World roundup: August 21-22 2021

Stories from Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Haiti, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

August 20 (give or take), 636: The Battle of Yarmouk

August 20, 1988: A ceasefire brings the nearly eight year long Iran-Iraq War to an end. The war cost hundreds of thousands of lives and included some of the most appalling war crimes of the 20th century, all to achieve essentially a restoration of the prewar status quo (minus the people who died, of course).

August 21, 1415: Portuguese forces under King John I and his son Henrique, the future “Prince Henry the Navigator,” capture the city of Ceuta from the Moroccan Marinid dynasty. Ceuta was the first possession in what would become the Portuguese Empire and served as a staging ground for the Portuguese to capture several other cities around the northwest African coast. It’s a Spanish city today—Madrid kept it after the 16th-17th century Iberian Union broke apart.

This azulejo mural depicting the siege was completed by painter Jorge Colaço in the early 20th century and is displayed in the São Bento railway station in Porto (Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia Commons)

August 21, 1791: Slaves in Saint-Domingue attend a Vodou ceremony in the evening and afterward begin a mass uprising. This insurrection marked the start of the Haitian Revolution, the most successful slave revolt in the Americas. Haiti won its independence from France, effective on January 1, 1804. The impact of the revolution on slavery in the Americas continues to be a matter of scholarly debate, but at the time the uprising so terrified US slaveholders that the Jefferson administration imposed an embargo on Haiti that remained in place until 1862.

August 22, 1864: An international convention held in Geneva produces a treaty outlining humane “rules” of war, including provisions for the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers. That treaty would subsequently be amended and expanded four times and is the basis of the First Geneva Convention, which was adopted along with the other three Geneva Conventions in 1949.

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The US military apparently shot down a drone over eastern Syria on Saturday after determining that its intentions were unfriendly. Details beyond that are spotty, but it occurs to me that if the Pentagon is worried about threats to US forces in Syria, a place in which they have no legal basis to be anyway, they could always withdraw them. Just brainstorming ideas here.

IRAQ

The Turkish military killed two civilians on Sunday while shelling Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) positions in northern Iraq’s Dohuk province. This latest atrocity comes a few days after Turkish airstrikes in the Sinjar region killed at least eight, drawing a rebuke (ineffectual, as usual) from the Iraqi government.

LEBANON

Recent cuts to the Lebanese Central Bank’s fuel subsidy program seem to have gone into full effect this weekend, as market prices for most common fuels (gasolines and mazut) spiked by around 70 percent across the country. The price Lebanese consumers are being asked to pay for fuel has roughly tripled in about two months, which is when the bank began adjusting the exchange rate it was using to issue credit for fuel imports. Prices may stabilize a bit, after the bank agreed on Saturday to set a new artificial exchange rate at 8000 pounds per US dollar. That’s substantially lower than the 3900 pounds per dollar rate it had been using but still markedly better than the black market rate of around 19,000 pounds per dollar (at last check).

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A mass protest at the Gaza fence line turned violent on Saturday, leaving one Israeli soldier and 41 Palestinians wounded—two of them, including a 13 year old child, critically. That lopsided casualty count notwithstanding, the Israeli military adopted the protest as a justification for a new round of airstrikes on Gaza overnight. There are no reports of casualties from those strikes, which Israeli officials say targeted Hamas military sites. The Egyptian government has reportedly decided to close the Rafah border crossing from Gaza into Sinai in response to the escalation.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

In this weekend’s Afghanistan news:

  • The panicked atmosphere surrounding Kabul’s airport does not seem to have abated in any way over the weekend. According to the British Defense Ministry at least seven people were killed in some sort of crush or stampede incident at the facility. UK officials announced those deaths on Sunday but it’s unclear if that’s when the incident took place. According to NATO at least 20 people have died at the airport under various circumstances since the airlift operation began.

  • Also on Sunday, the Pentagon activated the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, compelling six US commercial airlines to contribute a total of 18 planes to the airlift effort. But airplane capacity is only part of the problem—evacuation flights had to be halted on Friday because the Qatari hanger into which the US was literally warehousing people (in inhumane environmental conditions, by the way) couldn’t hold any more people. The Biden administration has tried to speed up processing and to open more human warehouses to alleviate the problem.

  • So far the administration claims it’s evacuated 28,000 people from Kabul, including 11,000 just this weekend, but those figures are unverified. Anyway, without any solid numbers on how many US citizens are in Afghanistan, let alone how many eligible Afghan citizens are waiting to be brought out, it’s impossible to know whether 28,000 people is an impressive start or just a drop in the bucket.

  • Resistance forces of some sort apparently captured three districts in Baghlan province from the Taliban on Saturday. Details are very spotty, and in particular it’s unclear whether there’s a link between the fighters who took those districts and the nascent resistance movement that’s formed in the Panjshir Valley, which borders Baghlan. One of the resistance’s leaders, Ahmad Massoud (son of former Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud), told Reuters on Sunday that he’s open to negotiations with the Taliban but said his forces are prepared to fight if talks are not forthcoming. He denied involvement in Saturday’s battles and suggested that local militias were responsible. The Taliban announced via social media on Sunday that it’s sending “hundreds” of fighters to Panjshir so it sounds like Massoud’s movement is going to be doing more fighting than talking in its immediate future.

CHINA

Joe Biden on Friday made official something that’s been rumored for some time now, nominating Nicholas Burns as his ambassador to China. Burns is a career foreign service officer who previously served as ambassador to Greece under Bill Clinton and ambassador to NATO under George W. Bush, and he served as a foreign policy adviser to the Biden 2020 campaign. He’s spent the past few years running a “strategy group” under the auspices of the Aspen Institute and taking big bucks for corporate speaking gigs. His appointment represents something of a departure for the China post, which since the 1990s has generally been a more overtly political appointment.

JAPAN

Speaking of political appointments, Biden also nominated former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to serve as his ambassador to Japan. Unlike Burns, Emanuel has no previous foreign service experience but he makes up for that by being personally unpleasant. Honestly, unless we’re suddenly angry over Pearl Harbor again I can’t see the rationale for inflicting this man on the Japanese people.

OCEANIA

AUSTRALIA

Thousands of people hit the streets of Melbourne on Saturday to express their disapproval of lockdown measures. As The Guardian reports, the demonstration doesn’t seem to have gone very smoothly:

AFRICA

LIBYA

According to the “Libyan National Army,” one of its checkpoints was attacked by a would-be suicide bomber on Sunday who wound up only killing himself. The checkpoint, in the central Libyan town of Zella, is positioned near an oilfield that’s apparently still controlled by the LNA rather than by the official interim Libyan government. This was most likely an Islamic State operation.

NIGER

Another village in Niger’s Tillabéri region came under attack from unspecified gunmen on Friday, the second such attack in that region this week. The attackers, likely Islamic State given the location and the nature of the target, killed at least 16 people during Friday prayers.

NIGERIA

Gunmen on motorcycles swarmed into a village in northwestern Nigeria’s Zamfara state on Friday and, in an attack that lasted through Saturday morning, looted homes and stores and kidnapped at least 75 people. Mass kidnappings remain a frequent occurrence in northern Nigeria, perpetrated by groups Nigerian authorities only identify as “bandits.”

CHAD

Chad’s military government is halving its commitment to the multinational G5 Sahel force, which could have repercussions across the region. The G5 was founded in 2014 to combat jihadist violence across the Sahel and includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger, but Chad’s 1200 personnel have been regarded as its backbone. The force operates primarily in the “tri-border” region around southwestern Niger, eastern Mali, and northern Burkina Faso. Supposedly this redeployment has been in the planning for some time now and is meant to streamline the G5 into a more mobile operation by withdrawing heavier units, but it seems reasonable to speculate whether it would have happened had Chadian President Idriss Déby not been killed back in April in combat with rebels.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

Writing for Foreign Policy, journalist Jack Losh reports that Russian intervention is helping to fuel an increasingly brutal quagmire in the CAR:

In the lawless provinces of the Central African Republic, a deep hole has been dug into the bare earth of a military base. Measuring some 20 feet deep by 12 feet wide, this grim pit is used by Russian mercenaries and federal troops as a black site to detain anyone suspected of rebel sympathies, two sources familiar with its existence told Foreign Policy.

Food and water are seldom provided. Men and women are held together, exposed to blistering heat or torrential rain, with no access to toilets. Release is only granted when a relative pays hundreds of dollars—a huge sum in what is one of the poorest countries in the world. “Even if you’re innocent, you have to pay,” said a local source who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearful of reprisals.

“Everyone came into contact with the rebels when they were here, so, in the Russians’ eyes, anyone is a suspect,” a U.N. source said. “People thought life couldn’t get any worse. But it’s got worse.”

While denied by the Russian authorities, the use of this squalid, secret jail in the town of Bambari epitomizes the brutal and counterproductive strategy pursued by CAR’s government and its Russian allies to claw back territory held by rebel militias for years. After a coalition of insurgents launched an offensive last December, Moscow’s paramilitary units joined government forces to repel them and have been gaining ground nationwide since.

Yet their punishing counterattack has come at a steep cost. The military operation is devastating communities, exacerbating grievances, and causing a spate of human rights abuses—all paving the way for greater conflict to come.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

The Congolese government has reportedly closed a number of Chinese-operated mines in South Kivu province over tensions between the mining companies and smaller or “artisanal” mining operations in the province. Congolese officials also announced earlier this week that they’re “reviewing” a major joint Chinese-DRC mining project over concerns about the distribution of revenues. A cynical person might note the confluence of events, with the DRC suddenly rethinking its commercial relationship with China just as US special forces arrive to help deal with Islamist militants in North Kivu and Ituri provinces, but I’m sure it’s all just a quirky coincidence.

EUROPE

MONTENEGRO

Nationalist sentiment flared up on Sunday as thousands of people gathered in the city of Cetinje to protest the upcoming installation of Metropolitan Bishop Joanikije II as the head of Montenegro’s branch of the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Church involved itself politically during last year’s parliamentary election campaign, contributing to an effort that saw the Democratic Party of Socialists of Montenegro removed from the government for the first time since 1991 in favor of a more Serbian-friendly coalition. There appear to be some lingering resentments over that whole affair, as well as some resistance to holding Joanikije’s inauguration in Cetinje, Montenegro’s former royal capital and still a symbol of the country’s sovereignty.

SWEDEN

Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven announced on Sunday that he’ll be stepping down both as PM and as the leader of his Social Democratic party in November. Löfven has been PM since 2014, but almost lost his office earlier this year when his coalition briefly came apart and his cabinet lost a no-confidence vote. An opposition effort to form an alternative government failed and Löfven was able to cobble his coalition back together again, but it seems he’s looking to hand power over to somebody with perhaps a bit less political baggage. The party will choose a new leader in November and that person will presumably succeed Löfven in the premiership—assuming the coalition doesn’t come apart again.

GERMANY

A new poll from the political research firm INSA finds that Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance (the “Union”) are tied at 22 percent each heading into next month’s federal election. If accurate the poll suggests that not only is the Union in deep trouble, so is its current coalition with the SPD, since the two parties together would fall substantially shy of a majority. The math suggests that a three-party coalition including the SPD, the Greens, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) would work, but the FDP has been signaling an unwillingness to enter government alongside the Greens. The Union and SPD could agree to bring a third party into their coalition but if they finish tied, as this poll has it, there’s likely to be serious disagreement over who gets to lead the next government.

AMERICAS

PERU

Peruvian President Pedro Castillo has named diplomat Óscar Maúrtua as his new foreign minister-designate. He replaces Héctor Béjar, who had to resign on Tuesday when a video surfaced in which he suggested that the CIA was partly behind the creation of the Shining Path rebel group. Maúrtua previously served as foreign minister in 2005-2006 under President Alejandro Toledo, so he brings some experience to the office though the alignment between his political ideology and Castillo’s may not be all that tight.

HAITI

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry told the Organization of American States on Friday that he is “committed” to “the organization as soon as possible of free and transparent elections.” You’ll note that “as soon as possible” is now standing in for “September 26,” the scheduled date of this year’s general election prior to the assassination of President Jovenal Moïse last month, and even for “November 7,” the alternative date Henry’s government announced earlier this month. Since then Haiti has been hit by a 7.2 magnitude earthquake that killed at least 2207 people and has mired the country in a chaotic recovery effort made more chaotic by armed gangs that have reportedly been attacking humanitarian relief shipments. At this point even November seems unrealistic.

According to the New York Times, investigators looking into Moïse’s assassination are looking at possible links to drug trafficking, specifically in the person of the former head of the president’s security detail:

The commander in charge of guarding the Haitian president’s home quickly became a suspect in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last month when his security team inexplicably melted away, enabling hit men to enter the residence with little resistance and kill the president in his own bedroom.

But current and former officials say that the commander, Dimitri Hérard, was already a suspect in a separate case that the United States Drug Enforcement Administration has pursued for years: the disappearance of hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds of cocaine and heroin that were whisked away by corrupt officials only hours before law enforcement agents showed up to seize them.

Now, some international officials assisting with the investigation into the president’s assassination say they are examining whether those criminal networks help explain the killing. Haitian officials, including the country’s prime minister, have acknowledged that the official explanation presented in the days after the assassination — that Mr. Moïse was gunned down in an elaborate plot to seize political office — does not entirely add up, and that the true motive behind the murder has not been uncovered.

One interesting detail: on the night of the assassination Hérard and his unit for some reason opted to set up a roadblock near the presidential residence instead of going to the residence to, you know, try to protect Moïse. Witnesses report Hérard speaking with the alleged attackers by phone, supposedly to try to negotiate their surrender, but they’re unclear as to how he came to know the right number to call.

UNITED STATES

Finally, at Responsible Statecraft, CUNY’s Rajan Menon wonders what it would take for critics of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan to recognize that sticking around for another few years wouldn’t have made a difference:

Biden-bashers haven’t reflected on some fundamental questions: How successful could the 20-year nation-building undertaking have been if the impending exodus of a few thousand American soldiers precipitated the total unraveling of the Afghan government and the ANDSF in two weeks? And even if Biden had delayed the withdrawal date and deployed many more U.S. troops, would that have necessarily enabled an orderly evacuation given that thousands of desperate Afghans would still have thronged Kabul airport? Indeed, wouldn’t even a well-executed mass evacuation have prompted Afghan officials and military officers to cut deals with the Taliban? If, as some critics insist, retaining 2,500 troops in Afghanistan would have prevented the Kabul government’s collapse and enabled continued anti-terrorism operations, what would have been the end game, and when would we have seen it?

Besides, if provincial panjandrums surrendered to the Taliban as quickly as they did, is it fair to ask how much popular legitimacy the Afghan state could have acquired? Infighting and corruption pervaded all levels of the government and every single Afghan election. Despite the democracy builders’ spin, the inescapable truth is that U.S.-backed Afghan governments never gained public confidence.

Conversely, as brutal and feared as the Taliban has been, without popular support, particularly among rural Pashtuns, it could never have kept replenishing its ranks and fighting adversaries that fielded (on paper at least) far more troops with much better equipment and far greater firepower — to say nothing of an air force. For years, the Taliban was portrayed by Western governments and media as universally hated and unmoored from Afghan society. But as Carter Malkasian, a Pashto speaker with extensive experience in Afghanistan, noted last month, “the Taliban were able to tie themselves to religion and to Afghan identity in a way that a government allied with non-Muslim foreign occupiers could not match.”