World roundup: September 23 2021

Stories from Yemen, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 22, 1965: The Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, fought over Kashmir, ends with a UN-brokered ceasefire. Although the outcome was indecisive, India was able to prevent a Pakistan-backed insurgency in Kashmir and demonstrated a military superiority over its rival while exposing weaknesses in the Pakistani military and sending the Pakistani economy into a rough patch. The war also caused both India and Pakistan to look for new allies, as the US and UK imposed an arms embargo on both countries and criticized both the Indian and Pakistani governments for their conduct. Pakistan’s current relationship with China and India’s Cold War relationship with the Soviet Union developed as a result of this war and the deterioration of both countries’ relations with Washington and London.

September 22, 1980: The Iran-Iraq War begins

September 23, 1803: A small British army defeats a Maratha army as much as six or seven times its size at the Battle of Assaye. The British victory helped establish military supremacy in the Deccan, the Maratha Empire’s home turf, and led to Britain’s victory in the Second Anglo-Maratha War. It also launched the military career of the British commander, Major General Arthur Wellesley, who would later be invested the first Duke of Wellington and become a major thorn in Napoleon’s side.

September 23, 1932: Abdulaziz “Ibn Saud” unites his two kingdoms, the Nejd and the Hejaz, into one, the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Commemorated annually as Saudi National Day.

Abdulaziz (seated) with his sons Saud (right), who succeeded him in 1953, and Faisal, who succeeded Saud in a bloodless coup in 1964 (Wikimedia Commons)

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

Houthi fighters are reportedly advancing into two oil- and gas-rich Yemeni provinces, Maʾrib and Shabwah, and are also engaged in heavy fighting with a powerful tribal group in northwestern Yemen. According to Reuters, citing “a Yemeni government official,” the Houthis have moved to within 18 kilometers of Maʾrib city, the capital of the province and the largest northern Yemeni city still under government control. They’ve also advanced in to Shabwah’s Assilan district. Elsewhere, “a Yemeni security official” is telling the Associated Press that fighting between the Hashid confederation and the Houthis and their allies around the city of ʿAmran has left at least 35 people dead and some 40 wounded since Friday. The Hashid are supported by the Yemeni military, such as it is.

TURKEY

Turkey’s central bank on Thursday cut the country’s main interest rate from 19 percent to 18 percent, caving somewhat to pressure from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his preference for low interest rates. This runs counter to prevailing economic wisdom that calls for high rates during periods of high inflation—Turkey’s annual inflation rate is presently 19.25 percent—and while “prevailing economic wisdom” can certainly be wrong, these sorts of things can become self-fulfilling prophecies when human beings and markets get involved. To wit, the rate cut sent the Turkish lira tumbling to more than 8.8 per US dollar, which is approaching record levels of weakness.

IRAQ

The Iraqi military says it conducted airstrikes against “terrorists” in Kirkuk province on Wednesday. Details are unclear. Presumably they’re referring to Islamic State fighters, though there are other proscribed groups roaming about the Iraqi countryside. In Kirkuk in particular there’s a group known as the “White Flags” about which very little seems to be known. They could be Kurdish, and/or an IS offshoot, and/or Baʿathist remnants, and/or something else entirely.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Axios’s Barak Ravid is reporting that a US and Israeli “strategic working group on Iran” met last week for the first time under still relatively new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government. According to Ravid, the Israelis are pushing the Biden administration to prepare a “plan B” approach toward Iran should talks on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal finally collapse. There’s no indication the administration has developed a firm “plan B” but it likely is considering options for new sanctions and other punishments should those negotiations reach the point of no return.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

Al Jazeera is now running its own version of the “Taliban in Disarray” story, which (depending on your view of Al Jazeera and on Qatar’s relationship with the Taliban) may give it more credibility. According to its sources, the Taliban is riven by a split between “fighters still awaiting the spoils of war” and “politicians who want to assuage the fears of the Afghan people and the international community.” The former (who appear to be winning the contest) are pushing an exclusively Taliban-run, hard line government while the latter are the ones advocating for more inclusivity and moderation. According to Al Jazeera the hard liners have gravitated away from Pakistan, whose government has been critical of a lack of inclusivity in the new interim Afghan government, and toward Iran. This is interesting in that Iranian officials have also criticized the new government’s heavily Taliban composition and might be particularly sensitive to any mistreatment of Afghanistan’s Shiʿa Hazara minority.

MYANMAR

The United Nations rapporteur for Myanmar, Tom Andrews, reported to the Human Rights Council on Wednesday that the country’s ruling junta appears to be abducting family members, including children and even toddler-aged children, of its domestic opponents. The HRC then issued a report on Tuesday alleging substantial human rights violations by the junta. Included among those allegations is a claim that security forces have killed upwards of 1100 people since February’s coup, many of them unarmed protesters targeted with military weaponry.

TAIWAN

The Chinese military flew a whopping 24 military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense zone in two incidents on Thursday. The earlier of the two was by far the more alarming, as it involved 19 aircraft. The flights may have been meant as a response to Taiwan’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which officials formally announced earlier in the day.

AFRICA

TUNISIA

One day after Tunisian President Kais Saied deepened his takeover with an announcement that he will heretofore rule by decree, four Tunisian political parties—Attayar, Al Joumhouri, Akef, and Ettakatol—issued a joint statement declaring that Saied “has lost his legitimacy by violating the constitution.” There doesn’t appear to be much the parties can do to contain or reverse Saied’s power grab, especially not with parliament indefinitely suspended, so the question will be whether or not they can spark any public resistance. An assorted demonstration here or there aside, Saied hasn’t faced much public opposition since assuming emergency powers back in July.

MOZAMBIQUE

The Mozambican military, with reinforcements from Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community, was reportedly able to rescue 87 people who had been stranded in the northern port town of Mocímboa da Praia in an operation earlier this week. They’d been stranded since Mozambican and Rwandan forces drove Islamist insurgents out of the town last month.

EUROPE

EUROPEAN UNION

A new survey finds that most Europeans believe that the United States has already entered into a new Cold War with China and Russia, and many are concerned that the European Union is dragging their own countries into the conflict on the US side:

Even as President Joe Biden insisted at the United Nations this week that he seeks cooperation with potential foreign rivals, most Europeans believe that the United States is already engaged in a new “cold war” with China and Russia, they feel their own nations are not involved, according to a new survey of respondents in 12 EU countries released Tuesday by the European Council on Foreign Relations.

However, they see their own European institutions, notably the European Union, as somewhat more invested in aligning the continent with Washington’s perceived interest in such a conflict, according to the report which warned that there appears to be a growing gap between the EU’s national publics and the EU leadership, as well as with the United States itself.

“If this new polling has captured a lasting trend, it reveals that European publics are not ready to see the growing tensions with China and Russia as a new Cold War,” said Ivan Krastev, co-author of the analysis that accompanied the new survey and Chair for Liberal Strategies of the European Council. “So far, it is only European institutions rather than European publics that are ready to see the world of tomorrow as a growing system of competition between democracy and authoritarianism,” he added.

BELARUS

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Thursday that his security forces have uncovered Western “spies” working in state-run factories. He didn’t go into specifics, but activists say that 14 workers at a state fertilizer plant were recently arrested until unclear circumstances.

UKRAINE

The Ukrainian parliament on Thursday adopted a new law that creates a legal designation of “oligarch” and prohibits anyone so designated from financing political parties or benefiting from state privatization efforts. Senior politicians would also be legally obliged to declare their own dealings with oligarchs. While there’s an anti-corruption justification to this measure it seems designed to be manipulated, since the National Security and Defence Council—a political body headed by the Ukrainian president—will be charged with determining who is and isn’t legally an oligarch. Presidents could in theory exempt their own big money backers from the law.

There’s some suspicion that opposition to this law fueled the attempted murder of President Volodymyr Zelensky’s senior aide, Serhiy Shefir, on Wednesday. Zelensky’s own administration seems to be fueling that suspicion, maybe as part of its sales pitch for the law.

SWEDEN

The Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish governments will sign a new defense cooperation agreement in the near future, according to a report broadcast by Swedish media on Thursday. Citing a potential threat from Russia, Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said the new alliance will “raise the bar in preventing disruptions and crises” in the Baltic Sea region.

GERMANY

With Sunday’s federal election looming, the Social Democratic Party’s polling lead appears to be dwindling. A new survey from pollster FGW finds the SPD at 25 percent support, holding steady, while the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance is now just two points back at 23 percent, up from 22 percent in FGW’s previous poll. If its recent polling gains hold up when the votes are counted, the CDU/CSU may have a somewhat long shot chance to cobble together its own coalition even if it finishes second to the SPD.

AMERICAS

COLOMBIA

The “33rd Front,” a group of dissident ex-Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has claimed responsibility for a June car bombing that wounded 44 people at a military base in the city of Cúcuta, as well as for an attack later that same month on a helicopter carrying Colombian President Iván Duque. The group says its target in the bombing were the officers in charge of the Colombian Army’s 30th Brigade as well as US advisers stationed at the base. Two US personnel were among those wounded in the attack.

EL SALVADOR

Jacobin’s Hilary Goodfriend suggests that Nayib Bukele may have pushed his populist appeal too far in making bitcoin legal tender:

The government’s pitch to the Salvadoran public, however, centers on remittances — salary transfers from working-class migrants in the United States to their families in El Salvador. As the Salvadoran economy spirals downward, remittances have come to represent the country’s main source of dollars, representing nearly 25 percent of GDP in 2020. Bukele is calling on migrants to send their remittances through the government-commissioned wallet application, “Chivo,” and circumvent the abusive transfer fees of services like Western Union.

The trouble, however, is that Bitcoin lacks the stability of the US dollar. Indeed, economists have pointed out that the highly volatile cryptocurrency is better conceived as a crypto-asset: good for speculation and investment, bad for daily transactions, price measurement, or savings. For working-class Salvadoran families who depend on remittances to make ends meet, the risk of only receiving a fraction of the value of funds dispatched is a risk they can’t take. Indeed, far from a tool for emancipating the Salvadoran economy from foreign dependency, bitcoinization only offers new forms of subordination and external vulnerabilities.

These concerns have only been confirmed in light of the chaotic rollout of Bukele’s Bitcoin infrastructure. Days before implementation, police illegally detained Mario Gómez, a prominent critic of the Bitcoin Law and minor Twitter celebrity, sparking international outcry. On September 7, the Chivo wallet launch revealed a system plagued with glitches and frequently down for maintenance. That day, the price of Bitcoin took a steep dive, a “dip” from which it has yet to recover.

At the same time, San Salvador saw its first massive, multi-sector march against the government. Under the banner of “No to Bitcoin,” the mobilization included judges recently dismissed by Bukele’s Supreme Court denouncing the government assault on the Constitution.

UNITED STATES

Finally, the Biden administration’s special envoy for Haiti, Daniel Foote, resigned on Thursday in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that excoriated the Biden administration’s brutal mistreatment of Haitian migrants massed at the US-Mexico border and its vocal support for Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry. The administration says that Foote “mischaracterized the circumstances of his resignation” and has, in very Trumpian fashion, attacked him, a career foreign service officer, for his alleged “toxic personality.” I thought I’d leave you with his letter. The criticisms it levels are applicable not just to the Biden administration, but to pretty much the entire history of the US-Haiti relationship:

With deep disappointment and apologies to those seeking crucial changes, I resign from my position as Special Envoy for Haiti, effective immediately. I will not be associated with the United States inhumane, counterproductive decision to deport thousands of Haitian refugees and illegal immigrants to Haiti, a country where American officials are confined to secure compounds because of the danger posed by armed gangs in control of daily life. Our policy approach to Haiti remains deeply flawed, and my recommendations have been ignored and dismissed, when not edited to project a narrative different from my own.

The people of Haiti, mired in poverty, hostage to the terror, kidnappings, robberies and massacres of armed gangs and suffering under a corrupt government with gang alliances, simply cannot support the forced infusion of thousands of returned migrants lacking food, shelter, and money without additional, avoidable human tragedy. The collapsed state is unable to provide security or basic services, and more refugees will fuel further desperation and crime. Surging migration to our borders will only grow as we add to Haiti's unacceptable misery.

Haitians need immediate assistance to restore the government's ability to neutralize the gangs and restore order through the national police. They need a true agreement across society and political actors, with international support, to chart a timely path to the democratic selection of their next president and parliament. They need humanitarian assistance, money to deliver COVID vaccines and so many other things. 

But what our Haitian friends really want, and need, is the opportunity to chart their own course, without international puppeteering and favored candidates but with genuine support for that course. I do not believe that Haiti can enjoy stability until her citizens have the dignity of truly choosing their own leaders fairly and acceptably. 

Last week, the U.S. and other embassies in Port-au-Prince issued another public statement of support by for the unelected, de facto Prime Minister Dr. Ariel Henry as interim leader of Haiti, and have continued to tout his political agreement over another broader, earlier accord shepherded by civil society. The hubris that makes us believe we should pick the winner — again — is impressive. This cycle of international political interventions in Haiti has consistently produced catastrophic results. More negative impacts to Haiti will have calamitous consequences not only in Haiti, but in the U.S. and our neighbors in the hemisphere.