Asia/Africa update: August 10-11 2017


How are America and North Korea careening toward a nuclear exchange today, you ask? The answer: more pointlessly aggressive rhetoric from the more reckless of the two nations’ leaders, which in a strange turn of events happens currently to be the president of the United States:

President Donald Trump says the US military is “locked and loaded” to deal with North Korea, ramping up the rhetorical brinkmanship.

“Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong-un will find another path!” he tweeted.

In addition to being pointlessly aggressive this also happens to be just flat-out wrong, since there are no military solutions in place, not even partly really, and “locked and loaded” is just some empty dipshit phrase Trump may have heard in a Steven Seagal film or something. But it sounds cool to a certain audience, and that’s all Trump really cares about, so whatever.

In the meanwhile authorities on Guam, which has sort of been threatened by Pyongyang (though really they’ve only talked about test-firing missiles in the vicinity of the US territory), have gone so far as to issue guidelines to residents on how to respond in the event of a North Korean nuclear strike. Among their advice is a warning not to use hair conditioner, which can apparently bind radioactive particles to your hair. All this time I’ve been using the shampoo with the conditioner already in it, little realizing that I was sealing my own fate.

In truth, of course, the chances of war are low and may have gotten a bit lower with Trump’s comments, as bellicose as they sounded. You may recall that his “fire and fury” bluster threatened retaliation to North Korean threats against the United States, whereas in today’s “locked and loaded” nonsense Trump talked about North Korea acting unwisely. Assuming we can draw any conclusions from any words that ever come out of Donald Trump’s mouth, that is indeed a step back. We’re now dealing with actions rather than words, and the Kim regime, say what you will, is always much more belligerent in its words than its actions. They provoke, they want attention, but they aren’t suicidal zealots looking to provoke a nuclear exchange that they would certainly not survive.

Climbing down from this little precipice we’re all on is going to be difficult, though, and until we do the risk of some small provocation escalating into a much bigger deal is going to be substantially higher than usual. Publicly the Trump administration rejects the idea of talking with the North Koreans under any conditions other than a total pre-emptive North Korean capitulation–in other words, it won’t trade any improvement in the US-DPRK relationship for a freeze in North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, and it won’t even agree just to talk without preconditions. It won’t even recognize North Korea as a nuclear state, which at this point would have more to do with accepting reality than with legitimizing the Kim regime. A unilateral move by North Korea, at least said freeze, is what they want in order to open talks, but North Korea is unlikely to give that to them. And yet! The AP reported Friday that the US and North Korea have been talking behind the scenes for months, via a backchannel at the United Nations. So it’s not as though there’s no diplomacy happening here, which is comforting.

Finally, I would suggest reading this Guardian piece on life inside North Korea and why a population that is losing patience with Kim Jong-un nevertheless will support him when it comes to any exchange with the United States:

We do know that North Koreans have good reason to be afraid of American military might. The country was flattened by US airstrikes in the Korean war. It is structured around the idea that it is still at war (technically true: no peace treaty was signed at the end of the conflict, only an armistice). The leadership has long blamed foreign aggression for the country’s economic struggles. These lessons start early; in primary school maths classes, pupils calculate the number of “American imperialist bastards” killed by the Korean people’s army. Recent history has only reinforced the dire warnings from the leadership: George W Bush singled it out as part of the “axis of evil” before invading Iraq.



At least four people were killed Friday and another forty wounded in Afghanistan’s northern Takhar province when a gunman, operating on behalf of a local warlord, opened fire inside a mosque. The mosque’s imam was apparently the target but he was not injured.

Taliban statements to the contrary notwithstanding, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission says that Sunday’s major attack in Sar-e-Pul province was a joint Taliban-ISIS endeavor. Whether this is a localized, one-time collaboration or a sign of things to come is an open question.

The Pentagon is denying reports that one of its airstrikes killed 16 civilians in Nangarhar province on Friday. It says the strike was conducted against an insurgent target with no civilians in the vicinity.

If it’s true that Iran has begun aiding the Taliban, it may be partly due to a dispute over water, writes LobeLog’s Fatimeh Aman:

Iran is not happy about the Salma Dam, which restricts the flow of water to Iranian provinces such as Khorasan. There have been several reports in the past accusing Iran of attempting to sabotage the dam. According to one of the reports, Afghan security forces discovered “a car with explosives and IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] uniforms.” Despite this report, Ali Osmani, Afghanistan’s minister of energy and water, said he had no knowledge of the discovery.

In July, Ghor’s provincial council accused Iran of providing the Taliban with financial and military aid to sabotage the Salma Dam, a claim Iran rejected. One month earlier, the Taliban killed several Afghan security forces in attacks on Salma Dam. The killings were indirectly attributed to Iran, which again denied the claim.


Five people were killed on Friday in two separate incidents. Gunmen killed two police officers in a drive-by shooting in Karachi, and three people were killed by a bomb in the town of Bajour, near the Afghan border. Neither attack has been claimed and the Karachi attack could be related to local gangs rather than, say, the Pakistani Taliban.

Nawaz Sharif’s wife, rather than his brother, is now being tapped to run for his vacated seat in parliament. Kulsoom Nawaz Sharif may also be a candidate to become prime minister once she’s in parliament, but the Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz party doesn’t seem inclined to make any decision as to a permanent PM until after next year’s general election.


I know we’re all kind of transfixed watching two narcissistic overgrown babies with anger issues slow-roll the world toward nuclear war, but the tensions between India and China in Doklam are potentially just as serious and show no sign of abating. In fact, India appears to be bolstering its military presence in the area and elsewhere in its eastern command. It remains unlikely that either side will push things to the point of war, but the risk of even an accidental conflict only gets higher the more strained the situation becomes.

Meanwhile, the Indian government is negotiating with Bangladesh and Myanmar about deporting some 40,000 Rohingya it says are in the country “illegally.” India is party to international accords on refugee rights, but it claims that only about 14,000 Rohingya in that country are registered with the UN refugee agency and therefore the rest are eligible to be kicked out under international law. Because when you’re dealing with people fleeing ethnic cleansing, the most important thing is to make sure their paperwork is in order. At least, it is when those people are Muslim.


Meanwhile the Myanmar government, which thankfully just cleared itself of any wrongdoing in said ethnic cleansing, is sending hundreds of soldiers into Rakhine state, where most Rohingya live, to, uh, “tighten security.” Yeah, that’s the ticket. I’m sure this will help reduce tensions in the area.


The Cambodian government says that Laotian soldiers have been operating in Cambodian territory for the past four months, and Prime Minister Hun Sen is traveling to Vientiane to make that case to the Laotian government. Phnom Penh says that around 30 Laotian soldiers entered Cambodia in April to stop Cambodian work on a road project in a disputed border area, and they’re still there.


Indonesian authorities say they’ve arrested a man who was recruiting fighters and raising money to go to the Philippine city of Marawi and join the Islamist insurgency there. He’s believed to be a member of a Jemaah Islamiyah splinter group that has pledged allegiance to ISIS.


Seven people were killed (two soldiers and five insurgents) on Thursday in a clash between the Philippine military and a group of Abu Sayyaf fighters in Sulu province. The insurgents are holding some 23 hostages and apparently threatened to start beheading them, prompting the government forces to move in.


Beijing is defending its naval activity in the Sea of Japan, in the face of recent defensive responses by Tokyo, arguing that Japan does not control the entire sea. The Chinese government may have a point here, but it’s a fairly remarkable one for them to try to make given their frequent complaints about naval activity in the equally-international South China Sea.


One sign that US-North Korea tensions might not resolve peacefully is that South Koreans, who have lived through numerous flare-ups between Washington and Pyongyang and ought to have a pretty good sense for how these things go, are reportedly stocking up on ready-to-eat meals. The South Korean government is running frequent civil readiness drills as well. Seoul would likely be North Korea’s first target in a conflict, whether with nukes or conventional artillery, and the damage Pyongyang could do to that city is potentially enormous.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, who is already dealing with declining approval ratings and a potential leadership challenge from within his own party, may be paying a political price for Trump’s rhetoric toward North Korea. Abe has worked hard to cultivate a good relationship with Trump primarily for economic reasons. But now that Japanese voters see Trump maybe provoking a conflict with North Korea that could lead to Tokyo being attacked, that good relationship may be dragging Abe down.



For reasons that at least at this point are unclear, Nigerian forces raided a United Nations humanitarian aid compound in the city of Maiduguri on Friday. Maiduguri is one of Boko Haram’s favorite targets but it’s not known if this raid was connected to the Boko Haram counter-insurgency in some way. So far the UN hasn’t said anything was taken in the raid but it has expressed its dissatisfaction with the whole incident.

President Muhammadu Buhari hasn’t been in Nigeria since his most recent medical trip abroad, in early May. After more than three months’ absence, Nigerians are starting to get impatient. Protesters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, and the country’s largest city, Lagos, have been in the streets for the past few days demanding that Buhari either get back to work or step down. There have also been pro-Buhari counter-protesters, to be fair. While Buhari genuinely seems to be ill and the country’s sectarian politics make it hard for him to resign and turn the presidency over to his Christian vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, it must be said that Buhari could have prevented much of this unrest if he’d just come clean about whatever obviously serious ailment he has. Osinbajo has been perfectly capable filling in on an interim basis but it’s the secrecy that’s fueling a lot of this public discontent.


South Sudanese rebels launched a major counter-offensive on Friday to try to retake the town of Pagak, near the border with Ethiopia. Pagak was one of the rebels’ main bases before it was captured by government forces on Monday. There’s no confirmed word on how the fighting has progressed.


One Somali soldier was killed on Friday when an al-Shabab suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a mosque in Mogadishu. The soldier reportedly prevented the bomber from entering the mosque, where he obviously could have killed many more people.

The US announced that it carried out two airstrikes against al-Shabab positions in southern Somalia, one of which it claims killed a senior al-Shabab leader.


OK, so…Uhuru Kenyatta won Tuesday’s election. Or, I mean, the preponderance of evidence suggests that Uhuru Kenyatta won Tuesday’s election. Kenya’s elections board certified on Friday that Kenyatta took 54.3 percent of the vote to challenger Raila Odinga’s 44.7 percent. That’s the official count and the official result. What’s more, a number of international observers from the African Union, the European Union, the Carter Center, and the Commonwealth of Nations all say the election and vote count was done properly. And yet Kenya appears to be tumbling into violence anyway:

Police fired tear gas and gunshots were heard in the Nairobi slums of Mathare and Kawangware, where young men took to the streets as police helicopters buzzed overhead.

In Kisumu, an Odinga stronghold in the west, youths banged drums and tires burned in the streets in the Kondele district.

Why? Well, Odinga and other opposition figures are just flat-out rejecting this result:

James Orengo, an opposition leader, said the opposition National Super Alliance (Nasa) had rejected the counting process as a “charade”. “Every time an election has been stolen … Kenyans have stood up,” he said.

In recent days, opposition officials have described the election results as a fraud and claimed that Raila Odinga, the 72-year-old Nasa leader, was the legitimate winner.

Odinga seems to be basing his claim on stories that the election commission was hacked, and here’s where if you have a tin foil hat you may want to put it on. The head of the election commission acknowledges that somebody did, in fact, attempt to hack it, but says the hack “did not succeed.” Uh, OK? Just taking your word on that then? Those international observers all agree that there was no evidence of hacking, but how would they really know? What if the government wanted to conceal evidence of the hacking?

One thing that really works against Odinga here is his personal history. This is the fourth time he’s run for president, the fourth time he’s lost, and the third time he’s claimed to have been cheated. And maybe he’s right! But also, that’s a lot of elections and a lot of cheating without ever actually coming close to proving his accusations true. But Odinga is a very popular figure among a large minority (it would seem) of Kenyans, so when he says he’s being cheated a lot of people believe it and violence often ensues.

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