Asia/Africa update: August 2 2017



Here in America we’re just getting used to having a man-child president who likes to play with cool toys and do real manly stuff to show what a big boy he is. This kind of thing:

Needless to say, though, on this score we’re way behind a number of other nations in the world. Turkmenistan, for instance:

Is there anything Turkmenistan’s President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov can’t do?

He’s serenaded his country’s workers with his own songs. His prowess as an athlete is broadcast across the nation on state television. He won the last election with 98 percent of the vote, and it goes without sayin’, is one of Turkmenistan’s leading DJ’s. But none of that compares to Berdymukhamedov’s latest display of state-engineered genius as a master of arms and commando warfare.

Here’s the video, in which Berdymukhamedov teaches his own army how to shoot a gun and throw a knife:

I am genuinely giddy with excitement for video of Donald Trump demonstrating knife-throwing to the Navy SEALs or Army Rangers or whomever. Let’s please make this happen.


ISIS claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s bombing of a Shiʿa mosque in Herat that killed at least 33 people at last official count (there are concerns that the Afghan government may be suppressing a higher and more accurate figure). Funerals for some of the victims were held today in Herat and were followed by protests against Afghan security forces, who witnesses say did not attempt to engage the attackers (the bomber and a gunman) and instead fled the scene.

Elsewhere, two US soldiers were killed on Wednesday when their convoy was attacked by a Taliban suicide bomber outside Kandahar. That attack comes as plans for deploying 4000 more American soldiers to Afghanistan is being held up because, and I can’t believe I’m about to type this, Donald Trump is actually making a little bit of sense:

President Donald Trump’s doubts about the war in Afghanistan has led to a delay in completing a new U.S. strategy in South Asia, skepticism that included a suggestion that the U.S. military commander in the region be fired, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

During a July 19 meeting in the White House Situation Room, Trump demanded that his top national security aides provide more information on what one official called “the end-state” in a country where the United States has spent 16 years fighting against the Taliban with no end in sight.

I’m only giving him partial credit, because he’s asking the wrong question–Trump wants to know why we’re not winning when he should be asking what the fuck we’re still doing there. He also seems keen on looting Afghanistan for its mineral wealth, and, you know, upon reflection maybe he’s not actually making that much sense after all.


New Pakistani Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is supposed to be a place holder until former PM Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz, is able to win Nawaz’s seat in parliament and take over as prime minister himself. He’s so temporary that his first act after taking office was to meet with Nawaz and Shahbaz to talk about forming a new cabinet. But Abbasi seemed to suggest in an comments to the New York Times that he’s not simply a seat-filler, that he actually has plans for his presumably brief time in office:

When I asked if he had wanted to be prime minister, Mr. Abbasi said: “Given a choice I would not take the job.”

But he insisted that he would not function as a “bench warmer” for Mr. Sharif’s sibling, and said his first order of business would be to improve the executive’s relationship with the military and the judiciary.

“There are certain issues here which I cannot reconcile with, the way our whole system operates, the relationship between the judiciary and the executive, within the executive, the civil-military relationship,” Mr. Abbasi said.

“I think there are issues which do not allow governments to perform here, and the country is suffering,” he added. “My aim will be to contribute to fixing those anomalies.”

This sounds cool, but it’s unclear to me how an already lame-duck PM could possibly hope to make inroads on the structural problems with Pakistani politics. Then again, there’s always the possibility that Abbasi will have to stay in the job permanently, if the corruption investigation that took down Nawaz expands to include Shahbaz as well.


Kashmiri activists held a general strike across the province on Wednesday to protest the killings of two Lashkar-e-Taiba leaders and a civilian bystander by Indian forces on Tuesday.


As a follow-up to yesterday’s story about climate change contributing to the high rate of suicide among small Indian farmers, here’s some cheery news:

Venturing outdoors may become deadly across wide swaths of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh by the end of the century as climate change drives heat and humidity to new extremes, according to a new study.

These conditions could affect up to a third of the people living throughout the Indo-Gangetic Plain unless the global community ramps up efforts to rein in climate-warming carbon emissions. Today, that vast region is home to some 1.5 billion people.

“The most intense hazard from extreme future heat waves is concentrated around the densely populated agricultural regions of the Ganges and Indus river basins,” wrote the authors of the study, led by former MIT research scientist Eun-Soon Im, now an assistant professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

While most studies of this kind usually focus on heat, this one apparently included humidity as a factor. Humans can survive what’s called a “wet bulb temperature” (the temperature taken with a wet cloth wrapped around the thermometer to simulate high humidity) of up to 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 C), but anything in the high 80s and above is extremely hazardous. That’s where much of South Asia is heading.


In the latest development over the India-Bhutan-China border dispute in Doklam, China’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that Indian forces remain on what it considers to be Chinese soil and that Beijing has been “restrained” in its response to this provocation. India’s foreign ministry had no immediate response.


This afternoon the State Department announced that it will ban all American travel to North Korea as of September 1, with potential exceptions for journalists and aid workers. Americans currently in North Korea are expected to leave the country by that date. North Korea will be the only country to which Americans are barred from traveling. Although Washington and Pyongyang are currently spiraling toward a catastrophic war, this ban appears to be less about that than about the risk that Americans could be detained or imprisoned by the North Korean government. Given what happened to Otto Warmbier in North Korean custody, this seems like a reasonable concern.

At 38North, Richard Sokolsky and Aaron David Miller warn against the potential dangers of pursuing regime change in Pyongyang:

Is the Trump administration seriously contemplating changing the regime in North Korea? Frankly, the signals are mixed. Ten days ago, at the Aspen Security Forum, CIA Director Mike Pompeo intimated as much, saying that he and other senior officials were ordered by President Trump to find a way to “separate the North Korean regime from its missiles and nuclear weapons.” And indeed, only a few days ago, Vice President Mike Pence said that “all options are on the table” in countering the North Korean threat. But only yesterday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declared, “We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel.” Perhaps this ambivalence and confusion reflects a healthy debate on North Korea policy within the administration. We hope so.

Of course, North Korea is a dangerous regime. It starves, tortures, jails and kills scores of innocent citizens. Its growing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities threaten US forces in the Asia Pacific region and our allies, and soon they will be able to hit targets in the United States.

But while the urge to rid the world of the regime is understandable, the risks, costs and consequences of acting on this impulse are rarely considered. While much of the discussion of a North Korean regime collapse focus on its potential to unleash thousands of refugees to China and South Korea and on the enormous economic costs of Korean reunification, the geopolitical and security dangers would be far more consequential for the United States and its South Korean and Japanese allies and for the future stability of Northeast Asia. The following are four reasons why.



Whatever else comes out of the agreement that Khalifa Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj negotiated in France last week, Haftar seems like the big winner coming out of the summit. For one thing, he got explicit recognition from French President Zeus Emmanuel Macron, and at least implicit recognition from Serraj, that he’s the legitimate commander of the genuine Libyan military or at least a portion of it. This obviously puts him on a level above that of a simple militia commander or warlord, even though that’s really what he is in the absence of a functioning Libyan government. He also got clear recognition as the guy in charge of eastern Libya, even though he’s nominally answerable to the parliament in Tobruk.


After halting its repatriation program for several weeks over an internal political dispute, Algeria says it’s ready to resume sending migrants back to Niger. New (as of May) Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmadjid Tebboune has floated the idea of bringing undocumented migrants into the Algerian workforce, which needs more workers especially in areas like farming and manual work. But there’s strong political opposition to such an idea, especially when it comes to migrants from West Africa, partly due to security concerns. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s focus has shifted south into the West African Sahel, but there’s always the chance it could try to surge back into Algeria and the fear is that it could insert operatives into the country via these migrants.


Last week Boko Haram attacked a Nigerian oil exploration team in the Lake Chad area in what may have been a kidnapping attempt gone wrong, and at least 69 people are dead as a result. There are fears that this organized attack marks a coming out party of sorts for the ISIS-linked branch of Boko Haram, led by Abu Musab al-Barnawi, that’s based around Lake Chad. That branch is believed to have greater operational capability in terms of carrying out larger and more sophisticated attacks than the other branch, the one still led by longtime boss Abubakar Shekau, which seems to be limited to hit-and-run or suicide-type attacks only.

However, Shekau’s branch is still active as well despite Nigerian claims that it’s on its last legs. On Tuesday fighters from that branch attacked a village near the group’s Sambisa Forest home turf, killing at least seven people.


Juan Cole has written a piece on China’s new naval base in Djibouti that is worth checking out:

There is, as usual in these matters, a strong economic underpinning to China’s new military base. Since Djibouti has become the port of choice for Ethiopia, it has received enormous investments in infrastructure. It already receives 15,000 containers a year, and this number is set to increase substantially. China has made major investments in Port Doraleh, a major container port there, as a conduit for African raw materials to China’s hungry factories, and for Chinese manufactured goods to Africa’s markets. China also built an electric rail link from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa to Djibouti, turning the trip into a 12 hour journey; it had been four days by truck.

China sees its new outpost in Djibouti as part of its globe-spanning New Silk Road international trade project. There is an overland Silk Road through Central Asia and Iran to Europe (Syria may be incorporated into it).

Then there is a maritime Silk Road, including East Africa. These new transportation routes ramify from China and depend on new rail links and ports that will make trade easier and less expensive, in hopes of increasing its volume.


Three people were killed in Kenya’s Lamu County on Wednesday when their bus was shot up by a group of suspected al-Shabab fighters. The potential for increased al-Shabab activity in Kenya is a concern leading up to next week’s general election, which is already plagued by fears of possible vote tampering.


President Paul Kagame is set to be reelected to a third term in office on Friday. And while there’s plenty of evidence to support the charge that Kagame has governed Rwanda as an authoritarian dictator–suppressing free speech, stifling political opposition, and maybe even having prominent political opponents killed–there’s no reason to think he’ll have to rig the vote to win big. For all his troubling behavior, Kagame has a tremendous amount of goodwill with the Rwandan people, who see him as the man who put Rwanda back together after the 1994 genocide and has kept it together–and, economically at least, doing pretty well for itself–ever since.

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