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The highlights this week: Governance failures exacerbate climate change effects in Pakistan, the Taliban mark a year since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan , and tensions simmer on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border .
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Governance failures exacerbate climate change effects in Pakistan, the Taliban mark a year since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and tensions simmer on the Bangladesh-Myanmar border.
If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.
Pakistan’s Flooding Catastrophe
The scale of the recent deadly flooding in Pakistan is staggering. Floods triggered by early monsoon rains began in June and have remained intense throughout the season. A full one-third of Pakistan’s territory is underwater—an amount of land that exceeds the total area of the United Kingdom. More than 30 million people, about 15 percent of the population, have been affected. The flooding has killed nearly 1,200 people and left half a million people homeless. But the full extent of the damage remains unknown, and these numbers may still rise.
Pakistani officials have rightly attributed the natural disaster to climate change. The country’s vulnerability to climate change is well known. For years, it has suffered record-breaking temperatures, torrential rains, glacial melt, droughts, and floods. Climatologists described Pakistan’s floods in 2010—the most damaging deluge until the current crisis—as “the worst natural disaster to date attributable to climate change.”
But officials have overlooked an uncomfortable truth: The destructive effects of the flooding are exacerbated by years of poor ecological governance. Their catastrophic consequences could have been mitigated if Pakistani governments had taken action in a few areas. Water experts have long decried the state’s inattention to water infrastructure, which has diminished its capacity to withstand sharp increases in river flows. Another problem is deforestation, which means fewer bulwarks against raging floodwaters. Poor drainage systems also exacerbate flooding, and unregulated construction in flood zones results in more property damage and risks to lives.
Pakistan also lacks effective policy planning, both to prepare for floods and to manage response efforts in their wake. Dawn columnist Arifa Noor writes this week that Pakistan needs better “data collection, mapping and advance planning” for relief operations alongside a more integrated flood management and disaster management system.
Some climate activists have argued that the onus is on major carbon emitters to help Pakistan deal with the effects of climate change, since it suffers these disproportionately. Pakistan’s own record on emissions is poor: It heavily consumes dirty fuels and has failed to slow deforestation. That Pakistan is not a top global polluter is more a function of the size of its economy than of principled policy. Still, Pakistan deserves long-term international climate assistance; it lacks the resources to undertake necessary mitigation efforts on its own.
Citizens have stepped up to compensate for the state’s limitations in responding to the recent flooding. Civil society organizations have coordinated aid mobilization campaigns, and private individuals have led rescue efforts. People have become creative in securing rescue equipment, from street stalls to beds. Mosques have issued calls for evacuations.
But given the scale of the challenge, Pakistan needs help. Its wealthy partners in the West, including the United States, along with the United Nations and other international agencies can provide financing that allows Pakistan to build more climate-resilient infrastructure and communities. This assistance can be earmarked for stronger river embankments, updated water infrastructure, more resilient building materials, and early warning systems.
Such assistance may be a hard sell in an era of donor fatigue, but it can go a long way toward easing the effects of the world’s most serious and destructive threat. After all, Pakistan could suffer the same catastrophe again. And what ails Pakistan today could strike another climate-vulnerable state tomorrow.
What We’re Following
Taliban fighters shout slogans to celebrate the anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan, near the U.S. embassy in Kabul on Aug. 31.
Peace at a cost in Afghanistan. The Taliban marked the first anniversary of the full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan on Thursday with a military parade and a ceremony at Bagram Airfield, once the largest U.S. military base in the country. The Taliban takeover and U.S. withdrawal ended a state of conflict in Afghanistan that had raged for 42 years since the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979. Over the last year, Afghans finally received a respite from relentless war.
But this new peace has ushered in serious challenges. U.S. sanctions against the Taliban regime have prevented desperately needed assistance from reaching Afghans suffering an economic and humanitarian crisis. Afghans still face the threat of terrorism: The Islamic State-Khorasan, previously kept at bay by NATO air campaigns, now has more space to operate. Then there is the draconian rule of the Taliban. Without boots on the ground, the United States lacks leverage to compel the group’s ideological and uncompromising leaders to moderate their policies.
Two key questions about U.S. policy in Afghanistan remain. First, will the United States reach an agreement to return $3.5 billion in frozen assets to the Afghan central bank? Since the discovery that then-al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was living in Kabul, the Biden administration has said it won’t return the assets, but it faces pressure to bring economic relief to Afghans.
Second, does the U.S. strike that took out Zawahiri mark the opening salvo of a new over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy against valuable targets? In recent days, Taliban leaders have said U.S. drones are flying over Afghanistan. (U.S. officials have not publicly responded.)
India joins Russia-hosted military exercises. Russia launched a weeklong series of war games on Thursday with about a dozen countries participating. They include China as well as India—a rival of Beijing and close partner of Moscow. For the United States and other Western foes of Russia, India’s involvement raises eyebrows. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre indirectly criticized India’s participation, saying the United States “has concerns about any country exercising with Russia while Russia wages an unprovoked, brutal war against Ukraine.”
However, India’s decision to participate is unsurprising, since it helps advance its foreign-policy interests. Taking part in exercises with China could be a confidence-building measure for the Indian and Chinese militaries, which have met regularly to defuse a border crisis—so far unsuccessfully. India can also showcase its cherished principle of strategic autonomy by balancing its relations with Russia and the United States. Furthermore, India’s participation enables it to strengthen cooperation with Central Asia, where it is keen to deepen its influence.
Tellingly, India has participated in a separate military exercise hosted by Australia that includes the United States and some of its European and Asian treaty allies.
Sri Lanka’s preliminary IMF agreement. Mired in its worst economic crisis since independence, Sri Lanka reached a preliminary agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) this week. IMF executive leadership must sign off on the agreement for it to become official. The news, which came as Pakistan formally inked a deal with the IMF, could eventually bring a boost to the Sri Lankan economy.
First, though, the deal will entail austerity measures for a population already overwhelmed by economic stress. The government that negotiated the IMF deal is unpopular, and many Sri Lankans want early elections. If finalized, the agreement could produce some short-term economic stabilization but also provoke fresh political tensions between Colombo and anti-government protesters.
Under the Radar
In South Asia, border volatility is a constant: between India and its neighbors or Afghanistan and Pakistan. This week, tensions flared at the Bangladesh-Myanmar border. Last Sunday, two mortars from Myanmar flew into Bangladesh, prompting Dhaka to summon Myanmar’s ambassador for an explanation. Then on Tuesday, witnesses in Bangladesh said a helicopter from Myanmar flew over the border, fired a series of shells into the hills on the Bangladesh side, and returned home. There were no reported casualties.
Myanmar’s military junta has not provided a public explanation. But some locals and authorities in Bangladesh suggest that it was targeting members of the Arakan Army, an insurgent group based in Myanmar’s Rakhine State that may have fled into Bangladesh. Rakhine is home to members of the Rohingya Muslim minority, a group the military has repeatedly targeted with horrific violence—including in 2017, when hundreds of thousands of people fled across the border to Bangladesh.
The Arakan Army is largely comprised of members of the Rakhine ethnic group, not Rohingya. But the group’s activities could prompt the Burmese military to retaliate with another crackdown on Rohingya communities, which it has scapegoated in the past. A confrontation that spills over the border would come at a delicate moment for Bangladesh. The country hosts about 1 million Rohingya refugees and is carrying out talks with Myanmar about how to repatriate them.
Bangladesh doesn’t want to be dragged into this violence, but Myanmar could pressure the government in Dhaka to act against Arakan Army fighters on its soil.
FP’s Most Read This Week
• Why Can’t Sweden Sell Its Fighter Jets? by Elisabeth Braw
• Where Does the Ukraine War Go From Here? by Jack Detsch
• You Have No Idea How Bad Europe’s Energy Crisis Is by Christina Lu
In Dawn, academics Kulsum Ahmed and Farah Said write about the challenge of increasing women’s participation in Pakistan’s economy. They argue that “current thinking … centres around providing skills training and financial incentives,” but this won’t work until there are changes in cultural norms—a shift that “is tough, but not impossible.”
A Dhaka Tribune editorial emphasizes the importance of ensuring the safety of overseas Bangladeshi laborers in the wake of a new agreement with Greece to provide temporary work visas to 6,000 Bangladeshi workers per year. Citing concerns about their plight in the Persian Gulf region, it warns that “we cannot allow a similar fate to befall our Europe-bound men and women as well.”
Scholar Farhan Hanif Siddiqi writes in South Asian Voices about how Pakistan’s long-standing struggle with the question of national identity shapes its foreign policy. “A more confident exposition of Pakistan’s identity entails dealing with differences in ways that do not compromise more considerable cooperation within the regional and international community,” he writes.