Asia/Africa update: May 8-11 2017

I’m doing tonight’s mega-update in multiple parts. This one deals with news from the parts of Asia and Africa that aren’t in the Middle East.


South Korea has a new president: as expected, it’s Moon Jae-in.

Hello, President Moon! (Wikimedia |

So…what the hell does this mean? Perhaps you’ve noticed that things around the Korean peninsula have been a little harried lately. In contrast to the now-impeached former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Moon favors a less overtly hostile approach toward North Korea, up to and including talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang. This may put him a bit at odds with Washington, but then one of Moon’s core positions has long been that South Korea needs to establish a bit of independence from Washington–not opposition, Moon isn’t Rodrigo Duterte or anything like that, but a foreign policy that stresses maintaining good relations with the US, China, and hey, even North Korea if possible. That view undoubtedly helped him with a South Korean electorate that increasingly fears the US as much as it fears Pyongyang.

There’s certainly room here for a more measured approach to North Korea, and for South Korea to take point on a crisis that, hair-on-fire fears about a North Korean ICBM aside, threatens them more than anybody else. The situation can’t deteriorate much further, so maybe it’s time to try something else. There’s little risk here as long as the Trump administration is savvy enough to allow Moon some space to act without trying to bully him into–oh, shit, we’re screwed. Sorry.


The Afghan military is trying to capitalize on the recent death of ISIS leader Abdul Hasib by advancing deeper into ISIS territory in Nangarhar province. The US in particular seems interested in eliminating ISIS-Khorasan as a fighting force this year, and it has estimated that the group’s overall strength has dropped from a high of about 2500 fighters to a mere 600 right now.

OK, that’s the good news. The bad news includes pretty much everything else. Afghan forces are also fighting to keep the Taliban out of the city of Kunduz, but it looks like a losing battle and people there are preparing to flee before the city falls. The US intelligence community estimates that the security situation in Afghanistan is going to continue to deteriorate “through 2018,” and that’s with the small increase in foreign troop presence that Donald Trump is likely about to approve and NATO is considering. Oh, and the Afghan army is now going to have to absorb as many as 3500 new soldiers who formerly fought in Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami militia, even though they’ve seen little combat, are loyal only to Hekmatyar rather than to the Afghan government, and may be susceptible to being turned by the Taliban.


In the wake of recent border clashes that reportedly killed dozens of soldiers, the Afghan and Pakistani governments have agreed to conduct a border survey using GPS and Google Maps to settle any future disputes. This doesn’t entirely make sense to me. Pakistani policy is that the Durand Line is the border between the two countries, while Afghan policy is that…it isn’t. As far as I know the Afghans have never officially adopted an alternative, they just reject Durand. How is Google Maps going to solve that problem?

Meanwhile, and speaking of border problems, Iran says it will start bombarding militant bases inside Pakistan if Islamabad doesn’t do something to stop attacks on Iranian border guards. Jaysh al-Adl, a Sunni separatist group active in southeastern Iran, has been carrying out cross border attacks of late and at least ten Iranian guards have been killed.


At least one civilian was killed on each side of the line of control in Kashmir today (so two civilians total) as Pakistani and Indian troops fired on each other. The exchange of fire comes at a time when unrest in Indian Kashmir continues to escalate, with students taking to the streets to throw rocks at Indian security forces.


A car bombing on Tuesday in the southern Thailand city of Pattani wounded 60 people. Muslim separatists, involved in an insurgency that’s gone on since the late 1940s, were probably behind the attack.


Former Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was sentenced to two years in jail for blasphemy on Tuesday, in a decision that was surprising given that prosecutors had asked for a much lighter sentence. The decision is likely to be a flashpoint for tensions between Indonesia’s moderate and hardline Islamist communities, as is a Monday announcement that the Indonesian government will disband the Indonesian chapter of the international extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. That group was one of several Islamist organizations pushing for Basuki’s conviction.


Pyongyang is demanding the extradition of anyone involved in the plot to biochemically poison top North Korean leaders. And, you know, OK, except there’s no evidence that there ever was such a plot. Say what you will, but it’s fascinating to watch these guys spin a yarn.


In the latest development to stem from the big May 2 summit between Government of National Accord boss Fayez al-Sarraj and Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar, on Tuesday Libya’s notional foreign minister, Mohammed Siyala, declared Haftar “the commander-in-chief of the Libyan army”–provided, of course, that he recognized the GNA’s legitimacy. Haftar hasn’t responded as far as I can tell, but if he acquiesces to this it would be a major step toward bringing the Tripoli and Tobruk governments together. It wouldn’t end the civil war–Haftar’s fight in Benghazi would continue, for example, and there are groups currently aligned with the GNA who would probably break away in the event of a GNA-Haftar rapprochement–but it would likely mark a new phase in the conflict and maybe, just maybe, the beginning of the end. Again as far as I know Haftar hasn’t responded, but he’d kind of be nuts to reject this. All he gives up is that he acknowledges the GNA’s legitimacy; he still controls the army, and he positions himself to at some point run for president in the new, possibly even functional, Libyan government. It’s also kind of a no-brainer for the GNA, which is losing ground rather than gaining it, and would benefit greatly from bringing Haftar’s LNA into the fold.

Georgetown scholar Alex Thurston has an excellent look Libya’s Benghazi Defense Brigades with an eye toward what, exactly, defines an “al-Qaeda affiliate.” It’s applicable beyond the Libyan context and, I think, an important read:

It is not hard to show that someone in the Brigades knows someone who knows someone in al-Qaeda. Some members of the Brigades stand two degrees of separation away from al-Qaeda. The Brigades draw support from jihadist Shura (Consultative) Councils in eastern cities. One of the Brigades’ leaders, Saadi al-Nawfali, is a leader of the Adjabiya Revolutionaries’ Shura Council. The councils include militias with ties to al-Qaeda, such as Ansar al-Sharia. Follow this part of the web and it leads to figures such as Sufyan bin Qumu, an Ansar al-Sharia leader in Derna who is a Specially Designated Global Terrorist and who likely knew Osama bin Laden.

The problem with connecting too many “dots,” however, is that virtually everyone in Libyan politics is just three or four degrees of separation from al-Qaeda. Should one view mainstream political actors as unforgivably tainted by jihadist connections? Adopting that position would make a national political settlement even harder. The Western powers either understand this and quietly make arbitrary decisions about where the al-Qaeda “taint” begins and ends, or the West is willfully naïve.


Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has deployed his army to the country’s oil and gas fields amid growing unrest over poor economic conditions. Protesters have been blocking access to production sites, which isn’t helping the Tunisian economy either but is getting their grievances heard, but there are obvious concerns about a democratic government deploying its army in a situation like this.


Say, you know what the South Sudanese civil war could use? That’s right, another faction! Why not, am I right? On Tuesday, President Salva Kiir sacked his army chief, Paul Malong, you see. Malong is a Dinka, like Kiir, and it seems Kiir fired him to replace him with General James Ajongo, an ethnic Luo, to blunt criticisms of his government as a Dinka nationalist enterprise. This is all well and good, except that, on Wednesday, Malong left the capital, Juba, in a “convoy,” which doesn’t really sound good. He insists that he’s got no problems with Kiir or the government, but there are reasonable fears that he may have left the capital so quickly because he’s planning to cause some trouble.


Somalia’s new president, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, AKA Farmajo (don’t ask me) is asking the international community to lift an arms embargo on Somalia that’s been in place since 1992, so as to allow his army to purchase heavy weaponry, so as to help it defeat al-Shabab. And, well, he may have a point. On Monday, an al-Shabab suicide bomber killed eight people in Mogadishu, and on Tuesday several al-Shabab fighters attacked an army base northwest of Mogadishu and killed at least seven soldiers.


Fighting between Muslim Seleka militias and Christian anti-Balaka militias has killed 37 people since Saturday in the central part of the CAR. Four UN peacekeepers were killed on Monday when they were attacked by anti-Balaka fighters in the eastern part of the country.


President Joseph Kabila named a brand new transitional government on Tuesday that’s chock full of members of the political opposition and has been fully rejected by the opposition writ large. Kabila was supposed to allow the opposition to pick his cabinet as part of the deal he made at the end of last year to extend his presidential term for another year, but the opposition hasn’t been able to agree on its picks and so Kabila has used that vacuum to try to co-opt as many opposition leaders as he can, and, well, it appears to be working.

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