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World roundup: February 14-15 2022
Stories from Turkmenistan, Mali, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
February 14, 1876: Alexander Graham Bell files a patent application for the telephone on the same day when Elisha Gray filed a patent caveat for a similar technology. The US Patent Office later informed Gray of the conflict and he withdrew his caveat, which was less an application than a notification of an intent to file an application and therefore wasn’t as far along as Bell’s claim. Gray later won a court decision finding that the information in his caveat was leaked to Bell and some of it appeared in the latter’s application, but nevertheless Bell became known as the inventor of the telephone and Gray, uh, didn’t.
February 14, 1943: The World War II Battle of Sidi Bouzid begins.
February 14, 1945: Franklin Delano Roosevelt hosts Saudi King Abdulaziz ibn Saud aboard the USS Quincy in the Mediterranean. Roosevelt was sailing home from the Yalta Conference and took the occasion to hold several face-to-face meetings with several regional leaders. This one was the first meeting ever between a Saudi royal and a US president. The agreement they concluded (which offered US military protection to the Saudis in return for US access to Saudi oil) created the basic contours of a US-Saudi alliance that has survived (albeit with some rough patches) to the present day.
February 15, 1942: The World War II Battle of Singapore ends with the Japanese conquest of the British colony. Virtually the entire 85,000-man British force defending Singapore was lost—5000 killed or wounded and the remaining 80,000 captured. It was one of the largest surrenders in British military history and interestingly was not celebrated by Japan’s Nazi allies. Adolf Hitler apparently saw the Japanese victory as a defeat for white people the world over, and ordered Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop not to send congratulations to Tokyo.
February 15, 1989: Soviet forces complete their withdrawal from Afghanistan. This date has been annually commemorated in Afghanistan as “Liberation Day,” though with the Taliban now in charge I’m not sure whether that’s going to continue.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Syrian state media is reporting that one soldier was killed and 11 more wounded on Tuesday in a bomb attack targeting a military bus in Damascus. As yet there’s been no claim of responsibility. Attacks like this in Damascus are somewhat rare. The last one, in October, was claimed by a relatively unknown group calling itself the “Qasiyun Brigades” after Mount Qasiyun outside of Damascus. Shadowy groups like that could be legitimate entities but they may alternatively be fronts for other players who don’t want to claim responsibility in their own names for whatever reason.
The United Nations announced Tuesday that it’s reached an “agreement in principle” with Yemen’s Houthi/Ansar Allah rebels to transfer the oil off of the deteriorating FSO Safer, which has been abandoned off the coast of Hudaydah since the start of the Yemeni war. UN officials didn’t go into any details and that “in principle” part may be doing a lot of heavy lifting, but this announcement comes just a few days after negotiations on the issue that UN Yemen aid coordinator David Gressly characterized as “very positive.” The deterioration of the Safer’s hull risks leaking its million (give or take) barrels of oil into the Red Sea, which would be an environmental catastrophe and could hinder humanitarian aid deliveries to northern Yemen.
This got lost in the shuffle and isn’t really pressing news anyway, but the Iraqi government last month paid its final installment of the $52.4 billion it owed in restitution payments to Kuwait under a United Nations compensation regime set up after the 1990-1991 Gulf War. The UN has been garnishing Iraqi oil revenues to pay that settlement for the past 30 years, with a brief pause in the mid-2010s because of the Iraqi government’s war against Islamic State. This should free up a bit of revenue for the Iraqi government, though most likely that means it will be funneled off into some political boss’s personal treasury. I note, as Juan Cole did last week, that the United States has never been and will never be asked to pay similar reparations to Iraq. Make of that what you will, I suppose.
Israeli occupation forces shot and killed one Palestinian man on Tuesday in a village near the West Bank city of Ramallah. According to the Israeli military a crowd of demonstrators approached an Israeli checkpoint in the area and allegedly began throwing rocks at the personnel stationed there.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said on Monday that he believes an agreement on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is “at hand,” though the Iranians still seem to be demanding some protection against another US withdrawal from the accord. It also sounds like the talks may be somewhat stalled on the question of sequencing—i.e., whether the US should lift sanctions first or Iran should resume compliance with the terms of the agreement first and get sanctions relief after.
These negotiations appear to be at an end stage, one way or another, and I’m disinclined to spend much time parsing the various public statements the parties are making. My experience from covering the 2015 nuclear deal talks is that these late statements are almost entirely meant to set expectations and/or jockey for last minute concessions and they have little to do with what’s actually happening at the bargaining table. They’ll either reach a deal or the negotiations will collapse, and we can hash out What It All Means at that point.
Surprising I assume nobody, Serdar Berdimuhamedow, the son of current Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, will run in next month’s snap election to replace his suddenly retiring father. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which he wouldn’t win, given that Turkmen elections are not actually competitive. Serdar appears to be something of a cypher at this point, but it seems reasonable to assume that he won’t exhibit the same fondness as his father for wacky hijinks like recording music videos or pretending to instruct Turkmen special forces in combat techniques.
The Pakistani government said on Monday that it would allow passage for a major shipment of wheat from India to Afghanistan later this month. Several months ago New Delhi proposed that it would ship food and other humanitarian supplies to Afghanistan, a proposal to which Islamabad agreed in principle despite Indian-Pakistani hostilities. But that proposal had remained just a vague intention until now. Obviously one shipment of food, however large, is not going to be enough to ameliorate Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis, but it should certainly help a bit.
Prohibitive Philippine presidential front-runner Ferdinand Marcos Jr., or “Bongbong” if you must, suggested in a debate on Tuesday that he would adopt a more muscular approach to asserting Manila’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Marcos proposed establishing a “military presence” in that waterway, not so much to pick a fight as “to show China that we are defending what we consider our territorial waters.” China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, though that claim rests on a somewhat strained interpretation of maritime law and was rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in a 2016 ruling that upheld Philippine claims.
Sudanese forces killed another two anti-junta protesters on Monday, bringing their documented kill count since the coup last October to 81. The actual death toll may be higher than that. Both of those killed on Monday were shot with live ammunition, one in Khartoum and the other in Omdurman. Sudanese authorities defended their brutality by noting, among other things, that one police officer was shot in the foot during the protests. There’s no word as to who shot him. They’ve also routinely denied firing on protesters despite eyewitness accounts and a bunch of casualties to the contrary.
On Monday, Casamance separatists released the seven Senegalese soldiers they captured last month. Leaders of the Movement of Democratic Forces for Casamance agreed to free the prisoners after negotiations with representatives of the Economic Community of West African States. Senegalese officials say the soldiers were ambushed while on patrol as part of a peacekeeping operation in The Gambia, but the MFDC claims they had entered southern Senegal’s Casamance region.
Agence France-Presse is reporting that the French government will announce later this week that it is withdrawing its military forces from Mali, where they’re stationed as part of France’s Sahelian counter-terrorism operation. France intervened in 2013 to stop an Islamist insurgency in northern Mali, but despite some initial success jihadist violence has only gotten worse, metastasizing first to central Mali and then outward to Niger and Burkina Faso. In recent months the relationship between Paris and the military junta in Bamako has deteriorated to probably unworkable levels, to the extent that French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Monday that it “is clearly the case” that “the conditions are no longer in place for us to be able to act in Mali.” A French withdrawal would almost certainly mean the withdrawal of the rest of the European Union’s Takuba task force, which merely supplements the French deployment. Presumably the task force will simply relocate its operations, probably to Burkina Faso.
The Ethiopian parliament voted Tuesday to call a very early end to the six month state of emergency it imposed in November. The circumstances that prompted that state of emergence, namely the presence of Tigrayan rebel forces within marching distance of Addis Ababa, no longer apply, so the economic costs of the state of emergency are no longer worth it. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization says it’s been able to move its first shipment of medical supplies into the Tigray region since July, but the shipment is stuck in Mekelle due to a shortage of fuel. Still, I guess that’s some progress.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Members of the CODECO militia attacked a village in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province on Tuesday, killing at least 18 people. Separately, Allied Democratic Forces militia fighters attacked a village in neighboring North Kivu province late Sunday, killing at least seven people. Authorities say that four ADF fighters were killed during that assault.
Mauritian officials raised their national flag on the Peros Banhos atoll on Monday, signifying that they’re claiming ownership of the Chagos islands. This is relevant in that the British government also claims those islands—the largest of which, Diego Garcia, is home to arguably the US military’s most important overseas base. The Mauritian government claims that the UK unlawfully separated the Chagos from the rest of Mauritius in the 1960s, prior to the archpelago’s independence in 1968. That claim has been upheld in international bodies, including in a ruling last year by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, but the UK, backed by the US, is able to ignore those rulings. Among the other issues at stake here is the fate of the Chagossian people, whom the UK deported to Mauritius in the 1960s and 1970s in part to clear space for Diego Garcia’s construction.
While it’s important not to get ahead of ourselves, the Russian government on Tuesday ordered some of the soldiers it’s deployed around Ukraine over the past several months to return to base following the completion of whatever military exercises they were conducting. Tentatively, and I stress tentatively, this suggests that Moscow has rethought its plan to invade Ukraine—or, and I know this is kind of a wild thought but bear with me, that it never planned to invade at all.
This is certainly a welcome development, particularly for people in Ukraine, but I don’t think we’re out of the invasion woods entirely yet. For one thing, so far the Russians have only said they’re sending some troops back to base. There’s no verification yet that they’ve actually sent them back, nor is it clear how many troops they’re talking about. As recently as yesterday the message was that Russia was moving more units to the Ukrainian border, and consequently it may take some time to figure out what the net effect of all of these moves is on the disposition of Russian forces near Ukraine. So the immediate threat of an invasion could linger despite Tuesday’s move (certainly that was Joe Biden’s message on Tuesday). For another thing, the announced withdrawal was accompanied by a broad distributed-denial-of-service attack targeting multiple Ukrainian ministries and a couple of large banks. I don’t think this was a coincidence. This wasn’t a sophisticated attack and it’s unlikely that it was the first stage in a bigger plot, but it does serve as a reminder that even if it’s not massing military forces on Kyiv’s doorstep, the Russian government has no intention of leaving Ukraine alone.
That said, there are a couple of reasons to think this situation has reached a turning point. In an exchange on Russian television yesterday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told his boss, Vladimir Putin, that the possibilities for a diplomatic settlement to Russia’s security concerns “are far from exhausted” and recommended “continuing and intensifying them.” Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu then informed Putin that military exercises in southwestern Russia were coming to an end, presaging Tuesday’s withdrawal announcement. From the media descriptions it sounds like these were basically staged skits, which is weird but whatever works for them, I guess. It certainly seems like they were acting out the case for not going to war for the viewing audience.
On the other side of this crisis, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Kyiv on Monday (he continued on to Moscow on Tuesday for a chance to sit at Putin’s comically oversized COVID table), where he and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky heavily downplayed the idea of Ukraine eventually joining NATO. Scholz characterized the issue of Ukrainian accession as “practically not on the agenda,” while Zelensky, who has been pretty adamant about his desire to bring Kyiv into the club, described that goal as a “dream.” This exchange may have been a skit of sorts as well, with Putin as its intended audience. The possibility of Ukraine joining NATO has been his main stated concern throughout this crisis.
If we are at an end of this particular panic that doesn’t mean we’ve reached the end of the general state of tension between Russia and Ukraine or Russia and the West. There are several lingering issues that have to be addressed. For one thing, several of the parties to this dust-up have expressed interest in negotiating a broad, pan-European security arrangement, a message Scholz even brought with him to Moscow on Tuesday. Is that talk actually going to lead anywhere? What about Ukraine’s still-frozen civil war? There’s a movement in the Russian parliament to recognize the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. I suspect Putin is not going to go that far, but he could use a parliamentary recognition vote to pressure Kyiv into finally implementing the elusive Minsk Agreement. Although Ukrainian officials agreed to Minsk’s terms they’re concerned that implementing them would effectively disintegrate the Ukrainian state. But it’s hard to imagine a path to durable stability in Eastern Europe without an end to the Donbas war, and at this point Minsk seems to be the only way forward on that front.
The Serbian government will hold snap parliamentary, and local elections on April 3, less than two years after the country’s June 2020 election and coinciding with the country’s regularly scheduled presidential election. Polling puts President Aleksandar Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party at 57 percent support so I don’t think there’s much mystery as to why he’d like to get people to the polls now. Most opposition parties boycotted the 2020 election, arguing that it would not be “free and fair,” so a victory in April’s snap election might remove some of the taint of what’s considered a dubious SPS win two years ago.
A new poll from Zavecz Research puts Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz Party two points ahead of the six opposition parties that have united to try to oust it from power, with 38 percent support against the coalition’s 36 percent. A previous Zavecz poll in November had the joint opposition leading, 41-37.
Venezuela’s Conviasa airlines says it plans to begin direct passenger flights between Caracas and Tehran next month. The aim is to bring Iranian tourists and their wallets to Venezuela. Iran and Venezuela are of course both under broad US sanctions that cut them off economically from most other countries, but they’ve been building quite the bilateral relationship over the past couple of years. Iran has sent food and fuel to Venezuela and Conviasa has been running cargo flights between the two countries since 2019.
Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was taken into police custody on Tuesday in response to an extradition request from the United States, where he’s wanted on drug trafficking and weapons charges. Tony Hernández, the ex-president’s brother, was sentenced to life in prison in the US last year on similar charges, and US prosecutors have treated Juan Orlando Hernández as a co-conspirator in his brother’s crimes. US authorities began pursuing Hernández’s extradition pretty much as soon as his presidential term ended last month.
Finally, TomDispatch’s William Astore makes the case for treating the last 60 years of US history as one extended military conflict:
In my lifetime of nearly 60 years, America has waged five major wars, winning one decisively, then throwing that victory away, while losing the other four disastrously. Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, as well as the Global War on Terror, were the losses, of course; the Cold War being the solitary win that must now be counted as a loss because its promise was so quickly discarded.
America’s war in Vietnam was waged during the Cold War in the context of what was then known as the domino theory and the idea of “containing” communism. Iraq and Afghanistan were part of the Global War on Terror, a post-Cold War event in which “radical Islamic terrorism” became the substitute for communism. Even so, those wars should be treated as a single strand of history, a 60-year war, if you will, for one reason alone: the explanatory power of such a concept.
For me, because of President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address to the nation in January 1961, that year is the obvious starting point for what retired Army colonel and historian Andrew Bacevich recently termed America’s Very Long War (VLW). In that televised speech, Ike warned of the emergence of a military-industrial complex of immense strength that could someday threaten American democracy itself. I’ve chosen 2021 as the VLW’s terminus point because of the disastrous end of this country’s Afghan War, which even in its last years cost $45 billion annually to prosecute, and because of one curious reality that goes with it. In the wake of the crashing and burning of that 20-year war effort, the Pentagon budget leaped even higher with the support of almost every congressional representative of both parties as Washington’s armed attention turned to China and Russia.
At the end of two decades of globally disastrous war-making, that funding increase should tell us just how right Eisenhower was about the perils of the military-industrial complex. By failing to heed him all these years, democracy may indeed be in the process of meeting its demise.