World roundup: August 28-29 2021

Stories from Afghanistan, Libya, Russia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

August 27, 1896: Shortly after 9 AM local time, British forces invade the Zanzibar Sultanate over a succession dispute. Around 40 minutes later the Anglo-Zanzibar War was over and Britain’s man was on the throne. This conflict, the shortest war in recorded history, marks the point at which Britain’s protectorate over Zanzibar really kicked took hold and the sultanate—founded when Zanzibar and Oman split into separate kingdoms in 1856—ceased to be an independent political entity in any meaningful sense.

August 28, 1189: In an effort to find himself a new capital city, titular King of Jerusalem Guy of Lusignan begins a siege of Acre. It took the armies of the Third Crusade, under Richard the Lionheart and Philip II of France, to finally conclude the siege and capture the city in July 1191.

August 28, 1521: Ottoman forces under Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent capture the then-Hungarian city of Belgrade (Nándorfehérvár to the Hungarians) and destroy most of it. The Ottomans rebuilt the city and made it the capital of the Sanjak of Smederevo, and within a short time it became the largest Ottoman city in Europe after Constantinople.

August 29, 1526: The Battle of Mohács

August 29, 1842: Britain and Qing China sign the Treaty of Nanking, ending the 1839-1842 First Opium War. China was obliged to pay reparations to Britain and Hong Kong became a British colony, which it remained until 1997. The treaty also ended China’s “Canton System,” which had forced all foreign trade to run through the port city of Guangzhou (Canton) and was the means by which the Chinese government controlled those foreign commercial interactions, and forced the Qing to accept unequal conditions on Chinese-British trade.

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Whatever arrangement the Syrian government and the rebel fighters occupying part of Daraa city may have reached a few days ago seems to have broken down. The Syrian army shelled Daraa al-Balad on Sunday, killing at least six people, and then put out a statement complaining about “armed groups and terrorists” occupying the neighborhood. This comes as something of a surprise given that Russian forces had already reportedly moved into the enclave to oversee the evacuation of rebel fighters. It may reflect some discord between Iranian-backed forces, which would like to expand their footprint in southern Syria, and the Russians, who have made assurances to the Israeli government that they won’t allow that to happen.

YEMEN

A Houthi drone and/or missile attack on Yemen’s Anad airbase in Lahij province killed at least 30 soldiers and wounded at least 60 other people on Sunday. Yemeni personnel were still getting a handle on the attack site at last check so those figures may rise. The missiles may have been fired from Houthi positions in central Yemen’s Taiz province—witnesses there heard the sound of missile launches earlier in the day.

IRAQ

The Iraqi government welcomed senior officials from across the Middle East—along with French President Emmanuel Macron for some reason—on Saturday for its long-anticipated weekend peace conference. Several heads of state attended, though the two key attendees—Saudi Arabia and Iran—sent their foreign ministers instead. The conference doesn’t appear to have resulted in any breakthroughs, though in a sense the conference itself marks a kind of breakthrough and it would have been unrealistic to expect any substantive outcome. In addition to bringing The Gang together for a talk, the conference may be a political victory for Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who can now head into October’s election claiming to have restored Iraq’s regional prominence.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military spent another weekend bombing Gaza, striking “military targets” early Sunday in response to incendiary balloon launches out of the enclave as well as a violent protest at the Gaza fence line the previous day. When I say “violent protest,” of course, most of the violence was carried out by Israeli soldiers. They wounded 11 protesters, some with live ammunition. There’s no word of any casualties from the airstrikes. Another, apparently much smaller, fence line demonstration took place on Sunday evening but I don’t have any details beyond that.

Additionally, the Egyptian government reopened the Rafah border crossing over the weekend to traffic coming out of Gaza. It had already reopened the crossing for traffic into Gaza. Egyptian officials closed Rafah completely on Monday to pressure Hamas into supporting ceasefire talks with the Israeli government. It’s unclear what progress has been made over the past week such that the Egyptians reopened the crossing.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

In this weekend’s Afghanistan news:

  • The US military carried out a drone strike in Kabul on Sunday targeting a vehicle allegedly carrying an Islamic State suicide bomber or bombers intent on carrying out another attack at Kabul airport. I guess they figured it was better to blow up their bombs in a different part of the city, though I wonder how residents might have felt about that. At least three children were killed in the strike, and that figure may grow as the rescue/recovery effort continues. There were initial reports of a separate rocket attack in the city, but it appears they turned out to be false.

  • Friday’s drone strike in Nangarhar province, conducted in retaliation for Thursday’s airport bombing, killed two IS personnel and wounded a third, according to the Pentagon. There’s still no word on potential civilian casualties in that attack. Anonymous “US officials” told The Wall Street Journal that the attack employed an R9X Hellfire missile, which uses blades rather than explosives to minimize collateral damage. But that claim doesn’t align with video that appears to show explosive-like damage in the wake of the strike. Speaking of civilian casualties, it’s apparently possible that some of the at least 169 people killed in Thursday’s bombing were killed by US soldiers. There are reports of gunfire immediately following the bomb blast, though both American and Taliban personnel were likely doing the shooting so if any of the dead were shot it will be difficult to determine who shot them.

  • Taliban fighters reportedly murdered a folk singer in Afghanistan’s Baghlan province on Friday. That region has already been the site of clashes between the Taliban and local militias, and the new Taliban government has already outlawed music, so there may have been multiple motives for the killing but details are very spotty. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid has said there will be an investigation into the incident.

  • Sunday’s drone strike came, of course, as the Kabul evacuation effort is nearing its end. Western nations—primarily the US—have airlifted over 114,000 people out of Afghanistan in two weeks, a fairly remarkable achievement considering how abruptly the operation began but nowhere close to evacuating everyone who wants to leave the country now that the Taliban has taken control. With that in mind, a group of 98 countries (including the US) issued a joint statement on Sunday pledging to continue receiving Afghan refugees and stressing the “commitment” the Taliban has made, via its own public statements, to allowing safe passage out of the country after the August 31 evacuation deadline. The US and European governments may link future aid money or potentially sanctions to the degree to which the Taliban actually back up its words with its deeds.

  • Speaking of Taliban words and deeds, officials have reportedly begun telling farmers in parts of southern Afghanistan that they will no longer be permitted to grow opium poppies. Mujahid said earlier this month that the new Taliban-led government would stamp out the opium trade. Prices for raw opium have as much as tripled in some parts of the country over concerns that supplies are about to become scarce. The previous Taliban government in the 1990s tried on a couple of occasions to crack down on opium growing, including a very effective crackdown in 2000, but when the group was driven into insurgency after the US invasion in 2001 it embraced the opium trade as a source of revenue. There’s no alternative crop for Afghan farmers that’s anywhere near as lucrative as opium, so if the Taliban does try to enforce this ban it’s liable to meet resistance. The group may also have no choice but to allow the drug trade (including opium as well as Afghanistan’s burgeoning meth industry) to continue if economic conditions (and Western sanctions) demand it.

PAKISTAN

Pakistani Taliban gunfire from across the border in Afghanistan killed two soldiers in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Sunday. Pakistani forces returned fire and say they killed at least two of their attackers in turn (the Pakistani Taliban denies losing any of its fighters). Cross-border shootings like this are fairly common, but this is the first such incident since the Afghan Taliban captured Kabul earlier this month amid promises not to allow Afghanistan to be used as a base for attacks on other countries.

NORTH KOREA

In its annual report on the state of North Korea’s nuclear program, the International Atomic Energy Agency alleges that Pyongyang has restarted its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. That facility appeared, at least, to have been shut down since December 2018, during the Era of Good Feeling between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Previously it had served as a source of raw plutonium material to fuel North Korea’s nuclear warheads. Not coincidentally, there are also indications that North Korea has resumed its plutonium reprocessing activities. Kim may be restarting his nuclear program to attract attention from a Biden administration that has thus far mostly pretended North Korea doesn’t exist. Or maybe he just wants some new nukes.

AFRICA

LIBYA

Libya’s tenuous interim government showed a couple of signs that it might be breaking down over the weekend. On Sunday, interim Oil Minister Mohamed Oun moved to suspend the head of Libya’s National Oil Corporation, Mustafa Sanallah, over some unspecified “investigation” into Sanallah’s conduct. This is not the first time Oun has clashed with Sanallah and if the latter decides to ignore this suspension, as it seems likely he will, it’s unclear what (if anything) Oun will be able to do about it.

Of potentially greater significance, interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh is in the midst of an escalating conflict with leaders of the eastern Libyan parliament based in Tobruk, which is refusing to approve his budget proposals. It’s unclear why the body hasn’t moved forward on the budget, but earlier in the week the speaker of the Tobruk parliament, Aguila Saleh, threatened Dbeibeh with a no-confidence vote unless the PM agrees to testify before the legislature regarding his government’s performance on Monday. If Saleh were to arrange a no-confidence vote it’s not clear that he could actually enforce its outcome, but it would mean a complete falling out between Saleh and Dbeibeh. And that could set Libya back into the west vs. east dynamic of its maybe-not-entirely-over civil war.

SOUTH SUDAN

According to AFP, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar may have reached an agreement on Saturday on a plan for merging Machar’s former rebel forces into the regular South Sudanese military. That’s one of the key unfulfilled steps in the peace agreement Kiir and Machar signed back in 2018. There’s some uncertainty, how ever, as one source within the government told AFP a deal had been reached while another source close to Machar denied it. If there’s still some disagreement it’s likely over who gets to fill senior security positions—Kiir reportedly wants an arrangement where he would control 60 percent of those appointments while Machar is after an arrangement where he and other rebel leaders would control 50 percent and Kiir the other 50 percent.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Allied Democratic Forces fighters killed at least 19 people on Friday when they attacked a village in North Kivu province’s Beni region. US special forces began working with Congolese security services earlier this month on efforts to eliminate the ADF, which has a still-indeterminate link to the Islamic State.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

With a bit over three weeks before Russian voters head to the polls for a semi-consequential parliamentary election, Russia’s ruling party is reportedly trying to buy their votes:

The Russian government has silenced opposition voices, approved cash payouts to potential voters, and made it nearly impossible to monitor the polls as it prepares for parliamentary elections next month that the opposition has warned will be marred by fraud.

United Russia, the ruling party that has supported Vladimir Putin through nearly his entire presidency, is expected to maintain a majority of the seats in the next Duma, despite state polling that shows that just 26% of Russians are ready to vote for the party – its lowest rating since 2008.

Critics of the Kremlin have said that the government has little choice but to offer one-time cash gifts to make up for the lack of enthusiasm and deliver the kind of victory that the ruling party has grown used to. Meanwhile, the Communist party of the Russian Federation, an opposition party that often votes with United Russia, has risen in the polls as a likely recipient of the protest vote.

Vladimir Putin has already announced small cash payouts to military families and pensioners and is apparently working on plans for additional payouts to other voting blocs. Whatever votes United Russia can’t buy they might just steal anyway, but it doesn’t hurt to minimize the amount of outright election theft that might be necessary.

ESTONIA

Members of Estonia’s parliament, the Riigikogu, will elect a new president this week, though there’s not much suspense about the outcome. Alar Karis, who is the director of Estonia’s national museum, is apparently the only candidate, having been the only person to garner the support of at least 21 lawmakers as is required. Even incumbent Kersti Kaljulaid wasn’t able to make the cut. Although the Estonian presidency is almost entirely a symbolic office, this turn of events has apparently caused a bit of a crisis of democracy in Tallinn, with some people suggesting that the presidency should be eliminated altogether.

There is a chance Karis will fail to garner the two-thirds vote he needs to be elected, which would trigger additional constitutional processes, but the chances of that appear to be fairly slim.

AMERICAS

MEXICO

The Mexican National Guard attacked and dispersed a column of migrants that had begun heading north from the Guatemala-Mexico border toward the United States on Saturday. Around 300 migrants initially set forth but hundreds more may have joined their caravan by the time they were intercepted. The whereabouts of most of the migrants seem to be unknown, as is the number who were injured by the Mexican forces.

UNITED STATES

Finally, The Intercept’s Murtaza Hussein says that the Biden administration appears to be taking a “look forward, not backward” (I think I’ve heard that somewhere before) approach toward investigating US abuses in Afghanistan or on other fronts in the War on Terror:

The Biden administration has repeatedly promised to turn the page on the scandal-ridden tenure of its predecessor and to bring moral considerations to U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, Biden signaled as much by elevating Avril Haines to director of national intelligence. Haines in many ways personified the Obama-era approach to war, writing strict rules and boundaries around the executive’s kill list and drone-strike program: The global war on terror would be brutal, but it would be hemmed in by rules, even if they were rules of the administration’s own making, and Haines would make sure of it.

“We wanted to make sure that the counterterrorism program and any type of lethal strikes that we might take would be very sharply caverned within a framework that made certain stipulations [and] criteria before any strike was taken,” former CIA Director John Brennan told the Daily Beast. “We all approached it from our various portfolios in a manner that limited the number of times that strikes would be authorized. Avril and I bore the scars of a lot of the pushback that we received from counterterrorism proponents that wanted to have more latitude in carrying out strikes.”

Harold Koh, a former State Department legal adviser, told the news website Haines was a voice of restraint.

“A lot of people characterize themselves as voices of restraint, but she really was. ‘That’s illegal, we’re not gonna do that,’ she would say. She showed guts,” Koh said.

Yet Haines was also the intelligence official chiefly responsible for allowing the agency to evade responsibility for spying on Senate staffers, suggesting her legal firepower is more often brought to bear on prospective crimes rather than ones that have already been committed. If Haines has taken a serious look into war crimes in Afghanistan, there is no public indication of it.