Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: September 25-26 2021
Stories from Afghanistan, Sudan, Germany, and more
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
September 24, 1877: The Japanese Army defeats a heavily outnumbered and even more heavily outgunned samurai force under the command of rebel leader Saigō Takamori, whose entire 500 man army was wiped out. The battle ended the Satsuma Rebellion and the role of the samurai as Japan’s warrior class. You may have seen a heavily fictionalized version of this battle, and the rebellion, in the film The Last Samurai, though there’s no historical analogue for Tom Cruise’s character.
September 25, 1396: The Crusade of Nicopolis
September 25, 1513: Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a Spanish explorer and the governor of Veragua (a territory including the Caribbean coasts of modern Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Panama), leads a small detachment of men across Panama to what they knew as the “South Sea,” thereby becoming the first European in the New World to lay eyes on the Pacific Ocean. Balboa spent several years exploring his “South Sea” but eventually ran afoul of the governor of Panama, Pedrarias Dávila, and was executed in 1519.
September 25, 1962: The North Yemen Civil War begins
September 26, 1799: A Republican French army under André Masséna outflanks and defeats a Russian-Austrian force at the Second Battle of Zürich. The French victory recovered what Masséna had lost in his defeat at the First Battle of Zürich in June and led to Russia’s decision to quit the Second Coalition. Shortly afterward Napoleon returned to Paris from Egypt and made himself First Consul, and the French Revolutionary Wars began to go in a whole new direction.
September 26, 1983: The Soviet Union’s early warning network determines that the United States has launched one intercontinental ballistic missile and recommends retaliating, but an air force lieutenant colonel named Stanislav Petrov, under the assumption that the US would not launch a nuclear first strike with a single weapon, decides that it must be malfunctioning. He made a similar determination when the system later showed four more US missiles in fight, and turned out to be correct—Soviet satellites were somehow misreading sunlight reflecting off of high altitude clouds as missiles. Petrov’s decision not to rely on the warning system probably single-handedly prevented World War III.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least seven Turkish-backed Syrian fighters were killed and 13 more wounded on Sunday by airstrikes targeting the Afrin region. The Russian military seems to have been responsible for the strikes, which come amid a bit of an escalation in violence around rebel-held northwestern Syria, though there is as yet no indication that the escalation is the prelude to a new ground offensive in that region. Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are due to meet in Sochi on Wednesday to talk about Syria and it’s possible Putin is just trying to make a statement beforehand.
Yemeni “military sources” have told AFP that another 50 combatants were killed over the weekend in heavy fighting around Maʾrib city. Nearly all of them, according to those sources, have been Houthi fighters (43), which again (if accurate) speaks to the imbalance in air support between the two sides).
Israeli occupation forces killed at least five people on Sunday in a series of operations targeting suspected Hamas personnel in the West Bank. The Israelis undertook five raids, two of which—one near Jenin and the other near Jerusalem—escalated into shootouts. Two Israeli soldiers were wounded in the fighting.
Mahmoud Abbas’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Friday seems to have raised some eyebrows. Specifically, Abbas demanded that Israel withdraw from the Occupied Territories within one year, lest the Palestine Liberation Organization withdraw its recognition of the state of Israel and then take its case for Palestinian statehood to the International Criminal Court. Neither one of these things constitutes a legitimate threat to Israel and its highly questionable whether Abbas would actually go through with it anyway, especially under what would be tremendous US pressure not to do so.
An Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps “research facility” in Tehran reportedly caught fire on Sunday. At this point there’s no indication the fire is anything but an accident, but given the context it might be worth noting.
Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency issued a statement on Sunday accusing Iranian officials of breaking the agreement they made earlier this month to allow IAEA personnel to enter declared nuclear facilities in order to maintain their monitoring equipment. Specifically, the IAEA says its personnel have been denied access to Iran’s Karaj centrifuge manufacturing facility in order to replace the nearly full memory cards in the cameras it has installed there. That facility was targeted in an apparent act of sabotage back in June in which one of the IAEA’s cameras may have been damaged or destroyed. The IAEA was to have replaced that camera in addition to maintaining the others on site.
The New and Improved Taliban hung the dead bodies of four accused kidnappers in various parts of the city of Herat on Saturday. All four were allegedly killed by police during an operation to rescue the two people they’d allegedly kidnapped. One of the bodies was mounted on a crane in Herat’s central square just to make sure nobody missed it. The display, meant to deter other would-be criminals, was considerably more reminiscent of the old school Taliban than the supposedly moderate new version.
Two major controversies over representation at this year’s UNGA session appear to have reached very different conclusions. We’ll talk about Myanmar’s situation below, but in the case of Afghanistan it appears current (i.e., pre-Taliban) ambassador Ghulam Isaczai will address the assembly on Monday. The Taliban had asked the UN to recognize its representative, Suhail Shaheen, but the Credentials Committee hasn’t yet agreed to do so and may use recognition as leverage to impact the Taliban’s behavior. The Taliban had also asked that their foreign minister, Ameer Khan Muttaqi, be given Afghanistan’s UNGA speaking slot, but that’s impossible unless/until the UN recognizes the Taliban’s new government. There was never any chance Muttaqi would get to speak to the assembly, but the decision to let Isaczai address the body is curious, given that the government he represented no longer exists.
The Washington Post’s Susannah George reports on the underlying reasons for the Afghan military’s rapid collapse during the final days of the war:
The United States spent billions of dollars training and equipping police, soldiers and special forces. Despite years of warnings from U.S. and Afghan officials, successive U.S. administrations pledged that the Afghan military was capable of defending the country. President Biden said the Afghan military was “as well-equipped as any army in the world” just a month before its collapse.
Today, not a single unit of the country’s security forces remains intact.
A sophisticated Taliban campaign aimed at securing surrender deals lay at the heart of the Afghan military’s collapse, but layers of corruption, waste and logistical failures left the country’s security forces so underequipped and with such battered morale that it enabled the militants’ success.
Interviews with more than a dozen members of the Afghan special forces, army and police in three provinces from May to July illustrate that the collapse of security forces was not abrupt. Instead, it was a slow, painful breakdown that began months before the fall of Kabul.
Pakistani officials announced on Saturday that their security forces had killed six members of the separatist Baluchistan Liberation Army during an overnight operation in southwestern Pakistan. The BLA later confirmed the account. Authorities also arrested three BLA members in a separate operation late Friday.
The UN has resolved its other UNGA controversy, Myanmar, by deciding to let it go unresolved. The country’s current representative, Kyaw Moe Tun, will continue holding that seat even though, like Ghulam Isaczai (see above), the government he represents no longer exists. But neither he nor the chosen representative of Myanmar’s ruling junta, Aung Thurein, will address the assembly. This is the product of a compromise between the United States, which wanted to let Kyaw Moe Tun speak, and China (and also Russia to a lesser extent), which seems to favor replacing him altogether with Aung Thurein but agreed not to push the issue as long as Kyaw Moe Tun was not given a speaking slot.
The leaders of the the four members (Australia, India, Japan, and the United States) of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, AKA “the Quad,” met at the White House for their first ever in-person summit on Friday. The meeting’s most tangible outcome seems to have been a pledge by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to export some 8 million COVID vaccine doses around the Indo-Pacific region by the end of the year. Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, who will be leaving that job in a matter of days as his Liberal Democratic Party is about to elect a new leader, cited a much vaguer agreement to “cooperate” in areas like vaccines, clean energy, and outer space. They reached similarly vague accords around issues like 5G technology, semiconductors, and upholding maritime law in the Indo-Pacific.
Although the Quad exists almost solely to counter the perceived rise of China its leaders usually try to pretend otherwise, and so it’s not surprising that you won’t actually find China mentioned in accounts of the meeting. The Chinese Foreign Ministry offered some standard criticism of the meeting, issuing a statement that among other things said that the Quad is “doomed to fail.”
(Before anybody asks, I don’t always know where to put stories about the Quad, so I put this one under “Japan” arbitrarily.)
Vanuatu is taking the rest of the world to court:
Vanuatu will ask the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion on the rights of present and future generations to be protected from climate change.
With a population of about 280,000 people spread across roughly 80 islands, Vanuatu is among more than a dozen Pacific island nations facing rising sea levels and more regular storms that can wipe out much of their economies.
In a statement on Saturday, Vanuatu’s government said it “recognises that current levels of action and support for vulnerable developing countries within multilateral mechanisms are insufficient”.
The ICJ is powerless to enforce its rulings (hence the “advisory opinion”) but it could support future climate-related litigation. The results of such litigation will probably also be unenforceable.
The Sudanese military said on Sunday that it had turned back an “incursion” by Ethiopian forces in the disputed Fashaqa region along their shared border. Ethiopian officials are denying the claim but the two countries have had minor clashes over Fashaqa in the past.
Beja protesters in eastern Sudan have shut down a key pipeline that carries oil from Port Sudan to Khartoum. They’ve been demonstrating for several days in opposition to the government’s peace deal with a coalition of rebel groups, but blocking the pipeline is an escalation and may trigger a harsh reaction from security forces.
Meanwhile, The Committee to Dismantle the June 30, 1989 Regime and Retrieve Public Funds, an arm of the interim government charged in part with investigating corruption under former President Omar al-Bashir’s reign and recovering any money lost to said corruption, announced on Sunday that it has been stripped of its military protection. The committee’s chair, Mohamed al-Faki Sulieman, has also apparently had his personal security detail removed. The Sudanese military has been critical of the committee and its relationship with the civilian half of the country’s interim government has been deteriorating in general for weeks now. Sunday’s action all but ensures further deterioration in that relationship, which could lead to renewed street protests and potentially even the dissolution of the fragile interim government.
Some 2000 people rallied in Tunis on Sunday in opposition to President Kais Saied’s latest consolidation of power. Saied announced a few days ago that he would henceforth be ruling by decree and ignoring the constitution, escalating the power grab he began when he suspended parliament back in July. Saied still hasn’t faced significant domestic backlash for what increasingly looks like a self-coup, and without more context it’s hard to know whether Sunday’s demonstration represents an increase in opposition.
Malian Prime Minister Choguel Kokalla Maïga told AFP on Sunday that Mali’s next election, which is supposed to take place in February and transition the country out of the military rule it’s been under since its August 2020 coup, may be delayed by “two weeks, two months, a few months.” Which likely means “a few months.” Apparently some sort of delay is required in order to organize an election whose results “will not be contested.” Junta leader Assimi Goïta, who seized power in the initial coup and then re-seized it in another coup against his own interim government back in May, has been insisting that the junta will meet the February election date, a claim that’s been met with considerable skepticism. It would appear that the skeptics were right to be skeptical.
Islamic State West African Province fighters ambushed a Nigerian military convoy in Borno state on Friday, killing at least eight soldiers in the process.
A suicide bomber killed at least eight people on Saturday in an incident that took place near the presidential palace in Mogadishu. Al-Shabab later took responsibility for the attack.
Romanian Prime Minister Florin Cîțu won an internal election to remain the head of his Liberal Party on Saturday. This is noteworthy because when one of his coalition partners, the USR-Plus party, quit the government earlier this month, it pledged not to rejoin the coalition until Cîțu had been removed as PM. Saturday’s election substantially diminishes the prospects for his removal. Cîțu aims to continue on at the head of a minority government, but its prospects for long-term stability are not terribly good.
The Serbian government positioned security forces on its side of the Kosovo-Serbia border and placed them on alert on Sunday, after claiming that its Kosovan counterpart had deployed special police units to predominantly Serbian areas of northern Kosovo. Serbs in northern Kosovo have been protesting for several days over new laws that require any vehicle crossing into Kosovo from Serbia to remove/replace its Serbian license plates. A similar restriction on vehicles with Kosovan license plates already exists under Serbian law. For Kosovan officials this is a simple case of reciprocity. From the perspective of Belgrade, which still recognizes Kosovo as a part of Serbia, the concept of reciprocity cannot apply.
The votes are still being counted, but the recent polls that had Germany’s federal election pegged as “too close to call” appear to have been more or less on the money. Projected results have the Social Democratic Party barely emerging in first place with 25.8 percent of the vote or 205 seats in the Bundestag, running just ahead of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance at 24.1 percent or 194 seats. For the former, that would represent a gain of about 5 percent and 52 seats from its performance in Germany’s 2017 election; for the latter, it’s a loss of almost 7 percent and 52 seats, in addition to being its worst electoral result ever. It would appear that outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel was not able to sway voters into supporting her party and its unpopular chancellor candidate, Armin Laschet.
In terms of gains over 2017, the election’s other big winner was the Green Party, which is projected to go from 8.9 percent to 14.6 percent and from 67 to 116 seats. The Left Party fared considerably worse, as it’s projected to drop from 9.2 percent to 4.9 percent and 69 to 39 seats. Although the threshold for seating in the Bundestag is 5 percent, the Left Party’s successes in direct district voting may allow it to enter parliament anyway. The libertarian Free Democratic Party is projected to go from 10.7 percent to 11.5 percent and from 80 to 91 seats, while the far right Alternative for Germany looks like it will go from 12.6 percent to 10.5 percent and 94 to 84 seats. Bear in mind that these are all projected results at this point.
Assuming the projected outcome holds up, the SPD and CDU/CSU both have pathways to forming a coalition. Really it’s one pathway—forming a coalition with the Greens and the Free Democrats. Those two parties may get together to try to sort out their own issues before negotiating with either of the two larger parties. SPD and CDU/CSU could in theory revisit their two-party “grand coalition,” which would have a collective majority of seats in the next parliament. But presumably the SPD would insist on being the senior partner for a change, and that might not sit well with CDU/CSU leadership. At this point both of their chancellor candidates, the SPD’s Olaf Scholz and the CDU/CSU’s Laschet, are promising to lead the next government, which means they’re not thinking about working together. At least not yet. It may be several weeks before a solid picture starts to take shape.
The UK government may activate its military to deliver fuel to gas stations whose supplies are running low in part due to a shortage of available truck drivers. The shortage of drivers is apparently being exacerbated by perceptions about the shortage, which have sparked panic buying/hoarding and thereby increased the demand for truck drivers to resupply busy stations. The shortage in drivers is also impacting other sectors, with retailers warning that they won’t have enough goods on their shelves for the upcoming holiday season unless the problem is fixed somehow. COVID, which interrupted the training of new drivers, is partly to blame, but also an estimated 25,000 European Union citizens who had been living in the UK and working as truck drivers decided over the past couple of years to return home for some reason.
Anyway Brexit is going great, in case you were wondering.
Icelandic voters headed to the polls on Saturday and appear to have opted for more of the same. Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s Left-Green Movement and its two coalition partners, the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, saw their combined seat count increase from 35 to 37 in the 63 seat legislature, though Left-Green itself lost three seats (actually outperforming its polling) and is now the smallest party in that alliance. The three parties haven’t outright said they plan to continue their association but that would be the simplest outcome given the election results. Of note, an initial vote count had Iceland electing the first majority female parliament in European history, but a quick recount resulted in a parliament that will include 33 male MPs and 30 female MPs.
Chinese authorities late Friday abruptly released two Canadian nationals, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, they had arrested back in 2018. Kovrig and Spavor had been detained shortly after the Canadian government’s arrest of Huawei Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou on behalf of the US Justice Department. The DOJ announced on Friday that it had agreed to defer Meng’s prosecution over allegations that she’d enabled the violation of US sanctions against Iran, which meant that the Canadian government was able to release her from house arrest. The Chinese government has been insisting for almost three years that the Kovrig and Spavor arrests were not retaliatory. It’s somewhat surprising that Beijing freed both of them right away, all but acknowledging that the opposite was actually true.
Finally, in the wake of the August 29 drone strike in Kabul, a parting atrocity from the US on its way out of Afghanistan, The Intercept’s Pesha Magid examines what the shift to a mostly air-based War on Terror has meant for the families of the civilians the US military has killed:
The media attention generated by the Kabul strike has prompted a rare admission of guilt from the Pentagon and may ultimately lead to monetary compensation for the survivors. But Byzantine laws in the U.S. make it all but impossible for foreigners to file for compensation if a relative was killed in combat — excluding the majority of wrongful deaths overseas. The U.S.-led anti-ISIS offensive is a useful example of this. Over four years after the battle for Mosul in 2017, the U.S. has not compensated the family of a single civilian killed.
The only hope for most survivors is a “sympathy” payment from the U.S. military that does not acknowledge responsibility for causing the deaths. But unsurprisingly, those payments are rare: None were issued in 2020. Meanwhile, U.S. allies involved in bombing campaigns usually hide behind the shield of joint operations to avoid taking responsibility for civilian deaths. The U.K. has gone even further, recently passing a law that limits the time period in which a civilian can file a claim. All of these systems create maze-like blocks for civilians hoping to get any form of justice for the deaths of loved ones killed by airstrikes.
In recent years, the U.S. and its European allies have decreased the number of ground troops deployed overseas in the so-called war on terror, turning instead to airstrikes, while their local partners carry out ground operations. This increasing reliance on aerial warfare, which renders nearly invisible the identity of the military force that kills a civilian, has made it all but impossible for civilians to get compensation for the loss of family members. While reparations for civilian harm can never replace a life, they are, at the very least, an acknowledgment that harm was done and a way to help support those who have lost deeply.