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World roundup: January 25 2022
Stories from Egypt, Burkina Faso, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 24, 41: The Roman Praetorian Guard assassinates the sitting emperor, Caligula, for…well, a bunch of reasons, including the regular ridicule he heaped upon the Guard’s commander, his (alleged) plans to move the imperial capital to Alexandria, and his, shall we say, grandiose sense of self. With no real plan in place for succession, another Guard faction smuggled Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, out of the city and he was subsequently proclaimed emperor. Claudius turned out to be a competent emperor, and modern historians tend to put him in the “good” (or sometimes even “very good”) tier when ranking Roman rulers. His reputation definitely benefits by comparison with both his predecessor and his successor (Nero).
January 24, 1984: Apple begins selling its a new computer it calls the “Macintosh.” As this very newsletter is being written on a Mac, I would have to say the product turned out to be fairly successful.
January 25, 750: The Battle of the Zab
January 25, 1971: A Ugandan military coup led by General Idi Amin overthrows the socialist regime of President Milton Obote. Amin would rule as a brutally authoritarian dictator until he was ousted during the Uganda-Tanzania War of 1979.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Fighting is continuing to rage around an Syrian Democratic Forces-run prison in Hasakah, where inmates began rioting last week in conjunction with an Islamic State attack on the facility. Part of the prison is still under the control of the rioters, while SDF officials seem to be looking for a way to resolve the situation short of an all-out assault. The SDF said on Tuesday that its forces had rescued nine SDF personnel who’d been taken hostage by the inmates. It’s unclear how many more hostages the inmates are holding, if any, but that could be one of the factors causing the SDF to hold off on an attack. It’s still impossible to get solid information as to casualties, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is claiming that at least 160 people have been killed since Thursday, 45 from the SDF and the rest from among the inmates and the IS fighters who attacked the prison. I suspect there are considerably more than that, especially given reports that the US-led coalition has been conducting airstrikes on the prison in coordination with the SDF forces on the ground.
Most of Yemen now has internet service again, five days after a Saudi airstrike destroyed a telecommunications facility in Hudaydah and took much of the country offline. Rebel administrators in northern Yemen were apparently able to make repairs to that facility without drawing further strikes. It’s unclear whether they were in contact with the Saudis about that work—I haven’t seen any reports that they were, but it’s hard to imagine workers undertaking those repairs without some assurance that they weren’t risking their lives to do so.
A rocket attack on the home of Iraqi parliament speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi in Anbar province left two children wounded late Tuesday. There’s been no claim of responsibility, but Halbousi’s election as speaker was contested by an alliance of Shiʿa parties that includes the political front for Iraq’s militias, so I think you can piece together a motive here. A few hours earlier, Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court rejected their legal challenge to Halbousi’s election, which could have been the trigger for the rocket attack.
It sounds like that plea deal former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s lawyers were negotiating with Israeli prosecutors is on shaky ground. Netanyahu released a video on Monday pledging to continue leading the now-opposition Likud Party, which means he’s not going to plead guilty to a “moral turpitude” charge as prosecutors are demanding. Such a plea would bar Netanyahu from holding office for seven years. It’s possible prosecutors will simply drop that charge and cut a deal with Netanyahu anyway, or that Netanyahu will reconsider and accept a deal that will end his political career. But another complication appears to have emerged in reports that Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit, whose six year term will end on February 1, doesn’t want to spend his last week in office dealing with this case and will let his successor handle it. Which could mean that whatever deal Team Netanyahu and Team Mandelblit were discussing could now be off the table altogether.
According to Al-Monitor’s Baher al-Kady, the Egyptian government has officially claimed “water poverty” status:
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has recently revealed that his country has reached the stage of water poverty with less than 500 cubic meters of water per capita a year.
Speaking to foreign reporters on the sidelines of the World Youth Forum’s fourth edition in Sharm el-Sheikh on Jan. 13, Sisi noted that the global water level is set at 1,000 cubic meters per capita a year.
He said that the volume of water falling on the Ethiopian Highlands amounts to 900 billion cubic meters, which means that Egypt’s and Sudan’s shares do not exceed 10% of the rainfall in Ethiopia.
Mohamed Nasr al-Din Allam, a former Egyptian irrigation minister, told Al-Monitor that water poverty, as defined by the World Bank, is when a country’s renewable internal freshwater resources per capita is less than 1,000 cubic meters annually, which is the minimum rate to meet the citizens’ needs of water and food.
Egypt’s population has nearly doubled since 1990. Its one consistent water source, the Nile River, has stayed pretty much the same, as tends to be the case with geological features. The shortfall helps explain why Cairo is so concerned about the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which sits on the Blue Nile, and the impact the GERD’s reservoir could have on downstream water levels. This public statement by Sisi could be an attempt to refocus international attention on the GERD dispute, which has moved to the back burner amid Sudan’s ongoing political crisis and Ethiopia’s ongoing civil war.
Taliban and Western representatives wrapped up their confab in Oslo on Tuesday with, as was probably to be expected, no breakthroughs on increasing humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Instead the Taliban seems to have left Oslo with some vague partial commitments of support for humanitarian relief, particularly in support of Afghanistan’s healthcare and education sectors, while Western diplomats linked the provision of future aid to Taliban improvements on human rights. There does not seem to have been any progress on, say, lifting sanctions on the Taliban for the purposes of facilitating aid. The Taliban seem to be viewing this two-day affair as the first step toward gaining international recognition for their government, though I’m not sure that’s realistic. Norwegian officials, who hosted the talks, were fairly insistent that nothing about them should imply legal recognition.
Unknown gunmen shot and killed a police officer who was guarding a polio vaccination team in the city of Kohad, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, on Tuesday. There’s been no claim of responsibility but given the location, and the nature of the target, the Pakistani Taliban was most likely involved.
The North Korean military apparently conducted another weapons test on Tuesday, firing two projectiles that the South Korean military believes were cruise missiles though that’s still a preliminary assessment. There are no international restrictions on North Korea’s ability to test cruise missiles, in contrast with the restrictions the United Nations has imposed on its ballistic missile testing.
At least two Senegalese soldiers were killed and nine others went missing on Monday when their unit came under attack while on an operation to counter timber trafficking in The Gambia. Details here seem to be spotty, but Senegalese officials are blaming the rebel Movement of Democratic Forces for Casamance (MFDC) group for the attack. The MFDC seeks independence for the Casamance region, which lies just south of The Gambia and is somewhat disconnected from the rest of Senegal as a result (there’s a helpful map here). One rebel was killed in the clash. Senegalese authorities say they’re attempting to recover the nine missing soldiers, who are believed to be held captive by the rebels.
The Danish government says that the roughly 90 military personnel it recently sent to Mali were sent there on the “clear invitation” of Malian authorities. Bamako ordered those personnel to leave the country on Monday, contending that it hadn’t given permission for them to arrive in the first place. The Danish forces are part of the European “Task Force Takuba” advisory operation, which is supposed to be supplementing the French counter-terrorism mission in Mali. The dispute could ultimately mean the end of Takuba, if relations between the Malian junta and European leaders don’t improve.
“Hundreds” of people gathered in Ouagadougou on Tuesday to demonstrate in support of the military junta that has ousted former President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré and seized control of the country. Many of them had probably participated in the substantially less cheerful recent demonstrations against Kaboré over his failure to reduce the level of jihadist violence in the country. On that front they may wind up being disappointed, because there’s no apparent reason to believe that the junta will have any better success in dealing with jihadist militants than Kaboré’s government did—particularly not with the international community beginning to weigh in against this week’s coup with sanctions likely to follow. Burkinabé security forces have been complaining about a lack of resources, and while their takeover could allow them to shift some resources toward battling the militants it’s unlikely to do anything to increase the overall amount of resources they have available.
One effect this coup will have is to further reduce the capacity for the Economic Community of West African States to demand a return to civilian governance. ECOWAS exists in part to nurture the incumbent governments of its member states and so it’s taken a dim view of the juntas that have seized power in Guinea and Mali. The bloc has imposed harsh sanctions on both countries in an effort to force a faster transition back to civilian rule, and the rest of the international community has followed its lead. But the more countries that find themselves on ECOWAS’s blacklist, the less effective that blacklist becomes. The Malian and Guinean juntas are already starting to work together to reduce the sanctions’ economic impact, and the Burkinabé junta will likely join them if it winds up facing similar penalties.
The rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front announced on Tuesday that its forces have reentered Afar province, a new escalation in Ethiopia’s ongoing civil war. The TPLF’s statement cited an unspecified “threat” posed by government and/or allied forces in Afar and insisted that it “does not have a plan to remain in Afar for long nor does it wish to see the conflict deteriorate further,” though further deterioration may be unavoidable at this point. The TPLF pulled its forces out of the Afar and Amhara regions back into Tigray last month, so this is a sort of “one step forward, one step back” development.
On maybe a more positive note, the head of the American Ethiopian Public Affairs Committee, Mesfin Tegenu, held a private meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed over the weekend and now says Abiy pledged in that meeting to hold “reasonable negotiations” with the TPLF on finally ending this conflict. Unfortunately, it sounds like Abiy’s plan is to keep the TPLF bottled up in Tigray until the Tigrayan population forces its leaders to open peace talks. If the TPLF isn’t bottled up anymore, the scenario Abiy outlined in that meeting would no longer seem applicable.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Two villages in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province were attacked late Sunday, likely by Allied Democratic Forces fighters. The attackers killed at least 12 people and destroyed several homes during their rampage, according to Reuters.
The Lithuanian government may change the name of the Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius in deference to Beijing. The Chinese government is angry about the use of “Taiwanese,” and as a result it’s downgraded its own diplomatic representation in Vilnius and has taken some steps to interrupt Lithuanian commercial activity. Other such offices, which are embassies in all but name, use “Taipei” to avoid triggering Chinese sensitivities. Lithuanian officials are proposing a change to something like “the Taiwanese people.” It’s unclear whether that would be enough to get China to ease up.
The Ukrainian government is stressing that it doesn’t believe a Russian invasion is imminent, with Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov delivering that message to parliament and President Volodymyr Zelensky taking to TV to deliver it to the Ukrainian people. They’re correct, in that there are troop movements the Russian military would likely have to undertake before an invasion that they haven’t made yet and that satellites would detect.
But the Ukrainians seem to be the only ones trying to deliver this message. Western leaders are still mostly talking as though an invasion is imminent. Joe Biden is threatening to impose harsh sanctions, perhaps even on Vladimir Putin personally, in the event of an invasion, while Boris Johnson is resurrecting the idea of cutting Russia banks off from the SWIFT financial network. The Canadian government is pulling diplomats’ families out of Ukraine. The US government is coordinating with energy companies about facilitating the supply of natural gas to Europe, which could support an unlikely-but-not-impossible European boycott of Russian gas. And of course NATO and the US have now put military forces on standby for possible deployment to support eastern NATO member states.
Although you might not know it from the tenor of news coverage in the US and other Western countries, there is apparently some disagreement among Western governments and commentators as to whether the Russians really plan to invade or are feigning it so as to destabilize Ukraine and/or try to gain some sort of concession from the West. If Putin is bluffing, though, it might be helpful if he gave NATO some inclination as to what he would be willing to accept, since the demands he’s made thus far are non-starters for the alliance. Instead, he keeps announcing new military drills provocatively close to the Ukrainian border, the latest of which are set to take place in Crimea—which, technically at least, is actually part of Ukraine.
Italian legislators have been through two rounds of voting without settling on a new president. Most of them are submitting blank ballots, in fact, which explains why a former judge named Paolo Maddalena “led” the second round voting with a whopping 39 votes. There are around 1000 people voting in this election, so Maddalena is slightly shy of the two-thirds majority he’d need to be elected. The uncertainty surrounding this vote could dissipate after the next round, as from the fourth round on the threshold drops from two-thirds to a simple majority, but who knows? Prime Minister Mario Draghi is still probably the favorite to wind up president in the end, but clearly the voters are worried about the effect that Draghi’s departure from the PM job might have on his tenuous national unity coalition.
A somewhat surprising poll released Tuesday has Portugal’s Social Democratic Party hurtling into the lead ahead of Sunday’s snap election. The survey, from the pollster Aximage, gives the Social Democrats 34.4 percent support, ahead of Prime Minister António Costa’s Socialist Party at 33.8 percent. A previous Aximage poll released last week had the Socialists ahead, 38.5-28.5. This poll seems like it might be an outlier, but there does appear to have been some overall movement in the Social Democrats’ direction in the past couple of weeks, so the election could be a pretty close affair. And since neither party seems anywhere near winning a sole majority, the post-election coalition process could add more uncertainty to the outcome.
Colombian President Iván Duque announced on Monday that a senior figure in the ex-Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) militant community, Euclides España AKA “Jhonier,” has been killed in a clash with Colombian security forces. The Colombian military says he was killed in an engagement in Cauca state but I haven’t seen any mention of when this clash took place.
Taiwanese Vice President William Lai headed to Honduras on Tuesday to attend soon-to-be Honduran President Xiomara Castro’s inauguration later this week. Beyond congratulating Castro on her big day, Lai—who is set to meet with the president-elect on Wednesday—is hoping to shore up the Taiwan-Honduras relationship. Castro suggested during her presidential campaign that, if elected, she might cut ties with Taiwan and open diplomatic relations with Beijing. She’s backed off of that a bit since winning the election, possibly under some pressure from the United States, but the possibility is still out there. With Taipei anxious not to lose one of the 14 remaining countries that still recognize it diplomatically, Lai will be offering Castro some enticements (he mentioned COVID aid and I would imagine some commercial projects might be on the table) to keep her on side.
Finally, at his Nonzero Newsletter Bob Wright ponders whether one of my favorite foreign policy concepts—cognitive empathy—could have prevented the current crisis in Ukraine:
I’m now going to do an extended thought experiment that involves putting ourselves in the Russian leader’s shoes—so extended that it goes back to 1998, before Putin was Russia’s leader. And I’m going to argue that a series of American presidents—Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama—have led us toward the current crisis by repeatedly failing to take serious account of the Russian leadership’s perspective.
This exercise puts a lot of pressure on me! I’m an evangelist on behalf of “cognitive empathy”—understanding how other people view the world (which doesn’t mean “feeling their pain,” or identifying with their feelings at all—that’s “emotional empathy”). In my sermonizing, I sometimes go so far as to claim that humankind must upgrade its cognitive empathy skills if the world’s nations are to solve the many non-zero-sum problems they face and thus avert a planetary spiral toward chaos if not doom. (Hence the name of this newsletter, Nonzero.) Well, if cognitive empathy is that powerful, then surely I can show how it could have made a difference in the case of Ukraine?
Yes, I think I can.
But before we start our quarter-century-long journey, I have a small favor to ask: Please abandon the common assumption that to explain why people do things is to justify their doing those things. When I say “Look at things from Putin’s perspective,” I don’t mean, “Don’t you think any of us would have done exactly what he did in reaction to American actions, and therefore he deserves no blame?” I just mean, “Don’t you think, if American leaders had seriously pondered Putin’s perspective, they might have anticipated the possibility of some sort of adverse reaction, and changed course accordingly?”
Or, to boil it down further: “Don’t you think if American leaders had consistently exercised cognitive empathy, we might not be in the mess we’re in today?”
This is an excellent essay and well worth your time. The consistent inability of US officials to comprehend what might be motivating other world leaders is one of the fundamental reasons why Washington’s foreign policy establishment is so broken. It’s not a uniquely American problem, to be sure—Putin doesn’t seem to have very much capacity for cognitive empathy himself—but as The World’s Only Superpower®, America’s failings on this front can be particularly dangerous.