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World roundup: January 27 2022
Stories from Tajikistan, Burkina Faso, Ukraine, and more
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Tonight’s roundup will be early and somewhat abbreviated due to a prior commitment.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 26, 1565: The Battle of Talikota
January 26, 1699: The Treaty of Karlowitz
January 26, 1788: The British First Fleet arrives at the future Port Jackson and plants a flag on Sydney Cove, marking the establishment of Britain’s penal colony in Australia. Annually commemorated as Australia Day.
January 27, 1944: The Soviet Red Army finally ends the 872 day Siege of Leningrad by driving off the last German forces still remaining in the vicinity of the city. Whether you go by the highest estimates, which put the death toll north of 5 million; the lowest, which put it around 1.2 million; or somewhere in between, Leningrad was one of the longest and deadliest military encounters in recorded history. Soviet casualties alone have been estimated at greater than the combined US and UK casualties suffered during all of World War II.
January 27, 1973: The United States, North Vietnam, South Vietnam, and the South Vietnamese Provisional Revolutionary Government all sign the Paris Peace Accords, marking the end of the Vietnam War. The deal called for the withdrawal of US forces from Vietnam and the imposition of a ceasefire, plus the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Laos and Cambodia. The ceasefire failed almost immediately, but the US was in no position to stop the eventual fall of South Vietnam in 1975.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
There’s a new version of COVID out there, in case you were getting bored with the current one. It’s not an entirely new variant but rather a “sub-variant” of Omicron that we’re apparently calling “Omicron BA.2.” Denmark appears to be the hub for this mutation but several countries, including the India, Singapore, and the UK, have reported Omicron BA.2 cases. Does this actually matter in any way? I have no idea. Danish and British health officials seem to think it may be more contagious than Omicron BA.1, but no more severe.
In significantly more positive health-related news, according to the Carter Center there were only 14 cases of Guinea worm diagnosed around the world in 2021. That’s down from 27 cases in 2020 and thus closer to the Carter Center’s goal of eradicating this particular disease. Only four countries reported new cases: Angola, Cameroon, Chad, and Sudan.
It would appear that the Syrian Democratic Forces militia spoke too soon when it declared on Wednesday that it was back in control of its prison facility in Hasakah. It now appears that dozens of rioting prisoners (presumably captured Islamic State fighters), perhaps 90 or more, are still holding out in a portion of the facility. They continued battling with SDF personnel on Thursday, and it sounds like at least two of the rioters were killed in that fighting. Scores of people have been killed since the fighting in and around the prison began a week ago, and thousands of Hasakah residents have been displaced. Some of the prisoners do appear to have escaped though given the chaos inside the facility it’s likely impossible for the SDF to determine how many.
Jordanian authorities reported on Thursday that a unit of soldiers intercepted a group of drug smugglers trying to enter the country from Syria (it’s unclear exactly where). They killed at least 27 smugglers in the ensuing clash. According to the Jordanians the smugglers were carrying amphetamines, which presumably means Captagon, and were “supported by other armed groups.” I’m not sure what that last bit is meant to imply, but Jordanian officials have been suggesting of late that Hezbollah and allied paramilitary units have been trafficking drugs across the border. Hezbollah has denied those allegations.
The autopsy of of 78 year old Palestinian-American Omar Asʿad has found that he did indeed die of a heart attack after being detained by Israeli occupation forces in the West Bank village of Jiljilya earlier this month, just as Israeli authorities have acknowledged. But it also shows signs that he was abused while in custody, including bruises, marks around his wrists from being tightly bound, and bleeding around his eyes from being tightly blindfolded. The Palestinian doctors that conducted the autopsy have concluded that his heart attack was caused by the treatment he received from Israeli personnel. There is exceedingly little chance that any of those Israeli personnel will face any sort of repercussion for their actions.
Asʿad’s case is unique insofar as he held US citizenship, which means a) his case was of interest to US media and b) the US government likely pressured the Israelis into taking this case somewhat seriously. Absent his US citizenship it’s likely the story would have received significantly less attention.
The Armenian government will be sending its foreign minister, Ararat Mirzoyan, to Turkey in March for high-level talks on normalizing relations between the two countries. Representatives of the two countries met earlier this month in Moscow for the first of what could be several rounds of talks. It’s unclear how far along they are in the process but the fact that they’ve apparently reached the ministerial level would seem to indicate that they’ve made significant headway in a relatively short period of time.
There’s been another skirmish between security forces on either side of the contentious Tajikistan-Kyrgyzstan border:
Border troops from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan engaged in a prolonged gun battle on January 27 in a clash that is alleged to have been triggered by Tajik troops blocking a strategic Kyrgyz highway running along the frontier.
The Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security said in a statement that around 7:35 p.m. Bishkek time, after the road was reopened following successful negotiations, Tajik border personnel opened fire at their Kyrgyz counterparts. Kyrgyz troops returned fire.
One bout of gunfire lasted at least an hour, according to one Eurasianet source in the Kyrgyz armed forces. As of 9:30 p.m. Bishkek-time, civilians in Tajikistan were still reporting hearing sustained gunfire.
Kyrgyz officials said skirmishes were concentrated around the Kyrgyz villages of Tort-Kocho and Chir-Dobo. Tajik troops used mortars and grenade launchers, they said.
Tajikistan has yet to comment on the situation and has offered no alternative account of events.
Local Tajik accounts have the Kyrgyz side firing the first shots. I haven’t seen any indication of fatalities but Russia’s Sputnik news outlet is reporting that at least six Tajik soldiers were wounded.. This violence is indicative of a broader issue in Central Asia that dates back to Soviet days. The highway in question runs through Kyrgyzstan but it connects Tajikistan proper to Volokh, a Tajik enclave within Kyrgyzstan. So both countries have some claim on it. These complex border arrangements, which weren’t all that complex when the region was all under one government, have been a recurring problem since that government ceased to exist.
The AP reports that Afghanistan’s already critical humanitarian crisis is becoming more critical as the country struggles through the winter:
The Taliban’s sweep to power in Afghanistan in August drove billions of dollars in international assistance out of the country and sent an already dirt-poor nation, ravaged by war, drought and floods, spiraling toward a humanitarian catastrophe.
But in recent weeks it is the bitter winter cold that is devastating the most vulnerable and has international aid organizations scrambling to save millions from starving or freezing because they have neither food nor fuel. For the poorest the only heat or means of cooking is with the coal or wood they can scrounge from the snowy streets or that they receive from aid groups.
“The extent of the problem now in Afghanistan for people is dire,” said Shelley Thakral, spokeswoman for the World Food Program in Afghanistan. “We’re calling this a race against time. We need to get to families in very difficult, hard to reach areas. It’s winter, it’s cold, the snow.”
Baluch separatists reportedly attacked a Pakistani military checkpoint in the country’s Baluchistan region late Tuesday, killing ten Pakistani soldiers. One attacker was also killed in the clash, which lasted into Wednesday morning. The Balochistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack.
Indonesian authorities say that one of their military outposts was attacked by separatist militants in Papua province on Tuesday. The attackers killed at least three Indonesian soldiers and wounded another. The rebel West Papua Liberation Army later confirmed that its fighters were responsible.
Sudanese security forces killed another anti-junta protester on Thursday, this time during a protest in Khartoum. They’ve now killed at least 78 protesters since October’s coup ousted Sudan’s civilian transitional government, according to the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors.
Islamic State fighters reportedly ambushed a security patrol being conducted by members of an ethnic Toubou militia in southwestern Libya on Thursday, killing at least three people. Libyan authorities are saying that at least four of the attackers were also killed in the fighting.
The Danish government has started withdrawing its military personnel from Mali, according to Foreign Minister Jeppe Kofod. Denmark had sent some 105 folks to Mali as part of the European “Task Force Takuba” counter-terrorism operation, but the Malian junta ordered them to depart earlier this week and claimed they’d arrived without permission. Danish authorities insist they deployed those personnel under a “clear invitation” from Bamako, but apparently decided it wasn’t worth debating the issue. I suspect this incident is going to have bigger repercussions in terms of the future of the Takuba operation and perhaps France’s military presence in Mali as well, but time will tell.
Writing for Responsible Statecraft, FX’s Alex Thurston argues that it’s time to reassess US security commitments in West Africa in light of Burkina Faso’s recent coup:
From Paris, Washington, Brussels, and Abuja, the reaction to the latest round of Sahelian and West African coups has been to decry them while quietly accepting them as done deals. A “political reality” sets in the moment each leader reluctantly signs a hastily drafted resignation letter under clear duress, a “reality” dictating that such leaders are never coming back. The “international community,” with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) as the lead negotiator, then haggles with each junta over the parameters of a transition back to civilian rule.
That template bogs regional diplomacy down in extended negotiations with juntas that are clearly willing to play outside the rules — a situation that has increasingly affected Mali. Paris and Washington, meanwhile, routinely appear overeager to get back to business as usual with whoever is in charge. In this case, business as usual means counterterrorism campaigns. Such campaigns are supposedly a means of boosting political stability, but in reality they constrain effective diplomatic responses to coups, corruption, electoral irregularities, and human rights abuses.
One risk of opposing these coups more vigorously is that it won’t work and the juntas will remain in power anyway, which will make the United States and company look ineffectual. But as Alex points out, the United States and company already look ineffectual when they mouth a commitment to democratic governance and human rights but then quietly acquiesce to these juntas. As long as the governments of the region keep killing jihadis, the West doesn’t really care how they came to power—even though there’s considerable evidence to suggest that coups only make the underlying security situation worse, leaving more space for militants to occupy.
The director of the Tigray Region’s health bureau, Hagos Godefay, has issued a new report estimating that at least 5000 people have been killed in Tigray by the humanitarian crisis sparked by the ongoing conflict between the Ethiopian government (and allies) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (and allies). That’s the largest estimate yet of the number of people killed indirectly (i.e., not in combat) in the war, and it’s likely an underestimate given that the war is ongoing and it’s undoubtedly difficult to track casualties in remote parts of the Tigray region. Starvation has been the main cause of death, but lack of access to medicine and medical equipment has also been a significant factor.
The European Union is taking a case against China, over its recent treatment of Lithuania, to the World Trade Organization. The EU is alleging that Beijing has been stranding Lithuanian exports and European exports that include Lithuanian inputs, at its ports of entry, as well as threatening companies with trade restrictions unless they excise Taiwan from their supply chains. The Chinese government is, as we’ve mentioned, angry over the opening of a Taiwanese representation office (a de-facto embassy) in Vilnius, and specifically over the fact that it uses the word “Taiwan,” rather than “Taipei,” or “Chinese Taipei,” or some other more acceptable euphemism.
A Ukrainian national guardsman opened fire at a missile factory in the city of Dnipro early Thursday, killing at least five security guards and one civilian before being taken into police custody. His motive is as yet unknown and there’s no reason to think it’s linked to the tensions between Ukraine and Russia—at least at this point. The US government has been sounding alarm bells about the possibility of a Russian-staged “false flag” operation that would provide a pretext for Moscow to order an invasion of Ukraine, but there’s nothing about this incident that would provide that pretext so I think we can probably rule that out as a motive.
Russian officials have offered their initial take on the written responses the US and NATO provided to Russian security demands on Wednesday and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they’re not terribly thrilled. That’s presumably because the answer to Russia’s two most significant demands—that NATO swear off future expansion or at least expansion into Ukraine and that it halt any further deployment of forces to Eastern Europe—was “no.” That said, Russian government spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that “there always are prospects for continuing a dialogue,” so it’s possible the Russians have found, or will find on further review, some element within the Western responses that could offer a basis for further negotiations.
The Russians, for whatever it’s worth, continue to deny harboring any aspirations of invading Ukraine. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba offered an upbeat—under the circumstances—assessment to reporters in Copenhagen on Thursday, arguing that Wednesday’s “Normandy Format” meeting likely delayed any invasion (if one is actually forthcoming) by at least two weeks. That’s not nothing. The next Normandy session could buy more time. Additionally, over the past day or so there seems to be a renewed sense of unity within NATO about potential responses to a Russian invasion, with the hitherto waffling German government seemingly on board suddenly with intensive sanctions like the closure of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. That may be a bluff, but it may also impact Moscow’s thinking about next steps.
German authorities revealed on Thursday that they arrested a Russian national on spying charges last June. The suspect is accused of passing information on the Ariane space launcher to the Russian government. The Germans haven’t released many details about this alleged spy, but unconfirmed reports say he was employed by the University of Augsburg. The arrest is obviously not new, but this announcement could harden German public sentiment against Russia at a time when that sort of thing may have wider implications (see above).
Italian legislators have still not settled on a new president after four rounds of voting, but there are indications that Friday’s fifth round could prove decisive. Over the course of the week the early (albeit tentative) favorite, Prime Minister Mario Draghi, has seen his odds diminish amid fears that plucking him out of the PM’s office could cause a collapse of his wobbly national unity coalition and force a snap election that nobody seems to want. Incumbent Sergio Mattarella has emerged as a candidate for reelection, even though he’s consistently said he would prefer to retire, and there’s a cadre of lesser-known figures who may also be in contention.
New Honduran President Xiomara Castro officially took office on Thursday, becoming the first woman to serve in that post. In her inaugural remarks she seemed to emphasize improving the Honduran economy, as well as tackling inequality and corruption. She cited all three as the main drivers of migration out of Honduras and toward the United States. Castro’s immediate concern may be more procedural than substantive. She needs to sort out the discord currently rending the Honduran Congress in order to have some shot at passing her legislative agenda.
Finally, over at The Baffler journalist Jonathan Katz has written an excellent recounting of the origins and development of US black sites:
Victory over the fascists and imperial Japan in World War II, as well as the emerging rivalry with the Soviets, strengthened American planners’ need to preserve their image as the avatar of liberal democracy. It was also the era when the last of the old European empires were breaking up in a wave of decolonization and independence struggles across Asia and Africa. An idea emerged at the Pentagon to address both concerns: Instead of subjugating entire peoples, why not just take the space we need and build a base far from prying eyes and major population centers? Dubbed the “Strategic Island Concept” in 1958 by a little-known civilian naval planner named Stuart B. Barber, it was first implemented over the following decade on the island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. By 1971, the entire native population of the tiny island had been expelled.
This was not a strictly new idea: it was similar to how Washington approached its first target of overseas expansionism, when it seized in perpetuity otherwise uninhabited land for a naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Nor did it fully supplant the earlier forms of U.S. colonialism in Puerto Rico and elsewhere. But within this imperial palimpsest emerged what historian Daniel Immerwahr has called our “pointillist empire”—a system of some eight hundred bases in over seventy countries. This hidden network—representing more than 75 percent of all foreign bases held by any country in the world—is used for surveillance, broadcasting, and a variety of physical operations including barracks, runways, repair shops, jails, and ports. Some of these activities are admitted to in public. Others are covert, known in U.S. government argot as “black ops.”
In the years following the September 11 attacks, the hidden bases took on a purpose that seemed new to many. George W. Bush’s administration and his CIA embarked on what they called the “extraordinary rendition” and “enhanced interrogation” of terror suspects, often with the cooperation of client states like Poland, Thailand, and Afghanistan. The Somozas would have immediately recognized it as a program of kidnapping and torture.