World update: June 27-28 2020

Stories from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Poland, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

June 26, 1243: The Battle of Köse Dağ

June 26, 1794: The French Republican army defeats the Coalition army at the Battle of Fleurus, in the Austrian Netherlands (nowadays Fleurus is in Belgium. The victory opened the Netherlands to French forces and also involved the first successful use of aircraft (a French reconnaissance balloon) in a military context.

June 26, 1995: Qatari Crown Prince Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani overthrows his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, in a bloodless coup while Sheikh Khalifa is away in Switzerland. Sheikh Hamad ruled as emir until 2013, when he abdicated in favor of his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

June 27, 1950: The Truman administration decides to send forces to South Korea to counter the North Korean invasion that had begun two days earlier. The administration chose to intervene after receiving information that the Soviets would not get involved and that the North Korean invasion wasn’t a diversion meant to set up a Soviet invasion of Yugoslavia, Greece, or another European country.

June 27, 1991: The Ten Day War begins when a Yugoslav army invades Slovenia in response to that republic’s declaration of independence two days earlier. It ended on July 7 with the signing of the Brioni Agreement in which Slovenia and Croatia agreed to delay their independence movements for three months. For Slovenia this meant an end to the fighting, but the Croatian War of Independence continued until 1995.

June 28, 1914: A group of six members of the Serbian irredentist paramilitary group known as the “Black Hand” attack Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife as they’re visiting Sarajavo. Although their initial bombing attempt failed, one of the six attackers, Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed both of them after a reception involving the mayor of Sarajevo and the governor of Bosnia. Arguably one of the most consequential acts in world history, within a month the assassination had caused Serbia and Austria-Hungary to declare war on one another, and when their allies jumped into the pool as well the result was World War I.

The front page of the New York Times reporting the assassination (Wikimedia Commons)

June 28, 1919: The Treaty of Versailles is signed, ending Germany’s involvement in World War I. This is the most important of the multiple World War I treaties, which include the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye with Austria in September 1919, the Treaty of Trianon with Hungary in June 1920, and the Treaty of Sèvres with the rump Ottoman Empire in August 1920. The terms of Sèvres were largely superseded by the July 1923 Treaty of Lausanne that ended the Turkish War of Independence.

INTERNATIONAL

Worldometer’s coronavirus figures for June 28:

  • 10,238,287 confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide (4,184,251 active, +163,172 since yesterday)

  • 504,078 reported fatalities (+3454 since yesterday)

In this weekend’s global news:

  • Yes, we did it folks—we made it to 10 million confirmed coronavirus cases. And when I say “we” I obviously mean all of humanity, but I also especially mean those of us in the United States, because we’ve done more than anyone else to get the world to this milestone. Go us! To be fair, these are only confirmed cases and it’s likely there have been many more cases that haven’t been confirmed, but something tells me the US would still be at the top of the list even if we were able to count everybody. I guess it’s just my belief in American Exceptionalism.

  • We’re also up over half a million deaths, and here too that number is probably lower than the actual COVID-19 death toll but it’s still quite a milestone. The US has accounted for about a quarter of these deaths just as it’s accounted for about a quarter of the total number of cases. Never let it be said that we don’t pull our weight, and then some.

  • A donor conference on Saturday raised some $6.9 billion for international pandemic response efforts, with most of that (around $4.9 billion) coming from the European Commission and the European Investment Bank. The United States pledged the largest amount from a single country, $545 million, but it’s unclear whether it will attach any strings to that money to ensure that it doesn’t wind up in the hands of the World Health Organization. The Trump administration cut off US support for the WHO earlier this year over claims that the organization has been too deferential to China.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

  • 256 confirmed coronavirus cases (unchanged)

  • 9 reported fatalities (unchanged)

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, unknown aircraft attacked a Syrian militia base near the Syrian-Iraqi border on Saturday, killing at least six people. The strike allegedly occurred shortly after a visit to that part of Syria by the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Esmail Ghaani. The implication, then, is that Ghaani was the target and the strike was carried out by Israel, though I suppose the US wouldn’t be out of the question either. The supposed visit by Ghaani is speculation, but it’s based on a report to that effect that appeared in and was then quietly pulled from Iran’s Tasnim News Agency on Saturday.

A second presumably Israeli airstrike in eastern Syria on Sunday reportedly killed at least nine militia fighters, again according to the SOHR.

YEMEN

  • 1118 confirmed cases (+15)

  • 302 reported fatalities (+6)

The New Arab reported Saturday that a Bahraini soldier died in Yemen, though there’s no indication as to where, when, or how it happened. The Bahraini government announced the death late Friday so presumably he was killed either earlier that day or the day before. Elsewhere, the Yemeni military is claiming that it was able to regain some positions in Bayda province that it had lost to the Houthi rebels.

IRAQ

  • 45,402 confirmed cases (+2140)

  • 1756 reported fatalities (+96)

One Turkish soldier was killed Sunday in a battle with Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) forces in northern Iraq. Turkey’s operations in northern Iraq are continuing despite several civilian deaths and several complaints from the Iraqi government.

LEBANON

  • 1740 confirmed cases (+21)

  • 34 reported fatalities (+1)

The office of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri claims that Lebanese police are investigating what may have been an attempted bombing of a convoy containing Hariri in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley earlier this month. There’s apparently evidence that an explosion near the convoy was caused by a missile, though nobody was hurt in the blast. Hariri’s office says the ex-PM opted not to go public about the incident in order to give authorities time to look into it. It’s not clear why they’re suddenly going public about it now.

SAUDI ARABIA

  • 182,493 confirmed cases (+3989)

  • 1551 reported fatalities (+40)

Saudi officials said Saturday that the kingdom’s coast guard fired warning shots to drive off three Iranian boats that had entered Saudi waters on Thursday. The Saudis said that they’d warned the vessels to no effect. While the implication is that these were Iranian naval vessels, Iranian state media is claiming (without specifying when) that a group of Iranian fishing boats recently came under fire from Saudi forces.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

  • 30,967 confirmed cases (+351)

  • 721 reported fatalities (+18)

A bombing in Kabul on Saturday killed two members of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. No group has claimed responsibility, but the Islamic State has been active in Kabul recently while the Taliban is supposed to be avoiding major population centers under the terms of its agreement with the United States.

Donald Trump on Sunday amplified his insistence that he has never been briefed on allegations that a Russian military intelligence unit offered bounties to Taliban fighters for killing coalition forces in Afghanistan. I don’t have anything to add to this story beyond what I wrote in my latest Subscribers Essay, which I decided to unlock after I posted it so even if you’re not a subscriber you can read it at your convenience. But I will link you to Juan Cole’s piece on the story, which I think adds to my own uncertainty about why the Russians would have done what they’re alleged to have done:

You could see a program to increase US troop casualties as an attempt to demoralize Washington and speed the US departure from Afghanistan.

The problems with that theory are many. First, there isn’t a need to give Trump a reason to leave. Trump has long wanted to withdraw all US troops from that country. He believes that the white working class resents spending blood and treasure there after all these years. He thinks he can run on getting out of Afghanistan as an accomplishment. High US government officials are trying to convince Trump to leave at least 1,500 US troops in country to gather intelligence. He seems to want zero troops there.

Second, it isn’t clear that Russia wants the US out of Afghanistan. In fact, when President Obama was preparing to pull out early in his second term, Russian president Vladimir Putin pleaded with him not to do it.

The Russians are worried about the Islamic State spreading into Central Asia and thereby potentially into southern Russia. That’s one reason why they’ve been offering some support to the Taliban (though the Russians don’t seem completely enthusiastic about them either), but it’s also a reason for them to want the US to stay in Afghanistan. Another reason is that it’s in Russia’s interests geopolitically to have the US squandering resources in Afghanistan indefinitely. Since we don’t know the scope of the alleged bounty operation, one of many things we don’t know with respect to this story, it could be that the Russian intelligence unit supposedly behind it is acting on its own initiative. But if this is a full-fledged Kremlin-approved program it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense at first glance.

INDIA

  • 549,197 confirmed cases (+19,620)

  • 16,487 reported fatalities (+384)

More satellite imagery appears to show both the Indian and Chinese militaries building fortified positions close to their poorly-defined Ladakh-Aksai Chin border. So much for deescalation, I guess. Both Indian and Chinese officials seem to be saying the right things about their border tensions while doing the opposite. The two sides have agreed to build observation posts in the disputed Galwan Valley region, but these new constructions seem decidedly more military in nature.

MYANMAR

  • 299 confirmed cases (+6)

  • 6 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Thousands of people have reportedly been ordered to evacuate their homes in Myanmar’s Rakhine state ahead of a planned “clearance operation” by the Myanmar military against “terrorists” in the region. The last time the Myanmar military used that term in relation to Rakhine state it carried out a mass ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya. In this case it appears the “terrorists” in question belong to the Buddhist separatist Arakan Army group. Nevertheless, given its track record it’s unlikely the military will be particularly careful about sparing civilians caught in the line of fire.

AFRICA

ETHIOPIA

  • 5689 confirmed cases (+119)

  • 98 reported fatalities (+4)

So you know how back on Friday the governments of Egypt and Sudan both said that the Ethiopian government had agreed not to begin filling the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam’s reservoir without an accord in place on water usage? And how there was a curious silence on that front from the Ethiopian government itself? Well, about that. It turns out that there really is no agreement not to fill the GERD’s reservoir without a deal, and in fact the Ethiopian government is still preparing to start filling it as soon as next month, regardless of diplomatic niceties. What the three countries actually have is a “hope,” as Reuters puts it, that a new round of talks brokered by the African Union will lead to a deal before the Ethiopians decide to get on with it. Good for them.

The AU claims that “90 percent” of the issues have been resolved, which sounds great except for the fact that these three countries have been “90 percent” of the way to a deal for what seems like about a year now. The issue remains the speed at which Ethiopia plans to fill the reservoir, and their sensitivity to weather patterns. The GERD sits on the Blue Nile, one of the largest tributaries of the Nile River. The Ethiopians are eager for the electricity the GERD will generate and want to fill its reservoir as fast as possible in order to bring it online as quickly as possible. But if they fill the reservoir too fast, or aren’t sensitive enough to weather conditions along the way, it will cause potentially crippling water shortages downstream, meaning in Sudan and Egypt. Water is one of a handful of things that are truly existential, which makes this potentially a very volatile situation.

KENYA

  • 6070 confirmed cases (+259)

  • 143 reported fatalities (+2)

Kenyan journalist Carey Baraka says that Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is turning control of his capital over to the military, and may have bigger plans in store:

As Kenya reels from the coronavirus pandemic, a shift in power is underway in Nairobi, with municipal duties being transferred from elected public officials into the hands of military men. Even Sonko, who in April captured global attention for including bottles of Hennessy in coronavirus care packages for the public, has spoken out against the militarization. He says he was hoodwinked into signing documents he didn’t understand and has now taken the national government to court on the grounds that the deal is unconstitutional.

The militarization of Nairobi and the subsequent transfer of the county’s administration into the president’s office is a brazen power grab by Kenyatta; even more worrying is the fact that the moves have gone unchecked by Kenya’s parliament. With presidential elections due in 2022 and Kenyatta’s two-term limit up, the shift also raises questions about succession and whether he intends to attempt to remain in presidential office. Kenyatta’s allies are already clamoring to remove the term limits, and Kenyatta’s move to seize control of Nairobi raises questions about whether he will flout the norms again in two years.

RWANDA

  • 900 confirmed cases (+22)

  • 2 reported fatalities (unchanged)

According to the Rwandan government, three of its soldiers were wounded Friday in an attack from an unknown group that crossed into the country from Burundi. Four of the attackers were apparently killed before the group hightailed it back across the border. The Rwandan government has in the past accused Burundi of sheltering militants, though Burundi denies this (the Burundian government also makes the same accusation against Rwanda’s government) and given the political transition happening right now in Burundi this seems like an odd time to be supporting an armed incursion.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

  • 6827 confirmed cases (+137)

  • 157 reported fatalities (+4)

Congolese Justice Minister Célestin Tunda spent a few hours in police custody in Kinshasa on Saturday for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. There’s a good deal of speculation that the brief arrest may have been intended as a message from President Félix Tshisekedi to the Common Front for Congo (FCC), the coalition led by his predecessor, Joseph Kabila, that controls the Congolese parliament and therefore holds most of the cards in Tshisekedi’s government.

The two presidents have been in a somewhat uneasy alliance since the 2018 election, which Kabila…oh, let’s say “steered” in Tshisekedi’s favor. They’re in a sort of coalition relationship now. But the FCC is now pushing legal changes that would put more prosecutorial discretion in the hands of politicians, possibly undermining the Congolese judiciary. The idea has met with some public opposition in the form of protests in Kinshasa. Tunda is a senior FCC figure, and there are reports that he and Tshisekedi have argued in cabinet meetings about these changes. Another senior FCC figure is Prime Minister Sylvestre Ilunga, who’s now threatening to resign and bring down his own government, which would signal the end of the alliance and could really leave the DRC in a political crisis.

MALAWI

  • 1146 confirmed cases (+108)

  • 13 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Lazarus Chakwera officially took the oath of office as Malawi’s new president on Sunday, one day after officials confirmed his victory in Tuesday’s election. Chakwera won just over 58.5 percent of the vote, finishing well ahead of incumbent Peter Mutharika, who took just under 40 percent. Mutharika has criticized the outcome and his party has called for the annulment of the election, but he does not appear to be planning any serious challenge to Chakwera’s ascension. The election is something of a milestone, given that it involved the overturning of last year’s presidential election (which Mutharika “won”) over widespread fraud allegations and was, apparently, a clean election. Not exactly something you see every day.

MOZAMBIQUE

  • 859 confirmed cases (+43)

  • 5 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Islamist militants reportedly attacked the town of Mocímboa da Praia in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado on Saturday. Details are still sparse but it’s believed that casualties among Mozambican security forces are high. Mocímboa da Praia is close to the site of a multi-billion dollar offshore gas field that’s currently being developed by Western energy companies Exxon Mobil and Total. It was the target of another attack by the insurgents, who claim to have links to the Islamic State, back in March.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

  • 634,437 confirmed cases (+6791)

  • 9073 reported fatalities (+104)

The Russian government insists that its nuclear facilities are not the reason why there’s been an increase in radioactive particles in the air around the Baltic Sea region. The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment previously suggested that the particles may have come from a malfunctioning nuclear power plant in northwestern Russia, but according to Moscow there’s been no increase in radiation around either of its power plants in that region. This means the cause of the elevated particle levels remains unknown, which is probably not great. The levels are not high enough to be harmful to humans but they could signal that something, somewhere, isn’t working right and may foreshadow a more serious situation.

POLAND

  • 33,907 confirmed cases (+193)

  • 1438 reported fatalities (+3)

As expected, far-right incumbent Andrzej Duda “won” the first round of Poland’s presidential election on Sunday. Also as expected, he did not do well enough to win the election outright and now faces a runoff that may very well go against him. He will be up against center-right Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski, who according to exit polling took a bit over 30 percent of the vote compared with Duda’s nearly 42 percent, on July 12. Duda should be considered the favorite to win the second round, but recent polling has suggested it could be close and that Trzaskowski does have a chance of winning. If Duda loses it could be damaging to the ruling Law and Justice Party’s agenda, since Polish presidents can veto legislation.

UNITED KINGDOM

  • 311,151 confirmed cases (+901)

  • 43,550 reported fatalities (+36)

Boris Johnson says he’s ready to withdraw the UK from the European Union “on Australian terms” if the two sides are unable to reach agreement on a free trade deal by the end of the year. “Australian terms” basically means on World Trade Organization terms with a few small agreements covering specific commercial sectors, or in other words a “no deal Brexit.” It sounds better when you say “Australian terms,” except inasmuch as Australia doesn’t sit about 35 kilometers away from the European Union and doesn’t conduct that much trade with EU member states. The UK, on the other hand, does sit about 35 kilometers away from the EU and conducts a little less than half of its total commerce with EU members. So reverting to WTO rules is likely to hit the UK a little differently than it hits Australia.

IRELAND

  • 25,439 confirmed cases (+2)

  • 1735 reported fatalities (+1)

Fianna Fáil party leader Micheál Martin officially took over as Ireland’s new prime minister on Saturday, one day after his party’s three way coalition with traditional rival Fine Gael and the Irish Green Party was finalized. His immediate task will, obviously, be rebuilding the Irish economy in the wake of the pandemic, while ideally avoiding another major coronavirus outbreak.

ICELAND

  • 1838 confirmed cases (+2)

  • 10 reported fatalities (unchanged)

Incumbent Guðni Jóhannesson barely eked out a victory in Saturday’s Icelandic presidential election, winning a scant 92 percent of the vote. The Icelandic presidency is a fairly weak office and Jóhannesson seems particularly reluctant to exercise even what little power it does have. His conservative opponent, Guðmundur Jónsson, actually ran on being a little more active as president and, well, that clearly wasn’t a winning message.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

  • 1,345,254 confirmed cases (+29,313)

  • 57,658 reported fatalities (+555)

A new survey from Brazil’s Datafolha polling institute finds that 75 percent of the Brazilian public likes living in a democracy, which seems relevant given that their president, Jair Bolsonaro, doesn’t. A similar Datafolha poll in December found that only 62 percent supported democracy, so that’s a substantial increase that may reflect a backlash against the buffoonery that Bolsonaro has displayed so far this year in the face of the pandemic.

GUYANA

  • 230 confirmed cases (unchanged)

  • 12 reported fatalities (unchanged)

The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour describes the stakes and the situation surrounding Guyana’s disputed March election:

The political stakes in Guyana have risen massively since May 2015 when Exxon Mobil discovered oil reserves potentially worth more than $100bn (£80bn) 200km (124 miles) off the coast — a find big enough to transform a Latin American country of fewer than 1 million people with a GDP of $3bn largely based on sugar, timber, molasses and bauxite. Its current income of $5,250 per head is projected to rise to above $10,000 next year alone.

In a court-enforced and delayed regional and general election on 2 March, the ruling president, David Granger, a retired general, claimed victory and control of the assembly, but was then forced to hold a national recount since it was evident a massive voter fraud had been perpetrated. A recount found the opposition party had won the most votes.

A court hearing next Wednesday due to be held at Guyana’s highest court, the Caribbean court of justice, has been called to settle the issue finally more than three months after the Guyanese went to the polls. But there are signs that Granger will not recognise the court’s jurisdiction, placing the international community in a dilemma.

UNITED STATES

  • 2,637,077 confirmed cases (+40,540)

  • 128,437 reported fatalities (+285)

Finally, at Responsible Statecraft, Johns Hopkins’ Stuart Schrader looks at the intersection between foreign policy and domestic police reform:

No policy prescription has ever gained as much traction as quickly as “defund the police” did over the past few weeks. To defund police is a way to shrink the scale and scope of their responsibilities, with the goal of dramatically decreasing everyday police encounters, particularly with the economically and racially marginalized.

During the current uprisings, the police response has often included officers wearing military-style gear, as well as the occasional appearance of urban warfare tactics, confirming fears that the overseas wars of the past two decades would boomerang to the homefront.

Widespread deployment of the chemical CS by police, while it is mostly banned from use by the U.S. military, has led protesters to wonder whether police are attempting to de-escalate confrontations and disperse crowds or attack, using the painful chemical as an offensive weapon as if against an enemy.

These actions raise the question of what a more just, less cruel United States would look like. Given the increasingly apparent entanglements between overseas war and domestic policing, the common demand to defund police provides a blueprint for a new covenant at home and abroad. Defunding police could be the foundation for a new foreign policy.