Asia/Africa update: May 31 2018



An Afghan special forces operation in Helmand province early Thursday morning reportedly freed 103 people being held in two Taliban prisons there. The Afghan military says that four Taliban fighters were killed.

Meanwhile, the US military says that Taliban leaders are engaged in secret peace talks with Afghan officials and other parties to the conflict. The Taliban denied the claim. It’s possible that the US is saying this to create discord in the Taliban ranks, but it’s also possible that some Taliban leaders are engaged in peace talks with Kabul. The Taliban isn’t a completely cohesive organization, and certainly hasn’t been one since the death of Mullah Omar back in 2013. Some elements could be more amenable to talks with Kabul than others, though the official Taliban policy is that they’ll only negotiate with the US (official US policy is that they need to negotiate with the Afghan government).


Pakistani Shiʿa are disappearing at an alarming rate. Some 140 of them are believed to have vanished–or, rather, been swept up by the Pakistani government–over the past two years. Pakistani authorities apparently believe they’re connected to Liwa Zainebiyoun, a brigade of Pakistani Shiʿa organized and trained by Iran and sent to Syria to aid Bashar al-Assad. The Pakistani security establishment has a habit of disappearing men perceived as security risks, and while you can see why men who have fought in Syria with an Iranian-organized unit might be identified as security problems upon their return, many of these men seem to have no connection with Liwa Zainebiyoun at all. And even if they did, that wouldn’t rescind their basic right to due process.


The US Pacific Command is now the US Indo-Pacific Command. The US increasingly views India as a counterweight to China in Asia, making the name change both practical and a way to flatter New Delhi a little.

A stunner of a result in a handful of by elections held on Monday has left India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party short of an absolute majority in the lower house of India’s parliament with only 271 seats. BJP still controls parliament via its National Democratic Alliance coalition, but Monday’s results continue a run of bad fortune for BJP that suggests both that the public may be tiring of the party and that India’s various opposition parties are getting better at working with one another to counter BJP. That could make for an interesting general election next year, though Indian Prime Minister and BJP leader Narendra Modi still has a sky high approval rate so the party may do better in a general election when his leadership is really on the ballot.


James Dorsey says new/old Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad may be pursuing policies that would distance Malaysia from its traditional Gulf patrons, Saudi Arabia and the UAE:

A series of anti-corruption measures as well as statements by Mr. Mahathir and his defense minister, Mohamad (Mat) Sabu, since this month’s upset in elections that ousted Prime Minister Najib Razak from office, are sparking concern in both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.


Mr. Mahathir, who has cautioned in recent years against widespread anti-Shiite sectarianism in Malaysia, has questioned together with Mr. Sabu Malaysia’s counterterrorism cooperation with Saudi Arabia.


Mr. Mahathir has also reinvigorated anti-corruption investigations of Mr. Razak,  whom Qatari media have described as “Saudi-backed.”


Well, the June 12 Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit still appears to be on, so I guess that means it was an OK day in North Korea diplomacy. North Korean envoy Kim Yong-chol wrapped up his meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York with news that a delegation was heading from Pyongyang to Washington to deliver a letter to Trump. God only knows what’s in it, but probably a conciliatory response to Trump’s letter from last week canceling the summit. I mean, I guess it could be a photocopy of Kim’s ass or something, but then why go to all this trouble? That would be funny though. Trump took a sanguine, at least for him, approach to things, telling reporters that he doesn’t think a deal will get done on June 12, but that “it’ll get done at some point.” OK champ.

Pompeo reportedly told Kim Yong-chol that the US wants clarity on exactly what Pyongyang wants and what it’s prepared to do. The US wants full North Korean disarmament, which remains difficult to imagine, but Washington has likewise failed to clarify what it’s prepared to offer North Korea in return. Which is probably sound negotiating strategy, but it’s unclear why only the US gets to keep its cards close to its chest. One bit of low-hanging fruit that could be a decent trust-building measure would be negotiating a real end to the Korean War, though unless South Korean President Moon Jae-in gets an invitation to Singapore the chances of that happening on June 12 seem slim. The likeliest outcome on June 12 is probably a commitment to further contacts, which isn’t dramatic but would represent progress and is much better than, say, one or both parties storming off in a rage.

While this is all going on, Kim has been entertaining Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Pyongyang. The two men apparently bonded over their opposition to “US hegemonism,” as Kim put it, and Lavrov invited Kim to Moscow. Kim’s last high profile foreign contact, with Chinese President Xi Jinping, preceded Trump’s decision to cancel the summit. I guess we’ll see if this contact has any kind of effect on Trump’s thinking.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s visit to Russia seems to have ended mostly in failure. Abe was looking to make progress on a deal over the disputed Kuril Islands, an issue he wants to solve, but he apparently came up empty.



The situation in Derna is reportedly reaching critical levels:

Fighting in the Libyan city of Derna has escalated to unprecedented levels, with air raids and shelling of residential areas as well as heavy ground clashes, the United Nations humanitarian office said on Thursday.


There were severe water, food and medicine shortages, and electricity and water had been completely cut off for the city’s 125,000 residents, it said in a report.


The eastern city has been encircled since July 2017 by the Libyan National Army (LNA), whose commander Khalifa Haftar opposes the internationally recognized government based in the country’s west.


Haftar’s forces are trying to wrest the city from a coalition of local fighters and Islamists known as the Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC) or Derna Protection Forces (DPF).


The BBC reports that an epidemic of Tramadol addiction is sweeping through Nigeria and could be fueling Boko Haram’s fighters:

A former militant fighter is sitting in a soft, lilac coloured Hawaiian shirt.


The 21-year-old is in the custody of the Nigerian army after running away from Boko Haram in January.


For four years, he lived in a forest camp where there wasn’t enough food or water – but there was Tramadol.


“When you are going for a military operation you will be given it to take, otherwise if you take it you will be killed,” he says.


“They told us when you take it you will be less afraid – you will be strong and courageous.”


Russian has been cultivating a relationship with the CAR by sending weapons and trainers to work with President Faustin-Archange Touadéra’s military, and that seems to have escalated to the point where Touadéra is now employing Russian advisers and, allegedly, Russian mercenaries as well. It’s not clear what Moscow is after–mineral rights seems like a good bet–but at this point anything that might help stabilize the CAR is probably OK. It’s not like the UN and the West have been able to help in this regard.

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