Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.
The highlights this week: assessing the Taliban regime one year after it took over in Kabul, why India’s response to the attack on Mumbai-born author Salman Rushdie is muted, and a Chinese ship docks in Sri Lanka’s Hambantota port.
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One year since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, they still hold a firm grip on power; they control most of the country and face no viable opposition. The war that ended when the Taliban entered Kabul last year has not resumed. However, that the group remains in full control is surprising: Its regime has faced immense challenges, including struggles for legitimacy and internal divides. The Taliban’s hold on power could still become shaky in the next year.
On Sunday, Al Jazeera published an interview with Taliban leader Anas Haqqani about the last year. He repeated the narrative that has dominated the group’s public messaging since its takeover: that the Taliban ended the foreign occupation of Afghanistan and restored peace. However, Haqqani responded to inconvenient questions—such as those about Afghanistan’s economic crisis or the U.S. drone strike that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul—with characteristic defiance.
From the start, the Taliban had trouble transitioning from insurgency to governance. They have proved unable to address Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis and terrorism threats; they have also refused to curb their own ties to terrorist groups. This, combined with their draconian policies toward women and crackdowns on dissent, has prevented the regime from achieving domestic or international recognition. The Taliban leadership has often appeared more concerned about appeasing hard-line mullahs and battlefield commanders than about gaining wider support.
The Taliban regime failed to fix an overwhelming economic crisis that even experienced policymakers would struggle with. Because of international sanctions, the group’s takeover last August halted the flow of financial assistance into Afghanistan, which previously depended on foreign grants for around 75 percent of its public spending. Banks ran out of money, businesses closed, and millions of people went hungry. The humanitarian crisis is ongoing and could worsen as the weather turns cold in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the regime has faced an unrelenting challenge from the Islamic State-Khorasan, the only terrorist group in Afghanistan that is not aligned with the Taliban. Islamic State-Khorasan has hit civilian targets like mosques and schools, often in Hazara Shiite communities, and undermined the Taliban’s narrative that their return to power had restored peace and stability. The group has also frequently targeted Taliban members.
Meanwhile, tensions flared within the Taliban. Leaders initially disagreed over the composition of their government, resulting in fights and even violence between rival factions, and over the decision to reopen schools for older girls. Differences abounded between the more practically minded leaders in Kabul, who sought more moderation and international engagement, and the more hard-line forces that oversee the group’s supreme leadership council, which is based in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
The Taliban can point to some achievements since taking power: reduced corruption, some success in generating revenue, and relatively more security. No war and less corruption are likely preferable to grinding conflict for many Afghans. But the Taliban have maintained power in great part because they enforce their authority through force and intimidation. They have cracked down on press freedoms, fired on protesters, and used scorched-earth tactics to target Islamic State-Khorasan. These methods risk alienating communities and deepening their struggles for legitimacy.
However, the Taliban’s firm grip on power is also a consequence of the total collapse of the previous Afghan state. The government and military fell apart completely in August 2021, leaving little behind to contest Taliban rule. It could get tougher for the Taliban next year. After the revelation that Zawahiri was living in Kabul, international recognition has never been further away. Afghanistan’s economic crisis could worsen, and Islamic State-Khorasan foes could grow stronger. After all, economic hardship provides fertile ground for radicalization.
Finally, growing governance pressures on the Taliban could exacerbate the regime’s internal divisions and hamper efforts to ease them, and all of this could pave the way for the emergence of new armed resistance. But for now, while the Taliban are driving a sputtering car along a road fraught with obstacles, they remain firmly in the driver’s seat.
Washington rules out releasing frozen funds. The Wall Street Journal revealed on Monday that the Biden administration has decided not to release $7 billion in frozen Afghan central bank assets currently held in the United States because of the discovery that Zawahiri was hiding in Kabul. In recent weeks, U.S. officials and Taliban leaders had exchanged initial proposals for how to release the funds, although they remained far apart.
The frozen funds issue has united Afghans across the board; many Afghans support the view that the funds belong to the state and its people, not the Taliban leadership. In the days leading up to the anniversary of the Taliban takeover, the message—from Taliban leaders, aid workers, diaspora members, and economists—was the same: Failing to release the funds could doom Afghanistan to a humanitarian catastrophe.
While the United States says it won’t release any funds, the matter likely isn’t finished yet. Washington has signified its desire to help Afghans beyond humanitarian aid. Perhaps the Wall Street Journal story is a strategic leak—a U.S. effort to convey to the Taliban that it must take more steps to combat terrorism for negotiations over the funds to continue.
India’s muted response to Rushdie attack. There has been little public reaction in India to last week’s attack on author Salman Rushdie, who was born in Mumbai. Rushdie was stabbed onstage at an event in Chautauqua, New York, and remains in the hospital; his alleged attacker was indicted by a grand jury on Thursday. Rushdie has faced death threats since the 1988 publication of his novel The Satanic Verses, which includes a character inspired by the Prophet Mohammed. Then-Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini called for his assassination.
Rushdie’s work is a sensitive matter in India, home to around 200 million Muslims. India’s Indian National Congress party-led government was actually the first to ban imports of The Satanic Verses. But the party, now in the opposition, was the only part of the Indian political class to speak out against last week’s attack. Rushdie has been a critic of India’s democratic backsliding under the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. “India today, to someone of my mind, has entered an even darker phase than the Emergency years,” he wrote in the Guardian last year.
Outrage at release of rapists in Gujarat. On Monday, the state government in Gujarat, India, allowed the release on remission of 11 men serving life sentences for an attack on a woman and her family during the Gujarat riots in 2002. Bilkis Bano was gang-raped, and 14 of her family members were killed, including her 3-year-old daughter; Bano said this week that she received no prior warning that those convicted of the crimes would be released. The men had spent 14 years in prison. “Today, I can only say this—how can justice for any woman end like this? I trusted the highest courts in our land,” she wrote in a statement.
The release of the men has shocked activists and others in India, where authorities have recently sought to address widespread violence against women. But conviction rates for sexual assault remain low. In Bano’s case, the perpetrators were convicted only in 2008. When they left prison on Monday, they were greeted with garlands.
Last week, this newsletter reported that Sri Lanka gave into pressure from India and delayed the arrival of a Chinese vessel scheduled to dock at its Hambantota port last week. India fears China will use the port, which it has leased for 99 years, for military purposes. China military analysts believe the vessel is used to monitor missile launches; New Delhi fears it could be used to spy on Indian military facilities.
However, the Chinese ship docked on Tuesday after receiving approval from Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry over the weekend. What initially appeared to be a boost for New Delhi has become another triumph for Beijing—and another reflection of its prominent naval presence in the Indian Ocean region, uncomfortably close to Indian soil.
But New Delhi has still sent a strong message. On Monday, India formally gifted a surveillance aircraft to Sri Lanka to help enhance its naval capacity. The Indian ambassador to Sri Lanka and the vice chief of the Indian Navy participated in a handover ceremony alongside Sri Lankan President Ranil Wickremesinghe.
A Dawn editorial reflects on Pakistan’s challenges, 75 years after its independence. “There is no magical solution to our problems, but hard work, the rule of law, a meritocratic system and justice for all can help make Pakistan the progressive welfare state its founding fathers hoped it would be,” it argues.
The producers of the new Indian film Laal Singh Chaddha say it is an adaptation of the American movie Forrest Gump. But in the Print, writer Dilip Mandal argues that there are too many differences between the two for this to be the case. “Despite tall claims and promises, Laal Singh Chaddha turned out to be no more than another Bollywood film,” he writes.
In the Daily Star, researcher Jahanara Tariq discusses the Scottish historian William Dalrymple’s disclosure that his great aunt, the author Virginia Woolf, had some Bengali ancestry. “I suppose I do feel some kind of satiation, knowing that Virginia Woolf, an artist I love and have bountiful devotion for, has a tinge of Bengali blood,” she writes.