Asia/Africa update: July 4-5 2017


Remember that missile test I mentioned on Monday? And remember this?

Yeah, so…about all that:

North Korea did indeed test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) yesterday, as the nuclear-armed nation claimed, U.S. officials said.

“The United States strongly condemns North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement yesterday (July 4). “Testing an ICBM represents a new escalation of the threat to the United States, our allies and partners, the region, and the world.”

Hah, well, OK then.

There are a lot of technical questions about Tuesday’s launch, which appears to have been of a new missile type. I’m not going to get into those because they’re literally rocket science, but needless to say one of those questions has to do with exactly what this apparent ICBM’s capabilities are. Pyongyang claims that its new missile can strike targets anywhere in the world, but Pyongyang tends to exaggerate things on occasion. Realistically, with a warhead in tow, the missile can probably reach Alaska but not the continental United States. That, of course, is worrisome enough. And that’s assuming the test was successful, which is also somewhat in question–but that doesn’t matter much from a technical standpoint, as even unsuccessful tests (especially unsuccessful tests, really) are chances for missile developers to learn and progress. If the test wasn’t entirely successful, then the capabilities of this missile could be greater than that.

There’s also no reason to assume that Pyongyang has figured out how to stick a nuclear payload on this missile yet, but that, like the development of a missile capable of hitting the continental US, is only really a matter of time and persistence–the latter of which, at least, North Korea has in abundance. Pyongyang also does not yet seem to be able to fuel these missiles with solid rocket fuel, which is the key to launching a missile on short notice. Liquid-fueled devices have to be fueled right before launch, which can be detected by satellites and, potentially, countered. Solid-fueled missiles can be stored ready to launch and fired quickly.

So, uh, what now? The US, South Korea, and other countries around the region have already responded with words and puffery. South Korea and the US, for example, conducted missile drills on Wednesday, an obvious chest-beating exercise that probably didn’t accomplish very much of tangible or intangible value. UN Ambassador Nikki Haley told the UN Security Council on Wednesday that a military response is on the table, but the repercussions of a strike against North Korea would probably include one of the worst military conflicts anybody has ever seen, with potentially millions of people in South Korea and Japan (to say nothing of North Korea) in immediate and grave risk. And that’s without North Korea using any of the dozen or so nuclear devices it’s believed to already possess. If it’s already able to mount those on artillery pieces or short-range missiles, and if it decides to use them and risk an in-kind response from the US, the potential casualty count skyrockets.

This test is unquestionably a direct challenge to the Trump administration, one to which its likely response is to keep on keeping on because, frankly, there aren’t many other options. More sanctions are probably on offer, for example, while it’s hard to see Washington suddenly changing course and agreeing to take with the North Koreans without preconditions.

The administration will certainly continue to bash China (with an assist from Australia) for refusing to take a harder line on Pyongyang, and it’s true that the more data people look at the more it seems like Beijing has done fuck-all about North Korea despite ratcheting up its tough talk (which, to be fair, it has good reason to be reluctant doing–a collapsed North Korean state would be a huge problem for Beijing and, within reason, having the Kims ruling in Pyongyang does serve some Chinese geopolitical interests). But while threatening to cut off US trade with China feels good and sounds tough, it’s probably impossible–at least, not without potentially plunging the world economy into another massive recession. But don’t worry, I’m sure President Trump’s business acumen will fix this problem any day now, just like he promised it would during the 2016 campaign. As if to twist this knife in a little deeper, the North Koreans apparently used a Chinese truck to launch the missile on Tuesday.



The Uzbek government says it will not be rejoining Russia’s Collective Security Treaty Organization, a mutual defense pact that was created in 1994 and includes several former Soviet republics. Uzbekistan left the body in 2012 for the second time, but it was thought that new President Shavkat Mirziyoyev might be amenable to rejoining, given that his feelings toward Russia seem friendlier than those of his predecessor, Islam Karimov. Apparently they’re not that friendly.


In a raid on Wednesday near the country’s border with Afghanistan, Tajik police reportedly killed four relatives of the notorious ISIS convert Gulmurod Khalimov. Khalimov used to be a lieutenant colonel in Tajikistan’s interior ministry and received counter-terrorism training from the United States, only to defect to ISIS in 2015. He’s  one of the group’s senior leaders in Iraq and Syria, though the Iraqis believe he was killed in western Mosul in April. His relatives were presumably preparing to enter Afghanistan to, well, draw your own conclusions I guess.


The International Criminal Court is delaying action on any human rights or war crimes cases related to the war in Afghanistan while it reviews new information provided by the Afghan government. Late last year the ICC suggested that an Afghanistan case was “imminent,” and that it would include allegations of abuses by the Afghan government and by US forces as well as abuses by the Taliban.


I guess so they wouldn’t feel left out, the Pakistani military on Wednesday tested a new nuclear-capable short-range ballistic missile.


Narendra Modi visited Israel this week–he’s still there, in fact–and signed a number of cooperative agreements with Benjamin Netanyahu in technology and other fields on Wednesday. Always nice to see two hard right reactionaries getting along.

Tensions are still very high along the India-China border in the Himalayas, with Beijing demanding on Wednesday that Indian forces leave a disputed area along the border before negotiations can begin on settling the problem. In addition to the immediate border dispute, the whole back catalog of India-China beef (metaphorically; apologies to any Hindu readers) seems to be making an appearance, from “China supports Pakistan” to “India won’t join China’s big Asian development project” and “India keeps hosting special events for the Dalai Lama.” While this dispute is unlikely to escalate past angry words–like the world needs an India-China conflict on top of everything else–it’s worrisome that it’s gone on this long as that the cuts have been so deep.


Rakhine state is back on edge after a Buddhist mob murdered one Rohingya man and injured six others when they dared to leave their displaced persons camp on Tuesday in order to purchase boats. The men were under police escort, but, and this is really outstanding, the police officer with them apparently ran away when confronted by the angry crowd. The Rohingya are already being systematically starved to death, so I guess a little mob violence just helps speed the process up.


Assuming he lives long enough, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has a reasonable chance to take back that office when elections are held there (no later than the middle of next year). What makes this remarkable is that Mahathir is about to turn 92, so he would easily be the oldest head of government in the world. It would also be remarkable in that Mahathir, who served as a virtual dictator from 1981 through 2003 as the leader of the United Malays National Organization party, is now leading the opposition Bersatu party. UMNO has an unbroken streak of 60 years in power, ever since Malaysia gained independence in 1957, so a Bersatu win would, as I say, be remarkable in its own right. Current PM Najib Razak is embroiled in the 1MDB scandal and faces allegations that he embezzled hundreds of millions of dollars from the country’s development fund. On the other hand, the Malaysian economy is doing fairly well, so Razak should benefit from that.


Philippine forces on Wednesday said they arrested three Maute Group supporters in a village near Marawi, including one of the group’s main financiers and logistical supporters. She’s apparently a cousin to the Maute brothers, who founded the group. Meanwhile, Reuters is reporting that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte initially looked like he wanted to cut a deal with the Maute brothers when the Marawi conflict started in late May, only to switch gears abandon the attempt at negotiations. Duterte’s offer may have included permission to implement a Sharia-based law code in the Mautes’ hometown of Butig, and it’s not clear why he changed his mind except possibly because the brothers weren’t willing to halt the violence in Marawi while negotiations were ongoing.



Fighting near Tripoli on Wednesday killed five people when a shell hit a beach popular with city residents. Meanwhile, Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar announced that his forces have completed their…uh, liberation? conquest? of Benghazi. It’s taken Haftar three years to seize the city from the Islamist and other forces that had previously controlled it, and he may still have some guerrilla resistance to deal with, but with Benghazi out of the way he may now be free to pursue a bigger confrontation with the Government of National Accord.


Tunisia, as the one country that made it out of the Arab Spring without completely imploding, would seem to be the kind of emerging Arab democracy that the United States would like to support during its still-fragile development. Certainly you would think that the US would be more amenable to supporting the Tunisian government, for all its admitted flaws, than, say, the Egyptian government, which has deteriorated into a one-man dictatorship that ruthlessly suppresses civil rights and political opposition. But then you clearly wouldn’t be working for the Trump administration, which plans to slash aid to Tunisia by 2/3 while leaving aid to Egypt mostly intact. This is because Egypt is more important to the US from a security perspective, as there are a lot of terrorists in Egypt–in large part because the Egyptian government keeps ruthlessly suppressing civil rights and political opposition. Interesting catch-22 they have there.

The roughly $120 million the administration saves from this next year (yes, that’s all) can be, I don’t know, put towards buying a tenth of one F-35, or simply given as a gift to Sheldon Adelson. Whatever.


The Washington Post looks at the danger for migrants being abandoned by smugglers in Niger’s Ténéré desert (part of the Sahara). The risk to migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean has been pretty well-documented in recent years, but that’s not the only risky part of their journey. Large groups of migrants are just as vulnerable to being abandoned by the traffickers they hire to get them to Libya as they are to being abandoned once they’ve left Libya:

Hundreds of thousands of mostly West African migrants fleeing war, poverty and persecution have crossed this stretch of the Sahara over the past few years. They scrounge together life savings and bet them all on a treacherous journey — first across the Tenere; then farther into the Sahara, into Libya; then the choppy seas of the Mediterranean — in hopes of a better life in Europe.

The world has looked on in horror at the thousands who have died when their overloaded boats capsized at sea. And while more do perish on that final leg, so close to European shores, the sandy graveyard of the Tenere has claimed hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.

“I think we’ve overtalked the sea and undertalked the deserts,” said Tuesday Reitano, deputy director at the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.


The US carried out an airstrike on an al-Shabab position southwest of Mogadishu on Tuesday. The Pentagon’s Africa Command didn’t release any other details.


Al-Shabab fighters killed at least three police officers on Wednesday in an attack on the northeastern Kenyan town of Pandanguo. The militants also reportedly raided a pharmacy and homes looking for food and other supplies.


The International Federation for Human Rights is accusing the Burundian government of purging ethnic Tutsi from its military through a combination of detention and murder. The non-politicization of Burundi’s military is one of the things that’s supposed to prevent another outbreak of Hutu-Tutsi ethnic violence in that country, so this is a troubling development if it’s true. The government denies the report and says the FIDH (its French acronym) is getting bad information from its anti-government local partners.


I confess I don’t know very much about Zambia, but this can’t be good:

Zambian President Edgar Lungu said on Wednesday he would seek parliament’s approval to impose a state of emergency after fire gutted the country’s biggest market in what he said was politically motivated arson.

Political tensions in Zambia, seen as one of Africa’s more stable and functional democracies, have been rising since the arrest on treason charges of main opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, who narrowly lost to Lungu in a bruising election last year.

Hichilema, along with five others, is accused of trying to overthrow the government after a column of opposition vehicles failed to make way for the president’s motorcade.

Under Zambian state of emergency laws, police can prohibit public meetings, close roads, impose curfews and restrict movements.

Extended states of emergency have a way of becoming an addiction, as the expanded police powers create more opposition, which then justifies those expanded police powers. Zambia has been a pretty stable democracy since the early 1990s, so hopefully this state of emergency won’t last long enough to endanger that.

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