World roundup: November 17 2020

Stories from Yemen, Afghanistan, Poland, 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:


November 16, 1532: Spanish forces under Francisco Pizarro ambush and capture the Incan emperor Atahualpa at the Battle of Cajamarca. Atahualpa’s captivity and eventual execution (the following August) were the first steps in the Spaniards’ conquest of the Incan Empire.

November 17, 1869: The Suez Canal officially opens in a joint French-Egyptian ceremony. Although it quickly came under financial pressure due to the costs of construction and some technical flaws that required improvements, the canal made an immediate impact on international commerce, both for better and worse (it helped cause the Panic of 1873 because of its detrimental effect on British maritime trade). The Egyptian monarchy’s heavy debt obliged it to sell its shares in the canal to the British government, which provided an opening for Britain to establish control not only over the canal, but ultimately over all of Egypt.


Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for November 17:

  • 55,934,708 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (15,637,200 active, +546,662 since yesterday)

  • 1,342,942 reported fatalities (+10,502 since yesterday)



  • 2081 confirmed coronavirus cases (+3)

  • 607 reported fatalities (+2)

The AP, citing unnamed Yemeni “security officials,” is reporting that new fighting between pro-government and southern separatist forces in Yemen’s Abyan province has killed at least 47 people over the past week, all of them fighters. The Yemeni government and the separatists have managed to keep their hostility more or less on ice for the past several months, though the last serious effort to resolve their dispute—a power-sharing agreement brokered last fall by Saudi Arabia—fell apart earlier this year. It’s unclear why things have flared back up.

Meanwhile, according to Reuters the Saudi government—perhaps anticipating a less supportive environment in Washington once Joe Biden assumes office—has (via back channel negotiations) offered the Houthis a national ceasefire and an easing of its blockade in return for “security assurances,” such as the establishment of a buffer zone along the Yemeni-Saudi border. Assuming this is true there would still be a lot of details to work out, and the Trump administration could complicate things if it goes ahead with its apparent plan to designate the Houthis as a terrorist organization. Though the Saudis might be able to talk the administration out of taking that step if they think there’s a favorable deal to be made.


  • 524,503 confirmed cases (+2961)

  • 11,752 reported fatalities (+40)

Somebody fired four rockets into Baghdad’s secure Green Zone on Tuesday in an apparent attack on the US embassy. Two Iraqis were reportedly wounded by one of the rockets. To my knowledge this was the first incident like this since the Iraqi Popular Mobilization militias announced last month that they were suspending attacks against US interests in order to give the US time to withdraw its forces from the country. Perhaps the militias had gotten wind of Donald Trump’s plan—made semi-official by acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller on Tuesday—to withdraw only 500 of the around 3000 US soldiers currently in Iraq, and they were trying to convince him to pull the other 2500 out as well.


  • 325,537 confirmed cases (+782) in Israel, 64,935 confirmed cases (+1068) in Palestine

  • 2736 reported fatalities (+1) in Israel, 580 reported fatalities (+8) in Palestine

The Palestinian Authority announced on Tuesday that it’s restoring financial and security cooperation with Israel, after having cut those ties back in May due to what at the time seemed like the impending Israeli annexation of the West Bank (or most of it, anyway). The annexation plan has now been halted—at least temporarily—under the terms of Israel’s normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates. It’s also likely that the election of Joe Biden, who is no friend of the Palestinians but who seems to get along with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and who promises to be a little less indulgent of right-wing Israeli excesses than Trump has been, probably also factored into the PA’s decision.

Then-US Vice President Joe Biden being chummy with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and then US President Barack Obama in 2009 (White House photo via Wikimedia Commons)



  • 79,158 confirmed cases (+2075)

  • 1005 reported fatalities (+20)

According to the French government, representatives of the co-chairs of the “Minsk Group”—France, Russia, and the US—will be meeting in Moscow on Wednesday to discuss the “ambiguities” in last week’s Nagorno-Karabakh peace deal. Chiefly there appear to be two such “ambiguities,” the role Turkey is playing in peacekeeping operations and the long term status of Karabakh. Neither of those is likely to be resolved simply, but the latter in particular is the crux of the whole issue and has been unresolved since the collapse of the Soviet Union (or, really, since long before that). But there are other outstanding details as well, including the return of refugees (both Armenians displaced by this most recent fighting and Azerbaijanis displaced by the Karabakh war in the 1990s. Another outstanding issue may involve the preservation of Armenian cultural heritage in Karabakh and the areas surrounding it, as France 24 reports:

On the plus side, Armenian and Azerbaijani authorities have begun exchanging their war dead, so the peace deal appears to be progressing according to plan so far.


  • 43,628 confirmed cases (+225)

  • 1638 reported fatalities (+12)

As you know if you clicked on the link above, Miller also announced on Tuesday that he’s ordering the withdrawal of roughly 2000 US soldiers from Afghanistan, reducing the US presence there from 4500 to 2500 personnel. That’s certainly a more substantial redeployment, though it’s far short of the full withdrawal Trump has been promising. Regardless, it’s generated a wave of criticism from multiple directions, including both Republicans and Democrats in Congress (so nice to see some bipartisanship, don’t you agree?) and from NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch has compiled most of the squealing here.


  • 361,082 confirmed cases (+2050)

  • 7193 reported fatalities (+33)

Supporters of the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan political party have ended a three-day demonstration in which they blocked a major highway outside of Islamabad, after the Pakistani government agreed to institute a boycott of French products. At least, that’s what they’re claiming—the Pakistani government hasn’t confirmed that as far as I know. Tehreek-e-Labbaik leaders, whose movement has largely focused on issues related to blasphemy since they founded it back in 2015, organized the protest in response to the display of satirical cartoons about Muhammad in France. The demonstrators had clashed with police at points but none of those clashes appear to have been especially serious.


  • 3878 confirmed cases (+3)

  • 60 reported fatalities (+0)

The same cannot be said for clashes between opposition protesters and police in Bangkok on Tuesday. At least 40 people were reportedly wounded amid a large demonstration in which the protesters reportedly attempted to enter parliamentary offices in the Thai capital, where legislators were debating potential changes to the Thai constitution. At least five of those 40 were “shot” though it’s unclear with what and it may have been rubber bullets. Tuesday’s incident was probably the most violent since anti-government protests began back in July, calling for an end to the country’s military-run government and for constitutional changes that would to some degree subject the Thai monarchy to the rule of law.



  • 602 confirmed cases (+0)

  • 7 reported fatalities (+0)

Papua New Guinea’s parliament appears to be imploding, but at least its leaders are maintaining their composure amid the chaos:

The bitter arm-wrestle for control of Papua New Guinea’s government has descended into chaos with a half-full parliament passing a budget, then deferring parliament for more than five months.

Prime Minister James Marape’s grip on power has been marginally improved by Tuesday’s events, but remains tenuous and the coming weeks are likely to be racked by private and public machinations over who can command a majority on the floor of the house.

Marape has called MPs who moved against him “constitutional rapists” and opposition leader Belden Namah a “political scumbag”.

Classy! The issue is that on Friday, several members of Marape’s government defected to the opposition and tried to suspend parliament until December 1, the earliest date they could introduce a no confidence motion. The parliament speaker then voided the suspension and, with opposition legislators having quit Port Moresby in the interim, the rump parliament passed the budget and then suspended again, this time until mid April. The opposition doesn’t seem to have a legal recourse here since even the rump parliament more than met the legislature’s quorum requirement.



  • 15,047 confirmed cases (+128)

  • 1175 reported fatalities (+0)

Al-Monitor’s Kirill Semenov reports on the Russian military’s newest international expansion:

Russia plans to establish a military base on Sudan’s Red Sea coast to serve as a logistics center for the Russian navy, according to a draft agreement between Moscow and Khartoum signed by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin and released publicly Nov. 11.

The agreement states that Sudan will provide a land plot for the Russian base free of charge for a period of 25 years. It will automatically renew for subsequent 10-year periods. To terminate the deal, one of the parties must notify the other party of its intention at least one year before the expiration of the next period.

While the base’s capacity will be capped at four ships at a time, nuclear-powered ships are permitted to dock, thus significantly increasing the combat capability of the Russian navy in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. The number of military personnel permanently staying at this facility should not exceed 300 people, according to the agreement. Also, Russia will have the right to import and export through the seaports and airfields of Sudan “any weapons, ammunition and equipment” necessary for the operation of the base and “for the performance of tasks by warships.” Sudan, according to the published document outlining the agreement, will not collect import and export duties and taxes.

What is Sudan getting out of this arrangement, you ask? Russian naval and air support, for one thing, as well as Russian-made weapons—though the details of that part of the arrangement still have to be worked out.


  • 103,395 confirmed cases (+339)

  • 1588 reported fatalities (+7)

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said via social media on Tuesday that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front had missed a three-day deadline he’d apparently given them to surrender and that, as a result, the Ethiopian military would undertake a “final and conclusive” assault on the Tigray regional capital of Mekelle by the end of the week. So…no diplomacy, then? What little information has emerged from the Tigray region suggests that the Ethiopian military is ascendant, and the TPLF’s desperate-seeming attempt to widen the war and potentially force an international intervention seems to have fizzled out, as the Eritrean military has not responded to its attack on Asmara over the weekend. The main remaining question is how many people will be killed, wounded, and displaced in this final Ethiopian offensive. Already some 27,000 refugees have fled the Tigray region into Sudan, far more than the Sudanese government is capable of absorbing.


  • 4382 confirmed cases (+81)

  • 108 reported fatalities (+1)

A suicide bomber reportedly killed at least six people in Mogadishu on Tuesday. The attacker was almost certainly from al-Shabab though it doesn’t appear the group has claimed responsibility yet. Speaking of al-Shabab, the Trump administration on Tuesday added two of its senior leaders, Abdullahi Osman Mohamed and Maalim Ayman, to the specially designated global terrorist list, meaning their assets in the US (vast as they undoubtedly are) will be frozen and US citizens will be barred from interacting with them. The blacklisting came amid reports that Trump might also be planning a US military withdrawal from Somalia, to go with those partial withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq we noted above. There are around 700 US soldiers in Somalia now and it’s unclear whether Trump would be planning a full withdrawal or another partial one (the latter seems much more likely).


  • 11,866 confirmed cases (+27)

  • 322 reported fatalities (+1)

At least six people were killed on Tuesday in a suspected Allied Democratic Forces attack on a village in the DRC’s North Kivu province. Additionally, authorities have discovered the bodies of at least 29 people in a nearby forest who are believed to have been among some 1400 prisoners who escaped from Beni prison last month during an ADF attack. They believe the ADF was also responsible for those killings, which likely took place shortly after the prison break.



  • 752,940 confirmed cases (+19,152)

  • 10,848 reported fatalities (+357)

The New Yorker’s Masha Gesson writes that protests in Poland, which started in opposition to a recent constitutional court ruling restricting abortion, are starting to take on a different tone:

The Women’s Strike organizers are thinking well beyond abortion restrictions. They have called together a Consultative Council of experts, following the example of neighboring Belarus, where protests—also leaderless and also led, in their way, by three women—have been going on for three months. Suchanow said that the organizers had conducted a survey of protesters, identified thirteen topics of greatest concern to them, and created working groups of experts for every one, including abortion rights, education, work and the pandemic, health care, climate change, and the separation of church and state; there is also a group called No Pasarán, which focusses on the “defascization of Poland.” The formation of the Consultative Council projects a message of confidence—back in 1988-89, the last time Poland saw protests on this scale, the Communist Party negotiated a power transfer with representatives of the movement.

“Yes, it is revolution,” [activist and Nobel laureate Olga] Tokarczuk said, in response to an e-mail I had sent asking if she, too, would use the word. “In a very painful and dramatic (sometimes also funny) way the old world is melting now and a new one is crystallizing.” Some of that change is evident on the level of language. One of the most popular banners, “Jebać PiS,” means “Fuck Law and Justice”; another, “Liberté, Égalité, Wypierdalajté,” translates as “Liberty, Equality, Get the Fuck Out” (as though pronounced with a French accent). Although Polish speakers can pride themselves on expert and creative use of profanity, putting curse words on political banners is a novelty, jarring for some. (In a tongue-in-cheek nod to expectations of public decency, some protesters carry banners emblazoned with nothing but eight asterisks—five for “Jebać” and three for “PiS.”) “The first time I saw a banner on the screen that read ‘Get the fuck out,’ I was shocked by the word, so clearly painted in red letters in public space,” Tokarczuk wrote. “But I got used to it quickly and decided that this anger couldn’t be expressed any better. That when in society communication between two sides breaks down, when people do not hear and understand each other, when their words come from entirely different idiolects, then only the curse words remain. It is a radical, instantaneous language that will change as things move to the next stage: negotiation, new order making, and new rules.”



  • 939,931 confirmed cases (+1663)

  • 35,317 reported fatalities (+46)

New Peruvian President Francisco Sagasti officially took office on Tuesday, one day after being voted into that job on an acting basis by the Peruvian Congress. The protesters who forced the resignation of his predecessor, Manuel Merino, over the weekend seem like they’re prepared to give Sagasti a chance to ease into the job, though tension over last week’s impeachment of Merino’s predecessor, Martín Vizcarra, remains high, and the minor issues of the pandemic and a looming election in April are also contributing to a fairly wild political environment.

The main thing Sagasti has going for him is that he’s not under suspicion of any corruption—which, in Peru, is a fairly remarkable thing for a high-profile politician. However, there seems to be an expectation that Sagasti will actually try to tackle corruption during his brief administration, and that could prove dangerous. Between the fact that he’s only got about eight months in office ahead of him and that the legislature can impeach him just as easily as it impeached Vizcarra, Sagasti doesn’t really have a lot of room to maneuver on any anti-corruption efforts.


  • 11,695,711 confirmed cases (+157,261)

  • 254,255 reported fatalities (+1615)

Finally, the Quincy Institute’s Andrew Bacevich argues that critics of US withdrawal from Afghanistan, those folks we mentioned earlier, need to answer a very important question:

Granted, the Trump administration’s withdrawal plan is less a plan than an aspiration. The logistical challenges in pulling out the remainder of U.S. forces by year’s end are daunting. But the only alternative offered by critics is to indefinitely hold our troops hostage to the outcome of a “peace agreement” that Washington cannot control. This replaces the unattainable objective of militarily defeating the Taliban with an equally evasive goal of a perfect peace deal in a country with complex ethnic, religious, and tribal cleavages. It is a prescription for remaining in Afghanistan forever.

In a letter published last year, some of the same former diplomats advocated against a date for a U.S. withdrawal, explaining that “[a] fundamental mistake of the Obama administration was the constant repetition of dates for departure.” Ever-changing and dubiously credible withdrawal announcements aside, this assessment ignores the Obama administration’s three-year long surge which saw as many as 100,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan, leaving 1,044 killed in action, 13,622 injured, and 8,693 Afghan civilians killed in the crossfire. A web of forward operating bases and combat outposts created the illusion of coalition control over large swaths of Afghanistan, but as soon the surge ended, the Taliban took back these gains. The obvious question is: When is enough, enough?