World update: December 12, 2017

Happy Hanukkah to those readers who are celebrating!


Good news from the Arctic:

Permafrost in the Arctic is thawing faster than ever, according to a new US government report that also found Arctic seawater is warming and sea ice is melting at the fastest pace in 1,500 years.


The annual report released on Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showed slightly less warming in many measurements than a record hot 2016. But scientists remain concerned because the far northern region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe and has reached a level of warming that’s unprecedented in modern times.

If anything, the permafrost findings are more worrisome than the sea ice findings. Melting permafrost can release buried carbon deposits and help create a feedback cycle that can become very devastating to the climate. Also, from a practical perspective, melting permafrost that has stuff resting on it, like buildings, has a tendency to shift in ways that aren’t great for stability of that surface stuff.



Two Taliban attacks on Afghan checkpoints in Ghazni province on Tuesday left three Afghan soldiers dead and five more wounded.

Pressure is mounting on Afghan President Ashraf Ghani over planned parliamentary elections that are supposed to happen next July but almost certainly will have to be delayed yet again (they’re already two years overdue). Ghani’s response has been, to say the least, troubling:

The Afghan president, in return, has reacted in ways that many Western officials see as panicked. He has ordered sudden corruption investigations against critics, barred government employees from joining demonstrations and been accused of grounding the flight of a powerful northern governor to keep him from joining an opposition meeting.

Afghanistan’s political framework is basically held together with chicken wire at this point, and Ghani is threatening to stress it past its breaking point. The electoral reforms he’s been trying to implement in advance of any new elections have largely stalled out, leaving things in a very uncomfortable limbo.

Right now the Afghan opposition is still fragmented, but so is the coalition that raised Ghani to the presidency in 2014. There’s growing support to hold a loya jirga, a traditional tribal council, which could force Ghani to make reforms or even oust him, but at a potentially huge cost in terms of Afghan stability and democracy. Washington, which supports Ghani, is starting to find some of its other Afghan allies moving into the anti-Ghani camp.


The European Union informed Phnom Penh on Tuesday that it is suspending funding for Cambodia’s 2018 parliamentary election, following Prime Minister Hun Sen’s move to dissolve the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The decision is unlikely to be anything more than symbolic–Japan (the other main contributor to Cambodia’s election commission) says it will not cut its aid, and anyway Cambodia can presumably pay for its own elections.


Rex Tillerson went out on a bit of a limb on Tuesday, telling an audience at the Atlantic Council in Washington that he’s “ready to talk at any time” with North Korea:

Speaking at the Atlantic Council policy forum on Tuesday, Mr Tillerson said the US “simply cannot accept a nuclear armed North Korea”.


But appearing to soften the US stance towards potential future talks, he said: “Let’s just meet and let’s talk about the weather if you want and talk about whether it’s going to be a square table or a round table if that’s what you’re excited about.


“Then we can begin to lay out a map, a road map, of what we might be willing to work towards.”

This is a far cry from Donald Trump’s typical fire and fury comments, though again this is a situation where you can’t be sure Tillerson still speaks for his ostensible boss.



Liberia’s presidential runoff will be held on December 26, so adjust your holiday schedules accordingly.


Last week’s clashes in South Sudan’s Great Lakes region, between ethnic Ruop and ethnic Pakam fighters, killed at least 170 people. That number has the potential to rise as more information is gathered–the previous estimate was 45.


The Ethiopian government appears to have pulled the plug on the country’s social media access in the wake of reports that its security forces killed at least six people in the Oromian village of Chelenqo on Monday. Some sources are reporting as many as 15 killed.


A US drone strike on Tuesday hit a truck southwest of Mogadishu that was believed to be carrying explosives into the Somali capital. Al-Shabab’s truck bombs in Mogadishu have been a constant threat, including the bombing in October that killed over 500 people.

On the other hand, a colonel in the Puntland army’s bomb disposal unit was killed while trying to defuse an al-Shabab roadside bomb on Tuesday.


The African National Congress will choose a successor to South African President Jacob Zuma as party leader this weekend. Whoever is picked will be the odds-on favorite to also succeed Zuma as president. It’s expected to be a close vote between Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and former African Union Commission chair (who also happens to be Zuma’s ex-wife and preferred successor) Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Ramaphosa has positioned himself as the anti-corruption candidate, but his chances largely depend on how tired party members are of Zuma and his family.



Apart from Brexit, one of the big topics at this week’s EU meeting will be curbing illegal migration from Africa. Rather than, say, providing more legal pathways to migration to Africans, or helping improve the economic climate in African nations, you can expect that whatever solution the bloc reaches will mostly revolve around providing more security aid to African governments to prevent would-be migrants from leaving. EU members differ on what to do with migrants who have already made it to Europe, with the main points of entry (Italy, Greece, etc.) pushing for a shared approach to accepting them and regressive Eastern European governments pushing against that approach mostly on account of, you know, racism.


The Kremlin said on Tuesday that it views Donald Trump’s tweets as official US government statements. So that’s comforting.


I have nothing substantive to say about this, but if you care about the frozen war in eastern Ukraine then this Reuters photo essay on conditions in Donetsk is well worth your time.


Donald Trump will likely visit the UK in the new year, according to US ambassador Woody Johnson, despite his recent Twitter row with British Prime Minister Theresa May. Notably Johnson says this will not be a state visit, which will spare Queen Elizabeth from having to interact with Trump.



The Venezuelan government says it is opening a corruption investigation into former UN ambassador Rafael Ramírez. There are allegations that Ramírez engaged in some shady dealings when he ran the PDVSA, the country’s state-owned oil and gas giant, between 2004 and 2014, and since he’s been a critic of President Nicolás Maduro this is presumably a pretty convenient way to sideline him leading into next year’s presidential election.


In a shocking upset, Alabama voters barely rejected the Senate candidacy of a man who was once banned from his local mall because he couldn’t stop trying to pick up teenage girls. When he was in his 30s. American Exceptionalism is real, my friends. Congratulations to us.

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