Asia/Africa update: October 17-18 2017



If you’re a fan of trees, then today was a pretty good news day. Deforestation is apparently down in Brazil (I’ll get to that) and also we learned from the Rockefeller Foundation, via the Guardian, that Kazakhstan’s efforts to plant a million trees in a ring around the city of Astana are starting to take root (I know, I’m sorry). Nursultan Nazarbayev started this program 20 years ago in an effort to raise the temperature in his new capital city, and after slow-rolling it for a few years (because nobody was sure how long Nazarbayev was going to be around) Kazakh scientists have been working to improve the soil quality around Astana and are at the point where about 70 percent of the new trees they plant (about 5000 per year) are surviving despite the inhospitable steppe environment.


A series of Taliban attacks across Afghanistan on Tuesday killed 74 people. The deadliest of these hit the police headquarters in the city of Gardez, in eastern Afghanistan, where 21 police officers and 20 civilians were reportedly killed. Another 30 people were killed in an attack in nearby Ghazni province.


Pakistan is pushing ahead with plans to fence off most of its 2500 km border with Afghanistan, including built-in surveillance systems and forts along the new fence’s length. The Pakistanis say the fence is needed to curb attacks from Pakistani Taliban forces based in Afghanistan–interestingly, Afghan authorities, who face constant attacks from Afghan Taliban forces based in Pakistan, are largely opposed to the fence because it, like the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, will cut right through the heart of the Pashtun region and split families and tribes based in the border region. That in turn would risk creating more instability. It will be interesting to see if the Pakistanis follow through on this project–they’ve already fenced a bit over 40 km, but the cost for doing the entire border is obviously going to be pretty steep.

Two more American drone strikes in the border region reportedly killed 11 more people on Tuesday, a day after American drones reportedly killed 20 people in the same area. On Wednesday, meanwhile, a suicide bomber killed at least seven police officers in Quetta. There was no claim of responsibility, but Taliban, ISIS, and Baloch separatists are all possibilities in that part of the country.


India’s willingness to mix it up with China over the Doklam standoff earlier this year suggests in part that Narendra Modi is trying to raise India’s profile as a regional power:

Finally, India’s understanding of its self-interest appears to be expanding. By stopping China’s road-building project, it protected not only itself but also a smaller neighbor from coercion by a powerful third country. In doing so, India not only demonstrated that it would resist Chinese bullying, but also showed that India would, at least in some cases, seek to prevent China from bullying others.


This suggests a more muscular approach not just to defending India’s own interests, but also to preserving the existing regional order, and may hint at the emergence of a more robust Indian leadership role in the region. In private conversations, Indian strategists acknowledge that such leadership implications were an important part of their calculus in dealing with the crisis.

His gambit seems to be paying off, with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talking about “dramatically” improving American ties with India to form a US-India-Japan alliance that could serve as a counterweight to China.


One of the defenses offered to excuse Aung San Suu Kyi’s silence on the Rohingya issue is her precarious position with respect to Myanmar’s military. Suu Kyi’s civilian government is still in its infancy and the democracy she’s worked so hard to create could be lost if she pushes too aggressively against the military and causes a backlash. With that said, Freedom House’s Rukmani Bhatia asks what I think is the most pertinent question in response to this argument: what good is a democracy that’s built on a foundation of ethnic cleansing?


Rodrigo Duterte has declared Marawi “liberated from terrorist influence.” His military, meanwhile, continues to try to liberate Marawi from terrorist influence–there are still 20-30 Islamist fighters holed up there.

UPDATE: Mahmud Ahmad, the al-Qaeda-trained Malaysian national who was believed to have take over the insurgency after the deaths of Isnilon Hapilon and Omarkhayam Maute on Monday, is believed to have himself been killed in overnight fighting.


Xi Jinping has opened the new Chinese Communist Party Congress hoping to revitalize public enthusiasm for the party, an aim that separates him from his immediate predecessors:

Xi’s desire to achieve the “China Dream,” defined as the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” is categorically distinct, in scope and ambition, from that of his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin. Whereas Hu and Jiang were competent if colorless and largely uninspiring apparatchiks, Xi instantly and aggressively began consolidating his power, accruing enough political capital to spearhead the most extensive anti-graft campaign in modern Chinese history. The choice was a momentous one. When Xi assumed leadership over the Party, corruption posed the greatest threat to its survival. In toppling “tigers and flies”—powerful officials and lowly bureaucrats—he both burnished his image as a model of rectitude and strategically ousted potential competitors.

Xi sees an opportunity–a fat, dumb, orange-skinned opportunity–to position China as the leading world power, and naturally he sees himself as just the man to do it. Unfortunately for everybody else in China, his method for attaining this goal means repressing the hell out of any potential opposition at home. And it is, forgive me, a little hard to imagine that China is ready to become the new global hegemon when two of its biggest issues continue to be Taiwan and Hong Kong. You don’t see Donald Trump’s United States wrestling with challenges posed by its territorial possessio–oh goddammit.

Another one of China’s problems remains Xinjiang and the restive Uyghur population there. But fear not! They’ve got a good man on the case: future United States Senator (LOL) Erik Blackwater Prince:

Prince now is the chairman of the Frontier Services Group (FSG), of which a state-controlled Chinese entity, Citic Group, holds a substantial stake. The firm, according to its website, helps “businesses operating in frontier markets overcome complex security, logistics and operational challenges through customized service solutions.” Last December, Prince announced that the firm would set up two “forward operating bases” to support the development of the Road and Belt Initiative – a $1-trillion Chinese government initiative to expand trade and infrastructure across Eurasia.

Prince isn’t providing mercenaries for the Chinese government. FSG doesn’t do that stuff! It just manages the mercenaries that the Chinese government hires. A lot of overland Belt and Road programs have to run through Xinjiang, so it makes sense that Beijing would be looking for extra security given the problems it’s had there. I’m sure this gig will look fantastic in somebody’s campaign ad up there in Wyoming one of these days.


Please, people who write about this stuff, knock this crap off:

Rising tensions between North Korea and the United States have sparked fresh concerns inside and outside the Pentagon that a potential miscalculation — driven by heated rhetoric or technical mistakes — could lead to an accidental conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

An accident is when I forget to pick up my suit at the cleaners, or when I leave my wallet in the car while I run into the grocery store. There’s nothing accidental about two man-children provoking each other into a nuclear exchange. There’s certainly nothing accidental about it when one of the man-children–the older, dumber one–is provoking the other into a nuclear exchange because he holds the totally erroneous and terrifyingly uninformed opinion that America has a nearly foolproof missile defense system that can stop any North Korean missiles launched against it. Not only is Trump just wrong here, he’s also operating under the bizarre assumption that a North Korean ICBM is the only danger for which he needs to account. Tens of millions of people in South Korea and Japan whose lives are riding on Donald Trump’s decisions would beg to differ.


Polls have stabilized and it’s starting to look like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and his governing coalition might be able to retain their two-thirds parliamentary supermajority after all. Abe called for early elections, which will be held this Sunday, because he believed this was the best chance he had to keep that supermajority. But an initial polling surge by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike’s Party of Hope seemed to threaten those plans. But Party of Hope has faded and now looks like it will only place third in the vote. A large number of voters say they’re still undecided though, so take these results with a grain of salt.



Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, a military base that’s been repurposed for civilian flights because Tripoli’s international airport has been destroyed, was closed down a couple of times on Tuesday due to militia fighting in the area. Apparently the militia that controls the airfield killed a drug dealer, which led to back and forth reprisal attacks with the drug dealer’s crew. All normal stuff in a country that was saved via American leadership.


The AP reports on the role the United States and United Nations may have played in allowing the South Sudanese civil war to flare up again last year:

When South Sudan’s Yei region turned violent in the midst of the country’s civil war last year, a handful of U.N. and U.S. officials begged their leaders for help. Government soldiers were burning villages and slaughtering men, women and children, they warned.


Their pleas fell on deaf ears. The U.N. did not send peacekeeping troops to stay in Yei, and the U.S. continued to support South Sudan’s military, possibly in violation of U.S. law, according to an AP investigation based on dozens of internal documents and interviews.


Yei became the center of a nationwide campaign of what the U.N. calls “ethnic cleansing,” which has created the largest exodus of civilians in Africa since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. More than 1 million people have now fled to Uganda, mostly from the Yei region. And tens or even hundreds of thousands of people in South Sudan have died.

The US government insists that South Sudanese military units that received assistance were vetted for human rights abuses beforehand, but that seems fanciful. Even if it’s somehow true, those vetted units were and are fighting right alongside other units in the South Sudanese army that have absolutely and flagrantly violated human rights over and over again.


Speaking of the bad outcomes of bad American policy:

The man who killed more than 300 people with a truck bomb in the centre of Mogadishu on Saturday was a former soldier in Somalia’s army whose home town was raided by local troops and US special forces two months ago in a controversial operation in which 10 civilians were killed, officials in Somalia have said.

The raid in August hit the village of Bariire, where this attack seems to have been initiated. Al-Shabab has reportedly been using that attack in its propaganda in the weeks since, and may have convinced some locals to assist it in carrying out Saturday’s truck bombing in revenge.

Thousands of people demonstrated in Mogadishu on Wednesday in response to the bombing, and for some reason the Somali police thought it would be justifiable to fire live ammunition at them. At least two people were injured before police thought the better of it and decided to allow the protesters to have access to the bomb site to mourn victims whose bodies can’t be identified.


One of the members of Kenya’s elections commission, Roseyln Akombe, resigned and fled the country (!) on Wednesday, saying that next week’s presidential election do-over will not be credible and that the partisan commission is hamstringing efforts to hold a fair election. Her move is only going to make it harder for the commission and Uhuru Kenyatta’s government to pretend that next week’s vote is legitimate. Also on Wednesday, Kenyan Vice President William Ruto told reporters that challenger Raila Odinga withdrew from the race to avoid defeat, rather than over principle. Which would be a burn, I guess, if Odinga’s principle weren’t that Ruto and his boss are rigging the vote to ensure that Odinga is going to lose. Ruto did say that the election board could agree to Odinga’s conditions provided Odinga actually runs in the election, but the board has already said it can’t meet Odinga’s demands in time for the October 26 date for the vote.


Apparently part of the reason Chad was added to the most recent iteration of Donald Trump’s travel ban (the one that’s since been itself banned by federal court) is that the country ran out of passport paper. I wish I were making this up. Washington wanted a recent sample passport as part of its vetting process, and Chad just simply couldn’t produce one.

The administration insists that there were other reasons for Chad’s inclusion, but whatever they were, Alex Thurston argues that the decision was a big mistake. Chad, for all its human rights failures domestically, has been one of the most active nations in the Sahel region countering Boko Haram and other terrorist groups, but because the country is constantly in dire economic and political shape (repression doesn’t pay, kids) it’s made its participation in counter-terrorism operations contingent on getting economic goodies from Western nations and institutions. The travel ban was, obviously, the opposite of that, and so Chad in response has been pulling its forces out of service. The repercussions are already being felt:

Regardless of the rationale for including Chad in the ban, the decision was a mistake. The partial withdrawal of Chadian soldiers from places like southeastern Niger, an area that has been heavily targeted by Boko Haram in recent years, could result in swift and serious consequences. Initial reports indicate that the security situation there has already begun to deteriorate in the vacuum left by departing Chadian forces: Boko Haram attacks have escalated since the withdrawal, and so has banditry, a chronic regional problem. A security vacuum will also have political and humanitarian consequences, imperiling tentative deradicalization and amnesty efforts by Niger’s government and making it more difficult to get vital assistance to millions of displaced people in the Lake Chad region.

Further reductions in Chad’s activities are likely to give Boko Haram more room to operate, which is not a good thing at a time when both of its branches are experiencing a bit of a resurgence.


Renewed militia fighting in the CAR has forced aid workers to flee, and there are reports trickling in–likely undercounted, also because aid workers aren’t there anymore to make regular reports–of children dying of malnutrition as a result.

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