World roundup: August 17 2021
Stories from Qatar, Afghanistan, Bolivia, and more
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 16, 1972: A rogue element within the Moroccan military attempts a coup against King Hassan II by attacking his airplane. The midair assassination attempt killed eight people but was thwarted by the king himself, who jumped on the radio and shouted “The tyrant is dead,” thereby causing the attacking aircraft to break off. Mohamed Oufkir, Moroccan defense minister and the ringleader of the coup plot, was later found dead with multiple gunshot wounds to the chest. Moroccan authorities deemed it a suicide.
August 17, 1717: Prince Eugene of Savoy’s Habsburg army successfully concludes its month-long siege of Belgrade. The garrison finally surrendered after the Habsburg forces drove off a last-ditch Ottoman attempt to relieve the besieged. Belgrade became a Habsburg city in the Treaty of Passarowitz the following year, but the Habsburgs were forced to give the city back to the Ottomans in the 1739 Treaty of Belgrade.
August 17, 1945: Rebel leaders Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta issue a proclamation declaring Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands. The proclamation kicked off the 1945-1949 Indonesian Revolution, and this date is annually commemorated as Indonesian Independence Day.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent assessment report, some of the greatest impacts of our new warmer future are going to have to do with water. Everything from extreme rain and flooding to extreme drought will be made more extreme because of climate change. Regions that depend on glaciers to supply their water tables will face critical shortages as those glaciers melt away. Since water is existential, places that see less of it will likely experience mass migration and possibly conflict, as states battle over whatever water remains.
Syrian state media is reporting an Israeli missile strike near the southern city of Quneitra that took place late Tuesday night. The target is unclear but Quneitra sits just beyond the border of the Israeli-occupied Golan and military or paramilitary units in that vicinity have become Israeli targets in the past. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is claiming that the Israelis targeted a facility housing “Iran-backed fighters,” so that could mean Hezbollah though not necessarily. There’s no indication yet as to casualties or damage.
Quincy’s Annelle Sheline recounts some recent unrest over Qatar’s upcoming legislative election:
Protests in Qatar quieted over the weekend. Unrest had followed Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s approval on July 29 of a new election law to govern Qatar’s first elections for its legislative body, the Shura Council. The protesters expressed outrage that the law would bar certain Qataris from voting in the elections or from running as candidates. Discontent came in particular from members of the al-Murra tribe, one of the largest in the country.
The Qatari government’s ability to quell the protests likely signals that the first Shura Council elections should proceed as planned for October, but the unrest demonstrates the challenges inherent in implementing political reforms. The election law limits voting rights to citizens whose family resided in Qatar before 1930, while naturalized citizens are ineligible to run for office.
As Annelle writes, there are a few challenges here that are creating resentment. One is the overall confusion around who, in a traditionally pastoral region, should really be considered to have “settled” in Qatar as of any given year. That’s particularly true for a group like the Al Murrah, who are spread throughout the Gulf and traditionally moved around a fair amount. Some members of the Al Murrah were also implicated in the 1996 coup attempt that sought to remove former Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. The Ghufran clan, most of whom probably had nothing at all to do with the coup attempt, has suffered what could be viewed as discrimination from the Qatari state ever since and they may be getting singled out here as well.
The nomad challenge is compounded by the decision to make 1930 the cut off date. Qatar’s meager pearl industry was collapsing by then and many people left the country to seek a living elsewhere. Many returned after Qatar’s first oil strike in 1940, but authorities seem to view voting rights as a reward for those families that stuck around through the lean years. Of course, none of the descendants of the families who left and came back had anything to do with the decision to leave. They’re being punished for the perceived sins of their parents and/or grandparents. It’s not hard to understand why that’s grating on many of them.
The International Atomic Energy Agency says that Iran has successfully produced 60 percent enriched uranium, just a bit shy (in terms of required time and effort) of the 90 percent-plus “weapons grade” enrichment level. Iranian officials announced their intent to produce a quantity of 60 percent enriched uranium back in April, another of their ongoing steps to advance their nuclear program and pressure the United States into returning to the 2015 nuclear agreement. This announcement follows Monday’s revelation that the Iranians have successfully produced 20 percent enriched uranium metal.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid gave the organization’s first press conference since retaking control of Afghanistan. It has been clear for months now that the Taliban was trying to present itself as Not Your Father’s (Mullah’s) Taliban, but Mujahid leaned even more heavily into that narrative on Tuesday. Among other things, he pledged that the new Afghan government: would respect women’s rights (within the confines of Islamic law, of course), would protect journalists and honor freedom of the press (“within our cultural frameworks,” according to Mujahid), would not allow groups like al-Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a base whence to conduct international terrorist attacks, and would offer amnesty to any Afghan nationals who worked with/for international institutions (including foreign militaries) and/or the previous government.
There’s no reason to believe the Taliban is serious about any of this (or that all of its factions are on board with it), but Taliban leaders certainly want the rest of the world to believe that they’re embracing moderation while they consolidate power. We may find out pretty quickly whether they plan to practice what they’re preaching—according to The Intercept, Taliban fighters have seized a number of biometric devices that had been used by the US military and may contain information on Afghans who worked for the international military coalition. If that’s true, it places those Afghans at even greater risk and will put the Taliban’s talk of an “amnesty” to a very early test.
Speaking of the previous government, ex-vice president Amrullah Saleh dubbed himself Afghanistan’s “legitimate caretaker president” in a statement posted to Twitter on Tuesday. A photo appearing to show Saleh with the son of former Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud has led to speculation that Saleh is in the Panjshir region, which is still nominally outside Taliban control and geographically may be difficult for the Taliban to pacify. If there is going to be an organized resistance to the new Taliban regime that could be where it begins.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters on Tuesday that the Taliban has promised to allow “the safe passage of civilians” to Kabul airport, where evacuation flights have resumed after having been interrupted by the sheer chaos at the facility on Monday. The Biden administration apparently plans to continue evacuation flights through the end of the month and is hoping to get to a rate of one takeoff per hour. According to Al Jazeera, “thousands” of Afghans have crossed into Pakistan via the Spin Boldak border crossing since the weekend. It’s unclear how many are intending to leave for good and how many are taking advantage of the onset of peace to cross the border for some specific reason (seeking medical care, for example) and will return.
The Biden administration is still playing coy about whether it might recognize the new Taliban government and intends to use recognition as leverage to hold the group to the promises outlined above. The administration has also taken steps to amass financial leverage against the new Afghan regime. The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein reported Tuesday that the US has frozen potentially billions of dollars in Afghan Central Bank assets held in the US—the exact amount is unclear but it sounds like most of the bank’s almost $10 billion in assets are subject in one form or another to a US asset freeze. The administration will undoubtedly cut off US aid to Afghanistan, which had been a critical financial lifeline for the previous government, and could also impose sanctions under already-existing legal authorizations.
In other words, the Biden administration could attempt to do to Afghanistan what the United States has done to Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and other “unfriendly” states over the past several decades—cripple the national economy. In immediate terms it could deny humanitarian aid to a country so impoverished that more than half of its citizens depend on such aid to survive. The examples I cited a couple of sentences ago should demonstrate pretty conclusively that should the administration opt for this course of action, it will have little effect other than brutalizing ordinary Afghans.
Before we move on, I’m often a little slow on the uptake and so it’s taken me a couple of days to grasp, I think, the full essence of what Joe Biden said on Monday when he blamed the Afghan military for failing to resist the Taliban more strenuously. Biden hasn’t been alone in openly questioning why Afghan soldiers and their commanders didn’t fight harder—NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, for example, offered similar comments on Tuesday. What’s important to note here is how unlikely it is that Biden, Stoltenberg, or anyone else blaming Afghan soldiers for this outcome actually believes that a stronger Afghan resistance would have changed the ultimate outcome of the war. Obviously I can’t peer into the minds of these people but I believe they were expecting their own version of a “decent interval,” a doomed but nevertheless extended conflict that might have allowed Western leaders to save face even as it led to more unnecessary death and suffering in Afghanistan. In other words, they wanted more Afghans to die in order to buy them a more politically palatable denouement, and they’re frustrated that the Afghans didn’t play along.
Two officers in Myanmar’s rebel Karen National Defense Organization have reportedly admitted to the human rights group Fortify Rights that their forces arrested and then executed some 25 men back in June. The KNDO officers claim the men were working as spies for the Myanmar military, though even if that’s true it doesn’t justify their extrajudicial killing. Fortify Rights has deemed the mass execution a war crime.
The New Zealand government is reimposing a national COVID lockdown for at least three days, after health authorities detected what looks like the first in-country transmission (though that’s still being investigated) of the “Delta” variant. Only about 22 percent of New Zealanders 16 and older have been vaccinated, so even though the country’s earlier lockdowns were so effective that they made it perhaps the only real COVID success story in the world, it’s still quite vulnerable to a potential new outbreak.
Unspecified gunmen killed at least 37 civilians in an attack on a village in southwestern Niger’s Tillabéri region on Monday. There’s no word on who was responsible but given the location and the nature of the target the Islamic State’s regional affiliate seems most likely.
A bus carrying oil and gas workers in southeastern Nigeria’s Imo state was attacked on Monday, leaving one police officer and six of the workers dead. The workers were employed by a Nigerian contractor involved in a project led by Shell’s Nigerian affiliate. There’s no indication as to who was responsible in this incident either, but energy projects are a controversial issue in the Niger Delta region given the environmental damage they cause and the inequitable way their revenues have historically been distributed. Biafran separatists could have been involved or perhaps just somebody opposed to the industry or to Shell, which has a particularly checkered history in Nigeria.
According to the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, separatist fighters have launched at least five attacks along the frozen front line in eastern Ukraine over the past couple of days, killing one Ukrainian soldier. It’s not clear where the fatal shooting took place and as far as I can tell there’s been no comment from rebel leaders.
The Polish government has shut down a judicial disciplinary agency that has caused considerable stress in the Poland-European Union relationship. The agency was ostensibly meant to ensure that Polish judges “adhered to the law” but the EU consistently regarded it as a way to politicize the judicial system and allow the government to wield undue influence over uncooperative judges. Had Warsaw not shut down the disciplinary body it could have faced sanctions from Brussels. The intention on Poland’s part appears to be to create some kind of replacement agency to serve the same purpose, though, so chances are it will wind up at cross purposes with the EU again in short order.
A new report from the Organization of American States doesn’t have very much positive to say about Bolivia’s not-so-dearly departed interim/junta government. The report concludes that junta leader Jeanine Áñez seized power illegitimately, following the 2019 coup that ousted former President Evo Morales, and that the government she led engaged in rampant and serious human rights violations. Other than that, though, I’m sure she really did a great job. It’s somewhat ironic that the OAS’s human rights panel has reached this conclusion, given that the OAS played a substantial role in bringing Áñez to power in the first place. The report may silence some of the international criticism that’s been lobbed at current President Luís Arce, whose government has been arresting former junta leaders, including Áñez herself back in March. It would appear he’s got some legal justification to be doing so.
Peruvian Foreign Minister-designate Héctor Béjar, who’d only just been nominatec about three weeks ago, resigned on Tuesday over comments he made in a video that was released last year but apparently escaped attention until now. In the video, the guerrilla fighter-turned-university professor Béjar alleged that the Shining Path rebel group “was in large part created by the CIA and (other) intelligence services.” Regardless of whether or not that claim has merit, it was apparently too controversial for President Pedro Castillo, whose administration finds itself off to a rocky start at least from a personnel perspective.
Colombia’s human rights Ombudsman’s Office reported on Tuesday that some 1150 people have been displaced from their homes in the country’s Chocó province since the weekend due to fighting between ELN rebels and members of the Gaitanist Self Defense Forces militia. The Gaitanist organization, also known as the “Gulf Clan,” is one of Colombia’s most powerful paramilitary groups/drug cartels. The cause of the fighting isn’t entirely clear but cartels and rebel groups like ELN have been battling one another for control of territory that was controlled by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels until that group made peace with the government in 2017.
Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters on Tuesday that the US military is not about to be deployed to Haiti. So that’s…good? Was anybody actually asking for that? Anybody in Haiti, I mean? Beats me. Haiti’s political crisis was compounded over the weekend by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake centered on southwestern Haiti’s Tiburon region, the death toll from which now stands at 1941 and counting, with almost 10,000 injured. The crisis caused by the earthquake was then itself compounded by Tropical Storm Grace, which soaked the same region with over a foot of rain before moving on to the west. History suggests that there’s no string of disasters that can befall Haiti that couldn’t be made worse by the arrival of a battalion of US Marines, so hopefully Sullivan’s assertion will hold true.
Finally, at his Nonzero Newsletter Substack, Robert Wright discusses the Cold War roots of the Afghan war:
If you’re looking for signs that America hasn’t learned much from its decades-long involvement in Afghanistan, I recommend a New York Times piece that ran Saturday under the headline “Afghanistan’s Unraveling May Strike Another Blow to US Credibility.”
The Times piece put the withdrawal from Afghanistan in the context of a growing American reluctance, over the past three presidencies, to make and sustain troop commitments abroad. Then it intoned: “That hesitation will now be felt all the more strongly among countries in play in the world, like Taiwan, Ukraine, the Philippines and Indonesia, which can only please China and Russia, analysts suggest.”
Note the phrase countries in play. That’s right out of a Cold War mindset: There’s our team of countries and the enemy team of countries and countries that are “in play”—countries that either haven’t picked a team or could be moved from one team to the other. And that mindset is what started the chain of events that led to the current mess in Afghanistan.
To put a finer point on it: The chain of events began with the decision by presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to treat Afghanistan as a country “in play.” That decision was so momentous that, had it not been made, the world might be radically different today. There might be no such thing as the Taliban. There might be no such thing as al Qaeda. And, obviously, if you don’t have those two things, you don’t have the US invading Afghanistan in 2001.