Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: September 30 2021
Stories from Afghanistan, Sudan, Kosovo, 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 29, 1227: Pope Gregory IX excommunicates Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II for repeatedly breaking promises to go on Crusade. Frederick, who had already engineered his own succession as “King of Jerusalem,” subsequently did go on Crusade, for which Gregory excommunicated him again since he was now acting without permission. Frederick nevertheless led the Sixth Crusade, with the Church advising people not to join him because he was an excommunicate, and wound up negotiating a very tenuous handover of the city of Jerusalem.
September 30, 737: The Battle of the Baggage
September 30, 1938: The leaders of Britain, France, Italy, and Nazi Germany sign the Munich Agreement, giving the Nazis control of Czechoslovakia’s predominantly German Sudetenland region. Depending on your worldview you may regard British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s actions here as either the most vile act of appeasement in human history, a necessary evil (that Chamberlain may still have handled badly) given that Britain was in no shape for a war in 1938, or the germ of a plan Chamberlain had to ally with Hitler against the Soviet Union. You decide.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The New York Times reports on a conference held last week in Erbil that has generated some significant political fallout:
A conference last Friday in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region looked routine enough, with speakers at a satin-draped table in the ballroom of a luxury hotel and men in suits and tribal robes in the audience.
But there was nothing routine about the agenda: pressing for Iraq to normalize relations with Israel, a rare and risky public stance in Iraq that has emerged as an unexpected flash point in the simmering tensions between the Kurds and central government. Participants are now facing arrest warrants, death threats and the loss of jobs.
A standoff has ensued between Iraqi security officials who want to seize those involved and the Kurdish authorities, who are refusing to turn over the wanted Iraqis who are their guests — despite the threat of attack by Iranian-backed militias. A key speaker has recanted and said he was tricked.
A US-based organization (I know, I was stunned too) called the “Center for Peace Communications” organized the conference, apparently at the behest of a group of Iraqis interested in normalizing relations with Israel. One member of that group is a prominent Sunni Arab leader named Wissam al-Hardan, who delivered the keynote address at the conference and published an op-ed on Iraqi-Israeli normalization in The Wall Street Journal on the day of the conference—even though he doesn’t know English and says he has no idea what was in the op-ed. Anyway, it all sounds like a fun, and very reputable, event.
The Israeli military says that one of its drones crashed in southern Lebanon “during routine activity” on Thursday. It hasn’t, as far as I know, explained what “routine activity” would require an Israeli drone to enter Lebanese airspace, but why sweat the details? Hezbollah has been claiming its forces shot the drone down, but that claim is unconfirmed. The Israelis are apparently “investigating” the crash.
Israeli occupation forces killed three Palestinians on Thursday in separate incidents. They killed one man during an overnight raid on a village near the West Bank city of Jenin, a woman in East Jerusalem who allegedly tried to stab an Israeli police officer on Thursday, and another man later on Thursday near the Gaza fence line.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Bahrain on Thursday for the first time since the two countries normalized relations last year. His mostly symbolic visit included a meeting with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa along with a ceremony to open Israel’s new embassy in Manama. There are reports of protests in Bahrain that coincided with Lapid’s arrival but those seem to be unconfirmed.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
At World Politics Review, analyst Kristian Coates Ulrichsen discusses the recent tentative steps the Emirati and Turkish governments have taken to try to rebuild some semblance of a diplomatic relationship. The upshot is that the realization that the UAE’s military adventures in Yemen and Libya, as well as its attempted blockade of Qatar, have all failed, coupled with a sense that the United States really is looking for a Middle Eastern exit, has left Emirati leaders more interested in talking with their adversaries than in threatening them. The key takeaway ought to be that the path to stability in the Middle East lies in US disengagement, something we’ve also seen play out in Saudi Arabia’s diplomatic outreach to Turkey, Qatar, and most recently Iran.
The Iranian military on Thursday announced plans for what appears to be a major military exercise close to the Azerbaijani border—uncomfortably close, as far as the Azerbaijani government is concerned. It just held a smaller set of exercises in that same area a few days ago. These drills are taking place at a time when Iranian-Azerbaijani tensions are fairly high, mostly due to the Azerbaijani government’s recent treatment (arguably harassment) of Iranian cargo drivers in southern Armenia. Maybe that’s just a coincidence, but who knows? Iran and Azerbaijan already have significant beef over Azeri separatist issues in northwestern Iran as well as Baku’s close ties with Israel and its even closer ties with Turkey, but none of those long-standing issues would explain the sudden military exercises.
The Russian Foreign Ministry on Thursday called on the governments and Tajikistan and Afghanistan to resolve their “growing tensions,” which mostly served to highlight the fact that they do, indeed, have some issues with one another. Specifically, the Tajik government has refused to recognize the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon has criticized the Taliban on human rights grounds—which, if you know anything about Rahmon’s record, is somewhat astonishing. The Tajik military has been holding parades in regions conspicuously close to the Afghan border in recent days, while the Taliban has deployed its special forces to Afghanistan’s Takhar province, which borders Tajikistan. They deny the deployment has anything to do with the border. Rahmon may view himself as the protector of Afghanistan’s Tajik population, which is likely to fare worse under the mostly Pashtun Taliban than it did under the previous Afghan government.
In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the Biden administration’s pledge to continue an American counter-terrorism mission from afar already looks like a pipe dream:
The U.S. military and intelligence community are scrambling to fulfill President Joe Biden’s pledge to fight terrorists from “over the horizon” in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan—but by their own admission, they still don’t know whether they can track or thwart that threat.
What is just as troublesome, experts say, is that U.S. Central Command—which will be saddled with the main counterterrorism task in Afghanistan—has had a mixed record at best over the last 20 years. Even when it had thousands of troops on the ground in Afghanistan, Centcom did a poor job of differentiating terrorists from innocents, according to civilian organizations that closely tracked those efforts, and often it did not even bother to investigate civilian deaths.
It seems to me the solution to this conundrum would be to stop trying to “fight terrorists” in Afghanistan altogether, so that there’s no chance of, say, incinerating a completely innocent family in a drone strike. The US military’s solution will likely be, as it always is, to shoot first and worry about civilian casualties later, or not at all.
The US and Chinese militaries held talks this week that the Pentagon has described as “frank” and “in-depth.” I have no idea what that means and the US military hasn’t gone into specifics, but then I guess the fact that they’re talking is just as important as the substance of whatever it is they’re talking about.
North Korean state media reported Friday that the country’s military had successfully tested a “new-type anti-aircraft missile.” Details are spotty but this would be the second North Korean weapons test this week and fourth this month. North Korea describes all of its weapons tests as defensive in nature but an anti-aircraft device is more obviously defensive than, say, a ballistic missile. Given that those other tests didn’t trigger anything more than verbal complaints from the Biden administration, chances are this one won’t either.
Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, has reportedly been appointed to Pyongyang’s highest governmental body, the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This is certainly another sign that Kim Yo-jong’s star is ascending and has led to a new round of speculation that she might be in line to succeed her brother—even though, to be clear, there’s no evidence he’s going anywhere. Were Kim Jong-un interested in establishing his sister as his heir apparent, it’s likely he’d need to play the proverbial long game to get North Korean grandees to accept a woman as their boss. On the other hand, maybe he just trusts his sister and wants to keep her close, and succession plans have nothing to do with her promotion. I know it’s fun to speculate about Kim Jong-un’s future but that speculation never seems to amount to anything.
An estimated 20,000 people took to the streets of Khartoum on Thursday calling for a shift to a purely civilian-led transitional government. The march, organized by the Sudanese Professionals Association, comes at a time when the relationship between the current transitional government’s military and civilian halves is breaking down and there are growing concerns that the military may upend whatever progress Sudan has made toward holding new elections. Sudanese security forces used tear gas to break up the demonstration.
The leader of Guinea’s ruling junta, Mamady Doumbouya, will reportedly have himself named interim president on Friday under a new transitional charter issued earlier this week. According to that charter, Doumbouya will not be permitted to run in either the national or local elections that are to follow the transition period. One thing the charter did not lay out, however, was the length of the transition. So Doumbouya could hang around for some time to come.
Two more violent incidents in northwestern Nigeria this week have left at least 32 people dead and another 24 missing/abducted. Attackers, again classified as “bandits” in lieu of a more detailed explanation of their motives, rampaged through eastern Niger state on Tuesday, killing 14 people in one village and another 18 in surrounding areas while abducting seven women. Another 17 people were kidnapped in a similar attack in Sokoto state. Suspicion is high that the gangs responsible for these attacks are made up of young Fulani men who have turned to crime after struggling to make livings as herders amid an escalating competition for scarce resources with surrounding farming communities.
Stung by criticism from United Nations personnel over a lack of access for humanitarian workers trying to operate in Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region, the Ethiopian government addressed the problem on Thursday by expelling them. Authorities booted a total of seven senior UN personnel out of the country, all of them working for one aid organization or another. Both the Ethiopian government (along with its Eritrean and Amhara regional allies) and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front have faced accusations of restricting access to Tigray, where there are fears of widespread starvation. The lack of aid and media access makes it almost impossible to know how bad things really are. The Biden administration sharply criticized the expulsion, with White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki even suggesting that sanctions against the Ethiopian government may be forthcoming.
The Ukrainian military says that one of its soldiers was killed by separatists in eastern Ukraine on Thursday. That makes at least three people killed along the front line in the Donbas region this week—one Ukrainian soldier and one rebel fighter were killed in skirmishing from Sunday night into Monday.
The Serbian and Kosovan governments have agreed to deescalate their current border dispute, according to a European Union team that has been mediating talks between the two sides. Both governments had moved security forces to the border amid days of protests and a border blockade by ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo, angry over a Kosovan law barring Serbian-tagged vehicles from entering the country (reciprocating a similar ban on the Serbian side). Under the deescalation agreement, NATO peacekeeping personnel will be deployed to the border and Kosovan Serbs will end the blockade. Kosovan authorities will then pull their security units back from the border and both Kosovo and Serbia will begin issuing temporary vehicle registrations at the border instead of requiring vehicles to have their offending tags replaced.
The Biden administration has withdrawn its defense attaché from Nicaragua after he apparently offended Nicaraguan opposition leaders and may have violated US government policy. The attaché, Lieutenant Colonel Róger Antonio Carvajal Santamaría, praised the Nicaraguan military as a “large part of the growth and stability of this country” in remarks made at an event earlier this month. The Nicaraguan military is part of a security apparatus that has been accused of suppressing President Daniel Ortega’s political opponents and the commander of the Nicaraguan army, General Julio César Avilés Castillo, was sanctioned last year by the US government. It’s unclear why Carvajal was even allowed to attend the event where he offered his praise, since the blacklisted Avilés was also there.
Biden’s speech gave distinctive emphasis to three big goals: (1) fighting Covid (and preventing future pandemics); (2) fighting climate change; and (3) fighting for democracy and human rights (and thus fighting against authoritarianism, autocracy, etc.).
Those are all good things in principle. But one possible complication is that trying to tackle the third could make it harder to tackle the first two. After all, you need cooperation from authoritarian nations in the fight against pandemics and climate change, and if your war on authoritarianism antagonizes them, securing that cooperation could get harder.
This could turn out to be an even bigger problem than it sounds like. There are several threats that are roughly as scary as pandemics and climate change and, like them, are best addressed via international cooperation. The proliferation of biological weapons springs to mind (in part because we’ve just seen how much damage a virus not intentionally engineered to cause massive death and suffering can do). There’s also the threat of an arms race in space, an arms race in human genetic engineering, and of course such old standbys as nuclear Armageddon. Most of these threats went unmentioned by Biden, but they all need to be tackled. And tackling them, like tackling climate change and pandemics, could get harder if Biden mounts a big war on authoritarianism.
Given these possibly dire side effects of fighting authoritarianism, it’s worth asking why it deserves the high priority Biden is giving it—why it belongs up there with fighting pandemics and climate change.
It might be one thing if the United States were good at “fighting for democracy and human rights.” But as Bob points out, and as recent history makes abundantly clear, it is not. But as Bob also points out, “the foreign policy establishment is dominated by fans of democracy promotion.” Even if Biden recognizes the conundrum he’s created for himself, he probably can’t openly drop democracy promotion from the agenda if he wants to get anything else done.