World roundup: September 2 2021

Stories from Iran, Afghanistan, Bulgaria, 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:


PROGRAMMING NOTE: Foreign Exchanges is taking a brief break for the Labor Day (US) weekend and will return to regular programming on Tuesday, September 7.

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 1, 1880: A decisive British victory at the Battle of Kandahar ends the Second Anglo-Afghan War. British authorities deposed Afghan Emir Ayub Khan and replaced him with his more agreeable cousin, Abdur Rahman Khan.

September 1, 1939: Nazi Germany invades Poland. The German offensive began a week after the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the USSR and a day after its ratification by the Supreme Soviet. The initial German invasion overwhelmed the outgunned Polish military, and a subsequent invasion by the Red Army on September 17 sealed Poland’s fate and resulted in a partition of the country. The invasion is regarded as the start of World War II, as it triggered French and British declarations of war against Germany.

September 1, 1969: The 1969 Libyan Coup

September 2, 31 BCE (or thereabouts): Octavian’s forces decisively defeat the navy of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the naval Battle of Actium. Actium effectively marked the end of the war between Octavian and Antony, as both Antony and Cleopatra subsequently retreated to Alexandria and eventually committed suicide after Octavian besieged the city. His rival gone, Octavian became the first emperor of Rome, taking the title Augustus to mark his new status.

Flemish painter Laureys a Castro’s 1672 The Battle of Actium takes some liberties in the look of the ships, but it does depict the point in the battle when sources say Cleopatra (left) decided to make a run for it (Wikimedia Commons)

September 2, 1192: The Third Crusade Ends

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

According to the Associated Press at least 28 combatants have been killed in the past 24 hours in fighting between Houthi and pro-government forces west of Maʾrib city. According to AFP at least 65 combatants have been killed there over the past 48 hours, in what appears to be another major Houthi push to try to capture the city. AFP’s Yemeni government source says that most of the dead (43 of them to be precise) have been Houthi fighters, which may be self-serving but given the pro-government side’s control of the airspace it’s probably true.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man during a major protest at the Gaza fence line on Thursday night. At least five other Palestinians were wounded by Israeli gunfire. Israeli officials are claiming that the protesters threw explosives at their forces, who responded in self defense.

IRAN

At her Diplomatic newsletter, Laura Rozen says the Biden administration is keen to get on with negotiations on restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal:

A senior American diplomat said today they are still waiting for official Iranian communication about when they would be ready to resume international talks over a possible restoration of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. But while time is a factor, the diplomat said, it is more important that the Iranians come back with a realistic position that is conducive to a mutual return to the deal.

“We are prepared…to find a way forward so that we remove sanctions inconsistent with the JCPOA and they retract nuclear steps that are inconsistent with the JCPOA,” the senior American diplomat, speaking not for attribution, told me in an interview today (Sept. 1), referring to the formal name of the Iran nuclear pact, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“We are prepared to continue the negotiations in that spirit and try to conclude quickly in order to turn the page on a period of escalation and a failed maximum pressure campaign,” he said.

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said earlier this week that Ebrahim Raisi’s government will need two to three months before it’s able to return to the negotiations. This may be a bit of a tweak at the Biden administration, which delayed engaging in talks for a couple of months when it took office, though I think it’s mostly because Raisi’s team needs time to come to an internal consensus about its approach to the negotiations. There may also be logistical considerations, if (as has been rumored) oversight of the negotiating team is going to shift from Iran’s foreign ministry to its Supreme National Security Council.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

In today’s Afghan news:

  • The Taliban and the “National Resistance Force of Afghanistan” continue to tell mutually incompatible tales of events in the NRFA-occupied Panjshir Valley. The NRFA says it’s beaten back every Taliban attempt to enter the valley while the Taliban claims its advances are making progress. Each side is offering wildly different and probably exaggerated claims about casualties. Panjshir’s remote location means that none of these claims can really be verified.

  • When I started working this morning it seemed like the Taliban would have a new Afghan government, or at least the outline of one, in place by the end of the day. As far as I am aware that did not happen. Nevertheless some basic elements of the new government are likely predictable. The Taliban’s overall leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, will likely occupy a head of state-type position similar to Iran’s supreme leader or to the “emir” position then-Taliban boss Mullah Omar held when the group was last in power in the 1990s. Deputy Taliban leader Abdul Ghani Baradar will likely serve as head of government, though what they’ll call that office remains to be seen. What will be interesting is to see whether the Taliban reserve jobs for people who served in the previous Afghan government(s) in some capacity, like former President Hamid Karzai and former chief negotiator Abdullah Abdullah. Including them would help project a friendly face to the international community.

  • Taliban leaders would be looking to project a friendly face in order to increase the chances of international recognition and potentially aid money. Along those lines, Western Union and Moneygram announced on Thursday that they would resume cash transfers to Afghanistan in line with the Biden administration’s stated aim of protecting Afghan humanitarian aid from international sanctions. Overseas remittances comprise a significant part of Afghanistan’s annual revenue so allowing them to resume will help alleviate a bit of the country’s financial crisis. But only a bit.

  • The Taliban could also generate some international goodwill by allowing people who want to leave Afghanistan to do so, under typical regulations around international travel of course. For example there are the tens of thousands of Afghans eligible for US special immigrant visas who were not evacuated by the deadline—the State Department acknowledged on Wednesday that most of them were left in Afghanistan—who at the moment don’t even have a viable way out of the country because the airports are closed and neighboring countries have locked down their borders. Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani told reporters in Doha on Thursday that the Qatari government is working with the Taliban to reopen Kabul airport. They’ve apparently brought Turkey into the mix as well, possibly to oversee needed repairs to the facility. There’s no indication when the airport might reopen, but when it does, Qatar’s relationship with the Taliban might make it the best hope in terms of influencing Afghanistan’s new government to allow those who wish to leave to do so without harrassment.

  • Obviously the Taliban has emerged victorious from the nearly 20 year Afghan conflict, but I think we have to acknowledge that there was at least one other big winner—the US defense industry. Responsible Statecraft’s Eli Clifton reports that the five largest American defense contractors—Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman—have sunk more than $1.1 billion into lobbying efforts over the past 20 years. That’s a lot of money, but it’s basically spare change compared with the $2.02 trillion they’ve earned from the US government over that same period. Congratulations to them, they’ve clearly earned every penny.

MYANMAR

The British government on Thursday imposed new sanctions against a Myanmar conglomerate called the Htoo Group as well as against its founder, Tay Za. Htoo has allegedly been arranging arms deals and providing financial support to Myanmar’s ruling junta.

THAILAND

Thousands of demonstrators gathered in Bangkok on Thursday to once again demand the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. Anti-government protests have been fairly subdued since the pandemic began but this one appears to have been the largest in some time. Opposition to Prayut’s government, which is essentially a continuation of his 2014-2019 junta but with a civilian gloss, has been compounded by anger over that government’s lackluster response to COVID. Prayut and several of his cabinet ministers are also facing corruption allegations from opposition politicians.

INDONESIA

At least four Indonesian soldiers were killed and two more wounded in a Wednesday morning attack on a military outpost in the country’s Papua region. There’s no confirmation as to the identity of the attackers but in all likelihood they were separatist West Papua Liberation Army fighters.

TAIWAN

For the first time since it started asking the question, a survey from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs finds that a majority of Americans (52 percent) would support committing US military forces to defend Taiwan in case of a Chinese invasion. A slightly larger majority (53 percent) favors a formal alliance with Taiwan, and while the difference is small enough to be statistical noise I have to say I’m intrigued by the one percent who apparently want to enter an alliance with Taiwan with the intention of breaking it if push comes to shove. I can even kind of see the logic, if you regard the alliance as a potential deterrent to any Chinese action.

It’s tempting and disconcerting to conclude that this finding reflects the result of a sustained anti-China messaging effort from the Washington crowd directed at the American public, but the military question in particular saw such a large jump from a Chicago Council survey from last year (around 12 percent) that I wonder how much can be attributed to frustration over the pandemic and the perception that China is to blame for it. Regardless, for those who are uneasy about the New Cold War, or whatever, this poll doesn’t have much in the way of good news because the US public increasingly seems to support a hardline approach toward Beijing.

CHINA

Biden administration climate envoy John Kerry concluded a two day visit to China on Thursday by reiterating the main message he’d come there to deliver—just because Washington is hellbent on the New Cold War with China, that doesn’t mean we can’t all get along when it comes to dealing with climate change. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested otherwise, saying that “climate cooperation cannot be separated from the wider environment of China-US relations.” Wang contended that while US officials want to treat climate change as an “oasis,” “surrounding the oasis is a desert, and the oasis could be desertified very soon.” His analogy was probably a bit too on the nose but it gets the point across.

AFRICA

NIGERIA

According to the Nigerian military, “more than 5890” Boko Haram “terrorists” have surrendered to the government since Islamic State West Africa Province fighters killed former Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau back in May. Nigerian officials are naturally characterizing this development as a great success and proof that their counter-terrorism program is working, but in reality it stands to reason many of them decided that, given the choice between surrendering to the government and surrendering to ISWAP, the government was preferable.

TANZANIA

Tanzanian authorities say they’ve determined that a shooting near the French embassy in Dar es Salaam last week, in which four people (plus the shooter) were killed, was an act of terrorism. The shooter appears to have been of the “lone wolf” variety, radicalized by exposure to online messaging by groups like the Islamic State and al-Shabab but not formally a member of an organization.

EUROPE

EUROPEAN UNION

European frustrations over the Afghanistan withdrawal seem to be energizing the 25+ year long debate over the formation of a pan-European military force that does not include, let alone depend upon, the United States. European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says that “deficiencies” in the European role in the evacuation—European governments were unable to sustain their own evacuations without US support and were unable (embarrassingly so) to convince Joe Biden to alter the withdrawal or even to extend its August 31 deadline—should “catalyze” the effort to create an independent EU military capability.

Borrell’s aim is the creation of a 5000 man “intervention force,” which seems modest enough except when you consider that the EU “created” two 1500 man units back in 2007 and they’ve never been used because they’ve never been fully funded. It’s unlikely to happen. “Strategic autonomy” is a concept that certain European leaders (French President Emmanuel Macron) like to throw around because it sounds good to domestic audiences, but very few European governments are prepared to spend what it would cost to divest themselves of reliance on the US military. Several of the ones who have spent more heavily on their militaries (Poland, the Baltic states) have done so because they’re afraid of Russia and because of that fear they have no interest in doing anything that might alienate Washington.

ROMANIA

Romanian Prime Minister Florin Cîțu sacked his justice minister, Stelian Ion, on Wednesday and may have fractured his governing coalition in the process. Ion’s USR PLUS party, a junior partner in the government led by Cîțu’s Liberal party, now says it’s exploring a potential no-confidence resolution in parliament unless Cîțu resigns. Cîțu canned Ion after USR PLUS opposed his plan for a new infrastructure development fund. Conventional wisdom seems to be that he’ll continue on at the head of a minority government.

BULGARIA

Lucky duck Bulgarian voters will get to vote in a third national election this year, after the Bulgarian Socialist Party announced Thursday that it had failed, as expected, to form a government. President Rumen Radev passed the baton to the Socialists last week after the ITN and GERB parties, which finished first and second in July’s snap election, also failed to form coalitions. Under Bulgarian law the third time is the charm, in that it means another snap election is obligatory. The new election is likely to be held sometime in November.

GERMANY

The latest Deutschlandtrend poll shows Germany’s Social Democratic Party a surprising five points ahead of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance, 25 percent to 20 percent. As relevant as the SPD lead is the fact that this is yet another poll predicting that Germany’s current CDU/CSU-SPD coalition (which has governed Germany since 2013) will no longer hold a collective majority after the election, leaving a potential scramble to build an alternative coalition.

AMERICAS

UNITED STATES

The Senate and House armed services committees have, in a rare and heartwarming incidence of bipartisanship, have agreed to shovel an extra $25 billion into the Pentagon’s insatable gullet for 2022, on top of the $715 billion the Biden administration had requested. This is apparently part of a movement in Congress to normalize annual five percent increases in defense spending, an effort that if successful will result in over $1.2 trillion in additional defense spending over the next decade. On a related note, the Costs of War project at Brown University has released a new paper from Boston University’s Neta Crawford that estimates the total cost of the War on Terror to date at around $8 trillion. And that’s just in the United States, and just at the federal level. Anyway, the important thing to remember is that universal healthcare, ending homelessness, debt relief, and meaningful investments in decarbonization are too expensive.

Finally, in his newest Foreign Exchanges column, published yesterday, Alex Thurston dives in to the fundamental errors the US media and foreign policy establishment make with respect to understanding the Taliban:

Thus the dominant modes of talking about the Taliban in Washington are to emphasize its ideology and its military behaviors. The idea that the Taliban offer people something—rule of law, stability, cultural compatibility, national pride, religious pride, predictability for businesspeople, etc.—is not unfamiliar to the Blob. But in Washington that idea is often downplayed (“ok, the Taliban make a few compromises, but they’re still fanatics”) or is rebutted with fantasies (“here’s my program for how to convince Afghan villagers that the US-backed government is better at delivering services—it’ll work if all the stars align”). Ultimately, many Blob members cannot admit that there is no magic formula to make an unpopular foreign occupation work. They also cannot admit that however many Afghans may hate the Taliban, one can also find many who welcome, or at least are willing to accept, their rule.

The Blob’s inability to face basic truths is also manifest in the expanding genre of “blame” articles. Blame Pakistan. No, blame the American public. No, it’s Biden. No, it’s Trump. No, everyone is at fault. The blame discourse is still a way of rationalizing, of insisting that there was a way to avoid something that was in reality inevitable. If the last two centuries have taught students of world history anything, it should be this: most peoples will eventually expel foreign occupiers, unless you inflict genocidal levels of violence upon them or explicitly integrate them into your empire.