World roundup: September 7 2021

Stories from Afghanistan, Guinea, Brazil, and more

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Shanah Tovah to those who are celebrating!

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 6, 1522: The Victoria arrives at the Spanish port of Sanlúcar as the first ship to successfully circumnavigate the earth. It had set out as one of five vessels in Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition in 1519 and was the only ship to survive the journey. In that sense it fared better than its admiral, Magellan, who was killed after picking an ill-advised fight with a group of indigenous people in the Philippines. And its haul of spices in particular was worth more than the other four ships combined, so investors still came out ahead. The Victoria would fully complete its trip around the world two days later by returning to the port whence it departed, Seville.

This chart of the Pacific Ocean, by Brabantian mapmaker Abraham Ortelius in his 1589 Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, features the Victoria prominently off the western coast of South America (Wikimedia Commons)

September 6, 1955: The two-day Istanbul Pogrom begins amid news reports that the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki (which happened to be the home where Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was born) had been bombed by Greek agents. A mob began attacking Greeks in Istanbul and then expanded its scope to include Armenians and Jews. Between 13 and 30 people are said to have been killed in the violence and the incident began a process of Greek emigration that played out over the next several years. In reality, the consulate was fine and the whole thing was a planned operation by Turkey’s two “Operation Gladio” organizations, the Tactical Mobilization Group and Counter-Guerrilla. They were responding to the rise of Greek unionist sentiment (Enosis) in Cyprus and were likely also working on a longer-term project to “encourage” minority emigration and thereby “Turkify” Turkey.

September 7, 1191: The Battle of Arsuf

September 7, 1822: Brazilian Independence Day—Portuguese prince and Brazilian regent Dom Pedro (the future Pedro I of Brazil) declares Brazil’s independence from Portugual. The ensuing war, which had already begun at a low level in early 1822, ended in 1825 with a Brazilian victory.

September 7, 1901: The Boxer Rebellion ends with the defeat of the Yìhétuán rebels and the signing of the Boxer Protocol. Under the treaty, the Chinese government was obliged to pay an indemnity to the Allies—Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden, and to take steps to diminish its military capabilities.

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

  • Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.

  • The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.

  • The Climate Action Network, which represents hundreds of climate organizations, is asking the United Nations to postpone its COP26 climate summit, currently scheduled to take place in the United Kingdom from October 31 through November 12. Their rationale is that the countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change also happen to be the countries being hit hardest by COVID (I wonder what the connection could be…) and therefore are likely not to send representatives to the summit. While the rationale makes sense, there are concerns that another delay in holding COP26, which was supposed to take place last year and has already been postponed once for COVID, could be detrimental to the environmental movement.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, pro-government artillery fire killed at least four people and wounded 15 others in rebel-held Idlib city late Tuesday. There were also a number of airstrikes reported in Idlib province earlier in the day. We seem to be in the midst of an uptick in tit-for-tat violence in northwestern Syria, though whether that’s a prelude to something bigger remains to be seen.

Amnesty International issued a new report on Tuesday accusing the Syrian government of abusing refugees who return to the country. The group says it’s documented 66 cases of such abuse, including five people who were taken into custody and subsequently died and 17 people who have been disappeared since returning. The criticism here is not so much directed toward the Syrian government as toward foreign countries, including Syria’s immediate neighbors as well as several European states, whose governments are now insisting that it’s safe for refugees to go back to government-held parts of Syria as a justification for deportation.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military bombed a “military target” in Gaza early Tuesday morning in response to another round of incendiary balloons launched out of the enclave and also in a bit of a face-saving move following a prison break the previous day. Six Palestinian militants escaped from Gilboa prison in northern Israel on Monday, having apparently tunneled their way out of the facility. Israeli authorities are still looking for the escapees and reports are characterizing the balloon launch as a “show of support” for them, though I have no idea whether that’s actually true.

EGYPT

A new report from Human Rights Watch accuses Egyptian security forces of carrying out multiple extrajudicial executions since 2015 under the guise of “shootouts” with alleged militants. These are not new accusations but the HRW report does introduce new analysis of imagery provided by the Egyptian government as well as testimony from family members of 14 of the people killed in these operations, all of which support the claim that many of these so-called “shootouts” have been staged by the Egyptians. According to the government, security forces have killed 755 people in engagements with alleged militants—it’s impossible to know how many of them were executed in the fashion HRW describes.

SAUDI ARABIA

Joe Biden on Friday ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigation to spend the next six months reviewing and declassifying files from its investigation into the September 11, 2001 attacks, which could potentially shed more light on the Saudi government’s relationship with the attackers. Any new revelations could bolster the lawsuit that families of the 9/11 victims have filed against Saudi Arabia in US federal court. In particular, those families will be looking for any declassified documents related to Operation Encore, the FBI’s investigation specifically looking into a possible Saudi role in the attacks.

IRAN

Two new reports issued Tuesday by the International Atomic Energy Agency are sharply critical of the Iranian government’s cooperation with the IAEA’s nuclear monitoring efforts. The more serious of the two reports alleges that Iranian officials are not allowing IAEA personnel access to some of its monitoring equipment in order to install new memory cards, which risks the “continuity” of the agency’s efforts to monitor Iranian uranium enrichment activity and other aspects of its nuclear program. In the other report, the IAEA reiterated accusations it’s made multiple times about a lack of clarity regarding the discovery of trace amounts of enriched uranium at several previously undeclared sites. The agency has been demanding an explanation from Iranian officials as the nature of those traces and has yet to receive one it deems satisfactory. These grievances could pose additional challenges when (or if) negotiations on restoring the 2015 Iran nuclear deal resume.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

In recent Afghanistan news:

  • The Taliban unveiled its new Afghan government on Tuesday…sort of. In something of a surprise, the organization’s co-founder and former lead negotiator, Abdul Ghani Baradar, was named deputy prime minister rather than prime minister, as most speculation had predicted. Instead Afghanistan’s new PM will be Mullah Hassan Akhund, another longstanding albeit lower profile Taliban official who served as foreign minister and deputy PM in the group’s previous Afghan government. It’s difficult to know why the Taliban does any of the things it does but we can perhaps conclude that Akhund was a compromise pick who appeased the largest number of Taliban grandees. The announced cabinet is heavy on Taliban hardliners (including Sirajuddin Haqqani as interior minister and Mullah Yaqoob, son of former Taliban leader Mullah Omar, as defense minister) and very light on any semblance of the sort of “inclusivity” that Taliban leaders have been talking about. However, the Taliban has characterized this government as a “caretaker” so it may only be in operation temporarily until a more permanent government is established.

  • The Taliban announced on Monday that its fighters had secured control of Panjshir province, which had been the lone holdout against Taliban rule and was home to the opposition “National Resistance Front of Afghanistan.” Details surrounding the apparent takeover are unclear as is the current disposition of the NRFA and the forces under its command. NRFA leaders have suggested that their fighters are still present in the valley and that they’re transitioning to a guerrilla campaign against Taliban rule, but there’s no way to verify those claims.

  • Hundreds of people protested against Taliban rule in Kabul on Tuesday, prompting Taliban fighters to fire their weapons in the air in an effort to disperse the crowds. Women were prominent among the demonstrators, who seem to have been motivated by the reports coming out of Panjshir. Elsewhere, there are spotty reports that Taliban fighters killed at least two people and wounded eight others in cracking down on a protest in the city of Herat.

  • The ongoing effort to evacuate more people out of Afghanistan hit an apparent snag over the weekend when the Taliban prevented several chartered airplanes from departing Mazar-i-Sharif’s airport. Details on the flights are unclear (they were reportedly headed for Qatar) and there are contradictory accounts about whether or not there were any US citizens among the would-be passengers. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested to reporters on Tuesday that some of the passengers’ travel documents were not in order and denied suggestions that the Taliban is now barring people from leaving the country. Taliban officials have intimated that the closure of the country’s foreign and interior ministries (which should no longer apply with the new interim government in place) hampered efforts to clear the passengers.

MYANMAR

The leader of Myanmar’s opposition “National Unity Government” declared via Facebook on Tuesday the start of “a people’s defensive war against the military junta” that’s been ruling the country since February. In his post, Duwa Lashi La called for an armed uprising across Myanmar and for civil servants working for the junta to quit their jobs in protest. The NUG’s shadow defense ministry also issued a “code of ethics” for militias fighting against the junta, partially in an effort to bring those militias under unified NUG control. It very much remains to be seen whether any of this will have an effect on the resistance movement.

JAPAN

Increasingly unpopular Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide announced on Friday that he will not be a candidate in this month’s Liberal Democratic Party leadership election, meaning he will not lead the party into the general election later this year and will not, regardless of that election’s outcome, be continuing on as PM. Several candidates have already emerged to succeed Suga as party leader but handicapping the field is difficult given that the vote will be confined to a small number of LDP politicians and party members. Whoever wins the LDP leadership race will likely replace Suga as PM heading into the election.

AFRICA

MOROCCO

Moroccan voters will head to the polls on Wednesday to elect new national and regional parliaments, following a race in which actual campaigning was severely curtailed by COVID. There’s been no polling so there’s little sense of how the election might go, apart from the truism (at least for Moroccan politics) that no party will win by a large enough margin to govern without forming a coalition. The “ruling” Justice and Development Party—I put ruling in quotes because ultimately King Mohammed VI is the real decision-maker—is hoping to maintain its control but may suffer from pandemic fatigue.

GUINEA

A Guinean special forces unit, led by Colonel Mamady Doumbouya, overthrew President Alpha Condé and his government on Sunday and has seized control of the country under a junta calling itself the “National Rally and Development Committee.” In announcing the coup, Doumbouya criticized what he called Condé’s “disrespect of democratic principles,” which in this case is only moderately ironic. Condé did stand for a constitutionally questionable third term last October, which he won, preliminary claims of victory by challenger Cellou Dalein Diallo notwithstanding. Condé’s decision to run for a third term sparked violent protests ahead of the election and fears of violence afterward. Clearly it motivated the junta, or at least provided the junta with part of its justification for taking action. Junta leaders have also cited high poverty and corruption as part of their rationale.

Diallo said on Tuesday that he’s prepared to participate with junta leaders in a political transition, but the junta has yet to really outline its plans apart from Doumbouya’s statement that it would seek to form an interim “union” government over the next several weeks. In addition to dissolving Guinea’s parliament and suspending its constitution, the junta has moved over the past few days to install military officers in provincial and other top administrative posts. International reactions are still coming in, but the United Nations, the African Union the Economic Community of West African States, the European Union, and the United States have all expressed opposition, with ECOWAS planning an emergency summit to discuss the coup. Domestically, the reaction appears to be considerably more positive, though it may yet be too early to draw any conclusions in that respect.

For those looking for an economic angle to the coup, Guinea boasts the world’s largest bauxite reserves, making it a key player in the global aluminum manufacturing chain. International aluminum prices have already spiked as Doumbouya has issued contradictory statements with respect to current bauxite mining operations. In particular Guinea is a major supplier of bauxite to China, but it’s also a major supplier to American firms and if the junta moves to break bauxite deals with foreign customers in favor of new arrangements that are more favorable to Guinea, it could have serious impacts for both countries.

NIGERIA

Unspecified gunmen attacked a village in northern Nigeria’s Kaduna state late Monday, kidnapping at least 18 people (mostly children and their parents) in the process. There’s been no ransom demand yet according to local officials, but one will presumably be forthcoming. The mass abduction phenomenon in northwestern Nigeria has expanded beyond schools, perhaps in part because students are beginning to drop out and authorities are starting to shut the schools down out of fears of further kidnappings.

SÃO TOMÉ AND PRÍNCIPE

Former São Toméan infrastructure minister Carlos Vila Nova handily won Sunday’s presidential runoff against ruling Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe-Social Democratic Party candidate and former prime minister Guilherme Posser da Costa, taking over 57 percent of the vote. Vila Nova will succeed his fellow Independent Democratic Action party member Evaristo Carvalho, who opted not to run for reelection.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

According to the Congolese government, two of its soldiers were killed and another captured by Burundian forces on Monday night during a patrol of Lake Tanganyika, along their mutual border. Congolese officials say the Burundians mistook them for bandits and opened fire on their patrol board. The Burundian government still seems to be telling a different story, though, claiming that its forces did in fact fire on a boat full of bandits, killing two directly and forcing two more to jump overboard and drown.

Congolese authorities are also saying that their forces killed some 40 Cooperative for the Development of the Congo (CODECO) militia fighters in an operation in Ituri province. CODECO is an umbrella group for militias belonging to the Lendu community. Its fighters may have been responsible for an attack in Ituri province on Saturday in which some 30 people were killed, though the Islamist Allied Democratic Forces militia may alternatively have been the perpetrator of that offense.

EUROPE

UKRAINE

Russian authorities are accusing the Ukrainian government of conspiring with Crimean Tatar leaders to blow up a Russian gas pipeline into Crimea last month. A court in Crimea ordered the deputy leader of the Mejlis, a Crimean Tatar legislative body, held in custody for at least the next two months over the alleged plot. The Ukrainian government has denied any involvement in a plot against the pipeline and is accusing Moscow of “political repression” over the jailing of the Tatar leader, Nariman Dzhelyalov.

ROMANIA

Romanian Prime Minister Florin Cîțu’s government may be a bit closer to collapse, after the USR PLUS party quit his coalition on Monday while demanding Cîțu’s resignation. Cîțu canned ex-justice minister and USR PLUS member Stelian Ion earlier this month over Ion’s opposition to a proposed infrastructure development fund. USR PLUS’s move to quit the coalition has been expected. It leaves Cîțu running a minority government, which could be vulnerable to a no-confidence vote. Even if Cîțu were to survive such a vote, though, his ability to actually govern Romania is likely to be severely curtailed.

GERMANY

A new Forsa poll has the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance slipping to 19 percent support with less than three weeks to go before Germany’s upcoming federal election. That is likely the worst poll showing CDU/CSU has had in the history of German political polling. The poll has Germany’s Social Democratic Party building a bit of a cushion with 25 percent support.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

Jair Bolsonaro held his own version of a “Stop the Steal” rally on Tuesday, as large (though perhaps not as large as anticipated) crowds of his supporters gathered in several Brazilian cities to commemorate the country’s Independence Day by airing their pre-emptive grievances over what they assume will be fraud in next year’s presidential election. Bolsonaro reiterated his demand for paper ballot receipts, which at this point isn’t much more than his pre-justification for rejecting what polling suggests will be a decisive loss to former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He’s created an expectation among his supporters, many of whom are inclined to favor anti-democratic alternatives to politics anyway, that if he does lose the election it will have been because he was cheated and therefore other remedies will be in order.

VENEZUELA

Representatives of Nicolás Maduro’s government and its Juan Guaidó-led opposition concluded the first round of their new negotiations in Mexico City on Tuesday with a statement pledging collaboration to “establish mechanisms for the restoration and achievement of resources to meet the social needs of the population with special emphasis on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.” So that seems nice. Vague, but nice. Venezuelan opposition parties recently announced that they will participate in local and state elections later this year, which reflects some progress, and the two sides did agree to hold a second round of talks.

EL SALVADOR

El Salvador officially became the first country in the world to make Bitcoin legal tender on Tuesday, though any excitement over the rollout was tempered when the cryptocurrency’s value declined slightly in Tuesday’s trading. Although President Nayib Bukele has hailed Bitcoin as offering several advantages, including access to financial services for poor Salvadorans and savings on remittance payments from Salvadorans working overseas, polling indicates that most Salvadorans do not support making the currency legal tender and many more don’t really understand what Bitcoin is. A small protest in San Salvador accompanied Bitcoin’s adoption on Tuesday.

CANADA

The New Statesman’s Luke Savage suggests that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau may have made a serious miscalculation in calling for a snap election later this month:

Less than a month ago, polls seemed to give the incumbent Canadian Liberals a significant chance of winning back the majority they lost in the 2019 federal election. After a successful Covid-19 vaccination campaign, and with more than half the country reportedly satisfied with Trudeau’s handling of the pandemic, the prospect of a September election had a clear allure.

Faced with rumblings of a Conservative opposition so fractured that some Tories actually wanted to lose, Liberal strategists evidently anticipated an easy and painless victory. Opportunistic as the gamble so plainly was, few observers expected it to elicit more than a faint grumble from the electorate, even as Canada’s chief public health officer declared the beginning of a fourth Covid wave. In 1974, Trudeau’s own father, Pierre, had called an election only two years after losing his majority and was duly rewarded – a feat today’s Liberals clearly hoped to emulate.

But after a seemingly favourable start, Trudeau’s descent in the polls has been rapid. The Liberals have seen their probable majority evaporate, and are now facing the prospect of haemorrhaging seats to both the Conservatives and the social democrat New Democratic Party (NDP). According to polls, popular opinion of Trudeau himself has also markedly soured and, for the first time, the hitherto untested Tory leader Erin O’Toole has taken a narrow lead in some polls in the category of preferred prime minister. Perhaps most ominously of all, some surveys now detect a desire for change unseen since October 2015 – when the previous Conservative government was decisively ejected from office.

UNITED STATES

A new report from Airwars finds that the US military has killed at least 22,000 civilians and perhaps more than 48,000 in the over 91,000 airstrikes it’s conducted since the September 11 attacks. Airwars’ information is imperfect and its estimates may be imprecise, but it’s better than what the Pentagon is offering in terms of tracking its own civilian kills, which is nothing.

Finally, in addition to the Taliban and US defense contractors, the Washington Post identifies another group of people who have emerged victorious from the Afghan war—the American generals who helped lose the conflict on the battlefield:

The failure of the American mission in Afghanistan became deadly apparent last month when the Afghan army collapsed as the Taliban took control.

But the generals who led the mission — including McChrystal, who sought and supervised the 2009 American troop surge — have thrived in the private sector since leaving the war. They have amassed influence within businesses, at universities and in think tanks, in some cases selling their experience in a conflict that killed an estimated 176,000 people, cost the United States more than $2 trillion and concluded with the restoration of Taliban rule.

The eight generals who commanded American forces in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2018 have gone on to serve on more than 20 corporate boards, according to a review of company disclosures and other releases.

At least a couple of these guys, including Stanley McChrystal, have made millions of dollars trading on their military non-success. Kudos to them.