Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Afghanistan reels from flash floods over the weekend, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (briefly) breaks his silence on ethnic violence in Manipur, and China launches a new Belt and Road Initiative-linked project in Nepal.
Flash flooding in the wake of heavy seasonal rains killed at least 31 people in Afghanistan last weekend, leaving 74 injured and at least 41 missing. The devastating floods damaged more than 600 homes and hundreds of acres of agricultural land. They were just the latest calamity to strike Afghanistan this season: Taliban officials say natural disasters have killed more than 200 people in the last four months.
With the world’s attention focused on Afghanistan’s economic and humanitarian crisis, it is easy to overlook the country’s acute climate crisis—but it is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change. It grapples with regular floods and droughts, and researchers in the United Kingdom recently designated it as one of the areas most at risk from heat waves. Natural disasters affected thousands of people in Afghanistan last year, many of whom were already displaced by conflict or other climate effects.
In its vulnerability, Afghanistan has company among its neighbors. June was the world’s hottest month on record, and the effects of global warming are playing out dramatically across South Asia, from sea level rise to water scarcity. Recent weeks have brought floods and landslides to both India and Pakistan. Last summer, record-breaking heat in Pakistan was followed by early, torrential rains and catastrophic floods. One year later, the heat and rains have ominously returned.
Afghanistan has high levels of poverty, which climate stress tends to compound. The sheer scale of its humanitarian crisis sets it apart from other countries in the region. As of March, nearly 20 million people in Afghanistan—half of the population—were acutely food insecure, including 6 million people “on the brink of famine-like conditions,” according to the United Nations. Adding to the country’s food insecurity is a locust crisis wreaking havoc on crops across eight provinces, which could ruin one-quarter of the year’s wheat harvest.
Also unlike their neighbors, Afghans have been ruled by a regime facing sanctions and lacking international recognition for nearly two years. As a result, international financial assistance beyond humanitarian support has fallen dramatically; when the Taliban seized power, Afghanistan was dependent on foreign grants for 75 percent of its public funding. Among the casualties are $800 million worth of internationally backed environmental projects, now suspended. Some aid agencies also stopped working in the country after the Taliban banned women from working with nongovernmental organizations last December.
Most technical experts have left Afghanistan, and the Taliban clerics who hold most senior positions lack the capability to address the impacts of climate change. Soon after taking over, the Taliban also eliminated a key water management agency. Last November, the U.N. Climate Change Conference produced a new loss and damage agreement to create a fund for vulnerable countries such as Afghanistan. But due to sanctions, Afghans likely won’t benefit—even as the Taliban called on the world to provide climate assistance to the country.
Ultimately, this boils down to a fundamental foreign-policy conundrum since the Taliban takeover: How can the international community support Afghans without running afoul of the international sanctions regime? As long as the Taliban’s draconian policies toward women and connections to terrorist groups lead Afghanistan to be deprived of international climate assistance, related human security challenges will only grow worse.
But the country’s climate vulnerability isn’t the fault of Afghans or the Taliban regime. The international community seems to have a moral imperative to contribute more to climate mitigation and adaptation efforts in Afghanistan—bolstered by recent efforts to strengthen climate resilience throughout the global south.
Manipur takes center stage. Ethnic violence has rocked the Indian state of Manipur, in the country’s northeast, for two months, with more than 130 people dead and thousands more displaced. New Delhi has said little about it in public—until last week, when a shocking video surfaced of two women, both members of the Kuki ethnic minority, being paraded naked and assaulted by a mob. (The incident reportedly happened in May.) Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned the incident the day after the video was released.
Protests have since broken out in Manipur and in New Delhi. Indian Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah called for a dialogue with the political opposition on the violence. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) also controls the Manipur state government, and protesters there have called for the state’s chief minister to be sacked. On Wednesday, the opposition introduced a motion for a no-confidence vote on Modi—intended to pressure the prime minister to speak about Manipur in parliament.
Modi rarely comments publicly on any type of internal violence; he has remained quiet even when BJP leaders have resorted to anti-Muslim hate speech. In that regard, his condemnation of the May assault is striking in itself.
Blinken speaks with Pakistan’s foreign minister. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Pakistani counterpart, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, by phone on Monday. According to the U.S. State Department readout of the call, Blinken said democratic principles and respect for the rule of law are “central” to U.S.-Pakistani relations—which can be read as an indirect reference to the crackdown that Pakistan’s government has waged against the opposition in the last year.
The Biden administration has generally refrained from commenting on Pakistan’s political situation, perhaps seeking to avoid getting dragged in as it did when former Prime Minister Imran Khan accused Washington of helping to oust him from power in a parliamentary no-confidence vote last April. (The United States rejects the accusation.)
Reports that the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party would like Pakistani Finance Minister Ishaq Dar to serve as prime minister in the caretaker administration that will take over next month ahead of elections raised fresh concerns about the country’s democracy. (PML-N leaders later rejected the reports.) Caretaker administrations are meant to be technocratic, but on Wednesday, the parliament passed an amendment to the 2017 Election Act that will allow the caretaker government to make decisions beyond day-to-day matters.
Wickremesinghe visits India. Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe traveled to India last week. New Delhi has warm relations with Colombo, especially since it provided $4 billion in aid and support during Sri Lanka’s major economic crisis last year. Wickremesinghe’s visit produced further economic agreements; on Saturday, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry also said the government was considering allowing the use of the Indian rupee for local transactions.
China will be watching carefully: Sri Lanka has become a battleground for regional competition. But Beijing’s investments in the country have generated controversy in recent years, especially the 99-year lease to develop the Hambantota port.
China launched a new project linked to its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Nepal this week, which it calls “Silk Roadster.” The initiative focuses on strengthening people-to-people engagement through skills training, study abroad programs, and business exchanges. Beijing reportedly hopes to replicate the initiative, meant to mark the 10-year anniversary of the BRI, in other countries as well.
It’s not totally clear why China launched Silk Roadster in Nepal, which backs the BRI but hasn’t started any projects with its investments. However, great-power rivalry may have something to do with it. In February 2022, Kathmandu ratified a U.S. Millennium Challenge Corp. infrastructure grant after several years of false starts; U.S. officials have openly described the grant as a part of Washington’s Indo-Pacific policy.
China is likely looking for ways to push back against rising U.S. influence in Nepal, as well as that of India, which has long been the main external actor in the country. In recent weeks, Beijing has also stepped up high-level diplomatic engagements with Kathmandu. Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is expected to visit Beijing in September. Like many of its neighbors, Nepal seeks to balance its relations with all three countries.
In the Indian Express, conservationist Ravi Chellam argues that India must do more to protect its forests. “With only 21 per cent of India’s land area having forest cover and even more worryingly, only 12.37 per cent intact natural forest, we have a long way to go to meet our target of 33 per cent forest cover,” he writes.
Lawyer Tahera Hasan writes in Dawn that many Pakistani women don’t fully understand their marital rights. The “nikahnama is a crucial document that outlines the terms of a marriage,” she asserts. “However, despite its significance, a lack of awareness prevails among women regarding their rights contained in this document.”
A Daily Star editorial calls for better measures to address drownings, the second leading cause of death for Bangladeshi children under the age of 5. “Drowning is perhaps one of the most common but overlooked causes of death in the country. … Unfortunately, efforts from the authorities to prevent this menace have been quite disappointing so far,” it argues.