India-Pakistan: Pandemic Rules

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April 27, 2021: India has experienced an explosive increase in covid19 deaths, largely because India, like many nations with a high poverty rate are unable to handle epidemics. Despite that, India has the largest and fastest growing economy in the region and attempts to impose widespread covid19 related lockdowns could not be sustained long enough to halt the spread of the disease or prevent significant economic damage. There was major opposition to shutdowns in many high-poverty areas. In these areas if you don’t work you don’t eat. The government can handle small numbers of hungry unemployed and avoid starvation deaths. Disease is another matter. Shutdowns that were imposed during 2020 caused the GDP to shrink nine percent for the year. Until recently recovery and 11 percent growth was expected for 2021. That has since been lowered to ten percent and if India can vaccinate most of its population quickly enough, the growth rate after 2021 should return to 6-7 percent a year for the rest of the decade. Like many nations in the region, most of India has no modern health system.

The prime targets of covid19 are those whose immune systems are already weakened by old age or chronic disease. Healthier adults and children have a death rate similar to what is experienced when the annual influenza outbreak occurs. In less affluent nations the spread of covid19 is not really noticed in areas which already suffer higher death rates because of the absence of health care and more numerous deaths from “natural causes”. In all countries the wealthy and senior politicians tend to be older and more vulnerable to covid19 but have access to modern medical care. For these groups, the rapid development of covid19 vaccines is literally a lifesaver. For India, the population is too large (over a billion) and the current world vaccine supply too small to quickly vaccinate the most vulnerable Indians. The first vaccines were approved (by government drug safety agencies) in late 2020. The United States, the leader in quick development of covid19 vaccines, had paid for the manufacture of millions of vaccine doses before approval. This was expensive and risky as many believed it impossible to develop safe and effective vaccines this fast. The Americans took a chance on new vaccine development technologies and it worked. Once vaccines were approved for widespread use, production could be vastly increased. Even that would require months because there was only so much vaccine production capability worldwide. In late December people were warned that it would take at least three or four months to produce enough vaccine for the vulnerable populations in developed countries, and until the end of 2021 to manufacture enough vaccine for the rest of the world. That meant covid19 would continue to spread, and that is what is happening to India. Despite this, India has not suffered from the virus as badly as other nearby nations.

Iran is considered the epicenter of covid19 infections in the region and the source of infection for most of its neighbors. This was because the arrival of the virus was deliberately downplayed by the Iranian religious dictatorship, which insisted that Moslems were immune to it. They weren’t and before reality was recognized the covid19 death rate for Iran was more than double the global average and higher than 90 percent of the word’s nations. Currently Iran reports 747 deaths per million and internal reports indicate death rates are of more than twice that. Other nations in the region report much lower death rates. India has had 142 deaths per million so far, which is up sharply from 110 deaths per million three weeks ago. Afghanistan has 66 admitted deaths, Turkey reports 455, Iraq 374 and Pakistan 77. Further away Saudi Arabia has 196 deaths per million, Tajikistan 9, Uzbekistan 19 and the UAE 157. In Europe Spain has 1,662, Britain 1,869 and Sweden 1,372. The U.S. rate is 1,764. The world average is 402 deaths per million.

Afghanistan Complications

The United States has changed its Afghanistan departure deadline from May 1st to September 11, 2021. This new departure date us symbolic as it is two decades after the al Qaeda terror attacks in the United States that triggered the invasion of Afghanistan and hunt for al Qaeda leaders and Islamic terrorists in general.

The departure might still be delayed or cancelled, but it has been underway for over a year and the heavy equipment of the last 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan is already being packed up and shipped out. The remaining American troops have closed their bases and are now living in Afghan bases. The Afghan Taliban are confident that they will be able to overthrow the current elected Afghan government and once more have an opportunity to conquer the entire country. While those ambitions are not a sure thing, nations adjacent to Afghanistan are taking measures to protect themselves.

Pakistan, Iran, India, China and Central Asian nations all have different plans for handling another Taliban attempt to take over Afghanistan. Pakistan believes they still have sufficient clout to compel the Taliban to follow orders and not create another Islamic terrorist sanctuary. One aspect of this is Pakistan spending a lot of money to reinforce border security with Afghanistan, making everyone more dependent on the few legal crossing points. These crossings are based on a good road and staffed with border guards and customs officials who enforce whatever the current rules are about who or what can go either way and how much you have to pay, legally or illegally. The Iran border is even more dangerous if the Taliban try to take control of western Afghanistan or continue attacking Shia Afghans. Iran is the largest and most powerful Shia majority nation in the world, and takes that status very seriously and violently when Shia are attacked in neighboring countries. Unlike the 1990s, Iran now has lots of combat veterans defending the Afghan border. There are also Afghan Shia militias inside Afghanistan that are loyal to Iran. These militias contain thousands of Afghan Shia veterans of service as Iranian mercenaries in Syria. Iran also has a newly built port for landlocked Afghanistan, and Central Asia, to use. India supplied the money and Iran the territory for a highway and railway going from western Afghanistan to a new Indian ocean port near the Pakistani border. That makes it more difficult for Pakistan to threaten Afghanistan with loss of road access to the outside world if the Afghans do not comply with Pakistani demands.

The Afghan Taliban is trying to play Iran and Pakistan against each other, but that has proved difficult because Iran considers the Taliban a Pakistan controlled operation. China seeks to use Pakistan to protect China and Chinese in Pakistan from Islamic terrorists. This is done with economic pressure as China is the major supplier of weapons to Pakistan and provides billions of dollars’ worth of construction projects, especially new road, rail and pipeline links from China to a new port near the Iranian border. Similar situation in Iran where China and Iran recently signed a 25-year military-economic cooperation deal that will make Iran as dependent on China as Pakistan already is. Iran has an alternative to China in India, which Iran maintains good diplomatic and economic relations with. China and India are locked in a bitter and increasingly violent border dispute. In this case geography and history matter as Iran and India have been trading and interacting for thousands of years while China was a distant mystery. One of the India-Iran historical interactions was joint control of Afghanistan when the ancient Silk Road caravan route between China and the rest of Eurasia was a valuable economic link between strangers. China is decidedly anti-drug and anti-Islamic terrorism. China has leverage, but not control, over Pakistan and Iran. If China opposes another Taliban attempt to take control of the entire country, chances of Taliban success decline to miniscule levels.

Meanwhile the local coalition that prevented the original 1990s Taliban from conquering the entire country is now stronger and more determined. This Northern Alliance (of northern non-Pushtun tribes) were the first to publicize, before 2001, the presence of Pakistanis in the Taliban and the control Pakistan always had over the Taliban. That support became more obvious after 2001 when Pakistan provided sanctuary for the Taliban leadership in southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan), something the Taliban were unable to hide given the number of prominent Taliban living openly in the Baluchistan capital. In 2021 the Afghan Taliban are seen as dependent on Pakistan and the Afghan drug gangs to survive. One thing most Afghans can agree on is that Pakistan and the drug gangs are not good for Afghanistan.

April 26, 2021: Pakistan has been unable to halt the more radical of the many Islamic political parties from disrupting or shutting down life in the capital and other large cities because of government refusal to take strong action against any perceived disrespect for Islam or enforcing any law that these parties deem hostile to Islam.

Most of these demands revolve around false accusations that someone committed blasphemy against Islam. The government has to respond and regularly sentences people to death for posting comments on the Internet deemed anti-Moslem or making similar comments while teaching in college, where such discussions have long been allowed. The death sentences are appealed and usually overturned but that process takes years. Since the 1980s about a hundred of these accused blasphemers have been murdered by Islamic vigilantes before the courts were done. Pakistan has severe blasphemy laws that are mostly used by Moslems against innocent Christians or other non-Moslems. Efforts to repeal these laws, or at least limit their misuse, are violently resisted by Islamic political parties. When Pakistani blasphemy laws are used against Moslems it is usually for revenge or political reasons. The laws are unpopular with the majority of Pakistanis. But the minority who do support the laws, are willing to use lethal force to keep the laws on the books. These blasphemy laws were enacted in the 1970s at the behest of the military. The opposition to repealing these laws is violent and fearless. In 2011 the Punjab province governor Salman Taseer was shot dead by one of his own bodyguards because Taseer had openly opposed the blasphemy laws.

The current violence is about the French government, which once again reaffirmed its opposition to these blasphemy charges against anyone in France. The Pakistani government pressured the French government but also pointed out to Pakistanis that if these anti-French efforts succeeded Pakistan would lose a lot of economic and diplomatic support from European nations. This is something Pakistan cannot afford, because Europe is a major trading partner. Most Pakistanis understood this but the religious parties declared it irrelevant. For them no price was too high when it came to defending Islam and punishing blasphemers.

April 23, 2021: In Pakistan the army was ordered to send troops to major cities to enforce covid19 lockdown. There is a similar problem in Bangladesh and India. After more than a year of lockdowns and now the availability of effective vaccines, more younger people are gathering together. While they are not much at risk, because fatalities for them are similar to the annual influenza outbreaks, the deaths among the elderly and sickly are as much as ten percent.

April 21, 2021: In southwest Pakistan (Baluchistan province) a car bomb went off outside a luxury hotel in Quetta, the provincial capital and main sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban. The bomb killed four and wounded thirteen. Security is heavy around targets like this because the hotel is popular with foreigners and wealthy Pakistanis. A few days later the Pakistan Taliban took credit for this attack, which is the 33rd Pakistan Taliban attack so far in 2021. Initially Pakistan blamed India and explained that there was a parade nearby celebrating the decades of Pakistani efforts to gain control of Indian Kashmir. The Pakistani Taliban claim made more sense but also made the Pakistani military look bad. Since 2014 the army has been openly at war with the Pakistani Taliban, which had to move to Afghanistan. For several years after the 2014 army offensive, which is still underway, but at a lower intensity, the Pakistani Taliban was much less active.

In mid-2018 Pakistani Taliban lost their ineffective leader Mullah Maulana Fazlullah to an American UAV missile attack against a camp in eastern Afghanistan. The new leader was Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud. From the beginning most of the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban have come from the Mehsud tribe, which is prominent in South Waziristan. This tribe was instrumental in forming the Pakistani Taliban in 2007. In late 2013 an American UAV used a missile to kill Hakimullah Mehsud, the man Mullah Maulana Fazlullah succeeded as head of the Pakistani Taliban. That attack took place in North Waziristan and in light of the subsequent (2014) Pakistani army offensive into North Waziristan the Pakistani Taliban moved their headquarters across the border into Afghanistan. At the same time there was a civil war within the Pakistani Taliban over the selection of Fazlullah as leader and strategy in general. Fazlullah was effective initially in getting many Pakistani Taliban, and their families into eastern Afghanistan. Fazlullah was less effective is preventing the Pakistani Taliban from splitting into many factions.

By mid-2020 the UN declared Mehsud an international terrorist and subject to arrest if he shows up in an area where that is possible. With a Mehsud back in charge of the Afghan Taliban, the organization became more effective and by 2021 that became obvious as the Pakistani Taliban carried out a record number of attacks.

Earlier in 2020 the Pakistani Taliban released a video honoring former leader Hakeemullah Mehsud, who led the Pakistani Taliban at its peak, before the 2014 Pakistani military operation. The video made some interesting points that are not usually emphasized in the media. For one thing the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban actually get along rather well, despite the Afghan Taliban being largely Afghans and beholden to the Pakistani military for sanctuary and support. Both Talibans are largely Pushtun and that counts for something in this part of the world. Both Talibans work with al Qaeda and both hate ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). Both Talibans also get along with the Haqqani Network, another Pushtun Islamic terror group from that formed during the 1980s Russian occupation of Afghanistan. Haqqani has since gone gangster and still works for the Pakistani military. That means that sometimes Haqqani hitmen are ordered to kill Afghan or Pakistani Taliban personnel. This is not frequent because both Talibans and Haqqani are Pushtun and the Pakistani military has found there are limits to what it can pay or coerce Pushtun to do to each other.

April 20, 2021: In the Pakistani capital a journalist critical of the military survived an assassination when his attacker wounded his target, who was walking in a park full of potential witnesses. No one took credit for the attack but that’s how the military operative’s work. If an effective critic of the military is attacked anonymously it is usually the military. The identity of the shooters are often later discovered. These attacks have been going on for decades.

April 8, 2021: In northwest India (Ladakh State) Chinese forces have not only slowed their agreed withdrawal from disputed territory in Ladakh but have quietly moved in HQ9 air defense systems. HQ9 is roughly comparable to the American Patriot system but based on tech China stole from Russia and the United States. Introduced in the late 199s, HQ9 has undergone several updates and is now used on warships as well. By the end of 2020 India and China were bringing more troops to the area along the shore of Pangong Lake, where they had been confronting each other for over a year. In September 2020 both agreed to halt their operations on the Indian border and continue negotiations. Both sides declared victory but China was the actual winner because now a thousand square kilometers of additional Indian territory along Panglong Lake is under Chinese control. By the end of 2020 the two sides had agreed to pull most of their forces back because of the frigid weather in the high mountains surrounding Pangong Lake. China has been slow to carry out all those withdrawals. China has also quietly built fake “villages” in recently occupied territory in remote, and largely uninhabited portions of the border. When India discovers these villages, inhabited by Chinese civilians paid to be there, China insists the village has long existed and threatens force to defend their remote and economically unsustainable Chinese “village.”

All these Chinese lies and subterfuge was not unexpected and was another example of the Chinese SSSN (Shove, Stop, Stands Fast) tactics, which have once again prevailed, as they have many times in the recent past. China initially expressed no interest in retreating but was willing to negotiate. With the cold weather approaching last September India was in no position to refuse the Chinese offer. China believes they will prevail by repeating their SSSN and push Indian forces out of all the disputed areas along their common border. SSSN is slow and it would take decades to grab all the Indian territory claimed by China. As long as China maintains a stronger military than India and can keep more troops near the disputed border areas, India will not feel confident to defend forcefully and risking a large-scale battle on the border.

India feels more capable in opposing China because of growing Indian economic power. Indian GDP nearly doubled in the last decade; from $1.7 trillion to the current $2.9 trillion. This made India the fifth largest economy, recently surpassing Britain and France. The rest of the top five are the U.S., China, Germany and Japan. Chinese GDP growth is slowing although in the last decade it more than doubled from $6.1 trillion to $14 trillion. Over three decades of spectacular economic growth in China resulted in the Chinese GDP becoming over fourteen times larger than it was in 1989. In that same period the U.S. GDP doubled. After World War II India had a larger GDP than China and never felt the same urgency as China to modernize and expand the economy. But India has not been as effective in keeping up with the Chinese military in terms of modernization. Indian threats to oppose Chinese military moves carry little weight with the Chinese or anyone else who analyses the situation. Actions have consequences and, in this case, it means China can push India around on their mutual border.

Another reason for this is that India is still haunted by the last battle between Indian and Chinese forces back in 1962. In a month of fighting that began on 20 October 1962, India lost 7,000 troops (57 percent prisoners, the rest dead or missing) compared to 722 Chinese dead. China declared a ceasefire that India accepted. China actually advanced in two areas, a thousand kilometers apart and ended up taking 43,000 square kilometers of Indian territory.

The source of the 1962 war and current border disputes are a century old and heated up again when China resumed control over Tibet in the 1950s. From the end of the Chinese empire in 1912 up until 1949 Tibet had been independent. But when the communists took over China in 1949, they sought to reassert control over their "lost province" of Tibet. This began slowly, but once all of Tibet was under Chinese control in 1959, China had a border with India and there was immediately a disagreement about exactly where the border should be. That’s because, in 1914, the newly independent Tibet government worked out a border (the McMahon line) with the British who then controlled India. China considers this border agreement illegal and wants 90,000 square kilometers back. India refused, especially since this would mean losing much of the state of Arunachal Pradesh in northeastern India and some bits elsewhere there and all along the new northern border.

India, as a democracy with a free press, has a public discussion of Chinese tactics and possible Indian responses. China also tries to take advantage of the Indian media freedom by buying favorable coverage in the Indian press. This is done via bribes, offers of investments or loans as well as economic concessions within China. Military strategy in China, since ancient times, has placed emphasis on having a powerful military but using it mainly as a threat and giving enemies an incentive to accept bribes and allow China to get what they want. Yet India has rarely been seen as an enemy of China. There is nothing valuable on their mutual border which for thousands of years has been along high mountains and thinly populated lowland jungles. Neither India nor China had any incentive to raise large armies to threaten each other.

Because of this background, the border disputes since the 1960s are seen by Indians as inexplicable and by Chinese as overdue restitution for centuries of humiliations inflicted by Western invaders. India, ever since it emerged from centuries of British colonial rule in 1947, insisted that India and China shared a background of oppression by the West. China sees India as trying to perpetuate Western crimes against China. To most Chinese, Indians look and sound like Westerners therefore India must be an enemy of China. India has come to accept that the Chinese are obsessed with making India pay for real or imagined wrongs inflicted by Western imperialists and see nothing wrong with using ancient Chinese imperialist methods to get their way. Suddenly British imperialism is not the worst thing that could ever happen to India. China is seeking to provide something much worse and much closer.

April 7, 2021: In Pakistan the parliament approved a law that made it a crime to criticize the Pakistani military. Maximum punishment is two years in prison and fines of up to $3,300. There was a lot of opposition to the new law, but the military now controls most members of parliament as well as the current prime minister.

April 3, 2021: Pakistan is trying to regain access to loans from international donors like the World Bank. So far, the World Bank terms have been unacceptable, or at least to the Pakistani military, which is largely responsible for financial crises Pakistan is trying to deal with. The World Bank points out many problems with how the Pakistani government spends, or misspends, money. One obvious problem is how Pakistani military spending takes more and more of the government budget. Over the last few years the military share of the budget has grown from 15 percent to 19 percent. In contrast, India has seen declines from 17 percent to less than 14 percent.

While China will invest in Pakistan, there are no loans, cash gifts or binding alliances of any type. For that Pakistan has to rely on wealthy Arab oil states. Large loans also come from international financial institutions like the World Bank. That credit line has been exhausted and the Arabs are unhappy with Pakistani criticism of Moslem states making peace with Israel. Pakistan feels no need to make peace with Israel because that would anger neighboring Iran. The “Persians” are an ancient foe of the Indian subcontinent. Times change and while India was always on good terms with 20th Century Iran, Pakistan has to work at it. A lot of Pakistani Islamic conservatives hate Shia Iran. After all, “Pakistan” literally means “land of the pure” and that means conservative Sunni Moslem, like most Arabs in the Arabian Peninsula. Pakistan is in a difficult situation here and hopes that everyone appreciates how hard Pakistan is trying to anger the fewest potential enemies. That is not working well, especially when it comes to Afghanistan and India.

 

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