Asia/Africa update: August 9 2017


If you’re concerned that it’s become impossible to tell the difference between the rhetoric coming from Donald Trump and that coming from Kim Jong-un RE: nuclear war, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is here to tell you it’s all OK:

“I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days,” Mr. Tillerson said as his plane stopped on the way back to the United States to refuel in Guam, the very island that North Korea threatened to target with an attack. He added: “Nothing I have seen and nothing I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

Secretary of Defense James Mattis, meanwhile, is here to tell you that the United States would beat North Korea in a war:

“While our State Department is making every effort to resolve this global threat through diplomatic means, it must be noted that the combined allied militaries now possess the most precise, rehearsed and robust defensive and offensive capabilities on Earth,” Mr. Mattis said. Using the initials for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he added: “The D.P.R.K. regime’s actions will continue to be grossly overmatched by ours and would lose any arms race or conflict it initiates.”

And, I mean, no shit. The question isn’t who would win the war, it’s how many people would have to die in the process, all because this administration has failed to manage this problem except inasmuch as it’s exacerbated it.

Tillerson in particular seems to be trying to play “good cop” to Trump’s “bad cop,” but for that particular technique to work the “bad cop” generally has to know he’s the “bad cop,” whereas we’re probably lucky if Trump knows what month it is (turns out his threatening bluster toward North Korea was off the cuff, what a shock). And it would help if the “bad cop” didn’t constantly sound like a five year old anxious to play with his new G.I. Joe Strategic Missile Command playset:

It also doesn’t help that Trump has his White House staffers going on TV saying idiotic shit like this:

HA HA! We were a superpower, but now we’re a hyperpower! Soon, we’ll be an ultrapower! And then, a turbo megapower! Listen to me, somebody gave me a doctorate for some reason!

Amid all of this rhetoric, Japan and South Korea look like they’re about to kick off a regional arms race, which could eventually suck in China and who-knows-who-else, so that seems really healthy. And as for North Korea, which is now planning a mid-August show of force whereby it will launch missiles intended to splash down near Guam, arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis suggests that it’s time to drop the idea that it will ever give up its nuclear weapons:

There are really two assessments in the Post’s report. One, dated July 28, is that the intelligence community — not just the Defense Intelligence Agency, contrary to what you may have heard — “assesses North Korea has produced nuclear weapons for ballistic missile delivery, to include delivery by ICBM-class missiles.” The other assessment, published earlier in July, stated that North Korea had 60 nuclear weapons — higher than the estimates usually given in the press. Put them together, though, and its pretty clear that the window for denuclearizing North Korea, by diplomacy or by force, has closed.

Lewis proposes the radical idea of actually talking to the North Koreans–without, you know, insisting on massive concessions from Pyongyang just for the privilege of getting to sit in a room with Donald Trump. It may be that the only way North Korea will ever denuclearize involves regime change, which if it happens at all must happen internally or else it will be a literal bloodbath. While we’re waiting for that, though, it would be nice not to die in a nuclear exchange–hence the need for talks.



On Wednesday, Tajikistani state TV aired a documentary on the country’s 1992-1997 civil war in which it alleged for the first time that Iran played a direct role in aiding Islamist rebels during that conflict. The mainstream narrative of that war has Iran offering indirect aid to the rebels but nothing like the aid they received from, for example, elements within Afghanistan or the Pakistani intelligence service. This is a fascinating development in the history of the former Soviet Republic…or rather it would be, if the “evidence” for Iran’s enhanced role in the conflict hadn’t been taken from three “confessions” that were most likely coerced, since that’s how the Tajikistani criminal justice system rolls. Relations between Tajikistan and Iran are not great these days, so there’s a pretty good chance this accusation has more to do with that than with the actual history of the civil war.


A group of four women working for a security contractor at Bagram airbase was attacked by unknown gunmen in a drive-by shooting on Wednesday–two of them were killed.

The New York Times published an interview today with an anonymous “Taliban commander” that sheds some light on the death of former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. Mansour, who was killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan, apparently had some inkling that his time was up:

In the hours before he was killed in an American drone strike, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, then the Taliban leader, knew something was wrong.

He was on his way home from a secret visit to Iran in May 2016, driving across a remote stretch of southwestern Pakistan, when he called his brother and relatives to prepare them for his death.

“He knew something was happening,” a former Taliban commander, who is close to Mullah Mansour’s inner circle, said in an interview. “That’s why he was telling his family members what to do and to stay united.”

Mansour was returning from Iran and was apparently delayed by Pakistani authorities while crossing the border, which was unusual. It seems likely that it was the Pakistanis who gave him up to the Americans because Mansour had begun to chafe at orders from Pakistani intelligence was beginning to make preparations to start peace talks with Kabul. Part of the reason he’d been in Iran was to shop for a new nation-state sponsor because his relations with the Pakistanis was so frayed. If this is all true, then it means the Obama administration helped Pakistani intelligence rid itself of a problem and extend the war in Afghanistan, while patting itself on the back for killing the leader of the Taliban. Way to go everybody.

Afghanistan’s mostly Shiʿa Hazara minority has been a target for terror attacks throughout the country’s unending civil war, but the past couple of months in particular have seen them hit by a number of incidents:

On July 22, 2016 twin suicide bombers attacked a rally of the Shiite Hazara community, taking the lives of more than 80 people. More than 250 were injured. In November 2016, a suicide attacker targeted a Shiite mosque in Kabul, killing 27 members of the Shiite Hazara community. On June 6, 2017 in an attack on Herat Jamma Masjid, seven Shiite Hazaras were killed by a suicide bomber. On August 2, in the same city, a suicide attack blew up a Shiite mosque, claiming the lives of 29 worshipers. Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (the group’s outfit in South Asia) claimed responsibility for each of these attacks.

The Taliban, a Sunni religious group, so far has attacked the citizens of Afghanistan regardless of their sectarian beliefs. However, in recent months their bombings and suicide attacks have also been concentrated on the Shiite populated areas of Kabul, the capital. In a more recent attack on August 5, 2017, the Taliban and ISIS teamed up and took control of a village in Sar-e Pul province inhabited by the Shiite Hazaras. According to official reports the militants have slaughtered at least 60 men, women, and children and took more than 150 families as hostages. At the time of this writing, 235 hostages have been released, after mediation by a neighboring village’s elders, but around 80 are still captives.

Afghan Shiʿa have faced a history of discrimination, but as that piece points out the main lines of conflict during the country’s 1990s civil wars were ethnic, not sectarian. But with the rise of ISIS in particular the threat to Shiʿa has grown considerably, and if ISIS and the Taliban are now working together in places like Sar-e-Pul then the threat is even greater. The threat for the Hazara is greater still, since as an ethnic and religious minority they make prime targets for both the Pashtun nationalist Taliban and the Sunni-supremacist ISIS.


Four Pakistani soldiers were killed Wednesday when a suicide bomber attacked their patrol in the country’s northern Upper Dir district. The Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for the attack.

Meanwhile, ousted former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif staged a grand “caravan” spectacle for the first part of his journey from Islamabad to his home city, Lahore. A car carrying Sharif was mobbed by supporters as the former PM took 12 hours to make the half hour trip from Islamabad to Rawalpindi, where he then spoke to the gathered crowd. Sharif railed against the court decision that forced his resignation and noted that in its 70 year history, Pakistan has never had a prime minister serve a full term in office. It looks like Sharif is planning to continue this slow procession along the entire route to Lahore, so…uh, I guess that means he’s not going quietly.


Three Kashmiri rebels and one teenage boy bystander were killed by Indian forces in a clash near the town of Tral in southern Kashmir on Wednesday.


An estimated 500,000 Marathas took to the streets of Mumbai on Wednesday to protest against rising unemployment and to demand quotas for government jobs and university admissions. The Maratha community is predominantly agricultural and has been hit hard by worsening economic conditions in rural India. Currently such quotas only exist for India’s lowest castes to try to reverse millennia of discrimination, but times are so tough in rural parts of the country (in part due to climate change) that even the Marathas, whose ancestors once ruled most of India, say they need help. Protest leaders say they’re also demanding farm price controls and aid for struggling small farmers.



Late Tuesday a Tunisian security force killed two Islamist fighters with al-Qaeda ties in a raid near the country’s border with Algeria. One of the men, Mourad Chaieb, is the leader of a group called Okba Bin Nafaa that is linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.


Senegal’s main opposition party says it will no longer participate in elections held by the current government, after declaring last month’s parliamentary vote a “masquerade”:

President Macky Sall’s coalition took 125 seats in the 165-seat National Assembly after winning nearly half the vote, according to the results announced last on Friday.

The coalition of 91-year-old former president Abdoulaye Wade, whom Sall defeated in a 2012 presidential election, won 19 seats. Another led by Dakar mayor Khalifa Sall, who has been detained in a corruption probe for the past six months that his supporters say is politically motivated, won seven seats.

“The coordination of opposition parties Wattu Senegal … will no longer participate in any election of any kind organized by the government of Macky Sall,” Wade said in a statement on TV.

Sall’s government apparently had a hard time–or pretended to have a hard time–issuing voter IDs, which seems to be Wade’s main complaint.


kenyatta odinga
Uhuru Kenyatta (L) and Raila Odinga (R)

The results are almost in in Kenya’s presidential election and, unfortunately, so is the feared violence. With almost all voting stations having reported in, the results show incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta defeating his challenger, Raila Odinga, by just under ten percent, a considerable margin given that most pre-election analysis thought these two were running neck and neck. And, well, therein lies the problem. Odinga and his camp are alleging that the vote count has been altered by “hackers” and they’re rejecting the results.

This will be the third time Odinga has lost a presidential campaign and the third time he’s claimed that he was cheated, so it starts to seem like a pattern. But somebody murdered the head of the Kenyan electoral board’s IT department eight days ago, and it’s at least not out of the realm of possibility that his job had something to do with his death. He was reportedly tortured before he died, which suggests somebody was trying to extract some information from him. So Odinga at least has an interesting story to tell here.

The electoral system Kenya used this time around should produce a preliminary online vote tally that can then be checked against paper ballots counted by hand at each polling station. If that hand count hasn’t been tampered with, then it will ultimately determine whether or not somebody messed with the online count. But what are the chances it hasn’t been tampered with? What I mean is, if you have an operation sophisticated enough to mess with the online count, why on earth wouldn’t you also take steps to mess with the hand count? You’d have to know that the two would be checked against one another. I guess if your interest is purely in sowing chaos in Kenya, you might tamper with one count, leave the other alone, and sit back and watch the sparks fly when the numbers don’t match up. If, say, al-Shabab were sophisticated enough to pull off something like this then that might be how they’d handle it. But if your goal in tampering with the vote count is to, say, ensure Kenyatta’s reelection, then obviously you’d have to have a plan to deal with the paper count too, right? Otherwise, why bother?

Odinga’s claim of fraud has been enough to get his supporters out into the streets to protest, and that’s where the violence comes in:

Across most of the country streets were empty, most businesses remained shut and an uneasy calm prevailed. The violent incidents were limited, raising hopes that Kenya may avoid a major breakdown of law and order.

In the western city of Kisumu police fired teargas at a group of 100 opposition supporters who had been chanting: “No Raila, no peace.”

Protests were also held in the poor Nairobi neighbourhood of Mathare, an Odinga stronghold.

At about 2pm, two young men were killed and five injured when police opened fire on demonstrators who had blocked a road, a witness told the Guardian.

Another person was killed while protesting in a county west of Nairobi. So far the reports of violence have been pretty scattered, but the threat of escalation is very real.


The Red Cross said Wednesday that six of its aid workers were killed last week in a militia attack on a health center in Gambo, a town in southeast CAR.

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