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World roundup: August 24 2021
Stories from Afghanistan, Algeria, Germany, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 23, 1595: An outnumbered Wallachian army under Prince Michael “the Brave” defeats an Ottoman army under Grand Vizier Koca Sinan Pasha at the Battle of Călugăreni, today located in southern Romania. Michael had to retreat afterward due to the Ottomans’ decisive advantage in numbers, but the victory became an important event in Romanian national history. This battle was part of the 1593-1606 Long War between the Ottomans and Habsburgs, which ended inconclusively but did stabilize the Ottoman-Habsburg frontier for several decades.
August 24, 410: A Visigothic army under Alaric sacks Rome. This was the first time the city had been sacked by a foreign army since the Gauls did so around 800 years earlier and is considered one of the milestones in the collapse of the empire in the western Mediterranean.
August 24, 1516: The Battle of Marj Dabiq
August 24, 1814: The British army captures Washington DC and proceeds to set fire to the White House, the Capitol, and several other government buildings. The fires were eventually put out by a heavy storm that may have been a hurricane. British forces only occupied the city for about a day, leading to condemnation in the US and across Europe over what amounted to little more than an act of large-scale vandalism. The city was rebuilt after the war. This must have seemed like a good idea at the time, but in hindsight frankly I’m not so sure it was.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Foreign Policy’s Anchal Vohra writes about the climate catastrophe that’s already emerging across much of the Middle East:
This summer, several picturesque countries in the Middle East became tinderboxes. As extreme temperatures and severe droughts ravaged the region, forests burned, and cities became islands of unbearable heat. In June, Kuwait recorded a temperature of 53.2 degrees Celsius (127.76 degrees Fahrenheit), while Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia all recorded over 50 degrees (122 degrees). A month later, temperatures in Iraq spiked to 51.5 degrees (124.7 degrees), and Iran recorded a close 51 degrees (123.8 degrees).
Worst of all, this is just the start of a trend. The Middle East is warming at twice the global average and by 2050 will be 4 degrees Celsius warmer as compared with the 1.5 degree mark that scientists have prescribed to save humanity. The World Bank says extreme climatic conditions will become routine and the region could face four months of scorching sun every year. According to Germany’s Max Planck Institute, many cities in the Middle East may literally become uninhabitable before the end of the century. And the region, ravaged by war and mired in sectarianism, may be singularly ill-prepared to face the challenges that threaten its collective existence.
Since the region is split between haves and have-nots, it is the poorer cousins of the oil-rich countries that have been the first to face social disorder over the lack of basic amenities, such as water and electricity, that people desperately need to survive the extreme heat. These countries are ruled by ineffective governments, autocrats, or clerics and have dilapidated energy infrastructure and deep-rooted structural deficiencies that block the promotion of and technological innovation in renewable energy. Experts say political and economic reforms that strengthen institutions and promote businesses to think freely are essential to reduce carbon emissions and ensure a shift to clean energy in the Middle East.
An explosion at a Hayat Tahrir al-Sham training camp in northern Idlib province killed at least ten of the group’s fighters and wounded at least 12 other people on Monday. The cause appears to have been some sort of accidental mortar mishap.
Elsewhere, rebels in Syria’s Daraa city have apparently agreed to stand down after several weeks of clashes with their pro-government besiegers. There are no details of any agreement, but reports of fighters boarding buses to be taken to rebel-held Idlib are a pretty good sign that something’s happened. Those kinds of evacuations have been a hallmark of Russian-brokered deals between the Syrian government and rebel factions for several years now. Rebels who opt to surrender and remain in Daraa may be offered pardons, though again the terms haven’t been announced so this is speculative. Russian soldiers are now reportedly patrolling the neighborhood, another pretty good sign that they’ve negotiated an end to the standoff.
Turkish airstrikes targeted a reported 28 Kurdistan Workers’ Party-linked sites in northeastern Iraq on Tuesday. There are no reports of casualties as yet but the strikes themselves are noteworthy for how far the targets are outside of the Turkey-Iraq border region where most Turkish military activity in northern Iraq is focused. All of Turkey’s actions in northern Iraq violate Iraqi sovereignty, but strikes like these make it clear that the Turkish military regards essentially all of Iraq as a legitimate target. There is nothing the Iraqi government can really do about it.
Predictably, the Israeli military responded to Monday’s incendiary balloon launches out of Gaza with airstrikes overnight. There’s no word on any casualties, which according to the Israelis targeted military sites affiliated with Hamas. In the West Bank, meanwhile, Israeli occupation forces raided a refugee camp near the city of Nablus overnight in search of an unspecified “suspect,” and in the process they shot and killed a 15 year old Palestinian boy. According to the Israelis they were attacked first and used live ammunition to defend themselves.
The release of an online video that appears to show abuse taking place at Iran’s infamous Evin Prison has prompted an apology from Mohammad Mehdi Hajmohammadi, the director of Iran’s national prisons organization, as well as calls for an investigation. The Iranian government rarely responds so contritely to alleged human rights abuses—and the brutalization of prisoners at Evin has been an open secret going back to before the revolution—but there may be some impetus to make a public show of reform as new President (and potentially future Supreme Leader) Ebrahim Raisi starts his term.
In today’s Afghanistan news:
Leaders of six of the G7 nations were unable to convince Joe Biden to extend the August 31 deadline for evacuating people out of Kabul during their emergency summit on Tuesday. In a televised speech following the summit, Biden said that the airlift, which has ramped up considerably in recent days, is “currently on a pace to finish by August 31,” though he also said he’s asked the Pentagon to prepare for the possibility of an extension if necessary. There’s a certain logic to this, despite lingering doubts that the evacuation really can be completed by the end of the month. The evacuation can proceed much more more smoothly if the Taliban doesn’t interfere, so why antagonize them prematurely? There’s nothing really to be gained by announcing an extension at this point.
Of course, in concluding that the evacuation will be completed by August 31 Biden appears to be ignoring the part of that evacuation focused on Afghan nationals eligible for special immigrant visas by virtue of the work they did for the US military and other institutions. There’s a chance that the US will have its own nationals out of Afghanistan by the end of the month but virtually none that it will have evacuated all eligible Afghan nationals. The G7 issued a “demand” that the Taliban continue to allow Afghans to leave the country freely after August 31, but Taliban leaders—possibly in fear of a worsening brain drain—are already suggesting that door is shut. The Biden administration says its “expectation” is that the Taliban will allow SIV-eligible Afghans to leave the country but hasn’t said it would be prepared to do anything to enforce it.
It emerged on Tuesday that the Biden administration dispatched CIA Director William Burns to Kabul the previous day to meet with senior Taliban leaders, in what is easily the highest level direct contact between the US government and the Taliban since Biden took office. Burns reportedly met with Taliban deputy leader Abdul Ghani Baradar, who may be in line to head the next Afghan government, to discuss the evacuation. It’s reasonable to conclude that Biden’s decision to keep the August 31 deadline was informed by the results of that meeting. Make of that what you will.
The Taliban’s brain drain concern may be genuine, though that claim must be considered alongside reports that the group has been hunting down people who worked for either foreign military forces or the previous Afghan government. Reuters reported on Tuesday that several bureaucrats from Afghanistan’s Ministry of Finance—all men, it should be noted—have received phone calls from Taliban officials asking them to go back to work. Purging everyone who worked in the previous government would deprive the Taliban of a massive amount of expertise and training as it tries to set up its own government, but even if its sparing mid-level government workers it could still intend violence toward those who worked for foreign militaries.
The World Bank announced on Tuesday that it’s suspending its programs in Afghanistan, joining (albeit a few days later) the International Monetary Fund. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the US and Europe intend to wield financial leverage as their main method of coercing the Taliban to meet international expectations around the rule of law, the presence of terrorist groups, and the protection of human rights. Part of that approach will involve threatening to withhold aid for reconstruction and infrastructure work and potentially even humanitarian relief.
Indian police say they killed three alleged Kashmiri militants in a raid in the town of Sopore late Monday. That raid took place hours after Indian forces killed two senior figures in the rebel group “The Resistance Front,” which may have links to the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group, in another operation in Srinagar. Authorities say those two men opened fire on Indian police and were killed in the ensuing firefight, but witnesses have suggested that police surrounded the men and killed them “assassination style,” as the Associated Press put it.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte confirmed on Tuesday that he will run for vice president in next year’s election. Philippine presidents are not eligible for reelection, but it may be legally feasible for Duterte to win the vice presidency and then arrange his successor’s resignation and thereby backdoor his way into a second term. If, as expected, Duterte’s protege Christopher Go wins the presidency it’s unlikely he’d put up much of a fuss about resigning. Alternatively, if Duterte doesn’t want to risk even the suggestion of a constitutional crisis he could just run the country indirectly through Go. At any rate, the vice presidency would offer Duterte some legal protections from any repercussions stemming from his ultra-violent war on drugs, or more accurately on drug users.
The Algerian government announced Tuesday that it’s cutting diplomatic ties with Morocco over unspecified “hostile actions.” While the relationship between the two countries has been testy pretty much nonstop since Algeria became an independent state in 1962, it’s not exactly clear what Algerian officials mean. Authorities have been blaming part of the country’s ongoing wildfire crisis on a militant group called the “Movement for the Self-Determination of Kabylia,” which they allege is receiving Moroccan support, so maybe that’s the issue. Algeria recalled its Moroccan ambassador last month over comments from Moroccan officials about “self-determination” for the Berber Kablye people.
The two countries have been on rockier than usual ground since the conflict between Morocco and the Polisario Front resumed in Western Sahara last year. Algeria supports Polisario and has diplomatic relations with its largely unrecognized “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.”
Unspecified gunmen—“bandits,” to use the typical nomenclature—attacked an army training college in northwestern Nigeria’s Kaduna state on Tuesday, killing at least two people and abducting another.
Al-Shabab fighters attacked a Somali military base in the Galmudug region on Tuesday and were able in the process to recapture the nearby town of Amara, according to witnesses. The militants had controlled that town for ten years before it was taken by government forces earlier this month.
A new poll published on Tuesday has good news for Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD). The survey, from the Forsa Institute, finds that the SPD currently has 23 percent support roughly one month ahead of Germany’s September 26 federal election, one point ahead of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance. This marks the first time the SPD has led the CDU/CSU in a Forsa poll since 2006. It’s almost certainly due to the weakness of CDU boss Armin Laschet as the party’s chancellor candidate, but there’s still no indication that the alliance is planning to dump him in favor of a more popular candidate.
Tuesday was the last day for candidates to register ahead of Chile’s November 21 presidential election, so the field is now set. It’s also pretty large, though the two early front runners according to polling seem to be leftist Gabriel Borić and conservative Sebastián Sichel. It’s premature to make any serious predictions, though as the man running to carry on the legacy of incumbent Sebastián Piñera, whose approval rating has been fluctuating between single digits and the low 20s, Sichel may have an uphill battle ahead of him.
Finally, if you haven’t yet read new Foreign Exchanges contributor Alex Aviña’s first column, please check it out:
The War on Terror post-9/11, we tend to forget, possessed a southern front: the US-Mexico border. In a widely-covered 2004 article, Samuel Huntington updated his “clash of civilizations” thesis to posit “unassimilable” Mexican migrants as the main civilizational threat to “Anglo-Protestant culture.” (Pat Buchanan made a similar argument in his 2002 screed, The Death of the West, but poor Pat did not possess that Harvard social capital.) Congressional reports that alleged alliances between leftist “Pink Tide” Latin American governments and transnational terrorist organizations and/or Iran mirrored the re-emergence of anti-migrant nativism and paramilitarism in the US southwest in 2005 that connected undocumented migration and “open borders” to possible terrorist infiltration of the country. Minutemen vigilantes claimed they found prayer rugs in the desert, along with Arabic-speaking migrants—some of whom had allegedly adopted Latin American noms de guerre to avoid detection.
These examples—not to mention the current debate about the so-called “border crisis” eagerly trumpeted by Republican politicians and whose “border security” framing is accepted by a majority of Democratic political leaders—reveal two “iron laws” of mainstream US political discourse regarding the US-Mexico border. First, during moments of US imperial anxiety (provoked by territorial expansion) or defeat (Vietnam, Iraq circa 2005-06), the border becomes dangerously insecure. As George W. Bush announced in May 2006 during a prime time television address focused on immigration, “we do not yet have full control of the border.” Second, the more militarized, walled-off, and deadly the border becomes on the ground for migrants, the more open and “out of control” it is in political discourse. We are entering the fifth decade of sustained militarization of the southern border and yet it is allegedly more out of control now than ever.
Thus, the border must constantly be secured militarily—permanent war as a security response to permanent insecurity, a tautology in which the building of border walls only results in demands for more walls. For the border to “work” politically, it must be a perpetual American Maginot Line that, as drug warrior Democratic Congressperson Lester Wolff argued in 1977, “is outflanked, overflown and infiltrated. And you know what happened to the French.”