Asia/Africa update: July 30 2018


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Indo-Pacific Business Forum on Monday that the United States is prepared to shell out a whole $113 million for infrastructure projects across the Indo-Pacific region. If you’re looking for a simple explanation as to why China’s Belt and Road Initiative is so popular despite the fact that its deals are obviously loaded in China’s favor, it’s because Beijing is planning to spend at least $1 trillion on it when all is said and done. And Chinese infrastructure deals don’t come complete with new tariffs either.


Armenian authorities have arrested the secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Yuriy Khachaturov, over his role in violently suppressing protesters in 2008, when he was chief of staff of the Armenian military. This appears to be an internal Armenian matter, but since the CSTO is a Russian-dominated bloc and Armenia-Russia relations are tense right now, it’s a situation that bears some attention. There’s no evidence that the Russian government particularly favored Khachaturov, but obviously it remains to be seen how Moscow will react to whomever the Armenian government picks to replace him.


Four tourists–two US nationals, one Swiss national, and one Dutch national–were killed on Sunday when a driver plowed his car into them while they were riding bikes southeast of Dushanbe, in an attack that was later claimed by ISIS. Two people associated with the attack were reportedly killed by Tajik authorities and four others arrested.


A probable ISIS suicide bomber killed four people, including a prominent anti-ISIS tribal leader who was presumably the intended target, in an attack in Nangarhar province on Monday.

The Washington Post’s Dan Lamanthe reports that as the Afghan air force has increased its capabilities and taken on a bigger role in the conflict with the Taliban, the risks to Afghan civilians have also gone up:

Three American-made helicopters swooped over a religious gathering, taking aim at the field below. The Afghan pilots unleashed volleys of rockets and machine-gun fire, killing scores of people.

The April 2 airstrikes in Kunduz province’s Dasht-e Archi district targeted Taliban leaders, Afghan officials said. But the incident was messier than that. While some Taliban were there, so were children, an investigation by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan found in May. At least 36 people were killed and 71 were wounded, the investigators said. And at least 30 of the dead were children.

The incident is emblematic of a troubling issue as the U.S. military’s years-long effort to train the Afghan air force begins to make headway.

In the last three years, the force has expanded from barely flying to launching scores of strike missions most months, according to statistics released by the U.S.-led military coalition. However, as operations have increased, so have instances of civilian casualties documented by human rights groups.


Four Pakistani parties–the Pakistan Muslim League, the Pakistan People’s Party, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, and the Awami National Party–announced on Monday that they will jointly push back against what they’re calling a “rigged” election that seems to have brought former cricket star Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party to power. Whether or not this will have any practical effect is hard to gauge at this point. It’s anybody’s guess whether they can mobilize enough collective opposition to deny Khan a governing coalition and thus the chance to serve as prime minister, and indeed the four parties don’t even seem to be on the same page about whether or not they actually want to do so.

Assuming Khan does wind up as PM, his government could accelerate a trend that’s been visible in Pakistani foreign policy for several years now: a shift away from the Gulf Arab states and toward Iran. Islamabad isn’t switching sides in the Saudi-Iran rivalry so much as it seems to be trying to move out of the Saudi camp toward neutrality.


A preliminary government count of citizens in Assam state has left some four million residents off the list and scrambling to prove their citizenship. The project, ostensibly intended to get a handle on undocumented migrants from Bangladesh but seen as potentially a way to target Muslims, “aims to identify every resident who can demonstrate roots in the state before March 1971.” Eventually those who can’t demonstrate residence will be detained and deported.


The ruling Cambodian People’s Party says it won all 125 parliamentary seats in Sunday’s election, a definitely genuine and believable result of an election that was not at all a total sham. For some reason, almost 600,000 voters seem to have deliberately protested this beautiful exercise in democracy by spoiling their ballots. I guess some people just want to watch the world burn.


At least 10 people were killed early Tuesday morning at a military checkpoint in Basilan province by a bomb in a van that security forces had stopped for inspection. It’s unclear who was behind the attack but the ISIS-linked group Abu Sayyaf has traditionally been active in that province.


Although he’s criticized China, and especially the Belt and Road Initiative, in the past, and although he may pursue an International Monetary Fund stabilization loan that would require greater transparency around Belt and Road’s China Pakistan Economic Corridor project, Beijing is still trying to put a positive spin on Imran Khan’s likely rise to power in Pakistan:

Noting that China was the first country Mr. Khan mentioned in his first post-election speech, the Global Times gloated: “Despite a barrage of criticism he threw at Sharif’s handling of Chinese investments, Khan is not a sceptic of the projects themselves… Imran Khan minced no words when his exclusive interview was published in Guangming Daily two days before the elections. Khan asserted that the CPEC will receive wide support from all sectors of Pakistani society.

Imran Khan’s politico-economic views do not seem to be influenced by his Western education. He questions the practicality of capitalist economic policies. He is also a strong critic of US President Donald Trump, the US and US-led wars… Imran Khan’s plan is a clear pivot by Pakistan, away from the US orbit and further into the Chinese bloc… China has a friend in Imran Khan,” said a Global Times oped.


The Washington Post reported Monday evening that US intelligence agencies say North Korea is building new intercontinental ballistic missiles at its Sanumdong missile facility south of Pyongyang. This comes on the heels of reports that North Korea is still producing fissile material for nuclear bombs. While I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that these stories are leaking in order to discredit the idea of diplomacy with North Korea, that doesn’t mean they’re fabricated. As always, the most dangerous outcome here is that Donald Trump becomes impatient and/or convinced that he’s been had and re-escalates tensions with Pyongyang past where they were at their height earlier this year. Any negotiating process with North Korea, even a well-managed one (which this one has not) was inevitably going to take years to play out, and it’s not a huge surprise that Pyongyang is continuing some nuclear and missile activity in the meantime.


Regardless of how things are going between Pyongyang and the US, relations between the two Koreas still seem to be on the uptick. Generals from both countries met on Tuesday to discuss ways to continue easing tensions and improving the security situation on the peninsula.



Sudanese security forces on Monday found and freed five Egyptian soldiers who had been taken captive by an armed group in Libya. That might help improve relations between Cairo and Khartoum.


Libyan Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte visited the White House on Monday, where he and Donald Trump talked about organizing an international conference on stabilizing Libya. If any two people can solve the intractable problem of Libya, it’s definitely Captain Prion and the nondescript Italian lawyer who serves at the pleasure of his white supremacist interior minister.


Mali’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change is saying that its own vote count shows that Sunday’s presidential election will go to a runoff between its candidate, Soumaila Cisse, and incumbent Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta. No official results have yet been released, so this looks like an effort to set expectations and make it harder for the government to potentially manipulate the count–Keïta’s people, for what it’s worth, are saying that the early vote counting shows their man “substantially ahead.” Keïta was expected to win relatively handily, in large part due to low turnout, so a runoff would be a surprise outcome.

Al-Qaeda’s Nusrat al-Islam branch claimed responsibility for a mortar attack in the northern part of the country during the election. Reports say that of Mali’s 23,000 or so polling stations, 4632 had their work on Sunday impacted by violence, and 644 of them never opened at all due to the threat.


The US military says that its decision to start arming its drones in Niger is part of an overall effort to improve security for its forces in Africa. That means collecting more intelligence, deploying more armored vehicles, arming drones, and focusing more on training partner forces to handle missions–because that never has any negative consequences.


Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed ended his visit to Eritrea on Monday with an announcement that the two nations have agreed to normalize relations and a call for the United Nations to remove sanctions against Eritrea over its alleged support for al-Shabab. Djibouti wants those sanctions to remain in place because it has an unsettled border dispute with Eritrea, but overall the diplomatic realignment in the Horn of Africa is proceeding apace.


The United Nations Security Council is delaying the drawdown of its peacekeeping forces in Somalia until 2019 following a vote on Monday. The resolution also delayed the final withdrawal of those forces, which had been scheduled to pull out in 2020, until 2021. Clearly the UN doesn’t think Somalia is ready to take responsibility for its own national security just yet.


Amid all the other elections taking place this week, Comorans voted on Monday on a constitutional referendum that would fundamentally change the country’s executive office several ways that would just coincidentally benefit current President Azali Assoumani:

Under the current constitution, power rotates between the country’s three main islands every five years as a means of power balancing in the country, which ranks among the world’s poorest.

If the reform passes, this system would be replaced by a president who can serve a maximum of two five-year terms.

Assoumani would also gain the power to scrap other constitutional checks and balances, including the country’s three vice presidencies and a clause on secularism, which would be replaced by a statement confirming Islam as the “religion of the state”.

Assoumani has cracked down heavily on the opposition and turnout was reportedly low, which suggests that the referendum is likely to pass.


Zimbabweans also voted on Monday in that country’s general election. They’re now waiting for results, particularly in the closely contested presidential race between opposition leader Nelson Chamisa and incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa. The election itself seemed to go smoothly and there haven’t been any reports of overt shenanigans from international observers. Mnangagwa has promised a “free and fair” election in large part because he wants to unlock the flow of Western aid into Zimbabwe.

UPDATE: A short time after I posted this, Chamisa tweeted this:

Stay tuned…

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