World roundup: June 24 2021

Stories from Afghanistan, Sweden, Peru, and more

This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:


THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

June 23, 1280: A Castilian-Leónese army is decisively defeated by forces of the Granadan Emirate at the Battle of Moclín. Alfonso X of Castile sent an army to invade the emirate because that’s what you did back then if you were the king of Castile. But the Granadan forces suckered the Castilians in with a feigned retreat and then massacred them, killing more than 2800 including almost all the knights of the venerated Order of Santiago.

June 23, 1757: A British East India Company army defeats a combined Bengali-French army at the Battle of Palashi (Plassey). The aftermath resulted in the removal of Siraj ud-Daulah as the Nawab of Bengal and the annexation of Bengal into the East India Company’s territory.

June 24, 1812: Napoleon leads his Grande Armée into Russia. Despite capturing Moscow in September, this was easily Napoleon’s greatest military catastrophe. The Russian army simply stayed out of Napoleon’s way until he was forced to withdraw, at which point his army ran smack into a Russian winter for which the Grande Armée was evidently unprepared. Of roughly 685,000 men who entered Russia under Napoleon’s command in June, only about 80,000 made it out of Russia in December (Napoleon having already returned to France). The disaster was not the end of Napoleon’s empire, but it was a big step on the road toward its end.

June 24, 1932: A joint civilian-military junta led by the People’s Party forces Siamese King Prajadhipok to adopt constitutional reforms, ending the country’s centuries-old absolute monarchy. The coup, known as the “Siamese Revolution,” is one of the seminal events in the history of modern Thailand, as it replaced the absolute monarchy with a constitutional monarchy and democracy. The legacy of the coup and its effect on civilian-military relations continues to be debated to some degree today.

June 24, 1948: Soviet authorities blockade West Berlin, setting off one of the most serious crises of the Cold War. Two days later, the US, UK, and others launched the Berlin Airlift to keep the city supplied, and the Soviets lifted the blockade in May 1949.

INTERNATIONAL

As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 180,749,738 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 3,915,547 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 2.79 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 36 for every 100 people.

In today’s global news:

  • According to Reuters, the World Health Organization is planning to revamp its underfunded and underperforming COVAX vaccine distribution program. Foiled by a combination of Western vaccine hoarding and India’s massive second COVID wave, which forced its vaccine production sector to focus on domestic needs rather than potential exports, COVAX has so far distributed a scant 90 million vaccine doses out of the 2 billion it expects (well, expected) to distribute this year. The plan seems to be to raise costs for middle-income nations to participate in the COVAX program, possibly in the hopes that they’ll pull out so that the project can focus more tightly on the neediest/poorest nations.

  • A draft report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reportedly finds that the effects of climate change are accelerating in intensity and some of the worst impacts will, as Al Jazeera put it, “become painfully obvious before a child born today turns 30.” The IPCC’s stark findings will likely be watered down in whatever government-friendly executive summary the agency generates before it finally releases the report early next year.

  • According to the New York Times, the International Monetary Fund is working on a proposal to “issue $650 billion worth of reserve funds, essentially creating money that troubled countries could use to purchase vaccines, finance health care and pay down debt.” It sounds interesting, except for the fact that those reserves will be disbursed in the form of “Special Drawing Rights,” which are allocated according to each country’s share of IMF voting power. Which means the largest share of these emergency funds would go to the United States, the country least in need of them. Other wealthy states would see similar windfalls, with the 58 largest IMF member states receiving more than two-thirds of the total issue. For this scheme to work as ostensibly intended, IMF leaders will need to convince the US and other wealthy nations to transfer at least some portion of their shares to poorer nations.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Turkish state media is reporting that Turkish forces “neutralized” (killed or captured) three Kurdistan Workers’ Party fighters in two incidents in northern Syria on Thursday. Details are sparse, but at least two of the three PKK fighters were allegedly attempting to cross into Turkey near the Syrian border town of al-Bab.

The United Nations Security Council is at loggerheads about…almost everything, generally, but in this case I’m specifically talking about the July 10 deadline to reauthorize the UN’s humanitarian operation to deliver aid to rebel-held northwestern Syria via Turkey. Syria’s one remaining humanitarian border crossing will see its funding and mandate expire on July 10 unless the council renews it, and the Russian government, citing the need to strengthen Syria’s “territorial integrity” and the sovereignty of Bashar al-Assad’s government, is opposed. The Associated Press is characterizing this as a “showdown,” but it’s really not much of a showdown since Moscow can simply veto a renewal resolution and that will be that.

The Russians seem like they might be open to a short term extension provided that time is used to transition humanitarian operations away from the Turkish border and toward a program to ship aid across the frozen front line from government-held territory into rebel-held territory. Logistically and politically that’s a heavy lift and there doesn’t seem to be much appetite from the rest of the council, or the UN’s humanitarian personnel for that matter, to try to replace the cross-border mission with a cross-line one. Some 3.4 million people are dependent on humanitarian aid in northwestern Syria.

YEMEN

Rival factions within the separatist Southern Transitional Council reportedly began shooting at one another in a populous district of Aden late Wednesday, sparking a clash that left at least two combatants dead and 15 other people (combatants and bystanders) wounded. STC leader Aidarus al-Zoubaidi eventually gained control of the situation and both groups backed down. A serious intra-STC conflict would add yet another layer of discord to an already pretty discordant pro-government “coalition.”

TURKEY

Responsible Statecraft’s Matthew Petty reports on a new neoconservative project in Washington:

The Turkey Democracy Project includes several prominent members of United Against Nuclear Iran, a group whose members have called for the U.S.-led overthrow of the Iranian government, as well as the hawkish former White House national security adviser John Bolton.

The new anti-Turkey group is headed by UANI chief executive Mark Wallace. Its members include UANI chairman Joe Lieberman, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, retired Bush administration counterterrorism official Frances Townsend, career U.S. diplomat Alejandro Wolff, retired CIA officer Robert Richer and former UANI intelligence chief Norman Roule.

UANI megadonor Thomas Kaplan helped co-found Justice for Kurds, another group dedicated to pushing back on Turkey’s influence. Kaplan is not listed as a member of the Turkey Democracy Project.

The creation of the Turkey Democracy Project is the latest sign that Ankara has shifted from a favored ally of U.S. hawks to one of their major bugbears. It would not be the first time American hawks turned on a former U.S. sidekick; in the 1980s and 1990s, Republican administrations went from backing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s war against Iran to pushing for a U.S.-led regime change campaign against him.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Politician, activist, and Palestinian Authority critic Nizar Banat has died under shady circumstances after being violently removed from his home in Hebron by PA security forces early Thursday morning. Banat’s family says police beat him severely before arresting him, so the fact that “his health deteriorated” and he later “passed away” (the PA’s words) while in custody does not seem coincidental. His death coincided with the release of a new Amnesty International report describing an almost unprecedented level of violence Palestinians have been facing from both Israeli and PA security forces as well as from Israeli extremists, whose activities are ignored/supported by Israeli authorities. A protest over Banat’s death in Ramallah was, of course, met by PA police wielding tear gas and metal batons.

Elsewhere in the West Bank, France 24 reports on an effort by Palestinians in the town of Beita to force out a new settlement that’s illegal even under Israeli law:

Despite its illegality, Israeli forces have killed four Beita residents in responding to protests over the settlement.

In Gaza, meanwhile, Israeli authorities are rolling back a couple of restrictions they imposed during last month’s conflict with Hamas. The Israeli military’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories office announced on Thursday that it’s moving Gaza’s offshore fishing limit out to nine nautical miles, from six, and will start allowing shipments of basic materials to supply “essential civilian factories.” Authorities resumed mail service and allowed shipments of clothes into Gaza earlier this week.

IRAN

According to The Jerusalem Post, which I think calls for a few grains of salt, the Biden administration wants to slow down negotiations on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal so that it can consult with the Israeli government on the course of those talks. I would say it’s ridiculous to think that The World’s Only Superpower™ is granting a client state oversight of its foreign policy, but that’s par for the course where the US-Israel relationship is concerned. With Iran’s presidential election now over there’s no real urgency to get the talks done (apart from the, you know, humanitarian crises US sanctions have caused, but those sorts of things don’t really matter to the US government), and the administration may feel it can wring some political value out of getting the Israeli government on board with the deal, so there’s a certain logic to this story even though it probably should be regarded as unconfirmed.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

Officials in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province say that fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan military there over the past week has left at least 28 civilians dead and more than 290 wounded. The Taliban has been on a roll across northern Afghanistan for several days now and is positioned for much larger and potentially deadlier battles to come as it moves against larger provincial capital cities.

According to the New York Times, the Biden administration has come up with a stopgap plan to get tens of thousands of Afghan nationals who have worked with the US military (and their family members) out of Afghanistan before the US military withdraws and leaves them to face the Taliban on their own. It’s planning to evacuate those people to “third countries” where they’ll reside while their visas to come to the United States are being processed. This is a problem of the US government’s own making, as it’s slow-rolled the visa application process for interpreters and other support personnel for years. Joe Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan put a deadline on the situation. There’s no indication which “third countries” are going to be used for this scheme and indeed no indication that even a single “third country” has agreed to be used.

THAILAND

Protesters in Bangkok on Thursday marked the 89th anniversary of the Siamese Revolution (see above) by calling for an end to de facto military rule and the resignation of junta leader turned Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. The demonstration appears to have gone relatively peacefully as organizers agreed to abide by police restrictions on their march route.

AFRICA

BURKINA FASO

Authorities have apparently determined that child soldiers were responsible for the massacre of over 130 people earlier this month in the village of Solhan in Burkina Faso’s Yagha province. It’s not clear from the reporting how they’ve come to this conclusion, but Islamist groups that are active in northern and eastern Burkina Faso are certainly known to use child fighters in general.

NIGER

Attackers on motorcycles cut a path of destruction through Niger’s Tillabéri region on Thursday, striking at least two villages and killing at least ten people. There doesn’t seem to be any indication who was responsible, but the Islamic State’s Greater Sahara affiliate has been very active in Tillabéri and its disregard for civilian life corresponds with this type of incident.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

UN Security Council members are also sniping at one another over a deteriorating human rights situation in the CAR:

The United States, Britain and France accused Russian mercenaries on Wednesday of operating alongside Central African Republic forces and committing human rights violations against civilians and obstructing U.N. peacekeeping – charges immediately denied by Russia which denounced the Western nations for engaging in an “anti-Russia political hit job.”

The exchanges took place at a U.N. Security Council meeting after the U.N. special representative for the conflict-wracked Central African Republic, Mankeur Ndiaye, expressed serious concern at the military counter-offensive by the country’s security forces and “bilateral forces and other security forces” against a coalition of rebel groups which supports CAR’s former president Francois Bozize.

Ndiaye called the situation in CAR “among the most dangerous in the world,” saying violations of human rights and international law allegedly committed by CAR forces “and bilateral and other personnel ...have never equaled those recently committed and detailed by MINUSCA,” the 15,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in the country.

There seems to be little question that by “bilateral forces and other security forces” Ndiaye was in part referring to those Russian mercs, who are in the CAR at the behest of its government and have been accused of interfering with the MINUSCA’s operations. The incidence of attacks against Central African Muslims is especially on the rise. Western hostility toward Russia’s role in the CAR may be motivated in part by the French government’s frustration that its position as the primary Central African patron (stemming from its previous role as colonial power) is being usurped by Moscow. The French government suspended aid to the CAR earlier this month, citing vague claims about an anti-France “disinformation campaign” in which Central African officials were somehow complicit.

ETHIOPIA

The Ethiopian military has claimed responsibility for that deadly airstrike on the Tigrayan village of Togoga on Tuesday. Local reports now say that at least 64 people were killed in that strike and over 180 wounded, and with recovery efforts ongoing (slowly, thanks to interference from Ethiopian authorities) the casualty count seems likely to rise. Ethiopian military spokesperson Colonel Getnet Adane insisted to reporters that all of the casualties were Tigrayan rebel fighters. All of them, combatants. In civilian garb. Shopping at a market. How can we be sure none of them were actual civilians, you ask? Why, because “the Ethiopian air force uses the latest technology, so it conducted a precision strike that was successful,” obviously. The Ethiopian military killed them, ergo they must ipso facto be combatants. It’s all very simple and believable.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

US ambassador John Sullivan resumed his post in Moscow on Thursday, about two months after he left it in retaliation for Russia’s recall of ambassador Anatoly Antonov from Washington. Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin agreed during their summit in Geneva last week to restore their respective ambassadors and Antonov returned to DC earlier this week.

The British government is acknowledging that it intentionally sailed the HMS Defender through Crimean territorial waters on Wednesday to make a point about “freedom of navigation” and Russia’s unrecognized annexation of the peninsula. But they’re also admitting they were caught off guard by the speed and intensity of the Russian air and naval response to the Defender’s passage. Russian ships and planes shadowed the British vessel and at one point shot off some artillery in its general vicinity, though whether or not that strictly constituted a “warning shot” remains a point of dispute between Russian and UK officials. The Russians also claim that their aircraft dropped explosives in the Defender’s path to force it off course, but as far as can tell there’s no confirmation of that.

BELARUS

The European Union on Thursday imposed what Al Jazeera termed “wide-ranging” sanctions against the Belarusian government over allegations of human rights abuses. These appear to be the sharpest economic penalties the EU has imposed on Belarus since last August’s disputed presidential election got the whole sanctions train rolling. This round of sanctions targeted specific industries, including potash and petroleum products which are two of the country’s biggest exports.

SWEDEN

As quickly as Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s political fortunes began trending up on Wednesday, they collapsed again on Thursday when Sweden’s Liberal Party, the third party on whose support Löfven’s minority government depends, announced that it’s time for the PM to hit the proverbial road. This means Löfven still doesn’t have the votes to survive a new confidence motion in parliament. Having lost last Monday’s confidence motion, if he can’t get the Liberals, along with the Centre and Left parties, back in line, he’ll likely have to resign by this coming Monday and Sweden is probably headed for a snap election as a result.

Liberal Party grandees may view ousting Löfven as the ticket to elevating their own party leader, Ulf Kristersson, to the premiership. If so, they’re taking quite a gamble. In order to see their plan to completion they will likely have to enter a coalition with the far-right Sweden Democrats, which until recently had been treated as anathema by the rest of Sweden’s political parties. The rest of the Swedish right no longer feels so squeamish about partnering with white nationalists, but the Liberal Party is walking a very thin line in risking a snap election. Polling suggests that in the event of a new election the party would fail to hit the 4 percent threshold needed to be seated in parliament, so if they overplay their hand in this situation they could find themselves out of power altogether. They may simply be angling for more influence in a new Löfven-led cabinet but I suppose we’ll know for sure what they’re doing by Monday.

AMERICAS

PERU

Peru’s presidential election saga took a new twist on Thursday when Luis Arce, who is not the Bolivian president but was one of four members of the panel that is hearing challenges to votes in this month’s runoff, resigned. Arce cited the panel’s decision to reject each of runner up Keiko Fujimori’s first ten annulment requests and accused the panel of being biased in favor of winner Pedro Castillo. The idea that any Peruvian electoral body would be biased in favor of a leftist candidate is absurd, but Arce is probably less interested in accuracy than in delaying the final confirmation of Castillo’s victory. Fujimori now reportedly wants the Organization of American States to audit the vote, I guess so that it can do to Castillo what it did to Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2019, but the OAS has said it’s found nothing wrong with the Peruvian vote and does not seem all that interested in taking up Fujimori’s cause.

COLOMBIA

The commander of Colombia’s National Liberation Army (ELN) rebel group, Nicolás Rodríguez, announced Thursday that he’s stepping down due to ill health. The 71 year old Rodríguez has been replaced by senior ELN officer Antonio García.

UNITED STATES

Finally, TomDispatch’s Frida Berrigan looks at the cost—or, potentially, costs—of the US Navy’s plans for a brand new fleet of ballistic missile submarines:

Back in 2010, the Department of Defense’s Nuclear Posture Review called for a “recapitalization of the nation’s sea-based deterrent,” as though we hadn’t been spending anything on submarines previously. To meet that goal, the Obama administration, the Trump administration, and now the Biden administration all agreed that, on a planet already filled with devastating nuclear weapons, the U.S. must begin construction of a new class of 12 Columbia ballistic missile submarines.

The Navy’s 2021 budget submission estimates that the total procurement cost for that 12-ship class of subs will be $109.8 billion. However, even a number that big might prove nothing but rough back-of-the-napkin figuring. After all, according to the Navy’s 2022 request, the cost estimate for the first submarine of the 12 they plan to build, the lead ship in its new program, had already grown from $14.39 billion to $15.03 billion. Now, that may not sound like a lot, but string out all those zeros behind it and you’ll realize that the difference is more than $640 million, just a little less than what Baltimore — a city of more than 600,000 people — will get in federal pandemic relief aid.

Swirling around those submarines are descriptions citing “strategy” and “capability.” But don’t be fooled: they’ll be potential world killers. Each of those 12 new subs will be armed with 16 Trident D-5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or SLBMs, which have a range of 4,500 miles and can carry 14 W-76-1 thermonuclear warheads. Each one of those warheads is six times more powerful than the atomic bomb that the U.S. military detonated over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Start multiplying 12 times 16 times 14 times 6 and there isn’t enough world to destroy with math like that. After all, the single Hiroshima bomb, “small” as it was, killed an estimated 140,000 people and turned the city into rubble and ash.

The best way to understand the Columbia class submarine, then, is as a $100 billion-plus initiative that aims to deliver 16,128 Hiroshimas.