The year that was – A look back at 2021 in South Asia

The year 2021 wasn’t kind to South Asia. Pakistan experienced massive inflation and anti-government protests; Nepal and Myanmar saw political turmoil, and most importantly, the Taliban, which has been designated as a terrorist organization worldwide, moved in fast to fill the power vacuum and establish control over Afghanistan.

Here’s a look back at all the events that made 2021 a politically significant year in South Asia:



US President Joe Biden ordered the complete withdrawal of US soldiers from the country by no later than September 11, the 20th anniversary of the deadly 9/11 attacks.

As the American soldiers left Afghanistan, the country’s national army collapsed like a house of cards, paving the way for Taliban forces to once again take over the nation. The Taliban’s march into Kabul on August 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 US failure.

On August 30, the last US soldiers flew out of Afghanistan, now under the control of the Taliban, which the US failed to defeat after nearly 20 years of war.

The Taliban now face a hard task amid one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, while finding it difficult to establish their own legitimacy, battling ISIS-K, handling a tumbling economy, and sticking to their theocratic ideals of a Shariah-run state. As winter advances, there are serious shortages of food, medicines, and drinking water everywhere in the country. UNICEF and WFP both estimate that one million children are at risk of dying from hunger as the freezing winter depletes food supplies and cuts off rural communities.


Rising inflation is hitting the country’s sizeable poor and middle classes.


Inflation is battering Pakistan’s economy with prices of everyday goods on a rise, petrol-diesel prices surging, and most importantly, PM Imran Khan’s government does not have funds to run the country. “We don’t have enough money to run our country due to which we have to borrow loans,” Khan said, adding, the “rising foreign debts and low tax revenue had become an issue of national security”. Pakistan’s November inflation hit 11.5 percent, the highest in 20 months.

The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) retained Pakistan in its grey list and urged the country to do more to investigate and prosecute senior leaders and commanders of UN-designated terror groups involved in terror financing. This adversely impacted the country’s prospects of obtaining financial assistance from world bodies such as the IMF, World Bank, and Asia Development Bank. The former head of Pakistan’s Federal Board of Revenue said that the country has gone bankrupt. Its total debts and liabilities have crossed PKR 50.5 trillion, marking an increase of some PKR 20 trillion under the current government. The State Bank of Pakistan data showed that the current account deficit has increased to 4.7 percent of GDP, far above the target of 2-3 percent for 2021.


Following the coup, mass protests erupted across the country demanding restoration of democracy.


Myanmar’s powerful military deposed the ruling government in a coup d’etat and took control of the South Asian country. The new military junta declared Aung Suu Kyi’s party National League for Democracy’s landslide victory in the 2020 elections invalid. Military ruler General Min Aung Hlaing announced a year-long emergency before announcing himself as prime minister of the country. Several ministers including Suu Kyi were detained by the junta. Nationwide protests against the move met with a bloody crackdown, with more than 1,300 people killed and some 11,000 arrested, according to a local monitoring group. Suu Kyi was jailed for four years for incitement against the military and breaching COVID-19 restrictions, in a ruling that was widely condemned by the international community.


After the exit of K P Sharma Oli (left), Sher Bahadur Deuba took over as Nepal PM.


In July, Nepal’s Supreme Court reinstated its parliament, which was dissolved by caretaker Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli in May, and ordered that his rival Sher Bahadur Deuba be appointed as prime minister. The move dealt a major blow to Oli, who was unable to muster a majority in the House of Representatives and had sought to force a fresh election by dissolving parliament on May 22. Oli became the PM in 2018 after the Communist Party of Nepal won a majority of the seats in the House of Representatives. The party, however, has had two splits this year, weakening Oli’s hold on power. Deuba, 75, was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Nepal for the fifth time. Under Deuba, Nepal has been trying to improve ties with India, which took a severe hit during Oli’s regime.


Rapid Action Battalion is the most-prestigious anti-crime and anti-terror unit of the country’s police force.


On December 10, just six days before the 50-year anniversary of Bangladesh’s victory in its Liberation War, the US slapped sanctions on an elite Bangladeshi paramilitary force, Rapid Action Battalion, for human rights abuses. NGOs have alleged that RAB and other Bangladeshi law enforcement agencies “are responsible for more than 600 disappearances since 2009, nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018, and torture,” the US Treasury said. The move marked the first time the US sanctioned Bangladesh, which is now the only South Asian country other than Afghanistan to receive the sanctions since 1998. (Individuals from South Asian countries have been targeted with sanctions in recent years, including two Sri Lankan military officers recently.) 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.

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