Asia/Africa update, May 12-15 2017


The Azerbaijani Defense Ministry said on Monday that it destroyed an Armenian air-defense system, plus crew, in its breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region. Separatist sources reported that the system was damaged but that there were no casualties, and then seemed to suggest there would be a reprisal of some sort.


China held its big Belt and Road Forum in Beijing over the weekend to kick start the development and diplomatic efforts at the core of its, yes, Belt and Road Initiative, AKA the “21st Century Silk Road.” So you may see references to that event sprinkled into this update here and there. For example, here the Carnegie Endowment’s Arushi Kumar explains the OBOR (One Belt, One Road) initiative’s importance to Afghanistan, which is depending on Chinese investment to dramatically improve its highway and rail infrastructure. The overland piece of the initiative can’t work without Afghan stability, so there may be more demand for China to get involved in security issues, which could include leaning on Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban. Solving both the security issue and the infrastructure issue would maybe enable the exploitation of Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth–which, if done justly and properly (I know), could help stabilize the country economically.

A sustained Taliban attack on Friday in northern Afghanistan’s Baghlan province left at least 19 people dead, four Afghan police and 15 Taliban fighters. Four people were killed on Monday by a roadside bomb in Paktia province that was probably also the Taliban’s doing. Finally, the United Nations Committee Against Torture is demanding that the border police chief in Kandahar province, Abdul Raziq, be arrested on charges of “disappearing” people and then torturing them while in his custody. Kandahar is of course a Taliban hotbed, so it’s a place where winning hearts and minds, rather than hooking them up to car batteries, is especially important in the war effort.


While we were gone, there were two terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s restive Balochistan province. On Friday, an ISIS suicide bomber struck a convoy carrying the deputy chair of the Pakistani senate, Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, outside the town of Mastung, killing at least 25 people. On Saturday, gunmen from the Baloch Liberation Army killed ten laborers in the port city of Gwadar.


Indian and Pakistani forces traded fire across the line of control in Kashmir again on Saturday, killing two Indian civilians. Each side naturally accused the other of starting the shooting.


In contrast to Afghanistan, India doesn’t seem terribly enamored with China’s OBOR Initiative. It chose only to send local embassy staff to the forum over the weekend, whereas every other country that was invited, even those with long-standing disputes with Beijing, sent higher-level representation. India doesn’t like OBOR’s China-Pakistan Corridor, which runs through Kashmir, but more than that it doesn’t like the fact that this initiative, if seen through to its intended goal, will help lock the rest of Asia in as China’s hinterland. India sees itself as a potential peer competitor for China–not yet, of course, but down the road–so this whole project naturally makes New Delhi uneasy.


The Guardian is reporting on the existence of photographs that seem to show injuries, including severe burns and bullet wounds, inflicted on Rohingya refugees by the Myanmar army during a crackdown that began last October. The photos, which are going to be included in a forthcoming report by the Burmese Rohingya Organization of the UK, provide new evidence for systematic human rights abuses by the army.

In a somewhat related story, Myanmar police have arrested two members of the radical Buddhist Patriotic Monks Union for raiding homes and schools in predominantly Muslim areas of Yangon and then clashing with police responding to the raids.


Having defeated Jakarta’s Christian Chinese governor in his reelection bid, Indonesian Islamists are escalating their campaign against ethnic Chinese Indonesians:

The leader of a powerful Indonesian Islamist organisation that led the push to jail Jakarta’s Christian governor has laid out plans for a new, racially charged campaign targeting economic inequality and foreign investment.

In a rare interview, Bachtiar Nasir said the wealth of Indonesia’s ethnic Chinese minority was a problem and advocated an affirmative action programme for native Indonesians, comments that could stoke tensions already running high in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

“It seems they do not become more generous, more fair,” the cleric said, referring to Chinese Indonesians, in the interview in an Islamic centre in South Jakarta. “That’s the biggest problem.”

Ethnic Chinese make up less than 5 percent of Indonesia’s population, but they control many of its large conglomerates and much of its wealth.

This kind of thing never spirals out of control into something awful, so that’s good.


Related to its OBOR push, Beijing is trying to ease tensions with other countries around the South China Sea. It’s reached an agreement with Vietnam to avoid escalating SCS controversies, and it may be about to start talks with the Philippines that could involve proposals for joint energy exploration projects in the SCS.


On Sunday, Pyongyang test-fired a missile that it claims is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The North Korean government claimed that this new missile, the Hwasong-12, could reach the mainland United States, but analysis of the test indicates that it could probably get as far as Guam but not beyond that. That’s still longer than any missile North Korea has tested yet and obviously represents a serious advance in missile technology.

You’ve presumably heard about the massive WannaCry cyberattack that struck, well, everybody over the weekend? More on that in part 3 of this update, but I should note here that there are researchers who believe North Korea may have been involved in the attack. Apparently some code used in an earlier version of the WannaCry program was previously used by a hacker group believed to be affiliated with Pyongyang.


So, One Belt, One Road.

A rough map of China’s OBOR corridors (Wikimedia | Lommes)
The scope of what is really China’s bid to replace the Donald Trump-led United States as the “indispensible nation” took shape this weekend. It is, at least on paper, incredibly ambitious: 60 nations, $1 trillion in infrastructure spending, humanitarian initiatives, development aid, free trade, a series of major projects and diplomatic efforts designed to bring countries into China’s economic and geopolitical orbit. China even wants to position itself as the new global leader on climate change. At the forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced $124 billion in new investment for the project.

I’m sure this will shock you, but there’s a downside. Beijing isn’t offering all this humanitarian and development and infrastructure assistance as no-strings aid. These funds are going to be distributed as loans, which may put a whole bunch of countries in potentially crippling debt to Chinese banks. It also exposes those Chinese banks, should countries find themselves unable to pay at some point. Additionally, for all of President Xi’s talk about “free trade,” in contrast to, say, America’s newfound protectionism, the model here is really “free trade for thee, protectionism and state subsidies for me.” Still, OBOR is going to play a huge role in world affairs, at least in Asia and Africa, for the foreseeable future.


The backlash to the recent signs of rapprochement between the Government of National Accord and Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar has begun and already looks like it’s running deeper than expected. Some groups that have thrown in with the GNA, particularly Misratan militias whose real goal is establishing an Islamist government in the country, were inevitably going to object to any warming of relations with Haftar, and groups, for example, in the country’s south would naturally object to Haftar’s plan for a “national unity” government, which completely excludes them. But a lot of more moderate supporters of the GNA also seem pretty put out by this turn of events, enough that I think you can question whether the GNA hasn’t shot itself in the foot–or worse–in its efforts to end the civil war. It’s position was already precarious, but it may become untenable.


Thousands of Tunisians protested in Tunis on Saturday against a bill that, if enacted, will give amnesty to businessmen accused of corruption-related crimes during the 1987-2011 dictatorship of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, provided they repay the money to the state. The government says it needs the money, and it undoubtedly does, but, look, people fucking hate corruption, and turning a blind eye to it only makes the problem worse.


It’s nice to know that Saudi Arabia and Iran haven’t limited themselves to fucking up the Middle East, but are committed to taking their rivalry to new vistas that have as yet not been fucked up:

In an upmarket suburb of Senegal’s seaside capital, a branch of Iran’s Al-Mustafa University teaches Senegalese students Shi’ite Muslim theology, among other subjects. The branch director is Iranian and a portrait of Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei hangs on his office wall.

The teaching includes Iranian culture and history, Islamic science and Iran’s mother tongue, Farsi; students receive free food and financial help. The university is a Shi’ite outpost in a country where Sufism, a more relaxed, mystical and apolitical form of Sunni Islam, is the norm.

Two miles away, the Islamic Preaching Association for Youth (APIJ) teaches the strand of Islam that predominates in Iran’s great religious, political and military rival, Saudi Arabia.

The APIJ funnels cash from donors in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Dubai and Kuwait to mosques run by Salafists – conservative Sunni Muslims who are sworn enemies of Iran. The APIJ’s shelves are stacked with Salafist theology texts adorned with gold-leaf Arabic inscriptions – texts its imams use to preach in some 200 mosques across Senegal.

There are people who will read a story like this and attribute it to Sunni and Shiʿa Islam, but the problem here is Iran and the Gulf states. It’s not religion, it’s foreign policy disguised as religion, and the reason these two strands of Islam can’t co-exist in a place like Senegal isn’t because of the faith, it’s because of the countries funding the spread of the faith in order to further their own geo-political rivalry.


A new video purportedly from Boko Haram–which faction isn’t clear–threatens bombing attacks all over the country, including in the capital city of Abuja. Whether this is the announcement of a new campaign or a bunch of bluster remains to be seen.


Ivorian soldiers are once again mutinying over unpaid bonuses. Over the weekend they blocked access to the country’s second-largest city, Bouaké, and gunfire was heard elsewhere in the country, including the largest city Abidjan. You may recall that this whole thing happened before, in January, and was brought to an end when the government agreed to pay bonuses to the mutineers. Well, another round of bonuses is due this month, and apparently some faction of the mutineers decided they would forego their demands for the next round of money…only they clearly weren’t speaking for all the mutineers. So here we are again. The government announced on Monday that it had reached a new deal with the mutineers, but that talk was quickly quashed by the mutineers themselves.


Just a few days after leaving Juba, recently ousted army chief Paul Malong was recalled to the capital on Saturday by President Salva Kiir on suspicion that he might be planning to revolt. He insists he has no plans to do so, which I guess means that the weekend’s real news was this report that the country’s various rebel factions have agreed, in principle at least, to set aside their differences and work together against Kiir’s government. Meanwhile, the UN is still trying to raise the now-$1.4 billion it says it needs for humanitarian aid for the estimated 1.8 million refugees this conflict has created.


Christian militias spent the weekend attacking the Muslim town of Bangassou, near CAR’s border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They’ve killed at least 26 people at last count and had caused about a thousand people to take refuge inside a mosque. Those people were freed today by UN peacekeepers, but there’s still been no definitive accounting of casualties.


Ebola is back! Which is super, because nothing much had been going on, you know? The WHO, apparently working quickly to avoid the mistakes it made in West Africa during the 2014-2016 outbreak, declared a new outbreak in the northeastern DRC on Friday. So far it’s believed that the disease has killed three people amid 17 suspected and two confirmed cases. Northeast DRC is a pretty remote place, which is good from the standpoint of containing the outbreak but bad from the standpoint of getting health workers into place to treat the outbreak, and the permanent dysfunction of Joseph Kabila’s government isn’t going to help. The region is also a playground for a number of militias that can cross borders, like into Uganda for example, so that’s a concern.

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