Like every year, 2018 also left us with a lot of memories — both cheerful and sad. Let’s have a quick look at 2018. We begin with the countries surrounding Pakistan, and then move to the Middle East.
China: Perhaps the most important event in China with far-reaching implications took place in March 2018. The National Peoples’ Congress of China passed a constitutional amendment that eliminated term-limits for its leaders, allowing the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and the highest office-holder in the Peoples Republic of China, Xi Jinping, to remain president for life. The National People’s Congress in China with its 3,000 members works as the supreme legislature or law-making institution. It is the largest law-making body in the world. The current constitution of China was promulgated in 1982 and every five years various amendments have been made to it, but the amendment in 2018 is unprecedented.
Interestingly, in such a big legislature when amendments and new laws are proposed by the government in power, they are hardly ever rejected or returned. That’s how the legislature itself becomes a rubber stamp. In March 2018, when the central committee of the Communist Party presented the new law for eliminating the two-term limit for president and vice-president, the Congress did not object. The current Chinese president is 65 and after the new amendment he may remain president for the next 20 years, if he wants to. Some other important events in China were related to the famous Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) enhancing China’s prestige internationally.
India: In our closest neighbour, India, many things happened at the central level but in the beginning of 2018, Telangana State did something marvelous. It started providing free round-the-clock electricity to its 25 million farmers. It became the first of India’s 30 or so administrative units to offer free electricity to farmers.
In the northern areas, the Indian-administered Kashmir continued to suffer from Indian atrocities against not only militants but also against peaceful Kashmiris. The freedom struggle continued throughout 2018 resulting in hundreds of people killed and thousands injured. Now even highly educated Kashmiris are also joining the struggle.
Finally, in November 2018 the state legislative assembly of Kashmir was dissolved and the governor’s rule was imposed. Till the end of the year no new date for state elections was announced.
In another corner of India, former chief minister of Bihar, Lalo Prasad Yadao, was sentenced to imprisonment once again. He is also a former union minister for railways and had been sentenced earlier multiple times. Now, apparently he will remain in jail for the rest of his life. Towards the end of 2018, the ruling BJP suffered humiliating defeats in five state elections, and the Indian National Congress emerged as the main beneficiary of these elections.
Iran: President Hassan Rouhani had to face intermittent protests against his government. A main reason for these protests was the weakening of the economy as a result of American withdrawal from the nuclear deal Iran had signed with the US and other Western powers. The inflation has been soaring prompting the people to resort to mass agitation. Actually, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei, had opposed the agreement from the beginning. He had warned that the US would not stick to its promises made in the deal. Khamenei had suggested that President Rouhani not sign any such deal.
Rouhani was sanguine about the deal hoping that the American attitude would change. Had the Democratic Party won the elections in America in 2016, most probably the deal would have survived. By the end of 2018, the USA had withdrawn from the nuclear deal in full and President Trump kept threatening Iran of dire consequences if it continued with its nuclear programme. In 2018, Iran also strengthened its relations with India and the work on Chahbahar Port continued. In comparison, Iran’s relations with Pakistan did not improve a bit. The incidents at Iran-Pakistan border resulted in multiple firings at government officials and travelers.
In addition, the Iran-Saudi rivalry in Yemen continued unabated. Iran was accused of helping Houthis who have occupied Sana, the capital of Yemen, whereas the Saudi-supported group is trying to run the government from Aden, a city in southern part of the country. Iran has been under tremendous pressure for its involvement in Yemen.
Afghanistan: In 2018, Afghanistan remained a victim of severe blows to its security, and not only Kabul but also its provinces were targeted by the militants belonging to the Taliban and Daesh. Dozens of bomb attacks claimed hundreds of lives. Afghanistan has been suffering from an incessant civil war for almost four decades now in which only ten years involved the Soviet intervention. For the past 30 years various Afghan groups have either been fighting among themselves or have been waging a war against the NATO allies led by the USA. From 2001 onwards, the USA has been directly involved for almost 18 years now.
To date, an estimated 2,500 US soldiers have died but in 2018 only 15 American soldiers were killed. The American-supported Afghan government has become feeble and in 2018, over 2,000 Afghan civilians have been killed. When the former US President George W Bush sent American forces to Afghanistan in 2001 its proclaimed target was to destroy al Qaeda and Taliban but now after 18 years the Taliban appear to be controlling much bigger swathes of the country. In 2018, the Trump appointed Zalmy Khalilzad once again seeks an end to the war.
He has recently visited the region many times and paved the way for negotiations with the Taliban. Towards the end of the year the US started talks with the Taliban without involving the government of Afghanistan as the Taliban do not recognise it as legitimate. So now it appears that the US will be willing to accommodate the Taliban into the government, though it remains unclear how the Ashraf Ghani government will react to it.
Bangladesh: In 2018, Bangladesh celebrated the 47th anniversary of its independence. Hasina Wajid has completed her third five-year term. In the beginning of the year she faced some protests as the Bangladeshi Tablighi congregation, Biswa Ijtima, went ahead and the government did not allow an Indian religious scholar Maulana Saad Kandhlvi to enter India to attend the gathering. Then in February, the former prime minister, Khalida Zia, was sentenced and sent to jail for five-year imprisonment on charges of corruption. Bangladesh also witnessed demonstration against the quota system that reserves 56 percent of the state employment on quota.
The details of the quota are as follows: 30 percent reserved for the families of freedom fighters, 10 percent reserved for women, another 10 percent for districts in proportion with population, five percent for minorities and one percent for the disabled people. The protesters demanded that the quota be abolished so that job could be awarded on merit. Like Iran, Bangladesh also kept its relations with India upbeat and Hasina Wajid developed a personal friendship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In contrast, Pakistan could not develop good relations with any of its neighbours with whom it shares long borders.
Saudi Arabia: Crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad bin Salman continued with his cosmetic reforms such as allowing women to drive and letting them enter stadiums to watch sports. Despite these changes he drew severe criticism for his both domestic and foreign policies. Domestically, first he detained dozens of billionaire Saudis in posh hotels and then released them after extracting billions of dollars from them. Internationally, the murder of bold Saudi journalist Khashoggi in Istanbul, Turkey, did great diplomatic harm to the kingdom. Khashoggi was an opponent of the Saudi royal family and wrote extensively in international media demanding democracy in his country.
He was nabbed when he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to get some papers for his marriage, and was murdered soon afterwards. Initially, the Saudi government denied any involvement in his murder but when incontrovertible evidence was produced, it now only had to confess the murder but also had to produce one excuse after another for the blunder. It finally said that he died during the interrogation when something went wrong. President Trump started off with a strict posture but then mellowed down by saying that economic relations between the KSA and USA were more important than a journalist.
Iraq: In 2018, Iraq also witnessed major developments, including a change in government when Saleh Braham took oath of president. Saleh is an old political activist who was elected in October by the Iraqi parliament to be the next president of Iraq. After Saddam Hussain was deposed and later executed, a tradition has been established to have an ethnic Kurd as a ceremonial president and elect an Arab Shia for the executive office of prime minister. The speaker of the parliament is usually an Arab Sunni. Following this tradition, Adel Abdul Mehdi — from a well-known Shia political family — was elected as prime minister.
Adel has spent a major portion of his life in exile in France. He was initially a Marxist but after the revolution in Iran he left Marxist ideology and following the removal of Saddam Hussain Adel became a member of the Council of Shias in Iraq. Iraq also experienced much less Islamic extremism with greatly reduced terrorist attacks. Kurdish separatist also did not press for complete independence as the Iraqi constitution grants them substantial regional autonomy. In fact, Iraq has become a confederation where the Kurdish region is almost autonomous. So, we can hope that the near future will see peace and prosperity in Iraq.
Syria: Syria also went through a lot of vicissitudes in 2018. First, in January the government forces with help from Iran and Hezbollah Militia started regaining the region of Ghouta from the remaining rebels. Then some Russian forces also joined them much to the chagrin of the US and other Western powers who raised alarm, but Russia didn’t pay much head and kept helping the Syrian forces. Gradually, the southern parts of Damascus were also freed from the rebels. Turkey played an active role in Syria especially in the Kurdish region of Afrin and Rojava where the Kurdish rebels were targeted.
We may conclude that Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, and Iran enjoyed good relations; Iraq and Syria improved their security situation; whereas Pakistan and Saudi Arabia both had strained relations with most of their neighbours.