World update: March 3-4 2018



Despite a stark absence of any evidence to support his case, reformed* Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar insists that he can play an important role in bringing the Taliban to the table for peace talks. He claims to already be communicating with Taliban leaders and has been using his own experience as a rebel-turned-whatever as an example of what can happen if the Taliban stop fighting and start talking. Of course, Hekmatyar was practically an afterthought when he agreed to come in from the cold last year while the Taliban is doing pretty well for itself, but whatever. Hekmatyar’s idea is to float the possibility of Taliban autonomy in certain provinces provided they stop fighting, which is not really what Kabul and the United States have had in mind. They want the Taliban to reform into a purely political party within the central government.


Pakistani officials say they’re working overtime to meet the Financial Action Task Force’s requirements on terrorist financing and money laundering so that they won’t go on the FATF’s gray list in June, but they’re also apparently pretty steamed at the United States for its role in putting them on the FATF’s watch list:

“The real aim of this politically motivated move is to hamper Pakistan’s economic progress,” the Foreign Ministry spokesman, Muhammad Faisal, said at a news briefing here. Miftah Ismail, the government finance adviser at the meeting, said the intent of Washington and its allies was to “embarrass Pakistan.”


In an interview Thursday, Ismail said that Pakistan needs more time to implement complex financial controls but that it has worked hard to counter terrorism and money laundering. He said that there was “no chance” of Pakistan facing punitive sanctions from the task force but that being gray-listed alone could damage its “image and reputation.”

The FATF decision to put Pakistan on the watch list came after Islamabad lost the support of its two closest allies, Saudi Arabia and China. So it’s not just American machinations at work here–Pakistan does have a problem and it risks serious international isolation if it doesn’t fix it. Which shouldn’t be that hard–the simplest way for the Pakistanis to stay off the gray list for terrorist financing would be to stop, you know, coddling terrorist groups.


Indian officials have imposed a curfew on parts of Kashmir after their forces killed three civilians and one Kashmiri separatist in a shootout.


India’s ruling right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party won a major victory on Saturday in elections in northeastern India’s Tripura state, which had been governed by the Communist Party of India for the past 25 years. It also appears to be winning the vote in nearby Nagaland state. A victory in both would leave the BJP in control of a whopping 21 of India’s 29 states.


The Chinese government has apparently stopped publicly divulging its annual military budget, which is probably not a great sign even though Beijing says it has no intention of being aggressive with its military or anything. China already kept a lot of its military spending off the books so its public figures were never a full accounting anyway, but this is still a little troubling. Whatever the new budget is, it will undoubtedly be vastly lower than the ridiculous amount the US is spending, though of course any suspected increase by China will be used to justify future increases in the Pentagon’s budget.



Sudan is sending its ambassador, Abdel Mahmoud Abdel Halim, back to Cairo on Monday. They withdrew him for consultations in January due to tensions in Egyptian-Sudanese relations.


Nusrat al-Islam, AKA al-Qaeda in Mali, has claimed credit for Friday’s twin terrorist attacks in Ouagadougou that killed eight soldiers. Their attack on the country’s army headquarters appears to have targeted a conference room that had been home to a meeting of senior Burkinabe military leadership, but the meeting broke up before the attack occurred. Authorities are investigating the possibility that one of the attackers was an ex-Burkinabe soldier.


Following yet another major Boko Haram schoolgirl abduction, calls are growing for President Muhammadu Buhari to withdraw from next year’s presidential election rather than stand for a second term. Buhari’s first term has been an almost comprehensive failure–he set out promising to take on corruption, boost the economy, and defeat Boko Haram, and he’s gone a resounding 0-for-3 (well, maybe 0.5-for-3; the economy has come out of recession, but unemployment remains very high) and has overseen a rise in Niger Delta secessionism. Plus, he had to spend a lot of time in London last year getting treated for some kind of mystery ailment, never a great sign for a 75 year old man.

Because Nigeria’s presidency informally rotates between the country’s Christian and Muslim communities every two terms, and the vice presidency informally rotates on the opposite cycle, the prospect of a president dying in office and being replaced by his vice president of the other faith brings with it the potential for discord. On the other hand, if Buhari doesn’t run and another Muslim replaces him, Nigerian Christians are going to expect that person to only serve one term even though they’ll be eligible to serve two.


More ethnic violence in Ituri state on Saturday brought the overall death toll there to at least 79 since Friday.



Though the problem is broader than just Russia, Paul Pillar uses Vladimir Putin’s recent nuclear weapons party to look at the Trump administration’s failure to perceive the current multipolar world order:

To understand what is going on, use as a reference point the National Security Strategy (NSS) that the Trump administration released late last year (while bearing in mind that this type of document, in any administration, is less a true strategy than an expression of attitudes and objectives). The dominant theme of Trump’s NSS, articulated in its opening section, is that the world is overwhelmingly a competitive place in which America’s adversaries are “determined” to do unfriendly things. Russia and China are described as “determined” to “grow their militaries.” Other adversaries are “determined” to threaten Americans through other harmful actions.


The NSS explicitly rejects engagement with adversaries, but at least as significant is what the document does not say. It gives not the slightest hint that any of the apparently unfriendly actions by adversaries could in any way be responses to actions or policies of the United States. Instead, any untoward or unwelcome action by an adversary is assumed to have occurred because the adversary was already “determined” to do it.

Befitting Trump himself, whose worldview is entirely oriented around his own person and those who have unfairly aggrieved him, his administration has reduced the rest of the world to a collection of two-dimensional entities that are either our friends or our enemies, with no thought as to how or why they might be one or the other.


Thousands of Macedonians calling themselves the “We Are Macedonian movement” rallied in Skopje on Sunday to protest a potential change in the country’s name. The Macedonian government is negotiating with the Greek government over how to change that name in order to satisfy Greek objections to the use of the word “Macedonia.” Those objections have been holding up the [deep breath] Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’s (as it’s known at the United Nations) membership applications for NATO and the European Union for going on three decades now. Significant domestic hostility to changing the country’s name could complicate Skopje’s negotiations with Athens considerably.


Angela Merkel finally has her governing coalition, and it’s only been a scant five or so months since the 2017 election. By a somewhat surprisingly large margin (two-thirds in favor), members of the Social Democratic Party voted to approve the SPD forming a coalition with Merkel’s conservatives.

Now she just has to hold it together. Which is going to be difficult, with her Christian Democratic Union pulling right to take ground away from the neofascist Alternative for Germany (now the country’s main opposition party) and the Social Democrats pulling left so they don’t once again get creamed at the polls the next time there’s an election. Which could be in as soon as two years, since part of the coalition agreement calls for a “review” of the government’s performance at that time.


Italy, meanwhile, held its parliamentary election on Sunday, and the results were…a mess, pretty much. No party won an outright majority, which was expected, but it could take days or even weeks just to sort out how much needs to be sorted out before anyone can even attempt to form a new government. The enigmatic, anti-establishment Five Star Movement seems to be the “winner,” of sorts, pulling in about a third of the vote to become the country’s largest single party. That puts them behind the center-right coalition led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (who, amazingly, passes for “center” in Italian politics these days) and the hard-right Northern League party boss Matteo Salvini.

However, with that coalition underperforming overall and Salvini’s party surprisingly outpolling Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, that coalition is no longer looking so stable. Berlusconi’s center-right party could form a coalition with former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party, but both of those parties did so poorly that they can’t form a government on their own, and it’s not clear who else they might find to join them. The real winners here seem to have been euroskepticism and xenophobia, so congratulations to them for continuing their strong showing in Western elections.


Carles Puigdemont’s decision to endorse Jordi Sànchez as his successor as Catalan president has apparently had the effect of splintering Catalonia’s independence movement just a bit. The small, leftist Popular Unity Candidacy (PUC) party says it will not support Sànchez’s candidacy, and because the pro-independence parties have only a slim majority in the Catalan parliament they have some leverage to block him. PUC leaders say it’s nothing personal, but they’re angry that all the drama over who will be Catalan president seems to be distracting attention from actually pursuing independence.



Guatemala became the second country to announce it will be moving its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, following Donald Trump’s lead. I’m sure the check is already in the mail.

For Guatemala this is a return to Jerusalem. It had its Israeli embassy in that city prior to 1980, when the United Nations called on member states to move their embassies out of Jerusalem in response to the Israeli Knesset’s passage of the “Jerusalem Law,” which decreed that Jerusalem is Israel’s “indivisible and eternal capital.”


The prognosis for Donald Trump’s trade war is a bit mixed at this point:

China has warned that it does not want a trade war with the US, but will not sit idly by if its economy is hurt.


Zhang Yesui, spokesperson for China’s National People’s Congress, made the comments amid controversy over Donald Trump’s announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminium imports.


The US president has also threatened to impose a tax on EU-made cars, and earlier said “trade wars are good”.


US trading partners, the IMF and the WTO have strongly criticised his moves.

The Europeans are talking about slapping tariffs on highly symbolic US items like Levis jeans and Bourbon. If they were smart, they’d find some major exports of a few states that Donald Trump barely won in 2016 and target their sanctions on those industries. Wisconsin’s cheesemakers might be in for a rough ride, for example. But so far everybody, Europeans included, seems to be waiting to find out exactly what Trump is planning to do–which is not a bad idea when dealing with a president who rarely knows what the hell he’s talking about.

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