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World roundup: February 15-16 2023
Stories from India, Ukraine, Brazil, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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.”
February 16, 1804: A small US naval crew enters Tripoli harbor and destroys the grounded USS Philadelphia.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The World Bank announced on Wednesday that President David Malpass is resigning, a year ahead of the scheduled end of his term. Malpass was Donald Trump’s pick to run the Bank in 2019 and he’s been heavily criticized for being a climate change denier running an organization that should probably be doing more to finance clean energy and climate remediation projects. Rajiv Shah, the current head of the Rockefeller Foundation, seems to be the early favorite to replace Malpass. There have also been some calls for the United States to relinquish its nearly unilateral power to appoint the Bank’s head but I wouldn’t expect the Biden administration to heed them.
The US military shot down what it says was an Iranian-made reconnaissance drone that flew over its Mission Support Site Conoco outpost in northeastern Syria on Wednesday. There’s been no claim of responsibility for the drone but it’s safe to surmise that it was flown by one of the many Iranian-supported militias that are operating in eastern Syria. One might note here that those militias are there at the invitation of the Syria government while the US is not, but I digress.
The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on Wednesday to renew its sanctions against Yemen’s Houthi rebels for at least another nine months. Those sanctions include an arms embargo plus a number of penalties targeting individual rebel leaders. Although the Yemeni ceasefire lapsed back in October the country has still not seen a return to full-scale conflict.
Iraqi security forces undertook a raid on an Islamic State hideout just north of Baghdad on Thursday. They killed three IS members while four Iraqi personnel were also killed during the operation.
Lebanese police and a group of alleged drug traffickers got themselves into a firefight in an eastern Lebanese village on Thursday, with at least three police officers and three of the alleged traffickers dying as a result. Parts of eastern Lebanon, including the Beqaa region where this incident took place, are used by smugglers bringing Captagon out of Syria. Lebanese authorities have been trying to ramp up their efforts to interdict the flow of Captagon out of Syria amid complaints from the wealthy Gulf countries that are the main market for Syrian Captagon suppliers.
The Israeli Knesset voted by a wide margin on Wednesday to approve a new law that givers Israeli authorities the power to revoke the citizenship or residency status of Arabs convicted of certain national security offenses and potentially to deport them. The reporting is a little fuzzy here but there’s some stipulation in the law about having received a stipend from the Palestinian Authority. I’m unclear whether that’s a prerequisite for deportation or just one possible condition under which this law could be triggered. The Israeli human rights group HaMoked has criticized the law for its racial overtones and particularly for the threat against East Jerusalem residents, who are not full Israeli citizens and thus will have a harder time challenging any potential deportation in court.
There’s apparently a draft resolution, submitted by the United Arab Emirates, circulating at the UN Security Council that would condemn Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Presumably this was motivated by the Israeli government’s decision to retroactively legalize nine West Bank settlements over the weekend and by the public support some members of the Israeli cabinet have expressed for policies that at least verge on ethnic cleansing. The resolution could come up for a vote as soon as Monday and it’s unclear whether or not the US, which criticized the legalization earlier this week, would exercise its veto though early indications are that it will. The practical effect is likely to be negligible either way.
According to NBC News, the US and Iranian governments are indirectly, via Qatar and the United Kingdom, negotiating a prisoner exchange. The deal would include the unfreezing of several billion dollars in Iranian assets currently locked in South Korean banks due to US sanctions, but would limit Iran’s use of that money to the purchase of humanitarian goods. The Qatari government may be tasked with overseeing the funds. Iran has imprisoned a number of US citizens and legal residents. It’s unclear whether this deal would see all of them freed or, if not, which ones would be involved.
In a speech during a graduation ceremony in Afghanistan’s Khost province over the weekend, Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani appeared to offer some oblique criticism of Taliban Supreme Leader Hibatullah Akhundzada. Haqqani argued that Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government should avoid “monopolizing power and hurting the reputation of the entire system” and should practice “patience and good behavior and engagement with the people.” Akhundzada, who is extremely reclusive, is assumed to be the driving force behind several recent policy changes that don’t comport with Haqqani’s remarks, in particular policies that have restricted women from virtually all public spaces. Haqqani didn’t mention the Taliban’s ban on women’s education but he’s known to have spoken out in favor of allowing women and girls to attend school in the past.
Haqqani is the leader of the Haqqani Network, a violent faction that was absorbed by the Taliban in the 1990s but retains substantial autonomy. If he’s disagreeing with Akhundzada’s decisions that’s potentially a big issue, given that he’s politically quite conservative and he has a power base that’s relatively independent from Akhundzada’s Taliban hierarchy. Trying to suss out cracks in Taliban unity is probably a sucker’s game but this is an interesting development.
An explosion on a passenger train in Pakistan’s Punjab province killed at least one person and wounded eight others on Thursday. Authorities don’t know what caused it but they pointedly have not ruled out a bomb. The train originated in Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan province, and Baluch separatists have bombed trains in the past.
Surveyors have reportedly discovered a significant lithium deposit, estimated to be in the range of 5.9 million metric tons, in the Reasi region of India’s Jammu and Kashmir state. Rediscovered, actually—apparently it had first been found decades ago but was then forgotten. The hope is that the find could help fuel (pun only partially intended) an Indian transition away from fossil fuels, which would be of considerable benefit to the global effort to mitigate climate change. But it’s likely to be over a decade before the deposit can be exploited and used for clean energy purposes, and in the meantime there are concerns about the effect of polluting lithium mining on what is an ecologically and geologically sensitive region. There are also concerns in terms of the effect mining could have on local communities and how the find might affect the already tense political (and geopolitical) situation in Kashmir.
Papuan separatists have reportedly been releasing photos and videos of the New Zealand pilot they kidnapped last week after his plane landed in a remote part of Indonesia’s Highland Papua province. The five passengers on the plane were apparently freed as they were all Papuans. Indonesian authorities say they’re negotiating for the pilot’s release but are also planning a military alternative if those efforts fail. It’s unclear what the separatists want in return for the pilot—so far they’ve said they want recognition of Papuan independence, but one assumes they know they’re not going to get that.
The Chinese government on Thursday blacklisted two major US military contractors, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies, for selling weapons to Taiwan. Both will be barred from importing products into China and making new investments in China, penalties that could impact their civilian businesses though it’s unclear how much. The US sanctioned six Chinese firms earlier this week over the Balloon of Death episode so this move may have been intended as retaliation.
Although she’s been making regular public appearances with her father, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and the North Korean government is now making stamps with her likeness, South Korean officials are now saying that there are “lots of questions” about whether Kim Ju-ae is being groomed as the heir apparent in Pyongyang. Possibly this is because she’s believed to be around ten years old and her father is only around 40 and it would be absurd to draw any major conclusions about succession plans under those circumstances, though that hasn’t really stopped Western media outlets so far. But again I digress.
Guinean security forces killed at least two people and wounded several more during a protest against the country’s ruling junta in Conakry that began late Wednesday. Authorities, who haven’t acknowledged the deaths, say that rock-throwing demonstrators injured at least seven police officers. The protest appears to have been organized by the National Front for the Defence of the Constitution, the main opposition group that has been calling for a sped up transition back to civilian rule.
A new report from the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission accuses the rebel Oromo Liberation Army of massacring at least 50 people in a town in the Oromia region earlier this month. The attack, which took place on February 2, reportedly targeted displaced persons. It’s unclear from the reporting whether they were displaced from outside Oromia. The OLA has been in conflict with the Ethiopian government since the 1970s over grievances about the treatment of Ethiopia’s Oromo population.
US Africa Command says it carried out an airstrike in central Somalia’s Mudug region on Wednesday, killing at least five al-Shabab fighters. According to US officials the strike was carried out in “collective self-defense,” which means in theory those al-Shabab fighters were engaged in some sort of battle with Somali security forces. That designation also helpfully means the strike didn’t require presidential approval. As ever AFRICOM insists that the strike only killed combatants, a claim that should probably be taken with a grain of salt given the command’s record when it comes to acknowledging civilian Somali casualties.
The Rwandan government is claiming that a unit of DR Congolese soldiers crossed the border and fired on a Rwandan border outpost on Tuesday, sparking a firefight that according to the Rwandans caused no casualties. Congolese officials are rejecting this allegation and say there was some sort of border clash but that it involved “bandits,” at least one of whom was killed, and that at no time did any Congolese soldiers fire on the Rwandans. I’m not sure there’s a way to parse these competing claims in which they could both be true. Tensions between these two countries are high largely due to the ongoing M23 militia offensive in the DRC’s North Kivu province, an offensive Congolese officials claim is being supported by the Rwandan military (a charge Rwanda denies).
Thursday saw heavy Russian aerial bombardment across Ukraine—including on the city of Kremenchuk, home to Ukraine’s largest oil refinery. On the ground, the focus continues to be the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast. Wagner Group boss Yevgheni Prigozhin, whose mercenaries have been leading the way in Donetsk for a while now, suggested in an interview published on Thursday that the Russians might not take the city until April, which reflects the slow speed of their advance. Though said advance has been slow it’s also been fairly consistent at several points in eastern Ukraine, and the Ukrainians are reportedly beginning to prepare fallback positions behind their current front line.
The Russians and Ukrainians made another prisoner exchange on Thursday, this time involving 100 combatants and one civilian. Neither the identity of the civilian nor any details about how he or she came to be included in a POW swap were not to my knowledge made public.
The Ukrainians say they shot down six Russian balloons on Wednesday. Apparently skies all around the world are just continuously full of hostile balloons these days. These appear to have been reconnaissance balloons but even Ukrainian officials are suggesting the Russians sent them into Ukraine as part of an effort to exhaust Ukrainian air defenses—which they did.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters on Wednesday that alliance members are trying to ramp up their production of ammunition to meet Ukraine’s demand, which must be fairly steep because it’s exhausting current NATO supplies. Stoltenberg was speaking at the end of a two-day NATO defense ministerial conference, during which members apparently also firmed up plans for sending at least 48 German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. Most of these will be Leopard 2 A4s, which are fairly old, but the German government has committed to sending several new Leopard 2 A6s. Ukraine’s state-owned arms maker, Ukroboronprom, has reportedly contracted with an as-yet unspecified NATO member to produce ammunition (mortar ammunition in particular) in Ukraine, so that’s one way to increase production capacity.
A new poll from The Associated Press and NORC shows US public support for arming Ukraine slipping a bit. The survey shows 48 percent support, down from 60 percent back in May. Confidence in the Biden administration’s handling of the conflict also seems to be on the wane.
The Moldovan parliament on Thursday confirmed Dorin Recean as the country’s new prime minister. President Maia Sandu nominated Recean, who had been serving as one of her aides, to replace Natalia Gavrilita following the latter’s resignation on Friday. Gavrilita’s cabinet had struggled to cope with inflation and other political turmoil, much of it stemming from the war in Ukraine.
At The Nation, Andre Pagliarini discusses Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s visit to Washington last week within the context of his efforts to rebuild and recalibrate Brazil’s foreign relations:
Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was in Washington, D.C., last Friday for meetings with President Joe Biden and, earlier in the day, with Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, along with other members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Just over a month into his unprecedented third term, Lula is eager to turn the page on the calamitous administration of Jair Bolsonaro. Lula is traveling the world, visiting Argentina and Uruguay to signal a recommitment to South American integration, hosting German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Brasília, and meeting Biden to reset Brazil’s relationship with the United States. His aim is clear: restore Brazil’s reputation as a country that can collaborate with almost anyone.
US President Joe Biden acknowledged on Thursday that the three objects his military shot down over the past week were probably not despicable Chinese surveillance craft of some description but were, instead, probably weather or hobbyist balloons. Well at least we didn’t overreact or whatever. Biden says he’s ordered his national security team to develop “sharper rules” about engaging unknown aircraft in US airspace, which is probably a good idea because the way things are going now it may only be a matter of time before an F-22 takes down a hot air balloon with passengers in it or an A-10 strafes a group of kids flying kites.
Finally, at TomDispatch, the Quincy Institute’s Andrew Bacevich wonders if Western rhetoric around the war in Ukraine might be a bit overheated:
But if Putin is a criminal, how then are we to judge those who conceived of, sold, launched, and thoroughly botched the Iraq War? With the passing of 20 years, has some statute of limitations kicked in to drain that conflict of relevance? My own sense is that the national security establishment is now strongly inclined to pretend that the Iraq War (and the Afghanistan War as well) never happened. Such an exercise in selective memory helps validate the insistence that Ukraine has once more conferred on the United States the primary responsibility for defending “civilization.” That no one else can assume that role is simply taken for granted in Washington.
Which brings us back to the nub of the issue: How is it that this particular conflict puts civilization itself at risk? Why should rescuing Ukraine take priority over rescuing Haiti or Sudan? Why should fears of genocide in Ukraine matter more than the ongoing genocide targeting the Rohingya in Myanmar? Why should supplying Ukraine with modern arms qualify as a national priority, while equipping El Paso, Texas, to deal with a flood of undocumented migrants figures as an afterthought? Why do Ukrainians killed by Russia generate headlines, while deaths attributable to Mexican drug cartels — 100,000 Americans from drug overdoses annually – are treated as mere statistics?
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