Asia/Africa update: November 15 2017



Svante Cornell at The Diplomat hits back at the narrative of Central Asian radicalization by noting, for those who still don’t get it, that most Central Asian terrorists seem clearly to have been radicalized after they left Central Asia:

Both in Europe and the United States, this argument is made with increasing frequency. Fingers are being pointed at Central Asian states, as connections are made between the radicalization supposedly going on in Central Asia and the authoritarian character of these governments and their economic problems. In other words, many appear to assume that repression and/or poverty leads to radicalization.


The problem with this analysis is that there is no evidence that these individuals were radicalized in Central Asia. The perpetrators in Stockholm and New York left Uzbekistan almost a decade ago. Neither showed any tendencies toward radical views or behavior in their home country. It appears, instead, that they developed such views while in Sweden and the United States, respectively.

Even Central Asians who have gone off to fight in Syria are vastly more likely to have been recruited in Russia than in their home countries. It may well be that some aspects of the common post-Soviet Central Asian milieu contribute to radicalization, but that’s clearly not the whole picture.


When he becomes Kygryzstan’s new president on December 1, one of the things Sooronbay Jeenbekov is going to have to deal with pretty quickly is his country’s lousy relationship with Kazakhstan. Current President Almazbek Atambayev hasn’t exactly maintained friendly ties with his much larger neighbor, and Kazakh hostility is preventing Kyrgyzstan from fully assimilating into the Eurasian Economic Union even though it agreed to join the EEU two years ago.


On the downside, Ashraf Ghani has fired the head of Afghanistan’s electoral commission, and, well, if you were planning to run for a seat in the Afghan parliament next year, I wouldn’t rush to get the paperwork submitted just yet. Najibullah Ahmadzai was canned apparently because he’s been so incompetent that the July 2018 election date now seems unrealistic, and five of the seven members of the commission wrote a letter to Ghani asking him to fire the guy.

On the plus side, Afghan farmers are producing 87 percent more opium this year than they did last year! Way to go! Anybody ready to talk about fixing our broken drug policies yet?


Rex Tillerson visited Myanmar on Wednesday and said the country’s military and civilian leaders should investigate “credible reports of widespread atrocities” committed against the Rohingya. I don’t know what Secretary Tillerson could possibly be talking about, though, because the Myanmar military has already thoroughly investigated itself and has determined that it didn’t do anything wrong. I believe the definitely thorough and impartial investigation concluded that the Myanmar military’s one failure, if you even want to call it that, is that it cares too damn much. In seriousness though, Tillerson was far too easy on Myanmar in his remarks there. Even framing the issue as one that still has to be investigated, as though it weren’t abundantly clear what’s been going on, is giving Myanmar’s government a gift.


The West Papua National Liberation Army claimed responsibility for shooting and killing an Indonesian police officer on Wednesday in Papua province. The attack took place near the Grasberg copper mine, which continues to be an unstable area.


North Korean state media is suggesting that Donald Trump should be “sentenced to death” (presumably in absentia) for calling Kim Jong-un “short and fat.” And to think, 2007 me probably earnestly wondered what life would be like in another ten years.


The head of South Korea’s Democratic Party, Choo Mi-ae, told a Washington audience on Wednesday that “under no circumstances” should the US start another war with North Korea “without the consent of South Korea.” While this is eminently reasonable, considering that a whole lot of South Koreans are in danger of dying in the opening minutes of such a conflict, I have my doubts that the Trump administration will be prepared to take that into consideration in the event the situation got to that point.



The Libyan National Army’s air force struck a suspected ISIS camp south of Sirte on Wednesday. Sirte was of course ISIS’s base of operations in Libya until it lost the city last year.


Over 230 Moroccan would-be migrants have been detained under terrible conditions in Tripoli for two months after being prevented from traveling on to Europe. They’ve begun a hunger strike to demand that the Moroccan government finally repatriate them. Moroccan authorities say they are working on it.


At least 14 people were killed on Wednesday by four Boko Haram suicide bombers in Maiduguri.


According to Reuters, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir has ordered full access for humanitarian aid throughout the entire country. This is no small thing, assuming Kiir really follows through, because it means Kiir, his army, and his allied militias will no longer be withholding aid to rebel-controlled parts of South Sudan.


Another American drone strike reportedly killed “several” members of al-Shabab just north of Mogadishu on Wednesday.


Kenya’s Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the country’s elections board must turn over evidence to parties contesting President Uhuru Kenyatta’s reelection. Kenyatta is due to be sworn in at the end of the month unless the results of last month’s election are overturned for some reason. But it’s hard to think of a legal reason why the court would take that step–with opposition leader Raila Odinga boycotting the do-over vote, there’s virtually no way Kenyatta didn’t win. If turnout can be shown to have been low enough, there’s some chance the court could rule that the outcome was illegitimate, but that seems like a long shot to me, though admittedly I am not a lawyer and I am certainly not a Kenyan lawyer.


So, it’s been kind of a day for Zimbabweans. Those armored vehicles that seemed to be heading in the direction of Harare when last we checked definitely got there, and a situation that seemed like it was moving too slowly to be an actual coup, which the army still insists is not a coup, now looks a whole lot like a coup. The Zimbabwean army seized control of the capital, including radio and television broadcasters, and declared that it had taken control of the country but also that it had definitely not just carried out a coup. This is obviously semantic bullshit to avoid using the term “coup” (here’s a tip: tanks in the street and the sounds of gunfire in the air are pretty unmistakable signs that your not-a-coup is actually a coup), but the army insists that Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe is “safe” and, while he’s under house arrest, it’s really for his own good while the military goes after “criminals” who have apparently surrounded him. Mugabe himself, who’s a multi-millionaire solely on the basis of what he’s been able to pilfer during his 37 year reign, is apparently not one of those criminals.

Barring some very sudden twist of fate, Mugabe’s presidency/dictatorship is over. There are reports that he’s going to be forced to resign in the coming days, but those are unconfirmed. He may stick around in a nominal sense for a short time, maybe even until he dies (he is 93, looks like he’s perpetually auditioning for the lead role in a Tales from the Crypt revival, and I doubt the shock of today’s events is going to lengthen his expected lifespan), but even if he does he’s not going to have any actual authority.

It’s almost unthinkable that Robert Mugabe, who has more or less dominated Zimbabwean politics since 1980, would be unceremoniously dumped like this, despite the fact that he’s been around for almost 40 years, probably would not have won the 2008 election were it not for the threat of violence forcing his main opponent (Morgan Tsvangirai) to drop out, and has in recent years torpedoed the Zimbabwean economy. His control over the ruling ZANU-PF party and the country’s military and political leadership–those who served with and under Mugabe during the Rhodesian Bush War–seemed secure. While we can certainly criticize Mugabe for his myriad abuses of power since 1980, and especially in recent years, it’s hard to deny that he earned his reputation as a liberator in that war. But at this point, if he has any support left in the Zimbabwean military, it has yet to reveal itself.

Sure, it’s started to look like Mugabe may have seriously fucked up over the past few months in arranging things so that his wife, Grace, would be in line to succeed him when he eventually kicks the bucket, but the consequences of that overreach seemed likely to fall on Grace and only after Robert was out of the picture. To be sure, Robert’s age and the hints that he was no longer entirely in his right mind (i.e., that his wife was manipulating him) may have weakened him enough to make this possible. But whatever the reason, the Mugabes seriously underestimated just how opposed the military would be to the idea of dynastic succession and just how supportive they would be of former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who seems likely to be the big winner here. Mnangagwa not only has Bush War credibility, but he’s a former intelligence director and defense minister, so there’s never been any doubt that he’d have supporters within Zimbabwe’s deep state. Mugabe’s kids apparently were no help, flaunting their wealth in ways that naturally pissed many Zimbabweans off.

There’s now talk of a national unity government of sorts, with Mnangagwa becoming president and Tsvangirai assuming the prime minister’s office. But Zimbabwe has had those before, and nothing good came of them. In this case, it seems transparently like an effort to paper over the coup with nice happy talk of including the opposition in what is still fundamentally an autocratic government. The same iron-clad grip the ZANU-PF establishment had over the country yesterday still exists today and there’s no particular reason to believe that Mugabe’s ouster–particularly not via an anti-democratic military coup–is going to change that.

Hi, how’s it going? Thanks for reading; attwiw wouldn’t exist without you! If you enjoyed this or any other posts here, please share widely and help build our audience. You can like this site on Facebook or follow me on Twitter as well. Most critically, if you’re a regular reader I hope you’ll read this and consider helping this place to stay alive.

3 thoughts on “Asia/Africa update: November 15 2017

  1. I am not very impressed by the Diplomat article.

    “Most Central Asians get radicalized in Russia” — true, because in Russia they’re an exploited underclass, and Russians generally treat them like crap, and for many of them it’s such a miserable life that joining ISIS may not look so bad. But on the other hand, *nearly one quarter of the adult population* of Tajikistan is working in Russia right now. So saying “oh well, they get radicalized in Russia” isn’t really answering the issue. They’re going to Russia because Tajikistan is poor and screwed up. It’s poor and screwed up because of the relentless corruption and greed of Tajikistan’s wretched ruling class, particularly the President and his horrible family.

    “far more Europeans than Central Asians have traveled to Syria” — population of Europe: ~550 million. Population of the five “stans” of Central Asia combined: ~70 million people. So, yeah, more Europeans. (And, is he including Russia in ‘Europe’ here? Impossible to say.) So, not a terribly useful metric.

    Finally, I note that while a lot of Central Asians may get radicalized in Russia, many of them remain righteously pissed at their home governments. The type specimen here would be the Tajik fighter Gulmorod Khalimov, who went from being the national commander of police special forces in Tajikistan to being ISIS’ Minister of War. Khalimov never stopped talking about how he did it because of the relentless corruption and greed of Tajikistan’s wretched ruling class, particularly etc.

    Doug M.

    1. Well the relentless corruption and greed of Tajikistan’s wretched ruling class is definitely a problem, but what we’re seeing now is a reflexive media effort to claim that the problem is just Central Asia when it’s also about how migrant communities are treated, in Russia and everywhere else. The Central Asian experience is only part of the story. If it were the whole story, these people wouldn’t be leaving Central Asia to make a better life and only then radicalizing.

  2. …well, but some of them do exactly that. A majority go through somewhere else first, usually Russia, but there’s a group that have headed straight for ISIS. I mentioned Khalimov, but he’s just the most famous.

    Also, the Russian experience cuts both ways. Yes, the horrible life in Russia radicalizes many Tajiks. But if Tajiks couldn’t go to Russia and had to stay home, things might be even worse. The Rahmon regime has had a policy of “export excess young people for cash” for a generation now. While this was brutally cynical, it was also pretty effective for fifteen years or so. It didn’t start to bite them until the last few years, when the Russian economy tanked after 2013.

    Since then, the Russian government has very deliberately tried to push as much misery as possible onto the Central Asian _gastarbeiter_. And that’s caused a lot of secondary problems, including the surge in Central Asian radicals. But the counterfactual where all those young Tajiks stayed home? That would have its own set of issues. Paradoxically, exporting young people allowed Tajikistan to be *relatively* liberal and socially relaxed for a long time. Note that the current political crackdown in Tajikistan really accelerated after the Russian safety valve got pinched partly shut. In a world where Tajiks couldn’t leave? The country would either be as nasty and repressive as Karimov’s Uzbekistan, which is saying something, or it would have simply blown up by now.

    (Incidentally, I note that the author of the Diplomat article seems to be falling for the “Uzbekistan is liberalizing!” line. Dude. It’s a younger more mediagenic face on the exact same system. The same guy is still running the secret police. Releasing a few prisoners and allowing a union to form is not “liberalization”. It’s a test to see how gullible the international community is. How many times did Lukashenko pull this before we stopped falling for it?)

    Finally, wrt “far more fighters from Europe”, I’ll note according to the ICCT, of suicide bombers of foreign origin used by ISIS in 2016, Tajiks were by far the single largest group:

    “In total, 186 foreigners died as suicide operatives in the year in question. Fifteen were
    commemorated with the kunya “al-Muhajir,” which, similar to “al-Ansari,” indicates they
    were foreign but does not specify a country of origin. The remaining individuals – 86
    percent of whom died as VBIED operators – hailed from 31 states. Most came from
    Tajikistan, followed by Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, and Russia. Tajikistan’s presence
    at the top of this list is curious. Over the twelve months in question, significantly more
    Tajiks died in VBIED and inghimas operations in Syria and Iraq than any other foreign
    national. This figure is even more striking when considered on a per capita basis, and
    suggests that Tajiks were being singled out for use in suicide attacks at least in part
    because of their nationality. While a similar phenomenon appears to be the case with
    the other top-scoring states, the disproportionality of Tajikistan is strange indeed.”

    Click to access ICCT-Winter-War-by-Suicide-Feb2017.pdf

    Doug M.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.