Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry confirmed (sort of) on Thursday that his government will host another round of peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the United States, but did not specify when that round will take place. The Taliban say they’re meeting with US representatives in Islamabad on February 18, ahead of still another round of talks in Qatar on February 25, but the US still says it hasn’t heard anything about a Pakistan meeting.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was in Brussels meeting with other NATO leaders on Thursday, and he tried to assure everyone that the United States will not unilaterally pull out of Afghanistan. NATO and especially the Afghan government are worried that the Trump administration is just going to start yanking US personnel out of the country, but Shanahan insisted that any draw down will be coordinated with US allies.
A suicide bomber with the Pakistani-based group Jaysh-e-Mohammad attacked a bus carrying Indian paramilitary police in southern Kashmir on Thursday, killing at least 44 people. India’s foreign ministry subsequently issued a statement calling on Pakistan to “stop supporting terrorists and terror groups operating from their territory and dismantle the infrastructure operated by terrorist outfits to launch attacks in other countries.” The Pakistani government denies supporting militant Kashmiri groups like JEM but it’s an unconvincing denial. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is approaching an election in May with declining poll numbers, so he may feel pressure to respond forcefully to such a deadly attack.
An estimated 30 people were rounded up by Sudanese police on Thursday as yet more anti-government protests hit Khartoum. And in what might be a sign that the protest movement is gaining momentum, Sudan’s major opposition parties announced that they’ve reached agreement on a four year transitional period should Bashir’s government fall, during which time Sudan would be run by a national unity government responsible for drafting a new constitution and then organizing elections.
US Africa Command says it did not take part in an operation against a suspected al-Qaeda position in the southern Libyan city of Ubari earlier this week. This completely contradicts the Libyan government’s statement about the alleged raid.
The Niger Delta Avengers popped their heads up on Thursday to say that if Muhammadu Buhari is reelected this weekend they will create “a perpetual recession for Nigeria.” Which presumably means they plan on waging war against the country’s oil industry. During their last round of widespread violence, in 2016, the NDA cut Nigeria’s oil production from around 2.2 million barrels per day to around 1 million bpd, so this probably isn’t an idle threat. Buhari’s main challenger, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, has promised to devolve more authority on Nigeria’s states and to allow them to retain more of their local revenue. This is a particularly salient issue in the Niger Delta region, which is the center of Nigeria’s oil industry but sees relatively little of that revenue while bearing most of the related environmental costs.
TV comedian Vladimir Zelenskiy has surged to a big lead in the latest polling for Ukraine’s March 31 presidential election, conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology. He’s at 27 percent in the survey, compared to 18 percent for incumbent Petro Poroshenko and 16 percent for former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was at one point considered the clear frontrunner.
Meanwhile, the recent split between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Churches already shows signs of turning ugly:
Ukraine has stripped an Orthodox bishop of his citizenship and barred him from entering the country as a dispute escalates over the Ukrainian and Russian branches of the church.
Ukrainian border guards said on Thursday that they had detained and deported Bishop Gedeon, the abbot of a Kiev monastery, because he allegedly held dual Ukraine-US citizenship. The deportation was condemned by Russian officials, who called on the US to intervene.
In a blog post announcing the bishop’s deportation, Ukraine’s interior ministry said: “Yesterday #borderguards detained him on suspicion of dual citizenship. Also, he had actively supported Russia’s armed aggression in Ukraine.”
Yeah, so, clearly this wasn’t about his possible dual citizenship. Gedeon still operates under the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which as the name suggests remains in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church. When Ukraine’s church began pushing for autocephaly, Ukrainian leaders like Poroshenko were at great pains to stress that they had no intention of pushing the Moscow Patriarchate out of Ukraine altogether. Moves like this are a sign that maybe they were lying.
New polling from the French firm Elabe shows that 56 percent of the French public want the “Yellow Vests” to end their weekly protests. That’s up 11 points from last month and it’s the first time more than half of the public has said enough is enough. The longer the protests have gone on the more their focus has blurred and the more violent they’ve become, which is probably why public support is dropping. It’s likely that at least some of the recent rebound in Emmanuel Macron’s popularity can be traced to this general public weariness with the protesters.
Theresa May lost another Commons vote on Brexit on Thursday, and I suppose you have to hand it to her because she’s really getting good at that sort of thing. The vote wasn’t binding on anything, but would have simply expressed parliament’s support for her mission to extract last minute concessions from the European Union to make their Brexit agreement more palatable to British legislators. But a supportive outcome would have sent May to Brussels with a stronger hand than she’ll have now, though to be fair it wouldn’t have been that strong either way.
The Cuban government alleged on Thursday that the US is moving special forces into place to carry out a military operation in Venezuela:
“Between February 6 and 10 military transport aircraft have flown to the Rafael Miranda Airport of Puerto Rico, the San Isidro Air Base, in the Dominican Republic and to other strategically located Caribbean islands, probably without knowledge of the governments of those nations,” the declaration said.
“These flights originated in American military installations from which units of Special Operations and Marine Corps operate, which are used for covert actions,” it said.
US Venezuela envoy Elliott Abrams called Cuba’s claims a “lie,” and, well, I suppose if anybody would be able to spot a lie it would be a habitual liar like him. Bear in mind that while we’re definitely not planning a military intervention we’re also definitely not running guns into Venezuela to support an opposition uprising. Elliott Abrams wouldn’t let the United States of America get involved in anything like that.
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s United Nations ambassador, Jorge Arreaza, announced the formation of a new “coalition” opposing US regime change efforts in Caracas, whose members include China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia and Syria. It’s, uh, far from clear that any of these countries would actually be willing to come to Nicolás Maduro’s aid should he need it. Most of them just couldn’t, and the ones that could, like Russia, would most likely conclude that it wasn’t in their interest to get that involved. It’s not even clear that they’re prepared to do much of anything, though Arreaza did talk about undertaking “a series of actions to raise awareness,” which is definitely, uh, real important. Mostly the coalition is for show, meant to counter the impact of the several countries that have come out in support of self proclaimed Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó.
The crackdown against Haiti’s ongoing anti-government protests has reportedly killed nine people this week and things seem to be getting worse. Al Jazeera has another report on the situation:
As I noted above, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was in Brussels on Thursday, seeking mostly to calm nervous European leaders who believe that his predecessor, James Mattis, was the only thing keeping Donald Trump from pulling the US out of NATO. He doesn’t seem to have pulled it off, partly because he is only the acting secretary and may not be in the job very long and partly because, well, his boss is Donald Trump. He’s a bit of a wildcard, you know?