Asia/Africa update: August 8 2017


Tensions continue to escalate between the US and North Korea thanks largely to, and I have to be perfectly frank here, some monumentally irresponsible rhetoric coming out of Pyongyang. A couple of days ago, in response to new UN Security Council sanctions, the North Koreans threatened to turn the US into “an unimaginable sea of fire,” and if that wasn’t dangerous enough, just today Kim Jong-un told reporters that if the United States continues to threaten North Korea, it “will be met with fire and fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.” I mean, what the hell dude?

So look, this situation has go–what? I’m sorry?

Ah, hah, um–this is awkward–it turns out that last quote was from Donald Trump, talking to reporters about North Korean threats against America. In my own defense, whether Kim or Trump said it, the bottom line is the same: a fat, slow-witted asshole with delusions of grandeur is pulling the rest of us closer to a very dangerous red line because he can’t keep his mouth shut.

Trump’s rhetoric was of course immediately matched and exceeded by North Korea, which decided early Wednesday morning (local time) to let the world know that it is “carefully examining” the possibility of a missile strike on Guam. If one intends to attack one’s enemy like this one doesn’t usually announce it beforehand so I think we can fairly conclude that this is probably bluster on Pyongyang’s part. But there’s obviously no way Trump is going to let Kim have the last and craziest word here, so stay tuned for his 3AM tweet about how America is going to carve “KIM JONG-UN GFY” in the moon with a laser or something equally stupid.

Before the rhetoric started getting out of hand, today’s big North Korea story was that US intelligence, per the Washington Post, now believes that Pyongyang has developed the capability to miniaturize a nuclear device that could fit atop one of its new intercontinental ballistic missiles. While this could obviously be a bit of threat inflation to justify Doing Something to North Korea, the fact is that the IC and independent analysts have consistently underestimated the progress that North Korea has made in its nuclear and missile programs. Very few analysts, for example, believed that Pyongyang was ready to test an ICBM, and yet here we are. So it might be worth paying attention to a report that says the DPRK is further along in another important area. Miniaturization is one of the biggest technical hurdles that have to be overcome to be able to put a nuke inside a missile warhead, so this is a very big deal. If North Korea is now able to test a real chained thermonuclear (hydrogen) bomb–and I think you have to assume they’re also farther along on that front than most estimates say–it will have the full package of a modern nuclear arsenal at its disposal.



Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the separatist Georgian region of Abkhazia on Tuesday to ensure the Abkhazian people of Moscow’s support and protection. For some reason, his visit wasn’t well-received by the Georgian government, probably because they have some hang up about pictures of strong, shirtless men or something.


Taliban fighters have released some 235 hostages taken during a particularly violent attack in Sar-e-Pul province over the weekend. Local tribal elders were instrumental in negotiating their release, but at least 100 people are still believed to be in Taliban custody.

The Taliban better enjoy their run of success while it lasts though, because the United States is ready to call in the cavalry: the US military mercenaries. Oh yeah baby, we’re gonna party like it’s 1839 up in this thing. Lay it on me:

The White House is actively considering a bold plan to turn over a big chunk of the U.S. war in Afghanistan to private contractors in an effort to turn the tide in a stalemated war, according to the former head of a security firm pushing the project.

Under the proposal, 5,500 private contractors, primarily former Special Operations troops, would advise Afghan combat forces. The plan also includes a 90-plane private air force that would provide air support in the nearly 16-year-old war against Taliban insurgents, Erik Prince, founder of the Blackwater security firm, told USA TODAY.

My reference to 1839, the year the First Anglo-Afghan War began, is not accidental, since Prince (whose sister just so happens to be the current US education secretary, by the way) has repeatedly used the East India Company as his model for what the US presence in Afghanistan should be. That’s some good historifying right there.

Prince says his guys can train and advise the Afghan military more effectively at a cool 25 percent of what the current mission is costing the Pentagon, at least before you add in the cost overruns that I’m sure will eventually crop up. This is exciting. I mean, in five years, when a squad of Blackwater mercs has to be emergency airlifted out of the country because they just spent a half hour fucking annihilating the afternoon rush hour traffic in Kabul with automatic weapons fire, we’ll all be able to say where we were when this great initiative first got off the ground.


The Pakistani Taliban is going to start publishing a magazine for the female jihadi. You know, who among us hasn’t started reading an informative article about how to properly situate a car bomb in front of your local ice cream shop when you turn the page and you’re suddenly in the middle of a pullout spread for some bullshit erectile dysfunction medicine! This is frankly long overdue.

The ruling Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party has collectively changed its mind and will not run Shahbaz Sharif in a by-election to replace his brother, ousted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, in parliament. The party apparently believes Shahbaz is too politically valuable in his current position as chief minister of the Punjab, which is the country’s key region from an electoral standpoint. He may stand for parliament in the next general election, in 2018, and then step into the PM role after that, but for now at least it seems “interim” PM Shahid Khaqan Abbasi will hang on to that job.

For his part, Nawaz is not departing from public life quietly, as he’s already speaking out against the judiciary that forced him from office. Nawaz Sharif is so far playing coy when asked if he believes the Pakistani military helped get him dismissed, but it doesn’t seem like he’s planning to stay coy on that topic indefinitely.


It sounds like deescalation talks between India and China over their border dispute (well, China’s border dispute with Bhutan, really) in Doklam have hit a rough patch. Beijing is demanding that India pull its soldiers out of what it says is Chinese territory unilaterally, while India has countered with an offer to withdraw if Chinese forces also pull back 250 meters from their current position. China has reportedly, and very quietly, responded with an offer to move back 100 meters, but so far there’s been no response from India. Both militaries have now conducted exercises in the area, which isn’t exactly helping to defuse the tension. But China’s defense ministry did speak to Indian media on Monday in an effort to explain their case to the Indian people, so we’ll see if that bears any fruit.


China won a victory of sorts over the weekend when the ASEAN conference in Manila concluded without a strong statement on the development of a legally-binding “code of conduct” for nations in the South China Sea. China prefers to keep issues related to the SCS informal largely so that its heft as the dominant regional power can allow it do act with almost total impunity to stake its claims over the entire sea. It is, however, apparently concerned enough about Singapore taking over as ASEAN chair next year that it’s already started leaning on the city-state not to take a hard line on the SCS. Singapore doesn’t have any maritime claims in the SCS but it depends to such a great degree on freedom of navigation through the waterway that it could push harder for that legally binding COC than Manila has been this year.


There are dueling versions of what happened with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during the ASEAN conference, specifically around the issue of Duterte’s vigilante war on drugs and the human rights violations it has entailed. Duterte claims that the two only discussed human rights “in passing,” but the State Department says Tillerson emphasized the point and offered Duterte technical US assistance in his anti-drug program that might, shall we say, reduce the bodycount.



A 22 year old Hirak al-Chaabi protester named Imad el-Attabi, who fell into a coma due to head injuries sustained during a July 20 protest, has died. I mention this only insofar as his death could reignite the protest movement. Something to watch.


I was unaware of this, but apparently Mauritanian President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz really stacked the deck to get people to vote in favor of a ballot measure to abolish the country’s senate on Sunday:

On Sunday, eligible citizens of the North African state of Mauritania went to vote on a referendum on two constitutional amendments.

One was pretty straightforward: The nation’s green flag with a yellow crescent moon and star would have two red stripes added to symbolize the blood spilled in the 1960 independence struggle against France.

Voting against the measure would be like spitting on the patriots’ graves. It passed overwhelmingly, with 86 percent casting a “yes” vote.

But marking “oui” on the ballot also meant approving President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz’s plan to abolish the country’s senate, which he described as “useless and too costly.” The senate’s authority will be devolved to more pliant regional and religious councils. Mauritanians are almost 100 percent Muslim.

That’s some pretty nifty politicking right there.


A series of Boko Haram raids in the Lake Chad area killed at least 30 fishermen between Sunday and Monday, according to the Borno state governor’s office. If you’re scoring at home, this would be the Boko Haram faction still aligned with ISIS, which is based near Lake Chad and conducts most of its operations in the vicinity.


So far it doesn’t appear there’s been any serious violence attending Kenya’s presidential election, which was held Tuesday. So far, so good. However, final results aren’t expected to be announced until the count is finished on Wednesday, and the potential for violence really heightens at that point for obvious reasons. The camp around challenger Raila Odinga is already disputing partial results showing a substantial lead for incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta. The electoral commission is apparently only releasing top-line numbers, with no information on, e.g., which precincts have been counted, which adds to suspicions about the count.


Robert Mugabe has been suggesting in recent days that his military could be planning a coup to ensure that he’s succeeded by Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa. At the Monkey Cage, analyst Alexander Noyes writes that Mugabe’s control over the state is so thorough that there’s almost no chance of a coup attempt while he’s still alive–his talk in that regard may actually be an attempt to discredit Mnangagwa and damage his chances of winning the eventual succession fight. Of course, if Mugabe were to die then the cork could come out of the bottle and a coup suddenly become a real possibility. But as I’ve often tried to point out, if Robert Mugabe were able to die he would’ve done so a long time ago.


Somewhat incredibly, scandal-ridden President Jacob Zuma survived a secret ballot no confidence vote in parliament on Tuesday, with 198 MPs voting against the measure against 177 who voted for it. Zuma may now be politically untouchable, but he’s still in potential legal jeopardy from the myriad corruption investigations surrounding him, and in the long run this could be a bad outcome for the African National Congress, which now fully owns Zuma’s scandals.

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