World roundup: July 20 2023
Stories from Iraq, China, South Africa, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
July 20, 1402: The Battle of Ankara
July 20, 1969: The crew of Apollo 11 carries out the first manned landing on the moon. Very early the following morning, mission commander Neil Armstrong became the first human being (as far as we know, anyway; I don’t want to upset any Ancient Aliens fans) to walk on the lunar surface. Possibly you’ve heard about this before so I don’t think we need to go into much detail.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
European Union foreign ministers collectively agreed on Thursday to “re-engage with Turkey,” as EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell put it, but unsurprisingly did not endorse reviving Turkey’s EU accession process. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan floated just such a revival earlier this month in return for Turkey agreeing to drop its block on Sweden’s NATO accession. Even he knew that was a nonstarter, and he ultimately agreed to back Sweden’s NATO bid (well, maybe) without any EU guarantees. But there are ways the EU and Turkey could improve their relationship—an enhanced trade deal, an agreement to allow Turkish passport holders to enter the EU’s free travel zone, restarting some sort of Cyprus peace process (though Erdoğan’s insistence on Turkish Cypriot independence doesn’t make for much common ground with the EU)—and that seems to be what the foreign ministers were thinking.
With the Swedish government having granted permission to another Quran defiling protest in Stockholm on Thursday, protesters in Baghdad stormed the Swedish embassy in an early morning attack, setting at least one fire within the facility. The Iraqi government denounced the embassy attack but subsequently expelled Sweden’s ambassador and recalled its own ambassador from Stockholm over the protest. Ultimately the protest organizer, an Iraqi refugee named Salwan Momika, opted not to burn the book (as he did in a similar event last month) but rather to step on it.
In addition to the geopolitical repercussions, which will likely spread beyond Iraq, the Swedish Quran affair has provided an entrée back into politics for Iraqi preacher Muqtada al-Sadr, whose followers marched on the Swedish embassy after last month’s Quran burning and were responsible for Thursday’s embassy attack. Sadr annouced the latest of his multiple “retirements” from politics about a year ago and to be honest it’s surprising this one has lasted this long. He could recede into the background again once this episode is over but let’s just say I have my doubts that he will.
Israeli forces killed at least one Palestinian and wounded four others during a pre-dawn clash with militants in the West Bank city of Nablus. Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s al-Quds Brigades said that its Nablus unit confronted Israeli soldiers who were leading a group of pilgrims to “Joseph’s Tomb,” a site venerated by Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Samaritans. It’s unclear how many (if any) of the casualties were PIJ fighters.
Elsewhere, the Israeli government is now allowing Palestinian-Americans who reside in the West Bank and Gaza to enter Israel, ending a long-standing two-tiered border system for US passport holders. That system has prevented Israel from being admitted to the US government’s Visa Waiver Program, which allows citizens of participating countries to make short-term visits to the US without obtaining a visa. US officials are planning to monitor implementation of the new policy for at least the next six weeks before they make a determination about Israel’s VWP eligibility. In theory the new policy will allow Palestinian-Americans to fly into Israel and then transit to the West Bank or Gaza. Previously they were required to enter the territories via Jordan and Egypt, respectively. They will also be able to apply for entry into Israel proper at land crossings into the territories.
The Washington Post looks at the Afghan Taliban’s efforts to exploit Afghanistans seemingly vast lithium reserves, with Chinese help:
A decade earlier, the U.S. Defense Department, guided by the surveys of American government geologists, concluded that the vast wealth of lithium and other minerals buried in Afghanistan might be worth $1 trillion, more than enough to prop up the country’s fragile government. In a 2010 memo, the Pentagon’s Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, which examined Afghanistan’s development potential, dubbed the country the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” A year later, the U.S. Geological Survey published a map showing the location of major deposits and highlighted the magnitude of the underground wealth, saying Afghanistan “could be considered as the world’s recognized future principal source of lithium.”
But now, in a great twist of modern Afghan history, it is the Taliban — which overthrew the U.S.-backed government two years ago — that is finally looking to exploit those vast lithium reserves, at a time when the soaring global popularity of electric vehicles is spurring an urgent need for the mineral, a vital ingredient in their batteries. By 2040, demand for lithium could rise 40-fold from 2020 levels, according to the International Energy Agency.
Afghanistan remains under intense international pressure — isolated politically and saddled with U.S. and multilateral sanctions because of human rights concerns, in particular the repression of women, and Taliban links to terrorism. The tremendous promise of lithium, however, could frustrate Western efforts to squeeze the Taliban into changing its extremist ways. And with the United States absent from Afghanistan, it is Chinese companies that are now aggressively positioning themselves to reap a windfall from lithium here — and, in doing so, further tighten China’s grasp on much of the global supply chain for EV minerals.
Pakistani Taliban (TTP) militants killed at least six Pakistani police officers in two incidents in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Thursday. Overnight, TTP gunmen killed two police officers in Peshawar, and then a few hours later two TTP suicide bombers killed at least four officers and wounded 11 other people when they attacked a government compound near the Afghan border.
The European Union on Thursday blacklisted six individuals and one entity connected to Myanmar’s ruling junta. This was the seventh round of EU Myanmar sanctions, which have now encompassed 99 people and 19 entities.
Taiwanese Vice President William Lai, considered the favorite to win next year’s presidential election, is planning to make a “stopover” in the US next month. Taiwanese politicians frequently schedule what are officially long layovers in the US while on the way to and from Latin America—in this case, Lai is visiting Paraguay—in order to meet US officials without technically breaching any diplomatic norms as the US does not formally recognize Taiwan as a nation. These visits rankle the Chinese government, whose ambassador to the US said that preventing Lai’s visit was a “priority” for Beijing. But the fallout is generally not severe.
US climate envoy John Kerry wrapped up his visit to China on Wednesday by agreeing with his Chinese counterpart, Xie Zhenhua, to keep talking. This was about the best outcome that could have been expected, as Kerry’s visit was really more about rebuilding some semblance of a diplomatic connection between two countries whose governments are increasingly at odds with one another. On the subject of diplomacy, it’s somewhat odd that Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang was absent from Kerry’s negotiations and indeed hasn’t been seen in public since June 25. The Chinese Foreign Ministry alluded to health issues when Qin failed to appear at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit last week, but without elaborating. His absence may be that simple or it could be that he’s on Chinese President Xi Jingping’s naughty list for some unknown reason.
Meanwhile, at a time when US-Chinese relations do seem to be improving a bit, The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Chinese hackers have targeted a number of Biden administration officials:
Hackers linked to Beijing accessed the email account of the U.S. ambassador to China, Nicholas Burns, in an attack that is believed to have compromised at least hundreds of thousands of individual U.S. government emails, according to people familiar with the matter.
Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, was also hacked in the cyber-espionage attack, the people said. The two diplomats are believed to be the two most senior officials at the State Department targeted in the alleged spying campaign disclosed last week, one of the people said.
The contours of the campaign aren’t fully known. Though limited to unclassified emails, the inboxes of Burns and Kritenbrink could have allowed the hackers to glean insights into U.S. planning for a recent string of visits to China by senior Biden administration officials, as well as internal conversations about U.S. policies toward its rival amid a period of delicate diplomacy that has been challenged repeatedly in recent months.
Burns and Kritenbrink are the second and third senior Biden administration officials to be identified in news reports as having their emails hacked. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo’s email account was also compromised in the breach, U.S. officials have said.
The timing here is not ideal. Even if this story is inaccurate or overblown the political fallout could lead to another diplomatic freeze like the one that took place in the wake of the Balloon of Death escapade earlier this year.
The North Korean government has apparently not been forthcoming about the status of US service member Travis King, who defected to North Korea earlier this week. Biden administration officials say they’re hopeful about securing King’s release into US custody, though since it was King himself who fled north to escape US custody it’s unclear how that would work, exactly.
Australian military personnel were able on Thursday to successfully disarm the unexploded 500 pound World War II relic bomb whose discovery had put the entire island of Nauru under a state of emergency earlier this week. Authorities had asked all of Nauru’s residents to stay home while the recovery operation was underway and had evacuated anyone within two kilometers of the device—a large chunk of territory on an island whose total land mass is about 21 square kilometers.
There were reports of heavy fighting on Thursday between the Sudanese military and Rapid Support Forces in the Khartoum area as well as the city of El-Obeid, capital of North Kordofan province. An apparent RSF drone strike in the southern part of Khartoum killed at least 13 people. Interestingly the two commanders, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, released proof of life material on Thursday (a video clip in Burhan’s case and an audio recording in Dagalo’s). The Sudanese people are no doubt relieved to know they’re both doing OK.
At least two people were reportedly killed in clashes between police and anti-government protesters in the city of Kisumu on Wednesday. There have also been multiple reports of protesters wounded by live fire from security forces across the country. Supporters of opposition leader Raila Odinga have been organizing demonstrations this month over President William Ruto’s tax increases and the overall cost of living in Kenya, and the state response has been brutal. The AP is reporting that at least six protesters have been killed this week and at least 33 in total since the demonstrations began.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
A bomb killed at least nine people and wounded 12 more in the Rutshuru district of the DRC’s North Kivu province on Wednesday. It’s unclear who was responsible for planting the device but given the militancy crisis in that province there are no shortage of candidates. M23 rebels have apparently been fighting in the area where the bomb went off so they’re probably the top suspect.
According to Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer, the war in Ukraine has put considerable stress on the US-South African relationship:
Top U.S. and South African officials and lawmakers have engaged in a flurry of behind-the-scenes diplomacy to try to salvage ties that have been roiled by South Africa’s support of Russia in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
South Africa has long maintained a special relationship with Moscow, dating back to the Soviet Union’s support for the resistance movement against the racist apartheid South African regime that fell in the early 1990s. But ever since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, South Africa has faced growing pressure from the West to rethink its bond with Moscow and its support for Russia amid the war, leading to a series of diplomatic headaches that have shaken ties between the United States and South Africa and led to calls in Washington for a complete overhaul of the relationship.
The Biden administration on Thursday blacklisted 120 people and entities ostensibly to help bar Russia from accessing electronic products and to help minimize Russian mining revenue. These include “dual use” electronics that have military applications. The EU, meanwhile, blacklisted 13 individuals and five entities allegedly involved in human rights abuses inside Russia. Among them is the director of the penal facility where Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny is being held.
The United Kingdom blacklisted 13 people and entities connected with the now Belarusian-based Wagner Group and its operations in the Central African Republic, Mali, and Sudan. Wagner has at one time or another been active in all three countries and has been accused of numerous human rights abuses in the CAR and Mali especially. There have been claims that the group is aiding the RSF in Sudan though I haven’t seen any substantiation of those claims. Wagner fighters are currently occupying themselves by training the Belarusian military, which one assumes was part of the deal that brought them to Belarus following Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed mutiny in Russia.
More overnight Russian airstrikes on the Ukrainian port cities of Odessa and Mykolaiv left at least two people dead in the former and 19 wounded in the latter. Russian officials say they’re still retaliating for Ukraine’s attack on the Crimean Bridge earlier this week. Meanwhile, tensions are unsurprisingly escalating in the Black Sea in the wake of Russia’s decision to scrap the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Moscow has threatened to attack any cargo ships heading for Ukrainian-controlled ports and US officials are claiming that Russia may attempt to attack civilian vessels while framing Ukraine. The Ukrainians have obliquely threatened to attack cargo ships heading for Russian-held Black Sea ports, which could be a bluff to force the Russians to pay higher insurance premiums for such vessels. Worldwide grain prices are continuing to rise in the wake of the deal’s collapse.
According to Reuters, Chilean President Gabriel Boric’s plans to ‘responsibly’ exploit his country’s substantial lithium reserves, if such a thing is even possible, are running headlong into stiff opposition from Indigenous communities who live in northern Chilean regions where those reserves are located. Boric is eager to turn those reserves into what could be a major revenue generator, but he’s pledged to do so in ways that protect the environment and are respectful of Indigenous rights. But environmentally responsible lithium mining techniques are at best experimental and Indigenous communities seem skeptical to say the least. Internally, leaders of those communities are in disagreement with one another, with some holding out for a greater share of lithium profits and others seemingly opposed to extraction altogether.
Continuing with tonight’s lithium themed newsletter, Bolivian President Luis Arce declared on Thursday that his country is home to some 23 million tons of the material, around 2 million more than previously estimated. Note that this is an estimate of Bolivia’s total lithium resources, not its reserves.1 Bolivia is home to more known lithium resources than any other country in the world, though little work has been done even to assess their commercial viability let alone to begin exploiting them. Arce’s government has put substantial effort into attracting investment from mining firms.
Protests against interim Peruvian President Dina Boluarte and her government kicked off again in Lima and Peru’s Andean regions on Wednesday, with security forces responding violently as expected. At least six civilians and two police officers were reportedly injured amid apparently heavy police use of tear gas. At least 67 people were killed in a previous round of protests earlier this year, sparked by the ouster and imprisonment of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo.
Finally, Spencer Ackerman at Forever Wars notes that elite members of the foreign policy Blob still don’t seem to understand that they’re part of the problem:
RICHARD HAASS doesn't recognize his country anymore. "Our domestic political situation is not only one that others don't want to emulate," the outgoing president of the Council on Foreign Relations recently lamented to the New York Times’ Peter Baker. "But I also think that it’s introduced a degree of unpredictability and a lack of reliability that’s really poisonous. For America’s ability to function successfully in the world, I mean, it makes it very hard for our friends to depend on us." Foreign contacts tell him they don't know if Trump is the norm for America or if Biden is. Haass now reluctantly concludes that the biggest threat to global security is "us," an assessment Baker notes is "never a thought this global strategist would have entertained until recently."
Leave it to the president of the Council on Foreign Relations to have never before entertained the idea that the premiere danger to the world is the United States of America. Leave it to him, as well, to avoid the sense in which that's actually true—that is, the bloody, exploitative and destabilizing manner in which America has exercised its economic and military power during its rise from continental conqueror to hemispheric overlord to Cold War team captain to global hegemon. Instead, Haass means that it's dangerous for the world if America, wracked by fissures at home, no longer exercises that power.
To forestall the collapse of American global leadership, Haass wrote a book about the obligations of citizenship, the Times reports, which tells me that he doesn't have a critique to explain the "domestic political situation" he laments. In that, he would be typical, in my experience, of U.S. foreign policy practitioners. They tend to see their enterprise as distinct from the tumult of domestic politics, and earnestly agonize when the tumult reaches them. That reach indeed can be brutal, as Masha Yovanovitch learned when she became an obstacle to Donald Trump using Ukrainian security dependence on Washington for his personal benefit.
But there are not two United Stateses of America, one handling domestic and the other handling foreign affairs. There is only one United States of America. What it does abroad is what it does at home. Richard Haass sure helped America do what it did abroad. It seems not to have occurred to him that work would leave an impact here at home.
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Mineral reserves are that portion of a country’s total resources that have been assessed as commercially viable, though the terms are sometimes conflated.