Giorgio Spagnol
Date de publication: 


If 2020 had a lesson, it must be the futility of predictions. What future teller in 2019 foresaw a viral pandemic that would derail the lives and prosperity of millions of people around the world in 2020? What clairvoyants saw in their crystal ball the dramatic and violent chaos in Capitol Hill? The world expressed shock and dismay. These events were as unforeseen as they were momentous.

Yet, to set goals we must look ahead, and after a year of events that changed development trajectories throughout Asia, it’s again time to take stock of the current situation and try to offer predictions of the stories that will dominate South Asia in the near future.

South Asia, while still affected by COVID 19, is facing unprecedented economic challenges and deterioration of democratic norms and institutions. For South Asia’s almost two billion people, the need for humane, capable governance is immediate and imperative.

Will Joe Biden’s administration advance a meaningful engagement with South Asia on its own terms or will its strategy be shaped by a narrower desire to counter China’s growing power?

Beyond those big shared questions, though, each country has its own concerns. From the peace process in Afghanistan, to the elections in India and the protest movements in Pakistan.


In 2001, the USA invaded Afghanistan in pursuit of the War on Terror with the support of NATO and over 40 countries. For almost two decades, the USA has legitimised its military operations as ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ (2001–14) and ‘Operation Freedom’s Sentinel’ from 2015 to the present. During these military endeavours, over 100,000 civilians and over 60,000 security forces have been killed.

The political and security landscape that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani must now contend with is arguably more different than it has been at any point in the last two decades. Most immediately, the uncertain outcomes of the ongoing Afghan peace talks in Doha (Qatar) raise thorny questions about the durability of a potential peace agreement.

Already reeling in 2020 from the impact of Covid-19, a deteriorating economy and rising insecurity, Afghanistan has entered 2021 with the top priority of reducing and eventually ending the violence by securing a peace agreement with the Taliban. Peace negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban resumed on January 5 in Qatar, and these talks are expected to determine Afghanistan’s future, including the country’s political system.

More than ever before, political actors involved in these negotiations must act resolutely to ensure transparency in the peace process and to protect the rights and freedoms that Afghans have gained in the past two decades.

Successful implementation of a future peace agreement that will in all likelihood end the foreign military presence in the country will significantly depend on political and financial support from the international community. With an already weakened and largely donor-dependent economy, Afghanistan can become a peaceful country only with a renewed commitment to peace and development from all its political actors, and with long-term support from the international community.


India has had one of its most difficult years since independence. A painful economic contraction, bloody border skirmishes with China, the deepening of sectarian divisions, and the weakening of secular democracy have all taken a heavy toll on the country.

After 2019 ended with nationwide protests against the new citizenship laws (wanted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi) criticized for deepening sectarian cleavages, February 2020 witnessed the Delhi riots, in which violence against Muslims reached new heights thus casting unease over India’s democratic and secular ideals.

India was forced to also deal with external threats. In June 2020, Indian and Chinese soldiers engaged in a bloody brawl along their mountainous eastern border, resulting in the deaths of Indian and Chinese soldiers. This deadly episode, the first record of fatalities in an Indo-Chinese clash in more than forty-five years, came in response to China’s expansionist encroachment on India’s side of the Line of Actual Control.

The precarious situation with China came shortly after a successful meeting of the Quadrilateral Security DialogueQuad”, an informal multilateral defence partnership between the United States, India, Japan, and Australia. An increasingly powerful and assertive China that challenges the interests of both the United States and India in the Indo-Pacific has acted as a catalyst for this increased partnership.

The positioning of India as a key partner of the United States is gaining greater credence, and declassified U.S. documents on the Indo-Pacific see India as a “net security provider” and an intelligence-sharing partner.

This year’s electoral fights will give a glimpse into the nature of identity-based politics and their message will last till 2024. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi's ruling Hindi nationalist party, swept the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 in India‘s north and west. Now it is trying to expand also in the east and the south. If the BJP wins Bengal and Assam, it will be one more step towards its full control of India and a more centralised Indian polity.

On the world stage, India in 2021 will play a critical role in the large-scale production of vaccines, and many Indian pharmaceutical and research institutes have partnered with global companies to support this effort. India has the technical and operational capacity to produce vaccines at scale and at lower cost.


Pakistan will be dominated by the question of whether the current government will see out the year. The eleven-party opposition alliance against Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is expected to continue, especially if lockdown restrictions are eventually eased. 

Khan faces increased pressure from a unified opposition, as well as the military that it alleges is using him as a pawn. The opposition has asked for the Prime Minister's resignation and has increasingly railed against the military’s involvement in politics. Whether the opposition succeeds in deposing the government will depend on a number of factors. The economy will play the biggest role in the government’s ability to survive. If the government can convince the public that it can manage the country through the economic crisis, it will likely survive.

There is an increasing tilt in Pakistani foreign policy toward a development, by the way the military has involved itself with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. This has also led to a shift in which Pakistan’s economic relationship with China is getting stronger and its security impetus is also shifting toward the protection of the CPEC project from outside interference, with the likelihood that it was China that wanted greater involvement of the military in the project, due to security concerns.

The withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan will also have an impact, keeping in line with the overall trend in Pakistani policy. The Taliban have moved toward Doha but Islamabad does have a powerful say in the peace process in Afghanistan which is still considered Pakistan's backyard.


Balancing U.S. - China trade and confronting Beijing over its industrial policies to bring jobs back to the U.S. had been among President Donald Trump’s primary foreign policy priorities. Meanwhile, China was becoming more authoritarian at home and aggressive abroad.

During the last four years, the Trump administration has alienated allies and failed to convince them to take a confrontational stance on China or to side with Washington over Beijing. The European Union has recently shifted its positions on the challenges China poses regionally and globally and over human rights.

The U.S. and E.U. have already started to find some common ground on China in recent months, as illustrated by the establishment of the U.S.-EU Dialogue on China last October 23. Beijing is undoubtedly hoping diplomacy with the U.S. can be restored and that relations improve under a new administration. But it also sees Biden with apprehension as he could take a harder line on human rights, further supporting Taiwan and Hong Kong.

For his part, Chinese President Xi Jinping intends to encourage domestic consumer demand, strengthen internal supply chains and intensify self-reliance in critical technologies, thereby contributing to gradual decoupling of the world’s two biggest economies. China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy will ensure defiance in the face of criticism about violating international norms. The rest of Asia will suffer if the United States and China settle into a post-pandemic cold war, compel third countries to choose sides and fail to find common ground on serious global problems requiring cooperation.

The never-ending Afghan conflict

The U.S. may have thought they could win the hearts and minds of Afghan civilians and build a relationship of trust between the various Afghan factions. To support this, they began erecting schools and clinics in efforts to build state capacity during the conflict. However, the growing number of civilian casualties, named as ‘collateral damage’, reduced any chance of winning civilian hearts and minds. Civilian casualties seriously question the ethical nature of the intervention and challenge the war’s moral foundation.

The best way to alleviate civilian suffering during the intervention in Afghanistan would have been through political dialogue, not asymmetric warfare with significant loss of life, human rights abuses, flourishing opium trade and a prolonged military intervention that has brought into question the trust and standing of the international community.

Some may argue that U.S. troops should be completely withdrawn from Afghanistan, while others would suggest that complete withdrawal from Afghanistan, given the fragility of state institutions, would provide terrorist organisations with a vacuum to fill. Yet the risk of future terror attacks may not be reason enough to stay in Afghanistan, as terrorist organisations have a mercurial structure spanning across continents, with no restriction to Afghanistan.

Biden's foreign policy strategy

Washington’s Asian alliance framework remains an important counterweight to Chinese diplomatic and economic coercion. Aside from China, coherence in its approach to India, and more broadly South Asia, will be a crucial element for stability in Asia. India remains a critically important geopolitical swing state.

Biden has vowed to bring back U.S. global leadership, value international diplomacy, restore U.S. alliances and promote democracy and human rights abroad. He intends to undo the dramatic changes that the Trump administration made to US foreign policy. But South Asia will be a rare case of continuity:

Biden will back the rapidly growing U.S. - India partnership that enjoyed much forward movement during the Trump years in combating terrorism and countering China. That will include keeping the “free and open Indo-Pacific” and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) in play. Biden, like Trump, also strongly supports withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Thus, a workable relationship with Pakistan that revolves around securing Islamabad’s assistance in the peace process in Afghanistan has initial priority and that requires nuance in managing the diplomacy around China’s growing footprint across the subcontinent, including its relationship with Pakistan.

This is why Biden could try to hold the Taliban’s feet to the fire and threaten to suspend further U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan until the insurgents stop cooperating with al-Qaeda. He may also increase pressure on Pakistan to shut down the India-focused terror networks on its soil.

The Afghanistan Peace Agreement

The initial agreement, signed on February 29 2020 in Doha, laid out a 14-month period for the withdrawal of "all military forces of the United States, its allies, and Coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel."

The Taliban agreed to not allow extremists to operate from Afghanistan, to give some security guarantees and to participate in peace talks with the Afghan government aimed at ending the country's war.

The first round of talks between the Taliban and the Kabul regime that began on 12 September 2020 were designed to tackle a ceasefire, governance, power-sharing and a host of other difficult issues. Seeking to build support for a ceasefire while negotiations continued, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani arrived in Doha on 5 October 2020 seeking Qatar’s good offices in lobbying the Taliban for flexibility over the main issues.

Earlier, Chairman of Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation Abdullah Abdullah visited Pakistan for a similar purpose. Underscoring Pakistan’s central role in the peace process, he asked Pakistan’s powerful military to use its influence to press the Taliban to reduce violence. This first round of talks ended in December after the two sides agreed on procedural rules.

The second round of talks began on January 6 2021 in Doha. The starting issue was Islam. For the Taliban, Islam guides state ideology. For Kabul, the country is sufficiently Islamic and already has a constitution that holds Islamic law above others, which allows it to turn its focus toward protecting women’s rights, freedom of expression and electoral democracy.


The toxic relationship between acts of extremist violence and further violence to combat terrorism has undermined Afghanistan’s capacity as a state since 2001 to develop its own self-healing mechanisms. The War on Terror, as a military operation, has itself become a hazardous problem that has prolonged Western intervention in Afghanistan. This is why Western forces remaining in Afghanistan strictly for humanitarian purposes seems to be the best option.

A slightly less toxic U.S. - China relationship would please Islamabad, which prefers that its top ally have better relations with Washington. But it would present a complication for New Delhi, which has seen its relations with Beijing plummet to their lowest point in decades.

Increasingly bitter U.S. - Russia ties would be an unwelcome development for India, which knows that its long-standing friendship with Moscow constitutes one of the few entrenched tension points in U.S. - India relations.


A sustainable peace agreement will be the responsibility of the Afghan parties to the ongoing negotiations, but the United States can play a key role in determining if this opportunity is taken.

The last twenty years of war in Afghanistan have seen the growth of a new generation of Afghans. Like their parents before them, many have only known their country in wartime, but unlike older generations, today’s young Afghans have grown up with an interconnected world on Twitter, Instagram, and other digital media.

An agreement that does not have the support of Afghanistan’s young people is unlikely to last. It is, thus, crucial that the negotiations do not ignore the necessity of buy-in by young Afghans upon whose shoulders the peace process’s long-term implementation will come to rest.

The peace agreement must ensure that the withdrawal of U.S. troops is based not on an inflexible timeline but on all parties fulfilling their commitments, including the Taliban making good on its promises to contain terrorist groups and reduce violence against the Afghan people, and making compromises to achieve a political settlement.

US attempts to export democracy have often carried deadly consequences. There are several failed and costly experiments including Vietnam, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan: countries where people belong to a different culture and different faith. It is time that Western powers realise that attempts to introduce democracy from above will not always help establish a better governance system for people with a totally different history, religion and culture. A peaceful transition in Afghanistan will only hold if it is supported by the conservative elements who hold sway over Afghan society.