World roundup: September 14 2021

Stories from Yemen, Afghanistan, Haiti, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 13, 533: A Byzantine army under Belisarius defeats the Vandals in the Battle of Ad Decimum, near Carthage. This was Belisarius’s first victory in his invasion of North Africa and kicked off his campaign to restore the western Mediterranean to imperial control.

September 13, 1993: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Yasser Arafat sign the Oslo I Accord in Washington, DC. Oslo I established the creation of a Palestinian government as well as provisions for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories and economic cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians. It was supposed to be an interim agreement but, well, you can see how that went.

September 14, 1829: The Treaty of Adrianople ends the Ottoman-Russian War of 1828-1829. The Ottomans ceded control over the eastern shore of the Black Sea and the mouth of the Danube River, re-guaranteed Serbia’s autonomy, allowed Moldavia and Wallachia to become Russian protectorates, and paid a large settlement to the Russians.

September 14, 1960: At a meeting in Baghdad, the governments of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela agree to form the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Everything has gone really well ever since. Also on this date, with CIA help, Congolese Army Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in a bloodless coup in Kinshasa. That worked out really well too.

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

  • Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.

  • The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.

  • A new World Bank report projects as many as 216 million people will be made climate refugees over the next 30 years barring a serious committment to ameliorating both the causes and effects of climate change. Sub-Saharan Africa will be hardest hit in the worst-case scenario, generating some 86 million refugees on its own. North Africa, meanwhile, would see the largest percentage of its total population (about nine percent) displaced.

  • In a rare bit of climate-related good news, a report from three environmental organizations—E3G, Ember, and Global Energy Monitor—finds that some 75 percent of plans to build new coal-fired power plants have been terminated or at least suspended since the Paris climate agreement was unveiled in 2015. Only 31 countries still have plans to build new coal plants, and more than half of those new plants are being built in one country: China. A group of developed nations, including the United States, is reportedly planning to push for a ban on international financing for coal plant projects at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the issue may be heavily debated at the United Nations’ COP26 climate summit in Glasgow later this year.

  • The US and European Union are also reportedly working on a global commitment to reduce methane emissions by one-third over the next decade. Methane is a very potent greenhouse gas, but major oil and gas producers may balk at such a steep cutback.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Bashar al-Assad got out of Damascus on Monday for a trip to Moscow and some face time with his most important international fan, Vladimir Putin. Amid complaining about the presence of US forces in northeastern Syria, Syrian media says the two discussed options for bringing rebel-held northwestern Syria back under Assad’s control. Russian and Syrian forces have been occasionally bombarding parts of that region in recent weeks but as far as I know there’s no indication that a new offensive is in the works.

YEMEN

The Houthis appear to have regained control of southern Maʾrib province’s Rahabah district last week and are once again threatening Maʾrib city itself. Rahabah had been under Houthi control for several months until the Yemeni government seized it in July. There have been reports of heavy casualties in Maʾrib over the past several days, which would correspond with a development like this. Most of the casualties have been Houthi fighters killed in pro-government airstrikes, but the government’s ground forces are less organized than the Houthis and while they’ve been able to take territory, they’ve had a difficult time holding on to it. Hence the rebels’ keep advancing overall despite the disparity in air power.

EGYPT

The Biden administration will reportedly withhold $130 million of the $1.3 billion in military aid the US sends to Egypt every year over Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s terrible human rights record. That may not seem like very much, but…OK, it’s not very much. In point of fact, the administration only has the discretion to withhold up to $300 million of this aid, while the other $1 billion can’t legally be touched. Still, given the state of human rights under the current Egyptian government, it’s more than reasonable to ask why Joe “Putting Human Rights at the Center of US Foreign Policy” Biden isn’t withholding the maximum amount.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

A federal court case is shedding a little light on a relatively new category of mercenary—the cyber variety:

Three former American intelligence officers hired by the United Arab Emirates to carry out sophisticated cyberoperations admitted to hacking crimes and to violating U.S. export laws that restrict the transfer of military technology to foreign governments, according to court documents made public on Tuesday.

The documents detail a conspiracy by the three men to furnish the Emirates with advanced technology and to assist Emirati intelligence operatives in breaches aimed at damaging the perceived enemies of the small but powerful Persian Gulf nation.

The men helped the Emirates, a close American ally, gain unauthorized access to “acquire data from computers, electronic devices and servers around the world, including on computers and servers in the United States,” prosecutors said.

The three men worked for DarkMatter, a company that is effectively an arm of the Emirati government. They are part of a trend of former American intelligence officers accepting lucrative jobs from foreign governments hoping to bolster their abilities to mount cyberoperations.

The confessions were made as part of an agreement under which the Justice Department agreed to defer prosecution. If the three men comply with its terms for the next three years, terms that apparently include the payment of fines in the “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” the DOJ will drop their cases.

IRAN

As had been rumored, Iranian diplomat Ali Bagheri Kani has been named deputy foreign minister for political affairs, replacing Abbas Araghchi. It remains unclear whether he’ll also replace Araghchi as Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. Bagheri is a known opponent of the 2015 nuclear deal, but whether that will impact talks on reviving that agreement depends on what role he has in those talks and what sort of direction he receives from his superiors.

Speaking of the nuclear issue, the International Atomic Energy Agency on Tuesday seemed to confirm (without getting into specifics) a report in The Wall Street Journal alleging that Iranian authorities have harassed female IAEA inspectors by subjecting them to excessively intrusive searches. In a statement, the IAEA referred to “some incidents related to security checks of Agency inspectors at one Iranian facility. That facility is the Natanz uranium enrichment plant. Natanz was attacked in an act of sabotage, probably carried out by Israeli intelligence, back in April, so it’s not surprising that the Iranians have adopted tighter security measures there. But it also wouldn’t be terribly surprising if some of those measures crossed a line—Iran and the IAEA also have a history of clashing over the treatment of female IAEA personnel.

ASIA

AZERBAIJAN

Azerbaijani authorities have apparently ended their general blockade of the main highway running through southern Armenia, but they’ve reportedly replaced it with customs checkpoints that are levying substantial tolls on Iranian commercial vehicles traversing the road. Portions of the highway run through territory captured by Azerbaijan during last fall’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, leaving them subject to this kind of intervention. The Azerbaijani government has long complained about Iranian traffic into Armenian-controlled Karabakh, and these tolls may be enough to discourage many Iranian drivers from making the trip.

AFGHANISTAN

The BBC says it has “established” that Taliban fighters killed at least 20 civilians during their recent operation against the forces of the “National Resistance Front of Afghanistan” in Panjshir province. Video that apparently shows one of the killings suggests the Taliban carried out an extrajudicial execution on a man for allegedly selling SIM cards to the resistance. There have been reports of a mass displacement from Panjshir as a result of the offensive but it sounds like those are unconfirmed.

Speaking of things that are unconfirmed, it seems the Taliban can’t shake rumors of some kind of recent factional dust up between members of the Haqqani network and other Taliban leaders. Claims persist that deputy Afghan prime minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was killed in that alleged incident, even though the Taliban released an audio recording purportedly from Baradar on Monday. Indeed, the fact that they only released an audio recording may actually have fueled more speculation. A public appearance by Baradar would presumably put the matter to rest, but he hasn’t actually been seen for several days. If he’s not dead it’s also possible he’s left Kabul either in a huff or for his own protection. Or maybe all of this is idle gossip.

Some of the wildest rumors even suggest that Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is no longer among the living. He hasn’t ever been seen in public, and while hiding made sense during the war it’s a little odd that he hasn’t made at least one appearance since the Taliban took power. That said, as the “supreme leader” of the new Taliban government it wouldn’t be entirely out of bounds for Akhundzada to limit his public appearances. Taliban officials did spend two years (2013-2015) pretending that the group’s founder, Mullah Omar, was alive when he was in fact dead, so they have a history of concealing that sort of thing. If Akhundzada is dead it’s likely he died of natural causes (i.e., not as part of the hypothesized internal struggle) and possibly some time ago.

MALAYSIA

New Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob has cut a deal with opposition leaders to, according to Reuters, work together in “six areas including strengthening a COVID-19 plan, transformation in governance, parliamentary reforms, and freedom of the judiciary.” Details are spotty, but the immediate upshot is that Yaakob’s coalition should have no trouble winning a confidence vote in parliament. That vote hasn’t been scheduled yet but it’s legally required as a result of Ismail Sabri’s appointment as PM last month.

AFRICA

LIBYA

The Tarek ben Ziyad Brigade, which is affiliated with Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army,” reportedly attacked elements of the rebel Front for Alternation and Concord in Chad in southern Libya on Tuesday. FACT has confirmed that a battle took place, though it insists the fighting happened on the Chadian side of the border and also involved Sudanese and French forces. I have seen no casualty information.

THE GAMBIA

Gambian President Adama Barrow has caused something of a political upheaval by bringing his National People’s Party into an ad hoc alliance with the Alliance for Patriotic Reorientation and Construction of former president/dictator Yahya Jammeh ahead of December’s election. Under the deal, the APRC will support Barrow, who defeated Jammeh in a tumultuous 2016 election whose results the ex-president initially accepted, then rejected, then accepted again under regional military pressure. Barrow’s 2016 coalition collapsed in 2019 when he reneged on a promise to step down after three years in office, so he can certainly use the APRC’s support. It’s unclear what he’s promised them in return, but there’s a decent chance he’s agreed to allow Jammeh to return from exile without facing criminal charges. That would upend years of effort to investigate the multiple crimes Jammeh allegedly committed while president.

GUINEA

Guinea’s ruling junta began a planned four day summit in Conakry on Tuesday aimed at organizing the country’s transition back to civilian governance. Junta leader Mamady Doumbouya is under growing international pressure to offer at least the outline of a plan, though with opposition leaders and many Guineans seemingly behind the coup, he’s not under much domestic pressure as yet.

NIGERIA

Nigerian security forces say they’ve rounded up 114 of the inmates who escaped during Sunday’s big prison break in Nigeria’s Kogi state. That leaves 152 still at large. There still appears to be no indication who was responsible for the attack on the facility.

DJIBOUTI

Rumors are apparently circulating that Djiboutian President Ismaïl Omar Guelleh had to be flown to France for medical treatment. His foreign minister, Mahamoud Ali Youssouf, took to Twitter on Tuesday to denounce said rumors as “poison spread to disturb our fellow citizens,” while Prime Minister Abdoulkader Kamil Mohamed characterized them as “nauseating.” Amid their protestations, they insisted that Guelleh is just taking a few days off and maybe taking a vacation.

SOMALIA

An al-Shabab suicide bomber killed at least nine people and wounded 11 others in Mogadishu on Tuesday. The bomber targeted a tea shop near a Somali military base. Three of the dead were civilians.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Not long after his meeting with Bashar al-Assad (see above), Vladimir Putin went into self-isolation after an unknown number of people in his “immediate circle” tested positive for COVID. At this point there’s no indication that Putin himself has been infected. Thoughts and prayers, etc.

UKRAINE

The Ukrainian military announced Tuesday that another of its soldiers had been killed by separatists along the frozen front line in eastern Ukraine. That makes four Ukrainian soldiers killed along the line since this weekend.

GERMANY

A new poll from the Allensbach research institute finds the Social Democratic Party’s lead potentially narrowing a bit as Germany’s September 26 federal election approaches. The survey has the SPD holding steady at 25 percent support, but has the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance picking up a bit to 21 percent, from 19 percent in last week’s poll. That result could open a path (admittedly quite narrow) for CDU/CSU to retain control of the Bundestag in coalition with the Green Party and the Free Democratic Party. Probably the main takeaway from the survey is that 40 percent of likely voters remain undecided, meaning pretty much any outcome is still on the table.

AMERICAS

PERU

Peruvian security forces reportedly killed one Shining Path militant in a confrontation in Central Peru’s Junín department on Monday. Though it’s fallen pretty far from its heyday in the 1980s and its brief revival in the 2000s, Shining Path is still a going concern in Peru’s remote Valle de los Ríos Apurímac, Ene y Mantaro (VRAEM) region, allegedly surviving as muscle for hire by cocaine traffickers.

MEXICO

Unknown gunmen attacked a hotel in Mexico’s San Luis Potosí state on Tuesday, abducting 20 people, all of them foreigners. The identities of both the attackers and the abductees are as yet undetermined. Most of the victims are believed to be Venezuelan and Haitian nationals, which raises the possibility that they are/were migrants heading toward the US border, but at this point that’s speculative. Migrants are a frequent target for kidnappers and other Mexican criminal elements.

HAITI

Haiti’s political crisis took a new and I’m guessing very unwelcome turn on Tuesday, as Prime Minister Ariel Henry fired chief prosecutor Bed-Ford Claude. As you may have heard, Claude had requested an interview with Henry to discuss evidence of two phone calls between him and former Haitian official Joseph Felix Badio in the hours following the assassination of former President Jovenal Moïse in July. Badio is now one of the prime suspects in the hunt for a mastermind behind that killing, so the phone calls presumably raised some eyebrows. Earlier on Tuesday, Claude asked a Haitian judge to formally charge Henry in connection with the assassination and to bar the PM from leaving the country. Henry then sacked Claude, leaving his request to the judge in limbo. The judge overseeing the assassination investigation could charge Henry anyway, regardless of Claude’s firing.

It’s difficult to know what to make of these new claims about Henry’s contacts with Badio. It’s possible these latest twists in the case are rooted less in the search for Moïse’s killers than in rivalries between Henry and Moïse loyalists within the government.

UNITED STATES

A new report from Brown University’s Costs of War project and the Center for International Policy illustrates just how lucrative the War on Terror has been for American defense contractors:

The United States government’s reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 led to dramatic increases in Pentagon funding and revenues for weapons contractors. While the costs and consequences of America’s war policies of the twenty-first century have been well-documented, the question of who has profited from this approach has received less attention. Corporations large and small have been, by far, the largest beneficiaries of the post-9/11 surge in military spending. Since the start of the war in Afghanistan, Pentagon spending has totaled over $14 trillion, one-third to one-half of which went to defense contractors. Some of these corporations earned profits that are widely considered legitimate. Other profits were the consequence of questionable or corrupt business practices that amount to waste, fraud, abuse, price-gouging or profiteering.

The Pentagon’s increasing reliance on private contractors in the post-9/11 period raises multiple questions of accountability, transparency, and effectiveness. This is problematic because privatizing key functions can reduce the U.S. military’s control of activities that occur in war zones while increasing risks of waste, fraud and abuse. Additionally, that the waging of war is a source of profits can contradict the goal of having the U.S. lead with diplomacy in seeking to resolve conflicts. More broadly, the outsized influence of defense contractors has resulted in a growing militarization of American society. This is manifested in everything from the Pentagon’s receipt of the lion’s share of the federal discretionary budget—more than half—to the supply of excess military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies.

This report reviews the major sources of corporate profit tied to America’s post-9/11 wars, as well as other factors driving the enormous surge in military spending during the first two decades of this century, including the growth in the global arms trade, the recent focus on construing China as a threat, and large Pentagon budgets.