World update: March 30-31 2019



Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum survived an assassination attempt on Saturday that left one of his bodyguards dead. Taliban fighters attacked Dostum’s convoy in Balkh province, kicking off an hourlong gun battle. Dostum has now survived two assassination attempts (the first one made by ISIS) since returning from self-imposed exile in Turkey last summer.

The AP reports that veterans of the Fatimiyoun Brigade, made up of Afghans recruited to fight in Syria by Iranian authorities, are finding that they’re not terribly welcome once they return home:

Afghan veterans returning from Syria are threatened from multiple sides. They face arrest by security agencies that view them as traitors. And they face violence from the brutal Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, which views Shiites as heretics and vows to kill them. Last May, IS gunmen burst into Herat’s Jawadia Shiite mosque, opening fire and setting off their suicide belt explosives among worshippers, killing 38 people.

Just knowing people who fought in Syria can land someone in jail, said a local elder in a village near Herat. He spoke on condition of anonymity for that reason. Eight men from his village were killed fighting in Syria, but there are no graves for them here. All were buried in Iran, he said.

It is possible that the Iranians will remobilize the Fatimiyoun at some point, or that it will remobilize itself, particularly if Afghan Shiʿa find themselves under attack from either a resurgent ISIS or an empowered Taliban. Iran could use them to expand its influence in Afghanistan, which is certainly a concern. But Afghan Shiʿa have more to fear than almost any other community from a peace deal that brings the Taliban into the Afghan government, and they may very well need to be able to defend themselves in that eventuality.


New polling suggests that the boost Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party got from February’s brief military clash with Pakistan over Kashmir may be fading ahead of India’s general election, which begins on April 11. In the wake of that clash polling showed that 29 percent of Indian voters were primarily concerned with national security, but that number has now dropped to 15 percent. The less voters focus on security the more they probably focus on the weak Indian economy, which is not good from BJP’s perspective.


Philippine police say they killed 14 communist rebels in a shootout in Negros Oriental province on Saturday. The thing is, the Northern Negros Alliance of Human Rights Advocates says they were farmers, not rebels, and police killed them because they’re struggling to make their “quotas” in the conflict against the communist insurgents. Perhaps this seems farfetched to you, but consider that this is pretty much the approach the Philippine government has been using in its ultra-violent War on Drug (users).



United Nations Secretary General António Guterres suggested on Saturday that Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj and warlord Khalifa Haftar may be circling an agreement that would put Haftar in charge of the Libyan military. That would probably go a long way toward reconciling the international-recognized Libyan government, which Serraj heads, with the rival government based in Tobruk, which is controlled by Haftar and his “Libyan National Army.” It will also probably alienate the powerful militias based in Misrata, the country’s other major military force, which are opposed to Haftar and the LNA.


Embattled Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika appointed a new cabinet on Sunday, but the bigger story–reported later in the day by a couple of private Algerian TV stations, is that he may be planning to resign as soon as Tuesday. Or, well, his people may be planning to resign on his behalf. Bouteflika’s handlers have resisted having him step down despite the ongoing public protests against his continuation in office, and at this point it’s not clear it will end the political crisis. The protesters’ demands have expanded beyond Bouteflika, and now nothing short of real political reform may be enough to pacify them.


Al-Shabab announced on Sunday that it had executed four people suspected of spying for the Somali, Djiboutian, and British governments by firing squad in the southern town of Kamsuma.



As expected, comedian and political neophyte Volodymyr Zelenskiy appears in unofficial results to have won the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election on Sunday. Exit polling has him at around 30 percent of the vote, far short of a majority, which means he’ll likely be facing incumbent Petro Poroshenko in a runoff on April 21. Poroshenko came in with just under 18 percent in exit polling and is deeply unpopular, which means he’s got his work cut out for him. But given his background, Zelenskiy is going to be under a lot of pressure to assure voters that he’s capable of bring an effective president ahead of the runoff.


Also as expected, environmental lawyer and anti-corruption activist (and also political neophyte) Zuzana Čaputová became the first woman elected president of Slovakia when she convincingly won a presidential runoff on Saturday with 58 percent of the vote. Slovakia’s presidency is mostly ceremonial, but her election is a public rebuke to the country’s ruling SMER-SD party, which was backing her opponent. She’ll try to use the popular legitimacy she’s built up to press for reforms to Slovakia’s unpopular and moderately corrupt political establishment.


It’s presumably going to be a big week of Brexit fun as the United Kingdom attempts either to figure out how it wants to leave the European Union or, at a minimum, how to justify asking the EU for another delay. Parliament is expected yet again to take up a slate of possible Brexit arrangements, and while it’s likely none of them will pass there is a possibility that a coalition of Labour MPs and “Remainer” Tories could vote for a “soft Brexit,” or in other words leaving the UK in a customs union with the EU. If none of these alternatives pass, May is expected to bring her own Brexit plan up for a fourth vote, though there’s not much reason to expect she’ll have better luck this time around. Assuming that doesn’t pass, she’ll be left with two choices: let the UK crash out of the EU without a deal, as her party’s hardliners want, or call a snap election and hope the EU agrees to delay the Brexit deadline while that plays out.



With angry Venezuelans protesting and setting up barricades in Caracas and elsewhere on Sunday, Nicolás Maduro has announced a month of power rationing as his government attempts to recover from two major national power outages. Schools will be closed, working hours will be curtailed, and meanwhile people will continue to struggle to get food and especially clean water in the absence of a reliable electrical grid.

Opposition leader Juan Guaidó is calling for more protests against Maduro, but he’s also acknowledging that it will take a military coup to put him in power. Which remains unlikely and also seems like the kind of thing that could go very, very wrong.


Donald Trump has decided to cut US aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras because he’s mad that Central American migrants keep coming to the US seeking asylum. That it’s perfectly legal for them to do so is apparently irrelevant, as is the fact that cutting aid to those countries is likely to worsen conditions in Central America and send more people north to escape gang violence and look for economic opportunities. Redirecting aid away from corrupt regional governments and toward humanitarian aid organizations would make sense, but zeroing out aid altogether is stupid for the sake of being vindictive.


Finally, I haven’t spent much time on the “Russiagate” investigation and so I haven’t felt obliged to spend much time on its (relative) flameout. But I do think there’s been some inappropriate overreacting to the news that Special Counsel Robert Mueller isn’t bringing any more indictments, because it’s not like his investigation produced no results. If we could all move past the 2016 election–an almost insurmountable hurdle, I realize–Mueller seems to have opened a window into elite corruption that might really be worth a deeper look. For example, Foreign Policy’s Elias Groll suggests that his investigation may have really done a number on the DC lobbying business:

Despite his failure to find evidence that U.S. President Donald Trump colluded with the Russians during his 2016 campaign, Mueller’s investigation and indictment of some of Washington’s most infamous lobbyists has sparked a flurry of foreign agent filings by the city’s well-heeled power brokers. It has also prompted a stepped-up effort at the Justice Department to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a law first passed in 1938 and aimed at bringing a measure of transparency into foreign governments’ efforts to influence U.S. politics.

Prior to the Mueller investigation, Justice Department lawyers had rarely issued an indictment under FARA, but that changed with the prosecution of Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates on charges related to the pair’s failure to register as foreign agents.

“To the extent that there are prominent Washington lobbyists who think their prominence somehow insulates them from the reach of law enforcement, the Manafort and Gates case stands for the proposition that no one is above the law,” said David Laufman, who first initiated the increased enforcement of FARA in 2015 while serving as head of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section at the Justice Department.

If all Mueller’s work does is lead to better FARA enforcement, which is long overdue and badly needed, then frankly it would have been worth the two years of cable news ridiculousness we’ve all experienced.

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