World roundup: August 3 2021
Stories from the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Hungary, and more
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Programming note for subscribers: there likely will not be a roundup tomorrow, though if I find I can manage to get one done I will. Otherwise we’ll be back to our normal schedule on Thursday.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 2, 338 BCE (or thereabouts): Philip II of Macedon defeats a Greek army organized by Thebes and Athens at the Battle of Chaeronea. The outcome effectively ended any chance of Greek resistance to a Macedonian takeover. After harshly punishing Thebes, Philip engaged in heavy diplomacy to win over Athens and Corinth and isolate Sparta. He managed to unite most of the Greek city-states behind him in what historians call the “League of Corinth,” which was one of the key preliminary steps in his grand plan to invade the Persian Empire. Philip didn’t live long enough to lead that campaign, but his son Alexander picked up where dad left off.
August 2, 216 BCE (or thereabouts): At the Battle of Cannae in southeastern Italy, the Carthaginian general Hannibal annihilates a much larger Roman army in what has often been regarded as the closest thing to a total military victory in history. Hannibal’s cavalry outflanked and completely encircled the Roman infantry in an early example of a pincer movement, then attacked from all sides. Of the 86,000 or so Roman soldiers who began the battle (to about 50,000 for Hannibal), Livy says that the Carthaginians killed 67,500 and that’s the low estimate. Polybius cites a death toll of over 85,000. Included among the dead was Lucius Aemilius Paullus, one of the Roman consuls for that year.
The outcome left the Roman army broken and so demoralized people living in the city of Rome that they turned to human sacrifice in a desperate attempt to find some cosmic favor. Cities in southern Italy began to declare allegiance to Hannibal. Despite Rome’s desperate situation, Hannibal’s army was in no shape to besiege the city and he knew it, opting to send an embassy to negotiate Rome’s surrender instead. The Roman Senate told him to get bent, so to speak, and the Second Punic War continued. Suffice to say Rome’s fortunes eventually improved.
August 2, 1964: The USS Maddox, in North Vietnamese territorial waters, exchanges fire with several North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The Gulf of Tonkin Incident, as it came to be known, along with a second alleged engagement two nights later that turned out to be fictional, kicked off the Vietnam War. Again, what could go wrong?
August 2, 1990: Iraq invades Kuwait, sparking a US military buildup that would eventually lead to the Gulf War and, as far as that conflict’s fans are concerned, nothing else whatsoever.
August 3, 1940: An Italian army crosses from Italian East Africa into British Somaliland, beginning an invasion that will end with Italy’s annexation of the colony on August 19. Britain organized a counterattack, Operation Appearance, which began on March 16, 1941, and ended with the British recapture of Somaliland on April 8. Following World War II Britain assumed control over Italian East Africa, and eventually the former British and Italian Somalilands gained independence and merged into Somalia. Nowadays the territory of British Somaliland, under the name Somaliland, considers itself independent of Somalia, though that claim is not recognized internationally.
August 3, 1960: Having expressed its intention to leave the neocolonial “French Community” the previous month, the government of Niger gains full independence. Annually commemorated as Nigerien Independence Day.
As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 200,235,273 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 4,258,455 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 4.21 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 55 for every 100 people.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
At least three agencies that monitor global maritime traffic are reporting that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy seized a tanker, the Asphalt Princess, off the UAE coast on Tuesday. The IRGC has denied the accusation and accused the agencies of manufacturing a “pretext” for some kind of military strike against Iran. The story is still developing so details are sparse, but reports of the hijacking follow an alert by the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations office earlier in the day of a “potential hijack” taking place off the coast of Fujairah. At least five ships in that region reportedly changed their tracking information to “Not Under Command,” according to the maritime monitoring firm Refinitiv, which suggests something is afoot though it’s unclear whether one or all of those ships can be connected to the (still unconfirmed) hijacking.
Tensions in the Persian Gulf region are running high following the apparent drone attack on an Israel-operated tanker off the coast of Oman last Friday, which killed two crew members. The Israeli government and several Western governments have pointed the finger at Iran for that incident, a charge that is not without some justification given the ongoing maritime conflict between Iran and Israel, but the Iranians have denied involvement.
A new report from Amnesty International accuses the Saudi government of launching a “relentless crackdown” against activists and critics since its term as G20 president ended in December. Conspicuously, Saudi authorities “only” executed 27 people last year while they held the presidency and the international scrutiny that comes with it, down 85 percent from 2019. They’re back to form this year, having sentenced at least 40 people to death so far.
Incoming Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi delivered a pre-inaugural address on Tuesday after receiving the formal endorsement of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. There’s not much worth noting in speeches like this, though Raisi did pledge to secure relief from US sanctions which in effect means he’s still committed to negotiating a restoration of the 2015 nuclear deal. This is not terribly surprising but may resolve a bit of uncertainty about Raisi’s intentions. He remains clearly opposed to negotiating any kind of follow-on deal, however, which seems to be one of the Biden administration’s conditions for lifting those aforementioned sanctions.
In a discouraging sign, Iranian media is reporting that Tehran has pulled the plug on talks with the US over a prisoner exchange, blaming unspecified “breaches” by the American side. Those talks were being conducted in parallel to talks on reviving the nuclear deal and a successful exchange could have helped build momentum for those negotiations or at least injected a badly needed dose of good faith into US-Iranian relations. It’s possible the Iranians could be enticed to reengage on the prisoner front but only time will tell.
Unspecified gunmen attacked the home of acting Afghan defense minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi late Tuesday after setting off a car bomb to breach the security wall surrounding the residence. Mohammadi was apparently not home but gunfire and multiple explosions were heard for some time after the initial blast so the attack clearly went on for a while. At this point there are six people confirmed dead including the attackers, and if I had to guess I’d say that number is going to go up as order is restored. There’s been no claim of responsibility as far as I know, but the nature of the target suggests it was the Taliban rather than the Islamic State, which these days tends to target civilians and Shiʿa civilians in particular. A large crowd of civilians gathered in the wake of the attack for an impromptu anti-Taliban march through the city.
Elsewhere, Afghan authorities have advised residents of Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, to leave their homes as the Taliban is reportedly on the verge of seizing control of the city. Nine of Lashkar Gah’s ten districts were at last check in Taliban hands. The evacuation is meant to clear the way for the Afghan military (possibly with US support) to undertake a counterattack without worrying about civilian casualties. At least 40 civilians were killed and over 100 more wounded in the city from Monday into Tuesday. Fighting also continues in Kandahar city and Herat city, but Lashkar Gah is the city in most immediate danger of falling.
Given the circumstances in Laskhar Gah it’s perhaps not a surprise that the Pakistani military has stepped up its efforts to wall off its Afghan border. Officials say their border fence is 90 percent complete and work should be finished this summer. The Pakistanis have been gradually working on the fence since 2017, though the project is not very popular within the Pashtun community that straddles the border.
Kim Jong-un has been seen on video over the past couple of weeks sporting what looks like a fairly significant bruise on the back of his head, sometimes covered by a large bandage. There’s absolutely no publicly available information about what it means, but that hasn’t stopped media outlets from bringing back one of their favorite regular features, “What’s Killing the Leader of North Korea Today?” Most recently Kim was dying because he lost weight. Prior to that that he was dying because he weighed too much. Last year he was possibly dead because he didn’t make a public appearance for the annual celebration of Kim Il-sung’s birthday, and then TMZ (I know) actually reported that he’d been killed in some kind of botched medical procedure. Kim is chain smoker who seems to love his treats so I don’t doubt that he has or will have some health issues, but needless to say none of these previous deaths have stuck and there’s no reason to think this time around will be any different.
Tunisian President Kais Saied has been cleaning house this week, canning his economy and communications technology ministers on Monday and sacking Tunisia’s ambassador to the US and the governor of Sfax province on Tuesday. He’s offered no explanation for the dismissals but then he’s arranged things so that he doesn’t really have to offer one.
Writing for World Politics Review, journalist Constantin Gouvy warns that the Burkinabé government’s efforts to hold talks with jihadist fighters are not well thought-out and therefore could be a bad idea:
The move to negotiate with militants completely contradicted the official policy at the time of the government. When local authorities began laying the groundwork for the talks, Burkina Faso’s president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, was up for reelection. On the campaign trail, he doubled down on his vow to maintain a purely military approach to stemming the jihadist violence, declaring that negotiating with militant groups was out of the question.
The first signs that the government might officially break with Kabore’s campaign promise appeared not long after he won the November election. In early February, Prime Minister Christophe Dabire implied that the government could be open to dialogue, saying in a statement before parliament that “[e]ven great powers ... eventually sat down with terrorists.” The comment triggered an uproar among the public—but that, too, was not enough to turn Burkinabe authorities away from this new policy line.
As jihadist activity continues to spread and intensify, negotiations could offer the government an opportunity to demobilize moderate insurgents and reduce violence. But so far, Kabore’s administration has preferred to take a piecemeal approach, shying away from developing a coherent strategy to guide the talks. In the absence of a national, if not regional, plan—one that could capitalize on existing initiatives and address some of the grievances at the heart of the unrest—these talks are likely to backfire.
The Norwegian Refugee Council and Doctors Without Borders both announced on Tuesday that the Ethiopian government has shut down their operations in the war-torn Tigray region and in other parts of the country. On a related note, United Nations Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths rebuked the Ethiopian government on Tuesday for the inflammatory remarks some of its officials have made with respect to humanitarian organizations. While reporting some progress in the advance of aid into Tigray, Griffiths noted that some of these comments—for example, government spokesperson Redwan Hussein alleged last month that relief organizations are actually arming Tigrayan fighters—are having a deleterious effect.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The Islamist Allied Democratic Forces militia has reportedly killed at least 16 people it had previously taken hostage in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province. The bodies were discovered along a highway running through the province. It’s unclear from the reporting when they were killed or whether they were executed one by one or en masse.
A Belarusian activist living in Kyiv, Vitaly Shishov, was found hanged in a park near his home on Tuesday. Police are investigating his death as a possible murder dressed up to look like a suicide. Shishov ran an organization that helped Belarusians looking to get out of the country amid the unrest since last August’s presidential election, and if it was indeed a murder suspicion will naturally fall (or has already fallen, really) on the Belarusian government.
Writing for Foreign Policy, journalist Amanda Coakley outlines Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán’s efforts to claim leadership of Europe’s Christian Democratic movement, even though he’s not really an ideological fit:
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has created a Frankenstein-esque creature out of what was Europe’s tradition of Christian democracy. But although the mad scientist was ultimately repulsed by his creation, the 58-year-old leader of the ruling, far-right Fidesz party is on a mission to export his contradictory ideology, much to the ire of Western politicians who guard the Christian democratic tradition.
Christian democrats, spearheaded by parties like Germany’s Christian Democratic Union, were the drivers of European integration following World War II. The movement’s cornerstones were a wariness of nationalism, a firm belief in democracy, and an embrace of pluralism. In contrast, Orban’s Hungarian brew, while seeking to appropriate the mantle of Christian democracy, is being used as a shield against growing criticism from Brussels, a vehicle to introduce discriminatory laws against minorities, and a convenient narrative to supercharge Fidesz’s nationalism.
“These people are not Christian democrats in the historical sense of the term,” said Olivier Roy, a French political scientist. “In Hungary, what you have is a populist party who claims to be Christian. It’s purely about Christian identity.”
Mohamed Keita and Alex Gladstein of the Human Rights Foundation, meanwhile, examine French President Emmanuel Macron’s fondness for one of the lingering manifestations of French colonialism—the French Colonies of Africa (CFA) franc:
Macron was born in December 1977, six months after the last French colony in Africa, Djibouti, gained its independence—a fact that shapes his décomplexé (or “uninhibited”) vision of Franco-African relations. “I am from a generation that has never known a colonized Africa,” Macron declared in a historic November 2017 speech in Burkina Faso, adding “I am from a generation that does not come and tell Africa what to do.” No other French president has unreservedly admitted, denounced, and apologized for the crimes of French colonialism or so readily recognized that the future of the French language is in Africa—home to most French speakers on the planet.
Yet, in response to the resurgence of an anti-CFA franc movement in West Africa, Macron echoes traditional French paternalism. “[France] only wants to help her brothers and sisters to succeed and to help this African youth to conquer its future,” he said in a December 2019 visit to the Ivory Coast, extolling “France’s guarantee” of the currency, its “macroeconomic strength and stability,” and the endorsement of leaders of West African CFA nations, almost all of whom are authoritarian and largely viewed by their people as French puppets. And not a single CFA country is among the 10 richest countries in Africa; 11 of the 14 CFA nations are considered among the “least developed countries” in the world by the United Nations. The sub-Saharan African countries that are or were at some point part of the CFA zone also all rank at the bottom of the United Nations’ Human Development Index.
Brazil’s Superior Electoral Court (TSE) announced Monday that it will investigate President Jair Bolsonaro’s frequent predictions of fraud ahead of next year’s presidential election. Something about undermining the integrity of the vote I guess. It will ask Brazil’s Supreme Court to determine whether Bolsonaro’s comments represent a violation of Brazilian law. The ever cool-headed Bolsonaro responded by characterizing the TSE’s announcement as an “attack” on Brazil itself.
Guatemalan Attorney General María Porras appointed Rafael Curruchiche as the country’s new chief anti-corruption prosecutor, replacing the fired Juan Francisco Sandoval. Where Sandoval had a reputation for actually fighting corruption, Curruchiche apparently has a reputation for doing the opposite. His appointment, then, is unlikely to satisfy critics of Sandoval’s firing, whether they be in Washington or on the streets of Guatemala City.
Finally, Allen Hester of the Friend’s Committee on National Legislation contends that “dominance” is winning out over “deterrence” when it comes to defense spending:
The distinction between the two interpretations of deterrence is important. One perspective is that deterrence requires only the minimum force potential needed to convince an enemy that an attack would result in unacceptable consequences. Anything more can be considered wasteful overkill, and the budget, along with related posturing, would eliminate anything that isn’t vital.
The dominance model of deterrence, on the other hand, doesn’t have an upward ceiling. If deterrence requires having more destructive power than everyone else – and perhaps than all potential adversaries combined – then every weapons system, every piece of equipment, every aspect of military infrastructure and manufacturing could be considered vital. Indeed, this is where much of the conversations about “integrated deterrence” is going. The ability to label every nuclear weapons system as crucial to deterrence has been wildly successful at convincing policymakers to be suspicious of efforts to cut nuclear weapons systems or make changes to the U.S. nuclear posture. Any proposed alteration from the status quo has been defined by dominance model supporters as unilateral disarmament. If deterrence requires unchallenged dominance, then to question any military spending will be perceived as weakness and contrary to U.S. national security interests.
This is the core of the problem for advocates who are pushing to reduce the pattern of non-stop increases to the Pentagon budget. It doesn’t matter if the Pentagon can’t pass an audit, because even when it fails, it gets rewarded with more funding than the previous year. Every defense-related request is vital in the eyes of the Department of Defense, so lawmakers are hesitant to provide significant oversight for fear of being painted as weak on defense or unsupportive of the military.