Asia/Africa update: August 5-7 2017


Anybody who had “Philippines” in their “where will America bomb next” office pool, stand by to collect your winnings:

The Pentagon is considering a plan that allows the U.S. military to conduct airstrikes on ISIS in the Philippines, two defense officials told NBC News.

The authority to strike ISIS targets as part of collective self-defense could be granted as part of an official military operation that may be named as early as Tuesday, said the officials. The strikes would likely be conducted by armed drones.

If approved, the U.S. military would be able to conduct strikes against ISIS targets in the Philippines that could be a threat to allies in the region, which would include the Philippine forces battling ISIS on the ground in the country’s southern islands.

Legal authority to undertake these strikes would be provided, say it with me, by the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force. I mean, obviously the legislators who voted to authorized George Bush to attack Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 2001 must surely have realized that they would also be authorizing Donald Trump to attack the Maute Group in the Philippines in 2017. That’s just basic logic.

This story probably explains why the normally combative Duterte was such a passive wiener when Rex Tillerson visited Manila on Monday, going so far as to meekly call himself America’s “humble friend in Southeast Asia.”



At least 50 people were killed on Sunday in a Taliban attack in Afghanistan’s northern Sar-e-Pul province, highlighted in red here on this handy Google map:

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Apart from the high casualty count, this attack has caused some controversy because Afghan officials are insisting that the Taliban carried it out in alliance with a local ISIS commander named Sher Mohamed Ghazanfar. This would be, as they say, big, if true. It would first of all mean that there are parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban and ISIS are  definitely collaborating (there have apparently been signs of this in northern Afghanistan but this would definitely be confirmation), and it would mean that ISIS has expanded out of its confinement in eastern Afghanistan. Like I said, big if true.

But it may not be true. The Taliban are insisting that Ghazanfar is and has been their guy, not ISIS’s, and that they’ve had nothing to do with ISIS. They claim the government has concocted this story to tie the Taliban to the comparatively unpopular ISIS in an effort to discredit the Taliban insurgency. I wouldn’t pretend to have any idea whether this is true or not. But witnesses say the attack in Sar-e-Pul was particularly bloody and the victims were predominantly from Afghanistan’s Shiʿa Hazara minority, a favorite ISIS target. So draw your own conclusions.

The Washington Post reports on the coalition of ethnic leaders who are challenging Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in defense of exiled Afghan VP/war criminal Abdul Rashid Dostum:

Dostum’s co-conspirators call themselves the Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan. They have not always been friendly with each other. Foremost among them is Tajik warlord-turned-provincial-governor Attah Mohammed Noor — against whom Dostum fought vicious battles in the early 1990s. They are joined by Mohammad Mohaqiq, an ethnic Hazara leader and deputy to the government’s chief executive, and Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, a member of Noor’s Jamaat-e-Islami party. Together they claim to represent Afghanistan’s three largest ethnic minorities, although the depth of their support among the public, let alone within their own parties, is yet to be put to the test.

They insist that they are not calling for the collapse of the government, only that Ghani relinquish power to officials and cabinet ministers hailing from various parties and ethnicities, Dostum prime among them. A key demand is that the criminal case against Dostum be dropped and his return to Afghanistan expedited. Their rhetoric is menacing.

Ghani’s allies publicly say they believe this group opposes his leadership because he’s done so much to curb corruption that they’re all afraid of him. Presumably they don’t actually believe that, but I can definitely see a serious argument that the biggest problem in Afghanistan right now is that Ghani has worked too hard to root out corruption. Sort of like how my biggest problem at any job is always that I just care too damn much.

The New York Times has a lengthy report on allegations that Iran is increasing its assistance to the Taliban. I have no real problem believing that Iran has in the years since 2001 come to see the rump Taliban as more an asset to be exploited than a potential enemy to be countered, so I’m not really interested in arguing with the facts of the piece. But the thing is, if Iran is supporting the Taliban to such an extent that it’s giving the Taliban an edge over Kabul, that’s an argument for America to leave Afghanistan, not escalate there. To the extent that Iran is involved in Afghanistan, it’s to counter ISIS and to bleed the US. Remove the US from that equation and the Iranians have less reason to keep supporting the Taliban rather than the government in Kabul.

Also too, though, I’d like to know how somebody writes an article about OMG IRAN IS SUPPORTING THE TALIBAN THIS IS SO EVIL and includes this passage almost as an afterthought:

That the Taliban leader was personally developing ties with both Iran and Russia signaled a stunning shift in alliance for the fundamentalist Taliban movement, which had always been supported by the Sunni powers among the Arab gulf states and Pakistan.

But times were changing with the American drawdown in Afghanistan, and Mullah Mansour had been seeking to diversify his sources of money and weapons since taking over the Taliban leadership in 2013. He had made 13 trips to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and one to Bahrain, his passport showed, but also at least two visits to Iran.

The Sunni Gulf states are America’s best good friends in the whole wide world, just ask them. So is it not more shocking that they’ve been paying the Taliban to kill American soldiers all this time than that Iran might have started doing the same thing in the past few years? Is it not more shocking that in 2013 Mullah Mansur made seven times the number of fundraising trips to the Gulf states as he did to Iran? Did it not occur to NYT reporter Carlotta Gall that maybe the more important story is right here, buried in her breathless dispatch about evil Iran’s evil evildoing? I guess not.


A bombing in Lahore on Monday wounded at least 22 people. There’s been no claim of responsibility.

Hafiz Saeed, the co-founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba and the man allegedly ultimately responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attack, is founding a political party. Yes, that’s right, a man with a $10 million terrorism bounty on his head from the United States, who is currently under house arrest, is going to put together a legal, above-board political apparatus via his charity/front-group, Jamaat ud-Dawa. This may signal that the Pakistani intelligence community is trying to ease the militant groups it supports out of violence and into politics, or it could just be a sign that Pakistani politics are irretrievably broken. Who’s to say, really.

Reuters has put together an interesting report on the changing makeup of jihadi groups within Pakistan, based on interrogations conducted on a young would-be suicide bomber who was captured by Pakistani authorities in September. ISIS is at the center of it, but unlike other countries where ISIS does its own dirty work, in Pakistan they’ve formed operational alliances with like-minded organizations to carry out attacks.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif isn’t going quietly, apparently. He’s decided to maintain a high profile and use it to criticize the Pakistani judicial system that forced him from office over corruption charges. I’m sure that will be well-received. His main political rival, Imran Khan, is in some hot water after being accused of sending “objectionable” text messages to a female Pakistani lawmaker named Ayesha Gulalai Wazir. He’s not in as much hot water as Wazir is, unfortunately–she’s now being bombarded with profane and threatening messages on social media, because human beings are horrifyingly awful.


The Indian army says it killed five Kashmiri militants on Monday as they attempted to cross into the province from Pakistan.


Here’s a really off-the-wall story for you. Myanmar decided to investigate its own army’s genocidal violence against the Rohingya, and–you’ll never believe this–it turns out that nobody did anything wrong! They’ve cleared themselves! What an unpredictable development! Kudos to everyone involved!


As expected, the UN Security Council did impose new sanctions against North Korea on Saturday. The vote was unanimous, so not only did China not veto, it didn’t even abstain–that’s a pretty significant symbolic development. The question is, will these sanctions have any more impact than previous ones? I mean, these new sanctions look harsher, but they’re still more of the same stuff that hasn’t impacted North Korea’s weapons development in the slightest. Pyongyang is certainly insisting that it won’t be swayed by the new punishments, though of course that could be bluster.

Sanctions expert Richard Nephew argues that there’s less than meets the eye to this new package. But his main concern is that the Trump administration is going to see this win at the Security Council as something more than it really is, and that it will continue to delay the United States actually developing a strategy for limiting or rolling back the North Korean nuclear threat:

When viewed from this lens, my concern is that UNSCR 2371 will convince the Trump team that they are on the right track and that they don’t have to make a tough call on entering real negotiations with North Korea. They can accept the logic that this resolution will make the difference or create a path toward an effective sanctions lever against North Korea. It is a more comfortable approach psychologically and avoids officials having instead to accept the likelihood that the competition with North Korea may have been lost, at least insofar as some of its nuclear and missile capabilities are concerned. In my view, this also means that the Trump team will continue using sanctions as a surrogate for strategy and, inevitably, as a means of avoiding developing one.

North Korea is a genuine threat–Pyongyang isn’t going to unilaterally strike the United States, but this is a belligerent regime that now has the means to, say, threaten the US into backing down while it rolls into South Korea at the cost of millions of lives, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility. It may be time to, OH MY GOD, start talking to North Korea again diplomatically. Other diplomats in the region already seem to be trying to do that, but it’s going to take US involvement to actually deescalate this situation.



In a referendum on Saturday, Mauritanians voted to abolish their country’s senate. Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz had campaigned heavily in favor of the measure, which critics say will allow him to consolidate power and end term limits so he can remain in office indefinitely (he denies having any plan to do this). The opposition boycotted the vote, but turnout was a not-terrible ~53 percent with 85 percent voting in favor of the measure.


One or two gunmen attacked a church in Nigeria’s southeastern Anambra state on Sunday, killing at least 11 people. There’s been no claim of responsibility but it is not believed that Boko Haram was responsible.


The South Sudanese army says it has captured a major rebel base at Pagak, near the country’s border with Ethiopia. This is obviously a serious blow to the rebellion, but definitely not a fatal one.


The Kenyan government has arrested an American pollster working for opposition leader Raila Odinga. With a general election happening Tuesday and the race between Odinga and incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta seemingly coming down to the wire, the arrest of someone who might be able to catch any government shenanigans in the vote count is not a good sign.


Political scientist Melina Platas argues that President Paul Kagame’s massive victory in Friday’s election may have been legitimate:

Let’s first address some of common explanations. Are some Rwandans intimidated by the state? Certainly. Does the ruling party have roots down to the lowest level? Definitely. Do opposition candidates have far fewer resources? Undeniably. Are some of those who wish to run for president unable to? Yes.

But to stop the analysis there misses the larger story. This story begins not with the 1994 genocide, but with decades of conflict, armed or otherwise, among a people whose only real difference is an ethnic identity that was a product of colonial rule. These decades of conflict, culminating in a bloodbath that killed nearly a million people, left a piece of territory called Rwanda that would be unrecognizable to a visitor to the country today.

The fabric of society, ripping for decades until it finally shredded completely, must be hewed together anew. Killers and victims must live together. The government must find a way to exercise a monopoly of violence over its territory. The economy must return to its feet. Somehow, Rwandans, under the leadership of Kagame, managed to do that.


Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned Monday that the situation in the Central African Republic is approaching genocidal, in what’s probably a prelude to a request for the Security Council to authorize more peacekeepers. Some 2.4 million people are at risk of starvation and 500,000 have been displaced in fighting between and among Christian and Muslim militias.


A suicide bomber killed seven people on Sunday in the northern Cameroonian town of Amchide. Given the location it seems almost certain this was Boko Haram, though so far there’s been no claim of responsibility.


DRC forces killed at least 14 people on Monday in clashes with the Kongo nationalist Bundu dia Kongo insurgent group in Kinshasa and the city of Matadi. BDK’s goal is to carve out an ethnic Kongo state from territory now belonging to the DRC, the Republic of Congo, and Angola–basically recreating the Kingdom of Kongo, which occupied that area as an independent entity from the late 14th century through much of the 19th century before it became a Portuguese vassal and then disappeared altogether in the early 20th century. But they’ve also gained strength as opposition to Joseph Kabila’s apparently unending presidency grows, suggesting that their appeal is at least to some extent driven by hostility toward the current DRC government rather than support for their nostalgia.

The UN, meanwhile, is warning that conditions in Kasai, where the Kamwina Nsapu rebellion has been going on for almost a full year now, are deteriorating and could be on the brink of widespread ethnic violence. Kabila’s government has apparently decided to form its own militia, called the Bana Mura, who are believed responsible for 150 of some 251 murders, and an untold number of other horrific crimes, in the Kasai region between mid-March and mid-June.

With all these dangerous things happening, how wonderful that Kabila’s government has decided to slow down the country’s internet in order to restrict access to social media. Nothing ominous about that.


The South African parliament is set to hold a no confidence vote for scandal-ridden President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday. Zuma has faced several no-confidence votes and is still standing, but this one is likely going to be conducted by secret ballot, so nervous African National Congress members might feel freer to vote against him. There is a serious chance that under these conditions, enough ANC members might turn on Zuma to remove him from office.

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