World roundup: August 19 2021
Stories from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 18, 684 (or thereabouts): The Battle of Marj Rahit
August 18, 1870: The French Army of the Rhine meets the Prussian First and Second armies under the command of King Wilhelm I at the Battle of Gravelotte in Lorraine. Tactically the battle was inconclusive—the Prussians outmaneuvered the French but the French were able to retreat in good order to Metz, and casualties were pretty even relative to the numerical disparity (the Prussians outnumbered the French by about 70,000 soldiers) between the two armies. But the Prussians were then able to besiege the French army at Metz, eventually emerging victorious in one of the most decisive engagements of the Franco-Prussian War.
August 19, 1745: An Iranian army under Nader Shah decisively defeats a much larger Ottoman army at the Battle of Kars. This, combined with the destruction of a second Ottoman army near Mosul by an Iranian army under Nader’s son, effectively brought the Ottoman-Persian war of 1743-1746 to an end by wiping out the Ottoman offensive. Although he began the war with big goals for defeating the Ottomans, Nader—ill and growing more paranoid about internal threats by the day—opted to settle the conflict with a restoration of Ottoman-Iranian borders as they had been at the fall of the Safavid dynasty.
August 19, 1953: Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh is removed from office in a UK/US-backed coup.
August 19, 1991: A group of Soviet leaders undertakes a coup and arrests President Mikhail Gorbachev. The whole thing fell apart three days later under pressure from the Soviet public, led by Russian President Boris Yeltsin who became effectively the most powerful person in the USSR. This was such a cataclysmic failure that it led to the collapse of the entire Soviet Union.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Although the United Nations has decided to hold next month’s UN General Assembly session in person, the US government has asked the leaders of the 127 or so nations who are planning to be there in the flesh to instead address the gathering virtually. The Biden administration says it’s concerned about the possibility of the UNGA becoming a COVID “super-spreader” event, though I suspect it’s the optics of holding a very large gathering of foreign leaders in an American city that is the main concern. Where those leaders go, large delegations of staff and security have to go as well. If those leaders decide to attend anyway it’s unclear what the US could do. As the host nation for the UNGA the US government is obliged to allow foreign dignitaries to attend. Exceptions could be made for national security reasons but it would be a serious diplomatic dust-up for the Biden administration to bar all of these leaders on those grounds.
Syrian state media is reporting that the country’s air defenses “responded” to apparent Israeli airstrikes near Damascus and in Homs province late Thursday. Details are spotty at this point but it would appear the Israelis fired missiles from Lebanese airspace, as they are wont to do, against targets that are at this point unknown. There’s no word as to casualties, at least as yet. Elsewhere, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, government artillery fire killed five civilians in a village called Balshun in the western part of Idlib province.
Lebanon’s fuel crisis worsened a bit on Thursday when Coral Oil, one of Lebanon’s oldest and largest energy firms, announced that it would no longer be supplying its gas stations in the country. However, some relief may be on the horizon from two very different sources. According to Hezbollah, an Iranian fuel tanker is on its way to Lebanon loaded with diesel, the first of many shipments that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah says he’s arranged. This seems like it would obviously violate US sanctions, and a number of prominent Lebanese politicians have pointed that out, but Nasrallah seems to believe he’s arranged things to evade penalty somehow.
Ultimately it may not matter—facing a choice between shutting down hospitals for lack of electricity and triggering US sanctions, Lebanese leaders may see no choice but to opt for the latter. And maybe the Biden administration understands that, because later in the day Lebanese President Michel Aoun’s office announced that the US is going to bolster Lebanon’s electricity imports via a plan that would ship Egyptian natural gas to Jordan, which would use it to generate electricity and ship that electricity to Lebanon via Syria. The US is also supposedly arranging for direct shipments of Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon. The intention, presumably, is to offer an alternative to this emerging Iranian lifeline.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz announced Thursday that the Israeli and Qatari governments have agreed to resume Qatari relief payments to families in Gaza. Qatar had been sending about $30 million to Gaza each month to aid the poor, which at this point in Israel’s 14 year blockade describes most Gazans, but Israeli authorities halted the payments in May around the same time they started bombarding Gaza. Hamas has begun threatening to resume its rocket attacks unless the aid payments are restored. According to Gantz the Qataris have agreed to implement some sort of “mechanism that ensures the money reaches those in need, while maintaining Israel’s security needs.” It’s unclear what that means.
Protesters in several cities across Afghanistan—including in Kabul—marked Afghan Independence Day on Thursday with anti-Taliban demonstrations, many of them featuring the tri-color flag of the previous Afghan government. Like Wednesday’s protest in Jalalabad, in which at least three people were killed, Taliban fighters violently suppressed a number of Thursday’s protests. At least two people were killed in Asadabad, capital of Kunar province, though it’s unclear whether they were shot by the Taliban or killed in a stampede caused by Taliban gunfire. There may have been casualties in other cities but if so they’re not being reported as yet. The Taliban, if you’re wondering, commemorated independence day by reconstituting their former “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” though they still haven’t explained exactly who’s going to be running it and in what capacity they’ll serve.
Killing protesters kind of undermines the image of moderation Taliban leaders have been trying to present. Likewise, a new report produced by the RHIPTO Norwegian Center for Global Analyses for the UN says that Taliban fighters are going “door to door” (as the BBC put it) looking for “collaborators” who worked for foreign military forces and/or for the previous Afghan government. The Taliban promised “amnesty” for those people earlier this week, so the gap between what Afghanistan’s new rulers say they’re going to do and what they’re actually doing seems to be growing by the day. Many of those aforementioned “collaborators” are continuing to try to get out of Afghanistan via Kabul airport, but they’re still finding a haphazard US evacuation effort that’s been hampered both by American incompetence and by Taliban checkpoints.
Ahmad Massoud, the son of former “Northern Alliance” leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, graced the Washington Post’s op-ed page on Wednesday with a piece in which, among other things, he asked for Western support for the nascent resistance he and former Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh have apparently formed. They’re in the Panjshir Valley, which in addition to being outside Taliban control is arguably the most defensible part of Afghanistan, but it’s anybody’s guess as to how much support (i.e., how many fighters) they actually have with them. It seems unlikely that they’d be getting US support anytime soon, if only for logistical reasons. Responsible Statecraft’s Paul Pillar recommends not supporting any anti-Taliban insurgencies at all, arguing that it was the Northern Alliance that caused the Taliban to align with al-Qaeda and made Afghanistan a “safe haven for terrorism” or whatever it is we’re supposed to be worried about. Maybe if they’re left alone the Taliban won’t feel pressure to form alliances with terrorist groups.
A roadside bombing in the Pakistani city of Bahawalnagar killed at least three people and wounded more than 50 others on Thursday. The blast targeted a procession of Shiʿa who were marching as part of their Ashura observances. Ashura, which for Shiʿa marks the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn at the Battle of Karbala in 680, frequently brings out violent Sunni extremists looking for an opportunity to target large Shiʿa gatherings.
As noted yesterday, it looks like deputy Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob is on the verge of being promoted to the PM gig. He’s apparently won the support of every party that had backed previous PM Muhyiddin Yassin—including Ismail Sabri’s own party, the United Malays National Organization, whose decision to quit Muhyiddin’s coalition is the reason he resigned on Monday—which presumably means he holds a majority in parliament. Ismail Sabri’s appointment, assuming it comes to fruition, will represent the UMNO’s return to the premiership for the first time since Malaysia’s 2018 election. The party had held the PM’s office for over 60 years, from Malaysia’s independence in 1957, until that election.
The World Health Organization says it is “concerned” about the stress being put on public health systems across West Africa. In addition to COVID, the past two weeks have seen at least one and possibly two cases of Ebola in Ivory Coast, at least one case of Marburg virus (another type of hemorrhagic fever) in Guinea, and Ivorian authorities announced on Thursday that they’ve confirmed a new case of H5N1 avian flu outside Abidjan. Togo and Ghana have also seen avian flu cases over the past couple of months, and several other West African nations reported cases earlier this year. The confluence of potentially serious pandemics could be too much for regional health capacity to manage.
The Malian army says that one of its convoys was ambushed on Thursday in central Mali’s Mopti region. The attackers killed at least 15 soldiers. There’s been no claim of responsibility but al-Qaeda’s Malian affiliate is particularly active in Mopti and is more inclined to attack military targets than the regional Islamic State affiliate.
The death toll from Wednesday’s jihadist attack on a town in Soum province has risen from 47 to 80 and may climb further as authorities assess the attack’s aftermath. Of those, 59 were civilians along with 15 soldiers and 16 paramilitary security forces. Authorities say that at least 80 attackers were also killed in the ensuing battle.
Inter-communal fighting is continuing between Arab herders and the predominantly fishing Musgum people in Cameroon’s Far North region. The UN’s refugee agency reported Thursday that in addition to the estimated 11,000 people who have been displaced by the violence, at least 32 people have been killed and 19 villages have been destroyed.
An al-Shabab suicide bomber attacked a tea shop in Mogadishu on Thursday, killing at least two people and wounding five more. The shop was apparently popular with Somali security forces and the two people killed were both security personnel.
Over 5000 people marched in Riga on Thursday to demand Prime Minister Krišjānis Kariņš’s surrender over ongoing COVID lockdown measures and plans to require vaccines for many workers. The demonstration appears to have gone without incident but it’s part of a wave of anti-lockdown/anti-vaccine demonstrations that have been hitting European capitals of late.
One Ukrainian soldier was killed on Thursday in ongoing skirmishes across the frozen front line in eastern Ukraine. According to the Ukrainian military, rebel fighters attacked several points on the line with mortars, grenade launchers, and small arms fire. It’s unclear exactly where or when this soldier was killed but he’s the second Ukrainian soldier killed by rebels this week and the 45th so far this year.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro named a new foreign minister on Thursday in the person of former ambassador to China Félix Plasencia. He’s replacing Jorge Arreaza, who’s been shifted to industry and production minister. The reason for the change is unclear, but Maduro is in the midst of an effort to alleviate US sanctions via negotiations with opposition leaders in Mexico. The decision to name a new FM in the middle of that effort seems awfully coincidental.
The Biden administration Thursday imposed new sanctions against three Cuban officials, Roberto Legrá Sotolongo and Andres Laureano González Brito of the Cuban Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, and Abelardo Jiménez González of the Cuban Interior Ministry. All are accused of human rights abuses in the response to last month’s Cuban protests and all are being penalized under the Global Magnitsky Act, under which the United States assumes unto itself the power to sanction alleged human rights offenders around the world.
Finally, at the Washington Post Stephen Wertheim wonders what lessons US policymakers will draw from Afghanistan—or whether they’ll draw any lessons at all:
You don’t get to lose a war and expect the result to look like you’ve won it.
That is the terrible truth that the collapse of the Afghan government has proved but that some in Washington continue to refuse to accept. The United States failed to achieve the objective to which it devoted most of its 20 years of war and $2.3 trillion in expenditures: to build a Western-style Afghan state that could sustain itself and prevent a Taliban takeover. In the face of a poor but tenacious insurgency, the U.S.-backed Afghan army folded within weeks in historical fashion, not for lack of training, supplies, or numbers but because it had no will to fight — something two decades of American efforts could not instill.
After the Vietnam War, Americans undertook a painful national reckoning, and for decades after Saigon fell, U.S. leaders avoided large and prolonged military interventions. But to judge from the reactions in some quarters to recent events, we face the troubling possibility that this time no reckoning is forthcoming. Instead of accepting and learning from loss, some foreign policy leaders prefer to perpetuate the very myths that inspired the tragedy in the first place, beginning with the proposition that the United States should and could transform Afghanistan, if only it tried long and hard enough.