World roundup: September 20-21 2021

Stories from Afghanistan, Sudan, Russia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 20, 1519: Ferdinand Magellan sets sail with a small fleet intending to circumnavigate the globe. Magellan wouldn’t survive the voyage, but one of his ships did, arriving in Spain in September 1522 under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano and becoming the first ship to successfully complete that journey.

September 20, 2001: George W. Bush, in an address to Congress, declares war on Terror. And we all lived happily ever after.

September 21, 1857: The Siege of Delhi ends with a British victory, snuffing out the last remnants of the Mughal Empire and doing much to undercut the 1857-1859 Indian Rebellion.

September 21, 1860: A combined British and French army defeats a Qing Dynasty army at the Battle of Palikao, named for a bridge in the eastern part of Beijing. The defeat caused the Xianfeng Emperor to flee his capital, leaving the city in European hands and hastening the end of the Second Opium War.

September 21, 1964: Having been promised it by British authorities in the wake of World War II, Malta gains its somewhat belated independence. Commemorated annually as Maltese Independence Day.

September 21, 1981: The British government grants independence to Belize. Although the UK had already granted self-rule to the colony (then called “British Honduras”) in 1964, a territorial dispute with Guatemala delayed its full independence. Commemorated annually as Belizean Independence Day.

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

A US drone strike in Syria’s Idlib province killed two “jihadist commanders” on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. After initially denying the strike, the Pentagon later acknowledged it and said it was targeting “an al-Qaeda official.” That language probably means the target was connected with Hurras al-Din, which is openly affiliated with al-Qaeda. US officials still sometimes refer to Hayʾat Tahrir al-Sham as an al-Qaeda affiliate despite HTS’s open break with the mothership back in 2016, but when they conduct strikes like this in Idlib they’re usually targeting someone from Hurras al-Din.

The New Arab is reporting that “several” (it looks like at least seven) pro-Syrian government militia fighters were killed over the weekend in multiple Islamic State attacks, at least one in Deir Ezzor province and another around Palmyra. IS fighters are still present in the Syrian Desert, which covers much of the southern part of the country, and they’ve been able to move through that area to carry out hit and run style attacks mostly against pro-government forces.

YEMEN

While Houthi supporters rallied in Sanaa to mark the seventh year since the Shiʿa movement and its allies seized power in northern Yemen, Reuters reports that Houthi fighters have been making advances in both Maʾrib and Shabwa provinces.

LEBANON

The Lebanese parliament on Monday voted to confirm new Prime Minister Najib Mikati’s government. Appropriately enough, the vote was delayed by a power outage. Now that they’re officially in office the new cabinet can get to work solving all of Lebanon’s problems. I mean, how hard could it be, really? Among Mikati’s first orders of business will be engaging with international lenders and convincing them that he’s going to be a reformer with results, in order to unlock new aid and thereby some badly needed foreign currency.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

New polling finds that 78 percent of the Palestinian people would prefer that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas resign, and I don’t think it’s because they’d like to see him relax a bit in his autumn years. Abbas has been unpopular (though perhaps not this unpopular) for many years now, which goes a long way toward explaining why he’s in year 17 of a four year term and hasn’t deigned to subject his presidency to the will of Palestinian voters since 2005. He canceled a planned parliamentary election (Palestine’s first since 2006) earlier this year because his Fatah party was likely to lose. Speaking of Fatah, the same survey found that it has the support of only 19 percent of Palestinians, compared with 45 percent who back Hamas. I guess the chances of rescheduling that parliamentary election are pretty low.

IRAN

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal “will resume soon and over the next few weeks.” Which is not materially different from what the Iranian government said about the resumption of those talks a few weeks ago.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

In recent Afghan news:

  • The Taliban filled out its interim (allegedly) government on Tuesday with the release of a list of additional ministers and deputy ministers. The new roster adds additional minority representation and some non-Taliban members to the administration. It even includes a member of Afghanistan’s Hazara community, appointed deputy health minister. Still no women though. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid suggested to reporters on Tuesday that maybe women could serve in the government someday. I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  • Similarly, Mujahid said on Tuesday that the de facto ban the Taliban has now imposed on girls’ secondary education might not be permanent. Not holding my breath on that one either, particularly not since “we’re definitely going to open girls’ schools just as soon as possible” was the Taliban’s approach to this same issue the last time it was running Afghanistan. In five years it never became possible.

  • The Taliban has named Suhail Shaheen, spokesperson for its Qatari diplomatic office, as its new United Nations ambassador. Furthermore, it’s asking that Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi be permitted to address this week’s UN General Assembly session. The UN credentials committee still needs to hash out Afghanistan’s representation and it’s unlikely to do so in time for Muttaqi to speak at the UNGA. But there are questions as to whether it will recognize Shaheen as Afghanistan’s UN representative. The United States may push to withhold recognition in order to use it as leverage over the Taliban.

  • The leaders of Afghanistan’s would-be resistance army, Ahmad Massoud and Amrullah Saleh, have both reportedly fled to Tajikistan. After the Taliban quashed their budding rebellion in the Panjshir Valley earlier this month both men insisted they were planning to stay in Afghanistan and continue the resistance. But that plan may have relied on getting some kind of support from the United States. While there’s ample reason to think some US backing might be in the cards, it’s a little early for a project like that to have gotten underway just yet.

  • Zack Kopplin of the Government Accountability Project has a new piece at The American Prospect that digs into the corruption of former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s administration. Ghani’s indulgence of warlords, the crimes of his security forces, and his electoral shenanigans are part of the story, but the main thrust of the article stems from Kopplin’s work for the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project on the Ghani’s financial shenanigans. In particular, it focuses on Ghani’s efforts to funnel lucrative contracts to organizations that just so happened to have ties to his family members, in-laws, and other people in his inner circle.

INDIA

The Indian government said on Monday that it expects to resume exporting COVID vaccines by October. This should offer a boost to efforts to secure more vaccine supplies for countries in the developing world and particularly in Africa. India was supposed to serve as the manufacturing hub for the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, but a massive spike in domestic COVID cases earlier this year forced the Indian government to divert its manufacturing capacity toward domestic needs back in April.

MYANMAR

The UN has decided to resolve the controversy over Myanmar’s representation at this week’s General Assembly session by leaving it unresolved. The UN’s credentials committee has decided to leave current Myanmar representative Kyaw Moe Tun, who was appointed by the pre-coup government, in place, but he will not participate in the UNGA festivities. It plans to meet in November to attempt to settle the issue for good. There doesn’t seem to be much appetite on the committee for seating the representative appointed by Myanmar’s current ruling junta, but there’s also some reluctance to ratify Kyaw Moe Tun or any other representative appointed by an opposition that doesn’t actually control the country.

PHILIPPINES

Boxing fans may note with some interest that Philippine Senator Manny Pacquiao says he intends to run in next year’s presidential election. Pacquiao is still technically a member of Rodrigo Duterte’s PDP-Laban party and even by one reckoning the party’s president. But he and Duterte have grown increasingly hostile toward one another over the past several months and now essentially lead two separate party factions. Duterte’s faction, which I think barring some new revelatory information must be considered the “real” PDP-Laban party, has nominated Senator Christopher “Bong” Go as its presidential candidate, and while he’s already said he’s not interested he could change his mind. Likewise with Duterte’s daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, who says she plans to run for reelection as mayor of Davao city but could also have a change of heart. Either would likely defeat Pacquiao.

CHINA

In what could prove to be a significant climate-related development, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the UN General Assembly on Tuesday that his government will no longer build coal-fired power plants internationally. In addition to the coal plants it builds at home, Beijing also constructs, or finances the construction, of such plants in other countries. The details underpinning Xi’s announcement are unclear, but if this means an absolute end to Chinese-financed coal plants it could be a serious step toward eliminating coal burning altogether.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Sudanese officials are saying that they’ve stopped an attempted coup undertaken by supporters of former President Omar al-Bashir. Details are unclear, but there were reports of gunfire in Omdurman early Tuesday and military units may have attempted to block key highways and seize state broadcasting facilities in Khartoum. Dozens of soldiers have reportedly been arrested in connection with the plot, including some 21 officers.

LIBYA

The eastern Libyan parliament based in Tobruk passed a no confidence motion for Libya’s Government of National Unity on Tuesday. The vote’s implications are unclear, since the Tobruk parliament’s authority under Libya’s interim administration is undetermined. But the obvious discord between the eastern government and the GNU threatens Libya’s peace process and the prospects for holding a national election in December as scheduled. The GNU gave no indication that it was prepared to accept the vote, and the United Nations issued a statement referring to the GNU as Libya’s “legitimate government.”

TUNISIA

Tunisian President Kais Saied told supporters on Monday that he’s installed “transitional rules” for his one-man government—without explaining what those rules were—and said he will be introducing a new electoral law, presumably in advance of a new parliamentary election. Saied assumed emergency powers back in July, sacking his cabinet and suspending parliament. Opponents have accused him of carrying out a self-coup while Saied insists he’s acting in accordance with the Tunisian constitution. Tunisia has no constitutional court that could either support or reject that assertion. Saied also said on Monday that he would be naming a new prime minister but gave no time frame for doing so.

NIGERIA

Unknown gunmen attacked a police unit in southeastern Nigeria’s Anambra state on Sunday, killing one police inspector. The attack is the latest in a string of violent but unclaimed incidents targeting security forces in that part of the country. Authorities have blamed some of the violence on the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra group, but IPOB has denied involvement.

CAMEROON

Cameroonian officials say that separatist rebels have killed 15 soldiers and several civilians this month in two attacks in the country’s restive Northwest region. Both attacks, one on September 12 and the other on September 16, targeted military convoys with roadside bombs. Authorities are alleging an increase in the sophistication of the weaponry used by the separatists and suggest they’re getting support from “violent fundamentalist groups” outside of Cameroon—or, in other words, from the Islamic State’s West Africa Province affiliate.

BURUNDI

Multiple grenade attacks in Bujumbura on Monday left at least five people dead and some 50 wounded. A grenade attack in Gitega the previous day killed at least two people. There’s no indication as to responsibility. The rebel RED-Tabara group has claimed responsibility for a number of attacks in recent days, including a mortar strike on Bujumbura’s airport on Saturday.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

As expected, Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party won this weekend’s Russian parliamentary election, and even managed to retain its two-thirds supermajority in the Duma thanks to a miraculous surge in favorable results as the votes were being counted. United Russia will control 324 seats in the new Duma, down from the 343 it won in 2016 but still comfortably over the supermajority line in the 450 seat body. That means Putin should have no trouble doing whatever he wants when his current term expires in 2024, whether it’s revising the law to run for a third term or creating a new supra-political role to occupy in his twilight years.

I should note that some naysayers are suggesting the election was rigged, but I ask you: can any election in which Chechen Republic boss Ramzan Kadyrov receives a very realistic 99.6 percent of the vote be dismissed as fraudulent? I thought not.

BELARUS

According to Belarusian state media, President Alexander Lukashenko is considering devolving some of his powers onto his cabinet and onto local governments. Exactly what powers, or how many of them, is unclear.

POLAND

Four people were found dead along the Polish-Belarusian border on Sunday. They’re among a group of migrants who have attempted to cross that border but have been denied either entry into Poland or the ability to return to Belarus. Poland, along with Belarus’s other European Union neighbors, have accused Lukashenko of “weaponizing” migration in retaliation for EU sanctions. Poland and Lithuania are building border fences and the Polish government announced Monday that it’s deploying 500 more soldiers to secure the border.

KOSOVO

Groups of Kosovan Serbs blocked roads in northern Kosovo on Monday in protest against a new law banning cars with Serbian license plates from entering Kosovo. The Serbian government has a similar law in place regarding cars with Kosovan license plates entering Serbia, so Kosovan authorities insist they’re only reciprocating Belgrade’s policies. The border protest continued into Tuesday and there are concerns that it could spark a more serious confrontation between Belgrade and Pristina.

AMERICAS

ARGENTINA

The Pan-American Health Organization has chosen labs in Argentina and Brazil to begin producing supplies of Moderna’s mRNA COVID vaccine. PAHO’s parent, the World Health Organization, has been pursuing plans to open regional manufacturing hubs to boost global vaccine production capacity. Unfortunately its first hub pick, South Africa, has already run into trouble negotiating a technology transfer agreement with Moderna.

BRAZIL

Jair Bolsonaro was the first world leader to address the UNGA on Tuesday, which means he was also the first world leader to violate the UNGA’s requirement that anyone addressing the assembly in person be vaccinated against COVID. Bolsonaro is not vaccinated, but the UN established that its vaccine requirement would be implemented in the form of an “honor system” and then was either unable or unwilling to enforce even that.

EL SALVADOR

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has been having some fun with his Twitter profile, changing his bio first to “Dictator of El Salvador” and then to “coolest dictator in the world.” Get it? It’s funny because he, you know, is pretty dictatorial. LOL!

GUATEMALA

The Biden administration added several more Salvadoran and Guatemalan names to its growing list of “undemocratic and corrupt” Central American officials. Guatemalan Attorney General María Consuelo Porras tops the new slate of blacklistees, which also includes five members of El Salvador’s Supreme Court who were installed by Bukele earlier this year.

CANADA

Canada’s snap parliamentary election on Monday turned out somewhat predictably, with Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party emerging with enough seats to maintain its minority government. Trudeau’s ambitions were presumably bigger when he called for the snap election last month, but given that some recent polling has had him losing to the Conservatives (and given that the Conservatives did win the overall popular vote), I assume he’ll be happy with this outcome. In fact, he claimed on Monday night that the result represented “a clear mandate” from Canadian voters, even though by any reasonable estimate it was exactly the opposite.

UNITED STATES

Joe Biden followed Bolsonaro on Tuesday with a speech in which he, as Xi would do later, softpedaled the US-China rivalry, perhaps in response to Secretary-General António Guterres’s “Cold War” warnings over the weekend. Biden also made some bold pledges about US foreign aid, promising to double the US contribution to the UN’s climate action fund to $11.4 billion per year by 2024 and also promising $10 billion toward ending global hunger. For context, the National Defense Authorization Act currently being debated in the US House of Representatives would budget $778 billion for defense in 2022. Just for the one year.

Finally, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Biden’s speech didn’t mention one of his latest foreign policy initiatives, given that the initiative in question involves the mass deportation of thousands of Haitian asylum seekers:

Less than a year after entering office with vows to bring a new humanitarian approach to the nation’s immigration system, the Biden administration is carrying out what could be the largest mass expulsion of would-be asylum-seekers in recent American history. Virtually none of those being removed from the country — nearly all of whom are Black — have received their day in court, nor will they under the administration’s current plan.

Nearly all of the expelled, including families and children, will be flown to Haiti, a country the administration itself characterized as a state teetering on the brink of collapse last month. With expulsions already underway and expected to intensify in the coming days, advocates are bracing for an already horrifying human rights nightmare to become far more dangerous.

“I can’t think of a worse way of handling the situation,” Nicole Phillips, legal director at Haitian Bridge Alliance, a San Diego-based nonprofit, told The Intercept. In recent weeks, upward of 14,000 men, women, and children, the vast majority of them Haitian nationals, began gathering under a bridge in the Texas border town of Del Rio. Over the weekend, Border Patrol agents on horseback descended on the crowd, swinging their reins like whips, charging at people carrying bags of food, shouting at them to go back to Mexico, and pushing them into the swift waters of the Rio Grande.

Under ideal conditions the Haitian government would not be equipped to accommodate a sudden influx of this large a group of deportees, and in case you haven’t been following the news from Haiti conditions there are most definitely not ideal at the moment. Many of the deportees have been out of Haiti for months or even years, making their sudden arrival back in that country all the more jarring. The deportations are being carried out under a public health statute that courts have already ruled does not authorize deportations (the Biden administration is appealing), and domestic law aside they almost certainly violate international law protecting the rights of asylum seekers. Not that the United States ever sweats international law, of course. One benefit of making the rules is you don’t have to obey them.