World roundup: September 9 2021

Stories from Afghanistan, Morocco, Belarus, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 8, 617: Rebels led by the Duke of Tang, Li Yuan, defeat an imperial Sui Dynasty army by luring it out of the city of Huoyi in northern China. The victory left Li Yuan preeminent among the many nobles who were in rebellion against the Sui, and the following June he had himself crowned Emperor Gaozu of the new Tang Dynasty. The Tang ruled China for almost 300 years, from 618 to 907, with a brief 690-705 interregnum during which Empress dowager Wu Zetian declared herself the ruler of China at the head of a “restored” Zhou Dynasty.

September 8, 1380: With a well-timed cavalry charge against the Mongolian flank, an army of united Russian principalities under the command of Prince Dmitry of Moscow defeats the Golden Horde army under the command of a tribal warlord named Maimai at the Battle of Kulikovo. Ironically the battle left the Golden Horde in a stronger position, because the death of Maimai’s puppet khan left the empire under the control of Maimai’s rival, Tokhtamysh. In 1382 he besieged Moscow and violently sacked the city. The battle is nevertheless noteworthy in that it showed the relative decline of Mongolian power and the corresponding rise of Moscow as a center of resistance.

September 9, 1493: The Battle of Krbava Field results in an Ottoman victory over a Croatian army led by the Hungarian viceroy, or ban, of Croatia, Emerik Derenčin. The Croatian army was almost entirely wiped out and Derenčin was killed, and while the Ottomans didn’t seize any territory immediately they were able to slowly expand into southern Croatia after the battle.

September 9, 1855: The nearly year-long Siege of Sevastopol ends with a Russian withdrawal from the city. The siege is among the most famous in history and the centerpiece of the Crimean War—it’s pretty much the reason we call it the “Crimean War” even though most of the other fighting in that conflict took place somewhere other than Crimea. The Allied capture of the city contributed heavily to Russia’s eventual defeat.

September 9, 1948: New premier Kim Il-sung declares the formation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Commemorated annually in North Korea as the “Day of the Foundation of the Republic.”

INTERNATIONAL

In today’s global news:

MIDDLE EAST

IRAQ

The Iranian military reportedly bombarded villages in Iraqi Kurdistan on Thursday, targeting Iranian Kurdish militant groups that operate from the Iraqi side of the border. A senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general, Mohamad Pakpour, warned earlier this week that the IRGC was preparing to undertake some sort of action against those militants inside Iraq. I haven’t seen any casualty figures.

LEBANON

The Lebanese government intends to roll out its new cash assistance program next month, under which roughly 500,000 families are set to receive US$20/month, either in US currency or the black market equivalent in Lebanese pounds, for each family member up to six people. The intent is to replace expensive, broad subsidies on basic goods with a somewhat less expensive and more targeted relief program, which means chances are it’s going to anger a lot of people who will experience the subsidy cut without receiving the new benefit, or for whom the subsidies are worth more than the benefit will be. Another consideration seemingly will be how people receive the cash payout—presumably they’ll be hoping to get paid in dollars, because whatever the pound’s value in US dollars is on any given day, it’s likely to be lower the day after.

EGYPT

Hey, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a cargo ship ran aground inside the Suez Canal on Thursday, blocking commercial traffic. Fortunately for the global supply chain, the blockage only involved one lane and canal authorities were able to direct ships around it, and tugboats were eventually able to refloat the grounded ship. Nevertheless, any incident like this should highlight the precarious dependence global commerce has on this one overused waterway.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

According to the Palestine Red Crescent at least 100 people were wounded on Thursday when Israeli occupation forces attacked multiple demonstrations across the West Bank that were held in solidarity with the six Palestinians who escaped an Israeli prison earlier this week. None of the six has been recaptured and they may have crossed the nearby Jordanian border though their whereabouts are as yet unclear. Israeli authorities are continuing their manhunt and have largely shut down the West Bank to facilitate their operations. They’ve also arrested several relatives of the escapees—ostensibly for having aided in the escape, though the Israeli government has certainly shown that it’s not above inflicting collective punishment on the families of Palestinian militants and they may be holding these relatives in an effort to pressure the escapees into surrendering.

IRAN

One of the loudest voices pushing back against Afghanistan’s new interim (?) government has come from a somewhat surprising place—Iran. During a meeting of representatives of countries bordering Afghanistan on Thursday, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian reportedly expressed some concern that the new cabinet, filled entirely with senior Taliban leaders, does not reflect the group’s promises to form an “inclusive” government. Iranian officials also issued a condemnation of the Taliban’s attack earlier this week on the “National Resistance Front” in the Panjshir Valley. Iran and the Taliban have had a very hot and cold (very cold in the 1990s, considerably warmer over the past several years) relationship, so it’s not terribly surprising that there’s some tension returning now that the Taliban are back in power, but it is a bit surprising to see it happen so quickly. It doesn’t bode well for their ability to manage delicate bilateral affairs on issues like shared water rights.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

In today’s Afghan news:

  • Upwards of 200 people departed Kabul airport on a Qatar Airways passenger jet on Thursday in the first commercial (chartered) flight out of Afghanistan since the end of the Western evacuation last month. Most or all were either citizens or permanent residents of the US and several European nations, suggesting that the Taliban really is going to abide by its promises to allow people to leave Afghanistan provided their travel documents are in order. Another Qatari flight is scheduled to leave Kabul on Friday and more may follow. Qatar and Turkey are providing technical assistance to the Taliban in reopening and operating Kabul airport. Tempering the enthusiasm about this flight somewhat, the chartered flights the Taliban has prevented from departing via the airport at Mazar-i-Sharif are still, as far as I can tell, grounded. Lack of proper travel documents appears to be part of the holdup in that situation.

  • The foreign ministers of Qatar and Pakistan met in Islamabad on Thursday to discuss Afghanistan, after which both made public appeals for the resumption of humanitarian aid to the country. Western governments have been somewhat incoherent on this issue, promising to continue humanitarian aid even as they freeze Afghan reserves and take other steps (sanctions, for example) that could potentially complicate relief efforts and prevent the importation of goods like food and medicine into Afghanistan. Relief organizations, meanwhile, are reportedly trying to figure out how to continue/restore their operations inside Afghanistan while ensuring both the protection of their staffers and that their efforts won’t aggrandize and/or enrich the Taliban.

  • Speaking of sanctions, the Taliban is accusing the US government of violating the agreement the two parties struck last year in Doha. New interim Prime Minister Mohammad Hassan Akhund and Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, to pick two prominent examples, are both under US sanctions and Haqqani even has a $5 million bounty on his head courtesy of Washington. This does seem to violate the terms of the Doha agreement, under which the Trump administration pledged to review US sanctions on Taliban leaders with the aim of lifting them, and to work toward removing United Nations sanctions against the group as well. There is, however, enough wiggle room in the text for the Biden administration to claim that the US was only obliged to review the sanctions, not necessarily to lift them.

NORTH KOREA

The North Korean government held a military parade on Wednesday to commemorate the annual Day of the Foundation of the Republic holiday, and that’s apparently kicked off a new round of Thin Kim Jong-un discourse in Western media. This round is, to be fair, a bit more palatable than the previous rounds because the consensus appears to be that Kim lost weight intentionally so there’s no more wild speculation that he’s suffering from some unknown wasting disease. The discourse is still dumb, but not quite as dumb as it had been.

As for the parade itself the main attraction seems to have been the sight of security forces marching in bright red hazmat gear, reflecting a rather tame focus on the pandemic. Notably absent, apparently, were any ballistic missiles or other weapons that could be viewed as threatening to the United States. Does this suggest that Kim was trying not to antagonize Washington? Could that mean he’s interested in opening a dialogue with the Biden administration? Nobody outside of North Korea knows, but the speculation is already rampant.

AFRICA

World Politics Review’s Chris Olaoluwa Ogunmodede takes the Biden administration to task for continuing the over-militarized Africa policies of its predecessors:

U.S. President Joe Biden campaigned for the 2020 Democratic nomination promising not only to restore the defense of human rights and democracy to a central position in U.S. foreign policy, but also to “build back better” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But for Africa’s 54 countries and 1.4 billion people, despite a welcome change in tone from the administration of former President Donald Trump, there is little to show for the first nine months of Biden’s presidency when it comes to engagement on values—or anything else of substance.

Counter-terrorism continues to trump (no pun intended) considerations of human rights or even of basic engagement with African nations on other than military terms. As Ogunmodede writes, the desperate need for COVID vaccines across Africa is offering the Biden administration a perfect opportunity to change the tenor of US engagement throughout the continent, and it’s frittering that opportunity away in a frenzy of booster shots and vaccine hoarding.

LIBYA

The speaker of the eastern Libyan parliament, Aguila Saleh, signed off on December 24 as the date for Libya’s next presidential election on Thursday. In theory this could clear a significant hurdle on the road toward holding that election. But Saleh appears to have moved unilaterally to approve the new law marking December 24 as the date for the election, without a vote from his House of Representatives, which could be problematic. What is definitely problematic is that the High Council of State, effectively the legislative body in western Libya, has already rejected Saleh’s action and the law itself, deeming it “flawed.” It’s unclear to me what exactly the “flaws” are, but the council issued a statement accusing Saleh of approving the “flawed law” in a deliberate attempt to derail the election. The upshot is that things in Libya are going great and the peace process is definitely proceeding smoothly.

MOROCCO

The results are in and it’s clear that Moroccan voters (well, some of them anyway) dealt the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) a whopper of a defeat in Wednesday’s parliamentary election. PJD, which had been the largest party in Morocco’s House of Representatives with 125 seats heading into the election, has emerged with a scant 12 seats. I’m no political expert but that seems pretty bad to me. The election’s big winner, by contrast, was the National Rally of Independents (RNI), which will now hold around 100 seats (I’ve seen figures ranging from 97 to 102), making it the largest bloc in the 395 seat chamber. The Authenticity and Modernity Party, which is nominally centrist but really serves as the Moroccan monarchy’s legislative cutout, finished second with 82 seats and should be a fairly easy coalition partner for RNI. They may need a third party, but it’s unlikely they’ll have much trouble finding one. RNI leader Aziz Akhannouch, an energy magnate and Morocco’s wealthiest (non-royal) man, could be in line to become prime minister.

NIGERIA

Original Recipe Boko Haram has suffered a couple of apparent setbacks. Nigerian authorities say they’ve arrested Yawi Modu, whom the Associated Press describes as a “high-profile” member of the organization. It’s unclear where exactly he fits into the Boko Haram hierarchy, which at any rate is shrinking pretty rapidly since the death of leader Abubakar Shekau back in May. Nigerian security forces also say they’ve raided two stockpiles of fertilizer used by Boko Haram for bomb-making purposes, one in Borno state and the other in Yobe state. It’s possible either or both of those storage facilities were used by the Islamic State’s West Africa Province affiliate rather than, or even in addition to, Boko Haram.

ETHIOPIA

Tigray People’s Liberation Front fighters are apparently no longer occupying parts of Ethiopia’s Afar province, but there’s a disagreement as to why. According to the Ethiopian government, its security forces defeated the TPLF in Afar and drove it back into the Tigray region, but according to the TPLF those fighters were redeployed from Afar, which has seen relatively little fighting, to the active front in the Amhara region. As usual, there’s not enough information to independently check these conflicting claims.

EUROPE

BELARUS

The Russian and Belarusian militaries (along with several guests) began their annual, week-long “Zapad” military exercises on Thursday, to as usual the great consternation of NATO members in Eastern Europe. Zapad exercises are always massive and there are perpetual concerns that they could serve as a cover for a military action against NATO or that they could lead to some sort of miscalculation that sparks an unintended confrontation. The Russian and Belarusian governments insist the exercise is defensive only.

On a related note, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko headed to Moscow on Thursday to meet with/prostrate himself to Vladimir Putin. The two leaders, or one leader and one deputy depending on your perspective, agreed on several measures to unite their economies, including improved macroeconomic coordination and the adoption of common tax and customs policies. Lukashenko has resisted these kinds of measures in the past, fearing (with some justification) that they were a prelude to Russia’s effective absorption of Belarus, but under heavy Western sanctions he doesn’t have much choice other than to turn toward Russia for support. These measures don’t sound like they go very far toward unification and who knows if they’ll ever be implemented, but they could form the basis for further integration in areas like a common currency and defense.

UKRAINE

An exchange of artillery fire between the Ukrainian military and eastern Ukrainian separatists left at least eight people wounded on Thursday and reportedly disrupted train services. At least six Ukrainian soldiers were wounded in the fighting just north of Donetsk, while the separatists say that at least two civilians were wounded as well. The separatists are claiming that the Ukrainian military opened fire first.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

It looks as though Jair Bolsonaro’s big (though not as big as he’d predicted) rallies on Tuesday may have backfired a bit. Truckers, one of Bolsonaro’s big constituencies, have been blockading highways throughout Brazil for the past couple of days, evidently spurred into action by their leader’s various feuds and grievances. The thing is, their blockades are threatening to cause the Brazilian economy to go into a meltdown at a time when Bolsonaro really can’t afford it politically. So Bolsonaro met with leaders of the trucker protest on Thursday and, it seems, got them to agree to end their demonstration by Sunday.

Well, maybe. At least one of the truckers, a man named Francisco Burgardt, says Bolsonaro did not ask the group to end its protest and furthermore says they won’t end the protest until they get a meeting with Brazilian Senate President Rodrigo Pacheco, who is blocking Bolsonaro’s demand for the impeachment of Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes. Bolsonaro angrily denounced the court, which is investigating him for possible electoral interference, during Tuesday’s rallies, but issued a statement on Thursday insisting that he “never intended to attack any branch of government.”

UNITED STATES

Finally, Win Without War’s Stephen Miles looks back at 20 years since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and all the military activity the United States has tried to justify on the basis of that single event:

From its earliest days, the Bush administration took an expansive view of its new powers in what it called the “Global War on Terror.” Administration lawyers would claim that the 2001 AUMF gave the president legal authority to attack al-Qaida, the Taliban, and so-called “associated forces.” But just who exactly those associated forces were and just how global the war would become remains astonishing. Presidents would ultimately cite the 2001 AUMF’s authority dozens of times in multiple countries around the world.

The first and most famous of the 2001 AUMF’s battlefields was obviously Afghanistan. Within weeks of September 11, major military operations were launched, driving the Taliban from power, and attempting to capture or kill al-Qaida leaders. Over the next two decades, including 10 years after Osama bin Laden was ultimately killed in Pakistan, the United States waged an aimless, futile war in Afghanistan that would kill tens of thousands of Afghans, more than 2,400 U.S. service members, and cost American taxpayers more than $2 trillion.

However, the war was never only waged just in Afghanistan. From the bin Laden raid in Abbottabad to scores of drone strikes and special forces raids across small towns and villages, Pakistan was a major post-9/11 battlefield for U.S. forces. Given their secretive nature, the full scope of these attacks will never be known, but some reliable estimates point to more than 400 strikes that killed thousands, including hundreds of civilians. While it’s currently unknown whether President Biden has authorized strikes in Pakistan, his rhetoric about continued counterterrorism efforts gives little reason to believe this particular post 9/11 battlefield has truly seen its last military action.