World update: March 29 2019



The Taliban attacked a couple of police checkpoints in the city of Ghazni early Friday morning, killing at least nine police officers. Ghazni was subjected to a sustained Taliban attack last summer that nearly took the city before it was repulsed by Afghan forces backed by US air power. These attacks may signal the start of a new Taliban effort to capture the city.


The communist New People’s Army commemorated the 50th anniversary of the start of its insurgency with an attack on a police convoy in the Philippines Mountain province on Friday in which at least one police officer was killed. The NPA also threatened additional attacks. It’s not nearly as powerful as it was in its heyday, but the NPA remains a constant threat. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has attempted negotiations with them a couple of times since taking office in 2016, but the talks haven’t gone anywhere.


Mongolian President Khaltmaa Battulga has apparently forced parliament to amend the country’s anti-corruption laws to enable him to target his political opponents while protecting his allies:

The new laws allow any judge to be forcibly recused from any case. Technically, these decisions will go through the National Security Council (NSC) and the Judicial General Council before reaching the president. But the NSC is made up of the president, prime minister, and the speaker, and the Judicial General Council is appointed by the president. These two institutions will never go against the president.

In Mongolia’s fraught political environment, Battulga can decide to prosecute his enemies at will because the courts are now under his control, and any justice who steps out of bounds will lose their power or be appointed to the middle of nowhere. He immediately used his new power to dismiss the general prosecutor, who oversees and appoints more than 500 other prosecutors. The law also removed the term protections around the general prosecutor and the general commissioner of the Independent Authority Against Corruption—whom Battulga immediately dismissed. He will likely replace both with his own cronies.


According to Reuters, when Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-un in Hanoi last month he handed Kim the equivalent of a ransom note, demanding among other things that North Korea immediately hand over its nuclear weapons and fuel to the United States. The summit broke up that same day, and while Reuters can’t prove that the note was the reason for the collapse, it’s pretty clear that it was at least part of the problem. The note was probably the product of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who’s expressed similar sentiments about North Korea in the past.


With North Korea diplomacy on the ropes, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is heading to Washington on April 11 to try to revive things. Moon has staked his presidency on mediating an end to the conflict on the Korean Peninsula, but his definition of “mediation” (in which he works to bring both sides together) and the Trump administration’s definition of “mediation” (in which he’s supposed to pressure Kim to acquiesce to US demands) don’t seem to be in alignment.



You can expect that, in addition to Syria, this year’s Arab League summit in Tunisia will now have a second major agenda item: the Israeli annexation of the Golan. The Tunisian government says it wants to work with other Arab states to “contain” the fallout from the Trump administration’s decision to recognize that annexation, which basically means they want to make sure no other countries follow suit.


Hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps as many as a million, demonstrated for political change in Algiers on Friday, with large protests also reported in several other cities across the country. The protesters want the ouster of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and an opening of Algeria’s political system, but many appear to be skeptical of the Algerian military’s recent intervention in support of their demands. Algeria’s military isn’t openly political but it does traditionally view itself as the final arbiter of Algerian political affairs, a role that seems incompatible with the protesters’ demands for more fundamental change to Algeria’s political system.


The Malian government says it’s arrested five people in connection with last weekend’s attack on a Fulani village in central Mali in which at least 157 people were killed.

Analyst James Blake explains how extremist groups are exploiting ethnic conflicts in central Mali and across the Sahel–and how that exploitation is in turn exacerbating those conflicts:

Although Islamist terrorist groups have not taken control of territory in central Mali, they have been able to set up bases from which they launch raids on nearby villages and towns. They target the Dogon and Bambara, as well as those who are affiliated with—or provide information to—the security forces. JNIM has also conducted attacks it says are in retaliation for the targeting of the Fulani.

The jihadi groups have sought to exploit grievances among Fulani ethnic groups to boost their numbers and power in central Mali. They have exploited the Fulanis’ unhappiness over losing their lands to the Dogon to recruit them in large numbers—possibly in the hundreds, if not thousands—from their villages and towns. Some Fulani civilians are also driven to join groups linked to al Qaeda by anger about government corruption, rising crime rates, and instances of government persecution. According to the 2018 Human Rights Watch report, the Fulani Islamist leader Hamadou Koufa Diallo is particularly influential in recruiting locals.

In turn, the Dogon community has held the entire Fulani community responsible for supporting and abetting jihadi terrorist groups in central Mali. As the International Crisis Group pointed out in a March report, the alliance between jihadi groups and some of the Fulani people is not particularly natural. Jihadi groups are less interested in addressing communal grievances than in establishing a caliphate. Rather, it is driven by isolation and a lack of protection from the Malian government.



Slovakian voters will choose their next president in Saturday’s runoff, and environmental lawyer and anti-corruption activist Zuzana Čaputová, who won the first round on March 16, is widely expected to win. She’ll be the first woman president of Slovakia and her victory, as a political novice whose party doesn’t even hold any seats in the Slovak parliament, will represent a major repudiation of the Slovakian political establishment.


The House of Commons voted down Theresa May’s Brexit plan for the third (and, incredibly, maybe not final) time on Friday, leaving the UK careening toward a no-deal Brexit on April 12 unless May can convince the European Union to give her more time. She’ll have some EU members, like Poland, on her side, but others–France seems to be chief among them–appear ready to cut the cord without some reasonable expectation that May has figured out a way to finally get the Brexit deal through parliament. And if anything is clear at this point, it’s that May has not figured out a way to finally get the Brexit deal through parliament.



A Brazilian judge has barred President Jair Bolsonaro’s plan to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the 1964 military coup that put a brutal junta in charge of Brazil for the next 21 years. The court ruling argued that celebrating the coup was incompatible “with the process of democratic reconstruction.”


Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino López says that John Bolton has been sending him messages urging him to “do the right thing,” where by “right thing” Bolton apparently means a military coup against Nicolás Maduro. Classy. Bolton, meanwhile, along with Mike Pompeo and Elliott Abrams, has been warning Russia to remove its 100 or so soldiers from Venezuela. They’re threatening more sanctions against Moscow if the Russians don’t comply. I would urge you to follow this particular thread of the Venezuela story because it illustrates perfectly the “OK for me but not for thee” principle of US foreign policy. Russia’s not allowed to interfere in Venezuelan affairs because that’s our job, you see.

The International Red Cross says it’s ready to begin a humanitarian aid operation in Venezuela, which may signal that Maduro has relaxed his opposition to international assistance in the wake of Venezuela’s two recent major blackouts (the second of which is ongoing). The shipments would bring food, medical equipment, and generators initially to several hundred thousand Venezuelans. Along those same lines, Maduro’s government says it’s received a shipment of medicine from China, a staunch Maduro ally and, more importantly, creditor.


Donald Trump on Friday suggested that if Mexico doesn’t do something to stop Central American migrants from reaching the US border, he will close the US-Mexico border altogether. This would not only disrupt legal migration but would have a huge impact on the US economy, and not the good kind, while doing absolutely nothing to deter asylum seekers. The Mexican government does not seem inclined to respond to Trump’s threat for obvious reasons, nor is it inclined to become the United States’ migrant concierge, for reasons that should also be obvious.


Finally, The American Prospect’s Gershom Gorenberg places Trump’s decision to recognize Israel’s annexation of the Golan in the context of what appears to be a much bigger and scarier project:

Donald Trump just recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory occupied in a war 52 years ago. Trump also supports Brexit, doesn’t give a fig for NATO, thinks neo-Nazis may be “very fine people,” and is trying to sabotage America’s very belated halfway attempt to emulate the national health-care systems of other developed countries.

Yes, these things are connected. They show Trump’s role as a prime mover of a global trend: dismantling the measures taken after World War II to prevent another such human-made mega-catastrophe. The trend, and America’s role in it, suggests something frightening—that the ability to remember historical events and learn from them may be limited by the length of a human life.

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