Conflict update: March 30-31 2017

Skipping yesterday was probably a bad idea. There’s plenty here for a two-parter, so as I’ve done before I’m going to put all the Middle Eastern stuff in a separate post.


The F-35 is the most expensive weapon (well, it’s intended to be a weapon, anyway) ever manufactured, with an estimated total cost upwards of $1.5 trillion over the next half-century. For that expense, much of which has already been paid–and could have been put toward healthcare, schools, aid to the poorest of the poor, repairing infrastructure, improving cyber defenses, or any of countless other things that are more important than the F-35–what we’ve purchased is an aircraft that is supposed to do a lot of different things and in reality is terrible at almost all of them:

The F-35 still has a long way to go before it will be ready for combat. That was the parting message of Michael Gilmore, the now-retired Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, in his last annual report.

The Joint Strike Fighter Program has already consumed more than $100 billion and nearly 25 years. Just to finish the basic development phase will require at least an extra $1 billion and two more years. Even with this massive investment of time and money, Gilmore told Congress, the Pentagon and the public, “the operational suitability of all variants continues to be less than desired by the Services.”

Gilmore detailed a range of remaining and sometimes worsening problems with the program, including hundreds of critical performance deficiencies and maintenance problems. He also raised serious questions about whether the Air Force’s F-35A can succeed in either air-to-air or air-to-ground missions, whether the Marine Corps’ F-35B can conduct even rudimentary close air support, and whether the Navy’s F-35C is suitable to operate from aircraft carriers.

He found, in fact, that “if used in combat, the F-35 aircraft will need support to locate and avoid modern threat ground radars, acquire targets, and engage formations of enemy fighter aircraft due to unresolved performance deficiencies and limited weapons carriage availability.”

On the plus side, it doesn’t suffocate its pilots anymore. Probably.

The F-35, to me, is the sign that we Americans are never going to actually stand up and take action to put our government back in its place. This is a weapon whose value would be questionable if it worked, but it doesn’t even work, at all, and yet we’re shoveling hundreds of billions of dollars at Lockheed-Martin to keep making it. Why? Because Lockheed-Martin knows what levers to pull in Washington. This is money literally being stolen from the vast majority of us and handed to a defense contractor in exchange for something that doesn’t work and most likely never will work because its very design is flawed. If $1.5 trillion flushed down the toilet–while our government tells people who can’t afford health insurance and children who don’t get enough to eat to go fuck themselves–isn’t enough to enrage us, then nothing ever will be.


Michael Flynn, who may be nibbling on a block of Gouda right now for all I know, says he’s ready to rat out Donald Trump testify about Russiaghazigate to Congress but he wants immunity from prosecution beforehand. This suggests that he knows he did something illegal, and the reason I say that is because in 2016 one Michael Flynn told me that anybody who gets immunity probably committed a crime. Unfortunately for Flynn, he’s apparently been shopping this immunity deal around–to the FBI, for example–and so far nobody wants to take him up on it, including (at this point) the Senate. That suggests, and I’m sorry to be Debbie Downer for the Trump-to-Leavenworth folks, that Flynn isn’t really offering anything that investigators want badly enough to forego the chance to prosecute him.


We spend a lot of time in these updates talking about governments around the world who are suppressing protect and political opposition. Say, you don’t suppose that kind of thing could happen in the US, do you?

Nineteen U.S. states have introduced bills that would curb freedom of expression and the right to protest since Donald Trump’s election as president, an “alarming and undemocratic” trend, U.N. human rights investigators said on Thursday.

Concerns for free speech in the United States have risen in part because of the Republican Trump’s antagonistic relations with prominent U.S. media, which he has branded “the enemy of the American people” as it has reported on policy missteps and dysfunction in his administration.

The push for stricter laws on expression has come as Trump’s liberal foes have pursued public protest against his policies on issues ranging from immigration to abortion and climate change.

Maina Kiai and David Kaye, independent U.N. experts on freedom of peaceful assembly and expression respectively, said in a statement that the state bills were incompatible with international human rights law.

Oh. Huh. Well, it’s still bad when other countries do it.


Armenia will be holding parliamentary elections on Sunday during what may be a period of transition for the country. Current President Serzh Sarksyan is term-limited, and so he’s overseen a change in the structure of the Armenian government that gives most executive authority to the prime minister and makes the presidency a ceremonial office elected by parliament rather than directly by voters. It’s very possible that Sarksyan intends to shuffle himself over to the prime minister’s office (the “Half Putin” or, if you prefer, the “Reverse Erdoğan”) and wanted direct control over choosing Armenia’s next president, hence all the changes. But opinion polling is pretty tight, so there’s a chance that Sarksyan’s Republican Party of Armenia might not win on Sunday, in which case all his plans with have been for naught.


Jamaat ul-Ahrar claimed responsibility for a car bombing in the predominantly Shiʿa northwest Pakistani city of Parachinar today that killed at least 24 people.


At least 12 people (ten insurgents and two soldiers) were killed today in fighting between Philippine soldiers and communist insurgents in the eastern town of General Nakar.

Meanwhile, allies of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte are reportedly trying to subvert elections in order to give Duterte the authority to appoint village councils all over the country. They insist that Duterte needs this authority because of the war on drugs, and at this point I think we have to start asking what the hell kind of drugs they’re using in the Philippines, because it must be some strong shit if they need to replace their democracy with a vigilante dictatorship to combat the problem. Look, I know it may come as a surprise that a man who’s already confessed to multiple murders might not respect the rule of law or popular sovereignty, but that appears to be what’s happening with Duterte.


Park Guen-hye completed the full “president to prisoner” circuit when she was arrested yesterday on the same corruption charges that caused her impeachment and removal from office earlier this month. There is now a fairly decent possibility, as far as I understand it, that Park could be in prison for the rest of her life. That’s the maximum sentence on some of the charges she’s facing.


The Treasury Department today instituted new sanctions against a North Korean business and eleven individuals connected with North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Elsewhere, nine Malaysian nationals who had been held in North Korea against their will for the past several weeks were allowed to return home today. In exchange, Malaysia delivered Kim Jong-nam’s body to Pyongyang, and gave safe passage to three North Korean nationals who had been wanted for questioning in connection with Kim’s February 13 murder.


Beijing has instituted some impressively repressive security measures in Xinjiang in an effort to curb Uyghur-related terrorism in the province. Businesses in Kashgar are subject to thrice-daily anti-terror drills and have been forced to install security doors, alarms, and surveillance gear at their own expense. Metal detectors and security screening have been installed in high-traffic public places. Uyghurs are required to denounce extremism and pledge their loyalty to China at weekly ceremonies. Veils and “abnormal” beards have been banned. I guess all of this is preferable to just, you know, treating the Uyghurs as human beings rather than conquered subjects, but I have a hard time understanding how.


Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army has begun a new operation in southern Libya against the Third Force, a move that’s been in the cards for some time now. Alex Thurston offers some context at his Sahel Blog:

Something like 90% of Libyans live in northern coastal cities, but what happens in the south matters a great deal: southern towns are key nodes in commerce, smuggling, and migration, and the south has significant security infrastructure. Observers are also warning that the so-called Islamic State is attempting to regroup in southern Libya after its recent defeat and expulsion from Sirte. Finally, it’s worth adding that some southern politicians are frustrated with the GNA: Musa al-Koni, representative of the Tuareg (a major ethnic group in southwestern Libya) on the GNA’s Presidency Council, resigned in disgust in January. It’s not surprising that Haftar sees an opportunity, politically and militarily, in the south.

If there’s eventually going to be a full-on war between the GNA and the LNA, it may start here. On the other hand, the GNA may decide that the Third Force, which is an independent force out of Misrata though it is aligned with the GNA, isn’t worth the trouble.


A faction of Boko Haram carried out two raids in northeastern Nigeria today, killing one person and abducting 22 women and girls who will probably be taken as brides by its fighters. These attacks do not appear to have been carried out by Abubakar Shekau’s Boko Haram faction, but rather by the faction headed by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the man ISIS named as Shekau’s replacement back in August. Reports from December said that Barnawi had been arrested by Nigerian security services, but if that’s true then it seems his Boko Haram faction is still intact, at least partly.


The Trump White House signed off today on a Pentagon plan to designate Somalia an active combat zone and give the head of US Africa Command, General Thomas Waldhauser, authority to OK strikes there (presumably against al-Shabab). What this means, among other things, is that the US is relaxing restrictions on air strikes and commando raids in Somalia that might result in civilian casualties. Being relaxed about potential civilian casualties in majority-Muslim countries is kind of America’s thing now, in the Trump era. Though, to be fair, we’ve always been fairly relaxed about such things.


Even as the US announced that it’s pulling its forces out of the operation to track down Joseph Kony and put an end to his Lord’s Resistance Army, one of Kony’s top aides, Michael Omona, surrendered to Ugandan forces in the Central African Republic. The LRA is clearly a shell of what it once was, but until Kony is either dead or in custody he’s going to be a concern to countries in the Central Africa/Great Lakes region.


The UN Security Council managed to come to an agreement on renewing its MONUSCO peacekeeping mandate in the DRC today by capping its deployment at just over 16,200 troops. The old cap was just under 20,000, though only about 16,800 peacekeepers had actually been deployed so the real cut is closer to 600. The cut was necessary due to incessant Trump administration whining about spending money on any aspect of foreign affairs that doesn’t involve blowing up mosques or apartment buildings full of civilians, and this figure represents a compromise from the 15,000 troop limit that Washington was trying to get.


NATO rescheduled it ministerial meeting for today in order to accommodate Rex Tillerson’s schedule, and boy, I bet the other foreign ministers were real happy that they did:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ratcheted up pressure on NATO allies Friday to increase their defense spending, despite pushback from Germany’s top diplomat over President Trump’s determination to make members of the Western military alliance boost their military budgets.

Addressing a meeting of NATO’s 28 foreign ministers, Tillerson said he wanted alliance leaders to agree at a May summit to come up with concrete plans by the end of the year to meet budget guidelines. Friday’s conference — hastily moved up after Tillerson initially announced he would skip it so he could attend meetings between Trump and China’s leader next week — was held amid concerns about the U.S. commitment to NATO following Trump’s calls to increase spending among other member nations.

NATO members are trying to ratchet up to the alliance’s two percent defense spending threshold by 2024, but apparently Trump wants it done by the end of this year. Trump’s position here isn’t unreasonable from the perspective of sharing the burden for NATO operations, but it’s unrealistic to expect every NATO member to make drastic budget shifts in the space of a few months. Moreover, there are reasons why the US historically tolerates lower European defense spending. One–that making European countries dependent on the US kept them from going over to the Soviets during the Cold War–is no longer relevant, but another–keeping European defense budgets low probably helps to forestall another Euro-centric World War–is not.


Vladimir Putin made his first public statement on last weekend’s protests, blaming unnamed “forces” for using the issue of corruption to try to drum up public opposition and engulf Russia in chaos, which he compared to the Arab Spring and the 2014 coup in Ukraine. At the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog, Graeme Robertson argues that Putin might actually be vulnerable to the sentiments expressed by the protesters:

This is a very dangerous development for Putin. Much of Putin’s power these days relies on his ability to present himself as being above politics, as being more a national symbol than a president. The Putin administration has successfully created an association between support for Putin and loyalty to the Russian state itself. This status has protected his popularity during economic crises, international sanctions and even failed military adventures in Ukraine. While virtually every other indicator of Russians’ attitude toward politics has gotten worse over the past couple of years, Putin’s popularity has remained robust.

But widespread knowledge of corruption in the inner circle — especially on the part of probably including Putin himself — has the potential to change all that. You cannot be father of the nation and be caught lining your own pockets at the same time. We are in new territory now.

Sarah Wilson Sokhey argues that Putin has options to protect himself, up to and including getting rid of Dmitry Medvedev, around whom these recent corruption charges are swirling (on the other hand, that might just encourage the protesters). But she also notes that Putin is running out of levers to manipulate popular opinion as he keeps exhausting all his tools for propping up the Russian economy.


Some good news here, as Petro Poroshenko announced yesterday that he’s ordering a unilateral ceasefire for government forces in eastern Ukraine starting on Saturday.

The deputy chief of Ukrainian counterintelligence in Donetsk, Oleksandr Kharaberiush, was killed today in a car bombing in Mariupol that almost certainly set by Donbas separatists.


Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko may be running back to mama. Because of his decision to finally crack down on protesters in Minsk over the weekend, Lukashenko’s outreach to the European Union may have fizzled out, and so he’s heading to St. Petersburg on Monday to meet with Putin and maybe try to iron out some of the disputes the two of them have been having lately. Lukashenko famously crossed his erstwhile patron when he criticized Putin’s annexation of Crimea, and since then this once-friendly relationship has turned kind of frosty. But if the EU doesn’t want Lukashenko, it seems he may be prepared to make amends with Moscow.


Polls show a tightening and uncertain race ahead of France’s April 23 presidential election:

First round voting intentions for the frontrunners, centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen, both slipped by one percentage point to 25 and 24 percent respectively, while third placed conservative Francois Fillon gained two points to 19 percent, and the far left’s Jean-Luc Melenchon one point to 15 percent, the BVA poll said.

In a further signal of continued unpredictability, 38 percent of people either could not say how they would vote, or may yet change their minds. That was down two percentage points from a week earlier, but still a high percentage by French election standards.

Macron still wins the runoff handily, defeating Le Pen with almost 60 percent of the vote, but his margin there has shrunk by several points. The poll results are actually decent news for Fillon, whose hilarious litany of personal corruption scandals hasn’t put him entirely out of the race. With so many undecideds, it’s even still possible that Fillon could make a late charge and get himself into the runoff, hopefully at Le Pen’s expense.


Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is under serious heat right now after the country’s Supreme Court issued a ruling on Thursday dissolving the National Assembly and assuming legislative authority unto itself. The court is full of Maduro loyalists, so his many critics are accusing him of a coup against the legislature and of effectively instituting one-man rule. Amid protests in Venezuela and criticism from around the world, Maduro pledged today to resolve the crisis, but the protests are continuing and, at a minimum, Venezuela’s membership in the Organization of American States is now in jeopardy.

Maduro’s popularity has been dropping as quickly as Venezuela’s economy has been collapsing–his leftist movement lost control of the assembly in 2015, and things haven’t improved since then. Venezuela’s economic struggles are of course Exhibit 1A anytime somebody wants to argue that SOCIALISM IS BAD YOU GUYS, but oil prices that have been less than half of what Venezuela’s economy demands are clearly the main culprit in the country’s struggles.


Protesters set fire to Paraguay’s congressional building earlier this evening. The Paraguayan senate, or rather part of it, voted in secret earlier in the day to amend the country’s constitution to let President Horacio Cartes run for a second term, and that apparently prompted the violence. The Paraguayan Chamber of Deputies still has to vote on the amendment, though it’s likely to pass that body, and as a result of these evening’s violence a special Saturday session has reportedly been called off.

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