The South Asian region is one that has never really been rid of turmoil. Between border disputes, minute resources and the threat of extremist violence or earthquakes constantly lurking, the region has faced difficulty for years. In 2019, two major crises occurred; an intensifying war in Afghanistan and the worsening of tensions between India and Pakistan. It is further likely that both of these issues will deteriorate more in 2020.
2019 was not a good year for Afghanistan. Within the span of one year, the death toll for the Afghan security forces and civilians was at an all time high. This year was also one of the deadliest for US forces in Afghanistan since 2014.
Even though there was unprecedented momentum towards launching a peace process, the rate of violence in the region soared over the past year. US President Donald Trump attempted to get his troops to leave Afghanistan by trying to secure a deal with the Taliban that would allow him political cover if he withdrew his troops. Negotiations were held between US negotiators and senior Taliban representatives and by September, the two sides were in the process of finalising a deal that would allow for the withdrawal of US troops and included a commitment by the Taliban to renounce ties to international terror groups.
However, when September rolled around and a Taliban attack on a US soldier took place, President Trump called off the talks. The suspension of talks didn’t last long; the US President announced plans to increase offences against the Taliban following the attack on the US soldier. The US hoped to increase military pressure on the Taliban so that the insurgents would make more concessions at the negotiating table. After Trump made a surprise Thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan, talks resumed with the added intension of getting the Taliban to commit to reducing violence against the US troops. During the last few days of December, media reports revealed that the Taliban had agreed to a temporary ceasefire to clear the way for a deal with the United States. The Taliban, however, rejected these reports.
2019 was also a dangerously tense year for neighbours and nuclear states India and Pakistan. In February, a Kashmiri man from the town of Pulwama staged a suicide bombing that killed over a dozen Indian security forces. This was the deadliest attack in Kashmir in three decades. India responded to this by sending jets across Pakistan-administered Kashmir and launching limited air strikes. This is the second time they’ve done this since the neighbouring states were at war in 1971. Following this, Pakistan then claimed to have carried out six air strikes in Kashmir and shot down an Indian fighter jet whilst capturing the pilot. This confrontation, which only de-escalataed once the government announced the release of the pilot several days later, was the most seriously hostile situation for the two states in years.
Tensions further increased in August when India revoked Article 370 from the Indian constitution thereby stripping Kashmir of the partial autonomy it was granted. The Indian government went on to announce that Kashmir was now a new territory of India and administered a communications blackout and strict lockdown on the residents. This was one of the most hostile acts from the Indian government towards the Pakistani government as it annexed the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan responded by firing India’s envoy from Islamabad and suspending trade with New Delhi.
Bilateral relations remained fraught over the last few months of the year. Islamabad issued constant broadsides against New Delhi for its continued security lockdown in Kashmir. By year’s end, an internet blackout was still in effect. Then, in December, India’s parliament passed a controversial new citizenship law that affords fast-track paths to Indian citizenship for religious minorities—but not Muslims—fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The new law angered Islamabad not just for excluding Muslims, but because of the implication—accurate but not something Islamabad likes to admit—that Pakistan persecutes its Hindu and Christian communities.
In addition to this massive increase in tensions, the two states also faced serious economic struggle in 2019. India suffered one of it’s biggest economic slowdowns in years and Pakistan suffered a serious debt crisis. As a result of all of this, The two nuclear-armed nations will enter 2020 just one big trigger event away from war. The trigger could be another mass-casualty attack on Indian security forces in Kashmir traced back to a Pakistan-based group, or—acting on the threats issued repeatedly by New Delhi in 2019—an Indian preemptive operation to seize territory in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. It is hard to see a path where tensions between the two states ease in the coming year.