World update: August 19-20 2017


This is breaking now:

Ten U.S. Navy sailors are missing and five have been injured after the USS John S. McCain destroyer collided with an oil tanker near Singapore early Monday morning.

This is the second time in two months that a Navy destroyer based at the 7th Fleet’s home port of Yokosuka, Japan, has been involved in a collision. Seven sailors were killed when the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship south of Japan in June.

The guided missile destroyer and the Liberian-flagged merchant vessel Alnic MC collided near the Strait of Malacca at 5:24 a.m. local time, the Navy’s 7th Fleet said in a statement.

Initial reports indicated that the destroyer sustained damage to its port side at the rear, but is currently sailing under its own power and heading to port in Singapore.

The Navy’s investigation into the Fitzgerald incident, while we’re on the subject, resulted Thursday in her senior personnel all being relieved of duty.



Eurasianet has more on the recent deterioration in Iranian-Tajik relations:

According to the narrative outlined in the documentary, Tehran was coordinating its killing campaign through Abduhalim Nazarzoda, a former defense minister accused of mounting an alleged attempted coup in September 2015. Reprising earlier accusations, Tajik authorities described Nazarzoda and all his alleged accomplices as members of the banned opposition Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, or IRPT, thereby casting the plot against Dushanbe as a shadowy alliance of Sunni and Shia radicals seeking the overthrow of the government.

Chatter about Iran supporting Tajikistan’s opposition has been commonplace for many years, but whispered speculation has only evolved into candid accusations relatively recently. Iran incurred Tajikistan’s profound rage in December 2015, when it invited exiled IRPT leader Muhiddin Kabiri to attend a religious-themed conference in Tehran. That event was held only three months after the IRPT was officially banned in Tajikistan.

“Iran has always spoken of Tajikistan as a brotherly nation with a shared faith and culture. How is it then possible to welcome a terrorist?” a representative for Tajikistan’s State Committee for Religious Affairs, Abdugafor Yusupov, said in early 2016.


Kyrgyzstan is holding a presidential election in October, and since incumbent Almazbek Atambayev is prohibited from running (Kyrgyz presidents are eligible to serve one six year term only) it’s a wide open field. Or, well, sort of wide open. It would be wider except that the Kyrgyz government seems to be imprisoning as many high-profile opposition candidates as it can, including one by what all outward appearances seems to have been a total sham trial. The governing Social Democratic Party may be trying to clear the decks for Prime Minister Sooronbay Jeenbekov to succeed Atambayev.

Jeenbekov (Wikimedia)


Five Afghan police officers were killed in a Taliban attack in Helmand province on Saturday.

There have been a number of pieces in major publications over the last several days about how the Afghan government is really cleaning up the country’s massive and debilitating corruption problem. The Washington Post ran another on Saturday. While I grant you that there’s some anecdotal evidence that Ashraf Ghani’s government is taking a stand against corruption, at least when it involves political rivals like Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, it strikes me as a little odd that all of a sudden this has become a major story. It’s almost as if somebody is pumping a narrative into the American media. But, I mean, while would anybody want to do something like tha-

President Trump, who has been accused by lawmakers of dragging his feet on Afghanistan, has settled on a new strategy to carry on the nearly 16-year-old conflict there, administration officials said Sunday. The move, following a detailed review, is likely to open the door to the deployment of several thousand troops.

“The president has made a decision,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters on an overnight flight that arrived in Amman, Jordan, on Sunday. “I am very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous.”

Mr. Mattis declined to say what steps the president had ordered, including on troop levels, saying that the president wanted to outline the new approach himself.

Ah, uh, OK. Trump is going to announce the expected troop increase in a speech on Monday night, and now Americans can hopefully be reassured that all this extra support is going to a government that isn’t riddled through with corruption. I’m sure it’s purely a coincidence that these anti-corruption pieces have found their way into the press just around the time Trump has been putting together his new Afghanistan surge.


US Central Command head Joseph Votel took a trip to Pakistan on Saturday, which also seems relevant in light of the administration’s forthcoming Big Afghanistan Announcement. Trump and his advisers are still mulling over the possibility of designating Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism over its support for the Taliban/Haqqani Network, with the concern being that such a designation would just push Pakistan closer to China without changing its posture toward the Taliban at all.


Unsurprisingly, the more people who are personally touched by Rodrigo Duterte’s vigilante campaign to execute drug users vigilante-style, the bigger the opposition to that campaign gets. Activists, civil society groups, the Catholic Church, and now people whose loved ones have been murdered by Duterte’s police are speaking out more and more against the Philippine President. One wonders how long Duterte is going to put up with that before his police also start targeting his political opponents.



Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s plans to change Mali’s constitution are now on what appears to be an indefinite hold:

Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita has shelved plans for a referendum on constitutional reforms that have been met with opposition and ignited regular street protests, he said on state television overnight.

The constitutional changes would have given extra powers to the president, created new regions, established a new Senate chamber and recognized claims by ethnic Tuaregs in the north to a degree of autonomy by officially labeling their desert provinces with the Tuareg name ‘Azawad’.

Keita’s opponents were unhappy with the extra powers he would have secured under the reforms, including being able to nominate a quarter of the Senate and remove the prime minister at will.

Keita’s declining popularity in general is partly to blame for the collapse of his reform effort. Some of these changes were clearly intended to enhance his power, but the loss of the Tuareg measures could be a serious problem if there’s a resurgence of separatism in northern Mali.


The Boys President Are Is Back in Town Nigeria. After spending three months convalescing in the UK, Muhammadu Buhari finally returned to Nigeria on Saturday and seemed at least to be moving around under his own power. Buhari didn’t make a statement, and so the tension and unrest surrounding his mystery health ailment will continue for, really, no good reason.


“Around 30” people have been killed over the past several days in and around the city of Bria, in the central part of the CAR. Bria has been maybe the most active spot in the country in recent months for fighting between mostly Muslim Seleka rebels and mostly Christian anti-balaka militias. Over 800 people have been killed in fighting in the CAR so far this year.


Zimbabwean First Lady Grace Mugabe finally got her diplomatic immunity from the South African government, meaning she won’t face charges on allegations that she assaulted a young South African woman last weekend in Johannesburg. The decision naturally drew condemnation from South African opposition parties and protests from South African citizens.



On Saturday, a knife-wielding man stabbed and wounded seven people in Surgut, a town in Siberia. ISIS later claimed credit for the incident, which mirrors Friday’s knife attack in Turku, Finland. However, Russian authorities seem not to be ready to concede that this was a terror attack and are still investigating motive.


There are several updates on Thursday’s terrorist attack in Barcelona and the attempted follow-on attack Friday morning in Cambrils. Mainly, Spanish authorities have set up hundreds of checkpoints looking for a Moroccan man named Younes Abouyaaqoub, who is now believed to have been the driver of the van that crashed into a crowd of people on Barcelona’s Las Ramblas street on Thursday, killing 13. Abouyaaqoub may have already entered France, and there’s evidence that several members of the terror cell (which authorities say has been taken down) visited other European countries in the months before the attack. Spanish investigators are also trying to piece together how this cell formed and where most of its members were radicalized. The majority of the attackers have been identified as Moroccan-born and hailing from the town of Ripoll, north of Barcelona. The man who may have been their imam, Abdelbaki Es Satty, is missing and may have been killed last Wednesday in an explosion at a house in Alcanar that now seems to have been the cell’s HQ. That explosion likely thwarted the cell’s plans for a more dramatic attack using their vans as car bombs.



Finally, POLITICO’s Michael Crowley argues that Steve Bannon, who wasn’t exactly a peacenik himself, is good news for the hawkish wing of the Trump administration:

Bannon was a regular participant in national security debates, often as an opponent of military action and a harsh critic of international bodies like the United Nations and the European Union.

He has also been a withering critic of diplomatic, military and intelligence professionals—“globalists” he says have repeatedly shown bad judgment, particularly when it comes to U.S. military interventions abroad. That put him at loggerheads with Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as McMaster.

“If you look at the balance of power of isolationists versus internationalists in the White House now, it seems safe to say that the pendulum has swung towards the internationalists,” said Danielle Pletka, senior vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Isolationism is a shitty organizing principle in no small part because it’s fictional. There is no isolation–there never really has been, but particularly not at a time in history when you can fly halfway around the world in a day, allowing for layovers. Bannon’s kind of isolationism is particularly vile, since it’s overlaid with a healthy coating of white supremacy. But we all know what “internationalism” looks like in Washington by now, especially (though certainly not exclusively) under Republican administrations…and, well, that’s pretty shitty too. With a president who seems happy to hand the keys over to the Pentagon while he plays golf, the apparent lack of any dissenting foreign policy view in this administration becomes all the more troubling.

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