Asia/Africa update: January 24 2019



The Georgian and Russian governments may be about to reach an agreement on transit through the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Those two regions were of course the object of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and transit through them has been gummed up ever since. The deal would put a Swiss company in charge of handling customs checks in both regions, which would get around the fact that Georgia still considers them both part of Georgia while Russia does not.


An Afghan official in Helmand province says that an airstrike there on Wednesday killed 16 civilians. The NATO force in Afghanistan says it’s investigating the claim.

Talks in Doha between US and Taliban negotiators extended into a fourth day on Thursday, and the two sides are reportedly making substantial progress on a deal that would see the US withdraw from Afghanistan in return for a Taliban pledge not to host jihadi extremist groups like al-Qaeda again. The Afghan government is insisting that any deal the US and Taliban reach has to be approved in Kabul, though the Taliban continue to reject the Afghan government’s legitimacy wholesale. And really, if these are the contours of the deal the US is negotiating, whatever Kabul says won’t matter anyway because the Taliban will be back in control of the country in pretty short order. The fact that we’re almost 18 years into this war and the US is apparently ready to settle for an agreement it could’ve gotten out of the Taliban after a month or less of airstrikes back in 2001 will, I’m sure, be lost on most people in Washington.


India must hold a parliamentary election sometime this April or May, and polling indicates that the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in for a bit of a setback. Modi’s coalition is expected to remain the largest bloc in parliament, but there’s a decent chance that it will fail to secure a majority (this poll has him coming up 39 seats short). In particular, Modi’s coalition appears to be floundering in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, where it’s expected to drop to 25 of the province’s 80 seats, down from the 73 seats it currently has. Modi will presumably try to bring a couple of smaller parties into his coalition to hang on to power, but there’s a good deal of unity among the Indian opposition these days so he may have a tough time getting to a majority.


Malaysia’s ruling families got together on Thursday and elected a new king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah of Pahang state. He’ll be crowned for a five year term beginning on January 31. The election was necessary after the surprise abdication of Sultan Muhammad V earlier this month.


The US sailed two warships through the Taiwan Strait on Thursday in its first “freedom of navigation” operation there this year.



Another day, another set of large protests calling for the ouster of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The demonstrations in Khartoum, Omdurman, Port Sudan, and al-Qadarif were as usual met by heavy police resistance, and one man in Omdurman was killed. That brings the official death toll since the protests began last month to 29, though human rights groups put it at well over 40. In addition, and under unclear circumstances, an employee of the country’s National Intelligence and Security Service was killed overnight in Port Sudan in an outbreak of fighting between that service and soldiers in the Sudanese army. Not sure what to make of that yet.

At LobeLog, Giorgio Cafiero says that, unlike Nicolás Maduro (we’ll get to that), Bashir can expect to retain the support of most of the governments in the Arab world:

Particularly in light of what happened in Libya, many regional states are concerned about a power vacuum in Sudan if revolutionaries oust Bashir. They look at Sudan’s head of state and conclude: “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Neither the African Union nor the Arab League has taken any action to hold Sudanese authorities accountable for atrocities, which is markedly different from the Arab League’s responses to the 2011 uprisings in Libya and Syria.

Additionally, almost all Arab states face pressures from democratic groups and activists among their own citizens, so they’re worried about the potential for the winds of change to blow across borders. This is especially so with young Arabs tuned into social media and taking inspiration from movements in other countries. That’s what happened with the uprising in Tunisia that sparked the Arab Spring.

Sudan has also been an important ally of wealthy Arab Persian Gulf states, which have vested interests in Khartoum. Given their investments in Sudan, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members have a strong incentive to make sure that a friendly regime remains in power. Politically, the monarchies on both sides of the Qatar crisis have supported Bashir’s regime in recent years, especially after Khartoum severed ties with Iran in early 2016. With Saudi and Emirati leaders determined to limit their own countries’ casualties in the Yemen war, Sudan has been a useful member of the coalition because it has contributed forces to fight the Houthis on the ground.

Bashir is also getting some unexpected support from South Sudan, a country that after all was formed out of a widespread rebellion against Bashir’s government. South Sudanese leaders are worried that instability in Sudan will exacerbate their own stability problems, and more importantly they’re reliant on Sudan for the pipeline that enables them to get their oil to market.


Al-Monitor’s Amberin Zaman has written a very thorough explanation of Tunisia’s current economic and political struggles:

A gas mask is spray-painted on a wall in the gritty Tunis suburb of Douar Hicher, beneath it reads the phrase “We have suffocated.” This captures the mood of Douar Hicher, where unemployment, crime and anger against Tunisia’s leaders hang heavily in the air.

“Everything is collapsing. The other day, a 25-year-old murdered his mother and his sisters here,” said Mohammed, who ekes out a living selling oranges. Pressed for a reason, the teenager offered, “They were poor; they had nothing. There is no stability, no work in Tunisia.” Young men with sullen faces filed past along the garbage-strewn streets purposelessly during working hours as if to illustrate his point.

Eight years ago, it was here and in the neighboring working class strongholds of Ettadhamen, al-Entilaka and el-Mnihla that the first protests against Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali reached Tunisia’s capital. Today, many of the chronic ills that triggered the revolution and the lack of democratic institutions have thrust this North African nation of 11.7 million back into a crisis with no ready fixes in sight.


South Sudanese President Salva Kiir says that his army’s soldiers are “unhealthy” because their officers are stealing their food and selling it. Sooooo that’s a little awkward, right? Am I wrong, or is Kiir basically telling his soldiers to start fragging their officers?


The US says it will no longer lie about release casualty figures for its airstrikes in Somalia. Unless you truly believe that the US hasn’t harmed a single Somali civilian in years despite regularly bombing the country, then you know Africa Command has been faking its casualty counts anyway so this is really no big deal.


Félix Tshisekedi took the oath of office as the DRC’s new president on Thursday, marking the first peaceful transfer of power in the DRC in 60 years. Unfortunately the historic milestone is marred by the strong possibility that Tshisekedi didn’t actually win the December 30 election but instead cut a deal with the now former President Joseph Kabila to cheat the actual winner, Martin Fayulu. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was the only foreign head of state in attendance because of the doubts over Tshisekedi’s alleged victory. Tshisekedi called for unity in his inaugural address, because of course he did, and then had to briefly leave the ceremony due to illness or exhaustion, it’s not clear. The Congolese opposition at this point seems to be in shock, unsure whether to celebrate that Kabila is no longer in office or agitate over the possibly stolen election and the likelihood that Kabila will still exert significant influence over the new president.


The Zimbabwean army wants to you know that all the soldiers who have been beating protesters over the past week aren’t really soldiers. They’re imposters, don’t you know, who have apparently obtained Zimbabwean military uniforms and are indistinguishable from actual Zimbabwean soldiers in order to beat up protesters and make the legitimate military look bad. It’s all very simple and believable.

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