Asia/Africa update: July 16 2018



Azerbaijani authorities’ response to the recent attempted murder of Ganja mayor Elmar Veliyev is bordering on the totally incoherent:

Although the details of the case remain murky, the authorities were quick to blame “Islamic extremists” for the crime. They pointed to Yunis Safarov as a main suspect. Safarov is a Russian citizen of Azerbaijani origin who allegedly lived in Qom, a spiritual center of Iranian Shiism. The authorities claimed that Safarov “fought in Syria for the same goal he pursued in Azerbaijan—an establishment of sharia-based state.”

This line is full of glaring inconsistencies. The Qom connection strongly suggests that Safarov is a Shiite. Yet those who fight in Syria for the “sharia-based” state are Salafis, the bitter enemies of the Shiites. The Shiites, on the contrary, have rallied around the secular regime of Bashar al-Assad. The officials’ earlier insistence that the assassination attempt was merely a criminal act devoid of any political or religious motivation only fueled the deep cynicism many Azerbaijanis felt about the official version. Some even believe it was a false flag operation to justify a subsequent repression of any opposition to President Ilham Aliyev’s rule.

The Azerbaijanis may be trying to implicate Iran in this attack by association. Azerbaijan is being courted by Gulf Arab states hostile to Iran and by the United States, but joining up with an anti-Iran alliance would be risky for Baku both economically and from a security perspective.


A group of Taliban fighters attacked a police checkpoint in Nangarhar province late Sunday night, killing seven police officers. Five Taliban fighters were killed in the attack. Meanwhile, an Afghan airstrike also on Sunday night also in Nangarhar province reportedly killed at least 20 Taliban fighters. And there are reports of clashes between Taliban and ISIS fighters in Jawzjan province for the past week, which have left 70 ISIS fighters and 54 Taliban fighters dead. On Monday, Afghan police shot and killed a suspected suicide bomber in Kabul.


Philippine police have reportedly arrested Nafisa Pundog, the wife of ISIS-aligned militant leader Abu Dar, in General Santos city. Abu Dar became the leader of the Maute Group after its previous leaders were all killed during last year’s months-long battle in Marawi.


Assuming that nuclear talks actually go somewhere, 38 North offers some ideas for building economic engagement with North Korea:

Sanctions relief will be an essential carrot for Pyongyang, but it won’t be enough for Kim to realize any transformative economic growth. North Korean policymakers have long been keen to diversify their trading partners beyond China, which accounts for about 90 percent of the country’s foreign trade flows. China’s tightened enforcement of sanctions against North Korea since around September 2017 has likely driven home this point further to North Korea’s leadership. The removal of economic sanctions alone won’t do much to change the structure of North Korea’s external economic relations. As an additional incentive in the diplomatic process, the international community, at the appropriate time, should consider sponsoring North Korea for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO). Accession into the global trading system would be a lengthy process, requiring North Korea to undertake a wide range of reforms in both the micro- and macroeconomic realms, such as systemic changes to allow for freer competition among domestic economic actors. None of this is to say that North Korea should be handed a laundry list of market reforms to conform to any other country’s economic model, a proposition the regime would likely reject, as it has stated publicly. Rather, armed with the right incentives, the international community would support a process of systemic changes in economic management that North Korea has in many ways already begun itself.


New polling finds that South Koreans are looking more favorably on both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un. Which isn’t that surprising. If two guys kept threatening to burn my house down to get at one another and then they stopped doing that, I’d probably feel a little better about both of them too. But these findings go beyond that:

The Asan Institute of Policy Studies’ Public Opinion Studies Program conducted the polling and analyzed the data in a report titled, “U.S.-North Korea Summit and South Koreans’ Perceptions of Neighboring Countries.” The data shows Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump’s favorability ratings have notably increased since the Singapore Summit meeting. In the report, Kim’s likability rating was measured at 4.06 points (on a scale of 0 to 10), up from 0.88 last November and 2.02 points this March. Trump, meanwhile, had the highest individual rating, at 5.16 points, up from 3.76 in March. Both Trump and Kim were viewed more favorably than either Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2.04) or Chinese President Xi Jinping (3.89).

The numbers for the likability of individual leaders also tracked with the perception of their specific countries. The United States stood atop at 5.97 points, North Korea at 4.71, whereas China and Japan’s were at 4.16 and 3.55 points, respectively. Interestingly, the report noted that this was the first time since the neighboring country survey began in 2010 that North Korea’s likability exceeded 4 points, the first time it surpassed China’s likability, and the first time in four years that it surpassed Japan’s. Moreover, even among more conservative South Koreans, who are known for a hard often uncompromising line toward Pyongyang, North Korea stood at 4.32 points.

Obviously the South Koreans are still riding a post-Singapore summit high, but these numbers will change in a hurry if there’s no further progress in US-North Korea talks.


I’ve got a new Ibn Battuta post up for Patreon subscribers over at The Rihlah. It took me a while but our man is finally making his way across North African toward Egypt. Today’s post deals with the Zayyanid dynasty, which ruled much of modern Algeria from the 13th century through the middle of the 16th with a few interruptions here and there.


Libyan authorities say they discovered a shipping container packed with about 100 would-be migrants in the city of Zuwara. Eight people, six of them children, suffocated to death inside before they could be rescued.


Gunmen attacked a village along the Niger border on Sunday, killing at least 14 villagers. A local Tuareg militia identified the attackers as a “criminal gang” targeting Tuareg civilians, which might rule out an Islamist connection. Tuareg-Fulani violence is a frequent occurrence in that region, whether the jihadi element is present or not.


Over 20 Nigerian soldiers are missing following a clash with Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria on Saturday. The soldiers reportedly fended off a Boko Haram attack in the Bama district of Borno province on Saturday, but the whereabouts of 22 or 23 of them are now unknown.


Eritrea opened an embassy in Ethiopia on Monday, the latest step in the historic thaw between those two nations. Or, rather, it reopened its old embassy in Ethiopia, complete with a bunch of stuff that hadn’t been touched since the embassy was closed in 1998. This apparently led to some fascinating photos that the BBC has collected here.

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