Asia/Africa update: July 23 2018



Russian media has started portraying Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan as a “carbon copy” of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, which is obviously fighting words in Russia. Pashinyan has been trying to reassure Moscow that his accession as PM isn’t going to change the Russia-Armenia relationship, but he also went to the NATO summit two weeks ago and pitched closer ties between Armenia and the West, so that’s not exactly a consistent message. If nothing else, Moscow appears to be concerned that Pashinyan’s anti-corruption agenda could hurt Russian business interests in Armenia.


The Pakistani military has done its level best to rig the playing field against the Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz party and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party and in favor of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, but with the election on Wednesday it’s time to let the chips fall where they may. Polling suggests it will be a close election, and the military’s involvement may have created a situation in which there can’t actually be a real winner:

If Sharif’s PML-N overcomes all odds and still manages to win, the corruption cases and the ensuing legal battles will continue to impair its ability to govern. In that case, civil-military relations will also remain tense, with the potential for another showdown. On the other hand, if someone like Khan is put into office after an election that is notably manipulated, he will lack the credibility needed for effective governance. This may seem like a paradox: Why would Khan even need credibility if the military is really in charge? But that very credibility is critical to the military’s goal of keeping up the pretense that Pakistan is a constitutional democracy, not a dictatorship. If the puppet strings are too visible, then the puppeteer holds all responsibility for all outcomes. The establishment wants it both ways: power but no responsibility.

Meanwhile, none of the major parties seems prepared to address growing popular opposition to Pakistan’s involvement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative:

In the run-up to Pakistan’s general election on July 25, most political parties stand united in their belief that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) will transform Pakistan’s ailing economy. In May, Pakistan’s ambassador to China asserted that “regardless of any political change in Pakistan, our commitment towards the successful completion of CPEC will not change.”

But if political support at the national level appears unwavering, local opposition is growing over the lack of consultation and concerns regarding the inequitable distribution of the prospective benefits. In few places is this more noticeable than the southern Balochistan fishing town of Gwadar, the entry point of the corridor and a microcosm of the center-periphery tensions elsewhere that threaten CPEC’s implementation.


Speaking of Chinese largesse, Beijing just extended a 2 billion yuan (about $295 million) grant to Sri Lanka as a…gift, I guess, to Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena. Sri Lanka is a longtime Chinese ally and a key to its ability to project power in the Indian Ocean and keep a leg up on India.


Speaking of Belt and Road, China is increasingly incorporating national security concerns into the program, particularly with respect to the Uyghurs:

China appears to be shifting gears in its multi-billion dollar Belt and Road initiative. Long projected as driven by economics and the benefit of infrastructure linkages, China appears to be increasingly adding a security component to the initiative against the backdrop of President Xi Jinping positioning of his country as a superpower rather than a developing nation.

The emergence of a security component is not only highlighted by the establishment last year of China’s first foreign military base in Djibouti, but also in its stepped-up security cooperation with Afghanistan and other Central Asian nations that border on its north-western province of Xinjiang.

China’s security focus is driven by concerns about national and religious aspirations in Xinjiang of Uyghurs, an ethnic Turkic Muslim group that has long looked westward toward Central Asia and Turkey rather than eastward towards Beijing.


38 North says that satellite evidence shows North Korea is beginning to dismantle parts of its Sohae Satellite Launching Station, which would be a sign that it’s actually following up concretely on the vague agreements that Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump reached at their June 12 summit. Sohae is technically part of North Korea’s space program, but since the technologies for space launch and intercontinental ballistic missiles are virtually identical the work done there also furthered Pyongyang’s missile program. So far the site’s liquid missile test stand and its space launch vehicle processing facility appear to be getting the ax. The former is something Kim reportedly promised to Trump, while the latter is a bit of a surprise.

Meanwhile, General Vincent Brooks, the top US military commander in South Korea, says that the big challenge in dealing with North Korea remains a mutual lack of trust:

“Our challenge now candidly is to continue to make progress but to make that progress in an environment that is essentially void of trust, and without trust we’ll find it difficult to move forward,” said Brooks, the commander of US forces in Korea, who is also in charge of the United Nations command and the combined South Korea-US forces command.

“So building that trust while that pressure continues and while the efforts for diplomacy continue is the order of the day. In many ways the lack of trust is the enemy we now have to defeat,” he said.


South Korea’s Yonhap news agency says that Seoul is planning to reduce its military presence on its side of the demilitarized zone separating it from North Korea. This move stems from discussions between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in during their summit in April.



A suicide bomber killed seven people on Monday in an attack on a mosque in the town of Konduga in Borno state. Boko Haram was presumably responsible, and given the town’s proximity to Maiduguri it may have been Abubakar Shekau’s OG Boko Haram branch.

Alex Thurston looks at a new book produced by Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s ISIS-backed Boko Haram/ISIS-West Africa branch that heavily criticizes Shekau:

To me, from an intellectual standpoint, the main interest of the text is in what it says about Boko Haram’s early years; part one is an auto-history from the anti-Shekau perspective. In many ways, what appears here is not new, but it does lend weight to some of the claims made in other sources – see below. The text’s silences, or the places it contradicts other sources from/about Boko Haram, are also interesting.

The second part, the polemic against Shekau, is less interesting to me. Maybe this is merely a sign of boredom on my part with this whole topic, but it may also be a sign of Boko Haram’s overall intellectual/doctrinal stagnation. Even amid the pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State in 2015 (under Shekau), and the factional split in 2016 (between Shekau and Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi, who appears to be one of the “two sons” who authored this book), I had a sense that Boko Haram’s most energetic thinking was behind it. The differences between Shekau and al-Barnawi may be real enough, as spelled out from al-Barnawi’s perspective here (.pdf), but the core issues by now are very familiar and the arguments are somewhat repetitive.


New Eritrean conscripts are reportedly being told that their term of service will only last 18 months, a marked contrast from the, uh, unlimited terms that people have been under since the country went to war with Ethiopia in 1998. This gets back to the original terms of Eritrea’s mandatory national service program as instituted in 1995 and is presumably another outgrowth of the country’s thaw with Ethiopia.


Al-Shabab militants attacked a Somali military base outside of the southern port city of Kismayo early Monday morning. The group says it killed 27 Somali soldiers while the Somali government says that six of its soldiers were killed against 87 al-Shabab fighters.


Former DRC Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba is set to return home next week and kick off his presidential campaign. Bemba recently had his conviction at the International Criminal Court overturned, making him a free man and thus eligible to either challenge incumbent Joseph Kabila or run to succeed him if Kabila decides to obey the law and his word by staying off the ballot.

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