Asia/Africa update: March 5 2019

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The New York Times highlights a budding split between urban and rural Afghans over peace talks with the Taliban:

As American diplomats push for a peace deal with the Taliban to end the 18-year war, a strong voice of protest, largely coming from urban centers, has been cautioning against a rushed deal that could endanger some of the gains of past years. Those include women’s right to work and education, as well as an independent news media.

On the other hand, however, is the nearly half of the country that is caught between the two sides of the seesawing conflict. The constant fighting has deprived these rural Afghans of most of the improvements — schools and institutions — at the center of concerns over peace negotiations. And the voices of those Afghans are notably underrepresented in the debate.

To this large part of Afghan society — including more than a million people displaced by fighting at least once, and often several times — there is a desperate urgency for any sort of peace deal, or even just a truce to allow aid to come through. They are focused simply on survival.

PAKISTAN

Pakistani authorities say they’ve arrested 44 people associated with various militant groups that operate inside Pakistan. Included among them are at least two senior figures in Jaish-e-Mohammed (the son and brother of JEM founder Masood Azhar, in fact), the Kashmiri group responsible for the February 14 Pulwama bombing and all the good times we’ve had since then. The Pakistanis say this is the start of a major crackdown against these militant groups, though they’ve promised that before and never gotten much further than the initial roundup stage. The Pakistanis have also relieved the former information minister in Punjab province, Fayyaz Chohan, over a speech in which he apparently said that Hindus drink cow piss. Alrighty then. Chohan said he only meant that Indian Hindus drink cow piss, not Pakistani Hindus, but given Islamabad’s desire to reduce tensions with India that explanation probably didn’t help.

INDIA

As noted earlier, the Trump administration announced on Tuesday that it’s removing both Turkey and India from the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) program, which allows countries to export their goods to the US duty-free as long as they reciprocate when it comes to US exports. In Turkey’s case, the administration assesses that the Turkish economy is too robust to qualify for a program intended to benefit developing nations. In India’s case, the administration says New Delhi has imposed too many protectionist trade restrictions (especially over e-commerce) to remain in the program. Although it is the largest beneficiary of the GSP program, the actual benefit India gets from it is not that great, and so they’re unlikely to retaliate and risk triggering additional US penalties.

The shooting down of that Indian aircraft last week could be good news for US defense contractors. India’s air force is flying some seriously antiquated planes, and the recent dust up with Pakistan could light a fire under Indian officials to kick start their long-planned replacement fighter program. Both Boeing and Lockheed Martin have obvious interest in getting the contract to build India’s next fighter. So that’s nice, those guys sure could use the cash.

INDONESIA

Indonesian soldiers will finish building the Trans-Papua highway and hope not to get killed doing it. Civilians working on the project were ambushed by Free Papua Movement fighters in December and 16 of them were killed.

NORTH KOREA

South Korean media and 38 North are reporting that satellite imagery suggests “North Korea has started restoring structures on the rocket launch pad at its Sohae Satellite Launching Station.” The North Koreans began dismantling that site last year amid the diplomacy around the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore, but they seem to have begun reversing that process in mid-February (so before the Hanoi summit and its failure). Sohae isn’t strictly speaking a missile site, it’s a space launch facility. But there is some overlap between those things (though the amount of overlap is often exaggerated), and if dismantling the site was supposed to be a concession to the US, then rebuilding the site is, well, you do the math. With John Bolton already talking about levying more sanctions against North Korea, a report like this is only going to be more fuel for the fire.

Speaking of Hanoi, Daniel Wertz of the National Committee on North Korea suggests that there could still be room for negotiations despite the summit’s collapse:

To the extent that President Trump’s negotiating team was prepared to offer sanctions relief at Hanoi, it was in a much more limited form. In the lead-up to the summit, the US signaled a slight softening of its position on sanctions, backing away from the stance that relief would only come after North Korean denuclearization. In a pre-summit interview with NBC News, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that sanctions pressure could be released once the US had “substantially reduced” the risk of North Korea’s nuclear program. Pompeo also told CNN that sanctions inhibiting “exchanges of people” and other sorts of confidence building measures could be relaxed if the negotiation process began to move forward, but insisted that “core sanctions” restricting North Korean trade and access to hard currency would remain in place.

The US and North Korean positions on sanctions relief were too far apart to be resolved over a few hours of high-level discussion in Hanoi, but these differences might not be insurmountable if both sides are willing to trade the glamour of summitry for the grindstone of working-level negotiations. In his post-summit remarks, Foreign Minister Ri declared that North Korea’s proposal on sanctions relief “will never be changed,” but left open the possibility that a “better agreement” might be possible. Ri also suggested that certain US “action in the military field” would be even more to Pyongyang’s liking than sanctions relief. President Trump, in turn, said that his negotiating team wanted more than Yongbyon on the table to offer the kind of sanctions relief Kim Jong Un was asking for.

Since a Yongbyon-for-sectoral sanctions trade clearly didn’t meet the Trump administration’s bottom line, negotiators could follow up either by trying to go bigger or by going smaller.

AFRICA

LIBYA

Libya’s National Oil Company is resuming production at its El Sharara oil field in southwestern Libya. The field has been shut down since being taken over by local militia forces in December. It was seized by the “Libyan National Army” last month and then handed back over to the NOC, which took some time to assess the security situation there before reopening the facility.

ALGERIA

Thousands protested across Algeria again on Tuesday, demanding that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika not stand for a fifth term in office in April’s election. It would appear that Bouteflika’s offer to serve only one year before giving way to an early election is being taken for what it probably was, an attempt to shut the protesters up with the intention of finding some excuse not to follow through. Members of Bouteflika’s FLN party, including some former cabinet ministers, are beginning to add to the calls for him to go. Meanwhile, the Algerian military says it’s not going to intervene…yet. Somewhat ominously, military leaders have started suggesting that they will step in if it looks like Algeria is heading toward another civil war.

MOROCCO

Giorgio Cafiero looks at the recent deterioration of the Morocco-Saudi relationship:

The alliance between Morocco and Saudi Arabia has historically been strong, bolstered by shared concerns about regional turmoil in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring protests, but recent tensions have brought bilateral relations to an all-time low. Last month, frictions between Rabat and Riyadh came to the fore when Morocco recalled its ambassador from Saudi Arabia. Numerous issues played a part in the lead-up to this, including Morocco’s decision to formally leave the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and a recent Al Arabiya report on the Western Sahara conflict. There is an ongoing and complex “transient crisis” between the two kingdoms, but it remains unclear if this will ultimately lead to a rupture or if their relationship is merely experiencing temporary turbulence.

There are several issues at work here, but the main ones seem to revolve around Morocco’s resistance to Mohammad bin Salman’s foreign policy, especially with respect to Yemen and Qatar.

SENEGAL

Senegal’s Constitutional Court on Tuesday verified President Macky Sall’s victory in the February 24 election. Opposition leaders have suggested the vote count was rigged and Sall should be facing a runoff, but the court agreed that he won with around 58 percent of the vote, enough for a first-round victory.

SAHEL

Alex Thurston takes issue with a couple of recent pieces–one in the Wall Street Journal but the more egregious one in the New York Times–suggesting that a recent upsurge in militant activity in places like Mali and Burkina Faso is related to a planned draw down of US forces in the Sahel region:

In other words, the NYT has really confused some issues regarding causality. The situation in the Sahel is bad. The situation in Burkina Faso is very bad. But the view of the world where American military deployments are the only thing standing in the way of rising jihadist tides is just fundamentally wrong. That worldview is, moreover, politically convenient for politicians, bureaucrats, and military officers in Washington, Stuttgart, Niamey, and beyond. The NYT could’ve done more here to question such narratives.

I know this may come as a shock, but there’s a pretty strong possibility that the US presence in the Sahel actually makes things less, not more, stable.

SOUTH SUDAN

United Nations Secretary General António Guterres says the ceasefire in South Sudan is holding, but that there’s been relatively little progress toward reconciliation between the government and former rebels with only a couple of months left before the country is supposed to begin its political transition period. Local confidence building steps have been implemented but these haven’t yet translated into national action on establishing a security framework and a transitional government.

RWANDA

The Rwandan government on Tuesday accused Uganda of aiding the Rwanda National Congress and Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, two rebel groups opposed to President Paul Kagame’s government. The Ugandans deny the accusation, but Rwandan authorities have started interfering with traffic across the border.

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