World roundup: August 12 2021
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Pakistan, Sudan, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 11, 1473: The Battle of Otlukbeli
August 11, 1960: Chadian Independence Day
August 12, 1099: The Battle of Ascalon
August 12, 1121: The Battle of Didgori
August 12, 1687: The Battle of Mohács
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Turkish authorities have arrested 76 people in connection with an outbreak of mob violence overnight targeting Syrians living in Ankara. Some sort of a fight between Syrian and Turkish youths in the capital apparently sparked the unrest, which was then fueled via social media. Most of the damage was to property though there are reports of some injuries as well. Tensions around refugee issues are escalating as Turkey experiences a new wave of Afghan migrants fleeing the rapidly deteriorating (see below) situation in their country.
A Turkish soldier was killed in a mortar attack on Thursday in northern Iraq. The Turkish Defense Ministry does not appear to have gone into substantial detail about the incident but it did blame Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters for the attack.
Protesters blocked roads across Lebanon in a show of anger on Thursday about the Lebanese Central Bank’s decision to stop artificially subsidizing fuel imports. The bank announced Wednesday that it will only issue new lines of credit for fuel purchases at the going black market exchange rate, which the last time I looked was around 20,500 Lebanese pounds per US dollar. It had been maintaining an artificial exchange rate of 3900 pounds per dollar but the bank’s dwindling foreign currency reserves are making that policy untenable. The bottom line is that gasoline prices are likely to at least triple as the new rate comes into effect.
The Lebanese parliament may issue approval for the bank to break into its mandatory reserves to support continued subsidies, but at best that will only buy a little time before the bank will have to end the subsidy anyway. The goal seems to be to extend the fuel subsidy a bit longer while Lebanese leaders finally roll out a long-discussed cash support program, but given how dysfunctional Lebanese politics are there’s no reason to believe they’ll be able to implement a program of that scope anytime soon.
The Israeli military says it shot down a Hezbollah drone that entered Israeli airspace on Wednesday. There’s been no indication that the drone was armed so presumably it was a surveillance unit.
Local Call’s Meron Rapoport discusses the approach Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett appears to be taking, at least so far, toward the Israel-Palestine conflict:
The use of the term “shrinking the conflict” is not accidental. Bennett reportedly speaks regularly with Dr. Micah Goodman, the author of the book “Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War” who is considered the prophet of this strategy. In a 2019 article in The Atlantic, Goodman argued that the Israeli left has failed to end the occupation and establish an independent Palestinian state, while the right has failed to implement the idea of a Greater Israel. Instead of talking about ending the conflict or continuing the status quo, he concludes, Israelis should look for ways to “shrink the conflict.”
Goodman’s ideas even led to the establishment of a NGO called “Shrinking the Conflict” to promote specific measures such as streamlining Palestinian work permits in Israel, increasing Palestinian independence in energy, and more. Unsurprisingly, these policies are remarkably similar to what was written in [Justice Minister Gideon] Sa’ar’s [New Hope] party’s platform.
It’s difficult to be sure of just how much these ideas are influencing Bennett and other ministers; and in some ways, several of these measures build on Netanyahu’s early “economic peace” approach. But there is no doubt that Goodman’s concept is setting the tone. It is reported that, in his upcoming meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, the Bennett may present a 120-day plan built around this strategy. His decision yesterday to approve construction permits for 800 housing units for Palestinians in Area C, alongside approving 2,000 housing units in Israeli settlements, could be a part of this plan.
“Shrinking the conflict” amounts to putting a happy face on what would still be apartheid. It aims to buy Palestinian complacency and prop up the deeply unpopular Palestinian Authority with a smattering of economic benefits while offering plaintive “if only” wishes about the mythical “two-state solution.”
The Qatari government has appointed itself a new ambassador to Saudi Arabia, reciprocating the Saudi appointment of an ambassador to Qatar in June and presumably bringing bilateral relations fully back to normal, at least in a formal sense. Although the 2017 boycott is now well over, the Qataris have yet to restore diplomatic relations with two of the four countries that were involved in the original boycott—Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
According to Al Jazeera, the Afghan government has made “a power-sharing proposal” to the Taliban that would be contingent upon a ceasefire. Details are not available and probably don’t matter, because at the rate things are going if the Afghan government still exists in its present form by this time next week it will qualify as a minor miracle. The Taliban began the day capturing their tenth provincial capital, Ghazni city in central Afghanistan’s Ghazni province. That’s a strategically significant gain because Ghazni city sits only about 95 miles south of Kabul and controls the main highway into Kabul from the south. With their capture of Puli Khumri earlier this week, which sits around 140 miles north of Kabul along a similarly important northern route, the Taliban are now starting to encircle the Afghan capital.
Ghazni city was only the start of a very long day for the Afghan government. The city of Herat fell next, leaving the Taliban fully in control both of Afghanistan’s third largest city and of its western provinces. The Taliban now control almost all of northern Afghanistan, which is the region from which the “Northern Alliance” provided the strongest resistance to Afghanistan’s previous Taliban-led government in the 1990s. The capital of Badghis province in northern Afghanistan, Qala-e-Naw, also has reportedly fallen. Later the Taliban claimed to have captured Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, and while I’m not sure that claim has been confirmed there’s no particular reason to doubt it at this point. If the city isn’t already in Taliban hands it likely will be soon enough.
Things are moving so quickly that chances are by the time you read this at least one more city will have fallen. The situation is so grim that the New York Times is reporting that US negotiators are asking the Taliban to promise not to attack the US embassy in Kabul if/when (“when,” let’s be honest) its fighters finally take that city. According to Reuters the State Department is making preparations to evacuate many of its embassy staff, though it’s unclear how many and where they’re going. It’s also unclear whether the Biden administration is putting any more urgency behind its efforts to evacuate Afghan nationals who worked with the US military and are at risk of Taliban reprisals. The Pentagon is sending 3000 troops back to Afghanistan, which seems like a large number just to manage and secure an evacuation but what do I know? Several other countries are reportedly making similar evacuation plans, and many—including the United States and Germany—are ordering their citizens to leave the country.
The Associated Press reports on the pervasive feeling in Afghanistan that the Taliban’s dramatic run of success can be attributed to its chief foreign supporter:
As the Taliban swiftly capture territory in Afghanistan, many Afghans blame Pakistan for the insurgents’ success, pointing to their use of Pakistani territory in multiple ways. Pressure is mounting on Islamabad, which initially brought the Taliban to the negotiating table, to get them to stop the onslaught and go back to talks.
While analysts say Pakistan’s leverage is often overstated, it does permit the Taliban leadership on its territory and its wounded warriors receive treatment in Pakistani hospitals. Their children are in school in Pakistan and some among them own property. Some among Pakistan’s politicians have rebranded the insurgents as “the new, civilized Taliban.”
Ismail Khan, a powerful U.S.-allied warlord, who is trying to defend his territory of Herat in western Afghanistan from a Taliban onslaught, told local media recently the war raging in his homeland was the fault of Pakistan.
“I can say openly to Afghans that this war, it isn’t between Taliban and the Afghan Government. It is Pakistan’s war against the Afghan nation,” he said. “The Taliban are their resource and are working as a servant.”
The Pakistani government has unquestionably supported the Taliban and continues to support it, but as is usually the case with these kinds of client-patron relationships it can be very easy to overestimate the amount of control the patron really has over the client. Pakistani officials have been stressing their efforts to get the Taliban to engage in peace talks and their frustration with Taliban leaders who have refused to do so. The impulse to blame Pakistan isn’t misplaced exactly, but it is meant to distract from the myriad failures of both the US and Afghan governments over the past 20 years.
The interim Sudanese government and the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, signed an agreement in Khartoum on Thursday that commits Sudan to handing over several figures wanted by the court for war crimes related to the Darfur conflict, including former President Omar al-Bashir. The chairperson of Sudan’s executive Sovereignty Council, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, was involved in the negotiations that led up to that agreement so that settles, probably, my question about whether or not the council was really on board with aiding the ICC. The council has yet to approve Sudan’s membership in the ICC’s Rome Statute, though the interim cabinet voted to join the court earlier this month and the agreement to put Bashir on trial may indicate that the council is on board with that decision. Bashir could be tried at The Hague, but the ICC has the option of holding his trial elsewhere if that would be more palatable politically for Sudanese officials.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told reporters in Rabat on Thursday that he and his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita, had agreed to upgrade their mutual diplomatic representation from liaison offices to full embassies within two months. Lapid is in Morocco partly to open Israel’s liaison office, which became possible when Morocco agreed to join the “Abraham Accords” last year, in return for which the Trump administration recognized Moroccan sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara territory.
Unspecified gunmen attacked a “defense militia” outpost in northern Burkina Faso’s Sahel region on Wednesday, killing five militia fighters while losing at least 17 of their own personnel. The paramilitaries were members of Burkina Faso’s “Volunteers for the Defense of the Motherland” force, which the government established in 2019 to provide training to civilians who could then serve as auxiliaries to Burkinabé security forces. They are a frequent target for jihadist groups, as was likely the case here though it’s unclear which group carried out this attack.
At least 12 people have been killed in an outbreak of inter-communal violence in Cameroon’s Far North region that began on Tuesday. Arab herders clashed with fishermen from the Musgum people, apparently after some of their animals fell into holes the fishermen had dug to facilitate their fishing. Climate change is forcing sedentary and pastoral communities into tighter spaces and the Boko Haram conflict has motivated residents of northern Cameroon to arm themselves in self-defense, which makes these kinds of conflicts deadlier.
The implosion of South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-In Opposition party worsened on Thursday when the party’s deputy chairperson, Henry Odwar, announced his support for Machar’s rival for control of the party, Simon Gatwech Dual. Odwar had resigned as mining minister the previous day so his defection wasn’t entirely surprising, but it does leave Machar more isolated. Rebel leader-turned-VP Machar is supposed to be working with President Salva Kiir to implement the peace agreement the two men signed in 2018 but at this point it’s unclear whether or not he still speaks for his party. The rival SPLM-IO factions have agreed to a ceasefire after an outburst of violence last weekend, but in the long run the unrest is threatening to unwind whatever progress Kiir and Machar have made.
The African Union says it’s investigating claims that its peacekeepers may have killed civilians during a battle with al-Shabab fighters earlier this week. According to the AU, its personnel came under attack on Tuesday in southern Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region. Witnesses say that at least seven civilians were killed in the battle and many local residents have expressed anger at the AU mission.
Zambian voters headed to the polls on Thursday to elect a new president and a new National Assembly. Incumbent Edgar Lungu may be a slight favorite over his leading challenger, businessman Hakainde Hichilema, but the race is expected to be tight and could wind up going to a runoff. Tensions have already been high in the lead up to the election, with violent clashes between supporters of the two leading parties, and any extended post-election uncertainty could spark more unrest.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis was forced on Thursday to defend his government’s handling of the country’s ongoing wildfire crisis. Blazes have consumed much of the forested area on the island of Evia and there are now active fires in the western Peloponnese. Greeks are angry over a slow government response to the initial fires and to a relatively anemic response in general, caused partly by a lack of equipment. Mitsotakis argued that evacuation plans, once implemented, worked effectively to save lives, while promising to purchase additional equipment.
The Haitian government, such as it is at the moment, has decided to push a general election/constitutional referendum previously scheduled for September back to November 7. The specific rationale is unclear from reporting but presumably the chaos caused by former President Jovenal Moïse’s assassination and the ensuing investigation has made election preparations more challenging.
Finally, the lack of detail offered by US Africa Command regarding its recent airstrikes in Somalia has Responsible Statecraft’s David Sterman worried about the Biden administration’s commitment to transparency:
While it is possible that AFRICOM will release more detailed assessments of the impact of these strikes, that there have now been three strikes under the Biden administration with no public description of casualty assessments beyond civilian casualties is worrisome. This is particularly the case as the military has a tendency to contend that there is no good reason to release body counts of its strikes.
Reporting the deaths and injuries American strikes cause — even among those assessed not to be civilians — is important. There are deep moral issues with refusing to let the public see the impact of American strikes. As journalist Spencer Ackerman has recently written, “Refusing to tally the dead ensured that the work of naming the dead would be minimal, periodic, and incomplete,” adding, “Rendering people into statistics would have been dehumanizing enough. But they were not even statistics.” Ackerman correctly identifies the way that only naming the civilian dead also plays into the U.S. government’s flawed and often wrong assessments of who is a civilian, hampering efforts to check such conclusions.
Not reporting casualties when they are not reported to be civilians also papers over the ways in which the damage and human pain of American warfare cannot be reduced to legalistic categories. There are real questions regarding how much moral weight can truly be placed on the belligerent/civilian distinction when belligerents tend to lack an ability to cause harm to those targeting them remotely — as was the case in the three strikes during the Biden administration — eachofwhich involved air strikes called in support of Somalia forces advised remotely by U.S. forces who were not on the ground.