World roundup: December 14 2023
Stories from Japan, Sudan, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
December 14, 1911: Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team become the first human beings (that we know of, I suppose) to set foot on the South Pole. The expedition had set out from its base camp on October 19 and arrived back on January 25, 1912.
December 14, 1995: The Dayton Agreement ends the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. While ending that war was no minor feat, the agreement has had mixed at best results overall. Under Dayton’s terms the various warring parties—Bosniak, Bosnian Croat, and Bosnian Serb—agreed not to divide Bosnia and Herzegovina but instead to establish an internal partition between the Serbian Republika Srpska and the Croatian-Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The effect has been similar to a full partition or arguably worse, because instead of two functioning states (or one, had Republika Srpska united with Serbia) what’s emerged is one state whose two component halves rarely agree on anything. That leaves most governance up to the “High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina” who is selected by Dayton’s “Peace Implementation Council” or in other words imposed on Bosnia from abroad.
US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan became the latest senior Biden administration official to visit Israel on Thursday. According to Barak Ravid of Axios, he brought a message from Washington: the Israeli military (IDF) needs to “transition to the next lower intensity phase” of its Gaza operation “in a matter of weeks, not months.” It’s unclear whether he attempted to broach the subject of an overall end to the campaign but if he did then Israeli officials told him to get bent, with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant telling him to expect that the Gaza war “will last more than several months.” That’s not inconsistent with shifting to “lower intensity” operations, though whether “lower intensity” means “fewer casualties” is unclear. What is clear is that the IDF had no interest in easing off for Sullivan’s benefit—it “pounded the length of the Gaza Strip on Thursday,” according to Reuters.
In other news:
While we’re on this subject, in response to some mild criticism from the US and that United Nations General Assembly ceasefire vote earlier this week, Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen stressed that the government will keep going “with or without international support.” This seems like an invitation for the US to stop sending weapons, but what do I know?
An extended Israeli assault on the West Bank city of Jenin that began on Tuesday finally ended (I think) on Thursday with at least 12 Palestinians dead. Israeli forces attacked the city’s Khalil Suleiman Hospital, killing one person inside, and reportedly interfered with ambulances attempting to reach wounded Palestinians. A group of IDF soldiers was reportedly relieved of duty after they were filmed behaving disrespectfully in a mosque.
CNN is reporting that “a new US intelligence assessment” finds that somewhere between 40 and 45 percent of the air-to-ground munitions the IDF has been raining down upon Gaza for the past couple of months has been of the “dumb,” or unguided, variety. If that’s accurate it is hard to reconcile with the repeated insistence by Israeli leaders that they’re trying to minimize civilian casualties. In case you were wondering, this assessment is not going to change the Biden administration’s commitment to arming the IDF.
Another missile apparently fired by Houthi rebels in northern Yemen just missed a cargo ship in the Red Sea’s Bab-el-Mandeb Strait on Thursday. The vessel’s crew apparently received a communication from the “Yemeni Navy” ordering it to change course toward Yemen prior to the incident. It’s reasonable to assume that was the Houthis, whose repeated attacks on Red Sea shipping now have the US government aiming to form—over Iranian objections—an international task force in response. There has been a task force operating in the Red Sea since April of last year but the aim is to expand it to deal specifically with this latest escalation in Houthi activity, and Washington may be looking to bring China into the project. Beijing is presumably interested in a calm Red Sea region given how much of its commercial traffic comes through there, but for a host of reasons I have a hard time seeing Chinese leaders signing on to something like this.
UPDATE: As I was finishing up tonight’s newsletter I saw a report that a Bulgarian-owned cargo ship had been “the subject of a security incident” off of Yemen’s Arabian Sea coast on Thursday. Details are very sketchy so I have little idea what is actually going on but the report indicated that the vessel had been boarded. It’s unclear whether the Houthis were involved—given the location I’d say it’s actually somewhat unlikely—but this is certainly connected with the larger issue of maritime security in the Red Sea region.
The UK government on Thursday blacklisted five individuals linked with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, including its commander Esmail Qaani, along with two individuals who serve, respectively, as the Iranian representatives for Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The US government coordinated by announcing that it had blacklisted a Quds Force official.
An apparent bombing left at least five people (four of them children) wounded in the Pakistani city of Peshawar on Thursday. There’s been no claim of responsibility nor does there seem to be any indication as to the intended target.
Elsewhere, the Pakistani government has agreed to extend its deportation deadline for Afghan nationals who are in Pakistan while awaiting visas to resettle elsewhere. Islamabad had initially given them until the end of the year but they’ll now be able to remain in Pakistan without incurring any penalties until at least February 29. This mostly benefits thousands of Afghans who are still waiting on paperwork that will allow them to travel to the United States, and it sounds like Pakistani officials relented after meeting with US State Department officials to discuss the subject.
The Chinese government declared on Thursday that its mediation has resulted in a “temporary ceasefire” between Myanmar’s junta and the “Three Brotherhood Alliance.” That rebel coalition launched a major offensive in Myanmar’s Shan state in late October that has spread to other parts of the country. Details are unclear and as far as I can tell there’s been no comment on this from either of the combatants so a grain of salt might be in order.
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio sacked four members of his cabinet on Thursday, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Matsuno Hirokazu, amid a Liberal Democratic Party fundraising scandal that’s caused public approval in Kishida’s government to drop to just over 17 percent. The scandal concerns allegations that several LDP members with ties to former PM Abe Shinzō kept fundraising proceeds out of official party records, raising the possibility that they pocketed the money illicitly. Kishida’s position is significantly more tenuous than the party as a whole—Japan isn’t due for another election until October 2025 but if public opinion doesn’t turn around an intra-party challenge to Kishida’s leadership will probably emerge.
Elsewhere, the Japanese government is trying to explain why some 1200 metric tons of dead fish has washed ashore in Hokkaido over the past couple of weeks. There are a few possibilities, but without a working theory speculation has run toward the release of treated radioactive wastewater from the Fukishima nuclear site earlier this year. The International Atomic Energy Agency signed off on the safety of that release and to be clear there’s no evidence that it’s the cause of this mass die-off, but there’s no evidence yet for any other theory either.
According to the UN, some 30 million people in Sudan are in need of humanitarian assistance, twice the number who were in that condition prior to the ongoing conflict between the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces. Around 18 million “urgently” need assistance. The UN is warning of “famine-like” conditions and widespread “catastrophic” hunger setting in over the next six months unless the conflict abates and the humanitarian need can be addressed. Both combatants have been accused not just of creating these conditions, especially in the Khartoum and Darfur regions, but of stealing much of the aid that organizations have managed to bring into the country.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Reuters reported on Thursday evening that the 72 hour ceasefire that the Congolese military and the M23 militia adopted on Monday has been extended for at least two weeks. This news comes from “a senior US official familiar with the developments” and at time of writing had not been confirmed. That would take the ceasefire through and beyond next week’s scheduled presidential election, assuming it holds.
In something of a surprise, European Union member states voted on Thursday to open accession talks with Ukraine and Moldova. The reason this came as a surprise is because the leader of one of those member states, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, had as recently as a couple of days ago seemed dead set on blocking Ukraine’s accession. But when the time came for the vote at Thursday’s summit, Orbán apparently excused himself and left the room—an effective abstention, rather than an outright “no.” What caused this apparent change of heart? Well, I’m certainly not saying that the European Commission’s decision to free up some €10 billion in frozen infrastructure funding for Hungary on Wednesday was part of an unacknowledged quid pro quo to secure this outcome. But I’m also certainly not not saying that.
It’s presumably going to take some time for Ukraine to meet the standards for EU membership, but this vote is a huge political boost at the very least for President Volodymyr Zelensky. EU members were also supposed to be considering a new €50 billion aid package for Ukraine, but apparently Orbán did block that.
Serbian voters will head to the polls on Sunday for a snap parliamentary election as well as municipal elections. The parliamentary portion was called by President Aleksandar Vučić last month to bolster support for his Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). Polling strongly suggests the SNS and its allies will win, particularly inasmuch as Serbian elections are not exactly of the “free and fair” variety, though there’s apparently some chance that they could lose the Belgrade municipal election which would be a bit of a political blow.
The Finnish government reopened two of the eight checkpoints along its Russian border on Thursday, having determined that its decision to close the border two weeks ago had stemmed the flow of asylum seeke-aaaaaaand the border is closed again. Apparently in just the first few hours after they reopened those two checkpoints, enough migrants turned up to freak Finnish officials out and prompt them to reimpose the closure, this time for at least a month. Finnish authorities have accused the Russian government of funneling people to the border intentionally.
Chilean voters will head to the polls on Sunday to decide whether or not to replace their Pinochet-era constitution with a document that is, somehow, even more conservative. The new draft is the product of a rewrite that began after voters rejected the previous attempt at drafting a new constitution back in September 2022. Polling suggests that voters will reject this second attempt as well, though survey results have reportedly been tightening of late.
The Brazilian Congress on Thursday overrode President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s veto to pass a bill that attempts to strip a number of designated Indigenous territories of their protected status. The vote is going to force a clash with the Brazilian Supreme Court, which ruled in September that the legal basis of the legislation—the principle that Indigenous groups can only claim land that they either occupied or were “fighting to reoccupy” when the Brazilian Constitution was adopted in 1988—is unconstitutional. Legislators rewrote the bill to address the court’s concerns in theory, but whether that will pass muster remains to be seen.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Guyanese President Irfaan Ali met in St. Vincent on Thursday to discuss their recently renewed dispute over control of the Essequibo region. It’s unclear whether they made any progress and, really, it wasn’t clear what they were intending to accomplish in the first place, seeing as how Ali continues to insist that the dispute should be resolved via international institutions rather than via bilateral negotiations. But they at least seemed to get along on a personal level so that’s…something.
The US House of Representatives on Thursday passed the whopping $886 billion 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, which means it will now go to President Joe Biden to be signed into law. I’m sure we can all agree that such a robust spending package will be completely inadequate and that we’re starving our nation’s great military of the resources it needs to do…whatever it’s supposed to be doing. Which it certainly cannot do with a measly $886 billion.
Finally, NPR reports on the Israeli military’s “Habsora” AI targeting system and what it may portend for the future of warfare:
The Israeli military says it's using artificial intelligence to select many of these targets in real-time. The military claims that the AI system, named "the Gospel," has helped it to rapidly identify enemy combatants and equipment, while reducing civilian casualties.
But critics warn the system is unproven at best — and at worst, providing a technological justification for the killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians.
"It appears to be an attack aimed at maximum devastation of the Gaza Strip," says Lucy Suchman, an anthropologist and professor emeritus at Lancaster University in England who studies military technology. If the AI system is really working as claimed by Israel's military, "how do you explain that?" she asks.
Other experts question whether any AI can take on a job as consequential as targeting humans on the battlefield.
"AI algorithms are notoriously flawed with high error rates observed across applications that require precision, accuracy, and safety," warns Heidy Khlaaf, Engineering Director of AI Assurance at Trail of Bits, a technology security firm.
Despite these concerns, most experts agree that this is the beginning of a new phase in the use of AI in warfare. Algorithms can sift through mounds of intelligence data far faster than human analysts, says Robert Ashley, a former head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Using AI to assist with targeting has the potential to give commanders an enormous edge.
"You're going to make decisions faster than your opponent, that's really what it's about," he says.
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