Asia/Africa update: May 23 2017


Mindanao via Wikimedia (user TUBS)

The southern Philippine island/archpelago of Mindanao, marked in red on the map above, is under martial law for the next 60 days, after an attack by the Maute militant group in Marawi City. The Maute group is largely made up of members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which quit its insurgency in 2014, and may have merged with Abu Sayyaf, as both groups now seem to have pledged themselves to ISIS. The fighting began, in fact, with a government raid whose target was Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was in Moscow and had to cut short a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to return home, but not before he made a pitch to the Russians for military aid.

This is obviously a serious situation, but the declaration of martial law over the whole island rather than just in Marawi, where the fighting is happening, is troubling. Duterte has made his love for violent crackdowns pretty evident, and it’s not out of the question that he’ll use this declaration to take heavy liberties in terms of how his forces respond.



There was a flurry of violence across Afghanistan from late Monday through Tuesday. Late on Monday night, the Taliban carried out an attack on an Afghan military installation in Kandahar province that killed ten Afghan soldiers along with 12 Taliban fighters. On Tuesday a roadside bomb, also in Kandahar, killed three civilians. Elsewhere, an Afghan police officer was killed in a Taliban attack in Baghdis province on Tuesday that also saw 11 Taliban fighters killed. The Taliban claimed to have captured a district military and police headquarters but Afghan authorities denied that claim. Finally, a police raid on “insurgents” (the AP doesn’t specify, but they may have been ISIS) in Nangarhar province late Monday killed four insurgents but also at least four civilians.

The Trump administration’s plan for Afghanistan appears to be centered around training thousands of new Afghan special forces troops with an eye toward putting the Taliban back on their heels and forcing a return to peace talks. There’s a longer-term need to root out endemic corruption within the whole Afghan military, but the more immediate concern is that the Taliban now appears to be winning the war, so the focus will be on blunting and then reversing that tide. Washington is expecting other NATO countries to provide half of a small increase in the international military presence in Afghanistan in order to enable this effort. There’s actually precedent for the efficacy of this kind of operation in Iraq, where the intensive US focus on training an elite military unit produced that country’s “Golden Division,” which has been by far its most effective and professional force in the operation to liberate Mosul. But just beating the Taliban militarily isn’t going to be enough to secure the country without systematic reform of its government and military.

Task and Purpose interviewed a number of Afghans about the potential US/NATO escalation and got a wide range of opinions about it. Some worry that it will escalate the fighting and prevent an Afghan-led peace process, others seem to think it will be good for Afghan forces to have the extra support. Most seemed to agree that without a solution for the country’s deeper military and political dysfunction, the extra foreign troops wouldn’t make much of a difference.


The Indian military says it recently bombed Pakistani army posts along the line of control in Kashmir, a claim Pakistan seems to be denying. The Indians claim they struck the Pakistani positions to prevent the Pakistani army from helping “militants” to cross over into Indian Kashmir.


The Sangha Maha Nayaka Committee, Myanmar’s highest Buddhist authority, has banned the ultranationalist Buddhist Ma Ba Tha organization, effective July 15. Ma Ba Tha, whose leadership includes the infamous anti-Muslim preacher Wirathu–a person who bears considerable personal responsibility for the ethnic cleansing campaign against the Rohingya in Rakhine state and who has already been barred from preaching. This really couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of folks, but it’s a day late and a dollar short for many Rohingya and it remains to be seen what the fallout will be.

Speaking of the Rohingya, it will not in any way surprise you to learn that the Myanmar army is denying charges in a new United Nations report that it likely committed crimes against humanity during its crackdown on the minority Muslim group late last year. The army responded to an attack by Rohingya militants–undoubtedly radicalized by years if not decades of prior marginalization and abuse–against border guards in October. It responded to that attack with a campaign that included, according to the UN, “mass killings and gang rapes.”

De facto Myanmar head of state Aung San Suu Kyi, whose decision to do nothing to stop what’s been happening to the Rohingya has surprisingly not garnered her a second Nobel Peace Prize, is holding talks with representatives from a number of Myanmar’s warring ethnic groups on Wednesday with an eye toward trying to ease some of the country’s many internal conflicts. The situation on this front has actually deteriorated since Suu Kyi came to power, partly because her ability to act is limited by the powerful Myanmar military but also partly due to decisions she’s made voluntarily, like closing the government agency that had been managing peace talks with many rebellious groups and thereby setting those talks back.


Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Chinese Christian former governor of Jakarta, has decided not to appeal his recent conviction on blasphemy charges. Basuki’s conviction and two-year sentence–harsher than prosecutors had wanted–has been taken as a sign that Islamic fundamentalism is seeping into the Indonesian judicial system, and his lawyers may be foregoing an appeal for now to allow prosecutors to appeal for the lighter sentence they were seeking. The UN is urging that the Basuki’s conviction be overturned on free speech grounds, but that seems like a pretty long shot.

If Indonesians are worried about Islamic fundamentalism then they ought to be paying attention to what’s happening in Aceh province. Aceh is the one province of Indonesia where Islamic law has been officially implemented, the result of a 2001 deal to end a decades-long insurgency, and today it’s a lovely place where being gay can get you caned.


The UN Security Council may be about to consider new sanctions against North Korea over its missile and nuclear weapons programs, but at this point it’s not clear where China, which of course can veto anything the UNSC does, stands on the issue. Beijing has been calling for talks and has also been cutting back somewhat on its economic interaction with Pyongyang. But while China and the US have been negotiating bilaterally about possible new sanctions for a few weeks, Beijing now appears to have stopped talking.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula obviously remain high. On Tuesday, the South Korean military fired on what is believed to have been a drone balloon sent across the border from the North. It’s not clear what happened to the drone but it did disappear from South Korean radar.



A convoy of UN peacekeepers was ambushed in northern Mali on Tuesday and two peacekeepers were killed. It’s not clear who was behind the attack but with the recent consolidation of Mali’s various al-Qaeda affiliates under the Nusrat al-Islam banner means the list of possible suspects is pretty small.


Three ex-rebel fighters, demonstrating to demand bonus payments from the government they helped put in power in 2011, were killed in a clash with Ivorian police in the city of Bouake on Tuesday. Accounts of the incident differ, with police saying that one of the three tried to use a grenade and wound up killing himself and two people nearby, and a spokesman for the protesters insisting that the police opened fire on the crowd of demonstrators with live ammunition.


A suicide attack on a police checkpoint in Puntland on Tuesday killed five people. Al-Shabab, which is not normally active in Puntland, denied responsibility for the attack, so it’s likely that it was the Islamic State in Somalia, the small, Puntland-based splinter group that broke away from al-Shabab in 2015 to declare allegiance to ISIS.


The DRC’s attorney general, Flory Numbi, has opened an investigation into ties between former development minister Clement Kanku and the Kamwina Nsapu rebellion in the country’s Kasai region. A UN investigator who was murdered in Kasai in March allegedly had a recording of Kanku speaking with one of the leaders of the rebellion.

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