World update: May 15 2018

Remember that tonight’s updates are the last I’ll be doing until next Tuesday. Ramadan Mubarak to anyone who is observing the fast and thanks for reading. See you next week.



The Taliban say they’ve captured Farah city, in western Afghanistan, after a daylong battle. Afghan authorities are promising to drive them out of the city in short order. The US says the city has not fallen and it has aircraft patrolling overhead to target Taliban fighters, but the Taliban may have waited to resume its offensive until nightfall as a way to minimize the effectiveness of that air support. The Taliban has hammered Farah province pretty heavily since its annual “spring offensive” began last month. The province is not heavily populated but it sits on major opium smuggling routes into Iran and thus has significant value to the Taliban, who depend on opium revenue. There’s no word on casualties but they’re likely to be significant.

UPDATE: The Taliban quit the city overnight and it’s been restored to Afghan control. The early count shows 30 people dead but that figure may rise.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party won the state election in Karnataka on Tuesday, though it will have to work with smaller parties to form a governing coalition. The victory helps the BJP counter the developing narrative that Modi’s economic policies are starting to wear thin, and expands the party’s reach into southern India.


New Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pledged before last week’s election that he would serve in a caretaker role until opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim could be pardoned for the sodomy charge (which his supporters say was politically motivated) that landed him in prison in 2015. On Tuesday he laid out his timetable for a transition. With Anwar likely to be pardoned on Wednesday, Mahathir says he expects to serve 1-2 years as PM before turning power over to Anwar. The two men, who aren’t particularly close and haven’t been since Mahathir sacked then-Deputy PM Anwar in 1998 and got him imprisoned on another sodomy charge, also possibly politically motivated, already seem to be at odds over the apportionment of cabinet offices among the parties that make up their Pakatan Harapan coalition. But it doesn’t appear as though Anwar is in any hurry to become PM. Of course, a lot can change in a year or two.


Donald Trump declared via Twitter on Sunday that he was personally ordering his Commerce Department to find a way to help keep China’s ZTE phone maker in business despite serious US penalties levied against the company over its violations of US sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Given Trump’s approach to Chinese trade issues as well as both Iran and North Korea, this seemed puzzling. And so people started trying to figure out what President Deals was after. Was Trump trying to butter Chinese President Xi Jinping up in advance of trade negotiations? Was he trying to keep Xi on side during a crucial period for North Korean diplomacy? Was he trying to bribe Xi to support new US sanctions against Iran? What could it be?

As it turns out, the answer could be that Xi bribed him:

A mere 72 hours after the Chinese government agreed to put a half-billion dollars into an Indonesian project that will personally enrich Donald Trump, the president ordered a bailout for a Chinese-government-owned cellphone maker.


“President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast,” Trump announced on Twitter Sunday morning. “Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”


Trump did not mention in that tweet or its follow-ups that on Thursday, the developer of a theme park resort outside of Jakarta had signed a deal to receive as much as $500 million in Chinese government loans, as well as another $500 million from Chinese banks, according to Agence France-Presse. Trump’s family business, the Trump Organization, has a deal to license the Trump name to the resort, which includes a golf course and hotels.

I mean it’s Donald Trump, so…yeah. This sounds about right.


Pyongyang just lobbed a (figurative) hand grenade into all that recent diplomatic goodwill it has been building up with the US and South Korea. North Korea announced on Tuesday that it was postponing talks with South Korean representatives that had been scheduled for Wednesday, over a joint US-South Korean military exercise called “Max Thunder.” It further warned that the Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit on June 12 could be imperiled. The exercise, it says, is a violation of the agreements that Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in reached when they met in Panmunjom last month.

But Kim has allegedly also said that he’s OK with US-South Korean military exercises. That was one of the big developments in his latest diplomatic outreach effort. So what gives? This is probably a last-minute power play on Kim’s part. Maybe he wants to shake things up before his meeting with Trump, or maybe he’s tired of Trump telling everybody that he forced Kim to come to the table with his manly tough manliness. Either way, it’s extremely unlikely that Kim would cancel the meeting with Trump, since a meeting with a US president has been a major North Korean foreign policy goal for decades.

EDITED: The North Koreans issued a statement on Wednesday again threatening to cancel the summit and citing…John Bolton’s rhetoric about Pyongyang giving up its nukes:

High-ranking officials of the White House and the Department of State including Bolton, White House national security adviser, are letting loose the assertions of so-called Libya mode of nuclear abandonment, “complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization,” “total decommissioning of nuclear weapons, missiles and biochemical weapons” etc. while talking about formula of “abandoning nuclear weapons first, compensating afterwards.”


This is not an expression of intention to address the issue through dialogue. It is essentially a manifestation of awfully sinister move to impose on our dignified state the destiny of Libya or Iraq which had been collapsed due to yielding the whole of their countries to big powers.


I cannot suppress indignation at such moves of the U.S., and harbor doubt about the U.S. sincerity for improved DPRK-U.S. relations through sound dialogue and negotiations.

The statement went on to note that the North Koreans”do not hide our feelings of repugnance towards” Bolton, which is wild because he seems like such a nice guy. I don’t know if this gets me membership in the tinfoil hat club or what, but it seems to me that there’s a fair chance that Bolton has been talking provocatively on purpose in an effort to torpedo the talks.



Not only in Khalifa Haftar still alive, he’s keeping up his fight to conquer Libya. Haftar’s Libyan National Army has begun an offensive to capture the coastal town of Derna, the last large population center in eastern Libya that remains under the control of Islamist forces (including, allegedly, groups aligned with both al-Qaeda and ISIS). Haftar’s forces haven’t attacked Derna yet, but they have surrounded and besieged it it’s likely that people are already struggling to find food and medical supplies.


Over 100 people have reportedly been kidnapped along the Birnin Gwari-Kaduna road in northern Nigeria since Friday. It’s unclear who’s responsible, but Kaduna state, where the road is located, seems to be a notoriously lawless place.



Russia finally opened its bridge to Crimea on Tuesday, with Vladimir Putin himself driving a BIG ASS TRUCK across the bridge and into the territory his government unlawfully annexed in 2014. The 12 mile long road and rail bridge is now the only direct land connection between Russia and Crimea and is the longest bridge in Europe.


The Polish government says it’s unlikely to make any more concessions to the European Union over its judiciary. The EU has threatened to impose penalties on Poland over laws that it says have threatened the independence of Poland’s courts unless Warsaw makes changes to those laws by the end of June. Poland has already begun to make a handful of reforms that were demanded by the European Commission, though the reform measure hasn’t yet passed the Polish Senate.


Negotiations between the Five Star Movement and the League on forming a governing coalition seem to be moving in the wrong direction. Where on Monday they seemed to be circling a deal save for picking a prime minister, on Tuesday League leaders slammed EU budget rules for making it impossible for the two parties to implement their main economic plans–a flat tax for the League, increased welfare payouts for Five Star, and overturning an austerity-driven pension reform plan for both. Five Star, which has softened its position on the EU in an effort to appear ready to lead, is apparently “far apart” from the League on how to approach Brussels.


More good Brexit news for Theresa May. First, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on Tuesday that both of her government’s proposals for Northern Ireland–leaving it in a customs “partnership” with the EU or swankifying the Irish border with some magic new unspecified high tech gizmos that will make customs checks super fast–are insufficient. Second, the Scottish parliament voted on Tuesday to deny consent for May’s EU withdrawal bill. That vote has no legal weight but it does set up a seriously uncomfortable scenario wherein the UK parliament passes the bill and London forces it on Scotland despite Scotland’s rejection.



One of the side effects of Donald Trump’s decision to violate the Iran nuclear deal is that European leaders, while they’re scrambling to try to salvage the agreement, are also wondering what the hell remains of the transatlantic alliance. Here, despite his boss Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to make himself Trump’s best international buddy, is France’s foreign minister commenting on Washington’s recent Middle Eastern moves:

“The situation in the Middle East is explosive, violence is doing the talking, war could loom,” Jean-Yves Le Drian told parliament on Tuesday, a day after the United States moved an embassy in Jerusalem and Israeli soldiers shot dead more than 50 Palestinian protesters on the Gaza border.


“The president of the republic has decided to take all necessary political initiatives” in response, Le Drian said, without providing specifics.


Britain’s minister of state for the Middle East expressed similar exasperation with Washington, saying the Trump administration needed a greater understanding of the root causes of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Not exactly a vote of confidence. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been saying similar things.

This is a problem, by the way, that’s going to get worse when the United States starts sanctioning European firms for doing business in Iran. And while Europe isn’t nearly strong enough to stand up to the US, the more Trump treats these folks like annoying subordinates instead of peers, the likelier it becomes that they go shopping for new friends.

EDITED: Oh wait, I almost forgot!

Kudos to all the Democrats who made this possible. Somewhere there’s a young girl waterboarding her little brother right now, and it’s heartening to know that she can dream about running the CIA one day.

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