2021: South Asia's Year in Review – Foreign Policy

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief. This week, we round up some of the biggest stories in the region this year, from India’s COVID-19 catastrophe to the fall of Kabul.
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The Year in Review
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief. This week, we round up some of the biggest stories in the region this year, from India’s COVID-19 catastrophe to the fall of Kabul.
If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.
The Year in Review
This year wasn’t kind to South Asia. India suffered the coronavirus pandemic’s worst surge, Pakistan experienced massive inflation, Nepal saw political turmoil, and democratic backsliding accelerated across the region. On the flip side, some South Asian countries experienced signs of economic recovery and diplomatic achievements, including an India-Pakistan border cease-fire.
Amid these developments, four stories stand out from 2021—not only because they grabbed headlines but because they were so shocking within South Asia and beyond. We’ve rounded them up below.
India’s COVID-19 Catastrophe
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, health experts warned that South Asia was especially vulnerable to a crisis, given its high population density and fragile health infrastructure. But at the time, the region didn’t see caseloads as high as those in Europe and the Americas. Then came 2021.
Between April and June, the highly contagious delta variant brought India to its knees. Its COVID-19 curve was nearly a vertical line. Major hospitals ran out of oxygen, and crematorium furnaces melted from overuse. As I wrote in April, India was “collapsing under the weight of disease and death.” (Other South Asian states were hit hard by COVID-19 this year too.)
India had imposed a nationwide lockdown in 2020 and all but declared victory over the pandemic this March. It was stunningly slow to respond to the spiraling crisis and made no effort to halt crowded political and religious events that exacerbated COVID-19’s spread. The pandemic surge was a crisis for India but also for the world. In January, New Delhi rolled out a vaccine export campaign, with most of the shots earmarked for the World Health Organization’s COVAX initiative.
India’s emergency prompted it to suspend exports, leaving other countries in the lurch and diminishing its role as a global leader in the pandemic response. The crisis also shattered Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s veneer of invincibility as his popularity took a rare hit.
The United States Sanctions Bangladesh 
2021 was a year of celebration for Bangladesh. In March, it marked 50 years of independence. In November, the United Nations General Assembly upgraded it from the category of least developed country to developing country. But, on Dec. 10, just six days before the 50-year anniversary of Bangladesh’s victory in its Liberation War, the United States slapped sanctions on an elite Bangladeshi paramilitary force for human rights abuses.
The move marked the first time the United States sanctioned Bangladesh, which is now the only South Asian country other than Afghanistan to receive U.S. sanctions since 1998. (Individuals from South Asian countries have been targeted with sanctions in recent years, including two Sri Lankan military officers just this month.) The announcement delivered a rare blow to Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League party, which has sidelined the opposition and cracked down on dissent with impunity.
Dhaka, now appearing to be a government lurching toward authoritarianism, knows it is now in the crosshairs of a U.S. government that pledged to make democracy and human rights promotion key pillars of its foreign policy. One big takeaway: The Biden administration has shown for the first time it isn’t afraid to sanction a friendly country viewed as strategically significant.
The Taliban Take Over Afghanistan 
Afghans gather on a roadside near the international airport in Kabul on Aug. 20.WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images
In the weeks after U.S. President Joe Biden’s April decision to withdraw all remaining U.S. forces from Afghanistan by September, the Taliban advanced rapidly, seizing territory across the country. In that period, the U.S. intelligence community produced nearly two dozen assessments warning that then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s government could collapse within six months to two years after the U.S. withdrawal. None of them predicted the Taliban would seize power two weeks before the withdrawal was complete—and neither did seasoned Afghanistan experts.
The Taliban’s march into Kabul on Aug. 15 prompted panic, chaos, and one of the United States’ most serious foreign-policy crises in years. Crowds of Afghans fearful of Taliban rule rushed to the airport, desperate to board flights. Terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State attacked those gathered outside the gates, killing at least 183 people. Several images—including those of Afghans clinging to departing military aircraft—became searing symbols of U.S. failure.
On Aug. 30, the last U.S. soldiers flew out of an Afghanistan now under the control of the group the United States failed to defeat after nearly 20 years of war.
Modi Repeals Controversial Farm Laws
Modi is known for not backing down after making controversial decisions. But he did just that in November, when he announced the repeal of new agricultural reforms that sparked more than a year of protests from farmers across the country. Modi even apologized to the farmers, who were victimized by a government-sponsored campaign that maligned them as foreign-backed agitators.
Modi’s motivation was clearly political. He made the announcement on the birth date of the founder of Sikhism; many of the protesting farmers were Sikhs. Additionally, the state of Punjab, which was a protest epicenter, holds a key election next year. But the fact that Modi caved to political considerations is still surprising: The prime minister’s domestic popularity has given him the insulation to make politically risky moves.
By repealing the farm laws, Modi gave in to political pressure instead of defying it for the first time during his seven years as premier. Perhaps he was acknowledging the rare hit his approval ratings took from his government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. But Modi’s retreat ensures agricultural liberalization—deemed essential by economists—remains elusive.
Michael Kugelman is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief. He is the director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington. Twitter: @michaelkugelman
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