Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: What sanctions mean for U.S.-Bangladesh relations, Taliban officials rail against their Pakistani patron, and India boosts ties with Sri Lanka.
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U.S. Issues Sanctions on Bangladesh Paramilitary Force
Last Friday, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions on an elite Bangladesh paramilitary force, citing “serious human rights abuses.” It also sanctioned the current director of the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) and five former senior RAB officials, including a travel ban on Benazir Ahmed, now Bangladesh’s top police chief. (The United States also issued sanctions on entities and individuals in China, Myanmar, and North Korea.)
The new sanctions came on International Human Rights Day, and it marks the first time Washington ever sanctioned Dhaka, which it has described as a key partner. Although the United States likely wants to maintain a strong relationship with Bangladesh, the decision has already dealt a blow to bilateral ties. Some Bangladeshi officials have downplayed the impact of the sanctions, but others have slammed them.
Sanctioning the RAB makes sense from a human rights perspective: The force has carried out more than 1,200 extrajudicial killings and 170 enforced disappearances in the past two decades, according to Bangladeshi rights group Odhikar. It makes less sense from a geopolitical perspective. The United States has emphasized partnership with Bangladesh, suggesting a willingness to overlook its human rights record. A 2019 U.S. State Department document identified areas of potential cooperation with Dhaka—from counterterrorism to trade.
In February, U.S. officials met in Washington with Bangladesh’s army chief, then embroiled in a corruption scandal. At the time, a U.S. Army spokesperson said the two armies “share a close partnership.” And just last month, senior State Department official Kelly Keiderling visited Dhaka and spoke of a desire to expand the relationship. The sanctions came just a few weeks later.
So what gives? One possibility is the Biden administration has decided to make Bangladesh a prominent target of its democracy promotion campaign. (This would explain Washington’s decision not to invite Dhaka to last week’s democracy summit.) But this would fly in the face of Keiderling’s recent comments, suggesting the United States sees Bangladesh as lacking sufficient strategic value to warrant a close partnership.
U.S. sanctions could also be a shot across the bow to warn Bangladesh about the risks of its growing relationship with China. But that is also unlikely given that sanctioning Dhaka could drive it closer to Beijing. Bangladesh currently seeks to balance its relations with China, the United States, and India. But it may be more receptive to Beijing’s overtures if Washington continues to take aim at its human rights record.
The more likely explanation is the United States simply sought to push Bangladesh on its human rights record, not give up on the relationship. As one former Dhaka-based U.S. diplomat put it, “sanctioning RAB may well have just been a low hanging fruit given long standing concerns about its actions.” On Wednesday, a State Department spokesperson insisted the United States still seeks cooperation, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken had a call with his Bangladeshi counterpart, A.K. Abdul Momen.
But the damage is done. For Bangladesh, sanctioning the RAB amounts to an attack on an institution that has carried out successful counterterrorism and counternarcotics operations. In an ideal world, Dhaka would eliminate the RAB’s culture of impunity—resulting in the removal of sanctions and a boost for U.S.-Bangladeshi relations. But in reality, an increasingly undemocratic Dhaka is unlikely to rein the force in.
Taliban leaders criticize Pakistan. In the last week, several senior Taliban leaders have had strong words for their long-term patron Pakistan in media interviews. One top spokesperson accused the Pakistani government of not adhering to Islam, vitriol that underscores the disagreements between Kabul and Islamabad—even though Pakistan may have expected that its relations with Kabul would improve with its Taliban ally now in power. The Taliban have also refused to recognize the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
The Taliban’s withering criticism of Pakistan may be a political tactic to gain legitimacy from Afghans, an effort to telegraph a message that the group isn’t a Pakistani proxy. The development doesn’t bode well for Pakistan’s government. The criticism could embolden the Pakistani Taliban, which have stepped up attacks in recent days after rejecting an extension of a one-month truce reached with Islamabad last month. The cease-fire expired on Dec. 9.
Blinken’s Indo-Pacific policy speech. On Tuesday, Blinken delivered a policy address in Jakarta, Indonesia, that underscored Washington’s commitment to the “free and open” vision of the Indo-Pacific, first articulated by the Trump administration. India is a strong supporter of the Indo-Pacific policy, and it likely appreciated Blinken’s comment about Washington’s goal “to knit our allies together with our partners—as we have done with the Quad,” referring to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which both the United States and India are members of.
But the speech’s relative lack of focus on South Asia may have disappointed New Delhi. Washington’s Indo-Pacific calculus has traditionally accorded more strategic importance to East and Southeast Asia than to India’s backyard—one of the few disconnects in U.S.-India relations. However, the U.S. position could evolve as China deepens its presence in South Asia—especially through force, seen with China’s 2020 border clash with India.
Little relief for Afghanistan. Aid officials continue to describe Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis in stark terms. Millions of people are at risk of starvation, and little financial assistance is coming into the country, which depended on international support for about 75 percent of its expenses at the time the Taliban took over.
In an interview with 60 Minutes, Mary-Ellen McGroarty, the World Food Program (WFP)’s director in Afghanistan, said, “I’ve been with WFP for a long time, 20-plus years, and I’ve never seen a crisis unfold and escalate at the pace and scale that we are seeing. … We’re now really in a race against time.”
In one encouraging sign, the World Bank announced it will transfer $280 million in humanitarian assistance to United Nations aid agencies in Afghanistan. But aid alone won’t bring relief to a country facing economic collapse.
“[The] U.S. won the Afghan war in [a] ‘traditional sense’ within three hours, but in actuality, they couldn’t deploy a sustainable political system in two decades.”
—Fawad Chaudhry, Pakistan’s information minister, in a speech this week
India is preparing a large financial aid package for Sri Lanka, where the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the tourism-dependent economy hard. The assistance will target Sri Lanka’s food, health, and energy sectors and will also feature a currency swap. The economic relief package marks the second given to Sri Lanka by a South Asian neighbor this year. In June, Bangladesh provided a $200 million loan.
India’s move may have a geopolitical motivation. New Delhi’s relations with Colombo have stumbled in recent months. Earlier this year, the Sri Lankan government axed an India-backed investment project in the capital’s port—a major blow for India as China ramps up its infrastructure investments in Sri Lanka.
But in recent weeks, the tides have started to turn. China and Sri Lanka are embroiled in a spat over Colombo’s refusal to pay a Chinese company that provided contaminated fertilizer. India capitalized on the dispute by sending its own fertilizer exports to Sri Lanka, and in recent days, the two countries held high-level economic talks that resulted in the new aid package.
Analyst Kriti Shah writes about how India has changed its policy toward Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover in South Asian Voices. “Engaging with a select group of Taliban leaders and working with regional partners allows for more room to maneuver in Afghanistan, attempting to counter the increased influence of its strategic competitors,” she writes.
An editorial in Kuensel calls for action to tackle the growing problem of house fires in Bhutan. It argues that although the country has strengthened its capacity to respond to earthquakes, “we still have to rely on buckets and other utensils to combat fires”—despite all the homes lost to them.
An editorial in the Hindu warns that rising inflation could imperil India’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. The onus is on New Delhi “to deepen … fuel tax cuts and address other supply-side issues to prevent inflation from hurting the recovery,” it argues.
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