Asia/Africa update: August 21-22 2017

PSA: This may very well be my last update until Monday. I’m traveling for the rest of the week and while ideally I would like to find time to pump out a little content while I’m doing so, realistically I don’t think it’s going to be possible.


Well, Donald Trump announced his Big New Afghanistan Plan last night, in a speech in which he said…uh, mostly that we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing, but slightly more of it, and also with mining, I guess:

President Trump put forward on Monday a long-awaited strategy for resolving the nearly 16-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, but he declined to specify either the number of troops that would be committed, or the conditions by which he would judge the success of their mission there.

In a nationally televised prime-time speech to troops at Fort Myer, Va., Mr. Trump said there would be no “blank check” for the American engagement in Afghanistan. But in announcing his plan, Mr. Trump deepened American involvement in a military mission that has bedeviled his predecessors and that he once called futile.

OK, so there’s no blank check but we’re sending more troops into the Webster’s definition of “quagmire” with no idea what would constitute a successful outcome. Got it. What could go wrong? I mean apart from all the shit that already has.

You know how stupid this escalation is? Here’s the strongest argument in favor of it that America’s Chief War Cheerleader, Michael O’Hanlon, can put together:

“I do not think many believe there could be an outright victory,” said Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, who has been an advocate of sending more troops to Afghanistan. “But if President Trump can reverse the momentum, then he could arguably claim bragging rights and achieve at least a partial strategic success.”

Oh damn, bragging rights? Well shit, that’s worth thousands more Afghans and potential tens or hundreds more American service members. It’s a shame about the outright victory thing, but to be fair I have to believe it would be possible to achieve an outright victory if anybody had any idea what that meant anymore. The goal is clearly to force the Taliban to negotiate a settlement to the war, but that’s always been the goal and, well, the Taliban is back to owning nearly half the country. Throwing more US soldiers into the country isn’t a plan. It’s just staving off defeat, maybe.

Withdrawal, of course, is not an option, even though it’s not clear what national interest this war serves anymore and even though America’s presence in Afghanistan is part of what keeps the war going. Withdrawal is never an option because, as the World’s Greatest Superpower™ America can by definition win any war it enters simply by refusing to ever stop fighting. As it turns out, this the only lesson that the maniacs who run our foreign policy actually learned from Vietnam:

Just Keep Swimming. Or, in this case, just keep shoveling more soldiers into the war zone. Hey, they’re a renewable resource after all! Now the Taliban won’t be able to “wait us out,” which is an actual argument people are making today. Folks, you may want to sit down for this, but a whole bunch of the Taliban actually live in Afghanistan. They will always be able to wait America out.

Tackling Afghanistan’s deeper problems, like corruption and lawlessness, isn’t an option either, even though that would do more than anything else to help turn the tide in the fight against the Taliban. America doesn’t do nation building, except when we do.

On the other hand, maybe I’m all wrong here. After all, as with all great military decisions throughout history, Trump made this one after looking at a picture of some women in skirts. No, really. And with any luck, Afghanistan will at least hold together long enough for America to loot it of its mineral wealth. That’s something to look forward to.

We are all so very, very screwed.



So it turns out that Tajikistan’s decision to take a blowtorch to whatever remained of its relationship with Iran might have had a very predictable motivation:

As anticipated, Saudi Arabia’s increasing economic clout in Tajikistan began to spill over into the political sphere. In December 2015, it was announced that Saudi diplomats were trying to persuade Dushanbe to join Riyadh’s “anti-terrorist alliance,” for which containing Iran was believed to be the true aim. The Tajik-Saudi relationship developed to the point that Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud called Tajikistan an “important partner” in the region.

Meanwhile, Saudi media were actively painting a threatening picture of Iran to the Tajiks, leading them to question Tehran’s motives. For instance, in an article in Al-Watan that was republished by other Saudi media outlets, Iran was accused of “state terrorism” in Tajikistan. Russian international relations expert Alexander Knyazev has even suggested that the Saudis were behind the anti-Iranian documentary aired on Tajik state TV.


There was potentially one big new takeaway from Trump’s address on Monday: America’s friendship ended with Pakistan, now India is our new best friend. Trump did speak more harshly about Pakistan’s role in cultivating and sustaining the Taliban than we generally see from American politicians. But like the rest of his speech, the Pakistan bits were painfully short on substance. What does President Deals propose to actually do to change Pakistani behavior? The truth is there aren’t a lot of levers to use here, for two reasons.

One is that, frankly, the United States needs Pakistan. Even though Islamabad, or at least Pakistan’s deep state, nurtures and protects the Taliban, it also collaborates pretty well with Washington on genuine mutual threats, like ISIS or al-Qaeda. And if relations between Pakistan and the US really go south, it’s going to exponentially more difficult logistically for America to keep its now-expanded forces in Afghanistan reinforced and resupplied without permission to go through Pakistan.

The other is that, again frankly, Pakistan doesn’t need the US all that much anymore. Maybe 50 years ago this would have been a different story, but Pakistan in 2017 is more or less the crown jewel in China’s Belt and Road/Asian hegemony project. America can threaten Pakistan’s aid and even toy with the idea of declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism, but all that’s going to do is push Pakistan closer to China, which is already publicly defending the Pakistanis in the wake of Trump’s speech. Are the Pakistanis going to benefit from Chinese loans as much as they have from American blank checks over the years? Probably not. But the difference won’t be big enough to give Washington any leverage over Islamabad. So the question is whether it’s worth punishing Pakistan in a way that will fundamentally wreck the US-Pakistan relationship while most likely getting absolutely nothing in return in terms of a change in Pakistan’s approach to the Taliban. Good luck with that.


Trump’s plea for India to do more in Afghanistan also likely set off alarm bells in Islamabad and is likely to actually push Pakistan to embrace the Taliban more tightly. After all, fear of an India-Afghanistan alliance has been a major driver of Pakistan’s support for the Taliban anyway. Now that the American president is publicly calling on India to Do More, that fear is only going to increase. The Indian government, as you might expect, seems to be quite pleased with this turn of events. Despite our many problems with Pakistan over the past couple of decades or so, American policy in South Asia has always been pro-Pakistan and anti-India. That’s clearly shifting now and it’s going to be pretty interesting to watch how it shakes out.


Reuters is reporting that Rohingya living in the Rakhine state village of Zay Di Pyin have for the past three weeks been blockaded by nearby Buddhists and prevented from leaving their cordon to work or to obtain, among other things, food and water. Something similar may be happening in the village of Auk Nan Yar. Myanmar authorities say there’s nothing happening, but Myanmar authorities have been complicit in the Rohingya genocide so they’re not credible witnesses. This is a very dangerous situation because all it will take is one outbreak of violence on the part of some group of desperate Rohingya for the hardcore ethnic cleansing to begin again.


In the face of growing public outcry, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has allowed as to how, maybe, some mistakes have been made in his vigilante war on drugs. You know, by other people. The Philippine public is especially upset with the killing–murder, let’s be honest–of 17 year old Manila resident Kian Loyd delos Santos last Thursday. Police claim that delos Santos shot at them and they fired back in self-defense, but he was shot in the back of the head and CCTV footage shows police moving his body to the place where it was “found,” so clearly that story is bullshit. There are reportedly witnesses who say police handed delos Santos the gun they later claim he pulled out and fired at them.

Duterte is now telling police that they must only kill suspects in self-defense, which, uh, seems like one of those things they should have covered in police school?

An Abu Sayyaf attack on the village of Tubigan on Basilan island on Monday killed at least nine people and left another 16 wounded.


A United Nations report says two shipments from North Korea’s main blackmarket arms dealer to Syria’s chemical weapons agency have been intercepted in the past six months. North Korea could certainly keep Syria supplied with sarin or worse, so that’s an interesting development.

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to open the door to negotiations with North Korea on Tuesday, telling reporters that there could be a way forward toward dialogue “sometime in the near future.” Also on Tuesday, though, a UN conference on disarmament in Geneva became the scene for what sounds like an ugly exchange between the North Korea, American, and Japanese representatives, with the North Korean representative saying that his country will never give up its nuclear deterrent.



There’s a new armed group, possibly called “Brigade 48,” operating out of the western Libyan port city of Sabratha that is reportedly interdicting migrant boats before they set out into the Mediterranean. This group, reportedly made up of police, soldiers, and civilians in the area, has been so successful that they’ve played a substantial role in a huge drop in migrants arriving in Italy over the past couple of months. Of course, “successful” here reportedly includes locking would-be migrants up, which is nice for Europe I guess but pretty horrible from a human rights perspective. And their impact is likely to be a temporary, as smugglers will simply relocate to another part of Libya’s mostly-uncontrolled coast.


Recent terror attacks in Spain and Finland have at least one thing in common: both were perpetrated by Moroccan-born individuals. Go back a little farther to the 2015 Paris attack and the 2016 Brussels bombings and Moroccans have been involved in several major European terror incidents in the past couple of years. This is causing the Moroccan government to rethink how it supports education, religious institutions, and youth outreach in Moroccan emigre communities in Europe.


In a sign that Saudi Arabia’s grip on the Qatar diplomatic boycott is continuing to slip, Senegal has restored its ambassador to Qatar and now says it’s hoping for a quick resolution to the crisis.


Nine UN peacekeepers were killed by a roadside bomb in northern Mali on Sunday.


Muhammadu Buhari delivered his first address to Nigerians on Monday since his return from a lengthy convalescence in Britain. Buhari notably did not attempt to clarify the nature of his health problem. Buhari’s return to his presidential office lasted roughly a day before he had to leave and start working from home, where he’ll be for the next three months. In this case the Nigerian government says the problem isn’t his health–his office is apparently infested by rats and they’ve done a considerable amount of damage, so he needs to work from home during the repairs. I guess that seems plausible but we’ll see.

UNICEF said on Tuesday that Boko Haram has drastically increased its use of child suicide bombers this year. More than 80 child bombers have been used by the group so far this year, compared to 19 in all of 2016.


Defeated (?) presidential challenger Raila Odinga is taking his election rigging case to court:

Kenya’s opposition will argue before the Supreme Court that technology enabled rather than curbed election fraud, as it seeks to overturn a vote this month won by President Uhuru Kenyatta.

Opposition leader Raila Odinga’s National Super Alliance (NASA) said in a petition filed on Friday that results from more than a third of polling stations were “fatally flawed”, in some cases because of irregularities in electronic transmission of paper results forms.

The documents suggest the opposition will link alleged irregularities to the murder of Chris Msando, the election official overseeing information technology, days before the Aug. 8 election.

Msando’s murder has been sort of lost in the shuffle since the election, but it is an incredible coincidence that the election board’s IT head got killed so close to the election.


Angola is holding an election on Wednesday, which is of note mostly insofar as it’s the first one in which President José Eduardo dos Santos won’t be on a ballot since he first took over the country in 1979. Dos Santos has decided to step aside, though he’s going to remain the leader of his party, the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). He’s picked Defense Minister João Lourenço as his successor, and while this all smacks of cronyism at least dos Santos didn’t arrange for his daughter to succeed him. This actually might augur well for the possibility of democratization here.

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