World roundup: December 18-19 2021
Stories from Afghanistan, Sudan, Chile, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
December 17, 1398: The Battle of Delhi
December 17, 2010: A Tunisian street vendor in Sidi Bouzid, named Mohamed Bouazizi, sets himself on fire to protest mistreatment by corrupt municipal authorities. Public outrage over Bouazizi’s case sparked the Tunisian Revolution, which in turn sparked the Arab Spring movement.
December 18, 1499: The first Alpujarras Rebellion begins
December 18, 1878: Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani succeeds his father as ruler of the Qatari peninsula. Jassim is considered the founder of the modern state of Qatar. For a time he held appointment as the Ottoman Kaymakam (sub-governor) of Qatar before asserting autonomy (if not outright independence). He then defeated an Ottoman force (“army” would be overstating it) of around 200-300 men in the 1893 Battle of al-Wajbah, which confirmed Qatari autonomy. The date of his accession is commemorated as Qatar’s National Day.
December 18, 2005: The four year Chadian Civil War begins when the rebel group Rally for Democracy and Freedom attacks the town of Adré near the Sudanese border. The rebels, backed by Sudan and its Janjaweed militia, were eventually defeated by the Chadian government of President Idriss Déby, and an agreement between Déby and then-Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ended the conflict in January 2010.
December 19, 1946: The Battle of Hanoi marks the start of the 1946-1954 First Indochina War. The battle began when Việt Minh forces bombed Hanoi’s power plant and under cover of darkness began attacking French forces in the city. The Việt Minh eventually had to withdraw in the face of superior French numbers in February 1947, though of course they would eventually win the war. The outcome was a partition of Vietnam into northern and southern states—which ended when North Vietnam won the Vietnam War—and the ouster of French forces from the region.
December 19, 1984: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang sign the Sino-British Joint Declaration in Beijing. The declaration set July 1, 1997, as the date upon which the British government would turn control of Hong Kong, including Kowloon and the New Territories, over to the Chinese government.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Sunday that Islamic State operatives have killed at least six people inside the Syrian Democratic Forces’ al-Hol camp this month, including on on Saturday. The SDF’s badly overcrowded facility houses displaced persons alongside a large number of people with ties to IS, which is able to operate inside the camp mostly because the SDF lacks the resources to properly police it. At least 86 people have been killed in al-Hol this year.
According to Saudi media, the kingdom’s air defenses shot down two Houthi drones that were headed for the city of Abha on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Iran has recalled its “ambassador” to the Houthis, Hassan Irloo, from Yemen ostensibly because he’s contracted COVID and needs medical attention. The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the Houthis were trying to get rid of Irloo, who’s been serving as a military adviser but also highlights their ties to Iran, which hasn’t been good for the Houthis’ image in Yemen. That report suggested they were using COVID as a justification in asking the Saudis—who still have Yemen under an air blockade—for permission to evacuate Irloo to Iran (which is not to say he hasn’t actually contracted the virus). The Saudis agreed to allow him to leave on an Iraqi flight. It’s unclear what, if anything, the Houthis gave them in return. Perhaps its just a coincidence that, as Irloo was on his way out, Houthi media published a statement from the rebel group’s “foreign minister,” Hisham Sharaf, over the weekend calling for a new round of peace talks.
Iraqi media reported early Sunday that two rockets had landed in Baghdad’s security “Green Zone,” causing only some minor damage. One of the rockets may have been shot down by the US embassy’s anti-artillery defenses. It’s likely an Iraqi militia was responsible but IS can’t be ruled out.
The Israeli military has of late been subtly, and sometimes not subtly, threatening to carry out airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities, not so much to threaten Iran as to threaten the countries negotiating with it to revive the 2015 nuclear deal. Cut a deal we don’t like, the logic goes, and we’ll take matters into our own hands. The logic breaks down a bit, though, when you have Israeli commentators openly saying that the Israeli military isn’t capable of doing what it’s threatening to do. The Israelis could probably destroy a few of Iran’s primary nuclear sites, but not all of them and likely not to such an extent that they couldn’t be repaired.
Frankly, although the Israelis do seem to think the US military could wipe out Iran’s nuclear program in an air campaign, even that’s wishful thinking. Physical infrastructure can be rebuilt and the intangible elements of a nuclear program—knowledge, mostly—can’t be bombed away. The only thing airstrikes will do is convince the Iranians to—if I may borrow a phrase that nobody seems to be using anymore—“build back better,” with harder and more secretive facilities and maybe a newfound commitment to going all the way to weaponization.
The European Union brought Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan to Brussels on Wednesday for talks on easing bilateral tensions. On Sunday, Aliyev reportedly agreed to repatriate ten Armenian prisoners of war. Azerbaijan probably shouldn’t have any Armenian POWs, given that the ceasefire agreement that ended last fall’s Nagorno-Karabakh War stipulated a full prisoner exchange as one of its terms. But Baku has used various means to reclassify those POWs to get around that stipulation, and has been trading them piecemeal for concessions from Armenia (landmine maps, for example). I haven’t seen any indication as to what, if anything, Azerbaijan is getting in return for this release.
Foreign ministers from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation member states met in Islamabad on Sunday and agreed to establish a “trust fund,” managed by the Islamic Development Bank, to support humanitarian relief efforts in Afghanistan. In theory this would allow countries to make humanitarian donations to Afghanistan that do not pass through its Taliban-led government. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi also said that US Afghan envoy Tom West, who was at the OIC meeting, promised that Washington would “engage” with the Taliban, mentioning specifically some $1.2 billion in Afghan aid money that’s been frozen at the World Bank. Nearly the entire Afghan population is either in or teetering on the brink of extreme poverty, and the United States has virtually blocked foreign money from entering the country while freezing Afghanistan’s foreign reserves.
The Washington Post is reporting that between 5000 and 10,000 Pakistanis have flowed into Afghanistan over the past few months to bolster the Taliban’s ranks, about 10 times more than crossed the border in an average year during the Afghan War. Pakistani officials are denying this, for what it’s worth. Calls for support went out as the Taliban was surging toward Kabul and have continued as the Taliban has tried to secure its control over the country. Any of these new recruits who have some useful training—in medicine, say, or even as bureaucrats—could find themselves with permanent jobs in Afghanistan, as the Taliban seems desperate for qualified people in several areas. But there seems to be some concern in Pakistan that those who don’t fit that description could spend time in Afghanistan training and then return to bolster the Pakistani Taliban in its insurgency. The Afghan Taliban and Pakistani Taliban are distinct organizations (split in part over their feelings about the Pakistani state, in fact), but ideologically they’re obviously quite compatible and there’s nothing that would keep fighters from moving between them.
Hong Kong held its first legislative election under new Chinese electoral rules on Sunday, meaning among other things that only candidates approved by Beijing were permitted to run. Results aren’t available but the big takeaway appears to be in the area of turnout, where fewer than a third of Hong Kong voters are believed to have turned out to vote. By contrast, turnout was a little over 58 percent in 2016 and a little over 53 percent in 2012.
On its way out the door, the US Senate confirmed a slate of ambassadorial and other Biden administration foreign policy-related nominations on Saturday. Of these, the most prominent would seem to be former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s confirmation as the new US ambassador to Japan. We here at Foreign Exchanges can only offer our most heartfelt apology to the Japanese people, who did nothing to deserve this. On the flip side this is good news for the United States, since Rahm probably won’t be able to write any more political columns for a few years.
Hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in Khartoum on Sunday to mark both the three year anniversary of the protest movement that forced former President Omar al-Bashir out of power in 2019 and to express their opposition to the military junta currently ruling Sudan:
The marchers were able to reach the presidential palace in Khartoum despite a heavy security presence. The Sudanese military blocked several key roads in the capital and security forces used tear gas and stun grenades (and possibly live ammunition in some cases) in an effort to break up the protest. At least 123 people were reportedly injured across multiple demonstrations in Khartoum plus other cities like Omdurman, Bahri (aka “Khartoum North”), and several other major cities across the country.
The Malian government announced on Saturday that Chad has pledged to send an additional 1000 soldiers to help made up for the reduction in French forces in the country. The French military is ending its “Barkhane” operation, under which it had some 5000 soldiers stationed in Mali, to transition to a smaller and less combat-oriented deployment. Chad currently has around 1400 soldiers in Mali as part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission there. This additional deployment would presumably be independent of the UN. Officials in Chad, in case you were wondering, have confirmed a deployment but haven’t said anything about how large it will be or when these forces are supposed to arrive in Mali.
The Ethiopian government claimed on Saturday that its forces have retaken a slew of towns and cities in the Amhara and Afar regions from the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front. As always there are problems confirming this claim, but if true it suggests that the TPLF’s advance on Addis Ababa has been turned back decisively. The TPLF may fall back to the parts of the Tigray region that are under its control and try to regroup.
Al-Monitor’s Khalid Hassan reports that Egypt has made a move into the Kenyan arms market, offering to sell weapons to Kenya and to support Kenya’s domestic arms industry. The Egyptians are looking to compete with Turkey, which has made its own inroads into the Horn of Africa of late via its growing ties with the Ethiopian government and its own arms sales to Kenya. They’re also looking to cultivate closer ties with Kenya as a counterweight to Ethiopia, which which Egypt is still locked in a potentially significant dispute over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and its effect on Nile water levels, and because they view stronger ties with Kenya as a conduit to better relations with the United States.
Poles protested across the country on Sunday, calling on President Andrzej Duda to veto a bill passed by the Polish parliament on Friday that would make it more difficult for foreigners to own Polish media outlets. The bill targets the TVN24 station, which is owned by the US-based Discovery network via a European cutout in order to get around a Polish law that requires all stations in the country to be majority European owned. The bill passed on Friday would eliminate the loophole Discovery is exploiting. TVN24 also happens to be frequently critical of the right-wing Law and Justice Party-led Polish government, which I’m sure has nothing to do with the bill. Many Poles seem to be concerned about the precedent this bill sets for independent media outlets and the Polish government’s willingness to take steps to shut them down. Duda is a former Law and Justice Party member who only resigned from the party when he was elected president and is still generally sympathetic toward its right-wing agenda, so I suspect it’s unlikely he’ll consider vetoing the bill.
According to Germany’s Der Spiegel newspaper, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Tod Wolters is thinking about stationing alliance forces in Bulgaria and Romania
to provoke a war with Russia um, I mean, to bolster NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe. NATO already has forces stationed in Poland and the Baltic states under what it euphemistically calls its “Enhanced Forward Presence” program, I guess because “Encircle Russia’s Western Border” would be too on the nose. This deployment would be a resoundingly negative response to that list of Russian security demands that went public a couple of days ago. So that would be…good? I guess? From a certain perspective? It would also be welcome news for the Romanian and Bulgarian governments, both of whom have expressed a desire for a stepped up NATO presence.
The Swiss government on Saturday extradited Russian oligarch Vladislav Klyushin to the United States, a move that was inevitable after a Swiss court approved the extradition earlier this month. Klyushin is wanted in the US on insider tradition charges and was arrested by Swiss authorities in March based on a US request. He apparently has ties to the Russian government so the motivation for his prosecution may be as much political as legal. Certainly that’s how the Russian government feels—the Russian embassy in Switzerland described the extradition as “another episode in Washington's ongoing hunt for Russian citizens in third countries” on Sunday.
Another poll has put Republican party nominee Valérie Pécresse in position to face incumbent Emmanuel Macron in France’s April 24 presidential runoff . The survey, from Ipsos/Sopra Steria, has Pécresse at 17 percent support, which would place her second to Macron’s 25.5 percent in the election’s first round on April 10. Pécresse has gotten a major boost in her support, partly because far-right candidates Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour are eating into each other’s support and partly because Pécresse has adopted far right language when it comes to immigration. The latter may actually hurt her if she does wind up in the runoff. In theory, the more moderate Pécresse—she’s not anti-European Union, for example—should have broader appeal than either Le Pen or Zemmour and thus could be a more serious threat to Macron in a head to head contest. But if Macron can portray her as no different than Le Pen, she’ll struggle to win over that broader audience.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s political struggles may have gotten a bit worse over the weekend. Late Saturday word broke that Johnson’s Brexit minister, David Frost, was quitting the cabinet over a number of policy disagreements. He and Johnson had apparently discussed a managed resignation sometime in January, but when the story became public the timetable for his departure moved up. Frost’s departure sparked more talk that Johnson is losing support internally and could face a leadership challenge within the Conservative Party.
Then on Sunday, The Guardian published photos that appear to show Johnson hosting a very swanky-looking garden party at the PM’s residence in May 2020, which if true is a pretty brazen violation of the COVID restrictions the UK government had in place at the time. Johnson’s administration has tried to characterize the gathering as a “work meeting” or something of that sort, but a number of what appear to be wine bottles in the photos suggests either that it was a social gathering or that Johnson and his staff prefer to be drunk when they meet one another. Johnson has been under fire for other alleged instances in which he’s violated COVID protocols, but the photos may make this one particularly hard to explain.
Polling ahead of Chile’s presidential runoff has been all over the place. But in the only poll that actually matters, leftist Gabriel Boric defeated right-winger José Antonio Kast on Sunday to become Chile’s president-elect—its youngest ever president-elect, in fact. Boric claimed just under 56 percent of the vote to Kast’s 44 percent. This could prove to be a historically significant outcome, both because it continues the regional revival of the “Pink Tide” and, perhaps more importantly, in terms of what it means for Chile specifically.
Boric’s election is the product of an extended revival of Chile’s political left that began with widespread protests against rampant inequality in 2019 and ultimately led to a plebiscite last year in which 78 percent of voters supported the drafting of a new constitution to replace the 1980 charter drawn up by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. At the very least, a Boric presidency means that constitutional process will be allowed to play out fully—Kast, an open Pinochet fan, had threatened to interfere with the ongoing work of Chile’s Constitutional Convention. So even if Boric struggles to implement his agenda—and the makeup of the new Congress suggests that he might—he’s still likely to oversee Chile’s departure from the lingering effects of the Pinochet era.
At least 13 people have been killed in an outbreak of inter-communal violence in the western Guatemalan village of Chiquix. Residents of the Nahualá and Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán municipalities have been locked in a sometimes violent land dispute for decades. It’s unclear what caused this most recent clash, nor do police yet seem to know who was responsible.
According to Jacobin’s Kurt Hackbarth, the Biden administration’s ambassador to Mexico is carrying water for energy companies upset with Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government:
Since arriving in the country in September to assume the role of Ambassador to Mexico, former US interior secretary Ken Salazar has been having a grand old time. Bestriding the country in his ten-gallon Texan hat, the peripatetic Salazar has been showing up seemingly everywhere: at a regional governor’s meeting in Mérida, musing about offering a message to the nation on the Senate floor, meeting with opposition figures at the International Book Fair in Guadalajara, even hanging out with the mariachis in Mexico City’s fabled Plaza Garibaldi.
In and amongst all the fun and games, however, the new ambassador has found plenty of time to steamroll his way into the thicket of sensitive political matters. In early November, Salazar took his tour to the National Palace. There, he expressed “serious concerns” about the Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) administration’s proposed constitutional energy reform, which seeks to strengthen the hand of the public energy sector and nationalize the nation’s substantial lithium stores. The message received a quick rebuff from Mexican foreign minister Marcelo Ebrard, who calmly reminded the ambassador of an existing agreement with Washington not to weigh in on the reform without first having learned “what it is and what it isn’t.”
Not content with putting his foot in it once, Salazar plowed ahead two days later, tweeting out a photo of a meeting with “energy sector leaders” who provide “clean, accessible, and trustworthy energy to Mexico.” He then proceeded to hold a press conference in which he stated that businesses that have “invested in renewable energy with the backing of the United States” are concerned. For this reason, the United States — an earnest student as always — is seeking to better understand the reasons for the reform in order to arrive at a “resolution.”
Salazar’s past work as a lobbyist for fossil fuel companies probably should have warranted a second look before Joe Biden nominated him as ambassador to Mexico, although I presume it wouldn’t have been disqualifying anyway.
Finally, The New York Times this weekend published the first of what it intends to be a series on the US air war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria since 2014. The NYT has reviewed “a hidden Pentagon archive” containing the US military’s own assessments of civilian harm caused by its airstrikes, the contents of which are equally shocking to the conscience and unsurprising to anyone who’s been paying attention:
The trove of documents — the military’s own confidential assessments of more than 1,300 reports of civilian casualties, obtained by The New York Times — lays bare how the air war has been marked by deeply flawed intelligence, rushed and often imprecise targeting, and the deaths of thousands of civilians, many of them children, a sharp contrast to the American government’s image of war waged by all-seeing drones and precision bombs.
The documents show, too, that despite the Pentagon’s highly codified system for examining civilian casualties, pledges of transparency and accountability have given way to opacity and impunity. In only a handful of cases were the assessments made public. Not a single record provided includes a finding of wrongdoing or disciplinary action. Fewer than a dozen condolence payments were made, even though many survivors were left with disabilities requiring expensive medical care. Documented efforts to identify root causes or lessons learned are rare.
The most charitable interpretation of these “credibility assessments” is that US military personnel frequently don’t know who or what they’re shooting at. A less charitable interpretation would be that they don’t really care. Nor is there much indication why they should care, apart from the basic desire not to kill innocents. The documents hint at the lengths to which the Pentagon will go to bury or ignore civilian casualties, or if that’s not possible then to excuse those casualties away as the product of some unfortunate but unavoidable circumstance or, at most, an “honest mistake.” The United States almost never even makes condolence payments to the families of the people it kills or maims.