World update: February 27 2019



I wish I could say things are cooling off here, but, well, that would be a lie. Both Pakistan and India claim to have shot down one another’s aircraft on Wednesday, after the Pakistanis apparently carried out an airstrike on Indian territory. The Pakistanis claim they shot down two Indian planes and initially said they’d captured both pilots, though later they revised this to say they’d captured one pilot but the other had made it back to Indian airspace before ejecting. They produced a video purportedly of the pilot in their custody, which if authentic is a major violation of his Geneva Convention rights, but at least it seems he’s being well treated. India claims it shot down one Pakistani F-16, but the Pakistanis are denying it. Prior to all of this, the Pakistanis struck targets in Indian Kashmir in retaliation for India’s airstrike near Balakot the previous day. If there have been any casualty reports from that Pakistani strike, I haven’t seen them.

Since they’ve been offering completely contradictory narratives for a couple of days now, it’s clear that either Indian media or Pakistani media, or both, have been fibbing. Indeed, media in both countries have been doing a fair amount of nationalist chest-thumping over the past 48 hours or so. Analysts seem divided as to whether this is going to contribute to further escalation or serve as a way for both governments to declare victory and back off, and I guess we’ll find out who’s right soon enough. The Pakistanis at this point seem to be more amenable to backing down–Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a televised call for dialogue with India on Wednesday, and his US ambassador, Asad Khan, suggested Islamabad would like the US to step in and play a mediating role.


Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un kicked off their second summit in Hanoi on Wednesday. Trump was coy when asked if the two would discuss a formal end to the Korean War, but was firm on the question of North Korea’s “denuclearization.” Though he’s said his in “no rush” for Pyongyang to give up its nukes, Trump made it clear that’s his goal. However, according to NBC News Trump has dropped the long-standing US demand that North Korea provide a full accounting of its nuclear and missile programs. The US has viewed this accounting as a necessary good faith gesture by North Korea, though it’s probably not essential to verifying any potential North Korean disarmament because it’s highly unlikely the US would simply take North Korea’s word as to how many weapons it’s stockpiled. And anyway the US may still demand an accounting further down the road.

The North Koreans have, for obvious reasons, resisted doing something like this, and conceding the point to them, at least for the time being, may be part of a plan to get Pyongyang to make a concession over its Yongbyon nuclear research facility. The Trump administration would like to get a firm commitment to dismantle at least part of that facility out of this week’s summit, which could be much easier said than done. Another concession that could move the North Koreans would be offering to finally end the Korean War. It’s long overdue and would change nothing about the strategic situation on the Korean Peninsula, notwithstanding all the frantic concerns voiced by people who oppose taking this step. It’s a pretty low cost way for the US to put the North Koreans at ease and potentially get them to offer something big in return.



Sahel analyst Alex Thurston doesn’t believe the recent killing of JNIM second in command Yahya Abu al-Hammam is likely to make much difference in Mali’s war on extremism:

The situation in Mali has deteriorated, I think, not so much due to personalities as to trends. Each successive stage in the deterioration of the conflict has activated new patterns of violence, as well as new developments in hyper-local politics. In a recent and insightful article, Yvan Guichaoua and Héni Nsaibia call attention to the ways that widely used lenses for viewing jihadist expansion in the Sahel – individual-level radicalization and jihadist exploitation of topography and geography – fail to capture the ways that interactions between communities and jihadists drive expansion. The success or failure of jihadist interactions with communities and groups may depend partly on the savviness of top leaders, but not entirely or even predominantly, especially once you get to village-level dynamics.


Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari was declared the winner of Saturday’s election on Wednesday, with 56 percent of the vote in the official tally. His main challenger, Atiku Abubakar, took 41 percent but says he plans to challenge the results. He’s highly unlikely to succeed in that effort. In his victory remarks Buhari said that in his second term he’ll focus on improving Nigeria’s security and its economy, the two things he completely failed to improve in his first term.

Thurston also has some thoughts on this outcome (he thinks the opposition erred in running Abubakar, for example), including the observation that if Buhari did rig the results, he wisely did so without trying to run up the score too much:

If Buhari won by fraud, it was through elevating northern vote totals while simultaneously drawing a plausible map. Some of the northern numbers deserve real scrutiny. Why was Kano such a blowout, when many observers expected it to be competitive? How did the Buhari vote in Borno jump from 473,543 in 2015 to 836,496 in 2019? At the same time, if Buhari’s camp rigged, they either wisely refrained (or were other constrained) from any attempt to take states in the south east and south south (where Buhari won nothing, although he won enough of the vote there to avoid running afoul of the requirement that the winner obtain at least 25% in at least two-thirds of Nigeria’s states). And Buhari’s camp either decided (or was forced) to run tight races in much of the southwest and the Middle Belt, ceding some states (again, Oyo, Ondo, Benue, and one might add Edo* and Taraba) and squeaking by in others (Osun, Nasarawa, and arguably Kogi, depending on what you consider a tight margin). In other words, if they rigged, they didn’t try to take the whole cake – just enough to make sure they won decisively.


Medicins Sans Frontieres says that some 40,000 people displaced by a Boko Haram attack on the Nigerian city of Rann last month have been ordered to return home by Cameroonian and Nigerian authorities. The security situation in Rann remains precarious so they may well be getting forced back to face another attack.


Gunmen reportedly attacked and set fire to an ebola treatment center in the eastern Congolese city of Butembo on Wednesday. There were no casualties but the facility was treating at least 12 ebola patients at the time. It’s unclear who the gunmen were, but in that part of the DRC there are plenty of candidates.



Ukraine’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday struck down the country’s law against politicians enriching themselves, effectively putting an end to most, if not all, of the anti-corruption cases currently under investigation by Ukrainian authorities. It argued that the 2015 law was unconstitutional because it requires the accused to prove their assets are legitimate, thereby subverting the “innocent until proven guilty” standard. Ukraine’s ability to access international lending is likely to be affected here, since Kiev’s endemic corruption problems are a frequent International Monetary Fund complaint.


Speaking of IMF cases, the Greek government may lose access to about $1.1 billion in debt relief because it’s moving too slowly for its creditors on developing a plan to screw people who are stuck in bad mortgages:

Following a decade of financial crisis and international bailouts, nearly half of Greece‘s property and business loans are non-performing or in arrears by more than three months, and the government is under pressure to help banks improve their balance sheets. Current mortgage protection rules, which shield distressed property owners from foreclosure, formally expire Thursday.

“We fully share the objective of the Greek authorities to protect more vulnerable households,” [European Commission Vice President Valdis] Dombrovskis said.

“However, currently, the legislative proposal has a large number of design and technical details which need to be settled so as to ensure that that scheme is generally temporary, properly targeted, can be operational in the near future, and improves the payment culture in Greece by not protecting strategic defaulters.”

In case it’s unclear, the “however” there invalidates everything Dombrovskis said before it.



According to Reuters, Nicolás Maduro’s government removed some eight tons of gold from Venezuela’s central bank last week with plans to sell it internationally to increase the country’s woefully small foreign currency holdings. With US sanctions crippling Venezuelan oil exports, selling off its gold reserves is pretty much the only recourse Maduro has left to bring in cash. It’s unclear who’s buying, but Turkey and the UAE, among others, have bought Venezuelan gold before–though UAE officials have said they won’t buy any more Venezuelan gold until the country’s political crisis gets sorted out.


Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is trying to restart negotiations with his political opposition, and on Wednesday he released 100 political prisoners in an effort to give that process a boost. The government and opposition leaders are negotiating over a list of 12 issues in an effort to heal the divisions in the country stemming from last year’s large anti-Ortega protest movement and the government’s violent response.


Finally, historian Stephen Wertheim argues that the 2020 election is shaping up in part to include a debate over the basic underpinnings of US foreign policy:

In the past several months, a meaningful debate has finally started to emerge over America’s role in the world. Politicians and analysts — left, right and center — are conceding that longstanding mistakes have brought the United States to an uncertain moment. Provoked by President Trump, they are concluding that the bipartisan consensus forged in the 1990s — in which the United States towered over the world and, at low cost, sought to remake it in America’s image — has failed and cannot be revived.

But the agreement ends there. Foreign policy hands are putting forward something like opposite diagnoses of America’s failure and opposite prescriptions for the future. One camp holds that the United States erred by coddling China and Russia, and urges a new competition against these great power rivals. The other camp, which says the United States has been too belligerent and ambitious around the world, counsels restraint, not another crusade against grand enemies.

Though still in formation, these camps are heading for a clash in the 2020 presidential race, if not in a straightforward way. Each has bipartisan backing. Each finds a little to like in Mr. Trump but rejects him as a member. And each is willing to pull back from wars in the Middle East. It’s this contest, not the sound and fury over “America First,” that is set to redefine America’s world role in the 21st century, during the rest of the Trump years and beyond.

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