The Taliban hard-liners are winning
Draconian Steps On Girls’ Education And Press Freedom Are Taking Afghanistan Back To The 1990s.
Welcome to South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: Taliban hard-liners make a power play, Russia’s foreign minister visits New Delhi, and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan fights for his political life
The 1990s All Over Again
Over the last week, the Taliban have taken a series of draconian steps that bring to mind their policies from the 1990s, when they last held power in Afghanistan. They broke a promise to allow older girls back to school. They announced that women can’t board airplanes unless they’re accompanied by a male relative. They declared that men and women must visit public parks on separate days. And they banned broadcasts of local-language programming of the BBC, Voice of America, and Deutsche Welle after having already cracked down on Afghan media outlets.
Some commentators believe the Taliban are taking advantage of global attention being diverted by the war in Ukraine, trying to sneak in moves that would ordinarily generate international opprobrium and imperil the group’s search for legitimacy. However, issues like girls’ education and press freedom always resonate strongly on the world stage, and the Taliban have met with condemnations from officials across the West, as well as extensive international media attention.
These recent decisions reflect a power play by the Taliban’s most ideologically hard-line factions to assert their strength over the group’s more moderate wings. The hard-liners already had the upper hand: after the Taliban takeover, the most battle-hardened and fierce fighters were rewarded with plum posts, and they hold the highest-ranking positions in the Taliban administration formed in September 2021. But the Taliban will struggle to secure badly needed international assistance if the hard-liners continue to get their way. Additionally, long-festering internal divisions could worsen, constraining efforts to address critical policy challenges.
The hard-liners include fighters who played key roles in the Taliban regime of the 1990s and in the 20-year insurgency against the pro-U.S. government in Kabul. They include Prime Minister Mohammad Hasan Akhund, Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani (a leader of the Haqqani network, an internationally designated terror group), Defense Minister Mohammad Yaqoob (son of Taliban founder Mullah Omar), and the group’s supreme leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada. According to the Associated Press’s Kathy Gannon, it was Akhundzada who suddenly demanded the group’s recent moves following a leadership meeting in Kandahar—an about-face that, in the case of the girls’ schools decision, caught the Taliban education ministry by surprise. Some experts believe Akhundzada wanted to appease Taliban ultraconservatives.
Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar leads the moderate faction. He is a founding Taliban leader who operated out of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar, for many years and became a top interlocutor for international diplomats exploring peace and reconciliation prospects. Despite his prominence and experience, he didn’t receive the prime or foreign minister posts in the Taliban administration and was appointed deputy prime minister instead. This was an apparent snub by the hard-liners. Additionally, according to reports last September, Baradar exchanged “strong words” with hard-liner Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani, a Haqqani network leader and current refugees minister, resulting in a brawl between their supporters.
There are also broader Taliban divides along ideological lines that play out between clerics and political leaders, battlefield commanders and civilians, and older and younger members.
The hard-liners’ power play could further immiserate the Afghan people. The country badly needs international assistance to ease a devastating economic crisis. But Western donors will hesitate to increase assistance—beyond humanitarian aid—if the Taliban continue their assault on basic human rights. Additionally, while the moderates are outranked by the hard-liners, they may try to push back on local levels by refusing to implement or enforce the draconian new measures. This risks exacerbating internal Taliban divides that distract the group from tackling big challenges, including economic stress and an emboldened Islamic State terrorist group.
A vicious cycle could ensue: Deepening internal spats distract from efforts to tackle policy challenges, and worsening policy challenges put more stress on the Taliban leadership, further intensifying internal divisions.
Government leaders are often faulted for putting their own petty politics above the urgent needs of their needy populations. But in Afghanistan, the stakes are especially high. Internal sparring is playing out within the Taliban even as nearly 23 million Afghans face starvation. While the Taliban fiddle, Afghanistan burns, and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises rages on.
Lavrov visits New Delhi. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is visiting India on Thursday and Friday. It marks the highest-level in-person engagement between India and Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. The timing of the trip is notable, as it coincided with a visit by Daleep Singh, the U.S. deputy national security advisor for international economics. Singh also happens to be the administration’s point person for Russia sanctions. He visited New Delhi on Wednesday and Thursday for discussions on U.S.-India economic cooperation but also, according to a National Security Council statement, the “consequences of Russia’s unjustified war against Ukraine.” Indeed, on Thursday, he warned of “consequences” for countries, including India, that seek to evade U.S. sanctions on Russia by doing business with Moscow using local currencies.
New Delhi continues to refuse to condemn Russia. However, over the last week, the Indian government has provided some of its most extensive remarks on the invasion. Last Thursday, External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said that India’s stance is based on six principles, including an end to hostilities, a return to dialogue, respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty, and humanitarian access. This isn’t new; Indian officials had already referred to these principles previously, including when explaining India’s reasoning for abstaining from all United nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions on the Russian invasion to date.
Pakistan’s political crisis. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan continues to fight for his political survival as he faces an impending no-confidence vote. On Monday, a motion was introduced in parliament. The Pakistani Constitution stipulates that voting must take place three to seven days after a no-confidence motion is introduced on the parliamentary floor. However, the actual vote date is unclear. According to Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad, voting will take place on April 3. But on Thursday, parliament adjourned until April 3. With the motion not yet having been debated, the vote may take place several days later.
It’s been a whirlwind week for Khan. On Monday, one of his coalition partners, the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) reaffirmed its support for him after he appointed a new chief minister for Punjab province—long a PML-Q demand. But then he got bad news on Wednesday, when another coalition ally, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, announced it was pulling out of the alliance and joining the opposition. This means the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has lost its parliamentary majority, complicating Khan’s ability to survive the no-confidence vote. Separately, Khan claims he has evidence that a foreign country is meddling in Pakistan’s internal politics and trying to oust his government. In an address to the nation on Thursday, he said, “In an official document it was said that ‘if Imran Khan remains the prime minister, our ties will suffer and you will face difficulties.’” He also stated, for the first time, that the United States is behind the move. The U.S. State Department has denied the allegations.
Media crackdown. Rana Ayyub, a well-known Indian journalist and Washington Post columnist, was prevented from boarding a plane at the Mumbai airport on Tuesday. Coincidentally, she was traveling to London to participate in a conference on New Delhi’s crackdown on press freedoms. According to media reports in India, officials stopped her as part of an investigation into alleged “laundered donations” she had raised through a crowdfunding campaign during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ayyub has categorically rejected the allegations.
Significantly, the case is based on a complaint filed against Ayyub in September 2021 by the Hindu IT Cell, a Hindu nationalist group that uses aggressive online tactics to target people whose views it disagrees with. Ayyub, a sharp critic of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, would be a logical target. If the government hoped it could avert embarrassment by preventing Ayyub from speaking out at a conference in London, the strategy backfired. Journalists around the world have loudly condemned New Delhi for keeping Ayyub from leaving.
UNDER THE RADAR
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited half the South Asian capitals over the last week, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan before making his way to India. But his final port of call—Nepal—stood out for geopolitical reasons. He arrived in Kathmandu just a few weeks after the government ratified a $500 million infrastructure grant from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). That grant was controversial, as U.S. officials have described it as a part of the Indo-Pacific program, making some Nepalese worried about getting caught up in U.S.-China competition.
Beijing likely didn’t like the grant for the same reason. China has stepped up commercial relations with Nepal as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. Not surprisingly, Wang’s visit led to pledges to explore cooperation on the development of railway lines and power grids—the very type of infrastructure projects envisioned by the MCC grant. Much like Sri Lanka, where India and China are outdoing each other to provide new financial assistance to ease the country’s economic crisis, Nepal could see its sizable infrastructure needs addressed because of U.S.-China strategic competition.
Pediatrician Vibha Krishnamurthy writes in the Indian Express about Indian children with disabilities benefiting from the pandemic because being out of school eased their stress. But she warns that “if not going to school has given them their first taste of learning in a safe and happy place, then the adults in their lives … have to commit to making schools safe and happy now that they are headed back.”
Scientist Farid Malik, opining in Pakistan Today, calls for reforms in Pakistan’s mining industry to allow the country to better access its valuable minerals: “It is time to formulate a ‘Mineral and Mining Road Map’ for the country to reduce our import bill together with achieving self reliance in this vital areas.”
Law professor Saquib Rahman argues in the Dhaka Tribune that Bangladesh’s constitution undermines democratic governance because it militates against checks and balances. He contends there are articles within the constitution “that designed the executive, legislature, and judiciary to be under the control and influence of one person.”