World update: February 15 2019



According to US Central Command boss Joseph Votel, the Pentagon may soon reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan by more than 1000 from its current level of around 14,000 (acknowledged) personnel. But the move isn’t related to the ongoing peace talks with the Taliban–instead, it’s apparently an operational decision by new US Afghanistan commander General Scott Miller.


The Pakistani government is pulling out all the stops for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit on Sunday (he was originally supposed to arrive on Saturday but got delayed a day). Imran Khan’s government remains desperate for financial assistance and has been wooing both the Saudis and the UAE in hopes of bringing in some $30 billion in investments and loans. MBS will be looking to portray himself as a normal world leader and big dealmaker to try to move past the Jamal Khashoggi murder.


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned the Pakistani government on Friday to expect “a befitting reply” to Thursday’s suicide bombing in Kashmir, in which at least 44 Indian paramilitaries were killed. That bombing was carried out by the Kashmiri militant group Jaysh-e-Mohammad (“Army of Muhammad”), which was formed in 2000 out of an earlier group of ex-Afghan mujahideen fighters organized by Pakistani intelligence to wage an insurgency in Kashmir. The Indian government alleges, and with pretty good reason, that Pakistan is still supporting the group today, a charge that Pakistan of course denies.

Modi’s response will probably be economic, at least for starters, though with campaign season upon him he may decide to look tough and undertake some sort of (probably/hopefully small) operation along the Kashmiri line of control. Anything like that obviously carries the risk of escalation, and since both India and Pakistan are nuclear states that road leads to some very bad places.


US and Chinese trade negotiators are staring at a March 1 deadline to hash out their disagreements before Donald Trump has promised another increase in tariffs on Chinese goods. But they apparently made enough progress in Beijing this week that Trump now says he’ll consider extending that deadline by 60 days at the current tariff rate. The negotiators are scheduled to meet again next week in Washington.



With only a few hours to go before polls were to open in Nigeria’s presidential election, authorities postponed the vote until next Saturday, February 23. The country’s elections commission chair, Mahmood Yakubu, said that “proceeding with the election as scheduled is no longer feasible,” and though he didn’t go into detail a series of attacks on elections facilities have damaged critical voting infrastructure and there are widespread reports of shortages of material at polling places. In addition, a wave of violence has swept the country in advance of the vote. Most of it has been in northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa are active, but at least 66 people in Nigeria’s Kaduna state are believed to have been killed this week in another outbreak of the frequent violence between herders and farmers across the middle belt of the country.



Claudio Borghi, a senior legislator from The League, one of Italy’s two ruling parties, said on Friday that unless the European parliamentary election in May results in a decisive swing toward the right in the EP, Italy will have to leave the European Union. Borghi’s comments sent Italian markets into a flutter even though he’s in no real position to make that kind of claim and senior leadership of both the League and its coalition partner, the Five Star Movement, have said they have no plans to leave the EU. Still, Borghi does have some sway within his party and his comments can’t be entirely dismissed.


As expected, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Friday called an early election for April after losing a vote on his proposed 2019 budget earlier this week. Though not immediately apparent, the underlying reason for the breakdown in Spanish politics is Catalan separatism. Sánchez’s minority government has depended on Catalan nationalists in parliament to pass legislation, and they refused to support the budget because they’re angry over the Spanish government’s prosecution of nationalists who were involved in conducting Catalonia’s 2017 independence referendum.


Some Brexit hardliners in Theresa May’s Conservative Party are now suggesting that they could live with the Northern Ireland “backstop” in the Brexit agreement she negotiated with the EU late last year, provided it’s limited to five years. The current deal makes the backstop indefinite unless the UK and EU can come to some other trade arrangement that avoids the reimposition of a hard border in Ireland. The EU, however, has shown no inclination toward changing the backstop in this way and in fact the Irish government has explicitly rejected the idea.



The US military will begin flying humanitarian aid, which definitely will not include guns and ammunition because we don’t do that sort of thing, to Colombia on Saturday for delivery across the border to Venezuela. This aid will presumably be part of the larger batch of aid that self-declared president Juan Guaidó says he plans on somehow forcing past the Venezuelan government’s blockade on February 23.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, meanwhile, told the AP this week that his foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, has met twice in the US with Trump administration Venezuela envoy Elliott Abrams, and offered to meet with Abrams himself. The administration hasn’t confirmed Maduro’s claim but hasn’t denied it either. Accounts of the meetings suggest that Abrams has basically pushed the Trump administration’s public position–that Maduro must go–in private as well.

But Maduro hasn’t gone, and the longer this crisis drags on the likelier it probably becomes that he’ll survive it. The key remains the Venezuelan military, whose senior officers–whether through illicit payments from Maduro’s party, drug sales, oil proceeds, or whatever–are doing pretty well for themselves and haven’t responded to Guaidó’s offer of pardons. They’ll only do that if they begin to think that Maduro is going to be ousted, and Maduro is only going to be ousted if these officers turn on him en masse. The US can try sanctioning top military officials–they sanctioned five more Venezuelan leaders on Friday including three senior intelligence figures–and then offer to remove those sanctions an an enticement, but But so far almost none of these guys have gone over to Guaidó, who can hope to maybe get some of the military’s rank-and-file to back him but can’t really undertake a coup that way. A civil war is a likelier outcome at this point than a coup, and Maduro hanging on seems likelier than either.


Haitian President Jovenel Moïse finally made a public response to several days of public protests against his government, but only to say that he’s not resigning and the protesters can get bent. Moïse did promise some “unspecified economic measures” to help boost Haiti’s weak economy, but somehow I doubt that’s going to appease anybody. At least nine people have reportedly been killed by Moïse’s security forces this week as they’ve cracked down on the demonstrators, though he didn’t seem to have anything to say about that either.


Finally, I’m sure many of you have by now seen the video of Representative Ilhan Omar asking Elliott Abrams about his former career as a war criminal enabler under the Reagan administration. If you haven’t, here it is:

The exchange here didn’t strike me as that big a deal. Don’t get me wrong, it was remarkable to see a lifelong member of the DC Foreign Policy Club like Abrams actually have his reprehensible past thrown in his face by a sitting Member of Congress, but I figured it would end there. What I didn’t expect was that a considerable part of the Foreign Policy Club would rush to Twitter to defend Elliott Abrams as a wonderful man who was personally so kind to them and hey if he helped get a few nuns massacred in El Salvador in the 1980s who are we to judge? But that actually happened, and then many of those same club members seemed taken aback to find that their warm personal recollections of Elliott Abrams The Man wound up getting them yelled at through the internet tubes.

I still don’t think any of this is that big a deal–but it could be. It was an illuminating moment for a DC foreign policy community that isn’t used to having its sinecured grandees criticized for their past misdeeds and certainly seems to have no idea how unpopular it’s become, at least in certain extremely online circles. And any chance you get to pull back the curtain on the bipartisan atrocity machine that is mainstream US foreign policy, it’s a good thing. And so I’ll leave you with a very good take on the Omar-Abrams kerfuffle from Tom Scocca:

“Disgraceful ad hominem attacks by @IlhanMN on my @CFR_org colleague Elliott Abrams,” the professional anti-Trumpist Max Boot tweeted, in support of Trump’s appointee 

Is there a name for the logical fallacy by which people on the Internet have convinced themselves that saying the name of a logical fallacy is an incantation that ends an argument? If it’s ad hominem to point out that Elliott Abrams has lied to Congress and promoted atrocities in Latin America, then it’s ad hominem for a preschool to check if a job applicant is a registered sex offender.

The other relevant magic words Boot tweeted were “my” and “colleague.” Abrams is a fully employed member of the American foreign policy community, for whom American foreign policy consists of people in offices making statements about goals and national interests, not soldiers in Guatemala smashing babies’ skulls and throwing the bodies down a well. The soldiers who smashed the babies’ skulls were following the orders of a leader under whom, according to Abrams at the time, “killing of innocent civilians is being reduced step by step.” The killings were not reduced enough to keep Abrams’ man from being convicted of genocide, afterward, but the point is, the intentions were good.

The intentions are always good. At the time the babies were being thrown down the well—as part of a chain of events that was meant to promote American interests in the region—Elliott Abrams had a job with “Human Rights” in the job title. 

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