Asia/Africa update: October 12 2018



US Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad did, as some had speculated, meet with Taliban representatives during his stop in Qatar on Friday. Nobody is saying what they talked about but presumably it was more talking about holding talks. Khalilzad is headed back to Kabul to brief the Afghan government before he returns to the US.

The Washington Post recounts Russia’s efforts to reassert itself as a power player in Afghanistan–or at least Washington’s version of that story:

Russia has been cultivating ties with the Taliban to increase its influence in Afghanistan three decades after Moscow’s humiliating defeat there helped hasten the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Russian engagement with the militants drew attention, and some flak, when the Kremlin invited Taliban representatives to Moscow for a meeting in September. That invitation was rescinded — at least temporarily — after the Afghan government objected, saying it must take the lead in any talks.

But the diplomatic kerfuffle laid bare the Kremlin’s effort to reassert itself in Afghanistan, an initiative that has included discreet contacts with Taliban leaders and a military buildup along the country’s northern edge.

Russian relations with the Taliban are first and foremost about trying to maintain stability in Central Asia and keep ISIS from expanding there, and mostly they reflect the failure of the US and the Afghan government it installed to take cohesive control of the country. There are ancillary benefits like making life harder for the US, but mainly it’s about countering ISIS and ensuring that, should the Taliban wind up in power, Moscow can maintain stable relations with Kabul.


Higher oil prices may be good news for a number of countries–and the environment–but they’re not good news for Pakistan. In fact they’re part of the reason Imran Khan has decided to go hat in hand to the International Monetary Fund for a bailout, even though IMF austerity is going to prevent Khan from establishing the kind of welfare state he promised voters and is probably going to do a number on his job creation promises as well. Khan in fact promised during the campaign not to “beg” the IMF for help, but here we are anyway. He’s apparently planning to try to “expand” the Pakistani tax base as a way to avoid having to make really painful spending cuts.


In a development that should definitely make you feel more, and not less, secure, Reuters says the “Five Eyes” nations have been increasing their intelligence cooperation with each other and with “other like-minded countries” in recent months to counter both China and Russia:

The increased cooperation by the Five Eyes alliance – grouping Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States – with countries such as Germany and Japan is a sign of a broadening international front against Chinese influence operations and investments.

Some of the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks, said the enhanced cooperation amounted to an informal expansion of the Five Eyes group on the specific issue of foreign interference.

While China has been the main focus, discussions have also touched on Russia, several said.

There’s totally no way this could end up leading in a bad direction, so just chill out and let our leaders take care of us. That’s always been my motto and it hasn’t failed me yet.

Speaking of failing, Donald Trump’s trade war with China has resulted in China amassing its highest ever monthly trade surplus with the United States, $34.13 billion in September. Analysts seem to think that these numbers don’t really reflect the impact of US tariffs, which have only just started to kick in. And Trump’s consternation about trade deficits is dumb anyway. But he does make a big deal out of trade deficits and this is therefore kind of funny, and I want to enjoy it if you don’t mind.


The North Korean government definitely intends to rid itself of all nuclear weapons. According to South Korean President Moon Jae-in. I’m just saying, it would probably be good to hear something like this from the North Koreans themselves. Moon is pushing for the US to open talks on formally ending the Korean War as a way to reward North Korea’s progress on denuclearization and to build trust for further steps. It’s a good idea, but the US seems dead set against it.

And yet, Donald Trump did kind of promise to end the war when he met with Kim Jong-un back in June. Not only that, but the statement that came out at the end of their summit actually put ending the war ahead of denuclearization in its list of bullet points, suggesting (at least, apparently, to the North Koreans) that a peace treaty would happen first and denuclearization would come afterward. The US has long viewed a treaty as part of the final package of agreements that would come after the North Koreans had disarmed, but the North Koreans see ending the war as a matter of national security. If they are ever going to give up their nukes, it almost has to come after a treaty.



British media is apparently reporting that the Russians have sent “dozens” of special forces soldiers and intelligence operatives to Libya in recent days to assist eastern warlord Khalifa Haftar and his so-called Libyan National Army. This is in addition to a number of Wagner Group mercenaries who have been in Libya and are operating at least two fairly new Russian military bases, one in Tobruk and one in Benghazi, as well as Russian-made anti-aircraft and anti-ship defense systems. Moscow is denying the reports, but they have had a relationship with Haftar for some time now and, with Syria kind of winding down a bit, they could conceivably have decided to boost their support for the former general in order to help bring Libya’s civil war to an end on terms that are favorable to Russia.


Alex Thurston has written a new paper on the utility of cutting deals with jihadist groups as illustrated in West Africa. Here’s the abstract:

Military operations have not prevented the spread of jihadist insurgency in the Sahel, particularly in Mali. While some Sahelian elites favour dialogue with jihadists, hoping to negotiate political settlements that reduce or end violence, past political settlements have sometimes set the stage for future conflict. This paper analyses past settlements with jihadists in Algeria and the Sahel, distinguishing between “stabilising settlements” that remove fighters from the battlefield versus “delaying settlements” that allow jihadists to accumulate resources and recruits. Even stabilising settlements carry downsides, particularly when they push jihadists into neighbouring states. The paper also analyses recent efforts in Mali to conduct dialogue with two leading jihadists, Iyad ag Ghali and Amadou Kouffa. The paper assesses that these efforts have faltered due to logistical problems and the state’s ambivalence, rather than due to ideological factors. Although renewed dialogue is more likely to fail than succeed, the paper recommends making further attempts.

Alex has been writing about this issue of late, and there was a piece in Foreign Policy a couple of weeks ago arguing for peace talks with ISIS and al-Qaeda. The idea seems a little ridiculous on first glance, even to me, but as Alex emphasizes there’s a difference between deals with jihadi groups that address grievances and potentially take fighters and resources away from them and deals that strengthen them for little or no gain or just push the problem on to somebody else. There’s no end to jihadi violence through purely military means, so talking–if it’s done smartly–makes sense.


UNICEF reported on Friday that a vigilante anti-Boko Haram militia called the Civilian Joint Task Force has released 833 child soldiers from their service. The group pledged to end child recruitment last September. This was its first release of child fighters but the group still has hundreds more child soldiers to free before it’s done.


The Ethiopian-Eritrean peace deal and the sudden opening of Eritrea’s borders has created something of a refugee crisis:

Since September 11th at least 15,000 Eritreans have crossed into Ethiopia, according to local authorities. Many have come to trade and to visit the friends and family from whom they were separated in 1998, when war broke out. On arriving in Ethiopia, Abraham was reunited with a half-sister he had not seen in more than 20 years. The border had been almost impermeable since Ethiopia’s failure to implement a UN peace deal signed in 2000.

Most dramatic, though, has been the swell of refugees. The number registering each day has multiplied sevenfold, according to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Between 12 September and 2 October nearly 10,000 arrived seeking asylum, mostly women and children hoping to reunite with family members who left illegally before the border opened.

The sudden arrival of so many refugees is straining Ethiopian refugee camps, which are now home to about 175,000 people. Some of the new arrivals say they plan to return to Eritrea soon but many more seem to have no interest in going back and are in fact worried that Eritrean authorities might come for them at some point.


Cameroonian political scientist Landry Signé says that Paul Biya is likely to win Cameroon’s presidential election when the votes are counted, and would likely have won even without the irregularities that his challengers have flagged:

K.Y.D.: But there have been reports of election irregularities in the elections, right?

L.S.: Yes, observers noted there was unbalanced media coverage of candidates (Biya received three times more coverage than any other presidential candidate), issues with voters having the resources they need to cast their votes, and there were allegations of interference with the electoral process on Election Day. But this is not surprising: Cameroon has a long history of imperfect elections, and it is difficult to change old habits.

To be sure, I’m not saying the instigators of irregularities should get a pass, but the extent of incidents is not significant enough to affect the final outcome. Even without these irregularities, Biya would still win.

K.Y.D.: Why do you think Biya would still win?

L.S.: This is largely explained by a very good but divided opposition. With so many good candidates this year, they have managed to divide the popular vote.

Interestingly, Signé seems to think that the number of capable opposition candidates, and a growing awareness about the importance of electoral politics, means Cameroon is probably on the cusp of real democratization. Just not right now.

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