Asia/Africa update: September 4-5 2017



Two “gunmen” were killed by NATO helicopters on Monday in the Qarabagh neighborhood in Kabul. I put “gunmen” in quotes because there are reports that there was an engagement party happening in the vicinity, and it just so happens that one thing Afghan men like to do at engagement parties is to shoot their guns in the air. So, yeah, these two dudes may have been civilians. Par for the course at this point. Amazingly, 2017 is on track to be the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since the war began in 2001. Many of those casualties have been via airstrike, and those numbers are likely to grow since part of Donald Trump’s new surge will involve substantially increased levels of air activity.


As part of its effort to find alternate commercial relationships to get around the Saudi-led blockade, Qatar is throwing resources into boosting trade links with Pakistan. Previous Qatari trade went through Dubai, but obviously that’s no longer an option, so the Qataris will be looking to establish direct maritime transit with Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and port. This is a big boost for Pakistan, which needs all the trade it can get and will be able to sell plenty of goods, food especially, to the Qataris. It also raises the question of Saudi acquiescence–Pakistan is close enough to Riyadh that they probably would not have gone forward with something like this were the Saudis not OK with it.


Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh, photo taken in March (Wikimedia)

The Rohingya crisis continues to escalate. An estimated 120,000 Rohingya have now fled ethnic cleansing in Myanmar into Bangladesh, which doesn’t want them and can’t really handle them, and as many as 400,000 more may be displaced by the Myanmar military’s latest crackdown. The situation sounds horrifying:

Tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims, fleeing the latest round of violence to engulf their homes in Myanmar, have been walking for days or handing over their meager savings to Burmese and Bangladeshi smugglers to escape what they describe as certain death.

Exhausted mothers clutched listless infants. Catatonically terrified children clung to bone-weary fathers. Young children with blank eyes carried even younger siblings.

“Oh Allah, Oh Allah,” one family moaned as they waded Tuesday through the chin-high waters of the Naf River dividing the two countries. One panicking woman handed a 3-month-old infant to a taller man before she slipped momentarily beneath the murky water. For a terrifying moment, the man held the baby aloft with one hand as he steadied himself. Then as the woman remerged, the group moved on to the safety of Bangladesh on the opposite bank.

Compounding things, Myanmar’s government–the one led by a Nobel laureate, in case you’d forgotten–is blocking the United Nations from delivering humanitarian aid to the Rohingya in Rakhine state. And Reuters is now reporting that they’re mining the border with Bangladesh to try to prevent Rohingya refugees from coming back. At least two people have already been injured in mine explosions, with one, a child, losing his leg.

Muslims all over the world are gathering to protest the violence, and several governments–Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia at least–have condemned Myanmar’s actions. Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who isn’t exactly known for his reverence for Muslim lives, is likely to bring the Rohingya issue up during his visit to Myanmar this week.


Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha has been charged with conspiring with the US to bring down the Cambodian government. Kem Sokha was arrested on Sunday in another sign that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s already autocratic government is tightening the screws still further on the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. The thing is, he has apparently received US aid in the past, ostensibly for party-building/democracy promotion-type activity, though obviously American aid for “democracy-building” efforts often is code for something else–you don’t see us spending money to build democracy in, say, Saudi Arabia. But the possibility that these charges have some merit should not detract from Hun Sen’s despotism.

What’s particularly troubling is that Cambodian elections law allows the government to shut down the CNRP if the party does not appoint a new leader to replace Kem Sokha. Other top CNRP officials say they will refuse to appoint a new leader and thereby legitimize the government’s charges against Kem Sokha, and with elections happening next year it’s hard not to read this prosecution as an attempt to eliminate the opposition and thereby clear the field.


You really can’t make this stuff up:

President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered police to let journalists join raids in his crackdown on illegal drugs to disprove growing allegations of extrajudicial killings, but he warned reporters they could get shot.

Yeah, sure, come along with the police so you can see what they’re doing. But just keep in mind, you can never be sure who might catch a bullet if something goes down. Not that we wouldn’t be real sad if some of you reporters was to get shot in the back while covering these stories, mind you.

The Philippine military says it’s taking fire from women and children in Marawi, which is either a sign that the insurgents have really started to reach the end of their rope or a preemptive excuse for the number of dead woman and children people are going to find once they’re allowed to go into Marawi and start counting the dead. On the plus side, there’s reason to believe that insurgent leader Abdullah Maute was killed last month in an airstrike.


US intelligence estimates say that North Korea’s nuclear test on Sunday was likely of a 140 kiloton device. Assuming that holds up it puts guesswork about what kind of device it was into a bit of a gray area. This could have been a small two-stage thermonuclear device or it could have been a large boosted atomic device, which is a design that uses a small-to-moderate amount of fusion fuel to–wait for it–boost what is still largely an atomic/fission bomb. On the other hand, estimates that take the depth of the test facility–or rather some educated guesses about the depth of the test facility–into account come back with substantially larger estimates of the test’s yield, over 300 kilotons. Something that big could probably only be a true thermonuclear device.

So the most optimistic guess as to what happened on Sunday still puts North Korea well on the road to a true thermonuclear device, while the pessimistic guess says they’ve already arrived at their destination. I’m inclined to agree with Jeffrey Lewis when he says North Korea has joined the thermonuclear club–even if they’re not technically in the club yet, we know for sure they’re at least knocking on the door.

What happens now? Pyongyang is promising more tests, probably of the missile variety for now, while Russia is making noises about blocking any new sanctions measures in the UN Security Council. China’s position is less clear, because this test does seem to have been intended to embarrass Beijing a bit, but it’s irrelevant if Russia is intent on using its veto. Sanctions are unlikely to make a difference anyway, particularly to a regime that seems to welcome the isolation rather than fighting against it. Still, a new sanctions push, or at least an effort to increase enforcement of existing sanctions, is likely where this is headed because, well, there’s nowhere else for it to go, really. People are seriously suggesting the United States start shooting down North Korean missile tests, but aside from the risk of escalation, there’s not much reason to think that the US can actually pull something like that off. The South Koreans are talking about asking the US to station nuclear weapons in South Korea, at least temporarily, an idea that manages to be both pointless and dangerous.



The Libyan National Army conducted airstrikes south and east of Sirte on Tuesday against…ISIS. Well, shit. This is obviously a problematic turn of events, seeing as how ISIS was driven out of Sirte in December and these guys are supposed to have to common decency to stay beaten. The LNA and rival militias from Misrata have started patrolling the area around Sirte for increased ISIS activity, each of them blaming the other for allowing ISIS the space to attempt a comeback when in reality they’re very much both to blame. Their latest resurfacing appears intended to cause just that kind of finger-pointing, in an effort to undermine nascent peace overtures between LNA commander Khalifa Haftar and the Government of National Accord in Tripoli.


Several members of Sierra Leone’s government have been fired for allegedly pilfering money that was meant for the country’s Hajj Commission. Some 300 Sierra Leonean citizens, out of a total of 800 who had planned to go on Hajj this year, were unable to undertake the pilgrimage because the commission didn’t have the funds.


Two UN peacekeepers were killed by a mine in Mali’s northern Kidal region on Tuesday. Mali’s al-Qaeda branch is presumably responsible.


Amnesty International said Tuesday that over 380 people were killed by Boko Haram in the past five months, double the number who were killed by the group in the five month period before that. The group is using more suicide bombers and particularly more female suicide bombers, and it’s been carrying out far more attacks in Cameroon of late than it had been previously.


Kenya’s overturned presidential election will be rerun on October 17.

Well, maybe. Challenger Raila Odinga is now suggesting he will boycott the revote unless he receives “legal and constitutional guarantees” that there will be no fraud. He said Kenya’s electoral commission had not consulted with him on the date of the revote and suggested that the commission must therefore be in the bag for incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta. He wants significant turnover on the commission itself and an investigation into irregularities in the August 8 vote, the one that’s now been thrown out. Odinga has a fair amount of leverage here–his refusal to participate in the revote would obviously make the results illegitimate.


The United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi is recommending that the International Criminal Court open a case regarding alleged crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Burundian government. Burundi has been roiled by political violence since April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he was pursuing a questionably constitutional third term in office. Nkurunziza’s government has ruthlessly been suppressing opposition ever since, killing as many as 2000 people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Burundi is withdrawing from the ICC effective October 27, so if the court is going to open a case it needs to do so before then, or else it will only be able to open a case if ordered by the UN Security Council.


Lieutenant General Khoantle Motsomotso, the (now former) commander of the Lesotho army, was murdered on Tuesday by a group of ex-officers angry that Motsomotso had fired them.

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