Asia/Africa update: January 31 2019



The latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) is out and, well, you know how they tell you that if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all?

The report, by the agency of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, or Sigar, said that as of Oct. 31, the Afghan government controlled territory on which 63.5 percent of its population lived, a decrease of 1.7 percent from the previous quarter, while gains by the Taliban insurgency gave it control over territory that is home to 10.8 percent of the population.

The agency’s statistics are based on data provided by the American military under a mandate to report to Congress quarterly.

In addition, the Afghan government lost control of seven more districts during the last quarter, meaning that only 53.8 percent of districts were “controlled or influenced” by the government, while 12.3 percent of the districts were under insurgent control or influence and 33.9 percent of districts were contested. Afghanistan’s 407 districts are the basic unit of local governance.

It goes without saying that this war is unwinnable from the US perspective, but it’s also unloseable in the sense that the Taliban can’t inflict a defeat on the US so hurtful that the US will simply head for the hills. The result is, as we’ve seen for going on 18 years now, Forever War. You can always find some neo-imperialist hack to argue that it doesn’t matter if the US “wins” in Afghanistan because what it’s really doing is patrolling the frontiers of its global empire, but that leads to lots of other questions like “should the US really have a global empire?” and “how’s that patrolling working out for the people actually living on the frontier?” Your mileage may vary on the former, I guess, but the answer to the latter is “unbelievably badly.” And so this war needs to end.

The US insists it won’t let the war end without an intra-Afghan dialogue and strong assurances from the Taliban about its future behavior, but there’s at least some reason to wonder whether it’s getting ready to withdraw no matter what. Paul Pillar explains why the concerns about even a haphazard US withdrawal don’t really amount to very much:

Some of the chief objections voiced against this step toward extricating the United States from an interminable war are valid as far as they go, but they do not go far enough to evaluate fully where U.S. interests lie. The agreement will not necessarily end the war, at least not right away, but the war surely will not end in the absence of such agreement.  And without such an agreement, the United States will continue to share in the costs.

Yes, this agreement is probably a step toward a Taliban role in the Afghan government and, with it, a Taliban role in shaping some governmental policies that Westerners would find distasteful. But one must always weigh the alternative. Although the status of Afghan women under Taliban-influenced policies, for example, has long been a legitimate concern, the daily lives of most Afghan women are no better and most likely worse in a war zone.

Then there is the issue of leverage from the presence of U.S. troops. But any such leverage has accomplished nothing in changing the Taliban’s posture during 17 years of war, even when there was no expectation of an impending U.S. troop withdrawal. The United States has the watches but the Taliban have the time, and that time has no limit. The Taliban can always outwait the Americans, no matter how long the Americans stay.  The Taliban aren’t going anywhere; they’re already home.

Georgetown’s Anatol Lieven argues that the US could, with some diplomatic skill (yeah, I know), put the burden on Afghanistan’s neighbors to keep the Taliban’s most authoritarian impulses in check. Russia–which is trying to broker talks between the Taliban and Afghan opposition leaders–China, Pakistan, Iran, and India all have influence in Afghanistan and none, at the end of the day, really wants to see a return to hardline Islamist governance in Kabul under the Taliban. Several of those countries support the Taliban either as leverage in Afghanistan or out of opposition to the ongoing US presence in their backyard. A US withdrawal would take the latter element off the table, fundamentally changing the way those countries approach the Afghan conflict.


India’s Business Standard newspaper on Thursday accused–with evidence to back it up–Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of deliberately withholding information on unemployment from the Indian public. A report that was supposed to be released last month apparently shows that India’s unemployment rate hit a 45 year high of 6.1 percent in 2017, triple what it was in 2012. With an election coming sometime in April or May of this year and Modi’s governing coalition already looking a bit weak in polling, the revelation both that his economic policies are apparently failing and that his government tried to suppress unfavorable data to that effect could be very damaging.


Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad, ruler of Pahang state, took the throne as Malaysia’s new king on Thursday, a week after he was elected by the heads of the country’s nine state ruling families. He succeeds Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan, who abruptly abdicated as king earlier this month for reasons that are still unclear but probably because he married some Russian lady in secret.


In testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this week, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats contradicted his boss, Donald Trump, saying that he sees no sign that North Korea is prepared to ever willingly give up its nuclear arsenal. But 38 North’s Joel Wit argues that Coats, and the entire intelligence community, may be too pessimistic in their assumptions:

Director Coats offers as evidence “a commitment to nuclear arms for years, including through an order to mass produce weapons in 2018 and an earlier law—and constitutional change—that affirmed the country’s nuclear status.” This is thin gruel. The past commitment is there although it can be argued it has waxed and waned at different times. But orders to produce weapons can be changed. And does anyone doubt that Kim Jong Un could change the North’s constitution if he wanted to?

As for the conclusion that the regime wouldn’t relinquish these weapons because its survival depends on them—the assessment says, “according to official statements and the regime-controlled media.” What else would they say just coming off a “fire and fury” confrontation with the Trump administration?

If they will not relinquish their nuclear weapons because of the external threat, it makes sense. Although, how about if that threat diminished or even eventually ended—a tall order I know—because of negotiations? If it means the regime’s internal control depends on having nuclear weapons, I don’t get it. Weren’t North Korea’s leaders able to maintain tight control even before they had nuclear weapons? The levers to maintain internal control of the country go way beyond having a small stockpile of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.



Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Sudanese police tear gassed anti-government protesters in Khartoum, Omdurman and Port Sudan on Thursday. Protests also broke out in several smaller Sudanese towns and villages as well. Bashir has apparently decided to start mocking the protesters for trying to change the government “through WhatsApp or Facebook,” but I’m not sure antagonizing people is his best move right now.

Bashir announced on Thursday that he’s reopening Sudan’s border with Eritrea, which his government closed last January over concerns about weapons trafficking and other forms of smuggling. It may be a sign of how precarious he feels at home that Bashir has been on a bit of a diplomatic blitz of late, making nice with his neighbors and with leaders in the Gulf who might be able to offer Sudan some financial support.


Libyan security forces reportedly arrested Khalifa al-Barq, allegedly one of the leader’s of ISIS’s branch in Libya, in the city of Sirte late Wednesday. There have been some rumblings about foreign soldiers participating in the arrest but nothing official to that effect.


The US government imposed visa restrictions on Ghanaian travelers on Thursday due to what it said was the Ghanian government’s failure “to accept the return of its nationals ordered removed from the United States.” The restrictions are limited now but could be expanded unless the Ghanaians knuckle under to what Washington is demanding.


The US military reported on Thursday that it conducted an airstrike in central Somalia the day before that killed at least 24 al-Shabab fighters. This is interesting in that the US military just a few days ago said it was going to stop providing casualty assessments for its Somali airstrikes. Rest assured though that no civilians were harmed in this strike just as no civilians have ever been harmed in any US airstrike in Somalia ever–at least, um, as far as we know.


The UN Security Council on Thursday renewed its arms embargo on the CAR for another year, though it will continue to make exceptions for weapons meant for the country’s security forces. The council also left an out clause–if the CAR meets certain benchmarks that will be established later this year on improving its security situation and demobilizing militias, the council could revisit the embargo in September.


Zimbabwe’s umbrella public sector union has decided not to launch a national strike after talks with the government broke down on Wednesday, but the country’s two main teachers’ unions will go ahead with a walkout starting next Tuesday. The umbrella group, the Apex Council, cited the country’s recent and still ongoing political turmoil, including the harsh crackdown by the Zimbabwean military, as justification for holding off.

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