South Asia, according to a recent IMF study, houses more than a fifth of the world’s population and contributes to more than 15 percent of global economic growth. The region is also highly vulnerable to threats from terrorism to climate change. Additionally, it is home to America’s longest-ever—and still raging—foreign war, and to bitter rivals that happen to be nuclear-armed neighbors.
In short, South Asia matters. As the 2010s draw to a close, it’s worth highlighting five of the region’s most notable events of the last decade—and what they may portend for the next 10 years.
Assassination of Salman Taseer (2011)
In January 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, was gunned down by his own bodyguard—a religious extremist who turned on his boss because of Taseer’s strong public opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. These laws are meant to punish people for offending Islam, but are often exploited to falsely accuse religious minorities. Taseer’s assassination foreshadowed the religious extremism that would flare across South Asia, in various forms and in varying intensities, over the course of the decade. Street protests led by Islamist hardliners, sectarian and communal violence, increasingly toxic brands of Buddhist and Hindu nationalism: The region had it all in the 2010s, and this pattern shows no sign of letting up in the next decade—and especially with India, the region’s most powerful and populous country, led by a Hindu nationalist government that is pursuing, in increasingly aggressive fashion, an overtly communal agenda.
Bangladesh Parliamentary Elections (2014)
In January 2014, Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League (AL) was reelected in a poll boycotted by the opposition because of fears of rigging. The flawed election portended a wave of illiberalism that would sweep across South Asia—against the backdrop of a similar shift worldwide—over the second half of the decade. After its 2014 triumph, the AL spent the next few years cracking down hard against the opposition and won reelection again in a 2018 poll that was also widely perceived as unfree and unfair. Pakistan, despite enjoying uninterrupted civilian rule in the 2010s, witnessed intensifying crackdowns against the media, government critics, and NGOs over the last years of the 2010s, with the country’s powerful military becoming overtly involved in economic policy and other areas that it has typically ceded to the civilian leadership. In 2019, an election in Sri Lanka catapulted to power a former defense minister notorious for authoritarian leanings. Most significantly, since its reelection in 2019, the Modi government in India has taken several steps—including a new citizenship law that discriminates along religious lines—that critics believe imperil the principles of secularism and pluralism that have long undergirded Indian democracy.
End of U.S. Combat Mission in Afghanistan (2014)
At the end of 2014, U.S. forces in Afghanistan, down to 16,000 from a high-water mark of 100,000 during the height of a troop surge in 2011, formally ended their combat role. They transition to a training and advising role along with counterterrorism duties. This shift put beleaguered Afghan forces on the front lines of the counterinsurgency against the Taliban. Over the next few years, the insurgency strengthened in a big way. The Taliban seized unprecedented amounts of new territory, and Afghan civilian and security forces casualty figures broke new records. By 2018, U.S. civilian and military officials, recognizing that the war couldn’t be won militarily, had reached a consensus that a negotiation was needed to end the conflict. U.S. and Taliban representatives held nine rounds of talks in 2019. They reached an advanced stage at the end of this year. A U.S.-Taliban deal is likely early in 2020 that would create a path to pursue a formal Afghan peace and reconciliation process.
Doklam Plateau Standoff (2017)
During the summer of 2017, India and China experienced a two-month standoff in a highly strategic area of the Himalayas known as Doklam. India and its close ally, Bhutan, view this land as Bhutanese territory, while China claims it as its own. The dispute began when Chinese forces attempted to extend a border road, prompting Indian troops to enter the area. While India-China border disputes are nothing new, this one was particularly significant because it marked the first time that Indian troops have engaged China on the soil of a third country. The provocation also took place in one of the few remaining regions of South Asia where Indian influence is deeper than China’s. Amid an intensification of India-China rivalry in South Asia, fueled in great part by the expansion of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative—a mammoth transport corridor project—across the region, the Doklam standoff illustrated how a rapidly evolving strategic rivalry could manifest itself in increasingly risky and potentially destabilizing ways in the coming years.
Chennai Water Crisis (2019)
During the summer of 2019, an Indian city of nearly 10 million ran dry, underscoring one of South Asia’s most serious and complex long-term challenges—one driven by both human (poor water resource management) and natural (drought and other extreme weather) factors. The region contains less than 5 percent of the world’s annual renewable water resources, and annual water availability has plummeted by nearly 70 percent since 1950. Regional groundwater resources are severely taxed—India is the world’s biggest consumer of groundwater—and one of South Asia’s key aquifers, the Indus Basin, is the second most stressed aquifer in the world. South Asia’s water crisis has significant implications for economic activity in a region where, excluding the Maldives, the agriculture sector accounts for anywhere from 25 to 70 percent of each country’s labor force. It also has significant stability implications, given longstanding disputes over river flows both within countries and between them—and in particular India and Pakistan.
The concluding decade offers a key lesson for the upcoming one: The region may finally see an end to a long-running war, but it is likely to confront complex challenges ranging from religious extremism and authoritarianism to intensifying strategic rivalry and natural resource scarcity.
The region’s policymakers have an unenviable task over the next 10 years.
Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia program and senior associate for South Asia at the Wilson Center.