World update: May 1 2018


New data from the World Health Organization shows that air pollution is killing seven million people per year–and naturally, poor nations are being hit hardest:

“There are cities and regions where improvement is happening,” said Sophie Gumy, one of the authors of the report. “But even if things have started to move, they aren’t moving quickly enough. Seven million deaths is a totally unacceptable figure. The fact that 92% [of people] are still breathing unacceptable air is the news. Pollution remains at dangerously high levels.”


More than 90% of air pollution-related deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, mainly in Asia and Africa, followed by low- and middle-income countries of the eastern Mediterranean region, Europe and the Americas.


Airborne contaminants from cars, factories, wood fires and other sources cause a quarter of fatal heart attacks and strokes, 29% of lung cancer deaths and 43% of mortalities from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the report shows.



So it looks like Nikol Pashinyan’s dream of being Armenia’s prime minister is dead, or at least in limbo, after the National Assembly voted 55-45 on Tuesday against his candidacy for the job. Apparently when the Republican Party said it wouldn’t stand in Pashinyan’s way, that didn’t include voting for him, because they voted as a block to deny him the office. In the debate leading up to the vote, Republican Party legislators argued that Pashinyan would offend Moscow and that he’s insufficiently dedicated to protecting Nagorno-Karabakh, the majority-Armenian breakaway region of Azerbaijan that has fueled a long-term conflict between the two Caucasian nations.

Pashinyan called for new protests and acts of civil disobedience, including a general strike. The assembly will vote again for a prime minister on May 8, but if nobody wins that vote then elections will be held. The Republican Party’s decades of control have left it with a, shall we say, significant structural advantage, electorally-speaking, so this may be the outcome its leaders are after.


Please sit down before you read this. A new report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction suggests that–and again, please brace yourselves because this is stunning news–the United States may not be winning the war in Afghanistan. The Afghan economy is collapsing, corruption remains a massive problem, casualties are up, the opium trade is booming despite US efforts to counter it. Oh, and Afghan security forces are shrinking as people decide they’d rather not get killed on Kabul’s behalf. Other than that though I think things are still going pretty well.


During their summit last week, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un reportedly told South Korean President Moon Jae-in that he would be open to holdings talks with Japan. This could be another very significant development in regional relations, but it’s unclear whether Pyongyang and Tokyo will be able to get over the issue of Japanese nationals who were allegedly abducted by North Korea in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Japanese government officially recognizes 17 abductions but unofficially the number may be much higher than that. North Korea considers the matter settled after having returned a few abductees to Japan as well as the alleged remains of several others, but Japan disagrees and this has been a major sticking point in arranging talks between the two countries.


Still, Kim’s interest in talking might be embraced by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, who is desperate both for something splashy to knock his corruption scandal out of the news and for a way to reassert Japan’s relevance in Korean diplomacy. In an effort to put Japan back in the mix, Abe is bringing Moon and Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang to Tokyo next week to discuss regional developments.



The Moroccan government on Tuesday severed diplomatic ties with Iran. Was this another strike in the Saudi-Iran rivalry? Not exactly. Morocco has always been on the Saudi side of that equation, but they’re accusing Iran and Hezbollah of aiding the POLISARIO Front in Western Sahara via Iran’s embassy in Algeria (the Algerian government on Wednesday summoned the Moroccan ambassador to complain about that last detail). Which isn’t out of the realm of possibility–Iran recognized POLISARIO’s political claim in Western Sahara, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, back in 1980. But I’m sure the Saudi-Iran thing factors in here as well.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration pushed an unusually anti-POLISARIO resolution through the UN Security Council on Tuesday that renews the UN peacekeeping mission in Western Sahara. US policy has been strictly neutral on Western Sahara, but perhaps that’s changing–the resolution criticized POLISARIO for causing recent tensions there. The peacekeeping mission’s mandate is usually renewed year by year, but this resolution only renews it for six months, reflecting US criticism of the UN’s role there.


Suicide bombers struck a mosque and market in the city of Yola on Tuesday, killing at least 24 people (the official count at this point) and likely many more than that. Boko Haram seems the likely culprit, and given the location south of Maiduguri, my guess would be that this is Abubakar Shekau’s branch of the group, not the ISIS-West Africa branch that operates more in the Lake Chad region.

UPDATE: The unofficial casualty count at this point stands, according to local gravediggers who spoke to AFP, at 86.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s visit to Washington this week highlights one of the more uncomfortable aspects of the Donald Trump presidency–the fact that world leaders who want US aid and military assistance pretty much have to kiss his ass no matter how awful he is to them or their countries:

Today, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari became the first sub-Saharan African leader to visit Trump’s White House. The heaping pile of elephant dung in the room was Trump’s description of African nations as “shithole countries” in a meeting with U.S. senators in January. In another meeting last year, Trump reportedly said, referring to visa recipients from Nigeria, that they would never want to “go back to their huts” after seeing the United States. During a joint press conference, Buhari addressed a question about the “shithole” remark by saying he did not raise the issue, since he was not sure if Trump had really said it. Trump, rather than deny or apologize for the comment, all but repeated it, saying, “You”—Africa, presumably—“do have some countries that are in very bad shape and very tough places to live in.”


It was an uncomfortable moment, but one Buhari has basically no choice but to tolerate. Nigeria wants U.S. weapons and funding in its ongoing fight against Boko Haram—the Trump administration lifted restrictions on arms sales to Nigeria, after the Obama administration restricted them over human rights concerns—so Buhari can’t really afford not to talk to Trump.

During his press conference with Buhari Trump made some vague comments about attacks against Nigerian Christians. This naked attempt to curry favor with US Christians is likely to raise expectations among those Nigerian Christians for US assistance that won’t be coming.


Somalia is increasingly finding itself caught in the Saudi-Qatar tug-of-war:

“Somalia has been caught in the middle of this effort to try to expand influence, commercial and military, along the coast,” said Rob Malley, president of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank.


Saudi Arabia and the UAE increasingly view the Somali coastline – and Djibouti and Eritrea to the north – as their “western security flank”, according to a senior western diplomat in the Horn of Africa region.


Qatar and Turkey, whose investments are almost all in Mogadishu, are focused on supporting President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. He and his chief of staff are widely viewed in Somalia and by western diplomats as loyal to Doha after receiving funds for their 2017 election campaign.

All the attention could work to Somalia’s benefit from a financial perspective, but not necessarily. Qatar and Turkey seem intent on working with the Somali government in Mogadishu, but the UAE seems more interested in supporting separatist/autonomy movements in Somaliland and Puntland.


At least 15 people were killed in Bangui on Tuesday when gunmen attacked a church in the city’s PK5 neighborhood. The violence was reportedly triggered by the arrest of a rebel leader in that neighborhood.


The White House announced on Tuesday that it will postpone its steel and aluminum tariff decisions for Europe, Canada, and Mexico for another month. All three want permanent exemptions from the tariffs, but the administration so far has only reached an exemption deal with South Korea, though it says similar deals with Argentina, Australia, and Brazil are coming soon. All countries that receive exemptions will apparently be subject to other trade restrictions, like quotas. All of this, especially the one month delay, is sitting poorly with the Europeans:

In Europe, the reprieve was seen not as an act of conciliation or generosity but instead as another 30 days of precarious limbo that will disrupt supply networks and undermine what has been an unusually strong period of growth.


European leaders, normally circumspect, are openly irritated that President Trump’s protectionist assault is aimed at them despite decades of military alliance and shared values. The region has pushed for a permanent exemption to the American trade penalties, and threatened retaliation otherwise.



The new War on Terror Authorization to Use Military Force legislation that Bob Corker and Tim Kaine have drafted seems, at least second-hand, like it might be the single dumbest piece of legislation ever written. In the name of supposedly limiting presidential war-making powers the bill would increase the president’s unilateral ability to use military force, and now we learn it would also make it easier for the president to indefinitely detain US citizens:

Here’s how it works: The Corker-Kaine AUMF codifies an expanded list of entities against whom the president is authorized to use force. They are “the Taliban, al Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and designated associated forces.” The associated forces designated by the bill are Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula; Shabab; Al Qaeda in Syria; the Haqqani Network; and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.


Then when the bill is passed, the president is invited to designate additional “associated forces” to the list. And going forward, the president can add more at any time. All he needs to do is inform “the appropriate congressional committees and leadership” that he’s doing so.

Congress can vote to overrule presidential decisions to add more forces to the list, but those votes would be subject to veto and thus require 2/3 majorities to succeed. And there’s nothing in the legislation that would prevent the president from adding US citizens or US-based organizations to this list. Now, courts and legislation have previously held that presidents can indefinitely detain US citizens–if they had ties to a defined list of terrorist organizations (al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban). This AUMF would give the president a blank check to add to that list, making his indefinite detention power theoretically limitless. Or rather, it would only be as limited as Congress make it, which is to say probably not at all.

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