Asia/Africa update: February 12 2019



Acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan visited Afghanistan on Monday and stressed that the Trump administration has not come to a decision about any possible US troop withdrawal. The administration has been negotiating with the Taliban about a peace deal that would require the US to withdraw, and there have been rumors that it’s considering a partial withdrawal in the coming weeks as a sweetener. But the momentum behind that partial withdrawal seems to have dissipated somewhat as the US tries to maintain as much leverage as possible for those peace talks.

Speaking of peace talks, the Taliban has named a new negotiating team for the next round, and interestingly it includes a member of the notorious Haqqani family, Anas Haqqani. The Haqqanis are perhaps the hardest line faction within the Taliban, so their participation in peace talks could be a sign that the whole gang is on board. The catch is that Anas Haqqani is currently in a Kabul jail cell and would have to be released to participate in negotiations. The Afghan government may demand a seat at the table, which the Taliban has so far been unwilling to allow, in return for letting him out.

The Afghan government fired its elections commissioners on Tuesday. Last year’s parliamentary election was heavily tainted by fraud, allegations of fraud, and plain old incompetence, and with a presidential election probably coming in July (it’s been postponed once and may be again), Afghan authorities would like to avoid a repeat performance.


Four Pakistani policemen were ambushed and killed on Tuesday in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province by fighters from a Pakistani Taliban splinter group called Hizbul Ahrar.


An estimated 3000 people turned out on Tuesday in the city of Loikaw, in Myanmar’s Kayah state, to protest the installation of a statue of General Aung San in the city. They were met with rubber bullets and tear gas by Myanmar police. The province’s ethnic Karenni population doesn’t have issues with Aung San, who spearheaded the 1947 Panglong Conference that produced a union agreement among all of Myanmar’s (previously Burma’s) minorities. They do have issues with a Myanmar government that’s never lived up to the commitments made at that conference.


As expected, Thailand’s elections commission on Monday disqualified Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi, older sister of King Maha Vajiralongkorn, from running for prime minister in March’s election. Her candidacy was doomed as soon as her brother weighed in against it, arguing that it was unconstitutional for a royal to participate in politics.

What is apparently not unconstitutional is Thailand’s National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission suspending the license of a TV network linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the weeks leading up to the country’s first election since the 2014 military coup. Apparently the channel is causing “public confusion and divisiveness” with its content. Sounds very free and fair.


An Indonesian man and senior ISIS commander named Muhammad Saifuddin was reportedly killed in Syria last month. Saifuddin was an important figure among ISIS’s Southeast Asian contingent and his death diminishes the group’s reach in that region.


The Turkish government may have overstepped itself when it laid into China’s mistreatment of the Uyghurs over the weekend. Ankara’s criticism was oriented around reports of the death of noted Uyghur musician Abdurehim Heyit in a Chinese detention camp. So it kind of lost some teeth when the Chinese government produced a video allegedly showing Heyit, very much alive, on Monday. The video may not be legitimate, but if it is then the Turks really messed up here.

Of course, maybe China messed up a bit here too:

In an effort to dispel rumours of the death of famous Uighur musician Abdurehim Heyit, who disappeared in Xinjiang in 2017, Chinese state media released a video of Heyit attesting to his health. In the video, he says he is in police custody and has “never been abused”.

Now, activists and members of the Uighur diaspora are calling for proof of life videos of their relatives who have disappeared into a network of internment camps that China claims are “vocational training centres”. Under the hashtag #MeTooUyghur, members of the Uighur community are posting the names and photos of their missing family members.

“Chinese authorities showed video as proof Mr Heyit is still alive. Now, we want to know, where are millions of Uyghurs?” Murat Harri Uyghur, an activist living in Finland, posted on Twitter, calling on others to join the campaign.


A new Stanford University study argues that North Korea has been continuing to produce material for up to seven additional nuclear bombs amid its recent diplomatic rapprochement with the United States. On the other hand, it hasn’t been testing missiles or new weapons, so the conclusion is that overall its nuclear weapons stash poses less of a threat now than it did back in 2017 when it was doing those things regularly. Even the US military is now semi-regularly talking about the unlikelihood of North Korea ever completely giving up its nukes, which is probably a positive development. The more realistic goal is to bring North Korea to a normal diplomatic place where the usual rules about deterrence work the way they’ve managed to work for everybody else. It’s not ideal, but on the plus side it’s not a fantasy either.



The “Libyan National Army” said on Monday that it had peacefully negotiated a takeover of the El Sharara oil field in southern Libya. The LNA had previously seized a substation at the plant, which was taken over by local forces in December. Libya’s National Oil Company had suspended production at the facility and has made no indication that it plans to restart production now.


Muhammadu Buhari is in the midst of a presidential campaign that appears to be living down to Nigerians’ expectations, wherein both of the leading candidate are unwilling to do anything about corruption and unable to do anything about Boko Haram and its offshoots. That campaign turned even uglier on Tuesday, when at least four people were killed in a stampede at a Buhari rally in the city of Port Harcourt. Local hospital officials have put the death toll at 14. A large crowd of supporters apparently attempted to squeeze through a locked gate to follow Buhari as he left the rally, leading to the stampede.


Journalist Amanda Sperber went to Somalia and found lots of evidence that–surprise!–the United States has been lying its ass off about its airstrikes there:

Over October and November of 2018, I spent five weeks in Somalia investigating the impact of the US air campaign. My goal was to find out whether there were strikes happening that were not being made public and civilian casualties that were not being disclosed. I interviewed 25 Somalis from Lower and Middle Shabelle who had been displaced by the strikes and were now living in camps near Mogadishu. Others who provided me with information or insights included current and former senior Somali security and intelligence officials; current and former senior American security and diplomatic officials and contractors; members of the country’s Federal Parliament; and about a dozen well-connected Somali and American analysts, activists, and aid workers.

My investigation identified strikes that went unreported until they were raised with AFRICOM, but also others that AFRICOM could not confirm—which suggests that another US agency may also be launching air attacks in the region. The investigation also tracked down evidence that AFRICOM’s claim of zero civilian casualties is almost certainly incorrect. And it found that the United States lacks a clear definition of “terrorist,” with neither AFRICOM, the Pentagon, nor the National Security Council willing to clarify the policies that underpin these strikes.

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