Asia/Australia/Africa update: August 3-4 2017



One NATO soldier was killed on Thursday evening when his convoy was attacked by the Taliban just north of Kabul. In Helmand province, 40 Taliban fighters were reportedly killed during a 12 hour battle with Afghan forces on Thursday and Friday. And in Paktia province, the Afghans were able to retake the Jani Khil district from Taliban control. The two sides have been trading victories in that area in recent days.

The Trump White House is an open tire fire in so many ways, but this Washington Post report suggests that Afghanistan is a big part of its overall dysfunction. President Trump’s insularity and stupidity have coalesced into some pointed and not unreasonable questions about the course of the Afghan war, but he’s incapable of understanding any of the arguments around developing a new Afghan policy so consequently he just keeps getting mad while his generals, on the one hand, and his nationalist ideologues, on the other, snipe at each other and jockey for influence. Sounds great.


New and probably temporary Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi named his new cabinet on Friday, and it’s a monster–47 people, all of them loyalists of ousted ex-PM Nawaz Sharif. The size of the cabinet seems intended to improve the Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) standing heading into elections next year, by bringing prominent figures from key demographics into the government. At this point the plan is still for Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, to eventually succeed him as permanent PM, but party leaders appear to be wavering a bit on that. For one thing, the corruption charges that took down Nawaz might stick to his brother, and for another, there are concerns that losing Shahbaz as chief minister of the Punjab (his current job) could have major electoral ramifications for the party.


The Chinese and Myanmar governments are in talks over a potential deal whereby Myanmar would connect itself to the Chinese power grid and buy electricity from Beijing. Relations between these two countries aren’t always that smooth, so this would be a significant development if it comes to fruition.

Six members of the predominantly Buddhist Mro minority were killed Thursday in Rakhine state by, well, somebody. Rohingya insurgents are a possibility given the location, but some locals seem to believe that the killings could have been drug related.


Indonesian President Joko Widodo appears to have adopted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “shoot first, fuck asking questions” drug policy:

“Be firm, especially to foreign drug dealers who enter the country and resist arrest.” he said, “Shoot them because we indeed are in a narcotics emergency position now.” On July 24, police did just that, killing an alleged methamphetamine smuggler from China in Jakarta — the fourth such death in the capital that month.

The killings and hardening government rhetoric have raised fears that Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most populous nation, is now taking some cues from the Philippines as it steps up its own deadly war on drugs. And why not? More than 7,000 people have died in Duterte’s drug war since he took office last year, sparking widespread accusations of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses. Yet the Philippine president has been rewarded with sky-high approval ratings, unquestioned regional influence and glowing praise from President Trump.

Jakarta may also be looking to draw attention to the drug war to take it from its ongoing problems with Islamist extremists.


The US is looking to hold a UN Security Council vote, perhaps as soon as Saturday, on imposing new international sanctions against North Korea. That things have gotten this far suggests that Washington believes China and Russia will go along with the measure or at least not veto it. The draft sanctions resolution would ban North Korea’s trade in minerals, metals, and seafood, aiming to cut its $3 billion in annual exports by a third.


This should go over well with the South Korean people:

South Korea’s spy agency has admitted it conducted an illicit campaign to influence the country’s 2012 presidential election, mobilising teams of experts in psychological warfare to ensure that the conservative candidate, Park Geun-hye, beat her liberal rival.

An internal investigation by the powerful National Intelligence Service also revealed attempts by its former director and other senior officials to influence voters during parliamentary elections under Park’s predecessor, the hardline rightwinger Lee Myung-bak.

Park, of course, has since been removed from office over a corruption scandal that involved her ties to a cult, of all things, and Moon Jae-in, the guy the NIS tried to keep out of office in 2012, has replaced her.


So apparently somebody in the White House leaked transcripts of Donald Trump’s initial post-inauguration phone conversations with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. I’ll mention the Peña Nieto call later, but it’s really the call with Turnbull that’s the most remarkable, because we get to see President You Can Tell Them To Go Fuck Themselves turn into, in technical International Relations terms, a giant whiny pissbaby.

Trump, you may recall, came into office upset over a deal Barack Obama had negotiated with Turnbull to resettle a number of migrants from Australia’s intake facilities on Nauru and Manus Island in the United States. They’re being denied entry into Australia because they came by boat, and the Australian government has decided to ban migration by boat ostensibly to deter human traffickers. That’s probably not the real reason, but it doesn’t matter–the point is that these people haven’t been arrested and they’re not suspected of being dangerous in any way. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear apart from racism, Trump is convinced that they’re all highly-trained ISIS operatives or something–he repeatedly says that Australia is keeping them in prison, which, conditions-wise they are, but in a legal sense that’s totally inaccurate. And the thing is, if the US screens these people and finds that any of them are dangerous, the deal doesn’t require the US to accept any of them.

But Trump hates the deal. And yet, a deal is a deal, as the guy who wrote The Art of the Deal ought to know, and Turnbull has refused to revisit it. Here’s how Trump reacted to that in the phone call:

Give them to the United States. We are like a dumping ground for the rest of the world. I have been here for a period of time, I just want this to stop. I look so foolish doing this. It [sic] know it is good for you but it is bad for me. It is horrible for me. This is what I am trying to stop. I do not want to have more San Bernardino’s or World Trade Centers. I could name 30 others, but I do not have enough time.

I basically culled that snippet at random out of about a dozen excerpts wherein it wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Trump was stamping his feet and throwing a bona fide temper tantrum in the middle of the Oval Office while he was on the call. It is honestly amazing.



Seven people were wounded in Benghazi on Friday when a bomb went off as worshipers were leaving a mosque in the city. The intended target of the attack may have been Saleh al-Ateiwish, a tribal leader allied with eastern Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar who was attending the service and had been the target of a very similar attack, at the same mosque no less, in November.

Meanwhile, Haftar has ordered Libyan ports in areas under his control to repel any Italian naval vessels in Libyan waters. Italy is planning to send two ships, for a start, to try to intercept human traffickers before their smuggling boats (likely bound for Italy) can get out into the Mediterranean.


Gunmen raided a police station in the town of Adzope early Friday morning, making off with a number of weapons. It’s not clear who the gunmen were but given the country’s problems with military mutineers in recent months that would be one obvious theory.


On Friday, the Ethiopian government lifted the state of emergency that it imposed back in October in response to a wave of protests among the country’s large Oromo population. The crackdown against those protests resulted in hundreds of deaths.


Al-Shabab fighters on Friday reportedly took control of the town of Leego, northwest of Mogadishu. Earlier in the day the town was abandoned by the African Union and Somali forces stationed there for reasons that aren’t clear. Also on Friday, a presumably al-Shabab planted car bomb killed at least one person in Mogadishu.

The Pentagon on Friday acknowledged that US forces participated in a July 30 raid that killed a senior al-Shabab leader known as Ali Jabal in the southern Somali town of Torotoroow.


Speaking of al-Shabab, some of the group’s fighters attacked a police station near the Somali-Kenya border on Thursday, killing one Kenyan police officer. Al-Shabab has expressed an interest in disrupting Kenya’s election on Tuesday so there will likely be more attacks like this over the next few days.

In another troubling sign for the election, the Kenyan opposition alliance says that government security forces raided its office in Nairobi on Friday night. But the government has denied it carried out a raid, and the opposition spokesman who reported the incident to the press has suddenly become unreachable. Several media outlets that initially reported on the raid now seem to be hedging on the story.


As expected, Paul Kagame has won reelection to a third term in a landslide, taking 98 percent of the vote. Normally I would say any election in which one candidate takes 98 percent of the vote is a sham, but in this case it may not be so. Kagame is so dominant in Rwandan politics (which itself is corrosive to democratic norms) that he may have gotten that 98 percent in a legitimate (if not quite fair) election. Still, 98 percent is unrealistically high so I’d still guess there was some funny counting going on here. I just don’t think it’s as obviously fixed as I would in other contexts.


The Pentagon says it’s investigating allegations of Cameroonian war crimes at a military base in Salak that is used by US military personnel. Amnesty International has documented dozens of cases of human rights violations by the Cameroonians against suspected Boko Haram fighters since 2013.


Finally tonight I’ve got two pieces to recommend. First is one on the erosion of democracy in Zambia, by journalist Ernest Chanda:

The slide toward dictatorship was abrupt. Two and a half years ago, Zambia was one of Africa’s most stable democracies, a place so functional that it rarely made international headlines. Now it is “all, except in designation, a dictatorship,” according to the country’s influential Conference of Catholic Bishops. And that was before a state of emergency was declared in July, granting President Edgar Lungu sweeping powers of arrest and detention as his government grapples with a string of alleged arson attacks it blames on the political opposition.

Lungu, who narrowly won reelection last year, has moved forcefully to sideline his opponents. In April, his government detained opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema on what many believe to be trumped-up treason charges. Two months later, 48 opposition parliamentarians were suspended after they refused to attend the president’s State of the Nation address. Last month, those same parliamentarians could do little more than abstain as the legislature rubber-stamped Lungu’s state of emergency declaration, which grants law enforcement “enhanced measures” to curb what the president has described as actions “ bordering on economic sabotage.” (To date, the government has produced no concrete evidence of sabotage, although it claims to have arrested 12 people in connection with the alleged arson attacks.)


The second piece deals with DRC President Joseph Kabila, whose term of office ended in December but who appears to be going nowhere for the foreseeable future, and his close and apparently unscrupulous ties to the government of South Africa:

South Africa may be Kabila’s closest bilateral ally and represents a key lifeline for his continued grip on power. A key to preserving this lifeline has been Kabila’s close personal relationship with South African counterpart Jacob Zuma, and his “business partners.”

South Africa-DRC relations not only highlight the emerging moral bankruptcy of the African National Congress (ANC), but also serve as an embodiment of the malaise facing South African political life as a whole. In a recent podcast, Jason Stearns of the Congo Research Institute (he has published on this site too), and Stephanie Wolters of the Institute for Security Studies in the UK, emphasized that South African policy towards the DRC is increasingly monopolized in the South African presidency, while the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its embassies are largely sidelined. This leads to a peculiar dynamic in which instead of pursuing South Africa’s national interests in the DRC, Zuma legitimizes the DRC’s government’s poor explanations for delaying elections, and tolerates increasing instability in the DRC.

Zuma, who is already under investigation over his ties to South Africa’s wealthy Gupta family, runs cover for Kabila in international settings, and as it turns out Kabila gave Zuma’s nephew a couple of lucrative oil contracts back in 2010 that maybe possibly included some walking around money for Zuma himself. Sounds like everything is above board there.

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