World update: May 10 2018



A tangential side-effect of the Saudi conflicts with Iran and Qatar is that the Saudis have of late been participating in international efforts to isolate the Taliban. Both Qatar and Iran have relationships with the Taliban, so this allows the Saudis to appear the righteous and loyal US allies. But the Saudis are apparently working with the US now on a plan to try to cleave more moderate elements of the Taliban away from the real extremists:

In addition to calling out the Taliban’s leading international sponsors, Saudi Arabia has assisted U.S. efforts to divide the Taliban between moderate elements that seek a political solution to the Afghanistan security crisis and extremist elements, which seek to militarily overthrow Ghani’s government at all costs. To demonstrate its commitment to fomenting disunity within the Taliban’s ranks, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held negotiations with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis on the establishment of “safe havens” in Afghanistan for Taliban members who want to engage in peace talks with Kabul.


Saudi Arabia’s support for this safe haven proposal is an attempt to frame itself as a constructive actor in the Afghanistan conflict, as many Afghan officials have criticized Riyadh for its close relationship with the Taliban during the 1990s. As the Afghan government has drafted a proposal to U.S. officials that outlines how to engage moderate Taliban members, Kabul is likely to support a joint U.S.-Saudi Arabia plan to split the Taliban on ideological lines.


After a strange delay during which Malaysian Sultan Muhammad V looked like he might not appoint him as prime minister and there were rumors that now-ex PM Najib Razak was cooking up a scheme to hang on to power somehow, opposition leader Mahathir Mohamad was sworn in on Thursday, ending more than 6 decades of Barisan Nasional control over the Malaysian government. Overcoming that much political inertia, and the gerrymandering and other forms of subtle election rigging that went with it, was a remarkable feat. For his next feat, Mahathir apparently plans on trying to recover most of the money that was lost out of Malaysia’s state investment fund in the 1MDB corruption scandal. He might start by checking under Najib’s mattress, since the former PM is alleged to have walked off with a significant portion of that money.


The United Nations is apparently doing PR for the Belt and Road Initiative now, which seems a little weird to me but roll with it I guess:

The promotion highlighted the U.N.’s curious role in China’s public relations campaign to sell the Belt and Road to the developing world. In speech after speech, top U.N. officials, including Secretary-General António Guterres, have sung its praises in terms that echo Chinese government talking points, portraying the Belt and Road Initiative as a vital pillar in a U.N.-sponsored plan to tackle poverty around the world by the year 2030.


The Chinese initiative, Guterres said in a speech before the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing in May 2017, holds “immense potential” and promises greater market access for “countries yearning to become more integrated with the global economy.”

The austerity-obsessed West has definitely abrogated its global leadership on poverty reduction, so I don’t blame the UN for casting around for a new patron. But I’m also not sure that Belt and Road, with all the concerns around its lopsided terms that give China significant leverage over its supposed partners, is really the way to go here. If the UN is building up goodwill with Beijing in order to help steer Belt and Road in a more beneficial direction, though, then that’s probably worth raising a few eyebrows.


Mark your calendars now, folks:

A very special moment for World Peace, hot damn.



Activist Edna Bonhomme says that Tunisia’s military, frequently credited with helping drive the country’s democratic transition, is actually hindering it:

The Tunisian military has been heralded in international media for stabilizing the country after the 2010 uprisings, leading some to argue that it is responsible for the transition to democracy. However, this logic sidelines the role played by the ordinary Tunisians who challenged the former dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and hides the sinister role played by the military. In reality, economic instability and austerity have led many Tunisians to continue protesting for better living conditions. Many protestors are disillusioned by the intimidation and suppression of the Tunisian military given the army crackdown on demonstrations.


The authoritarian role played by the military is apparent in the country. For instance, Human Rights Watch confirmed the military brought a case against Yassine Ayari, a Tunisian blogger (he had also just won a seat in parliamentary elections) — after he criticized the armed forces. Tunisia’s military funding has dramatically increased over the past eight years despite economic crisis and austerity in the country. Most recently, the Tunisian Ministry of Defense introduced a bill to enforce military conscription, which would increase the size of Tunisia’s armed forces.

Between European efforts to stem African migration and US counterterrorism cooperation, Tunisia’s military is only getting stronger and siphoning more resources away from other priorities.


The Pentagon on Thursday released a summary of its official report on the October ambush in Niger that left four US soldiers dead. Its conclusion? That the US soldiers who accompanied a Nigerien unit that day on a mission to capture an ISIS affiliate leader were outnumbered, unprepared, under-equipped, and did not receive timely air support. Part of the reason all of these things went wrong is that two US officers in Niger mischaracterized the nature of that day’s operation. But also, nobody did anything wrong. Only in the US military can that be considered a coherent finding.


An al-Shabab bombing in Wanlaweyn killed seven Somali soldiers on Thursday. This attack comes one day after another bombing in Wanlaweyn killed ten people. Meanwhile, a joint US-Somali raid on a village in Somalia’s Lower Shabelle region late Wednesday night ended with the capture of three alleged high-ranking al-Shabab commanders, but only after at least five farmers were killed in the fighting.


Three men attacked and murdered an imam on Thursday at a Shiʿa mosque in the South African town of Verulam. Their motive is unknown at this time. South Africa has a small Muslim population and there have been reports of sectarian tension within it, so this attack could have something to do with that.



One of the great tragedies in life is watching a once-elite athlete whose skills have begun to erode due to the natural effect of aging. Sadly, that tragedy is playing out right now in Russia:

Sadly, Putin’s age seems to be catching up with him. After scoring only eight goals in the 2016 game, and just seven last year, Putin managed a measly five goals in his team’s 12-7 win this year. Pitiful. Last year he gave an interview about the firing of James Comey while still in hockey gear, and this year he couldn’t even get to a half-dozen.

Time catches up to all of us, but I’d be lying if I said I’m not a little dejected to see Putin’s totally authentic performance in these totally real hockey games declining like this.

Putin in his prime, in 2014, when he was a sprightly 62


The Five Star Movement and the League are reportedly “close” to agreement on forming a governing coalition. They’ve at least made enough progress that Italian President Sergio Mattarella agreed on Thursday to once again extend their negotiating deadline, this time through Sunday. The Five Star-League pairing is probably the worst case scenario from the perspective of many stakeholders: financial markets, the European Union, non-racists. But a new vote would probably only strengthen both parties and leave Italy right back in the same place, so they might as well get it over with.


The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons last week amended statements it had made to the media about the Skripal poisoning in Britain just a teensy bit. The OPCW had initially told the press that 50 to 100 grams of nerve agent had been used in the attack, but, say, it turns out that the amount of nerve agent can actually be measured in milligrams, not grams, and the OPCW doesn’t really know how much was used. Well, at least they were only off by a factor of, um, 1000. At least. Anyhoo, this is all no big deal except inasmuch as the “50-100 grams” figure reinforced suspicions that Russia must have been directly involved in the attack, because only Russian agents could have access to that large an amount of novichok nerve agent. If substantially less novichok was used in the attack, then that doesn’t exactly exonerate Russia but it does open up significantly more room for doubt.



Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who was just sworn in as Costa Rica’s new president a couple of days ago, says that within six months he plans to have a plan developed to transition the country to a 100 percent renewable energy standard. Costa Rica already gets most of its electricity from hydro and other renewable sources, but it has considerable room for growth in solar power especially. Its big challenge in getting to 100 percent renewables will be in vehicles.


Another new poll is showing a slightly diminished lead for leftist frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador ahead of July’s presidential election. In this one, López Obrador actually saw his overall support increase by a point, from 28 percent to 29 percent, between March and April, but second-place contender Ricardo Anaya’s support grew by two points, from 22 percent to 24 percent, to cut into López Obrador’s edge.

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One thought on “World update: May 10 2018

  1. I know latin america isn’t specifically what you focus on, but can continue to do some reporting on Mexico, Id really like to see what happens with that election, great job and thank you

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