World roundup: August 7-8 2021
Stories from Afghanistan, Mauritius, Germany, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
August 6, 1806: Francis II abdicates and dissolves the Holy Roman Empire as a result of Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz and in the War of the Third Coalition. Luckily he landed on his feet—having already styled himself Francis I of the new Austrian Empire in 1804, he had a very nice golden parachute.
August 6, 1945: The United States drops the first of two atomic bombs on Japan, this one at Hiroshima. The full death toll is difficult to assess because of the nature of radioactive fallout but estimates of over 200,000 are probably within the ballpark.
August 6, 1962: Jamaican Independence Day
August 7, 1819: Simón Bolívar’s victory over colonial Spanish forces at the Battle of Boyacá allows his army to seize Bogotá and secure the independence of the colony of New Granada (roughly Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama). It’s considered one of the first key battles in Bolívar’s campaign to liberate the whole of northern South America.
August 7, 1946: The Soviet Union informs the Turkish government that its management of the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus has been detrimental to other Black Sea countries (i.e., the Soviets themselves) and that it would seek to reopen international negotiations on the subject. This was the main event of the Turkish Straits Crisis and pushed Turkey to drop its neutrality and align itself with the US. It was also a key factor in the development of the Truman Doctrine, about which FX subscribers can read more here.
August 8, 1988: Hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of protesters engage in demonstrations and civil disobedience across Burma (Myanmar if you prefer) to protest the ruling Burma Socialist Programme Party’s repression, corruption, and economic mismanagement. The BSPP came to power following a 1962 coup and led a military government that purged itself of much of its leftist/socialist element in the 1970s. The 8888 Uprising, as it’s known, briefly sparked a move toward elections that ended with a military coup in mid-September and the imposition of a new junta. With the partial exception of the country’s 2011-2021 experiment in semi-civilian governance, the military has remained in power to the present day.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Syrian army killed four children in an artillery barrage that struck a village in Hama province on Saturday. The village, Qastoun, lies in the southernmost part of rebel-held northwestern Syria.
The Israeli military carried out a new round of airstrikes on Gaza on Saturday in response to more “incendiary balloon” launches out of the enclave. There’s no word on any casualties from either the balloons or the bombs.
In something of a COVID milestone, Saudi authorities announced on Sunday that they plan to resume, gradually, allowing pilgrims into the kingdom to perform the Umrah, or “lesser pilgrimage” to Mecca. The Saudis shut down the Umrah to foreign arrivals in February 2020 and to people already in the kingdom the following month. They restarted the pilgrimage for people in Saudi Arabia back in July. The Umrah is a shorter, optional pilgrimage to Mecca (in contrast with the longer, obligatory Hajj) that under normal circumstances can be undertaken at any time of the year. Pilgrims often visit the city of Medina as well, so the plan calls for reopening both Mecca and Medina to vaccinated foreign visitors, starting with a limit of 60,000 per month and expanding each month toward a target of 2 million—assuming it’s not interrupted again due to a pandemic resurgence.
New Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi named his first Vice President on Sunday, and as expected it is Mohammad Mokhber, chairman of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s charitable foundation, the Execution of Imam Khomeini’s Order (also known as the “Setad”). I’m being a little generous calling it a “charitable foundation”—that’s how it was founded, based on property confiscated by the Iranian government following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but it’s basically a large (very large, worth potentially tens of billions of dollars by some estimates) holding company/investment fund. Mokhber, like Raisi, takes office already under US sanctions.
Amwaj Media has a look at how Raisi’s foreign policy team is shaping up, including presumptive new foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. In terms of the future of the nuclear talks, the sense appears to be that Iran’s current lead negotiator, deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi, will continue in that role but under the auspices of the Supreme National Security Council rather than the Foreign Ministry. That would give Raisi, who as president serves as SNSC chair, more direct oversight with respect to the talks than he would have if Araghchi were still going through the ministry.
I think it’s fair to say this was a productive weekend for the Taliban, which captured no fewer than four provincial capitals in its biggest blow against the Afghan government so far. Sunday alone saw three northern cities fall to Taliban offensives—Kunduz, capital of Kunduz province; Sar-e Pol, capital of Sar-e Pol province, and Taloqan, capital of Takhar province. Those cities fell one day after the Taliban seized the city of Sheberghan, capital of northern Afghanistan’s Jawzjan province, and two days after the militants captured the city of Zaranj, capital of southwestern Afghanistan’s Nimruz province. Of these the most critical is Kunduz, which is the largest city the Taliban has captured to date and has been one of the militants’ primary targets going back at least to 2015.
The precise situations in all of these cities are unclear and there are reports of Afghan forces holding on to small portions—an airport here or a military base there—but in general the picture is not a good one from Kabul’s perspective. It’s hard to know where the Taliban will focus its efforts next, but Mazar-i-Sharif seems like a reasonable guess. It’s not only the capital of Balkh province, it’s also one of Afghanistan’s largest cities and a major commercial center—and the Taliban can now attack it from two directions (from Kunduz in the east and Sar-e Pol and Sheberghan in the west).
Speaking of Kabul, the Taliban carried out a bombing in that city on Saturday that killed a US-trained Afghan military pilot. This may be the start of a campaign of targeted attacks on pilots, which is something the Taliban has threatened to do and could erode the one meaningful edge the Afghan military has over the militants.
Pakistani police killed three alleged Pakistani Taliban militants in a raid on one of the group’s facilities outside of Lahore on Sunday. Authorities claim the militants were planning attacks, possibly to coincide with Shiʿa commemoration of Ashura later this month. Pakistani security forces in Baluchistan province killed five people overnight in a raid in the city of Pishin targeting the alleged murderers of a senior figure in the Awami National Party. Malik Ubaidullah Kasi was abducted in late June outside of Quetta and his body turned up Thursday in Pishin. It’s unclear why he was taken but it may have been a simple criminal act seeking ransom. In that case it’s also unclear why his abductors wound up killing him.
Protesters marked the anniversary of the 8888 Uprising (see above) on Sunday with demonstrations across Myanmar against the country’s ruling junta. That movement didn’t have much more success than the ongoing resistance to February’s coup has had, but the protests do show that there’s still life in the opposition. Elsewhere, two men have been arrested in New York in connection with an apparent plot to murder Myanmar’s United Nations ambassador, Kyaw Moe Tun, who was appointed by the country’s previous civilian government and has opposed the junta. At this point there’s no direct proof that the junta was involved in their plot, at least nothing that’s been made public, but there appears to be at least one indirect connection and if it turns out the junta was involved there will presumably be some sort of response forthcoming from the Biden administration.
Some 500 critics of Thailand’s military government and its response to the pandemic gathered in Bangkok on Saturday to call for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s resignation. They were met with over ten times their number in police, who were apparently not satisfied with their numbers advantage and deployed tear gas and rubber bullets to put down the demonstration.
A new outbreak of local violence in Darfur, this time in North Darfur state, has left at least seven ex-rebel fighters dead. Details are spotty, but it would appear that Arab farmers and members (or ex-members I guess?) of the Sudan Liberation Forces Alliance and the Sudan Liberation Movement battled one another for some unspecified reason. The fighting appears to have ended, at least for the time being, on Friday.
Elsewhere, the Sudanese government has recalled its ambassador to Ethiopia after the Ethiopian government turned down Khartoum’s offer to mediate peace talks between the Addis Ababa and Tigrayan rebels. Ethiopian officials suggested that the countries’ ongoing border dispute made Sudan a somewhat less-than-neutral arbiter.
A landmine killed two Algerian soldiers and wounded a third during some sort of military search operation in Aïn Defla province on Friday. Authorities haven’t gone into much detail about the operation other than to say it was “part of the fight against terrorism.”
At least 22 people were killed over the weekend in inter-communal fighting in central Chad’s Hadjer-Lamis region. The clashes involved a dispute over land between the predominantly farming Bilala people and Arab herders. Farmer-herder violence is not uncommon in Chad and elsewhere across the Sahel region, but it’s taken on new severity in recent years as climate change forces more competition over a dwindling amount of usable land.
An erupting dispute within South Sudanese Vice President Riek Machar’s Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition (SPLM-IO) party turned violent over the weekend, involving clashes in which over 30 people may have been killed. Members of SPLM-IO’s military wing, led by a general named Simon Gatwech Dual, declared on Wednesday that they’d ousted Machar as party leader, but Machar quickly responded by reasserting his control and booting those members out of the party. The dissidents now appear to constitute a full fledged splinter group, one that has its own military capabilities. Accounts of what exactly happened over the weekend differ considerably, with Machar’s wing claiming that its forces killed 29 members of Dual’s group while losing three of its own fighters and Dual’s wing insisting that its forces killed 28 of Machar’s fighters and lost only four of their own number.
Thanks in no small part to the assistance of Rwandan soldiers, the Mozambican military says it’s recaptured the important port town of Mocímboa da Praia from Islamist rebels. Those rebels, who have some connection with the Islamic State and are usually referred to as “al-Shabab” (no relation to the Somali group) had held the town since last August. It previously served as the main logistical port for international energy firms developing northern Mozambique’s offshore energy deposits, before the insurgency forced those projects to be suspended. The Rwandan government sent some 1000 soldiers to assist Mozambique in its battle against the militants, and governments in southern Africa have also lent or promised to lend their support.
It looks like Joe Biden’s devotion to the “rules-based order,” whatever that actually means, has run smack into a wall in the case of Mauritius and its postcolonial grievances against the United Kingdom:
Russia’s seizure and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine has been cited as a violation of the rules, as has Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemicals as a weapon of war. China is often called out as a violator, for ignoring a decision by a Law of the Sea tribunal that struck down its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
All of which leads to the Indian Ocean island nation of Mauritius. A former British colony, it has won a series of battles in international and U.K. courts over British claims to a group of Indian Ocean atolls known as the Chagos Archipelago.
While courts have affirmed that the Chagos islands belong to Mauritius by history and by law, Britain has remained unmoved, calling the rulings irrelevant or misguided.
Last month, citing Biden’s many references to the rule of law, Mauritius asked the United States to take its side. In a lengthy diplomatic note to the State Department, it affirmed “its greatest respect for the values which the United States has traditionally promoted.”
“The case of Chagos Archipelago,” it said, “is the embodiment of all these values, which, sadly, have been flouted by the United Kingdom for more than five decades.”
The response has not been encouraging.
Gosh, you don’t say? It would appear that even though it flagrantly violates “the rules” by pretty much any defensible standard, the administration “unequivocally supports UK sovereignty” over the Chagos. Why, you ask? Well, mostly because the largest of the Chagos islands is Diego Garcia. And Diego Garcia is the home of Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia, one of the US military’s most strategically vital foreign bases and one of its two bomber-capable facilities in the Indo-Pacific region. It was built, by the way, after the forced expulsion of the island’s people in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Mauritian government has pledged to lease Diego Garcia to the US military, but it’s also said it would resettle the displaced Chagans and their descendants back on the islands if they want. That’s unacceptable to Washington.
Various international forums have ruled over the years that the UK unlawfully carved the Chagos off from Mauritius before giving the rest of the archipelago its independence, but the US government’s position is that those rulings were all both incorrect and non-binding. The basis for that position is unclear and seems to rest on the legal principle of “because we say so.” All those rulings against China, Russia, Syria, etc., on the other hand, were correct and binding, again because we say so. As ever, the only way any of these questions of international law matter is if somebody is willing and able to enforce them. Which leaves the United States exempt from the rules in Biden’s “rules-based order.”
Another new German poll has some good news for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) heading into next month’s federal election. The survey, from INSA, puts the SPD at 18 percent in a tie with the Greens and potentially as the largest component of a three-way coalition with the Greens and the Free Democratic Party, at 12 percent. That combined 48 percent should be enough for a majority once smaller parties that don’t clear the 5 percent threshold to win seats are weeded from the field. A Deutschlandtrend survey released a few days ago had the hypothetical Green-SPD-FDP coalition at a collective 49 percent but had the Greens edging the SPD out by a point, 19-18. Assuming this coalition comes together, the largest party within it would presumably select Germany’s next chancellor.
An estimated 237,000 people protested in cities across France on Saturday for the fourth straight week over the French government’s new “health pass.” The document, which is intended to demonstrate that its bearer has either been vaccinated against COVID, has contracted and recovered from COVID, or has recently tested negative for COVID, will be required to ride public transit or enter cafes and other venues starting Monday. The French Constitutional Council upheld the legality of the passes on Thursday, the final legal hurdle before the program could be implemented. Polling shows that most French citizens support the pass program but opponents argue that it effectively mandates vaccination.
The Cuban government on Friday instituted a new measure legalizing the creation of “small and medium” private enterprises. This is the latest of several steps Cuba has taken in the direction of privatization but one of the first to really create a legal structure for private enterprise.
The US State Department on Friday added five names to its to its Specially Designated Global Terrorist list, all with ties to various African jihadist groups. The five new entries include a senior commander in Mozambique’s al-Shabab insurgency, two officials in the Jamaʿat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin based in Mali, and two officials in Somalia’s al-Shabab group. The designation freezes any assets they may have in the US and bars US individuals and US-based entities (particularly banks) from interacting with them.
Finally, at TomDispatch Andrew Bacevich muses on one of the great delusions of US foreign policy:
Call it INS, shorthand for Indispensable Nation Syndrome. Like Covid-19, INS exacts a painful toll of victims. Unlike Covid, we await the vaccine that can prevent its spread. We know that preexisting medical conditions can increase a person’s susceptibility to the coronavirus. The preexisting condition that increases someone’s vulnerability to INS is the worship of power.
Back in 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright not only identified INS, but also captured its essence. Appearing on national TV, she famously declared, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future.”
Now, allow me to be blunt: this is simply not true. It’s malarkey, hogwash, bunkum, and baloney. Bullshit, in short.
The United States does not see further into the future than Ireland, Indonesia, or any other country, regardless of how ancient or freshly minted it may be. Albright’s assertion was then and is now no more worthy of being taken seriously than Donald Trump’s claim that the “deep state” engineered the coronavirus pandemic. Also bullshit.
Some of us (but by no means all Americans) have long since concluded that Trump was and remains a congenital liar. To charge Albright with lying, however, somehow rates as bad form, impolite, even rude. She is, after all, a distinguished former official and the recipient of many honors.