World roundup: August 26 2021
Stories from Afghanistan, Tunisia, Chile, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 25, 1580: An army under the Duke of Alba, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, fighting on behalf of King Philip II of Spain, defeats an army under António, Prior of Crato, at the Battle of Alcântara, part of the War of Portuguese Succession. Both António and Philip were claimants to the then-vacant throne of Portugal, and this victory allowed Philip’s army to capture Lisbon and eventually led to Philip’s crowning as King of Portugal in March 1581. The crowns of Portugal and Spain were held in personal union (the “Iberian Union”) until the 1640-1668 Portuguese Restoration War.
August 26, 1071: The Battle of Manzikert
August 26, 1922: The Turkish army begins what’s known as its “Great Offensive,” the final push to oust an occupying Greek army from Anatolia. The offensive was successful and brought the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War, itself a theater of the larger Turkish War of Independence, to a victorious (from Turkey’s perspective) conclusion.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Rebel fighters and their families still appear to be evacuating the Daraa al-Balad neighborhood, a sign that whatever ceasefire agreement they reached with the Syrian government earlier this week is holding. Russian forces entered and secured the district on Tuesday after a weeks-long siege, with the understanding that fighters who did not agree to give up their weapons would be transported to rebel-held northwestern Syria. The Russian intervention apparently forestalled a major offensive by pro-government militias, which likely would have been bloody and might have triggered an Israeli response. Russia has an understanding in place with Israel under which it’s promised to limit the activities of Iranian-backed militias in southern Syria.
The Lebanese army has reportedly moved in to quell inter-communal fighting in northern Lebanon’s Akkar province. Groups in two villages in the province battled one another earlier this week over a dispute around logging rights, leaving two people dead. This seems like a relatively minor clash but in a country whose political cohesion is weakening virtually by the day this kind of violence could become more common.
The Israeli government announced Thursday that it will ease restrictions on commercial imports into Gaza to allow, as the Associated Press reported, “imports of new vehicles, goods and equipment for civilian projects in the Gaza Strip.” It will also expand entry permits for Gaza residents to cross into Israel proper. Likewise, the Egyptian government has agreed to reopen its Rafah checkpoint to allow movement into (but not out of) Gaza, after blocking all traffic earlier this week in an effort to pressure Hamas into supporting talks on a broad Gaza ceasefire.
The Israelis (and Egyptians) generally ease restrictions on Gazan movement during periods of calm, but in this case the changes may have been timed to impress Joe Biden, who was due to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House on Thursday morning. That meeting was postponed to Friday due to events in Afghanistan (see below). Bennett did meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
The United Arab Emirates’ National Security Adviser, Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed Al Nayhan, visited with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha on Thursday in what was easily the highest level meeting between Qatari and Emirati officials since the Qatari boycott began in 2017. Qatar has since made significantly greater diplomatic inroads in terms of rebuilding its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Egypt than with the UAE and Bahrain.
An Azerbaijani military unit has reportedly blockaded a road through southern Armenia for reasons that are not clear. The highway runs through territory that was seized by Azerbaijan during last fall’s war over Nagorno-Karabakh, so the Azerbaijanis haven’t necessarily violated Armenian territory though as we’ve discussed in this newsletter previously the border is not well demarcated. Presumably the Azerbaijanis are acting on some sort of grievance but they have yet to explain what it is they’re doing or why they’re doing it. One reasonable guess would be that it has something to do with the episodic border violence that’s been taking place since the end of the war, including a reported incident on Wednesday in which Armenian soldiers allegedly killed an Azerbaijani soldier in what may have been Azerbaijani territory. Russian border guards are supposed to be keeping these sorts of incidents to a minimum.
One day after the US embassy in Kabul issued a warning for people to stay away from Kabul airport, two bombings on the outskirts of the facility, one involving a suicide bomber, killed dozens of people on Thursday. The Islamic State’s Khorasan (IS-K) province affiliate claimed responsibility for the bombs, which killed at least 13 US soldiers and an untold number of Afghans (the last official count I saw was 60 but that may be low). That’s the largest number of US soldiers killed in a single day in Afghanistan since 2011. The previous day’s warning aside this is not a particularly surprising turn of events, given IS’s hostility toward the US, its sometimes-rivalry with the Taliban, and its tendency to maximize civilian casualties coupled with the vulnerability of the large crowds massed at the airport.
Joe Biden delivered a televised speech later on Thursday and, amid eulogizing the soldiers and pledging to continue the Kabul evacuation (which for all intents and purposes will probably need to wrap up by tomorrow in order to give the US military time to get its own personnel out of Afghanistan by the August 31 deadline), said he’d ordered the Pentagon to “develop operational plans” to target IS-K as well as “the [Islamic State] leaders who ordered this.”
As to what any of that means, your guess is as good as mine. Drone strikes seems the most likely response, but where and against whom? IS-K doesn’t exactly have a massive Afghan footprint and anyway last I checked the United States was withdrawing from Afghanistan and didn’t have any plans in place to leave intelligence and/or military assets in the region. Is this attack going to change any of that? I suppose we’ll have to wait and see. If it doesn’t, then so be it. If it does…well, look, I try not to engage in conspiracy peddling in this newsletter. It’s not that I don’t have some theories about certain world events, it’s just that I don’t think that’s the best use of this outlet. But I would understand—I’m not saying I would agree necessarily, just that I’d understand—why people might start to speculate at that point.
Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party is set to hold a leadership election on September 29 that Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide may well lose. Japan is set to hold its next general election sometime this fall, and while the LDP is still leading in the polls its lead is shrinking alongside Suga’s approval rating. At last check the latter was hovering around 30 percent and when asked to rate their preference for prime minister Suga was lagging behind several other LDP leaders.
According to Amnesty International the Tunisian government—which at this point consists of little more than President Kais Saied—has arbitrarily prevented over 50 people from traveling abroad in the month since Saied invoked emergency powers and suspended parliament. The travel bans have been wielded against judges, civil servants, state officials, businessmen, and others, apparently without allowing the targets of those bans to have any judicial recourse to challenge them. Saied has insisted he’s only barring travel for people suspected of corruption or of posing some kind of national security risk.
The Arab Center’s Daniel Brumberg looks at Saied’s power grab and its regional implications:
In the short run, a measure of tension-filled ambiguity underscores Saied’s role as the ultimate decision maker, notwithstanding his rhetoric that he reflects the desires of the Tunisian people. But much sooner than later, he will have to confront a basic task that all populists face: how to move from disdaining to embracing politics. The gathering judicial campaign to pursue charges of corruption directed at politicians and the business class—much of which could unfold through special military courts—suggests that Saied wants to be a leader who telegraphs contempt for politics and a politician who also practices the mundane art of power.
Still, much remains to be done. To complete this metamorphosis, he must go beyond forging domestic alliances through some kind of viable, institutional arena he is yet to identify. Saied must also advance a regional diplomacy that will enhance his authority on the home front. Because Tunisia’s internal politics have become intertwined with its regional relations (and its interactions with the Gulf Arab countries in particular), the Tunisian president will probably look to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for support, and other Arab states such as Egypt, even as he defends the principle of Tunisian national sovereignty. While this regional policy is still being charted, its broad outlines are slowly emerging in ways that point to both risks and opportunities for the president—not to mention for the various outside players seeking to shape the course of events in Tunisia.
The Ethiopian Human Rights Commission says that over 210 people have been killed after about a week of violence in Ethiopia’s Oromia region. According to the commission, Ethiopian security forces withdrew from the Gida Kiremu district on August 18. Fighters from the rebel Oromo Liberation Army moved into the region, killing over 150 people. Many of those killed were likely ethnic Amhara. Over subsequent days, another 60 people were killed in a series of reprisal attacks against Oromo communities. The OLA has agreed to an alliance of sorts with the outlawed Tigray People’s Liberation Front, but it’s unclear whether this incident can be linked to that development.
A Scottish court on Thursday tossed out an extradition claim by the Spanish government for former Catalan regional education minister Clara Ponsatí. Spanish authorities want to try Ponsatí for sedition, since she was serving in the regional government when Catalonia held its controversial 2017 independence referendum. But apparently Ponsatí, who had been teaching at the University of St. Andrews, is no longer considered a Scottish resident—she won election to the European Parliament in 2019 and now lives in Brussels. Madrid continues to pursue a number of former Catalan officials who fled the country following that referendum and its aftermath.
Much of Chile has been coping with a serious drought for several months now, and a new study published in the Journal of Climate appears to have pinpointed one of its causes—a massive “blob” of warm water out in the Pacific Ocean, east of New Zealand. This “blob” is apparently warming much faster than the surrounding ocean for some reason, thanks of course to climate change. It just happens to be well-positioned to warm the air currents heading toward Chile, hence the drought.
Finally, one of the lingering questions about the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been whether anybody in Washington considered the possibility of a rapid Taliban takeover. There’s evidence that somebody did, in the form of a State Department “dissent cable” making exactly that prediction. But according to The American Prospect’s Jonathan Guyer, nobody at the White House saw the cable until well after it could’ve done any good:
A month before the Taliban stormed Afghanistan’s capital, two dozen diplomats in the U.S. embassy in Kabul sent a memo to the State Department warning of imminent collapse. The July 13 dissent cable warned Secretary of State Tony Blinken that the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul would quickly follow a U.S. withdrawal. They said an urgent plan to evacuate Afghan partners was needed.
It was a message that never reached the White House and the National Security Council, which was coordinating President Biden’s directive to end the 20-year war in Afghanistan.
Indeed, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan only learned about the memo after it was reported in The Wall Street Journal, a month after it had been sent, according to three well-placed sources who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to discuss the dissent cable.
It’s a lapse that reflects how centralized power in Biden’s orbit has constrained necessary communication among the country’s top national-security leaders.
The State Department says the cable’s analysis was “quickly integrated into ongoing contingency planning,” but it’s unclear why it never made it to anybody at the White House. Guyer warns that the makeup of Joe Biden’s national security and foreign policy staff, most of which consists of people with deep personal and/or professional ties either to Biden himself or to senior administration officials like Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, may lend itself to groupthink in situations like this.