World update: August 17-18 2017



One US soldier was killed late Wednesday in fighting with ISIS in Nangarhar province. On Friday, seven people were killed in two incidents in Herat province–one involving a roadside bomb, the other fighting between rival Taliban gangs.

The influential governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor, has been accused (along with his sons) of abducting and assaulting a political rival in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif earlier this week. The accusation bears a strong similarity to accusations leveled at Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, who’s still trying to ride them out in Turkey but clamoring to be allowed to return. Noor, who denies the charge, is a Dostum ally, which raises the political stakes in that the two of them could jointly argue that they’re being targeted by, say, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

Donald Trump met with his national security team at Camp David on Friday to try to hash out his administration’s Afghanistan policy. Trump’s team is divided between those who want to escalate and those would would like to draw down the US presence–though the latter lost one of their number today (more on that later). It’s also divided between those who would like to designate Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism for its, well, sponsorship of terrorism, and those who fear doing so would drive Pakistan closer to China while accomplishing little in Afghanistan.


Wednesday’s Treasury Department decision to declare pro-Pakistan Kashmiri separatist group Hizbul Mujahideen a terrorist organization has predictably been criticized by Pakistan…and hailed by India. What a shocker.


The Washington Post has a good overview of the Doklam situation, which has gotten more worrisome now that Indian and Chinese forces are throwing rocks at one another in Kashmir. What makes Doklam so worrisome is that it comes at a real overall ebb in India-China relations, in large part over China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and so things are in a position to go south more easily than then might be were those relations stronger. For example, on Thursday India announced a new set of regulations on companies involved in India’s power and telecommunications industries that seems to be directly targeted at Chinese firms. India says the regulations are about security, China seems to feel they’re more about locking Chinese businesses out of the Indian market.

This China-India conflict is putting Russia on the spot. Moscow desperately needs to cultivate relations with India because India is a major energy customer and market for Russian products (arms, for example). But Russia is also in absolutely no position to antagonize China. Beijing may once have been Moscow’s junior partner in world affairs but the tables have long since turned in that relationship. Russia is conducting its regular joint military exercises with India in October and is now frantically trying to assure China that those exercises are benign.


Rodrigo Duterte’s latest killing spree continues apace. Some 80 people have been killed in  and around Manila this week by Philippine police. And, you know, I guess one way to win the War on Drugs is to kill everybody. Then there’s nobody left to use them. Victory!


It’s irrelevant now that he’s been canned, but Wonkblog’s Heather Long argues that in his lengthy phone call with The American Prospect on Wednesday, Steve Bannon did get some things right when talking about China:

“To me, the economic war with China is everything. We have to be maniacally focused on that,” Bannon told the American Prospect in a jaw-dropping interview that covered everything from urinating on yourself to North Korea. “If we continue to lose it, we’re five years away, I think, 10 years at the most, of hitting an inflection point from which we’ll never be able to recover.”

Many experts across the political spectrum say Bannon is right: China is beating up America economically, and neither the U.S. government nor U.S. businesses have done much about it for years.

The big problem is not the US trade deficit, which gets all the headlines, but rather Chinese policies that are blocking the Chinese market and stealing the intellectual property of American companies. And it seems like the administration is going ahead with plans to challenge China’s policies on the IP front, with US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer announcing on Friday that his office is conducting a review of Chinese IP practices. It’s hard to imagine that they won’t find any violations, but the question is what the administration will do about it.

Three democracy activists in Hong Kong were sentenced to 6-8 months in jail on Thursday on charges of “unlawful assembly.” The three had been given lighter sentences last year but the government appealed and apparently won its appeal. How wonderful for it.


In that Prospect interview, Bannon also unequivocally ruled out a military strike on North Korea, a surprisingly sensible statement especially inasmuch as his concern seemed to be the millions of people who would quickly be killed in a North Korean retaliatory strike on Seoul. Hilariously, the Trump administration is now trying to distance itself from Bannon’s remark, with Rex Tillerson insisting on Thursday that a military option is still on the table–without mentioning the bit about Seoul. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is telling his citizens that Trump promised to consult with him before taking any military action against Pyongyang, which sounds nice except that Trump makes all manner of promises that he doesn’t intend to keep. Just ask any of his past contractors.



Only a couple of days after it appeared the Libyan National Army was going to ignore an International Criminal Court warrant for senior commander Mahmoud al-Werfalli, the LNA said Thursday that it had arrested Werfalli after all. I suppose Khalifa Haftar saw a chance to win a few international kudos and took it. The catch is that Werfalli will now be the subject of an internal LNA investigation, and who knows how that will go. His extradition to the ICC is probably dependent on the outcome of that investigation.


Relations between Egypt and Sudan are already not great, but the Qatar diplomatic crisis has them in a serious state of decay. Egypt, of course, is one of the leaders of the movement to blockade Qatar, while Sudan has more or less tried to remain neutral though Khartoum’s critics say it’s being bought off by the Qataris. The Egyptians apparently lobbied hard for more countries to join the anti-Qatar movement at last month’s African summit, but didn’t have much success.


Nigerian authorities say the 106 Chibok girls who have been recovered from Boko Haram have gone through counseling and are recovering from their ordeal. Some 100 of the 270 girls abducted in 2014 are still unaccounted for, either still with Boko Haram or something worse.


Three US airstrikes on Wednesday and Thursday killed seven al-Shabab fighters in southern Somalia, according to US Africa Command.


Al-Shabab fighters are suspected of being behind an attack on a village in Kenya’s Lamu province that resulted in the beheadings of at least three men.


The United Nations said Thursday that one million South Sudanese refugees have now crossed into Uganda as a result of South Sudan’s civil war. The scope of the crisis, which has surpassed Syria as the world’s fastest-growing refugee situation, is straining Uganda’s ability to cope.


Germany has extradited suspected 1994 génocidaire Jean Twagiramungu to Rwanda after a two year process that followed his arrest in 2015.


Three people were killed on Friday in grenade attacks on two bars in Bujumbura. Burundi is in a constant state of unrest and has been since President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for an unconstitutional third term in office and brutally suppressed any opposition to his decision.


Brazzaville’s (now former) prime minister, Clement Mouamba, and his entire cabinet resigned on Friday amid a pretty serious economic downturn. Creditors say Congo is in default on a $363 million Eurobond–Congo denies this–and really the country has been in trouble for a couple of years now thanks to the collapse in oil prices. President Denis Sassou Nguesso said a few days ago that he wanted to form a new government to tackle the financial problem, so this is just him getting his wish.


Incredibly, the South African government has decided to give Grace Mugabe diplomatic immunity, meaning she can’t be charged over allegations that she beat a woman with an electrical cord last weekend in Johannesburg. Mugabe wasn’t traveling on a diplomatic passport and so South Africa was under no obligation to extend her this courtesy to allow her to escape the charges, but I guess this was preferable to angering her husband. You know how unpleasant lichs can be when you get on their bad side.

UPDATE: It looks like the source who told Reuters that Grace Mugabe was going to be given diplomatic immunity may have jumped the gun. South African authorities are apparently still deciding how to handle this situation, and consequently there’s still an alert at South Africa’s exit points to prevent Mugabe from leaving the country. Zimbabwe has reportedly started blocking South African Airways flights into the country in retaliation. Grace Mugabe was supposed to appear with her husband Saturday at a regional summit but she is apparently nowhere to be found.



Nationalist goon and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny has a new target:

In 2010, Nikolay Choles was a troubled British youth, jailed for assaulting a man outside a McDonald’s restaurant in Milton Keynes.

By 2017, according to the Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, Choles had become a fixture on the Moscow social circuit, driving Ferraris and travelling first-class or by private jet.

The transformation, Navalny says, is due to Choles’ parentage – he is the son of President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.

Navalny, an anti-corruption campaigner who wants to stand against Putin in presidential elections next year, released alleged details about Choles’ life in a blogpost on Thursday, his latest salvo against the high lives of the Russian elite.

“Nikolay Choles is an example of how in Russia, where 20 million people live in poverty … you can live wonderfully, while doing absolutely nothing,” he wrote.

Point taken, but frankly you can do that in America too:



A man wielding a knife killed two people and wounded six others in the city of Turku on Friday before he was shot by police and arrested. I note this here only for the possibility that this could have been a terrorist attack. Finnish police are saying they’re not treating it as such, but they also haven’t released any information about the attacker’s motives so it’s still an open question.

UPDATE: Police are now calling this a terror attack. The attacker is reportedly Moroccan and may have shouted “Allahu Akbar” as he carried out the attack, in which he apparently targeted women specifically. Police say they’ve taken five other people into custody apart from the attacker himself.


If you’re looking for updates from Barcelona and Cambrils, go here.


The British government looks like it plans to maintain visa-free travel for European Union nationals to the UK, with visas only required for EU nationals entering the UK for longer-term reasons: work, school, or settlement. The UK already does this for nationals of dozens of other countries, so it’s a small matter to extend the policy to EU nations. And this would go a long way toward alleviating the Northern Ireland problem–if Irish nationals are able to enter the UK without a visa then there’s no need for a hard Northern Ireland border with customs checks, etc.



Venezuela’s constituent assembly on Friday assumed unto itself the power to make laws, superseding the elected legislature. The legislature has been controlled by Nicolás Maduro’s opposition since last year, but with Maduro in office and the country’s Supreme Court controlled by his appointees, the legislature has been stymied anyway. The constituent assembly has been functioning as a legislature since it was created anyway, so this is just a recognition of reality.


Well, so this happened:

Stephen K. Bannon, the embattled chief strategist who helped President Trump win the 2016 election by embracing their shared nationalist impulses, departed the White House on Friday after a turbulent tenure shaping the fiery populism of the president’s first seven months in office.

Mr. Bannon’s exit, the latest in a string of high-profile West Wing shake-ups, came as Mr. Trump is under fire for saying that “both sides” were to blame for last week’s deadly violence in Charlottesville, Va. Critics accused the president of channeling Mr. Bannon when he equated white supremacists and neo-Nazis with the left-wing protesters who opposed them.

“White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Steve Bannon have mutually agreed today would be Steve’s last day,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said in a statement. “We are grateful for his service and wish him the best.”

This is a moment to have a little fun at the expense of a wretched human being, but in terms of what happens now at the White House it means nothing. The all-encompassing dysfunction of this administration starts and ends with Donald Trump and no personnel change short of the guy at the very top is going to change it. It might be fun to watch the intra-right feud that this firing will probably kick off, but even that has no practical value so long as the Democratic Party remains as hapless as it’s been for most of the past eight years. Still, enjoy. It really couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.

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