World roundup: August 14-15 2021

Stories from Lebanon, Malaysia, Zambia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

August 13 (or thereabouts), 838: The Sack of Amorium

August 13, 1521: Spanish and allied forces under Hernán Cortés conquer Tenochtitlan and capture the Aztec Emperor Cuauhtémoc. It’s estimated that somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 people were killed during the two and a half month siege. Cuauhtémoc remained in place as a puppet ruler, but the Aztec Empire was over and Cortés eventually executed him in 1525.

August 14, 1480: The Martyrs of Otranto

August 14, 1947: At midnight, the Indian Independence Act of 1947 goes into effect, ending the British Raj and creating the independent states of India and Pakistan. This territory included the future state of Bangladesh, though at this time it was part of Pakistan. This date is commemorated as Pakistani Independence Day while August 15 is commemorated as Independence Day in India. Initially both countries commemorated August 15, but the Pakistanis later shifted to August 14 because British Viceroy Louis Mountbatten held Pakistan’s independence ceremony on that date so that he could attend a similar ceremony in India the following day.

August 15, 718: The Siege of Constantinople ends

August 15, 1914: The Panama Canal formally opens with the passage of a US commercial vessel, the SS Ancon. After the US took over the canal project from France in 1904 the project cost some $500 million to complete. It also cost the lives of some 5600 workers, a frighteningly high figure that is nevertheless much improved from the 22,000 workers who died on the job during the initial French effort in the 1880s.

August 15, 1960: Republic of the Congo Independence Day

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen reported Sunday that it had shot down a Houthi drone heading toward Saudi Arabia. The conflict on the ground in Yemen has been relatively subdued for the past several days though there was apparently an inconclusive flare-up on Thursday in Maʾrib province. Maʾrib city remains the Houthis’ main current objective.

LEBANON

At least 28 people were killed and dozens more injured in the northern Lebanese region of Akkar on Sunday when a bootleg fuel tank exploded while people were queued up to purchase fuel. The cause of the blast is unknown and there are varying accounts, from a simple accident to some kind of brawl that led to gunfire. The blast sparked protests in the surrounding community, which makes some sense insofar as people wouldn’t have been lined up to buy bootleg fuel in the first place if the Lebanese government wasn’t overseeing a total economic collapse that has among other things created a crippling national fuel shortage and a decision by Lebanon’s central bank to cut fuel subsidies.

The Lebanese army deployed on Saturday to take over shuttered gas stations and distribute fuel that authorities say is being “hoarded” by importers. Obviously that’s not a sustainable solution to the problem. Hezbollah, meanwhile, says it’s going to begin importing fuel from Iran. That could be more sustainable than seizing random gas stations but it risks putting Lebanon on a crash course toward US sanctions. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said he would arrange it so that payment for the Iranian fuel does not go through the central bank, which might offer some protection from US penalties though it’s hard to know for sure.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

Obviously the paramount story of the weekend has been the Taliban’s full takeover of Afghanistan. Like everything else about the total collapse of the Afghan government and its security forces over the past couple of weeks, it happened much faster than had been generally expected. On Saturday the Taliban captured the important northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, and that was just…the end. Instead of putting up a futile resistance before surrendering major cities to oncoming Taliban fighters, local officials began simply negotiating their surrender without a fight. When Jalalabad, the key city in eastern Afghanistan, surrendered early Sunday morning, only Kabul remained outside of Taliban control. That changed within a matter of hours.

The main sense of the situation in Kabul at this point, as conveyed by multiple media outlets, is one of both chaos and certainty. Taliban fighters have entered the city and its government offices without firing a shot (mostly, anyway) and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has fled the country “to avoid bloodshed” (his own, at least). He reportedly did not let anybody else know he was getting out of Dodge and will now live a very comfortable life in exile as the country he mismanaged to catastrophe suffers the consequences. The US government says it’s completed an emergency evacuation of its embassy and several other countries are attempting to do the same thing, but the status of Kabul airport—the only way out of the country at this point—is uncertain. The city is in a kind of limbo as the Taliban has taken control in fact but not formally. That will reportedly happen in the next few days, presumably with a restoration of the former “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” perhaps under a temporary “transitional” veneer and possibly with chief Taliban “negotiator” (he didn’t really do all that much negotiating, hence the quotes) Abdul Ghani Baradar as president. So it’s chaotic, but the ultimate outcome of that chaos is already determined.

The two-week collapse of the Afghan government the United States spent the past 20 years and hundreds of billions of dollars creating and propping up will undoubtedly generate a vast library of think pieces over the coming months and years. Many will blame Joe Biden for abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban. Many will blame Donald Trump for abandoning Afghanistan to the Taliban first. Some will blame the Afghan people themselves for not “wanting it bad enough” (define “it” however you like). I wonder how many will note that in December 2001, just a couple of months after the US invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban offered to surrender as long as their then-leader Mullah Omar, would be allowed to live under a reasonably dignified house arrest in Kandahar. The Bush administration rejected the offer, which would have concluded the war on vastly more favorable terms without the needless suffering and expense of the past 19.5 years.

For as surprising as the speed of the Afghan government’s collapse may have been, that it collapsed should not be surprising in the least. The US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), an office created in 2008 to document the progress of Washington’s massive nation building project, has in reality documented the thorough failure of that project at every step along the way. It’s been mostly ignored both in an out of the US government. In December 2019, the Washington Post published a massive exposé, the “Afghanistan Papers,” that proved conclusively that the United States government had been lying to the American people for almost 18 years about the course of the war and the success of the reconstruction. It produced a brief media storm and was then forgotten, to such an extent that we mostly went right back to accepting the lies.

In the end the United States spent tens of billions of dollars (at least) building an Afghan security establishment whose front-line personnel were paid a pittance and denied basic supplies like food so that the large officer corps could enrich itself. That enrichment often took the form of “ghost” personnel, whose salaries were simply redirected to higher ups, so that what looked like a robust security force on paper was often anything but in actuality. It built an air force that should have been a major advantage for the Afghan military over the Taliban but that proved unable to sustain itself even for a few weeks without massive US support. The United States spent 20 years propping up a government that saw its popular support dwindle to almost nothing, even as large majorities of Afghans professed a preference, in theory, for the country’s post-2001 government over its previous Taliban regime.

I don’t know how the next few weeks will play out in terms of The Discourse, but my guess is there will be a lot of effort put into blaming Biden for withdrawing and a lot of counter-effort put into blaming Trump for tying Biden’s hands. Lovers of American Empire will contend that the US should have stayed in Afghanistan indefinitely, by which they’ll inadvertently reveal that they personally didn’t feel any negative effects from the war or the US occupation. They’ll further insist that Everything Was Fine until Biden and/or Trump screwed it all up, which elides the fact that the Taliban has been slowly but surely strengthening its position in Afghanistan for several years. They’ll argue that this rapid Afghan implosion somehow vindicates their preferred course of action (eternally policing the imperial frontier) when it actually shows how wasted the past 20 years have been and how futile it would have been just to keep on keeping on. At the end of the day the United States was never going to outlast the Taliban, and the idea that it could has fueled a 20 year delusion in the US security establishment.

Whatever form the war apologia takes you can be sure that it will be heavily cloaked in claims of deep concern for the Afghan people. It is right to be concerned about the Afghan people, who went to bed Sunday night under a government whose repressive brutality toward women, religious and ethnic minorities, and other at risk groups is well established. And there’s plenty of criticism that can be leveled at the way this withdrawal has been managed, though the argument that withdrawing was wrong in principle is a breathtaking one to make after 20 years of grinding occupation that quite obviously accomplished nothing that wasn’t completely ephemeral.

But you shouldn’t for a second suppose that the people who cheerled endless war and occupation in Afghanistan ever did so out of concern for the Afghan people. If the United States were really concerned for the Afghan people it wouldn’t have spent well over a decade ignoring the evidence that its nation building efforts were failing. If the United States were really concerned for the Afghan people it wouldn’t have at best tolerated and at worst indulged Afghanistan’s lawless regional warlords, often looking the other way as many of them committed unspeakable atrocities. If the United States were really concerned for the Afghan people it would have spent the past few years evacuating those Afghan nationals who worked for the US military and other Western organizations and are at risk of Taliban reprisal, instead of using legalese about visas and vetting to mask a fundamentally racist national view of refugees and then racing to slap together a half-assed evacuation program at the last minute. Even now the Biden administration is looking for third countries to save these people instead of dropping the immigration artifice and just letting them come here. So let’s not pretend now that it was All About The Afghan people.

PAKISTAN

At least 12 people have been killed and six more wounded in a grenade attack targeting a vehicle in the city of Karachi late Saturday. The vehicle was carrying members of an extended family reportedly returning home from a wedding ceremony when it was attacked in what authorities seem to be categorizing as a random act of terrorism as opposed to something more targeted. Separately, militants in the Loralai district of Pakistan’s Baluchistan region attacked a security vehicle on Saturday, sparking a firefight that left three attackers and one police officer dead. Baluch separatists were probably responsible in that incident.

MALAYSIA

Malaysian media is reporting that embattled Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin will present his resignation to King Abdullah on Monday. Muhyiddin has been dodging a parliamentary no-confidence vote for months by suspending the legislature over concerns about COVID, but if it wasn’t already apparent that he’d lost his governing majority then this resignation will make it pretty clear. He offered in a televised address on Friday to call an early election in exchange for support from the opposition to prop his government up until the vote could be held, but presumably that offer has been considered and rejected. Abdullah will be tasked with appointing a successor, either somebody to assume the job in full or an interim PM who would hold the office only under the parties in parliament can come to some agreement among themselves. A snap election remains likely no matter what Abdullah decides to do.

CHINA

Leaders of one of Hong Kong’s largest activist groups, the Civil Human Rights Front, announced on Sunday that they’re shutting down the organization due to pressure from the authorities. One of the group’s leaders, Figo Chan Ho-wun, was recently sentenced to an 18 month stint in jail under Hong Kong’s tightened security law and the CHRF has apparently been unable to find anyone willing to serve on its secretariat and risk following in his footsteps. When the security law was imposed authorities made public statements to the effect that it would not be applied retroactively, but more recent statements have suggested that past CHRF activities could be prosecuted.

AFRICA

IVORY COAST

Ivorian health officials on Saturday confirmed the country’s first case of Ebola since 1994, involving a Guinean woman who entered the country on Wednesday. They seem to believe her case has been isolated and they’ve administered Ebola vaccines to anyone believed to have come into contact with her.

NIGERIA

Unspecified attackers ambushed a group of travelers along a road in central Nigeria’s Plateau state on Saturday, killing at least 23 people. Details are still spotty but Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on Sunday called the incident a“prearranged” attack targeting Muslims returning home from a religious festival. Some 20 people have been arrested in connection with the attack and state authorities have imposed a 6 PM to 6 AM curfew in order to curtail potential reprisal attacks. The attackers may (according to Reuters) have belonged to a Christian militia group with ties to the Irigwe people, though state officials are trying to downplay religious or ethnic angles.

Unidentified gunmen have attacked two villages in northwestern Nigeria in recent days, killing at least 13 people in total. One attack took place in Sokoto state on Friday and left eight people dead, while the other took place in Kaduna state and left five dead, though it’s unclear when it happened. These attacks frequently involve looting and cattle theft and authorities generally attrubute them to “bandits” without offering any further details.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

At least seven Congolese soldiers have been killed since mid-week in fighting with a coalition of Burundian and Banyamulenge rebels in South Kivu province. At least 18 militia fighters have also been killed according to Congolese authorities.

ZAMBIA

In a bit of a surprise, though the race was expected to be very close, Zambian opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema looks like he’s unseated incumbent Edgar Lungo in Thursday’s presidential election. Heavy turnout appears to have benefited the challenger. However, Lungu seems disinclined to go quietly. He’s alleging fraud in at least three provinces that are favorable to Hichilema and may attempt to challenge the outcome once the results are official. Election authorities say they should have the results by Monday and have asked, in vain, for people to remain calm until then. Hichilema supporters are already out in the streets celebrating so the toothpaste, as it were, is already out of the tube.

EUROPE

UKRAINE

A nationalist rally in Kyiv turned violent on Saturday, as protesters aligned with the National Corps party attempted to storm a police barricade outside the Presidential Administrative Building. At least eight police officers and presumably some untold number of protesters were injured in the melee, which protest organizers blamed on the cops. National Corps is opposed to the framework of a still-hypothetical peace agreement for eastern Ukraine, known as the Minsk Protocol or the “Steinmeier formula” after German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who helped negotiate the framework in his previous gig as foreign minister. Specifically they’re opposed to the special autonomous status that Ukraine’s rebellious Donbas region would have under the formula.

POLAND

The government of Israel recalled its Polish chargé d’affaires on Saturday in response to a new law governing claims to property confiscated by Poland’s previous communist government. The law specifically sets a 30 year statute of limitations on property claims or other administrative challenges, so any family seeking restitution for a property grievance predating 1991 would be out of luck. Where this involves Israel is in the case of Holocaust survivors and their families who claim that the communist government appropriated property that had initially been seized by the Nazis, as well as other Jewish families who emigrated from Poland after World War II (many of them to Israel) and claim the government seized their property after that.

Poland’s post-communist governments have adjudicated some property restitution claims but there have been cases in which those claims were used fraudulently by speculators and criminal networks to obtain properties illegitimately, so the new law is not entirely without justification (at least in principle). To be clear the measure affects non-Jewish property claimants as well, but given the context and the Polish government’s checkered antisemitism record you can see why the focus has fallen where it has. In a statement posted to Facebook on Sunday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki denied that there was any antisemitic basis to the new law and warned that Israel’s move would “have a very negative impact on our relations, both bilaterally and in international forums.”

AMERICAS

UNITED STATES

Finally, at Foreign Policy, University of Michigan researcher David Helps makes the case for subjecting US policing to international law:

A new report challenges the United States’ tendency to siphon local policing tactics from the global arena. In late April, after months of research and testimony, the International Commission of Inquiry on Systemic Racist Police Violence Against People of African Descent in the United States, formed by legal experts from 11 countries, released its findings. The commission’s report argues that torture, beatings, killings, and gender-based violence are systemic to U.S. law enforcement, and that this pattern “amounts to crimes against humanity.”

The authors took inspiration from last year’s anti-racism protests, joining the call for justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and numerous other victims of what they termed “police murders.” However, the report goes beyond demanding the prosecution of individual officers or the passage of national police reform. Among its recommendations, the commission calls on the ICC to investigate the responsible U.S. police officials.

Upon its release, experts in international law began to criticize the report as naïve and misguided. “Your latest instalment of ‘terrible things the #ICC does not have jurisdiction over’—police killing of Black Americans version,” tweeted Kevin Jon Heller, a law professor at the University of Copenhagen. A headline in Newsweek declared, “Independent Commission Calls U.S. Police Killings of Blacks ‘Crimes Against Humanity,’” before adding, “But Lacks Enforcement Authority.”

It’s true that the United States is not party to the ICC (the report also calls for it to join). Yet by dismissing the case against the United States on jurisdictional grounds, these critics reveal their own misunderstanding of international law. Rather than as a fixed arrangement of courts and laws, we should imagine the philosophy of human rights as a flexible tool for justice, as past social movements have. While it’s highly unlikely the ICC will intervene in this case, there are significant precedents in which activists used international law to address institutional racism outside of a courtroom.