World update: October 7-8 2017



One cornerstone of Donald Trump’s totally ingenious plan to win the Afghanistan War is: air power. Damn, why hasn’t anybody else thought of this? Washington is supplying the Afghan military with 159 Blackhawk helicopters and the flight training to use them. The choppers will be delivered slowly, and the training is expected to take months, so for right now this is more a symbolic display of America’s commitment to the cause than anything that’s going to tangibly help the war effort. But eventually they’ll be used to provide close air support and to ferry Afghan special forces–whose improvement is another cornerstone of the totally new plan that nobody has ever tried before–to trouble spots across the country.


Reuters is reporting that there’s growing support in the European Union and America for targeted sanctions against leaders in Myanmar’s military over their role in carrying out violence against the Rohingya. These would presumably include the usual mix of asset freezes and travel and business restrictions. There’s no sense that these measures are imminent. Meanwhile, the one month unilateral ceasefire that was declared by the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army on September 10 is, obviously, about to expire. ARSA leaders say they’re ready to negotiate with the Myanmar government, but the government has no plans to negotiate with them and in all honesty is probably thrilled that the group exists and can be used to justify the ethnic cleansing campaign.


Rodrigo Duterte is still very popular, but he’s considerably less popular than he had been previously. New polling finds that his net approval rating has fallen 18 points, from +66 in June to +48 now, as questions have arisen about police brutality in his war on drugs and about Duterte’s personal finances. Duterte’s net trustworthiness rating has declined as well, from +75 to +60.


Kim Jong-un has reportedly appointed his sister, Kim Yo-jong, as an alternate member of his politburo, consolidating his family’s authority and substantially raising her official stature. Kim Yo-jong is believed to be responsible for handling her brother’s propaganda and has amassed a fair amount of informal power in his administration.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump says “only one thing will work” in dealing with North Korea. He didn’t go into detail, but I think we all know what it is: he’s going to send Kim one of those things that’s like a flower arrangement but with pieces of fruit. Those things are nice.


Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told reporters on Saturday that her new Party of Hope, which seems like it could play a major spoiler role in the October 22 election, will not designate a candidate for prime minister heading into the vote. Koike herself is not running, so this avoids uncomfortable questions around party leadership and also opens the door to her party backing a PM candidate from incumbent Shinzō Abe’s ruling Liberal Democrats–though, presumably, not Abe himself. Koike herself is a former Liberal Democrat who still has friends in that party–again, Abe is presumably not among them.

Party of Hope’s strength in the polls has put Abe in real jeopardy of losing his job, a position he couldn’t possibly have envisioned when he called for an early election last month. The Liberal Democrats are strongly favored to retain their majority, but Abe did this because he thought it was his best chance not just to preserve their simple majority, but to preserve the 2/3 majority they have now. Party of Hope’s popularity is putting that in doubt, and if Abe loses the party’s supermajority on a snap election gambit, he’s going to find himself in Theresa May territory very quickly.



Hundreds of people have been killed in the past couple of weeks in fighting in Sabratha between militias involved in human trafficking and the Ammu militia, which has apparently cut a deal with Tripoli and with Italy to combat the traffickers. Thousands of would-be migrants have been found trapped by the fighting, with some alleging that Ammu was imprisoning them for now with an eye toward taking their money and trafficking them itself later.


With Liberians heading to the polls on Tuesday, the electorate seems to be mostly grateful for what outgoing incumbent Ellen Sirleaf Johnson has done over the past 12 years to stabilize the country, but voters disagree over the rest of her legacy:

“Ninety per cent of us are suffering, 10% are enjoying the national cake of Liberia,” said Isaac Tamba, a staunch George Weah supporter, his vuvuzela at the ready for the footballer turned presidential candidate’s last rally before Tuesday’s election. “She failed us. Education is a mess. She failed in [fighting] corruption. If one minister is accused of mismanagement, they’re just recycled to another ministry.”


Mafase Daweh disagreed. “I’m overwhelmed by what she has done in restoring the image of our country,” he said. “She’s developed a good network of roads, and infrastructure. And she’s decentralised the education system, so you don’t have to go all the way to Monrovia to go to university.”


Quietly, Jefferson Gaye said: “She brought peace. For 12 years she kept this country stable.”


The Allied Democratic Forces, a Uganda-based Islamist militant group that often operates on DRC territory, killed 22 civilians in an attack in northeastern DRC late Saturday. They then attacked and captured three army camps north of the city of Beni. The ADF has been active since the mid-1990s but really picked back up in 2013 after a years-long lull. They’re believed to have been responsible for a mass machete attack outside Beni last August that killed 64 people. Most of the ~900 prisoners who were freed during that major prison break in DRC’s North Kivu province in June are believed to have been ADF fighters, which only strengthened their movement.


Robert Mugabe says he may reshuffle his cabinet this week, which might mean he’s going to move to oust Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is mired in a growing feud with Grace Mugabe over who will succeed Robert when if he passes. Mnangagwa is a powerful figure in Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party and is a former defense minister, so it will be interesting to see if he goes quietly or this becomes a situation.



The Trump administration last week approved the sale of a THAAD missile defense system to Saudi Arabia. Me, I just figured this was about doing our best good war criminal pals a solid and making a cool $15 billion in the process, but apparently the real goal was to undercut one of the agreements King Salman had reached with Vladimir Putin literally the day before:

The State Department announced that it had approved the sale of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) on Oct. 6, barely a day after the Saudis signed a preliminary deal for Russia’s S-400 system during King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud’s visit to Moscow. US experts say the Saudis would have great difficulty operating both.

It’s not that the Saudis couldn’t operate both systems, and they still have enough petty cash that I guess they could give it a go if they value the S-400 sale more as a way to make nice with Moscow than as a genuine arms deal. But there’s not much reason to operate both, which requires maintaining both and training on both and all kinds of other redundancies that don’t make a whole lot of sense, particularly for an overall unproven technology like missile defense.

Alexei Navalny wished Putin a happy 65th birthday by organizing protests in towns and cities all over Russia. I’m only partly being ironic here–the small size of the protests probably did make Putin feel pretty nice on his special day.


The Washington Post looks at the ~60 percent of Catalans who didn’t vote in last week’s referendum:

They range from old-school socialists to old-family capitalists, and they say the Catalan independence referendum was either a bad idea or just done so badly.


Catalan business leaders worry that it does not make sense, financially, to break from Spain. After a week of chaos, two Spanish banks — Banco Sabadell and Caixabank — announced plans to move their headquarters out of Catalonia to other cities in Spain.


A Spanish freelancer, who has lived in Barcelona for the past seven years, wondered aloud if she and her Scottish boyfriend belong in Catalonia anymore. “We’re open individuals, citizens of the world,” said Maribel Villalba. “We just want to live peacefully. You can’t put half the population against the other half.”


Though some defended and even applauded the harsh police tactics, many of the 58 percent who did not vote decried the use of truncheons and rubber bullets — but still say the referendum is invalid.

It’s impossible to know how the vote would have turned out if these people had participated, but it seems fair to say that it’s at least possible that more Catalans want to remain part of Spain than want to secede–or, at least, they did before Madrid decided to crack down on the independence movement with such a heavy hand.



I confess, I don’t keep up with the New York Times science page. So I missed Carl Zimmer’s report on Thursday on the supposed “sonic weapon” that’s been causing so many health problems for Americans in Cuba. Specifically, his piece is about the fact that scientists can’t seem to figure out how such a weapon could possibly work:

The State Department has not provided further details about the medical condition of the affected staffers. But government officials have suggested anonymously that the diplomats may have been assaulted with some sort of sonic weapon.


Experts in acoustics, however, say that’s a theory more appropriate to a James Bond movie.


Sound can cause discomfort and even serious harm, and researchers have explored the idea of sonic weaponry for years. But scientists doubt a hidden ultrasound weapon can explain what happened in Cuba.

From the way the “weapon” has been described, and the effects it’s “caused,” it seems like it must use ultrasound. Audible noise can be ruled out since most of the victims say they didn’t hear anything, and infrasound doesn’t appear to cause any actual damage to hearing. The problem is that ultrasound can’t really penetrate even internal walls, making it a pretty lousy choice for a weapon. Also, ultrasound can be picked up by cellphones, so it’s incredibly easy to check for its use. And ultrasound can’t cause concussions, which many of the victims have suffered.

The Trump administration has already moved on to blaming Cuba for not protecting its diplomats, which is fair assuming they were actually attacked by something. But it’s still not clear that they were actually attacked, mostly because nobody has any idea how they might have been attacked.


Did you all see what Bob Corker said about President Trump?

“I think Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis, and Chief of Staff Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos, and I support them very much,” the Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee told reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

I wonder how Trump is-

(Until Corker criticized him, Trump was apparently ready to endorse the Tennessee senator despite all these horrible flaws)

Ah, I see. Well at least-

Man, I hope Trump doesn’t-

And here’s the chaser:

Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, charged in an interview on Sunday that President Trump was treating his office like “a reality show,” with reckless threats toward other countries that could set the nation “on the path to World War III.”


In an extraordinary rebuke of a president of his own party, Mr. Corker said he was alarmed about a president who acts “like he’s doing ‘The Apprentice’ or something.”


“He concerns me,” Mr. Corker added. “He would have to concern anyone who cares about our nation.”

I don’t see where Corker repudiated his own role, as well as the entire Republican Party’s role, in making Trump’s election possible, though he did say that he doesn’t feel at all bad about campaigning for Trump last year. I’m glad he’s at peace with it.

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