Asia/Africa update: August 1 2017

You may have noticed that I’ve been away for a couple of weeks. While I’m absolutely not going to try to catch you up on everything that’s happened while I’ve been away, I will be interspersing the usual daily news with a few stories that developed over that time.



At least 29 people were killed on Tuesday when a suicide bomber targeted a Shiʿa mosque in the city of Herat. The Taliban denied involvement and there’s been no claim of responsibility as yet.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan released a report on Tuesday that finds that some 2531 Afghan security personnel were killed in the first four months of 2017, a figure that’s comparable with the same period last year. The report categorized the fight against Afghan insurgents as a “stalemate” and suggested that part of the problem could be the Afghans’ reliance on vulnerable checkpoints and other visible emplacements. Soldiers defending those places suffered 10 times the number of casualties as forces engaging in offensive anti-Taliban operations. Kabul says the checkpoints are necessary as a show of government control. Of course, Afghan security forces have plenty of other problems, as well.

A number of prominent Afghan political leaders are pressuring President Ashraf Ghani to allow Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum to return from forced exile in Turkey. Ghani has already blocked Dostum from returning once from what was supposed to be a medical leave but in reality was a move to get Dostum out of the country in lieu of seriously investigating charges that his men abducted and raped one of his political rivals. This is kind of a no-win situation for Ghani, who has three choices that will all cause political turmoil: leave Dostum in Turkey, bring him back and fully investigate the charges against him, or bring him back and try to sweep the charges under the rug.


For the third time, Nawaz Sharif is now the ex-prime minister of Pakistan. He stepped down on Friday, after Pakistan’s supreme court disqualified him from holding public office for ten years, over allegations of corruption related to the Panama Papers leak. His governing Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party is arranging things so that he’ll be succeeded by his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who is currently serving as chief minister of Punjab. Shahbaz has to run for and win a seat in parliament before he can become PM (he’ll stand for Nawaz’s now-vacant seat), so in the interim the party has nominated current Minister of Petroleum and Natural Resources Shahid Khaqan Abbasi to serve as PM (he was approved by parliament on Tuesday). As the party’s name indicates, it’s a splinter of the old Muslim League (the party that governed Pakistan after independence) basically run as a political dynasty by the Sharif family, so Shahbaz is the natural choice to take over its reins and try to hold off opposition leader Imran Khan and his Movement of Justice party in next year’s general election.

Shahbaz Sharif (Wikimedia)

Nawaz Sharif, as I said, is now a three-time ex-PM. He stepped down under threat of military coup in 1993 and was ousted by an actual military coup in 1999, so at least this time the army wasn’t involved. Well, not directly. His ouster, though, carries more than a whiff of deep state involvement. There are some fishy things in the Panama Papers related to Sharif’s family wealth–UK property bought in the name of his then-minor children is the really splashy one–but Sharif wasn’t removed for corruption. He hasn’t even been tried for corruption, which would involve a criminal investigation. Instead he was disqualified under a “morality clause” in the Pakistani constitution, with the argument that he tried to conceal his wealth and therefore lied–lying being enough to trip the morality clause and get him the boot. This is, if we’re being honest, a pretty ridiculous justification for removing a politician from office, one that is broad enough that it could be used against almost any politician and therefore is only used against those politicians who have done something to piss off the powers that be.

Which Sharif has. Obviously he’s had a series of run-ins with the Pakistani military over the past couple of decades, and on top of that his current run as PM has been marked by a sometimes-angry back-and-forth with the military, over Sharif’s efforts to improve relations with India, and Pakistani intelligence, over its involvement with, to be overly simplistic about it, terrorist groups. I assume it doesn’t come as a surprise to anybody that the Pakistani security establishment supports terrorist organizations, particularly not to anybody who remembers that Osama bin Laden was living in the Pakistani equivalent of West Point, NY, when he was killed (executed, if you prefer).

Pakistan’s intelligence service has historically supported Kashmir-oriented terrorist groups (by this I mean actual terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, not Kashmiri separatists), and in recent years it’s been under increasing scrutiny for the support it’s given to the Taliban/Haqqani Network in Afghanistan. Sharif’s government reportedly tried to force the intelligence service to knock it off, obviously without much success but possibly with enough heft to make removing Sharif from office a priority. That there were Pakistani military and intelligence officials involved in the Sharif investigation suggests that there may be something to this interpretation of events.

None of this is to say that Nawaz Sharif isn’t corrupt–he very well may be, though he (naturally) denies it. And certainly this dynastic stranglehold that his family has over Pakistan’s largest (for the moment) political party is not healthy. But it is to say that he’s now been removed from office over corruption allegations without those allegations having really been investigated, let alone proven. That’s not a particularly good sign in a supposedly democratic country that’s supposedly run according to the rule of law.


Indian forces killed a senior leader of Lashkar-e-Taiba in southern Kashmir on Tuesday but also killed at least one civilian in the ensuing battle.

Last week, meanwhile, al-Qaeda announced the formation of a new Kashmiri affiliate called Ansar Ghawzat-ul-Hind. This undoubtedly comes as an unpleasant development for many Kashmiri separatists, who would very much like not to have their insurgency affiliated with the al-Qaeda or ISIS brand. Even Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is absolutely a terrorist organization and has had some operational affinity with al-Qaeda in the past, alleged that the announcement was all part of an Indian plot to discredit the separatist insurgency. The formation of the Kashmiri branch was part of an active couple of weeks for al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, which also issued a “code of conduct” for jihadi operations that looks like an attempt to assert primacy in the jihadi field over ISIS.


A new study suggests a link between climate change and the high rate of suicide among Indian farmers:

Every year, thousands of Indian farmers commit suicide. Now one researcher thinks it may have something to do with climate change.

Tamma Carleton, a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, compared almost five decades worth of suicide and climate data and concluded that temperature variations in India may have “a strong influence” on suicide rates during the growing season.

In her study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Carleton estimates that more than 59,000 farmer suicides over the past 30 years can be linked to global warming.


The Diplomat published a series of I think very helpful pieces while I was out on the Doklam standoff between China, India, and Bhutan. Here’s a bit of the first piece in the series:

Starting in June, a tiny piece of strategically important and until-now obscure Himalayan territory sitting at the intersection of India, China, and Bhutan became the site of the one of the most serious border standoffs between New Delhi and Beijing in three decades. As of July 12, 2017, the standoff continues, with no end in sight. Scores — potentially hundreds — of Indian Army and Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops remain at an impasse near the Doka La pass in Doklam. Nearly one month after the standoff began, details about the geography of the area and the motivations of all three governments involved remain murky.

In the meantime, rhetoric in India and China has reached a slow simmer, with op-ed writers and commentators taking pains to highlight the other side’s transgressions. On both sides, suggestions of a new war or military skirmish between the two nuclear-armed Asian neighbors, both with populations in excess of 1 billion, are slowly becoming less taboo, highlighting the potential for serious escalation. If anything is clear about this crisis, it’s that the stakes are high. Unfortunately, nearly everything else about the terrain under contention and the events that initiated the standoff remains unclear.

While India and China do have unsettled border questions of their own, the real technical dispute in Doklam is between China and Bhutan, and the actual China-India border in this region is settled. But India supports Bhutan’s border claim, which is about 6 kilometers further north than what China claims. At the crux of the matter is apparently some crappy 19th century survey work done by the British Empire that resulted in a self-contradictory border agreement, so thanks to them for that. But, of course, the underlying issue is that China and India are geopolitical rivals.

Other entries in the series look at why India intervened to stop Chinese road construction at Doklam as forcefully as it did, the potential for the Doklam dispute to spiral into a full-blown war between India and China, the impact the dispute will have on India-China relations even if they don’t come to blows over it, China’s perspective on the situation, and the role Bhutan might play in how things develop. All worth checking out if this issue interests you.


Well, North Korea tested another ICBM on Friday. Estimates of the missile’s performance suggest that its maximum range could be up to 10,000 kilometers, more than enough to hit the US mainland. Japanese video of the test appears to show the missile breaking up during re-entry into the atmosphere, so you don’t need to go building a bomb shelter just yet. But contrary to the New York Timestalk of “setbacks,” missile tests like this are supposed to fail, that’s why countries conduct them. Pyongyang will learn from this failure and fix the problem.

The Trump administration continues to insist that North Korea is China’s problem and that the main US role should be jumping up and down and having the president tweet complaints about Beijing all day long, but clearly that’s not working. In fact, there’s reason to believe that treating Pyongyang as little more than a Chinese province is actually spurring their missile development in an effort to demonstrate otherwise. At some point it may dawn on the administration that it’s North Korea with which they need to be talking, not China, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.



Last Tuesday, in a meeting in France brokered by French President Jupiter Emmanuel Macron, the two main players in Libya’s ongoing civil war–would-be Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj and would-be dictator Khalifa Haftar–appeared to agree to terms on a ceasefire and a path toward national elections. Alex Thurston has compiled the summit’s important documents and some of the media coverage around it. I say the two men “appeared to agree” because in the week since their French summit Haftar has already started talking down their agreement and his fighters have interfered with the process of writing a new constitution that allegedly would prevent Haftar from running for office.


Chris Msando, the Kenya election board’s head of information technology, was found murdered on Monday. This would obviously be troubling under any circumstances, but with the country about to hold a general election next week it’s hard not to draw some very serious theories about his murder. One of Msando’s jobs was to oversee the real-time dissemination of the vote tally, a process obviously rife with potential for shenanigans.

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