World roundup: October 7 2021
Stories from Afghanistan, Germany, Peru, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
October 6, 1973: The Yom Kippur War begins
October 6, 1981: Members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad assassinate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat during the annual “Military Day” parade celebrating the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. EIJ targeted Sadat over his diplomatic outreach to Israel after the war, culminating with the 1978 Camp David Accords.
October 7, 1571: The Battle of Lepanto
October 7, 2001: The US begins its invasion of Afghanistan. Say, I wonder how that turned out.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The International Monetary Fund will issue its newest World Economic Outlook report next week, but an early preview reveals that the IMF is predicting that global inflation will peak by the end of the year and return “to pre-pandemic levels by mid-2022.” The report blames supply chain difficulties posed by an economy that’s expanded rapidly in emerging from the pandemic for much of the inflation spike.
The Institute for Economics and Peace has issued its Ecological Threat Report 2021, which paints a bleak picture about the future relationship between environmental collapse and violence. If the loss of resources causes conflict and conflict in turn depletes resources, as seems pretty clear, then the Earth is reaching, or in some places has already reached, a point where climate change may have triggered an unending cycle of resource depletion and war. Worse, many of the countries at the greatest risk of ecological crisis are already wracked by conflict—Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen to name just three. It’s a very cheery read.
The president of the Syrian Democratic Council’s executive committee, Ilham Ahmed, visited Washington this week and told Reuters that the US officials with whom he’d spoken “promised to do whatever it takes to destroy Islamic State and work to build infrastructure in North Eastern Syria.” I guess that means we’re sticking around for a while. The SDC, which is the political arm of the US-aligned and Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces militia, is relying on the US presence to give it leverage in any future negotiations with the Syrian government over the postwar governance of northeastern Syria. It nearly got burned when Donald Trump abruptly announced the US was withdrawing from Syria altogether back in 2019, but salvaged some degree of leverage when the Pentagon convinced Trump to make it only a partial withdrawal.
In one of the real lowlights in the history of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the body voted on Thursday to end its probe into potential Yemeni war crimes. Apparently Saudi Arabia lobbied council members to vote against extending the investigation’s mandate. No conflicts of interest there! The United States currently only has observer status on the council so did not have to cast what I imagine would have been a somewhat awkward vote either way.
Iranian state TV is reporting that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps speedboats “intercepted” US naval vessels in the Persian Gulf. The report does not appear to have gone into any detail as to exactly where or when this alleged incident took place but it did include video of what looks like a US-flagged ship. The Pentagon is saying it has no knowledge of a recent encounter with Iranian speedboats in the region.
In today’s Afghan news:
The Russian government says it intends to host a meeting between the Taliban and “other Afghan factions” (that’s how The Associated Press put it) on October 20. This would be a continuation of the series of peace talks Moscow hosted between the Taliban and the former Afghan government. Of course, the Taliban is the Afghan government now, and there’s no indication at this point which “factions” the Russians intend to invite to the table. This could be the first signs of a regional effort to stabilize Afghanistan in the wake of the US withdrawal, but to be successful such an effort would need to include China, India, Iran, and Pakistan at a minimum.
Western governments appear to be working on ideas for bringing humanitarian aid into Afghanistan while bypassing the Taliban. One idea reportedly getting traction is “cash airlifts,” which would see foreign currency (US dollars, presumably) delivered directly to Afghan banks for withdrawal by Afghan citizens and to support salaries for foreign aid workers. The UN World Food Program has been doing something like this on a relatively small scale as kind of a trial run, but such a plan would at the very least require the Taliban’s assent, even if it could logistically bypass the Taliban-run government and central bank.
The AP reports on the Taliban’s early efforts to tamp down on Afghanistan’s drug trade. The Taliban’s relationship with drug trafficking is a land of contrasts, as they say. There is unquestionably an ideological prohibition strain within the Taliban but the organization has also shown flexibility in tolerating the drug trade for revenue purposes. And it’s an open question whether it can actually suppress opium production if it does commit to doing so—there is evidence that the group’s well-documented 1999-2000 campaign to stamp out the drug trade was starting to fray even before the US invaded in 2001.
John Sopko, the US Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, told a US House subcommittee on Wednesday that his office is investigating claims that ex-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took tens of millions of dollars with him when he fled the country back in August. Afghanistan’s former ambassador to Tajikistan accused Ghani, last seen in exile in Dubai, of looting the treasury to the tune of $169 million on his way out of Kabul, a charge Ghani has denied. Sopko is apparently investigating other claims of looting as well, though the chances that any of the people accused of doing so (including Ghani) will ever face legal jeopardy are pretty slim.
Gunmen killed two teachers, one Hindu and the other Sikh, at a public boys’ secondary school in Srinagar on Thursday. There were no students in the school at the time of the shooting. These are the sixth and seventh people killed in isolated shootings across Kashmir in the past six days. A previously unknown Kashmiri militant group calling itself “the Resistance Front” claimed responsibility for three such attacks on Tuesday. It’s unclear who this group is or whether it’s specifically targeting non-Muslims.
Philippine Vice President Leni Robredo made her presidential plans official on Thursday, registering to run in next year’s election to succeed incumbent Rodrigo Duterte. Robredo has been one of Duterte’s harshest critics, highlighting the sort of thing that can happen when a country elects its presidents and vice presidents separately rather than on one joint ticket. Despite her prominence as VP, Robredo consistently polls in the middle of the pack in surveys of next year’s field, though as someone who has lambasted Duterte’s response to COVID she could appeal to voters who agree that said response has left something to be desired.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that US special forces and Marines “have been secretly operating in Taiwan to train military forces there” and have been doing so “for at least a year.” Reuters, citing “two sources familiar with the matter,” subsequently confirmed the training story and that the program “predated the Biden administration.” I have to say it’s unclear to me why this story is being presented as a major scoop with anonymous sources and the like. The WSJ piece acknowledges that Asian media reported on a deployment of Marines to Taiwan last year, and if you click on this link you’ll find a journal called The Year in Special Operations (no, seriously) talking very matter of factly about US special forces conducting training programs in Taiwan among other places. Hat tip to Friend of FX Kelsey Atherton for finding that reference. Be sure to check out his newsletter.
On a happy note, the Central Intelligence Agency says it’s created a new “China Mission Center” to focus on the Threat from, you know, China. The New Cold War is coming along nicely.
Nigerian security forces on Thursday reportedly rescued 187 people who had been kidnapped in bandit attacks in Zamfara state. It’s important to note that authorities are characterizing this as a “rescue” but details appear to be spotty and I don’t think you can rule out the possibility that these people were ransomed. For obvious reasons officials would prefer not to acknowledge it if they were.
The Russian government has unsurprisingly not responded positively to NATO’s decision to expel eight members of its Brussels diplomatic mission and to reduce the maximum size of the Russian mission to ten people. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Thursday that the expulsions meant that the “prospects” for normalizing relations between Russia and the NATO alliance were “almost completely undermined.”
The Ukrainian parliament on Thursday ousted its speaker, Dmytro Razumkov. He’d fallen out with President Volodymyr Zelensky, who apparently still retains enough parliamentary authority to oust a disagreeable speaker. Razumkov is now suggesting he could run for president, but Ukraine’s next presidential election is still about two and a half years away. Polling indicates that Zelensky, while not exactly popular in objective terms, is substantially more popular than any of his main potential rivals.
Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal ruled on Thursday that European Union laws and regulations must comport with the Polish constitution in order to be effective in Poland, setting up a serious challenge to the primacy of EU law. The Polish government has had multiple disputes with the EU over a variety of issues, and while Thursday’s ruling dealt specifically with whether the EU could object to a reorganization of the Polish judiciary its implications are considerably broader. The decision gives the Tribunal the right to veto EU law and the rulings of the European Court of Justice if it deems them incompatible with Polish law. That’s unlikely to sit well with Brussels, though it’s not clear whether or how EU officials plan to respond.
The current Austrian government’s future is looking somewhat bleak today due to corruption charges swirling around Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Authorities are investigating claims that the Austrian Finance Ministry, which has been controlled by Kurz’s People’s Party almost continuously since 2007, used public funds to purchase a series of rigged polls that were favorable to Kurz as far back as 2016, which he began vying to take over the party and then to become chancellor. Kurz was already under investigation on perjury charges in an unrelated case. He of course denies any wrongdoing. Werner Kogler, vice-chancellor and leader of the Austrian Green Party (the junior partner in Kurz’s two-party coalition), said Thursday that he’s begun talking with opposition parties about the situation, which raises a host of scenarios.
If the Greens were to support a no-confidence vote against Kurz he would almost certainly be removed from the chancellorship. At that point he could try to form a new coalition with another party. Kurz’s party was in coalition with the far right Freedom Party from 2017 through 2019. That coalition fell apart due to corruption in the Freedom Party (FPÖ) but Kurz could go back to it if the Greens quit the government. The People’s Party could put forward a different chancellor candidate and try to maintain its coalition with the Greens, but that seems unlikely as Kurz by all indications still has strong support within the party. A coalition without the People’s Party seems unlikely given that it would require the involvement or support of every other Austrian party, from the leftist Greens to the borderline fascist FPÖ. Austria could wind up holding a snap election, though the parties don’t seem terribly thrilled by that possibility.
Germany’s post-election situation may be clearing up a little quicker than expected, as both the Green Party and the Free Democratic Party announced on Wednesday that they’re in agreement on opening coalition talks with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) on forming a three-way coalition. The SPD won last month’s election by a fairly narrow margin over the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance, narrow enough that there was/is a path for either the SPD or the CDU/CSU to form a majority coalition alongside the Greens and FDP. But the two smaller parties have decided not to pursue parallel talks with the CDU/CSU, which gives the SPD and its chancellor candidate, Olaf Scholz, an early leg up in the process. The three party talks likely have a ways to go before everyone is in agreement, but barring a complete breakdown in negotiations Germany’s next government seems to be taking shape.
The Irish government has reportedly come on board the effort to establish a 15 percent global minimum corporate tax, ahead of an announcement regarding that effort from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development scheduled for Friday. Ireland will agree to raise its current 12.5 percent corporate tax to the new minimum, in return for which it’s apparently gotten some agreement from other European governments that they won’t push to increase the minimum rate again anytime soon. Ireland has used favorable corporate tax schemes to make itself a home for multinational corporations looking to establish a European headquarters, though Dublin phased out some of the really egregious “tax haven” elements of its tax code a few years ago due to pressure from other European Union member states.
When we last checked in on Peru yesterday, President Pedro Castillo had fired (“accepted the resignation of”) his prime minister, Guido Bellido. Castillo named a new PM Wednesday evening but I still hadn’t seen any reporting on it by the time I needed to hit the old “Publish” button. So for those of you who were left hanging, I apologize, but we now know that Castillo named an environmental and human rights activist named Mirtha Vásquez as Bellido’s replacement. She’s considered more moderate politically than Bellido, a member of the Marxist Free Peru party, so she may be more palatable to the right-leaning congressional majority than Bellido was. Her background could also be an asset as she tries to manage multiple disputes between indigenous Peruvian communities and the country’s various mine operators.
Finally, there is some speculation out there that this week’s “Pandora Papers” leak was the product of a CIA or at least US intelligence operation. Mostly this has to do with the absence of prominent Americans in the leaked documents and the abundance of references to people involved in governments Washington considers hostile (Russia, for example). US security agencies also have a history of employing selective hacking/leaking to their advantage, and we haven’t seen any outraged calls from Washington to find and punish the leakers.
It’s entirely possible the CIA or some other US agency was involved here but I’m unconvinced. While the lack of American names in the documents and the absence of DC outrage over the leak are both peculiar, they’re not strong evidence of US involvement. Meanwhile, leaking millions of documents that shine a light on many of the most unappealing qualities of our global capitalist system doesn’t strike me as something the US intelligence community would be inclined to do. Again I’m not saying it’s impossible, just that I don’t see it yet.
Regardless, though, I find myself in agreement with Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic when he writes that, even if the CIA was responsible for the leak, it doesn’t really matter to the substance or importance of the leak itself:
What’s striking, besides the rampant tax-dodging and financial corruption the leak has exposed among the world elite, is that there are no public vows from Washington to uncover the identity of the whistleblowers, no cries of “disinformation” or calls to be careful about playing into someone else’s nefarious game — not even any speculation about what the motives behind the leak are.
To be clear, this is entirely the correct attitude. With any leak, let alone one of this significance, there are really only two questions that need asking before you publish: Is it newsworthy, and is it true? The Pandora Papers easily clear both of these bars.
As Branko writes, this should be the way our political and media elites respond to all such leaks, not just this one. Unfortunately, as a perusal of the US government’s record when it comes to whistleblowers makes clear, the impetus usually is to focus on the messenger rather than the message.