Asia/Africa update: June 3-4 2017



It was a horrific week in Kabul. After Wednesday’s massive bombing led to deadly anti-government protests on Friday, on Saturday suicide bombers targeted the funeral of one of Wednesday’s victims, killing at least 19 people. The Taliban once again denied what seems like an obvious Taliban attack and tried to blame rivalries within Afghanistan’s deeply dysfunctional government (the funeral was for the son of a leader of the country’s main Tajik political party–as such, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who is of mixed Tajik-Pashtun heritage and gets much of his support from the Tajik community, attended the funeral but was unharmed). The city is understandably on edge, with protesters continuing to come out near the site of Wednesday’s attack. Some are now accusing President Ashraf Ghani, who is Pashtun, of orchestrating Saturday’s bombing to wipe out the Tajiks. This is an ugly situation that may get uglier still.

Six Afghan police officers were killed on Sunday in Kandahar when two of their fellow officers opened fire on them. The Taliban was happy to claim credit for this attack.


Pakistani authorities announced on Sunday that a two-day operation in Balochistan’s Mastung district killed 12 militants of unspecified (as far as I know) allegiance.


On Saturday, Pakistani officials said that their forces killed five Indian soldiers in shelling across Kashmir’s line of control. The Indian army promptly denied that claim. Then, India reported that its forces killed four Kashmiri militants early Monday morning when the Kashmiris attempted to storm an Indian paramilitary camp. There’s no confirmation of this either.


The Philippine government still can’t get its stories straight on the nature of Friday’s attack on the Resorts World Manila casino. President Rodrigo Duterte said on Friday that the attack was a robbery gone wrong, and he’s got video of the attacker going out of his way not to shoot at people to back him up. Police say the perpetrator was a former government employee who was addicted to gambling and fell heavily in debt over it. But Pantaleon Alvarez, speaker of the lower house of the Philippine Congress, says the attacker was a lone wolf terrorist. The video footage released by police seems to heavily favor the theory that this was an attempted robbery or maybe just an unhinged act of desperation meant to resemble a robbery over the theory that it was terrorism. The footage makes it pretty clear that this attacker, had he been a terrorist, could have killed vastly more people than he did. He walked onto a crowded casino floor carrying an assault weapon, and yet the 37 people who died all seem to have done so almost accidentally, with no apparent intent to kill them on the attacker’s part.

Reuters has a decent recap of the lead up to the current crisis in Marawi:

Over the past few months, Philippine and Indonesian intelligence sources said, Hapilon’s forces were swelled by foreign fighters and new recruits within Marawi. Many of the outsiders came to Marawi using the cover of an Islamic prayer festival in the city last month, said Philippines military spokesman Lt. Col. Jo-Ar Herrera.

Lorenzana said that Hapilon brought 50-100 fighters to join Maute’s 250-300 men, while two other groups, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters  and the Ansar Al-Khilafah Philippines, together brought at least 40 militants with them.

On May 23, four days before the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, they launched their attack when Philippine forces made an abortive attempt to capture Hapilon inside Marawi.

After the military retreated in the face of a phalanx of armed guards, about 400 militants quickly fanned out across the city, riding trucks mounted with 50-calibre machine guns and armed with rocket-propelled grenades and high-powered rifles.

A four-hour ceasefire that was supposed to allow time for residents to evacuate the city was broken almost before it began on Sunday, leaving thousands of people stranded for what is approaching two full weeks inside the besieged city. So far an estimated 38 civilians have been killed in the fighting, along with an equal number of government security forced, against about 130 militants. On Saturday, a group of 160 civilians exited the city, many Christians, with Muslims in the group apparently covering for them when the group encountered militants on their way out of town. Duterte is refusing to negotiate with fighters who have taken hostages, and says he’s ordered his forces to kill any insurgents they find even if hostages are killed in the process. He’s also on a number of occasions remarked that he could end this situation quickly if he just called in heavy airstrikes, which means he’s thinking about calling in heavy airstrikes. Hopefully he’s got somebody in his inner circle who can talk him down if necessary.


The Shangri-La regional security forum ended with Southeast Asian nations agreeing to increase their collaboration in terms of joint patrols and intelligence sharing to counter the Islamic State threat (a threat highlighted by the events in the Philippines). Attendees also agreed, in the absence of a clear sense of where the Trump administration stands, to increase their ties in an effort to (gently) counter China. Speaking of which, Beijing was reportedly pretty peeved over remarks from US Secretary of State James Mattis at the forum. Mattis said that China’s policy of building and militarizing islands in the South China Sea was harmful to regional security.


Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 9.55.51 PM
Donald Trump meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc last Wednesday

One Southeast Asian nation that seems pretty comfortable with the Trump administration is Vietnam, probably because its intense Washington lobbying efforts seem to have ingratiated it to the new government:

Unlike most Southeast Asian countries, Vietnam retains a Washington lobbying firm – the Podesta Group – which it pays $30,000 a month, according to Justice Department documents.

Both the foreign minister and deputy foreign minister made trips to Washington. Also pressed into service were friends in congress, academics and both U.S. and Vietnamese businesses, according to diplomats and researchers.

Vietnam’s message was taken to the National Security Council, specifically to Matt Pottinger, senior director for East Asia, and to Vice President Mike Pence’s office as well as Defense and State Departments.

What an…uplifting (?) story…? The system (?) works…?

President Trump hosted Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc at the White House last week, where they reportedly discussed trade, North Korea, and China, but probably didn’t discuss Vietnam’s shitty human rights record. Trump’s decision to do away with the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a blow to Vietnamese interests, but it seems Phúc is prepared to work with the US on a bilateral basis.


The Chinese government is forcing Muslim children in its restive Xinjiang region to change names that have been deemed “too religious,” if they want to be treated as Chinese citizens:

During Ramadan, the authorities in Xinjiang have ordered all children under 16 to change names where police have determined they are “overly religious”. As many as 15 names have been banned, including Islam, Quran, Mecca, Jihad, Imam, Saddam, Hajj, Medina and Arafat, according to Radio Free Asia.

In April authorities banned certain names for newborns that were deemed to have religious connotations, but the new order expands forced name changes to anyone under 16, the age at which Chinese citizens are issued a national identity card.

This is pretty dumb, but “Saddam”? That’s not even a religious name!


Pyongyang says it “rejects” new UN sanctions against it (which, you know, I’ve got some bad news for Kim Jong-un) and plans to continue its nuclear program, in case you somehow thought that wasn’t what they were going to do.


Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is pushing for a referendum next year on amending Japan’s constitution to remove its post-World War II restrictions on its military and allow it to stop playing semantic games with its “self-defense forces.” Abe sees this as a huge part of his political legacy, but you may understand if removing legal pacifism from Japan’s constitution might cause some…consternation, in China and South Korea in particular. But the practical effect really is likely to be no more than semantic. Over the past couple of decades no Japanese leader has found himself handcuffed by the constitution from a military perspective.



On Saturday, the Libyan National Army declared that it had captured the important Jufra air base in the center of the country after finding it abandoned by its previous occupants (believed to have been forces from the Islamist Benghazi Defense Brigades). LNA commander Khalifa Haftar seemed like he was reaching out to the Government of National Accord a few weeks ago in Abu Dhabi, but now he looks like he’s getting ready to attack it.


Tunisian militants abducted and beheaded a young shepherd named Khelifa Soltani near Sidi Bouzid on Friday (his body was found over the weekend). Soltani’s brother, Mustafa, was murdered under similar circumstances in 2015 under suspicion of being a government spy. Al-Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated extremists in that area are under a fair amount of pressure from the Tunisian government, and it’s possible they’ve marked that family as their enemy. But what a horrific story.


If you’re looking for a quick explainer on recent protests in Morocco’s Rif region, this one from Al-Akhawayn University professor Kenza Oumil is pretty good:

Rif activists, who are ethnically Berber, demand jobs, economic development, accountability of the justice system and dignity. They are angry against what they call “Hogra” – a colloquial Moroccan Arabic term for deprivation of dignity from official abuses or corruption.

Coming from a disenfranchised and marginalised youth living in a region that has traditionally been neglected by the government, these demands are legitimate. However, the government initially accused Rif activists of being separatists and threatening the country’s territorial integrity, while also suggesting that they are externally funded. The activists denied the accusations.

The criticism of the protesters’ actions, beyond their initial framing by the government as separatists who have external funding and backing, is also embedded in a rhetoric of “fitna”.

The Arabic word “fitna” signifies discord. It additionally has a heavy religious connotation that includes the meanings of “trial” and “temptation”. The word “fitna” was used in Facebook posts, phone messages, and politicians’ statements in the immediate aftermath of Mouhcine Fikri’s death and it is still being used in relation to the recent protests. Instead of exploring the underlying causes that led poor people to rise up, many in Morocco are choosing to frame these protesters’ actions as “fitna” or as an attempt to cause chaos.

Oumil says that Moroccan media are conflating peaceful protests in the Rif with images of violence in order to turn the rest of the country against the protesters and prevent a broader protest movement.


West African Sahel nations Chad, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Mauritania are asking for 50 million euros from the European Union to support a small joint force that could respond quickly to Islamist violence in West Africa. France is undoubtedly on board–Paris already has some 4000 troops stationed across West Africa for this very purpose–but it remains to be seen how the rest of the EU will respond.


A group of about 50 Cameroonian soldiers blocked a highway in northern Cameroon on Sunday demanding unpaid wages. These soldiers are serving in the most dangerous part of Cameroon–i.e., the part where Boko Haram is active–and they say they haven’t been paid for two years. Two fucking years! They agreed to return to barracks after speaking with a group of generals, but there’s been no indication from the Cameroonian government as to whether or not their complaints are legitimate.


South African President is denying that wealthy political patrons have purchase him a $25 million second home in Dubai, and I have to say this really seems like the kind of thing where if you have to deny it, you’re already in trouble. Zuma, of course, has been in trouble for a while now.

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