World update: January 19 2018


Al-Qaeda, or at least individual al-Qaeda branches, are reportedly trying to take advantage of ISIS’s misfortunes by undertaking recruitment efforts to poach fighters away from the newer upstart. This phenomenon has been reported in North Africa, the Sahel, Syria, and Yemen. So far it doesn’t appear to have borne much fruit, though there are apparently indications that ISIS-Greater Sahara leader Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahrawi’s loyalties might be shifting back toward al-Qaeda and in Yemen, where AQAP has long dominated the extremist landscape, ISIS’s footprint may be shrinking. Whether ISIS can hold on to the bulk of its remaining fighters long-term depends on whether it can reassert itself as a threat, probably as a terrorist threat rather than a territorial one at this point, and on whether it can find some new sources of revenue. Even die hard jihadis need to make a wage.


Good news! Mike Pence is going to make his trip to the Middle East even if there’s a government shutdown! It’s important to know that even as things collapse in DC, our government will still be able to carry out completely pointless tasks that have the potential to inflame tensions in other parts of the world.


Turkish artillery repeatedly struck YPG-controlled Afrin on Friday, as Ankara said that its assault on the enclave was “has actually started de facto.” In this case I guess we’re using a more obscure meaning of “de facto,” which is “not really.” Turkey has shelled the YPG in Afrin before and it’s stopped there. The only way this time will be different is if there’s a commitment to use Turkish air power and to actually send troops into the area, and so far neither of those things has happened. I’m not saying they won’t, and at this point they’ve put themselves in a position where they’ll look weak if they don’t, but these are steps that would require Russian and probably American assent (which, to be fair, there’s some evidence that they’ve actually gotten) and even then Ankara would have to contend with the threat from the Syrian government to shoot its aircraft down if they cross into Syrian airspace. These aren’t minor considerations.


If Afrin does turn into a full scale assault, and depending on how long it goes, it could involve some newly-upgraded Turkish tanks. Berlin looks ready to green light a deal for one of its weapons manufacturers to upgrade Turkey’s fleet of Leopard tanks, in a sign that relations between the two countries may actually be improving for a change.


Now that it’s apologized for the shooting incident at its embassy in Amman last summer, the Israeli government is set to appoint a new ambassador to Jordan.


Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is going to run for reelection in March. I know, I was surprised too. I like his chances, particularly if he keeps denying his potential opponents the ability to so much as deliver a speech in public. Seems like it will be tough for them to campaign that way.



All of a sudden it looks like there might be an opening for restarting peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban. Taliban representatives are attending clandestine exploratory meetings in Pakistan (those other recent meetings in Turkey seem to have involved a Taliban faction but not the main group), Russia is offering to host talks, it’s just a little flurry of activity. It could be that the Taliban is feeling a bit more pressure on the battlefield. It could be that Pakistan is leaning on the Taliban to come to the table in order to calm the Trump administration down. Or this could all be a false alarm.


Speaking of Pakistan, Umer Karim and Giorgio Cafiero look at the long and often difficult US-Pakistan relationship vis-a-vis Afghanistan:

Despite past cooperation in the counter-terrorism domain, Washington and Islamabad view the tumultuous security environment near the Afghan-Pakistani border through different lenses. Pakistan understands that when the US departs Afghanistan the only force that Islamabad could hedge its bets on would be the Taliban since the current government in Kabul is very much in the Indian camp and has accused Pakistan of backing terrorist entities and their functionaries in Afghanistan. With India as an arch-rival, the Pakistanis see Afghanistan as offering strategic depth vis-à-vis New Delhi. When the US and Pakistan collaborated in Afghanistan in the 1980s against the Soviet Union’s Red Army, Islamabad mastered its ability to connect with anti-Indian jihadists in Afghanistan to eject Indian influence from Afghanistan. To this day, these non-state actors have too much strategic value for Pakistan to consider cutting off ties with them.


In case you haven’t been picking up on this thread amid these updates, which I realize can sometimes get a little too atomized, the situation in Kashmir is not great at the moment. Another five people were killed in cross-border shooting on Friday, making this a pretty active week for Indian and Pakistani soldiers firing on one another. What’s particularly worrisome is that the tension right now isn’t between India and the people of Kashmir so much as it’s between India and Pakistan. Both of whom have nukes. Each country has been complaining about the other’s ceasefire violations while themselves violating the ceasefire, and things show no sign of quieting down.


The Bangladeshi government may have agreed to a deal to send Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar, but for the moment at least the Rohingya are still going in the opposite direction. Some 100 of them have reportedly crossed into Bangladesh in the past two days. There’s still no indication that substantial numbers of the refugees even want to go back home particularly when Myanmar doesn’t really seem interested in offering any guarantees about their rights and safety. Refugee leaders in Bangladesh have drawn up a list of demands they say must be fulfilled before they’ll agree to return, including citizenship, accountability for the Myanmar military’s (alleged) crimes against humanity, and the return of land taken from the Rohingya. We’ll see if they get any of that.


Having already enshrined Xi Jinping’s thoughts in the Chinese Communist Party constitution, the party now says it will enshrine them in China’s national constitution. Of the two, the party constitution is more important. But legally speaking, in order to establish the kind of anti-corruption institutions that Xi’s thought requires, the state constitution also has to be changed.



The Ethiopian government has freed over 100 political prisoners this week, including Oromo leader Merera Gudina, and has dropped a number of pending cases that could be described as political prosecutions. But this is a drop in the bucket in terms of numbers, and the United Nations is calling on it to release more of the thousands of people it is believed to be holding on political charges.


The US says that it carried out an airstrike Friday just outside the southern Somali city of Kismayo that killed four al-Shabab fighters.


At least 12 Congolese soldiers were killed in fighting against the Allied Democratic Forces group in eastern DRC late Thursday and extending into Friday morning. The DRC forces appear to have been ambushed by the ADF attackers.



Vladimir Putin performed his religion (shirtless, of course) at everybody in Russia on Friday:

Russian leader Vladimir Putin dipped into frigid waters early Friday at a lake in northwestern Russia to mark the Orthodox observance of the Epiphany, which commemorates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River.


The president arrived for the pre-dawn ceremony flanked by journalists with video cameras and monks holding gold icons depicting Jesus and his mother Mary, then strode to a wooden platform cut into frozen Lake Seliger. He lowered himself into the water, made a sign of the cross and submerged himself for a moment, in a scene captured by state media. His spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the temperature was about 21 degrees Fahrenheit.

One of the lesser discussed aspects of Putin’s reign by observers here in the US is its overt religiosity, which sometimes manifests in measures that wouldn’t seem out of place in Saudi Arabia or Iran apart from the Muslim-Christian difference. Though Putin has drawn down some of his anti-West rhetoric since Donald Trump took office, in the past he’s spoken of Western degeneracy a la somebody like Sayyid Qutb. I don’t know how much Putin really believes and how much is showing off for the rubes, but I’m sure it’s a bit of both to one degree or another.


The Romanian government is preparing for large protests this weekend in opposition to its recent changes to the country’s judiciary and its ongoing efforts to decriminalize corruption. The protests are unlikely to result in any concessions but they do reflect a sense that the country is backsliding in its anti-corruption efforts and hurting its accession bid to the European Union in the process.


The Czech parliament voted on Friday to strip Prime Minister Andrej Babiš of immunity from prosecution, which means he could now face charges stemming from the corruption investigation into his business practices. In an interesting twist, Babiš himself voted yes on the measure. If he feels he’ll be exonerated by the investigation then that makes sense–an exoneration at the end of a full investigation might be the only chance Babiš has to form a government. Right now no other party is amenable to forming a coalition with or even supporting a minority government run by his ANO party, in part because of the corruption cloud hanging over him.


Angela Merkel is reportedly feeling good about her chances of forming a new grand coalition with the Social Democrats. SPD leader Martin Schulz has been warning his reluctant party members that if they vote against the coalition they’re liable to lose even more seats in a snap election, which is a pretty strong argument to be sure. Lots of SPD rank and file are still very reluctant to green light another coalition, though, so nothing should be taken for granted here. And one result of the September election and all the subsequent wrangling over coalitions is that German voters are starting to think about the previously unthinkable: that Merkel might not be around very much longer. She’s suddenly looking very vulnerable, and her conservative bloc doesn’t really have any obvious plan for replacing her if and when the time comes.


Boris Johnson wants to build a bridge across the English Channel. This is not the dumbest idea Boris Johnson has ever had–that’s a deep rabbit hole to go down–but it is a dumb idea, and it’s definitely not going to happen. It would be big, expensive, hugely disruptive to channel maritime traffic, and so on. It’s particularly dumb given that another of Boris’s very dumb ideas, Brexit, is going to happen in another year or so, at which point how do you manage the customs problem on this theoretical bridge? Do you set customs up at the end of the bridge, in which case you have cars backed up across the bridge all the time? Or do you set it up at the beginning of the bridge, in which case both Britain and France will have to deal with a new permanent traffic jam caused by people waiting to cross into the other country? Very dumb, Boris, very dumb.



Colombian officials say that over half a million Venezuelans have entered the country (most without permission) to escape economic pressures back home. Another million have registered for a program that allows them to legally cross into Colombia to buy stuff, like food, that they’re having a hard time getting in Venezuela. Maybe we should slap more sanctions on them, it sounds to me like they’ve still got it pretty sweet.


James Mattis unveiled his new National Defense Strategy at Johns Hopkins on Friday, revealing something that’s been increasingly apparent for some time now: great power politics is back, baby. Mattis explicitly acknowledged that fighting terrorism is no longer the thing that occupies the national security establishment’s thoughts–countering China and Russia is. America’s comparative military edge over both countries is apparently “eroding,” to which I can only offer this one thought: WHAT THE FUCK HAVE YOU PEOPLE BEEN SPENDING ALL THE MONEY ON? I mean, look at this shit:


If you can’t maintain a comparative military edge with that disparity in spending, then you are clearly too stupid to be allowed a military edge to begin with. Granted, the US fritters away a big chunk of that military spending managing our eight or so ongoing wars, but here’s a thought: stop fighting a few of those.

Here’s another thought: instead of wasting $1.5 trillion on planes that struggle to work at all and may not be able to actually carry out their missions even when they do work, spend that money on literally anything else. Buy $1.5 trillion in donuts for the break rooms at the Pentagon. Throw a really massive and cool party. Whatever, go nuts. But don’t waste hundreds of billions of dollars and then come back and complain that your military is in decline and losing its edge, so that’s why we have to get rid of food stamps so that we can still afford the huge upper class tax cut that we also apparently need even though our military is allegedly withering on the vine.

This is a con. It always has been a con. It’s meant to justify ever higher military expenditures even as the rest of us are ordered to tighten those belts and don’t plan on retiring until you’re 90. But spend 30 seconds thinking about how the by far best funded military in human history could possibly be falling apart and you come to one of two possible answers: either the people who run it are completely, epically incompetent or the people who run it are lying to us. Maybe it’s both. But I think it’s interesting that the military’s “incompetence” so often works in favor of the permanent empire. Oh shit, we fucked up Afghanistan again, guess we’ll have to stay for another ten years. What’s that? We broke Iraq and as a result half the country was captured by terrorists? Welp, guess we’ve gotta go back in there. Interestingly none of our errors ever seem to shorten our wars or cause our leaders to reconsider any of them. Must be a coincidence.

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