World roundup: October 11-12 2021

Stories from Iraq, Afghanistan, Romania, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

October 11, 1899: The Second Boer War begins. Though the Boer states had some initial success, the war ended in May 1902 with an overwhelming British victory and the collapse of both the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. Among the war’s many atrocities was the popularization of the concentration camp, which Britain used to house huge numbers of Boer civilians, many of whom died due to the brutally inhumane treatment to which they were subjected.

In British painter John Henry Frederick Bacon’s 1900 work The Relief of Ladysmith, the British garrison at Ladysmith welcomes the army that broke the Boers’ four month siege of the city in February 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

October 12, 1492: Christopher Columbus’s first expedition makes landfall in the Bahamas. Check out my Columbus and the Islamic World essay for a take on how Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas affected much of Eurasia.

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

A car bombing in the city of Afrin killed at least four people on Monday. There’s been no claim of responsibility but Turkey invariably blames the Kurdish YPG militia for attacks in the Afrin area, and that’s a reasonable guess in this case.

Monday’s bombing came a day after a rocket attack near the northwest Syrian town of Azaz killed two Turkish police officers, while at least one rocket from a second attack near Jarabulus apparently crossed the border and exploded inside Turkey (I don’t believe it caused any casualties). Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan blamed the YPG for those incidents on Monday and characterized them as “the final straw.” It’s unclear what Erdoğan meant but another Turkish military offensive in northern Syria would not be out of the question.

YEMEN

The Saudi-led military coalition in Yemen claimed on Monday that its airstrikes had killed at least 156 Houthi fighters south of Maʾrib city over the previous 24 hours. The coalition reported carrying out out 33 airstrikes on Maʾrib province’s Abdiyah district, so that casualty count is probably reasonable. There’s no word on any potential civilian casualties.

IRAQ

The official results of Sunday’s Iraqi parliamentary election aren’t available yet but the consensus seems to be that Muqtada al-Sadr has emerged as the big winner. His movement’s party list appears to have won at least 73 seats in Iraq’s 329 seat Council of Representatives, a substantial increase over the 54 seats it won in Iraq’s 2018 election. This makes Sadr the unquestioned kingmaker heading into what will probably be (it always is) a lengthy coalition negotiating process, especially after the militia-aligned Fatah Party dropped to a mere 14 seats from the 48 it won last time. Fatah leaders are already doing a “stop the steal” bit in response to their defeat. Their setback could also be viewed as a setback for Iran, as Fatah was the most reliably pro-Iranian party in Baghdad. Sadr is not unfriendly toward Iran, but his Iraqi nationalism is not all that attentive to Iranian input.

Musings on Iraq’s Joel Wing suggests that two new-ish parties, New Generation and Imtidad, may form Iraq’s first post-invasion opposition bloc. As he says, Iraqi governments have in the past included every party at some level, mostly to facilitate corruption. If these parties refuse to join the new government it will mark a milestone in Iraqi politics. This election has already involved at least one milestone—lowest turnout in an Iraqi election since the US invasion (41 percent)—so why not another?

Meanwhile, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi—who’s hoping for a second term as PM and given his generally cordial relationship with Sadr is probably in good shape to get one—announced Monday that Iraqi security forces have arrested an Islamic State leader named Sami Jasim in an intelligence operation conducted on foreign soil (either in Syria or just over the border in Turkey). He’s believed to be in charge of IS’s financial arm, so if he has indeed been captured that’s no small thing. Reuters is reporting that Turkish intelligence was also involved in Jasim’s capture and may have effected the actual capture after the Iraqis tracked him down.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Biden administration has said it intends to reopen a consulate in eastern Jerusalem to handle Palestinian consular service, similar to the one it operated until the Trump administration merged it with the US embassy in 2018. On Tuesday, Israeli Justice Minister Gideon Saar insisted that there is “no way” the Israeli government will permit the US to open such a consulate. Obviously Saar is neither Israel’s foreign minister nor its prime minister, so he’s not really in charge of managing the country’s diplomatic relations. But he does wield a potential veto over anything the tenuous Israeli ruling coalition does, given that he and his New Hope party could collapse the government were they to withdraw from it.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

While Taliban delegates met with US and European Union representatives in Doha on Tuesday, the G20 held an emergency summit to discuss Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis. The EU pledged to pony up a cool €1 billion in aid, though it’s still not clear how the international community intends to distribute humanitarian aid in Afghanistan without interacting with the Taliban on some level. Qatari diplomat Mutlaq bin Majed al-Qahtani, who has been the emirate’s point person in terms of interacting with the Taliban, called Tuesday for “more collaboration and more cooperation and more assistance from other countries” to improve conditions in Afghanistan and to avoid internationally isolating the Taliban, which he contends could push it toward more extremist politics.

Speaking of extremism, despite an effective ban on girls attending secondary schools in much of Afghanistan, the Taliban is permitting girls secondary education in four northern provinces: Balkh, Kunduz, Jowzjan, and Sar-e Pol. It’s unclear why these four provinces have been allowed to continue educating girls (the Taliban to my knowledge hasn’t explained its decision) and so it’s impossible to know whether they represent the start of a nationwide reopening or are just being given special exemptions. Regionally these northern provinces are primarily populated by non-Pashtun peoples who historically aren’t big Taliban fans, so the predominantly Pashtun Taliban may feel compelled to treat these groups with kid gloves to some extent when it comes to cultural issues.

PAKISTAN

Pakistani journalist Shahid Zehri was killed by a roadside bomb in Baluchistan province late Sunday. The Baluchistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the bombing. It appears that Zehri was targeted specifically though that’s not entirely certain.

INDIA

Indian security forces killed at least five separatist militants on Tuesday during two operations in southern Kashmir’s Shopian district. Those operations came a day after five Indian soldiers were killed in an engagement with militants near the Line of Control separating Indian and Pakistani Kashmir. Indian forces also killed two more alleged militants in separate incidents on Monday.

In the neighboring region of Ladakh, meanwhile, Indian and Chinese negotiations over their poorly defined mutual border (the Line of Actual Control) have reportedly collapsed. That apparently means that both countries will keep large militarized border guard units deployed for the duration of the Himalayan winter. Aside from making for a very uncomfortable few months for the border guards, the failure of these talks leaves open the possibility of more border violence, like the brawl last June that left dozens of guards on both sides dead and spiked fears of a bigger conflict.

CHINA

Responding to energy shortages and rolling blackouts, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has reportedly told the National Energy Commission that Beijing intends to build new coal-fired power plants and may need to delay its peak carbon emissions and carbon neutrality deadlines past their already inadequate dates of 2030 and 2060, respectively. Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged in his United Nations address last month to put an end to the financing of new coal plants overseas, but obviously the positive impact of that step is going to be mitigated by new domestic coal plants. China could phase out dirtier older plants as it brings new ones online, but any emissions improvements are going to be marginal at best. With India also dealing with blackouts and potentially ramping up its own domestic coal production…well, let’s just say there should be lots of interesting discussions at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow later this month.

AFRICA

TUNISIA

Tunisian President Kais Saied unveiled a new cabinet on Monday to replace the one he sacked en masse when he seized unilateral “emergency” power back in July. The new gang, nominally led by new Prime Minister Najla Bouden, retains the interim finance and foreign ministers Saied had already appointed. The cabinet may help alleviate some international (and increasingly, it appears, domestic) concerns that Saied intends to rule by decree indefinitely, but absent a firm roadmap back to regular constitutional order those concerns are not going away.

BURKINA FASO

Two Burkinabé soldiers were killed Monday by a roadside bomb in southwestern Burkina Faso’s Cascades region. There’s been no claim of responsibility. This is the second such incident in the Cascades region, which lies some distance away from the northern and eastern parts of the country where jihadist violence has been the most intense, this month.

NIGERIA

Unknown gunmen, characterized as “bandits” as usual, attacked a Catholic seminary in northern Nigeria’s Kaduna state late Monday, abducting three students and wounding six others.

ETHIOPIA

According to the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, the Ethiopian military undertook a new ground offensive against TPLF-controlled parts of Ethiopia’s Amhara region on Monday. The TPLF’s claim is unconfirmed, but it comports with comments made by the Amhara regional government’s spokesperson last week and Ethiopian authorities aren’t denying it. The intensity of the new operation is unclear at this point.

KENYA

The UN’s International Court of Justice issued its anticipated ruling on the maritime dispute between Somalia and Kenya on Tuesday, and as expected it sided mostly with Somalia. The two countries have been disputing the direction of their maritime border, which Kenya argues should extend latitudinally from the point where their land border meets the ocean while Somalia contends it should continue on in the same direction as the land border. The disputed area is believed to contain offshore energy deposits. The ICJ’s ruling gave most of that territory to Somalia though it did give a bit to Kenya. Unsurprisingly, the Kenyan government has already rejected the decision. I say “unsurprisingly” because the Kenyan government in fact pre-rejected the decision last week, declaring that it didn’t recognize the ICJ’s authority to rule in this matter. Also unsurprisingly the ICJ disagrees with that interpretation and says that Kenya can’t withdraw from a pending case.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland headed to Moscow on Tuesday for talks on ending the cycle of punitive tit-for-tat actions the United States and Russian governments keep taking against each others diplomatic personnel. As far as I can tell those talks produced nothing of substance. The two sides did apparently agree to hold lower-level followup talks, so I guess that’s something. The main issue at present is a US demand for parity in the size of the two countries’ respective diplomatic missions. At present the Russian government has restricted the US to 100 personnel in Russia, compared with 400 Russian personnel in the US. There’s been some movement in the US Congress to order the expulsion of 300 Russian personnel in order to get to parity, but Russian officials have suggested that they would order all US diplomatic personnel out of the country in that case.

UKRAINE

The European Union on Monday levied sanctions against eight law enforcement officials in Russian-annexed Crimea. They’ve apparently taken legal action against “opponents” of the annexation. Details on the sanctions are unavailable but presumably they involve travel bans and asset freezes as is typical in such cases.

ROMANIA

Romanian President Klaus Iohannis on Monday designated Save Romania Union (USR) party leader Dacian Cioloș as prime minister. He’ll get first crack at replacing Florin Cîțu, whose government was undone by a parliamentary no confidence vote earlier this month after USR quit the ruling coalition. Cioloș seems confident that he can assemble a coalition. Romania has never held a snap election, so there’s ample precedent for its parties figuring out a way to cobble together a government even in periods of political turmoil.

BULGARIA

New polling from the Bulgarian firm Alpha Research indicates that Bulgaria’s GERB party is out in front as the country approaches another snap election—its third election this year—next month, but there are also signs that this vote could be as indecisive as the last two. The party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov has 23.1 percent support, well ahead of the Bulgarian Socialist Party at 16.8 percent but a bit below the 23.5 percent GERB took in July’s inconclusive election. The winner of that vote, the “There Is Such a People” party, has seen its support plummet from 24.1 percent in the election to 10.4 percent in the new survey. The party’s failure to form a coalition after the July election has clearly had an impact on its popularity. With such a divided electorate a multi-party coalition will be required, and as this year’s previous two elections showed Bulgaria’s parties are not terribly inclined to cooperate with one another.

AMERICAS

CHILE

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has declared a state of emergency in Chile’s Biobío and Araucanía regions in the wake of several incidents of violence involving Chilean security forces and members of the indigenous Mapuche community. One such clash in Santiago left one person dead and 17 injured on Sunday. Some members of the Mapuche have engaged in acts of violence targeting private property over their unfulfilled demands for the return of indigenous lands. Piñera’s decision to respond with a state of emergency and an influx of additional security forces is likely to inflame rather than deescalate the situation.

UNITED STATES

Finally, at his Nonzero Newsletter, Robert Wright takes what I think is a very commendable stab at defining what constitutes “the Blob”:

The term “Blob” has arrived. Within the past two months this recent addition to our foreign policy vocabulary has appeared in the New York Times, America’s newspaper of record, not one, not two, not three, but four times. In the first of those cases, I’m happy to say, I was the one uttering it. In the last of those cases, I’m also happy to say, it appeared in the headline; and, better yet, it appeared in the phrase “Beware the Blob”—which is something that those of us who embrace the term would definitely advise.

But what do we mean by the term? This has become a subject of contention. Some people we consider part of the Blob—such as Thomas Wright, quoted, above, in the last of those Times pieces—say it has no coherent meaning. Which is understandable: We’re using it as a pejorative, so the less sense it seems to make, the better for the people we’re applying it to. 

But the truth is that “the Blob” is a useful term with a coherent meaning. At least, it’s as useful as many other common foreign policy labels, such as “liberal internationalists” and “neoconservatives.” Both of these labels encompass people who don’t agree on everything. In fact, it’s hard to find any belief that all people in either of those two categories share that isn’t shared by a fair number of people in the other category. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, this kind of fuzziness is characteristic of the labels we use to organize reality. There’s no distinctive property, he noted by way of example, that is shared by all the things we call “games.”

Yet we have a working understanding of what we mean by “games.” I think we can achieve the same for “Blob.”

And I think we must! I’m not kidding when I say I believe the Blob is a grave threat to America’s and the world’s future. (Which isn’t to say that blobsters are bad people; like most human beings, they mean well.) To come up with a working definition of “the Blob” is to sketch a vision of what American foreign policy shouldn’t be—and, by implication, to come up with at least some rough outlines of what it should be.