Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Pakistan needs more than just international aid to address its flooding crisis, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushes Russian President Vladimir Putin on Russia’s war in Ukraine at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, and the last U.S. hostage in Afghanistan comes home.
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Pakistan’s Polarization Undermines Crisis Response
As world leaders gathered at the United Nations General Assembly this week, the organization estimated that Pakistan’s catastrophic floods have now displaced nearly 8 million people. A health crisis looms: Floodwaters have triggered outbreaks of cholera, malaria, and dengue fever. Thousands of pregnant women and more than 3 million children require immediate care. Authorities estimate it could take as long as six months for the floodwaters to fully recede.
I visited Pakistan last week. Unsurprisingly, the mood was glum—even fatalistic—with many of my interlocutors in the media, business community, academia, and the government concluding that Pakistan is in over its head. They have pinned their hopes on more international assistance.
To its credit, Pakistan’s government is trying its best to address the crisis. I visited the National Flood Response and Coordination Center, which is managing Islamabad’s flood response, and met committed staffers doing everything possible to keep relief efforts moving. The center frequently updates information on the aid provided and where it is going, along with detailed data about international assistance. But the main message was: “We need help.”
At the National Flood Response and Coordination Center, I thumbed through binders with aerial images of dozens of flood-affected areas, where agricultural land has turned into lakes. The good news, I was told, is that Pakistan has largely completed rescue efforts, with affected people moved away from flooded areas. But relief efforts are the problem. Although people are now on higher ground, they’re not receiving enough food, shelter, or health care. Journalists told me they had spoken to many displaced Pakistanis who said they’ve received no aid at all.
Some of those I spoke to insisted Pakistan shouldn’t just beg for aid, that it should also take the flood crisis as a wake-up call to strengthen ecological governance to reduce the scale of damage in future emergencies. But this doesn’t play well politically. Neither Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari nor Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman has acknowledged the need for policy change at home. Both belong to the party that governs Sindh province, which has been the worst-hit province by the flooding.
Pakistan has continuously issued appeals for international assistance. Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, now the opposition leader, has held three telethons to raise money for flood relief from supporters in the Pakistani diaspora. Aid is arriving—but perhaps not fast enough. With the global economy buffeted by supply chain shocks and high commodity costs as well as amid humanitarian crises in Afghanistan and Ukraine, donor fatigue is a real problem. This week, UNICEF said it had reached only one-third of its $39 million appeal.
However, Pakistan’s biggest obstacle to addressing this crisis—and other crises, too—may not be a lack of international support but its political polarization. Throughout the floods, domestic politics have proceeded as usual, with the government and Khan waging bitter fights even with one-third of the country underwater. Islamabad has refused to suspend key by-elections on Sept. 29, and Khan has continued holding political rallies. Khan and his supporters have insinuated that the government shouldn’t be trusted with flood aid, and he has accused the ruling coalition of seeking to ban transmission of his telethons.
Despite this, Pakistan’s floods have been a top agenda point at a very busy U.N. General Assembly summit in New York. France has offered to host a conference to help Pakistan, and world leaders and celebrities are raising awareness and pledging solidarity. Pakistan needs to come together so it can mount an effective flood response and speak with one voice to the international community, but the flood crisis seems to have exacerbated its deep divides.
Pakistan has been plagued by economic crises, political unrest, and now catastrophic and deadly flooding. Pakistani Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari joins FP Live next Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the way forward. Register to watch the interview and get your questions answered.
Modi chides Putin. At the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Uzbekistan last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued rare criticism during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “I know that today’s era is not an era of war, and I have spoken to you on the phone about this,” Modi said.
His comments were in line with India’s long-standing call for de-escalation in Ukraine. What makes them significant is that they were made publicly and directly to Putin. New Delhi’s special relationship with Moscow has so far stopped it from publicly condemning the war. The Indian leader’s warning now appears prophetic but also unsuccessful given Putin’s announcement Wednesday that he will partially mobilize Russian reservists.
In retrospect, Modi’s criticism was a clever strategic move. It has brought New Delhi some major goodwill from the West, including the United States and some NATO partners, at a moment when India’s diplomacy has faced challenges because of its somewhat ambiguous position on Russia’s war in Ukraine. At the same time, New Delhi likely knows that its partnership with Moscow won’t be affected: It’s keen to hold on to its remaining friends.
U.S. hostage freed from Taliban captivity. The Biden administration announced on Monday that Mark Frerichs, the last-known remaining U.S. hostage in Afghanistan, had been freed and was on his way home. Frerichs, a Navy veteran, was abducted by the Taliban in 2020 while doing construction work as a contractor. He was freed as part of a swap that returns Haji Bashir Noorzai, an Afghan national who spent 20 years in a U.S. prison on drug trafficking charges, back to Afghanistan.
Since the U.S. withdrawal last year, securing Frerichs’s release had become a top priority for Washington, and there had long been speculation about a Noorzai-Frerichs swap. That it took so long to materialize does not reflect U.S. hesitation to negotiate a prison release with the Taliban; after all, Washington worked out a deal to exchange U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl for five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo Bay in 2014.
In this case, the bigger issue was Noorzai, a drug lord often compared to Colombia’s Pablo Escobar. The United States likely had to convince itself that releasing a dangerous criminal and a prominent pro-Taliban figure would not work against U.S. interests—and that the move was actually worth making. Back in Afghanistan, Noorzai reportedly received a hero’s welcome from Taliban fighters.
Bangladesh-Myanmar border tensions. For several weeks, Bangladesh has accused Myanmar of firing shells across their shared border. Last Friday, mortar shells killed a 17-year-old boy and wounded six other people in a district on the Bangladeshi side of the border, which includes Rohingya refugee camps. Two days later, Bangladesh’s government summoned Myanmar’s ambassador for a meeting for the fourth time since the cross-border firing began on Aug. 28. Myanmar’s ruling junta says rebels have fired the shells, but it’s more likely that the military is targeting members of the Arakan Army rebel group in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has little leverage to stop the incidents, and observers admit that suspending trade or diplomacy would have only “symbolic value” given Myanmar’s support from more powerful countries, such as China. Dhaka has threatened to take the issue to the United Nations, though its options there are unclear.
Meanwhile, the Bangladeshi government is dealing with a related and delicate issue: trying to negotiate deals to return thousands of Rohingya refugees to Myanmar who fled military violence in Rakhine State in 2017.
The millions of people who left Ukraine after Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24 included thousands of students from South Asia, most from India. But in a briefing last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky revealed that seven Sri Lankan medical students were rescued from recently liberated areas of Ukraine’s Kharkiv Oblast. He said the students were held in a basement after being captured by Russian soldiers in March.
Some of the students spoke in interviews with the BBC this week, telling terrible stories of their captivity and alleged torture at the hands of Russian troops.
As in much of South Asia, Sri Lankan officials have taken muted positions on Russia’s war in Ukraine, preferring not to upset cordial relations with Moscow. There is so far no sign that the students’ plight will prompt Colombo to take a tougher line. Admittedly, the government may have other priorities as it grapples with an acute economic crisis and political volatility.
However, the news of the students’ captivity serves as a reminder that even citizens of seemingly neutral nations aren’t immune to the horrible effects of the war.
Daily Star columnist Tasneem Tayeb, discussing recent cross-border shelling in parts of Bangladesh that host Rohingya refugees, contends that while Dhaka can’t assume the international community will help, the country must hold firm. “We must continue to play our part in upholding our territorial integrity and protecting the interests of the displaced Rohingya,” she writes.
Reflecting on rising crime in Karachi, Pakistan, a Dawn editorial lambasts the city’s police chief for recently offering a financial reward to a resident who killed someone suspected of mugging him. “While public anger against violent crime is and should remain high, it is highly irresponsible for the police to encourage people to mete out punishments on the streets,” the editorial argues.
In the Himalayan Times, writer Anand Aditya argues that despite notable differences—from climate to economic performance—Nepal and Bangladesh have quietly enjoyed decades of good relations. Such ties should be deepened, he writes: The two “share much in common, but what they do not, too, can be used for the benefit of both countries.”