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World roundup: December 16 2021
Stories from China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
December 15, 1256: Having already received the surrender of the last Assassin imam, Rukn al-Din Khurshah, Mongolian warlord Hulagu and his army enter and destroy the main Assassin fortress at Alamut, completing their campaign against that notorious religious order.
December 15, 1925: Reza Pahlavi is crowned Shah of Iran.
December 16, 755: Chinese general An Lushan declares himself emperor, attempting to usurp power from the ruling Tang Dynasty. The An Lushan Rebellion lasted over seven years (long after the death of its namesake in 757), and while it failed it also badly weakened the Tang Dynasty, which strengthened the neighboring Uyghur Khaganate and the Tibetan Empire.
December 16, 1944: A major and sudden German offensive in the Ardennes Forest begins the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most important engagements on the Western Front in World War II. The battle ended on January 25, 1945, with an Allied victory. The German attack did delay the Allied advance into Germany by several weeks, but the cost was the near obliteration of whatever remained of the German military’s capacity to wage an offensive war.
December 16, 1971: The Indo-Pakistani War and Bangladesh Liberation War (two parts of one conflict) both end.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The US and UK militaries revealed on Thursday that a British warplane shot down one of two drones that approached the US-occupied military base in southern Syria’s Tanf region earlier this week. It’s unclear whose drones they were, but Iranian-backed militias in Syria have used drones to attack Tanf in the past so they seem like a reasonable guess.
Another interest rate cut by the Turkish Central Bank sent the lira to a new all time low against the US dollar on Thursday, prompting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to announce measures to minimize the impact of the currency’s slide. Specifically, Erdoğan promised to raise the country’s minimum wage by 50 percent to prop up its dollar equivalent. He also made a vague pledge to stabilize the lira, though given that he doesn’t believe in interest rate hikes it’s unclear what measures he’s going to take in this regard.
Israeli authorities say that one Israeli settler was killed Thursday and others wounded in a shooting near a former settlement called Homesh in the northern West Bank. Israeli evacuated Homesh in 2005 but there is still a yeshiva on site. Details on the shooting are pretty sparse. It’s possible this was some sort of organized attack—Hamas issued a statement praising the shooting but not claiming responsibility for it—but inter-communal tension in the northern West Bank has been high so it may also have been a random outburst.
It goes without saying that the state of healthcare in Afghanistan is bleak, as is the state of just about everything in Afghanistan these days. But it’s worth occasionally pointing out how bleak it is. The Afghan-Japan Hospital, which is the only facility in Kabul capable of handling severe COVID cases, is no longer able to produce oxygen because it cannot afford the fuel to power its production facility. The Afghan government’s contract with aid group HealthNet TPO to operate the hospital has expired and, with Afghanistan’s World Bank aid now frozen, it can’t renew that contract or make other arrangements. Donors are no longer willing to donate and the United States has imposed crippling restrictions on any possible commercial activity, for example by locking down Afghanistan’s foreign reserves. Problems of poverty and hunger that were manifest before the Taliban took over are far worse now, just a few months later.
There are things the United States could do to alleviate these problems, but our government has decided, apparently, that the best way to get over losing the Afghan war is to punish the Afghan people.
The Pakistani Taliban is claiming that one of its senior leaders, Maulvi Faqir Mohammad, was nearly killed in a drone strike at his compound in Afghanistan on Thursday. The drone fired a missile that failed to explode on impact. Faqir Mohammad lives just inside the Afghan border, as do several Pakistani Taliban figures who have been operating out of Afghanistan for many years now. Now that the Afghan Taliban, which is close to the Pakistani government, is in control of Afghanistan, it may try to crack down on that Pakistani Taliban presence. Then again, the Afghan Taliban probably has bigger fish to fry at the moment.
The US Senate on Thursday passed the “Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act,” which would bar all imports from China’s Xinjiang unless their importers can demonstrate that they were not produced by slaves. Both houses of Congress have now passed the measure and the White House has indicated that Joe Biden will sign it into law. The bill adopts the presumption that all production in Xinjiang involves forced labor, forcing companies to prove otherwise to keep their supply chains open. Also on Thursday, the US Commerce Department blacklisted China’s Academy of Military Medical Sciences along with several research labs with ties to the Chinese military, while the Treasury Department blacklisted eight Chinese firms, including large drone-maker DJI, over their alleged involvement in mass surveillance programs targeting the Uyghur community.
The Senate also confirmed diplomat Nicholas Burns as the new US ambassador to China. Joe Biden nominated Burns in August but his nomination was iced by Senator Marco Rubio, who accused him of being insufficiently Tough On China. Rubio dropped his hold on Thursday in part because of the passage of the forced labor act outlined above.
Human Rights Watch issued a new report on Thursday accusing separatists in western Cameroon’s anglophone region of deliberately attacking schools, and the teachers and students who occupy them. According to HRW the rebels have carried out at least 70 attacks on schools since 2017, which has forced two-thirds of the region’s schools to close. The rebels haven’t responded to the report’s claims directly, but one of their grievances is that the Cameroonian government uses the French-based instruction in those schools to stamp out English.
HRW and Amnesty International issued a joint report on Thursday alleging (based on witness/survivor interviews) that attacks against civilians are on the rise in the western part of the Tigray region, which is occupied by Amhara regional special forces. These attacks include killings, mass arrests, and displacements/expulsions. Amhara officials are rejecting the charges and the Ethiopian government has suggested that the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front is responsible for the documented atrocities, despite a lack of evidence that the TPLF has any personnel in western Tigray. On a separate but related note, Tigray regional media is claiming that government airstrikes, possibly using drones, killed at least 28 people in a town in southern Tigray. That claim is unconfirmed.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
A new in-depth piece from The Washington Post highlights the inequities of climate change as exemplified by a fight to keep Congolese farmers from exploiting a vast potential source of carbon:
At around 56,000 square miles (about the size of Iowa) and more than 30 feet deep in places, the peatland Congo shares with its neighbor, the Republic of Congo, holds at least as much carbon as the whole world currently emits in three years of burning fossil fuels.
Some patches of the peatlands in Congo’s Central Basin have been accumulating and storing carbon since the late days of the Earth’s last major ice age, around 17,000 years ago.
Industrializing countries around the world — from Europe and the United States in past centuries to southeast Asia in the 21st century — drained vast areas of peatlands, drying them and releasing immense wafts of carbon dioxide as well as smaller quantities of nitrous oxide, another potent greenhouse gas. The mass conversion of peatland into farmland over the centuries is estimated to have released as much as 250 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Congo wants what the rest of the world got from its peatlands: an economic development boost. The enormous Central African country is near rock-bottom on key development indicators, including life expectancy, access to education and electrification.
But herein lies one of the great paradoxes of our age: Industrialization has already irreversibly and harmfully changed our climate, and the countries responsible for most of those emissions are tasked by the United Nations with helping the rest of the world develop without repeating the mistakes of the past.
The obvious solution to this looming threat would be for the international community to pay the governments and/or people of the region to leave the peatlands untouched. But the international community has shown that it can’t even fulfill the climate funding pledges it’s already made, let alone new ones.
A court in the Russian port city of Rostov-on-Don issued a statement on Thursday that openly acknowledged that there are “garrisons of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation stationed on the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics” in eastern Ukraine. Which is a little awkward, in that the Russian government continually insists that it has no military personnel in eastern Ukraine whatsoever, let alone “garrisons” worth of them. Apparently the statement was based on testimony from a man who’s on trial for corruption and who claims he at one time delivered meals to those garrisons. The Kremlin subsequently issued its own statement reiterating its claim that it has no forces in eastern Ukraine and saying that the court had erred in not “verifying” the testimony.
The Lithuanian government intends to ask the European Union to help it deal with Chinese “pressure,” amid a diplomatic spat over Lithuania’s relationship with Taiwan. Last month the Taiwanese government opened a representation office in Vilnius, an embassy in all but name. Taiwan has similar offices in several countries, but this one used the word “Taiwan” in its name rather than the more common “Taipei.” That triggered an angry response from Beijing, which downgraded its representation in Lithuania from an ambassadorial posting to a chargé d’affaires posting and demanded that Lithuania do likewise.
The Lithuanian government pulled its entire diplomatic mission out of China on Wednesday, due to what it called “intimidation” from Chinese authorities—an accusation the Chinese Foreign Ministry has denied. Beijing is also reportedly telling multinational corporations to stop doing business in Lithuania if they want to continue doing business in China, which is straight out of the US coercive diplomacy toolkit. Of course, it’s Good when we do it, but Bad when China does it.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Brussels on Thursday and apparently promised him that Ukraine can join the alliance someday, regardless of Russian concerns. He notably did not, however, promise that NATO would ride to Ukraine’s rescue should the Russian military invade the country in the meantime. The Ukrainian and Georgian governments received assurances of future NATO membership at a summit in 2008 (Russia invaded Georgia a few months later, go figure), but neither has actually started the accession process and neither is likely to start the accession process so long as they’re dealing with internal territorial disputes (Crimea and the Donbas for Ukraine, Abkhazia and South Ossetia for Georgia). The US and the European Union have promised to impose potentially crippling economic sanctions against Russia in the event of an invasion, but have not made any commitments around military involvement.
A new poll from the consulting group AtlasIntel has Sunday’s Chilean presidential runoff in a dead heat, with right-winger José Antonio Kast at 48.5 percent support and leftist Gabriel Boric at 48.4 percent. Polling since last month’s first round, which Kast won, has consistently put Boric ahead but it’s also showed a narrowing margin as the runoff approaches.
Haiti’s 400 Mawozo gang has released all of the 17 US and Canadian missionaries (plus family members) it kidnapped back in October. They’d previously freed five of the captives and let the remaining 12 go as of Thursday. The gang had demanded a $1 million per person ransom but it’s unclear how much, if anything, it received.
Finally, if you haven’t already read it please check out Kate Kizer’s latest Foreign Exchanges column, in which she picks apart the rationale underpinning Joe Biden’s big “pro-democracy” summit:
After witnessing years of depraved and blatantly illegal US actions under the “war on terror,” I’ve been struck by how nearly every mainstream think tank paper, beltway expert report, or opinion article somehow still talks about other countries’ actions as if they are operating inside a vacuum. They rarely, if ever, offer any context as to why a country is acting the way it is, and there’s little to no effort to understand how US actions might shape what other countries do.
The hysterical rhetoric we see related to China positions the United States as a victim—an underdog fighting the good fight for the rest of the free world. That’s a nice story, and perhaps at one time it might have been true; it’s certainly the story on which I was raised, one told in American public school textbooks and by White America to justify its privilege. It also, conveniently, removes any agency from or responsibility of the United States government for the crises in which we now find ourselves.
President Joe Biden’s “Summit for Democracy” last week echoed those themes, warning about rising authoritarianism and urging countries to come together for democratic renewal. But the attendee list betrayed a lack of good faith on Biden’s part. The summit used the rhetoric of democratic renewal as a means to further divide the world into spheres of influence.