Asia/Africa update: August 30 2017



A NATO helicopter attack in Afghanistan’s eastern Logar province killed at least 11 civilians on Wednesday. The target was a Taliban unit that reportedly took shelter in a civilian home and began firing on the copter. This new atrocity comes at a very convenient time, with the US preparing to significantly increase its air support for Afghan troops fighting the Taliban. ISIS, meanwhile, claimed responsibility for an attack on the house of parliament member Zahir Qadir in Jalalabad. Two security guards were killed along with the attackers.

The AP reported on Wednesday that high-ranking officials in the Afghan government are in almost daily contact with officials from the Taliban. These are, more or less, taking the form of preliminary peace talks, with the Taliban laying out terms for ending its insurgency. But those terms are broad and would require actual negotiations before any progress could be made, and neither side seems ready for public negotiations. The Afghan government went so far as to deny the AP report altogether, which to be fair could mean the story is wrong but could also reflect the political challenges around openly attempting to make peace.

On the plus side, the Pentagon finally figured out how many American soldiers are actually in Afghanistan right now, pre-surge. Turns out the number is closer to 11,000 than to the oft-cited figure of 8400. Whoops! Hey, you know, who among us hasn’t misplaced a couple thousand troops every now and then, am I right?

There are two recent LobeLog pieces worth your time on Afghanistan, Ambassador Robert Hunter makes his argument for a US withdrawal here, while former CIA analyst Paul Pillar criticizes the “safe haven” theory, the idea that leaving Afghanistan would turn it into a base for terrorist operations against America:

That notion is not valid, and never has been. The very physical distance involved works against the relevance of foreign havens to terrorist threats against the homeland. One cannot drive a truck bomb, or even the ingredients for one, across the Atlantic Ocean. To the extent that any physical space is required to prepare a terrorist attack, a house or apartment in or near the targeted city is—as a long history of terrorist incidents has demonstrated—much more useful to terrorists than a piece of real estate on another continent.

Very little safe space of any sort is required for high-impact terrorism. After the recently discovered terrorist cell in Spain accidentally blew up the house it was using in a Catalan village to prepare explosives, the surviving members turned to the no-space-required technique of using rented vehicles to run down people in the street—the most popular terrorist modus operandi in the West in recent months. As for the terrorist-related functions of recruitment and operational coordination, most of that occurs not in any physical space but in cyberspace.

Even if there were something to the idea of the safe haven, they’re apparently so easy to set up that it’s not worth fighting a war over any particular one. For all the talk about Afghanistan serving as the safe haven for the 9/11 terrorists, most of the actual 9/11 attackers did their meeting and planning in, uh, Europe.


This is an odd story, but I like odd stories. Indian government archeologists testified in court on Wednesday that the Taj Mahal is a Muslim mausoleum and not a Hindu temple. Which, I mean, seems like it shouldn’t need to be said, the Taj Mahal is obviously the mausoleum for Mumtaz Mahal (d. 1631), the favorite wife of then-Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan (d. 1658). One look at the building tells you it was built by Muslims. But a group of lawyers have apparently filed a petition stating that the site was originally a Hindu temple called “Tejo Mahalaya” and therefore should be opened up for Hindu worship. There’s…no record of anything like that, and in fact it’s an invention by a Hindu nationalist crank named P. N. Oak, who died in 2007. Oak’s theory was that the Mughals sucked because Muslim, ergo they couldn’t have built something as fantastic as the Taj Mahal, ergo it must have been a Hindu building. Really sound reasoning.


I just want to point out here that this blog was on the “maybe Aung San Suu Kyi kind of sucks” bandwagon before it got crowded. But man, it is starting to get crowded:

The criticism by Ma Thida and other formerly ardent supporters is manifold: they accuse Suu Kyi of ignoring state violence against ethnic minorities and Muslims, continuing to jail journalists and activists, cowing to Myanmar’s still-powerful generals, and failing to nurture democratic leaders who could step in when she, now 72, exits the scene. Instead, they say her government is creating a power vacuum that could be filled again by the military.

Some conclude that Suu Kyi, who espoused democracy with such passion, always possessed an authoritarian streak which only emerged once she gained power.


Philippine commanders say that the end is nearing for the ongoing Islamist insurgency in Marawi, which just hit the 100 day mark. They say the insurgents are running out of food and ammunition in addition to numbers, and recent government gains have left them surrounded and approaching a “last stand” situation.


North Korea’s decision to overfly Japan in its most recent missile test is a significant escalation in its behavior, and one Pyongyang apparently plans on repeating. Consequently the US is revisiting the idea of shooting down North Korea’s missile tests. This seems like a bad idea on many levels. For one thing, it could provoke a war. For another, shooting one down over South Korea or Japan could itself cause casualties. Also, what if, you know, we can’t shoot them down. That seems like the kind of thing that would be a real dick-measuring PR win for Kim Jong-un. On the other hand, the US would undoubtedly attempt to shoot down any North Korean missile that appeared to target Japan, and one risk with these overflight tests is that it can be hard to tell if a missile is going to fly over Japan or, well, hit it.

At Lawfare, the Hoover Institution’s Herb Lin argues that the US and South Korea should put a moratorium on future joint military exercises so long as North Korea refrains from conducting any further missile or nuclear tests. This would be a way to give Pyongyang something to entice it to freeze its nuclear and missile programs, something the North Koreans would likely demand in any face-to-face negotiations, without actually having those negotiations (which are, in themselves, a kind of reward for North Korea’s actions). It’s an interesting idea, and if North Korea opted to continue testing anyway then the exercises would continue as well, with the likely result that Russia and China (both of whom want to see the US-South Korea exercises discontinued for their own reasons and would be thrilled with this dual freeze) would be even more irritated with Pyongyang than they already are.

Finally, yes, I know Donald Trump tweeted about North Korea today. No, I don’t know what he could possibly mean when he says we’ve been paying Pyongyang “extortion money” for 25 years. What I do know is that, if you’re Defense Secretary/General/Adult in the Room/Babysitter James Mattis, at some point this thing you do whereby you immediately contradict the president every time he says something stupid crosses the line from “helpful” to “enabling.” I think actually that line has already long since been crossed.


Here’s a brief public service announcement for all you budding world leaders out there: the next time you’re tempted to use Adolf Hitler and/or the Nazis in an analogy, instead of doing that, do literally anything else.

Reuters reported today that, in the face of the escalating threat from North Korea, the Japanese government is redoubling efforts to get the US to sell it a state-of-the-art radar system called Spy-6. Washington has so far refused Japan’s entreaties, but Tokyo is worried that its missile detection network–it’s building a land-based version of the US Navy’s Aegis Combat System–will be compromised without the swanky radar. The US hasn’t even fielded Spy-6–that’s how new it is–and the Pentagon is particularly loathe to share its newest toys with anybody else.



The United Kingdom on Wednesday announced a five year, £200 million aid package for northeastern Nigeria. The money is meant to keep an estimated 1.5 million at risk people from slipping into famine, to keep some 100,000 children in school, and to provide for infrastructure improvements and other services. It’s part of a plan to change the conditions in northeastern Nigeria such that Boko Haram loses its room to operate there. Likewise, the United States announced that it was moving forward with a $593 million arms deal with Nigeria that had previously been held up due to accusations of human rights abuses by the Nigerian military.


It appears that South Sudanese government forces have been crossing into Ugandan territory to attack rebel positions from the rear, which threatens to widen the country’s civil war if the rebels decide to take the fight onto Ugandan soil. It’s not clear that the Ugandan government has allowed this use of its territory–it’s possible that individual Ugandan officials are allowing it on their own initiative.


On Wednesday, Cameroonian President Paul Biya ordered an end to the prosecution of three activists from the country’s restive English-speaking community. The three men were arrested for leading protests against mistreatment by Cameroon’s French-speaking majority and then charged under anti-terrorism laws that were written to deal with Boko Haram. So, you know, clearly they were fairly applied in this case. It does not, however, appear that the three activists are going to be released, so I suppose they could be tried again on slightly less absurd charges.


At Africa Is a Country, Angolan activist Cláudio Silva writes about elections in Angola and the budding controversy over the country’s August 23 election, which still hasn’t produced a final vote tally:

For the MPLA, the 2017 elections couldn’t possibly have come at a worse time. For many of us future voters, here was an opportunity to finally demonstrate to the ruling regime that we were fed up with their mismanagement, their corruption, their inability to diversify our economy, their incapacity to truly respect democracy, the rule of law, and individual freedoms. These elections, and the run up to them, finally offered us an outlet to vent, to let it all out. But we wanted to do it right and make it count. We knew we had to combat electoral fraud, a fundamentally and unapologetically biased press, controlled by the ruling party, and an Electoral Commission that was simply an extension of the same party, with only less than half of it made up of members from other parties.

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