World update: December 12 2018



Under heavy pressure from the Taliban, Afghan forces have abandoned the Shebkoh district in Farah province and retreated to Farah city. The Taliban has focused a good deal of effort on Farah province this year, both because it’s remote from Kabul and therefore hard for the Afghans to defend, and because it’s home to most of the country’s major smuggling routes into Iran.

The New York Times has a report from another district–Shindand, in Herat province–whose situation parallels Shebkoh’s, though the government hasn’t pulled out of it, yet. The people there are trying to live normal lives while in a near-constant state of hyper-vigilance for the violence that could break out at any time.

A new survey finds the Afghan people divided on prospects for peace with the Taliban and portends difficulties ahead for any postwar reconciliation period:

The findings from latest Survey of the Afghan People by the Asia Foundation indicates that some 41.9 percent of Afghans think peace with the Taliban is impossible. Looking at the survey data, it shows that the nation’s view is divided on peace efforts. By ethnicity, the differences are significant: some 63.7 percent of Pashtuns reported that peace is possible compared to just 50.8 percent of Tajiks, 42.5 percent of Hazaras, and only 38.8 percent of Uzbeks (the Taliban are heavily dominated by Pashtuns). The views of men and women also differs, as males (60.5 percent) are significantly more likely to believe that peace with the Taliban is possible compared to women (46.5 percent). Significant differences emerge by regions as well, ranging from 73.6 percent of respondents in the east who opine that peace is possible to only 32.9 percent of respondents in the central/Hazarajat region.

In addition, the survey findings show that many Afghans remain fearful of the Taliban. Some 93.6 percent of Afghans said they feel fear when encountering the group, making the Taliban the most-feared group after the Islamic State (94.9 percent). Meanwhile, only 38.6 percent of Afghans reported fear when encountering the Afghan National Army. This hints that integrating the Taliban will be a difficult process.


The US State Department has downgraded Pakistan from a watch list to a list of “countries of particular concern” with respect to protecting religious freedoms. That move opens Pakistan up to US sanctions, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has waived them, citing national security. The Pakistani government denounced the downgrade, but its controversial blasphemy law alone is reason for concern about its religious freedoms, to say nothing of the abuse to which Ahmadis, Christians, and other Pakistani religious minorities are frequently subjected.


Former Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe won a parliamentary confidence vote on Wednesday, even though he’s, you know, not PM anymore. The vote was intended as a thumb in the eye of President Maithripala Sirisena and a passive aggressive demand that Sirisena reappoint Wickremesinghe to the post. The ostensible PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa, has lost two confidence votes and at least one (temporary) court ruling over the validity of his appointment.


The Chinese government offered a hint on Wednesday as to why it’s detained International Crisis Group researcher Michael Kovrig. Without mentioning Kovrig by name, China’s foreign ministry said that the ICG “is not registered in China,” which presumably would make its activities there illegal. The Canadian government is now saying that China may have detained a second Canadian citizen, though they have not named that person as far as I can tell (UPDATE: it’s a businessman named Michael Spavor). If true, then it dispels any notion that Kovrig’s arrest was unconnected to Canada’s decision to arrest Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou last week. China is definitely retaliating in kind.



At Foreign Policy in Focus, Edward Price describes how the United States has helped fuel the South Sudanese civil war by ensuring the continued flow of arms into the country:

Once South Sudan gained its independence, the Obama administration oversaw a major effort to create a formal South Sudanese military. Before the outbreak of the civil war, the U.S. government had been providing the South Sudanese government with $40-60 million in military assistance every year.

Although the Obama administration began withholding military assistance during the civil war, it remained centrally involved in the country’s affairs, siding with President Kiir in the war. Perhaps most significant, the Obama administration spent years opposing calls for an arms embargo, making it easier for the Ugandan government to channel weapons to the Kiir regime.

“Despite what seemed like strong international consensus favoring an embargo, for several years the United States withheld support, and an embargo was not put on the UN Security Council agenda,” former Obama administration official Jon Temin acknowledged in a recent report.



Some 2000 people protested in Budapest Wednesday evening over a new law permitting employers to demand 400 hours of overtime from their employees every year. Hungarian labor law is obviously not an area of focus for this blog, but I highlight this story to point out that, when you get right down to it, right wing populist parties are every bit as committed to kiss up, kick down economics as the center right. When working class voters turn to the far right and its cheap rhetoric because they’re tired of being exploited, they’re not actually going to find any relief, just an outlet for their bigotries.

In addition to screwing over workers, Viktor Orbán’s government on Wednesday also tightened its control over the Hungarian judiciary. Parliament approved the creation of a “public administration” court that is under the government’s direct control. Cases dealing with corruption, election violations, and other government matters will now go before the new court rather than Hungary’s Supreme Court–and, therefore, they’ll be under Orbán’s direct purview. The measure is likely to get Orbán into hotter water with the European Union, but he ought to be used to that by now.


French authorities have declared Tuesday’s shooting at the Strasbourg Christmas market an act of terrorism. At least two people were killed in the attack, though that number has regularly fluctuated between two and four so take it with a grain of salt. The alleged shooter, who was known to French authorities, is reportedly still at large and police are working to find him. There has still, as far as I can tell, been no claim of responsibility.

Meanwhile, in his effort to quell the “yellow vest” protests brought on by his unceasing austerity and obvious disdain for anyone without a hefty stock portfolio, French President Emmanuel Macron is going to have to bust through his own deficit target in next year’s budget in order to distribute some benefits to workers and the poor. It’s going to be an interesting test case for the European Union, which is obsessed with deficits and currently duking it out with the Italian government over its plans to exceed the EU’s tight deficit requirements next year. Macron is pretty much last man standing as far as centrist defenders of the EU are concerned, and basically plans to throw himself on the mercy of Europe to plead for special dispensation. We’ll have to see if he gets it, and if so how Brussels justifies giving it to him but not to Rome.


Fear not–Theresa May is still prime minister of the UK and you can still make fun of her as you like. May faced down an internal revolt within her Conservative Party on Wednesday, winning a leadership challenge vote 200-117. There are a couple of ways of looking at this. One is that May held on against an intra-party challenge with dozens of votes to spare. Another is that she lost 117 votes in her own fucking party, which when you leave out the votes she owns (her extended cabinet), is a shockingly high percentage of what’s left. May’s leadership now cannot be challenged for another year…from within her own party. And she had to promise to quit before the next UK election (no later than 2022) to get that. The Labour Party could still push for a no confidence vote in the full parliament, though it’s not prepared to do so yet.

The vote means nothing for May’s Brexit plan, which is looks maybe more likely than ever to be going down to defeat whenever she finally permits a vote on it (she says no later than January 21). Nobody in the EU has shown any inclination of giving May additional concessions to help her sell the deal, so it’s not clear what’s supposed to change over the next month to improve her position in parliament.



Russia says its strategic bombers will be leaving Venezuela on Friday. That’s not a moment too soon for Washington, which got to watch them fly trollishly over the Caribbean on Wednesday on a “training mission.”

Meanwhile, Nicolás Maduro told reporters on Wednesday that John Bolton is leading the planning within the Trump administration for an invasion of Venezuela to unseat him. And, while he doesn’t have any evidence for this assertion, can you really entirely discount it? I can’t.


Finally, Cato’s Emma Ashford and A. Trevor Thrall argue that just about the only thing on which everybody in DC seems to agree these days is that we should be gearing up to confront China:

Curious to understand where the right and left are heading on foreign policy, we’ve held a variety of events at the Cato Institute to try and understand this question: a roundtable building on Patrick Porter’s work on the “liberal international order,” events with notable critics of the existing foreign policy consensus, such as Harvard’s Stephen Walt, meetings to explore potential areas of common ground between libertarians and progressives, and interviews with experts for Power Problems, our biweekly podcast.

The results highlight not only the internal debate inside the Republican Party, but also the growing demand inside the Democratic Party for a coherent alternative both to Trump and to the existing foreign policy consensus that he helped discredit. We also found evidence of an unexpected and potentially significant turn in U.S. foreign policy: a new bipartisan consensus on the need to confront and contain China.

So that should be exciting.


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