World roundup: January 18 2022
Story from Afghanistan, Mali, Russia, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
January 17, 1915: The Battle of Sarikamish ends with a very decisive Russian victory over the decimated Ottomans.
January 17, 1991: Operation Desert Storm begins.
January 18, 1976: Christian militias linked to Lebanon’s Kataeb Party rampage through the poor and predominantly Palestinian Karantina neighborhood in east Beirut. They’re estimated to have killed somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500 people, making the Karantina Massacre one of the first major atrocities of the Lebanese Civil War.
January 18, 2002: The Sierra Leone civil war, which had begun in 1991, ends with the victory of the British-backed Sierra Leone government over the Revolutionary United Front rebels backed by Liberian President Charles Taylor. The conflict was known largely for its atrocities, from the copious use of child soldiers to the mass killing and rape of civilians. For his involvement in the conflict, the International Criminal Court convicted Taylor of war crimes in 2012 and he’s currently serving a 50 year prison term.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Al-Monitor’s Fehim Taştekin reports that Turkey seems to be quietly escalating its campaign against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, for a couple of reasons. For one, fighting the Kurds keeps Turkey’s various Syrian proxy factions in line—apparently without an enemy those groups have a tendency to start fighting among themselves. The second and more important reason has to do with Kurdish hopes for autonomy in northeastern Syria, something the Turks completely oppose. Turkish military pressure could force the Kurds to turn to the Syrian government for aid, which would weaken their position in terms of negotiating a favorable postwar political settlement. That works to Syria’s benefit as well as Turkey’s, which may be why Damascus, and its Russian allies, seem willing to look the other way when it comes to Turkish military activity on Syrian soil.
Yemen’s Houthi/Ansar Allah rebels are reporting that Saudi airstrikes on the city of Sanaa killed at least 20 people on Tuesday. A single strike on the home of a senior rebel official killed 14 people, including at least one woman and one child. The Saudis carried out the strikes in retaliation for a multi-pronged Houthi air attack on Abu Dhabi on Monday (see below).
The Biden administration on Tuesday imposed sanctions on three Lebanese businessmen and their company for allegedly funneling funds to Hezbollah. Any assets any of the targets have in the US will be frozen and US citizens are prohibited from doing business with them.
According to The New Arab, Iraqi Kurdistan’s two largest political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, are feuding over which of them should get to name Iraq’s next president. The PUK is seeking the reelection of incumbent Barham Salih, while the KDP has put forward its own presidential candidate.
The Iraqi government operates under a power-sharing arrangement whereby the country’s president is chosen from within its Kurdish community. Within that structure, the KDP and PUK have also hitherto operated on an informal power-sharing arrangement, under which the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government were drawn from the KDP while a PUK leader has served as Iraqi president. But over the past couple of Iraqi elections the PUK has seen its support dwindle, and consequently the KDP believes it should now hold all Kurdish leadership positions, including the national presidency. The KDP has reportedly signaled that it would be open to a compromise solution under which the PUK could choose the president subject to a KDP veto, which would apparently rule out Salih’s reelection. The PUK seems intent on sticking with Salih, however, so they’re at an impasse.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
The preliminary investigation suggests that Yemeni rebels threw their full array of weapons into their attack on Abu Dhabi on Monday: ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and drones. They also apparently launched several drones toward Saudi Arabia, though the Saudis say they shot down nine of them and there’s been no report of a strike on any targets inside the kingdom. I’ve seen this strike characterized as an escalation or even the start of a “new phase” in the Yemen war, but I think it’s premature to make any sweeping claims like that. It certainly seems like an escalation, one that at the very least threatens to bring the Emiratis back into that war in a more direct manner and that could lead to the Biden administration designating the rebels as a terrorist group (or re-designating, since the administration removed them from the terrorism list last year). But the Yemen war has been fairly resilient, in that it’s remained in a pretty consistent rut despite several other events that seemed like they should have marked a “new phase.”
Former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev reemerged on Tuesday, at least partially, issuing a video address in which he denied rampant rumors of a power struggle with his successor, current President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev. The address can probably be considered proof of life, since Nazarbayev referred to very recent events, though it didn’t really prove that he’s in Kazakhstan, which was one of his main claims in response to allegations that he’s fled the country.
Nazarbayev’s insistence that he and Tokayev are not at odds is belied by the number of the ex-president’s loyalists who have been purged from Tokayev’s government and Kazakhstan’s business elite in recent weeks. His speech further stretched credulity when Nazarbayev claimed that he’s been nothing more than a “pensioner” since retiring from the presidency in 2019. In reality he’s maintained a significant presence in Kazakhstan’s political hierarchy as both the chair of the national security council and the leader of the ruling Nur-Otan Party. Tokayev replaced him as leader of the council earlier this month and Nazarbayev resigned as head of the party last year, though he hasn’t officially handed that post off to Tokayev as yet.
At his Forever Wars newsletter, Spencer Ackerman outlines what the US is doing to contribute to Afghanistan’s emerging humanitarian catastrophe:
Over my two decades of reporting on "national security," I've encountered an attitude within the Security State and its allies where if the United States isn't the sole cause of a disaster, then the United States is functionally morally blameless. Complicated world and all that. But the United States does not need to bear exclusive responsibility for it to bear an outsized share of responsibility for a crisis that a UN-sponsored report in October estimated could kill 22.8 million people this winter. "The enormity of the economic shock that hit Afghanistan in August is a consequence of donors, first, building an extremely aid-dependent Afghan state since 2001 and then, after the Taliban takeover on 15 August, dramatically curtailing that aid," judged the ICG last month. The ICG is describing an "aid-dependent Afghan state" that the United States constructed.
The Biden administration's response has been to alleviate a crisis through addressing the least-structural factor available. Starting in December, it began issuing Treasury assurances to various humanitarian aid groups, basically ensuring they won't have their assets seized or face prosecution for attempting to aid the Afghan people. Last Monday, the administration announced a $308 million tranche of aid from USAID that will "directly flow through independent humanitarian organizations."
That skirts the real issue: releasing control of the Afghan banking system, the only banking system Afghans can access. Freeing up NGOs to operate around that system, rather than through it, has the structural effect of further reinforcing Afghanistan's dependence on foreign aid and foreign capital. Shah Mehrabi, the audit committee chair of Afghanistan's central bank—who, apparently is a professor at Montgomery College in Maryland; yikes—warned the Washington Post that the U.S. and its adjuncts risk bringing the Afghan banking infrastructure to full collapse by creating a "parallel institution" controlled by outsiders. In other words, to destabilize Taliban rule, the U.S. is weaponizing the aid-dependent Afghan state that it built. This economic weapon works by harming the Afghan people directly, with the hope that the suffering of the people prompts the end of the Taliban regime.
As we know from Iran and Venezuela (and North Korea, and Syria, etc.) this type of “the beatings will continue until regime change occurs” approach doesn’t work, and simply amounts to unending collective punishment. But it comes at zero political cost to any US politicians, so there’s no reason to rethink that consistent failure.
The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for three overnight attacks targeting Pakistani police, including one late Monday in Islamabad that left one police officer and both attackers dead. The other two attacks took place in two different parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and left two more police officers dead, along with one attacker. Pakistani security forces killed two more Taliban fighters in an operation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa later in the day on Tuesday. The Pakistani Taliban’s presence in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is well-established, but the incident in Islamabad suggests it’s also building a presence in the Pakistani capital—and that’s a new and troubling development.
The Wall Street Journal reports that China’s COVID lockdowns are having ripple effects on commercial activity elsewhere, including in Vietnam:
China’s zero-Covid policies are putting Chinese cities into lockdown and grounding air travel anew. They are also disrupting trade routes across its land borders that are lifelines for the region’s farmers and merchants.
In neighboring Vietnam, thousands of trucks laden with dragon fruit, jackfruit, watermelons and other produce have been backed up at the border awaiting passage for weeks. Their trips were disrupted after Chinese authorities toward the end of last year suspended operations at a number of gates or slowed traffic citing a need to contain Covid-19.
With fruit rotting, some traders cut their losses. Nguyen Ngoc Phuong Thao, who exports exclusively to China, sold five truckloads of dragon fruit domestically at one-tenth the price they would have fetched on the other side of the border. The businesswoman redirected three trucks to a sea port, paying more to rush the perishable cargo to Shanghai. “Selling domestically was like dumping it,” she said.
Others are still waiting. For the past eight days, Lung Van Nhien and the boxes of jackfruit he was hired to drive to China have been sitting in a parking lot near the border. The fruit is beginning to darken and, if he can’t get through, he will have to find a place to dump it all, he said.
For Vietnam’s farmers and traders, not being able to reach Chinese consumers is crippling.
The Indonesian parliament voted on Tuesday to approve the transfer of the country’s capital from Jakarta to the yet to be built city of Nusantara in East Kalimantan province on the island of Borneo. Work on the estimated $32 billion project is scheduled to begin later this year, but at this point there’s no set date for the completion of the city or the transfer of government offices. Jakarta’s water crisis is something we’ve covered in the newsletter in the past, but the upshot is that the city is sinking—not, as you might think, due to climate change, but rather because overpopulation has led to the overuse of its underground aquifers. That subsidence in turn could leave the city more vulnerable to climate change-induced flooding.
It’s hoped that shifting the seat of government elsewhere might alleviate the water issue as well as other symptoms of Jakarta’s overcrowding—air pollution, traffic congestion, etc. But despite assurances that the Nusantara project will be managed in an environmentally conscious manner, activists have raised serious concerns about the impact the new city could have on Indonesia’s rain forest ecosystem.
Protesters blocked roads in Khartoum on Tuesday, one day after Sudanese security forces killed at least seven people in their most violent single day crackdown on anti-junta demonstrations since October’s coup. Protest organizers called for a two-day general strike in response to the killings. Sudanese authorities have acknowledged the deaths but insist it was the protesters who were violent and that security forces responded in the gentlest manner possible.
Sky Mali, a private air carrier based in, uh, Mali, announced on Tuesday that it intends to begin direct flights between Bamako and the Guinean capital, Conakry, starting this Saturday. Mali and Guinea could be at the start of a beautiful friendship, or maybe “alliance of convenience” would be more appropriate. Both countries are currently led by military juntas that don’t seem terribly interested in ceding power anytime soon, and consequently both countries are also under sanction by the Economic Community of West African States. So their respective juntas have apparently decided to work together to help each other weather the storm, and this Sky Mali decision is part of that effort.
The Biden administration has reportedly decided to increase the level of US support for France’s counter-terrorism operation in the Sahel, which is still largely centered in Mali despite the escalating tension between Bamako and Paris. There are several considerations that went into this decision, chief among them Washington’s desire to appease the French government after that whole messy AUKUS affair. By contrast, the administration presumably didn’t consider whether France’s Sahel operation is actually working—because, as Alex Thurston points out, it is not:
Biden’s move, Hudson reports, flies in the face of an interagency review and outside criticism that has questioned the efficacy of current counterinsurgency policies in the Sahel. According to Hudson, the Biden administration is hoping the French will follow through on reforms to what has been a dead-end strategy focused on killing top jihadists. Paraphrasing an anonymous senior administration official, Hudson writes, “The White House based its decision on the shared goal of violence-reduction and a promise from the French to put a greater focus on governance and development issues.”
Yet the French have repeatedly promised such a refocusing; the French-dominated “Coalition for the Sahel,” launched in 2020, includes governance and development as two of its four pillars, alongside counterterrorism and military training. That “coalition” has made little progress on that in the two years since.
At least four French soldiers were wounded on Tuesday when their vehicle struck an explosive device in northern Burkina Faso. There’s no indication as to who was responsible for planting the bomb.
A suicide bomber killed at least four people and wounded ten others in an attack on a tea shop near a Somali military facility in Mogadishu on Tuesday. Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for the attack.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov are now planning to meet up in Geneva on Friday in another attempt to resolve the US-Russia grievances that have Western leaders convinced that a Russian invasion of Ukraine is imminent. Last week’s diplomatic blitz was widely viewed as a last chance for the two sides to talk their way back from the proverbial ledge, but a series of interactions between Russian and Western representatives achieved nothing and may have actually increased the possibility of conflict. The Russian government is now moving a large number of military units into Belarus, ostensibly for a military exercise though it is possible they’re positioning those units for an invasion.
In addition to Blinken’s meeting with Lavrov, which will come at the end of the secretary’s current European trip, NATO has apparently invited the Russian government to another round of NATO-Russia Council meetings even though last week’s interactions didn’t go well. The intent may be just to keep Russia talking at this point, on the theory that as long as they’re talking they won’t be invading. But it’s hard to know how much longer the Russians are going to be willing to talk when it’s abundantly clear that NATO isn’t really listening to their demands.
Speaking of Ukraine, the Biden administration is reportedly about to sanction four people accused of acting as Russian “agents” in that country. According to The Wall Street Journal those sanctions could be unveiled as soon as Thursday, though it’s possible the administration will hold off so as not to jeopardize the Blinken-Lavrov meeting. It’s not clear who the sanctions would be targeting, nor is it clear what they’re accused of doing. US officials have alleged that Russia has “agents” in Ukraine preparing to carry out a “false flag” attack in order to justify an invasion, but Moscow has denied that charge. Blinken is due to arrive in Ukraine on Wednesday before heading off to Germany the following day and then to Geneva on Friday.
The Russian government, meanwhile, says its embassy in Kyiv is operating normally. This otherwise banal observation comes in response to a New York Times story on Monday alleging that dozens of Russian diplomatic personnel and family members have been trickling out of Ukraine since early this month. The Russian Foreign Ministry hinted at unspecified threats against its diplomats as an alternative reason for their departure. Notably, the NYT report mentioned departures from several Russian consulates in Ukraine in addition to the embassy, while the ministry’s statement only referred to the embassy.
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić visited Ankara on Tuesday, where he and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, apparently agreed to mediate a resolution to Bosnia’s internal political crisis. To make a long story short, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has been detaching the Republika Srpska from Bosnia’s few state institutions in what amounts to a de facto secession. The Turkish government has long supported Bosnia’s Muslim population, and Erdoğan’s government has stressed its support for the country’s territorial integrity. Vučić, meanwhile, has been publicly urging Dodik to drop his secession bid and return to those state institutions even as he’s also criticized Western sanctions against Dodik and other Bosnian Serb officials. I’m not entirely sure why Vučić has taken this position but I’m guessing his desire to be useful to the European Union and advance Serbia’s membership bid has something to do with it.
One of the questions hovering over a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine is how Western governments might respond. They’ve been intentionally vague on the topic, with only some references to major sanctions and the occasional rumor about arms shipments and stay-behind paramilitary units. That vagueness is meant to keep the Russians guessing about the price they’d have to pay in order to invade, but it may also be meant to hide the fact that the West isn’t prepared to do all it could do to punish the Russian economy. For example, are US officials really prepared to cut Russian banks off from the SWIFT network? I assume they would rather not have to make that decision.
Likewise, is the German government willing to shut down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and thus its supply of Russian natural gas, especially in the middle of the European winter? German Chancellor Olaf Scholz suggested that he would be after a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Berlin on Tuesday. But he’s been supporting of the pipeline in general and consequently his new coalition government has sent some decidedly mixed signals about what it might do. Again, I assume they’re hoping not to have to make this decision.
French authorities may be considering whether or not to arrest the new president of Interpol, Ahmed Nasser al-Raisi, after three people came forward to accuse him of torture related to his day job as a senior commander in the UAE Interior Ministry’s police force. Raisi visited Interpol headquarters in Lyon for the first time this week and, in doing so, may have subjected himself to French law, which grants French courts “universal” jurisdiction on human rights matters. It’s unclear whether Raisi is still in France at this time.
The Taiwanese government is spending a cool $900,000 to hire a DC lobbying firm on behalf of the Guatemalan government. There are a couple of moving parts here, one of which is the deterioration of the US-Guatemalan relationship in recent months due mostly to the US allegations of official Guatemalan corruption. Strangely, though, Taipei has apparently hired a lobbying firm led by a prominent Donald Trump supporter, which doesn’t seem like a terribly effective conduit through which to plead Guatemala’s case to the Biden administration. But I digress.
The other moving part is that Guatemala is one of the few remaining countries in the world that has diplomatic relations with Taipei rather than Beijing, and the Taiwanese government would like to keep it that way. I would like to note here that if Taiwanese leaders are really interested in buying friends my rates are substantially more affordable than Guatemala’s. Call me!
Finally, at Responsible Statecraft, Kate Kizer contends that the United States’ oft-cited humanitarian generosity does not make up for all not-so-nice things it does around the world:
“The United States is the largest single donor of humanitarian aid to… .” Googling that phrase brings up results for a litany of countries: Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria, Yemen. The list goes on and on and it’s language often used within the context of discussing a dire mass atrocity or the threat of one, as a generous contribution that is the best the United States can do.
From Afghanistan to Tigray to Guatemala, the U.S. government has sought to bandage the impacts of its own policies — or its partners’ — through aid rather than accountability. Policymakers in Washington may applaud themselves for their generosity, but in reality no amount of humanitarian assistance can resolve the intractable conflicts and climate shocks that the United States has helped create or enable.
Humanitarian assistance is an emergency failsafe, not a solution to human suffering. Theoretically, humanitarian assistance is offered as the last resort once other systems have failed, or in response to an unexpected disaster. Increasingly, however, humanitarian assistance is being offered as what the United States can do in a challenging situation, often ignoring how its other militaristic policies are helping to create or exacerbate this suffering in the first place.
I would add that our supposed generosity comes in the context of a nearly-$800 billion defense budget that really doesn’t offer all that much by way of defense. However much the US is offering the world in humanitarian aid is still a small fraction of what it could be doing if it realigned its priorities.