Asia/Africa update: December 4 2018



During his confirmation hearing for his appointment to head US Central Command on Tuesday, Marine Corps Lt. General Kenneth McKenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the casualty rate among Afghan security forces is “not going to be sustainable.” More than 28,000 Afghan forces have been killed since 2015, and the rate has climbed over 500/month in recent months, higher than it’s been since the US invaded in 2001. At least two police officers, including the district chief, were killed on Monday night in a Taliban attack on a checkpoint in Sari Pul province. In Kabul, meanwhile, police were engaged in a two day gun (and rocket) battle with guards working for Tamim Wardak, a local warlord, before finally arresting him on Tuesday, after Wardak refused to obey an order evicting him from the building in which he’s been illegally squatting.

For some reason, Afghans are “pessimistic about their country’s direction” heading into next year’s planned presidential election. It’s a real mystery. Amazingly, over 60 percent remain satisfied with democracy and nearly 60 percent approve of the job President Ashraf Ghani is doing.


The Pakistani government pledged its support for Afghan peace efforts after a meeting on Tuesday between Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and US Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. This visit came after Donald Trump sent a letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan offering to improve US-Pakistani relations in return for Pakistani help bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

Khan’s government is suddenly cracking down on the Islamist group Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, despite the importance of religious conservatives in Khan’s political base. Several of the group’s leaders have been rounded up over the past couple of weeks and charged with serious offenses including treason and terrorism. The reason for the crackdown may lie in TLP’s recent open criticism of Pakistani military leaders, which appears to have caused the all-powerful Pakistani deep state to turn on the group. However, while Khan has arrested some of its leaders, he’s shown no inclination to tackle the issue at the root of TLP’s existence–Pakistan’s blasphemy laws:

On an ideological level, however, the government’s efforts to contain the group remain largely ineffective. Last month, Prime Minister Imran Khan convened a two-day conference on the finality of Prophet Muhammad, assuring the religious clergy of his commitment to safeguarding Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. In addition, there has been little resolve on the government’s part to amend these laws, which TLP has repeatedly pointed to in an attempt to legitimize violence against minorities. Thus, the absence of legislative action extends a lifeline to the party’s ideology, and discourages concrete measures to cut TLP by its roots.


Suspected Papuan separatists have killed at least 24 and perhaps as many as 31 construction workers in the province since Sunday. Firm details on the violence have been hard to obtain as the region where the attacks took place is relatively remote and authorities have still not reached it to assess the situation. It is possible that the perpetrators were not separatists but rather local gangs.


The Islamic world has had little to say about China’s brutal treatment of its Muslim Uyghur minority, and the reasons why will not shock you in the least:

The Muslim world has spoken out on issues including the Danish cartoons, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Why haven’t the 49 Muslim-majority countries been equally vocal on the situation in Xinjiang? Part of the reason may be that the region and its people are on the periphery of the global Muslim community, isolated and far removed from most Muslims’ awareness. As Suleiman put it, “They’re ironically being tortured for being too Muslim by China while the Muslim world seems to not see them as Muslim enough to fight for.”

However, China’s enormous economic influence across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia surely plays a critical role in Muslim leaders’ calculations. In what has been termed a Marshall Plan for the Arab world, Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged $20 billion in loans to Arab countries. Beijing has also committed to investing $60 billion in Africa and promised to cancel debt repayments for poorer African countries. It is no wonder, then, that many Muslim-majority countries regularly vote with China on UN resolutions rather than challenging their benefactor over its treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.

Kazakhstan, home to the second largest Uyghur population after China, seems to have its hands tied for similar reasons: Investment in joint industrial projects by the two countries surpasses $27 billion.

Moreover, the governments of many Muslim-majority countries may fear that challenging China on its human rights abuses will cast a spotlight on their own violations. In an interview with Foreign Policy, Princeton University’s Dawn Murphy said, “I do think that the elite of these various countries are weighing their interests, and they are making a decision that continuing to have positive relations with China is more important than bringing up these human rights issues.”


The already difficult enough US-North Korean diplomatic effort is reportedly being exacerbated by a debate within the South Korean government over how to balance its approach toward Pyongyang with its alliance with the US:

Some corners of the administration argue Seoul can’t afford to be seen veering from the U.S.-led sanctions and pressure campaign until Pyongyang gives up its nuclear weapons program, while others feel closer inter-Korean ties can help expedite the stalled diplomatic process, several officials close to the situation say.

“If the internal rift leads to moving too quickly with the North without sufficient U.S. consultations, it could pose a setback to not only the nuclear talks but also the alliance and inter-Korean relations,” said Shin Beom-chul, a senior fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.



A majority of Sudanese legislators have thrown their support behind a push to amend the country’s constitution to allow Omar al-Bashir to run for a third term in office in 2020. Bashir is technically term-limited, but that’s probably a mere formality for him.


Several Tuareg civilians in southwestern Libya on Tuesday protested last week’s US airstrike in the region that US Africa Command says killed 11 members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. They’re claiming that the strike targeted civilians, while the US military insists there were no civilians in the area.

The Wall Street Journal documents Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar’s journey from Gaddafi stalwart to potential Gaddafi replacement:

A former general in Gadhafi’s army, Khalifa Haftar spent two decades in exile in northern Virginia after the failed 1980s assault. He returned home during the 2011 revolution against Gadhafi and took command of some rebel forces that helped oust the dictator, plunging the country into years of political chaos.

After attempting to then overthrow Libya’s post-revolutionary government in 2014, the commander launched a unilateral military campaign that triggered years of intense fighting with rival militias. The septuagenarian now controls Libya’s eastern half, lionized by those who support his vanquishing of Islamist insurgents and reviled by those who have documented the use of torture, extrajudicial killing and disappearances by his forces.

As Mr. Haftar expands his sway in Libya, he enjoys a deepening embrace from European states, at times overshadowing the United Nations-backed government in the capital Tripoli that he opposes. Some Western officials now regard Mr. Haftar as indispensable to any future Libyan peace pact, even after he rejected a previous U.N.-brokered peace deal in 2015 and has appeared on video ordering his men to take no prisoners in battle.


In the wake of last month’s major ISIS-West Africa attacks against Nigerian military positions in northeastern Nigeria, Alex Thurston says that the lines between that group and Boko Haram Classic, Abubakar Shekau’s group from which ISIS-WA broke off back in 2016, may be blurring:

There are now a lot of moving parts to the equation in northern Borno State.

First, there is the question of what ISWA wants – or even what it is – in the wake of the reported death of Mamman Nur, a longtime senior Boko Haram operative and by some accounts the power behind the throne in ISWA since it broke with Abubakar Shekau’s faction of Boko Haram circa August 2016.

The emerging conventional wisdom (well articulated here, and quite possibly correct) is that ISWA is growing more militarily aggressive and more ideologically hardline, and that Nur’s death was both a result of and a further catalyst for that trend. It is worth noting, however, that some informed observers (notably the Nigerian Colonel Timothy Antigha, whose analysis of Nur’s death I discussed here) present things in a somewhat different light, highlighting ideological changes within Boko Haram but seeming to say that the lines between Shekau’s faction and ISWA are less clear that many think, and that Shekau-like voices are ascendant in ISWA.


A prominent Somali journalist and press activist named Ismail Sheikh Khalif was injured in a car bombing in Mogadishu on Tuesday. No group has taken responsibility for the attack.

The US, meanwhile, has a “permanent diplomatic presence” in Somali for the first time since 1991. Washington restored its Somali mission in 2013 but had been running it out of Kenya until now.


With the DRC’s presidential election theoretically less than three weeks away, new fighting has broken out between the Congolese military and rebels in the country’s South Kivu province. At least 14 rebels and four soldiers have been killed in the clashes. There is a not-insignificant possibility that Congolese President Joseph Kabila might try to trigger some kind of large-scale violence that would then “force” him to delay the election that’s supposed to happen on December 23, since that would buy him some extra time in office. Kabila is about to wrap up year seven of what was supposed to be his final five year term in office. That term technically ended in 2016 but Kabila has just refused to hold an election. He seems committed to holding one this month, but it’s a “believe it when you see it” thing at this point.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.