World roundup: June 26-27 2021

Stories from Iraq, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

June 25, 841: Charlemagne’s three surviving grandsons via Louis the Pious duke it out in the Battle of Fontenoy. On one side was Lothar I, fighting to keep Charlemagne’s kingdom united under his rule, and on the other his brothers Louis the German and Charles the Bald, who wanted to carve the kingdom up and each take their own piece. The “divisionists” won, which put them in the driver’s seat in the Carolingian civil war and eventually led to the Treaty of Verdun that formally divided the kingdom.

June 25, 1950: The Korean War begins with, by most accounts, a North Korean invasion of South Korea, although the Korean People’s Army claimed that South Korean forces invaded their territory first. There was already a North Korean-supported insurgency in South Korea, and conflicts at the Korean border had been going on almost since the Allies liberated and partitioned the peninsula in 1945. The war still hasn’t technically ended, but the fighting stopped in 1953 in a stalemate after two failed North Korean/Chinese invasions of South Korea sandwiched around one failed South Korean/US invasion of North Korea.

June 26, 1243: The Battle of Köse Dağ

June 26, 1794: The French Republican army defeats the Coalition at the Battle of Fleurus, in the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium nowadays). The victory forced the Coalition to retreat and thereby opened the Netherlands to French forces. This marked the death knell for the Dutch Republic and set France on course to winning the War of the First Coalition. The battle is also notable in that it involved the first successful use of aircraft (a French reconnaissance balloon) in a military context.

June 27, 1991: The Ten Day War begins when a Yugoslav army invades Slovenia in response to that republic’s declaration of independence two days earlier. It ended on July 7 with the signing of the Brioni Agreement, in which Slovenia and Croatia agreed to delay their independence movements for three months. For Slovenia this meant an end to the fighting, but the Croatian War of Independence continued until 1995.

INTERNATIONAL

As of this writing, Worldometer’s coronavirus figures show 181,861,268 total cases of COVID-19 worldwide to date, with 3,938,817 reported COVID fatalities. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, over 2.91 billion vaccines have been administered worldwide, or roughly 38 for every 100 people.

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

AFP is reporting that at least 111 combatants (82 rebels, 29 pro-government forces) have died since Thursday in heavy fighting around Maʾrib city. The front line seems to have remained unchanged, with Saudi airstrikes blunting attempted Houthi advances. The battle for Maʾrib has displaced more than 22,000 people since February, according to the United Nations. Maʾrib province is home to hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who’ve already been displaced by fighting in other parts of the country.

IRAQ

The US military conducted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria late Sunday against facilities used by two Iranian-backed militias, Kataʾib Hezbollah and Kataʾib Sayyid al-Shuhada. It’s too early for any assessment of casualties or damage but the strikes are retaliation for several suspected militia attacks against facilities in Iraq that are known to house US personnel.

In what was likely the most recent such attack, three explosive drones struck near the city of Erbil overnight Friday-Saturday, with two of the three causing some material damage and the third failing to detonate. There’s no indication as to responsibility but it’s probably worth noting that Iraqi militias conducted a “military parade” in Diyala province on Saturday in a show of force undoubtedly meant both for the US and the Iraqi government. Erbil houses, among other things, a US consulate that is the main diplomatic link between Washington and the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Elsewhere, Islamic State fighters attacked a power station in the city of Samarra on Sunday with Katyusha rockets, causing serious damage to the facility.

LEBANON

Major protests across Lebanon turned violent late Saturday and into early Sunday morning and left at least ten police officers and an unknown number of demonstrators injured. The ten police were injured in the northern city of Tripoli, whose residents have been perhaps the hardest hit by the country’s extended economic meltdown (the Lebanese pound hit a new record low of 18,000 per US dollar on Saturday) and where the riots were at their most intense.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Protests also rocked the West Bank on on Saturday, particularly in Ramallah, as demonstrators demanded answers in the apparent killing of activist Nizar Banat by Palestinian Authority security forces on Thursday. Video showed police beating demonstrators and attacking journalists, probably not the best image to put forward in the midst of a crisis over police brutality.

In Gaza, meanwhile, the security situation has calmed enough that Israeli officials announced Sunday that they will begin allowing fuel shipments into the enclave again to feed its electricity plant. The Israelis cut off those shipments last month amid their most recent battle with Hamas, forcing critical public facilities (hospitals, for example) to deal with blackouts while they were trying to treat Palestinians wounded in Israeli air and artillery strikes.

BAHRAIN

The Biden administration’s seizure of multiple internet domains allegedly affiliated with sanctioned Iranian media a few days ago was apparently carried out with all the sophistication and attention to detail we’ve come to expect from US foreign policy:

On Tuesday, the U.S. Department of Justice seized and censored 33 websites as part of a retaliatory action on the grounds that they violate U.S. sanctions on Iran. Some of the websites belonged to Iranian propaganda networks. Others were Shiite Muslim religious outlets that appeared to have nothing to do with — or were even at odds with — the Iranian regime.

One of the websites, a London-based Bahraini diaspora network, had been a refuge for exiles fleeing repression.

“We’ve seen this for years, where well-meaning efforts to address disinformation campaigns or terrorist propaganda have these serious human rights impacts, because they capture too much,” said David Greene, civil liberties director and senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a technological civil rights organization.

The crackdown is a test case for American control over the internet, as the U.S. government flexed its muscles over the information sphere in a way few states could. The choice of targets also raises questions about whether there are enough guardrails over this newfound power — and whether U.S. officials can separate their political struggle with the Islamic Republic of Iran from an ideological struggle against Shia Islam.

The answers to those questions are “no” and “no,” in case you were wondering. Among the stations caught in the administration’s half-assed dragnet was Bahraini opposition outlet LuaLua TV, which is operated by exiles in the UK and is probably the most prominent (perhaps the only) independent Bahraini media outlet. It’s previously been a target of government censorship, but DC bureaucrats turn out to be far more effective at stifling press freedom than even Bahrain’s repressive monarchy. Joining LuaLua were outlets like Karbala TV, affiliated with Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and therefore decidedly not with the Iranian government; and al-Anwar, affiliated with Grand Ayatollah Sadiq al-Shirazi, a frequent critic of the Iranian government. US officials apparently confused the latter with another site also called al-Anwar, which the Iranian government set up to rebut Shirazi and which is, wait for it, still online.

The incompetence of the operation masks a deeper concern, which is that if US officials are going to treat all Shiʿa websites as de facto arms of the Iranian government it suggests they regard all Shiʿa Muslims as de facto under Iran’s purview. Which is a) wrong, b) dangerous, and c) self-defeating for a Washington establishment that’s always insisting that the Iranian government doesn’t even represent Iranians, let alone all Shiʿa in the world. And somehow we’ve vested these people with a kill switch over any website with a “.com” or “.org” domain. It turns out that putting enormous power in the hands of a bunch of people who don’t know and don’t particularly care what they’re doing is a bad idea. Go figure.

IRAN

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is now claiming that it has drones with a 7000 kilometer range, according to Iranian state media. That’s quite a distance and there’s no particular reason to believe it without seeing it, but I’m sure the assertion will set off some caterwauling in DC. Along those same lines, Iranian parliament speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf asserted on Sunday that the Iranian government will not turn over data it’s been collecting on its own nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency, now that its temporary agreement with the IAEA has expired. That statement has generated ominous headlines claiming that “Iran” has said it won’t cooperate with the IAEA anymore. The problem is that “Iran” didn’t say that, Ghalibaf did, and despite his elevated title he has barely any more input into Iranian foreign policy than any average Iranian you might find on the streets of Tehran. If you’re feeling like you’ve been here before that’s because Ghalibaf made similar statements at the IAEA deadline last month, generating similar Western headlines, only for the Iranian government to then agree to extend its data gathering for another month. It may yet agree to another short extension.

Tehran’s willingness to extend its IAEA deadline is undoubtedly linked to the progress of talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal in Vienna. Those talks appear to have hit a wall in the most recent round, with Iranian negotiators demanding guarantees that the US will honor its commitments (guarantees the US has already demonstrated it cannot make) and US negotiators warning that they’ll withdraw from the negotiations entirely if there’s no serious progress soon. Laura Rozen reported at her Substack a few days ago on a sense that the Iranians would be willing to drop their insistence on a US guarantee if the US drops its insistence on “follow on negotiations” to extend and broaden the nuclear deal. The two sides are also still not in agreement about which US sanctions would be lifted in a return to the accord and what technical steps Iran would have to take as part of its return to compliance.

ASIA

ARMENIA

Armenian elections officials on Sunday rejected claims by opposition parties that last week’s election should be annulled over voting irregularities. Presumably this locks in Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan’s victory. As far as I know the results aren’t official yet, but Pashinyan’s Civil Contract party now looks like it should control 71 seats in a 107 seat parliament, with the Armenia Alliance holding 29 seats and the “I Have Honor” Alliance holding seven.

AFGHANISTAN

Heavy fighting around the northern Afghan city of Kunduz has reportedly displaced some 5000 families in recent days. The Taliban has been pressuring Kunduz as part of a larger offensive across northern Afghanistan. Another five districts reportedly fell to the Taliban over the weekend, three of them in the northern part of the country, bringing the total number of districts lost to the Taliban over the last two months to somewhere around 108. There are conflicting reports as to the Afghan government’s success in retaking lost districts (Afghan officials are claiming to have made progress over the weekend in Baghlan and Kandahar, for example) but crucially none of those reports is particularly positive.

INDIA

Indian authorities believe that an airbase near the city of Jammu in India’s Kashmir region was attacked by drones on Sunday, which if true would represent the first known use of such weapons by Kashmiri rebels. The attack wounded two soldiers but otherwise appears to have done little damage. The concern is less about Sunday’s incident than about the possibility that it will start a trend.

BANGLADESH

An explosion in Dhaka on Sunday left at least seven people dead and more than 50 wounded. Authorities have yet to determine the cause of the blast and do appear to be proceeding as though it could have been an act of terrorism, so it seemed worth noting the incident.

AFRICA

NIGERIA

The Islamic State’s West Africa Province affiliate has released a video purporting to show hundreds of Boko Haram fighters pledging allegiance to ISWAP. If true the video would seemingly reflect ISWAP’s strengthened position in northeastern Nigeria since former Boko Haram boss Abubakar Shekau shuffled off this mortal coil last month. But the video doesn’t appear to offer much context for its content and it’s hard to draw any major conclusions about the state of the post-Shekau Boko Haram from one ISWAP-produced propaganda video.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

Doctors Without Borders says that one of its teams was ambushed near the Central African town of Batangafo on Thursday, the attackers killing a woman who was accompanying one of the team’s patients and wounding three other people. The New York Times says it’s seen a new UN report that lays much of the blame for the CAR’s continued instability at the feet of Russian mercenaries:

The Central African Republic turned to Russia in 2017 to wrest control of its diamond trade from the rebels, and to help end a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced over a million people since 2012.

The Kremlin offered to send unarmed military trainers to help train the Central African Army in a mission blessed by the United Nations, which carved out an exception to the arms embargo on the Central African Republic in place since 2013.

But it quickly became clear that the Russian trainers were in fact armed mercenaries, and the operation has evolved into a thinly veiled effort to build influence and strike business deals for the Kremlin in Africa, including lucrative diamond deals, to the benefit of businessmen including a close confidant of President Vladimir V. Putin.

The Russians have become deeply enmeshed in Central African politics and security. Russian bodyguards protect President Faustin-Archange Touadéra, and a former Russian spy has served as his security adviser.

The report finds that at times there have been over 2000 Russian mercenaries in the CAR, despite repeated Russian claims that it’s never had more than 550 personnel there.

SOMALIA

Al-Shabab fighters attacked a town and nearby military base in central Somalia’s Galmudug state on Sunday, killing at least 12 people (six of them civilians). The al-Shabab attackers subsequently withdrew from the town or were pushed out by Somali security forces (accounts seem to differ on this point).

BURUNDI

At least 15 people were killed late Saturday in central Burundi’s Muramvya province when a group of “armed men” used boulders to block off a section of road and then proceeded to kill as many people as they could inside that contained area. They reportedly shot 2-5 people and used gasoline to light two buses on fire, killing at least 13 people on board. As far as I can tell there’s no sense at this point of who was responsible or what the motive may have been.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

There were two bombings in the eastern Congolese city of Beni on Sunday that so far appear to have claimed only the life of one of the bombers. An earlier bombing targeted a Catholic church and reportedly injured several people. In the second incident a bomb exploded at a crowded intersection but only the bomber was reportedly killed in the blast. Authorities are blaming the Islamist Allied Democratic Forces militia for the bombings. These were the second and third bombings in Beni in two days (another bombing on Saturday caused no casualties), leading Beni’s mayor to declare a curfew in the city.

EUROPE

UKRAINE

Rebel shelling reportedly killed one Ukrainian soldier near the city of Donetsk on Saturday.

AMERICAS

PERU

Supporters of the two candidates in Peru’s presidential runoff—apparent winner Pedro Castillo and apparent loser Keiko Fujimori—demonstrated in Lima on Saturday, one calling on Peruvian officials to certify the runoff’s outcome and the other demanding that the outcome be tossed out over unsubstantiated claims of fraud. Election officials’ failure to declare Castillo’s victory officially is moving from an eyebrow raising curiosity to a potential constitutional crisis. There’s still a month left before somebody must be sworn in as Peru’s new president, but if Fujimori can stall the ballot review process that long (a scenario that’s still unlikely but gets less unlikely every day) she could send Peruvian politics into a tailspin.

NICARAGUA

Nicaraguan authorities arrested Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Barrios late Friday. He’s the brother of would-be presidential candidate Cristiana Chamorro, who was also arrested earlier this month. They’re two of at least 20 prominent opposition figures arrested by the Nicaraguan government in what’s been a pretty active month of June.

UNITED STATES

Finally, a new report from the Quincy Institute, written by the University of Notre Dame’s Eugene Gholz, lays out the case for a full US military withdrawal from the Middle East:

Why is it so difficult for the United States to bring its troops home from the Middle East? Three successive American Presidents — Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden — have pledged to end the post 9/11 wars and reunite U.S. soldiers with their families. Yet, fulfilling that pledge has proven tougher than expected. Do U.S. interests in the region require so much of the U.S. military that full-scale withdrawals are not feasible? Alternatively, do other factors, such as political and economic interests, inertia, or objections by strategic partners, prevent the United States from pursuing its first-order security interests? These questions have become all the more timely and important in light of a global review of American force posture announced by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in February 2021.

This paper argues that the United States has no compelling military need to keep a permanent troop presence in the Middle East. The two core U.S. interests in the region — preventing a hostile hegemon and ensuring the free flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz — can be achieved without a permanent military presence. There are no plausible paths for an adversary, regional or extra-regional, to achieve a situation that would harm these core U.S. interests. No country can plausibly establish hegemony in the Middle East, nor can a regional power close the Strait of Hormuz and strangle the flow of oil. To the extent that the United States might need to intervene militarily, it would not need a permanent military presence in the region to do so.

While a full military withdrawal from the region is possible on military grounds, political and other factors render it infeasible in the short run. However, it should be the medium to long-term objective of the United States to align its military presence with its strategic interests in the Middle East by beginning a responsible and timely drawdown of U.S. forces in the region.