World update: March 21-22 2020

Stories from Yemen, Afghanistan, Slovakia, and more

Happy Nowruz to those who are celebrating it!

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March 20, 1815: Having escaped exile on the island of Elba, Napoleon makes his triumphant arrival in Paris as emperor, beginning the “100 days” epilogue to his reign. He would abdicate again on June 22, after losing the Battle of Waterloo and realizing on his return to Paris that there was little public appetite to resist the coalition forces that were marching on the city.

March 20, 1956: Tunisia gains its independence from France; commemorated as Independence Day in Tunisia.

March 20, 1988: The Battle of Afabet, part of the Eritrean War of Independence, ends with the Eritrean People's Liberation Front victorious over an Ethiopian army supported by Soviet “military advisers.” The victory not only left the Eritrean rebels in control of the town, it cost the Ethiopians an estimated 18,000 killed or captured soldiers out of a force that was around 20,000-22,000 strong prior to the battle. It blunted a planned Ethiopian offensive against the rebels and drove the Ethiopian military out of much of western Eritrea.

March 21, 1814: At the Battle of Arcis-sur-Aube, Napoleon is successfully able to disengage his army and retreat in order in the face of a much larger Austrian-Russian-Bavarian opponent. Though this was a tactical success for the French army, strategically the retreat allowed the Allies to move closer to Paris, and this battle was the second-to-last engagement Napoleon fought before the Allies forced him into his first exile.

March 21, 1935: Iranian ruler Reza Shah Pahlavi’s request that the rest of the world call his country “Iran” instead of “Persia” officially takes effect.

March 21, 1968: The Israeli military attacks and destroys a Palestinian refugee camp at Karameh, in Jordan, from which the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Fatah faction had been launching attacks inside Israel. However, owing to the intervention of the Jordanian military, the Israelis were forced to withdraw from the camp and were unable to complete their objective of capturing or killing Fatah leader Yasser Arafat. The battle and its high death toll in the camp led to international condemnation for the Israelis, while Arafat was able to spin the Israeli withdrawal as a victory that boosted Fatah’s prominence in the Palestinian movement and in Jordan. That raised prominence eventually led to friction with Jordanian authorities, which caused the two sides to eventually come to blows in 1970’s Black September conflict.

March 22, 1739: Nader Shah’s Iranian army sacks the Indian city of Delhi.


The latest pandemic tracker numbers show 343,209 confirmed cases of COVID-19 around the world, 231,135 of which are still active, with 14,730 reported fatalities due to the virus. There have been some ominous signs over the weekend of a turn toward militarizing the response to the outbreak, which you’ll see sprinkled in among today’s updates. But on a more positive note the New York Times has compiled some charities that are doing pandemic-related work if you have the means and are of a mind to contribute. I’m donating to GlobalGiving but I don’t say that to sway anybody in that direction over another.



(It remains impossible to assess Yemen’s COVID-19 exposure due to the war)

Yemen analyst Gregory Johnsen has details on the new leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Khalid Batarfi. He believes Batarfi was chosen because he meets both criteria for what AQAP wants in its leader—he’s Yemeni, but also has a substantial international profile:

Other possible candidates, such as Ibrahim al-Banna, Ibrahim al-Qosi and Sa’ad bin Atef al-Awlaki, all checked one box or the other, but not both. Banna and Qosi are both foreigners, from Egypt and Sudan, respectively. Awlaki is the head of AQAP in Shabwa, where he has strong local ties, but is less well known internationally.

Still, it is unclear exactly how much support Batarfi enjoys within the organization. The succession announcement made clear that while AQAP attempted to consult with as many of the group’s top commanders as possible, the operating environment in Yemen meant that not everyone was consulted. AQAP’s top leaders rarely communicate electronically for fear that the United States will be able to turn intercepts into targeting coordinates. Instead they often rely on personal couriers to transmit messages, which can take days to reach the intended recipient, particularly if the courier has to cross one of Yemen’s various frontlines. Order-by-courier is possible, consultation and discussion-by-courier is not. This is one of the (many) reasons that decision-making within the group has devolved in recent years, exacerbating the group’s fragmentation into local or regional nodes.

It is also unclear whether the other three potential candidates to succeed Raymi will fall into line behind Batarfi and offer him their oath of allegiance. Even before Raymi’s death, sources in Shabwa were speaking openly about the possibility of Awlaki supplanting Raymi as the head of AQAP. Whether or not Batarfi can gain their support will go a long way toward determining AQAP’s future.


(248 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 4 reported fatalities)

Somebody murdered a former member of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army militia, Antoine Hayek, in a village near the city of Sidon on Sunday. It’s obviously too soon to draw many conclusions, but another former SLA member, Amer Fakhoury, was released from pre-trial detention by a Lebanese judge last week and left for the US (he has dual citizenship). Fakhoury was arrested on charges that he tortured and killed prisoners at an SLA-run facility during Israel’s 1982-2000 occupation of southern Lebanon, and it’s believed that Hayek was a warden at that same prison. The two men may have been friends and it’s hard not to at least speculate that Fakhoury’s release was the motive for Hayek’s murder.


(945 confirmed cases, 1 reported fatality in Israel; 53 confirmed cases, no reported fatalities in Palestine)

According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “the details have all been agreed” with respect to a national unity government including his Likud Party and opposition leader Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party. But Gantz doesn’t seem to be on the same page, accusing Netanyahu via Twitter of using “ultimatums” and “partial leaks” to manipulate the negotiations. At the center of this deal is a promise from Netanyahu to serve only 18 months as PM before handing power to Gantz for another 18 months, at which point there would be a new election. Netanyahu insists “there will be no tricks,” which presumably means he’s pinky swearing not to stay in office or abruptly call for a new election to prevent Gantz taking over. I’m not sure why anyone in the Israeli opposition would believe him, but then Gantz isn’t really playing with a very strong political hand right now either.

Maybe not going anywhere yet? (State Department photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Netanyahu has framed the necessity of a unity government around Israel’s response to the pandemic, though he’d likely try to use his 18 months as PM to win parliamentary immunity against the multiple corruption charges over which he’s already been indicted. His trial has already been postponed until at least May because of the virus. Gantz’s party, though it’s not clear to me that Gantz himself is involved, is one of several petitioners who are taking Israeli parliament speaker Yuli Edelstein to the Supreme Court to force him to lift his ostensibly coronavirus-related suspension of parliamentary business. That freeze has undermined Gantz’s efforts to negotiate a governing coalition without Netanyahu. How that case goes could determine whether or not this unity government comes to pass. Looming in the background of all of this is the still fairly significant chance that Israel is going to have to hold a fourth straight election to try again to sort out its political gridlock.

Officials in Gaza confirmed that enclave’s first two cases of COVID-19 on Saturday, which could be the precursor to something of a nightmare scenario in an overpopulated area whose medical system and basic infrastructure have been pulverized through years of an Israeli blockade and repeated military strikes. At this point the news is about as good as one could hope, since the two cases were apparently caught at Gaza’s Rafah border crossing with Egypt, and both were quickly quarantined along with anyone with whom they came into contact. But at some point it’s probably going to be impossible to stop the pandemic from taking root in Gaza.


(21,638 confirmed cases, 1685 reported fatalities)

The French government conducted a prisoner exchange with Iran over the weekend, freeing an Iranian engineer named Jalal Rohollahnejad—imprisoned for allegedly violating US sanctions against Iran—in return for the Iranian release of sociologist Roland Marchal. Iranian authorities arrested Marchal along with a colleague who remains in custody, anthropologist Fariba Adelkhah, last year on unspecified charges that they were violating Iranian national security. Washington on Sunday criticized Paris for the move, even though the Trump administration itself just did a similar swap with Iran in December. In this case, though, Rohollahnejad was about to be extradited to the US for prosecution.

Also the administration may be unhappy that Doctors Without Borders (which is based in France) announced Sunday that it’s setting up an emergency COVID-19 treatment center in Isfahan province, seeing as how that might interfere with America’s “kill as many Iranians as it takes until they overthrow their government” approach to regime change. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said in a national address on Sunday that the US has offered its own help with the pandemic but he rejected it, citing the fact that the US is also struggling to contain the virus and the well-traveled conspiracy theory that COVID-19 is actually a US bioweapon run amuck or something to that effect.



(24 confirmed cases, no reported fatalities)

Taliban and Afghan government representatives reportedly held a Skype call on Sunday to discuss the prisoner release that’s holding up further intra-Afghan diplomacy. The Afghan government has balked at Taliban demands that it release 5000 prisoners, which is in line with a clause in the peace agreement Taliban negotiators recently signed with the US but was negotiated without Kabul’s input. Afghan leaders are willing to release those prisoners but want to do so in phases as peace talks progress, while the Taliban wants them all released as a precondition to talks. The coronavirus pandemic may add new urgency to the situation, as prisons are especially vulnerable to outbreaks and if any of those 5000 die while still in captivity it could really complicate efforts to proceed with further negotiations.

Not satisfied with simply threatening any personnel at the International Criminal Court who might dare charge Americans with war crimes in Afghanistan, the Trump administration has now taken to threatening their families as well:

In a move that was stunning even to cold-eyed observers of the Trump administration’s persistent attacks on the International Criminal Court (ICC), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced last Tuesday that the U.S. would seek to sanction not only the staff of the ICC, two of whom he cited by name, but also their families, in order to punish the court for its efforts to pursue an investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity in Afghanistan since 2003, including crimes committed by U.S. forces there.

Pompeo explicitly named the ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda’s chef de cabinet, Sam Shoamanesh, and the court’s Head of Jurisdiction, Complementarity, and Cooperation, Phakiso Mochochoko, for “helping drive ICC prosecutor Bensouda’s effort to use this court to investigate Americans,” claiming that, by doing so, they are “putting Americans at risk.” In a naked act of coercion, Pompeo explicitly threatened both these staff members and their family members, citing travel bans as an example of the punishment they would face: “We want to identify those responsible for this partisan investigation and their family members who may want to travel to the United States or engage in activity that’s inconsistent with making sure we protect Americans.”

It should go without saying that there’s no legal justification for a threat like this, and it’s probably worth noting that the administration could preempt any ICC prosecutions by credibly prosecuting US personnel itself. But Donald Trump has already pardoned multiple war criminals convicted by the US military justice system, so there’s no chance he’d be interested in prosecuting anyone investigated by the ICC.


Officially it remains the case that North Korea hasn’t had a single COVID-19 infection. This is more an article of faith than anything else. Anecdotal and unconfirmed reports out of North Korea strongly suggest it’s not true, as does Pyongyang’s recent activity. Kim Jong-un’s letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in earlier this month, while couched as an expression of sympathy for South Korea’s coronavirus problem, may well have been a subtle request for aid, for example. Even Saturday morning’s missile test seems like it might have been less a weapons test than a signal to the rest of the world that North Korea is still there. Now Pyongyang says that Donald Trump sent a letter to Kim that in part “expressed his intent to render cooperation in the anti-epidemic work.” The Trump administration acknowledged the letter, but whether it will lead to any aid flowing to North Korea or even help get diplomacy back on track obviously remains to be seen.



(Libya’s ongoing war has made it impossible to assess coronavirus cases)

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres is reportedly pleased that both Libya’s Government of National Accord in Tripoli and its rival government in Tobruk have responded “positively” to calls for a ceasefire in order to bolster Libya’s ability to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak. Which is nice, I guess. What would be nicer is an actual ceasefire, to which they haven’t actually agreed. Both governments have already taken containment measures amid fears that their war is preventing detection efforts and that Libya’s battered healthcare sector isn’t going to be able to cope with a major outbreak.


(64 confirmed cases, 3 reported fatalities)

Testing continues to lag behind fears of COVID-19’s spread across Africa. In Burkina Faso, which so far has only confirmed 64 cases of the virus, no fewer than four cabinet ministers have tested positive for infection. Now, I’m not saying it’s entirely outside the realm of possibility for a country to have 64 cases of the infection and four of them just happen to be in the cabinet, but while I am no statistician, the odds of that seem fairly steep. Couple that with reports that there are only 400 COVID-19 test kits in all of Burkina Faso—and that they’re only available at three medical facilities in the entire country—and I think it’s reasonable to suspect that maybe the outbreak there is more serious than official figures indicate.


(14 confirmed cases, 1 reported fatality)

This bit isn’t specific to Mauritius, though it’s relevant there as Mauritian officials announced that country’s first COVID-19 fatality on Saturday. It is instead about the spread of the virus across Africa. Three countries announced their first confirmed cases over the weekend—Angola (2 cases), Eritrea (1 case), and Uganda (1 case)—and if you go back to Friday you can add a fourth, Zimbabwe (which now has at least 2 confirmed cases). Africa remains the continent least affected by COVID-19 but that may not be the case for very much longer.



(76 confirmed cases, 2 reported fatalities)

The Albanian government turned to the army over the weekend to enforce a mandatory 40 hour curfew to try to contain the pandemic. As in many other countries, Albanians have been…oh, let’s say slow to adopt recommendations to stay indoors and avoid other people. So the Albanian government imposed a full lockdown starting at 1 PM Saturday, with the army and police authorized to use tear gas and other tactics to keep people in line. Several other countries have either been edging up to this line or have crossed it already, and many more are likely to do so until the pandemic shows some signs of abating.


(178 confirmed cases, no reported fatalities)

Slovakia has a new government. In the wake of the Ordinary People and Independent Personalities party’s (OLaNO) victory in last month’s parliamentary election, President Zuzana Čaputová on Saturday appointed a new ruling coalition led by OLaNO boss Igor Matovič and including three other center-right parties. Matovič, who campaigned on a strongly anti-corruption agenda, isn’t exactly taking office at the most opportune time, and his plans to drain the swamp, so to speak, are going to have to take a back seat to shepherding the country through the pandemic.


(24,852 confirmed cases, 94 reported deaths)

German authorities have now banned all public gatherings of more than two people unless they’re either gathering for work or are all living in the same household. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to self-quarantine after a doctor who gave her a vaccination on Friday tested positive for COVID-19.


(59,138 confirmed cases, 5476 reported fatalities)

Italy remains the new epicenter of the pandemic, and also continues to experience one of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates in the world at roughly 9.26 percent. No other country with more than 1000 confirmed infections has shown a mortality rate that high. Another 651 Italians died of the virus on Sunday, a day after it killed a whopping 793 Italians. This weekend death toll has prompted authorities to ban all travel within Italy and shut down all non-essential businesses. That may still not be enough, as Rome’s definition of “non-essential” is subjective and some labor leaders have argued that it’s too broad to effectively contain the virus.



(231 confirmed cases, 2 reported fatalities)

They won’t show up on any list of people who died due to COVID-19, but at least 23 people were killed on Saturday when a riot broke out at a prison in Bogotá during what was apparently a mass escape attempt motivated by coronavirus fears. Prisons are potential death traps for their inmates should the virus break out inside, and in at least one cell phone video taken during the riot a prisoner says that inmates at the facility have been “abandoned like dogs” in the pandemic.


(25 confirmed cases, 1 reported fatality)

Italy is scrambling to find enough doctors to treat its massive and growing number of COVID-19 patients, and to help alleviate the shortage they’ve now turned to Cuba—the first time any European country has done so:

This is interesting, because recently it’s been explained to me that Cuba is Bad, that everything about Cuba is Bad, and that we must never, ever make the mistake of saying that anything about Cuba is Good. I guess when it’s a matter of actual life and death it’s OK to acknowledge that real life is a bit more nuanced than Cold War propaganda might have allowed.


(35,352 confirmed cases, 460 reported fatalities)

Finally, as I noted above some countries like Albania are turning to the military to help enforce COVID-19 containment procedures. Which I suppose is not entirely out of bounds in the middle of this sort of emergency situation. But once the military starts getting involved in domestic law enforcement that can get out of hand fairly quickly, which is why it’s probably not a great sign that the Pentagon is reportedly planning for just such a development in the US:

With the National Guard now active in 22 states and governors continuing to declare more severe emergency measures daily, the U.S. military is preparing forces to assume a larger role in the coronavirus response, including the controversial mission of quelling "civil disturbances" and enforcing the law, a mission that the military has not engaged in for almost 30 years.

Within military circles, opinion is split over whether federal forces should muscle their way in to do more. State governors and their respective National Guard units, not the federal government and the active duty military, are primarily responsible for handling domestic emergencies: that's the law and it's also common sense, since local officials are always closer to a crisis and generally more familiar with the people affected.

The civil disturbance mission requires a deft hand that men and women who have been in battle might not have, and some question whether soldiers are trained or appropriate. The Pentagon contingency plan for dealing with civil disturbances also does not anticipate any scenario like coronavirus, where widespread deployment would thrust more responsibility into the hands of low-level commanders on the scene. There, military insiders say, the policies governing when federal troops can intervene and when they can use force are skewed towards absolutes more appropriate for a foreign battlefield.

Under normal circumstances this kind of talk would be alarming. Under Donald Trump, who doesn’t really take dissent very well and whose Justice Department is also asking for expanded powers to curtail civil liberties because of the crisis, it’s something more than that.