World roundup: July 8 2021
Stories from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Haiti, and more
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Programming Note: Your newsletter purveyor is taking a little time off to experience a full night’s sleep (I’ve heard good things) and possibly spend a few days seeing a new part of the country. Regular programming should resume on July 21, but we’ll still have a new FX podcast to share with you in the meantime. Also please be on the lookout for the first episode of American Prestige, my new podcast with Daniel Bessner, which should be dropping tomorrow with our special guest Stephen Wertheim. I’ll share a link via the Foreign Exchanges Twitter account and you should be able to find it in most of the usual podcast places (except for Apple, which approves new podcasts at glacier-like speeds, but it will be up there eventually too). Thanks and see you in a few!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
July 7, 1937: The Marco Polo Bridge Incident, a clash between Chinese and Japanese troops near Wanping, ends with the Chinese force holding the bridge but still obliged to make concessions to the superior Japanese force in order to end the confrontation. This relatively minor incident sparked the Second Sino-Japanese War, which continued into and throughout World War II.
July 7, 1991: The Brioni Agreement ends the Slovenian War of Independence. The agreement required Slovenia and Croatia to delay their independence bids for three months in exchange for the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army from both republics. In reality this marked the end of the Slovenian phase of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, while having no effect on the war in Croatia.
July 8, 1497: A Portuguese armada sets sail under the command of Vasco da Gama bound for India. Da Gama’s completion of the route around Africa was the first direct European oceanic contact with India and stands alongside Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas, for better or worse, as one of the milestones of the Age of Exploration.
As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 186,305,378 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 4,025,761 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 3.32 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 43 for every 100 people.
In yesterday’s roundup I said that one of two rockets fired on the US embassy in Baghdad early Thursday was thwarted by the embassy’s defense system while the other landed on the perimeter of the embassy compound “to no apparent effect.” This turns out to have been incorrect—it’s since been reported that there was a third rocket in the barrage that landed completely outside the embassy compound and did cause some damage to a residential area.
The Jordanian and Israeli governments agreed on Thursday to a couple of commercial deals that will see Jordan purchase some 50 million cubic meters of water from Israel and up its exports to the occupied West Bank to around $700 million per year from around $160 million. Neither of these deals is especially earthshaking (although Jordan does badly need water), but they do send a larger signal about the possibility for improving what had become a strained bilateral relationship under former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The World Bank has concluded that the cost to rebuild Gaza following May’s extended Israeli bombardment will be in the neighborhood of $485 million. Most of that (around $380 million) is taken up by direct reconstruction costs, and it doesn’t include the roughly $190 million the bank estimates the war cost Gazan residents in lost economic activity.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Regular readers will know that we’ve been following here and there the story of Princess Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum of Dubai. Her full story predates this newsletter and goes back to her attempt to flee Dubai in 2018, when the boat carrying her to India was interdicted by armed gunmen working for her father, Dubai Emir Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. They took her back to Dubai and then she disappeared until the surfacing of a video she apparently recorded earlier this year in which she talked about her house arrest. Subsequently a couple of photos have surfaced that seem to show her out in public, including one in Spain, though these photos haven’t been entirely verified and the degree to which she actually has any freedom of movement is unclear.
I say this to offer some background to a new USA Today story that reveals the role our very own Federal Bureau of Investigation played in helping Sheikh Mohammed track down his adult daughter and force her back to Dubai against her will:
The FBI obtained and provided data about the yacht's location to the Dubai government after officials there claimed the princess had been kidnapped and needed emergency aid to secure her release, according to multiple people familiar with the FBI's role in the highly sensitive operation.
Sheikh Mohammed declined to comment through legal representatives, but he has maintained in court records that he rescued the princess, and he has repeatedly rejected claims of mistreating her. USA TODAY's sources said they believe the FBI was misled about her circumstances aboard the yacht, prompting the agents to obtain geolocation data from Nostromo's U.S.-based internet service provider and supply it to the Dubai government.
In doing that, the agents may have violated FBI protocols, legal experts said, if they obtained the data without subpoenaing the provider, as normally would be required.
It was not immediately clear whether the FBI, which declined to comment on the matter, was aware the request for help appears to have been been misleading.
Does it matter? Either the Federal Bureau of Investigation opted to just take Sheikh Mohammed at his word, or they were knowingly complicit in helping the emir of Dubai take his own daughter hostage. It feels like a microcosm of the same “intentional or incompetent” question that attends much of America’s broader impact on the cause of human rights around the world.
Under the Trump administration, the Saudis and Emiratis coordinated to compel greater U.S. involvement in the region, a reaction to Obama’s effort to negotiate a nuclear treaty with Iran and pivot to Asia. Trump and his team complied, abandoning Obama’s nuclear deal and adopting a stance of maximum pressure that brought the U.S. to the brink of war with Iran. The Biden administration looks to re-enter the nuclear deal, and appears committed to finally shifting U.S. focus away from the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The Saudi-Emirati race for economic rewards could bode well for Biden’s goal of reducing U.S. involvement in the region. If Saudi Arabia and the UAE are primarily focused on competing with each other, they will both prefer to foster regional stability in order to encourage investment, potentially curbing impulses to behave aggressively towards each other or their neighbors.
Joe Biden moved up the end date for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan on Thursday, announcing in a televised address that it will now be complete as of August 31. Previously he’d set a September 11 deadline. In any practical sense the withdrawal seems to be either complete or very nearly so, but for political reasons Biden doesn’t want to be seen to be racing for the door two months ahead of schedule.
Biden hasn’t hedged on his withdrawal plan despite a recent surge in Taliban advances across much of Afghanistan. For example, Taliban fighters attacked the city of Qala-i-Naw, capital of Badghis province, on Wednesday in the first of what may be several attempts at seizing provincial capitals over the next few weeks. After some initial success Afghan officials said Thursday that their forces had retaken control of the city and were pushing the Taliban, which they say has lost at least 69 fighters over the past couple of days, through its outskirts. Those claims are unconfirmed. Also in western Afghanistan, the Taliban have reportedly captured the important Islam Qala checkpoint along the Iranian border in Herat province. The Taliban has already taken border crossings across northern Afghanistan, partly for the customs income and partly for strategic reasons. While we’re on that subject, the Collective Security Treaty Organization announced on Thursday that it’s prepared to assist CSTO member state Tajikistan with additional security along its Afghan border if necessary.
In southern Afghanistan, meanwhile, Taliban fighters are reportedly around one mile outside of Helmand Province’s capital, Lashkar Gah. Most of the rest of Helmand is in Taliban hands which leaves the military (and increasingly paramilitary) forces protecting the city particularly isolated. It also means the city is packed with people displaced by Taliban advances elsewhere in the province.
At least ten people have been killed in multiple incidents in Kashmir over the past couple of days. On Wednesday, Indian forces along the “Line of Control” separating Indian and Pakistani Kashmir killed one alleged military attempting to cross over from Pakistan. Two more militants along with two Indian soldiers were killed in what was apparently a similar incident on Thursday. Elsewhere, Indian security forces killed four militants on Thursday in two raids on separatist hideouts in the region’s Pulwama and Kulgam districts. The previous day police arrested a prominent separatist leader in Handwara and he supposedly led them to a local hideout where authorities say he picked up a weapon and began firing on the police, who killed him in self defense. If that convoluted scenario sounds like the strained cover story for an extrajudicial killing, well, it’s quite possible that’s exactly what it is.
The United Nations Security Council met Thursday to discuss the controversy over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. At this point I have no idea what they talked about or whether they managed to resolve any disagreements between the Ethiopian government on the one hand and the Egyptian and Sudanese governments on the other, but somehow I doubt it.
Ethiopia has resumed filling the GERD’s reservoir despite the failure to agree on a regional framework for ensuring that the process doesn’t adversely impact water levels on the Blue Nile and Nile rivers, angering Cairo and Khartoum. Much of the disagreement has to do with whether said framework would be binding (as Egypt and Sudan want) or not (as Ethiopia prefers). During both the first phase of the process last year and this year’s second phase the Ethiopians have tried to take advantage of the regional rainy season to fill the reservoir while minimizing the downstream effect as much as possible, but the real concern is what effect the dam will have on water levels when the region suffers an inevitable dry spell.
The Guardian looks at the state of affairs in Eswatini after weeks of anti-government protests:
Officials admit that at least 27 people had been killed, some by police, others by security guards hired to prevent looting. Opposition leaders say at least twice as many have died. More than 150 are thought to have been injured.
Chris Vandome, an expert at London’s Chatham House, said the recent protests differed from early episodes of unrest in which unions and other formal organisations had played a significant role.
“This time it is more organic and less structured. That makes it much harder to control but also harder for the protesters to have a cohesive position on what they want … A national dialogue is a first step but does that mean you respect the legitimacy of the people you are dialoguing with?” he said.
Authorities seem inclined to blame “terrorists” from South Africa for sparking these demonstrations, but Eswatini’s underlying characteristics—a very young population fed up with arbitrary repression and extreme inequality—lend themselves to just this type of protest movement. Spinning a yarn about foreign infiltrators is a way for the kingdom to dodge uncomfortable truths about what really seems to be happening.
A new Time report outlines mercenary entrepreneur Erik Prince’s newest grand scheme to get rich by privatizing war:
On the second night of his visit to Kyiv, Erik Prince had a dinner date on his agenda. A few of his Ukrainian associates had arranged to meet the American billionaire at the Vodka Grill that evening, Feb. 23, 2020. The choice of venue seemed unusual. The Vodka Grill, a since-defunct nightclub next to a KFC franchise in a rough part of town, rarely saw patrons as powerful as Prince.
As the party got seated inside a private karaoke room on the second floor, Igor Novikov, who was then a top adviser to Ukraine’s President, remembers feeling a little nervous. He had done some reading about Blackwater, the private military company Prince had founded in 1997, and he knew about the massacre its troops had perpetrated during the U.S. war in Iraq. Coming face to face that night with the world’s most prominent soldier of fortune, Novikov remembers thinking: “What does this guy want from us?”
It soon became clear that Prince wanted a lot from Ukraine. According to interviews with close associates and confidential documents detailing his ambitions, Prince hoped to hire Ukraine’s combat veterans into a private military company. Prince also wanted a big piece of Ukraine’s military-industrial complex, including factories that make engines for fighter jets and helicopters. His full plan, dated June 2020 and obtained exclusively by TIME this spring, includes a “roadmap” for the creation of a “vertically integrated aviation defense consortium” that could bring $10 billion in revenues and investment.
Sadly, according to Time Ukrainian officials “had serious concerns about working with Prince”—I can’t imagine why, though Prince’s ties to Russian-friendly figures in Kyiv may have had something to do with it—and Joe Biden’s victory in the November US presidential election seems to have caused this grand plan to go awry.
Two new opinion polls suggest that Sunday’s Bulgarian snap election is going to be as inconclusive as the April election that brought the country to this point. Both polls, from Alpha Research and Gallup International, have the There Is Such a People (ITN) party at over 21 percent support, putting it slightly ahead of the GERB party of caretaker Prime Minister Boyko Borissov. That’s up substantially from the 17.7 percent ITN won in April. However, if these polls are accurate then ITN’s support combined with that of its two potential coalition partners, the Democratic Bulgaria and Stand Up! Mafia Out! parties, would not win them a collective majority. Unless they can bring in some additional support, lucky ducky Bulgarian voters may get head to the polls all over again in another few months.
Jair Bolsonaro really seems to be laying the groundwork either to cancel Brazil’s 2022 presidential election or ignore its result if things don’t go his way. On Thursday he told a crowd of fans that “either we do clean elections in Brazil, or we don’t do elections at all.” That’s the second time in a matter of days that he’s talked in vague but troubling terms about rejecting the 2022 election over potential fraud. So not only is he priming the pump for some kind of move to stay in power even if he loses, but in keeping with his Donald Trumpian persona he’s not being very subtle about telegraphing his intentions. Given that two more polls have now shown that a majority of Brazilians think Bolsonaro is doing a “bad” or “terrible” job as president, the likelihood of an election outcome that he deems illegitimate (or in other words, one in which he loses) seems pretty high.
The northwestern Cota 905 neighborhood of Caracas has been the scene of heavy fighting between criminal gangs and Venezuelan security forces over the past couple of days, forcing authorities to close highways and other major roads in that area on Thursday and advise residents to stay indoors. Unofficial accounts have at least four civilians killed and six wounded in the violence. The gangs are reportedly well armed and appear to be making a move into new territory around Cota 95, including an important highway running west of Caracas.
Haitian authorities say they’ve either arrested or killed everyone believed to have been directly involved in the assassination of President Jovenal Moïse at his home outside Port-au-Prince early Wednesday morning. Translating that into numbers, at last count that means they’d killed seven people and arrested six. There’s still no indication, at least none that they’ve made public, as to who was behind the killing or why they did it, but among those who have been arrested were two Haitian-Americans, for whatever that’s worth. Early reports had the killers speaking English and Spanish, which would stand out in Haiti, though to be sure early reporting about events like this is often inaccurate to one degree or another.
UPDATE: Haitian authorities now say the crew that attacked Moïse’s home consisted of the two aforementioned Haitian-Americans along with 26 Colombians, at least some of them ex-military. That would explain the English and Spanish witnesses heard. Along with the Haitian-Americans 15 of the Colombians are reportedly in custody, three have been killed, and eight are still at large. The Colombian government says it is aiding in the investigation. Clearly this team was working for somebody but if the Haitian government has any idea who that was or why they wanted Moïse dead, they’re not saying so publicly. This story broke after I sent out the newsletter but seemed important enough to warrant an update.
As far as who’s running Haiti in the wake of Moïse’s death, that remains legally complicated and sorting it out is starting to look like it could be a real issue. Because there’s no consensus as to whether the country’s 1987 constitution or its 2012 amended constitution are controlling, the line of succession could run either through the chief justice of Haiti’s Supreme Court (the 1987 process) or through a parliamentary vote (the 2012 process). But since Haiti’s chief justice died of COVID last month and the country has no functioning parliament at the moment, disputing this particular issue is kind of a dead end.
In practice, interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who was due to leave that job in a few days, has stepped in as interim head of state with the backing of the United States, the UN’s Haitian mission, most Haitian officials, and (perhaps most importantly) Haiti’s security forces. However, a new wrinkle now seems to be emerging. Ariel Henry, the main Moïse named earlier this week to replace Joseph as PM, has reportedly been referring to himself as prime minister and is questioning Joseph’s legitimacy. Needless to say dueling claims on the interim presidency would only add to the level of chaos Haiti is facing right now.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Karen Greenburg considers America’s allergy to accountability:
America has an accountability problem. In fact, if the Covid-19 disaster, the January 6th Capitol attack, and the Trump years are any indication, the American lexicon has essentially dispensed with the term “accountability.”
This should come as no surprise. After all, there’s nothing particularly new about this. In the Bush years, those who created a system of indefinite offshore detention at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, those who implemented a CIA global torture program and the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance policy, not to mention those who purposely took us to war based on lies about nonexistent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, were neither dismissed, sanctioned, nor punished in any way for obvious violations of the law. Nor has Congress passed significant legislation of any kind to ensure that all-encompassing abuses like these will not happen again.
Now, early in the Biden era, any determination to hold American officials responsible for such past wrongdoing, even the president who helped launch an assault on the Capitol, seems little more than a fantasy. It may be something to discuss, rail against, or even make promises about, but not actually reckon with — not if you’re either a deeply divided Congress or a Department of Justice that has compromised itself repeatedly in recent years. Under other circumstances, of course, those would be the two primary institutions with the power to pursue genuine accountability in any meaningful way for extreme and potentially illegal government acts.
Today, if thought about at all, accountability — whether in the form of punishment for misdeeds or meaningful reform — has been reduced to a talking point. With that in mind, let’s take a moment to consider the Biden administration’s approach to accountability so far.