence in South Asia beyond Afghanistan has receded since the last major Gaza conflict. However, the increased power of social media to spread images of Israeli violence, the proliferation of new hard-line religious parties in the region, and rising Islamophobia heightens the risk of some protests turning violent, especially if the Israeli-Palestinian crisis continues. South Asia isn’t a party to the Gaza conflict, but the region is still vulnerable to its potentially destabilizing effects.
The Week Ahead
May 26: The Stimson Center hosts a discussion on the 2020 India-China border clash, one year on.
May 26: The U.S. Institute of Peace hosts a discussion on how Afghan history can inform thinking about the country’s uncertain future.
What We’re Following
A glimmer of hope in Afghanistan? As the Taliban returned to the battlefield earlier this week after a three-day truce for Eid al-Fitr, they also signaled their readiness to return to peace negotiations with the Afghan government. Afghanistan’s TOLOnews reported the Taliban met with government negotiators in Doha on May 14. TOLOnews also disclosed a Taliban delegation has been in Pakistan for nearly three weeks to discuss the insurgents’ participation in a future peace conference in Turkey.
On a down note, Kabul and Islamabad have encountered diplomatic turbulence. Last Friday, after Pakistani Army Chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa visited Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani accused Pakistan of overseeing an “organized system of support” for the Taliban insurgency in an interview with Der Spiegel. His comments prompted an angry rebuttal from Pakistan’s foreign office. Fresh tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which has close ties to the Taliban, could negatively affect the peace process.
Journalist arrested in Bangladesh. On Monday, Rozina Islam, a reporter for Bangladeshi newspaper Prothom Alo, was arrested and charged with stealing documents from the country’s health ministry under the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. Islam has investigated government corruption and published coverage critical of Dhaka’s pandemic response. According to local press reports, she was confined to a room by health ministry officials for five hours before being turned over to police. She reportedly fainted during her detention.
The Official Secrets Act carries the possibility of the death penalty, and Islam’s arrest sparked a furor among Bangladesh’s media corps. A Bangladesh editors’ collective released a statement decrying her arrest as “despicable” and a threat to “the very existence of the press.”
This isn’t the first time Dhaka targeted those critical of its coronavirus policies. In 2020, authorities arrested Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer who alleged corruption in Dhaka’s pandemic response in a Facebook post under Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act. He died in jail in February. Reporters without Borders’ latest press freedom index ranks Bangladesh 152 out of 180 countries.
Regional coronavirus roundup. India and Nepal remain two of the world’s pandemic hot spots, and last Friday, the World Health Organization designated Sri Lanka as the third South Asian country facing serious pandemic threats. Although India’s new cases have fallen for the second week in a row, the crisis is expanding in rural areas, where health care infrastructure is even weaker than in cities. To make matters worse, the strongest storm to ever hit India’s west coast made landfall on Monday, causing flooding, property destruction, and at least 26 deaths.
In Nepal, positivity rates are approaching 50 percent, and the number of new cases has topped 9,000. The presence of the highly infectious Indian variant is likely driving Nepal’s crisis. Experts point to recent surges of Nepalese laborers returning home after lockdowns in India prevented them from working there. As many as 400,000 people could return to Nepal in the next few weeks.
Under the Radar
Two fact-finding reports by Pakistani officials in Rawalpindi have concluded a large road development project is marred by “billions of rupees of corruption, irregularities, and illegal land acquisition.” The reports implicated Zulfi Bukhari, a close aide to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, in the scheme. Khan has now ordered the National Accountability Bureau and the Punjab provincial government’s anti-corruption body to conduct additional investigations. Bukhari resigned on Tuesday but dismissed the allegations as “obnoxious lies.”
The report findings are embarrassing for Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, which has made anti-corruption its chief pillar since he established the party in 1996. They also threaten to undermine the prime minister just as he enjoys a political upswing. In recent weeks, Khan overcame a mass protest campaign led by a now-defunct opposition alliance and survived a parliamentary confidence vote. However, Jahangir Khan Tareen—a top party leader fighting corruption charges—announced the formation of a separate party bloc this week.
Quote of the Week
“It is one of complaining. I think the Afghan culture generally is a culture of complaints. Even the poetry is full of complaints.”
—Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, responding to a question about the current tone of the Taliban’s leadership while appearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee
What We’re Reading
Axios’s Jonathan Swan and Zachary Basu published a long read on Sunday detailing former U.S. President Donald Trump’s unsuccessful push during his final days in office to fully withdraw from Afghanistan by Dec. 31, 2020. “When it came down to it, Trump was indecisive. In the view of top officials, he did not seem to want to own the consequences of a precipitous withdrawal,” they wrote.
Richa Sanwal, an independent journalist in Mumbai, wrote for Al Jazeera English about volunteer networks, including one she formed on Facebook, that have mobilized to provide assistance during India’s COVID-19 crisis. But she argued volunteerism alone isn’t enough. “To dramatically slow, and then end, the spread of this virus, we need a more coordinated effort from our leaders and the international community,” she wrote.
A Pakistan Today editorial highlights the plight of Pakistan’s 2.5 million people who are unable to receive residency or citizenship despite being in the country for several decades—many of them of Afghan, Bangladeshi, or Burmese ancestry. This makes them ineligible for the government’s COVID-19 vaccination program. The editorial argues they deserve to be inoculated because “this is not an immigration problem … it is a health emergency.”
Anup Saikia, a professor of geography at India’s Gauhati University, wrote for the Indian Express about 18 elephants recently killed by lightning in India’s state of Assam. He argued deforestation has displaced elephants from their typical habitats, making them more vulnerable to lightning strikes. “Forests and protected areas … have ended up on the short end of the stick as development, population pressure and the need to bring more land under the plough inexorably spiral,” he wrote.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the Asia Program deputy director and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman