Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: March 21 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Ukraine, Haiti, and elsewhere
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
PROGRAMMING NOTE: I realize there are some folks who like to listen to these roundups through their podcast apps but I’m unfortunately dealing with a sore throat so we may have to shelve the voiceover for a few days.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
March 20, 1815: Having escaped exile on the island of Elba, Napoleon makes his triumphant return to Paris as emperor, beginning the “100 days” epilogue to his reign. He would abdicate again on June 22, after losing the Battle of Waterloo and realizing on his return to Paris that there was little public appetite to resist the coalition forces that were marching on the city.
March 21, 1814: At the Battle of Arcis-sur-Aube, Napoleon is successfully able to disengage his army and retreat in order in the face of a much larger Austrian-Russian-Bavarian opponent. Though a tactical success for the French army, strategically the retreat allowed the Allies to move closer to Paris, and that’s a big part of the reason why this battle was the second-to-last engagement Napoleon fought before the Allies forced him into his first exile.
March 21, 1935: Iranian ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi’s request that the rest of the world call his country “Iran” instead of “Persia” officially takes effect.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Syrian media is reporting a number of presumably Israeli airstrikes early Wednesday on targets including Aleppo’s international airport. There are no further details as yet but there may be more to say in tomorrow’s roundup.
Protests resumed across parts of Lebanon on Tuesday as the Lebanese pound rode a two-day crash to an all-time low of more than 140,000 per US dollar before rebounding (at last check it was trading at 108,000 per dollar). The Lebanese central bank announced a dollar sale at 90,000 pounds, which seems to have triggered the recovery. Meanwhile, gas stations and other commercial outlets are closing due to the currency fluctuations and demonstrators are blocking major national highways.
The Israeli Knesset on Tuesday rescinded part of a law it passed in 2005 that closed a number of settlements in Gaza and the West Bank. That 2005 bill was the centerpiece of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan, which sought to pull out of Gaza altogether and to reduce the Israeli footprint in the West Bank. Tuesday’s legislation maintains the ban on Gaza settlements but reopens previously shuttered sites near the West Bank city of Nablus. Gaza remains off limits, at least for now. Obviously this is another major win for the settler political movement, and it’s presumably one way this Israeli government can continue to expand West Bank settlements without technically authorizing any “new” settlement construction. The US State Department noted that it was “extremely troubled” by Tuesday’s vote, but as ever there’s little to no chance that US uneasiness will be reflected in any way beyond the purely rhetorical.
Saudi authorities released 72 year old US-Saudi dual citizen Saad Ibrahim Almadi from prison on Tuesday, though he is banned from leaving the kingdom. The Saudis arrested Almadi in November 2021 essentially for criticizing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Twitter, and later sentenced him to 16 years in prison (later increased to 19 years) on a variety of charges. The Biden administration has been trying to secure his release and apparently their efforts finally succeeded though it’s not entirely clear why.
The Biden administration on Tuesday blacklisted four entities and three individuals with ties to Iran’s military drone manufacturing sector. Among other things they’re accused of dodging sanctions in order to procure drone components.
According to The Wall Street Journal, a number of people—even members of the Taliban—are defying Afghan leader Hibatullah Akhundzada’s prohibition on girls’ education:
Afghan society changed during the two decades the Taliban was out of power. Women were allowed to move more freely in cities, join the workforce and attend school. At the time of the 2022 ban, there were 1.1 million girls in secondary school, or roughly half of girls in urban areas aged 13 to 18. The Taliban has changed too. Many members traveled and lived outside the country, in places such as neighboring Pakistan, where both men and women get a formal education.
Now secret schools, often in houses, have sprouted across Afghanistan. Although some have been forced to close when discovered, and at least one teacher was briefly arrested in Kabul last month, many of them have continued to operate despite the Taliban’s tight grip on the country.
A small minority of the Taliban are even sending their own daughters to illicit schools. Others have sent female relatives abroad to study, especially in neighboring Pakistan.
Taliban ministers have traveled repeatedly to Kandahar, where Mullah Haibatullah lives in seclusion, to press their leader in private to relent, including a testy gathering this month, said Taliban officials and foreign diplomats.
Unspecified militants attacked a Pakistani intelligence unit in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Tuesday, killing a senior Inter Services Intelligence officer and wounding seven other ISI personnel. There’s been no claim of responsibility but given the location it seems likely this was a Pakistani Taliban operation.
The Taiwanese government has confirmed that President Tsai Ing-wen will stop in the United States on her way to and from an extended trip to Central America that will begin later this month. Tsai’s itinerary has been the subject of speculation for a couple of weeks now, specifically in regards to the possibility of a meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy during a stopover in California. Taiwanese officials still aren’t talking about that possibility, but McCarthy undoubtedly wants to mimic his predecessor Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan last August and I’m sure Tsai would prefer to accommodate him in a way that avoids the harsh economic and military response Beijing had to that Pelosi event. A Tsai-McCarthy meeting in the US will definitely irk Chinese officials but may not be treated as severely as the Pelosi trip was, since it’s fairly routine for Taiwanese leaders to pass through the US en route to Latin American and to meet with US politicians in the process.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol intends to restore Japan to Seoul’s international trade “whitelist,” giving it back the preferential status that former President Moon Jae-in stripped in 2019. Yoon has been on a mission to improve South Korean-Japanese relations this month, starting with the unveiling of his plan to compensate victims of the 20th century Japanese occupation without inconveniencing any of the Japanese companies that were responsible. That plan has proven to be pretty unpopular with the South Korean people, but Yoon has defended it by citing the need for closer relations with Tokyo in response to national security challenges posed by North Korea and China.
Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio turned up in Kyiv on Tuesday for a surprise meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
While I’m sure Kishida had lots of reasons to visit Ukraine—until Tuesday he was the only G-7 leader who hadn’t yet stopped by—it’s difficult not to view his trip as a response to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ongoing stay to Moscow. As China’s relationship with Russia has grown tighter, Kishida has moved Japan even more firmly into the US orbit—especially in terms of his response to the war in Ukraine, which doesn’t really have much direct relevance to Japanese interests. Kishida had previously visited India, another country that the US is trying to pull into its anti-China (and anti-Russia) coalition. He invited Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to attend May’s G-7 summit in Hiroshima and talked up his plans for an Indo-Pacific “initiative” that’s supposed to include economic aid as well as security and infrastructure support.
Several suspected jihadist attacks across Burkina Faso’s Est and Centre-Est regions have left at least 11 people dead over the past two days. Five of the victims were members of the volunteer VDP militia while the rest appear to have been civilians.
The US State Department released its annual human rights country reports on Monday, finding among other atrocities that the Ethiopian military and its Eritrean and Amharic allies committed war crimes during their war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. As you might expect this prompted an angry response from the Ethiopian government, which called the report “inflammatory” and “selective,” the latter reflecting the report’s silence with respect to the TPLF’s atrocities. That latter point has some validity, though it’s unclear whether a “country report” would be the right venue for airing claims about the TPLF. The Eritrean government has also responded negatively, calling the State Department’s claims “unsubstantiated and defamatory.” Maybe they’ll sue.
According to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, only seven of the alliance’s 30 members met its “two percent of GDP” defense spending threshold last year, one fewer than in 2021 despite the war in Ukraine presumably raising alarms across Europe. Apparently a couple of countries that were on track to hit the mark had better than expected years in terms of economic growth, so their spending levels wound up falling short of the line. Overall, NATO’s collective defense spending was up 2.2 percent over the previous year.
Xi’s Big Russian Adventure continued on Tuesday with more formal proceedings to follow up on Monday’s chummy gabfest with Vladimir Putin. The two leaders again expressed their pro forma interest in China’s nebulous Ukraine peace proposal and discussed various joint ventures like the “Power of Siberia 2” natural gas pipeline that’s intended to bring Russian gas to China via Mongolia once it’s operational.
In Ukraine news:
Ukrainian officials are claiming responsibility for an apparent drone strike that they claim destroyed a large number of Russian Kalibr cruise missiles in Crimea late Monday. Russian officials are claiming, by contrast, that the strike hit civilian targets and wounded one person but didn’t cause much damage. There’s no confirmation here either way.
Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has apparently sent a letter to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu warning of an imminent Ukrainian operation to cut his mercenaries off from the rest of the Russian forces in Bakhmut. There’s no way to know whether the Ukrainians are actually planning something like this unless they a) acknowledge it or b) actually try to do it. But Prigozhin may in part be trying to preemptively put the onus on Shoigu should Wagner’s offensive in Bakhmut wind up faltering somehow. So far Wagner seems to be continuing its advance, albeit slowly.
The British military, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to sent depleted uranium ammunition to Ukraine, possibly under the theory that if Ukraine can’t have the Donbas then nobody should be able to have it. DU is undeniably effective in terms of its armor piercing capabilities, thanks to its high density. But it also comes with side effects, pesky things like “heavy metal-related cancers” and “long-term birth defects.” Seeing as how it’s the 20th anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq that country’s experience with depleted uranium ammo might be most instructive. The Russian government lashed out at the UK’s decision, though frankly it’s the Ukrainian people who really ought to be worried.
The US military, meanwhile, is speeding up its plans to provide Ukraine with M1 Abrams tanks and now expects to start shipping them as soon as this fall. Whether they’ll be of much help remains to be seen. The Pentagon is planning to send Ukraine the M1A1 SA Abrams, which runs on regular old diesel fuel, rather than top-of-the-line M1A2 Abrams, which requires jet fuel, which apparently speeds up the shipping process in addition to making the tanks a bit easier for the Ukrainians to maintain.
Stoltenberg announced on Tuesday that he’s scheduling a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Commission, a body that hasn’t gotten together since 2019 because of Hungarian objections. Budapest has been blocking those meetings because of an ongoing dispute with the Ukrainian government over its treatment of ethnic Hungarians in the Transcarpathia region. Stoltenberg insists that he’s got the right to overrule Hungary’s veto and hold a commission meeting, though the Hungarian government seems fairly miffed about his announcement.
The International Monetary Fund said on Tuesday that it’s reached an agreement with the Ukrainian government on a $15.6 billion loan package intended to sustain Ukraine’s economy through the continued shock of the war. The loan is also supposed to “promote long-term growth,” which I assume means it will oblige Kyiv to adhere to the Fund’s usual austerity agenda once the war is over.
A new poll puts the conservative National Coalition Party ahead of the rest of the field in the run up to Finland’s April 2 parliamentary election, at 20.8 percent support. Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s Social Democratic Party is at 19.3 percent, tied for second with the far-right Finns Party. As is usually the case, the composition of Finland’s post-election government will depend to a large degree on the coalition talks that will ensue once the votes have been counted.
Major protests against French President Emmanuel Macron’s pension “reform” effort continued overnight:
French authorities have arrested hundreds of people in connection with these demonstrations. The pension reform officially became law on Monday, when the French government survived two no-confidence votes lodged over Macron’s decision to invoke Article 49.3 of the French constitution in order to ram the reform through without a direct parliamentary vote.
The Colombian military says its forces killed two Clan del Golfo members in Colombia’s Bolivar state on Monday and captured a senior member of that gang in Antioquia state. This news puts something of an exclamation point on President Gustavo Petro’s statement over the weekend that he was suspending his government’s ceasefire with the gang. Clan del Golfo has been supporting illegal miners in Antioquia who have been engaging in violent resistance to government efforts to shut down their operations. Additionally, an off duty Colombian soldier was reportedly killed, likely by Clan del Golfo operatives, in Córdoba state.
Like the Ethiopians and Eritreans, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was also displeased with the US State Department’s human rights reports, describing the department’s accounting of alleged rights abuses in Mexico as “lies.” The department is accusing Mexican security forces of an array of crimes, including extrajudicial killing, forced disappearances, and torture, while additionally criticizing what it characterized as an atmosphere of “impunity” for Mexican police and soldiers.
The United Nations says that gang violence has killed at least 531 people across Haiti so far this year. Much of that violence has been concentrated in Port-au-Prince and has involved gangs battling each other for territory. The situation appears to be worsening, as some 208 people were killed just in the first two weeks of this month. The violence has displaced tens of thousands of Haitians, creating additional humanitarian strain.
Finally, in a week that should be devoted to marking the legacy of the US invasion of Iraq, here’s a compelling essay on the subject written a few years ago by Welcome to Hell World author Luke O’Neil:
There’s a girl I never want to let myself forget. Her name is Samar Hassan and we killed her family.
In January of 2005 in the northern Iraqi town of Tal Afar, Samar, five years old at the time, was riding in the back seat of her parents’ car as they returned from bringing her young brother to the hospital. It was getting dark, and nearing curfew, and her father, likely aware of this, was driving faster than normal. Fearing that the driver was a suicide bomber, an army patrol in the area that evening were given permission to open fire and so they did because that is what army patrols do.
As Specialist Brad Hammond would tell it years later, he and multiple other soldiers fired at least 20 rounds each into the oncoming car. When it finally came to a stop, Samar and her siblings spilled out of the back, their parents now slumped over in the front seat, dead from the torrent of gunfire.
“I was like ‘Oh my god. What did we do? What did we do?” Hammond said in the film “Hondros”, a 2017 documentary about the life of the late, acclaimed conflict photographer Chris Hondros, who was on hand at the shooting.
As always thanks for reading, and special thanks to paid FX subscribers, who make this newsletter possible. If you’ve appreciated the newsletter please consider becoming a paid subscriber today: