World update: January 30 2018



Everybody is talking tough about the Afghan war today, after that massive Taliban bombing in Kabul on Saturday. Donald Trump already seemed to spit on the idea of peace talks on Monday, but on Tuesday the Afghan government followed suit:

“Believe me, I will take revenge,” President Ashraf Ghani said after an evening prayer service in the capital, visibly angry after a week of suicide bombings and armed raids that took more than 100 lives and wounded nearly 300 people. The country’s enemies, he said, “should know that Afghans do not have a president who will give in.”


In a separate formal statement, Ghani’s chief spokesman said that by launching such horrific violence, “the Taliban has lost the opportunity for peace talks. From now on, peace must be sought on the battleground.”

The Taliban is now blaming Trump and Ghani for “spurning” peace, even though both men were reacting to yet another Taliban mass murder when they did so:

The Taliban, for its part, seemed to relish the new belligerence the group’s violence has aroused in Washington and Kabul. In a lengthy statement Tuesday, a Taliban spokesman said that Trump had “exposed his war-mongering face” and had proved that “the American invaders and their supporters use peace as mere rhetoric, while their true strategy is war and occupation.” Having “spurned” peace, the statement said, “all responsibility of war and bloodletting will also fall on them.”

You won’t catch me defending this war, the Afghan government, or the United States, but this Taliban statement is some pretty rancid bullshit. If this were really a group that was interested in peace, it’s had plenty of chances to show it and has passed every time.

Of course, people in Washington who are not Donald Trump still get that there’s no way to win this war and the best the US can do is a negotiated settlement.

One problem now, as highlighted by Monday’s ISIS attack on the National Defense University in Kabul, is that Afghanistan is as much a battleground between ISIS and the Taliban as it is between those groups and Kabul/the US. The Taliban and ISIS generally don’t directly fight one another–instead, they compete to see who can kill more Afghan people. It’s the contest many people feared would break out in Syria and Iraq after ISIS broke away from al-Qaeda, and it’s not good news for anybody, really.


At least six people were killed on Tuesday by a roadside bomb in the Kurram tribal region near the Afghan border. There’s no shortage of potential culprits, but so far none have claimed the attack.


Local observers say that at least five civilians have been killed so far this week amid a government offensive against Kachin rebels in northern Myanmar. Some 3000 civilians have become trapped due to the military advance into the region, and activists are trying to convince the commander of the country’s northern army to open up a corridor through which those civilians could evacuate.


General Paul Selva, the vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Tuesday that North Korea hasn’t yet demonstrated that it has a functioning nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile. And, look, he’s not wrong–they haven’t shown that they have a guidance system, or that they can get a nuke on top of their ICBM, or that they have an atmospheric reentry vehicle. But who cares? Every one of these “I’M NOT OWNED” pronouncements from the Pentagon about North Korea’s nuclear program has been met in short order with North Korea demonstrating that it has developed whatever we were sure they hadn’t developed yet. North Korea hasn’t demonstrated a solid fuel ICBM either, but it’s clear they’re working on it, and at this point why would anybody doubt that they’ll eventually develop it?

Talk like this only creates the impression that there’s a window in which the US can still use a military strike to halt North Korea’s nuclear development before it’s able to target the mainland US with a nuke. But since it’s constantly underestimating North Korea’s progress, the Pentagon’s judgment on this issue should be considered thoroughly discredited. And more importantly, that window has never actually existed, not unless we’re prepared to countenance millions of dead South Koreans in the name of showing Pyongyang who’s boss.


If you’re looking for a positive sign on the North Korea front, this is not it:

Victor Cha, a former White House official who had been the Trump’s administration’s choice to be the next U.S. ambassador to South Korea, is no longer being considered for the post, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.


The Washington Post earlier quoted people familiar with the matter as saying that Cha had raised concerns with National Security Council officials over their consideration of a limited strike on North Korea and about the administration’s threats to tear up a bilateral trade deal with Seoul.

Cha wasn’t on board with the hawks so now he’s out of a gig. That ought to tell you where this administration is at on the North Korea question.



One of George Weah’s missions as Liberian president will be to change the country’s citizenship law to allow non-blacks to become Liberian citizens. Currently there are sizable minority communities in Liberia–whites, yes, but also Indians, Lebanese, and others–whose members are barred from pursuing Liberian citizenship regardless of how long they or their families have been in the country. Weah also wants to open up land ownership to non-citizens, arguing that it would boost foreign investment in the country’s weak economy.


Amnesty says that Nigerian airstrikes have killed 35 people since late last year, when the Nigerian air force began firing what it calls “warning shots” meant to deter fighting between herdsmen and farmers across the center of the country. Several villages appear to have been heavily damaged as a result of these strikes in satellite images. The fighting between predominantly Muslim herdsmen and predominantly Christian farmers killed over 500 people last year, but even so airstrikes don’t really seem to be a well thought-out response.


Thousands of people attended opposition leader Raila Odinga’s “inauguration” as “people’s president” on Tuesday in Nairobi. Odinga is of course not actually president, having lost a contested election in August, whose results were later tossed out by the country’s Supreme Court, then having boycotted the revote in October. Kenyan officials say the ceremony amounts to treason, and they threatened media outlets with being shut down if they reported on the event. Indeed, the handful of outlets that did try to report on it were shut down. Odinga’s “inauguration address” was very short and notably light on specifics, probably because this whole episode has significantly increased the risks of a major government crackdown.



The Trump administration is refusing to levy new sanctions against Russia under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. This is no minor thing. Whether you agree with sanctions or not, whether you think we’re on the verge of being overwhelmed by a new Russian Empire or you think we’re in the middle of a whole new phony Red Scare, the president really isn’t supposed to just decide not to enforce laws passed by Congress. Technically the administration is invoking a national security exemption to get around imposing new sanctions, so it’s legally in the clear, but what’s the security issue in play? Nobody seems to be saying. Republicans used to get apoplectic when Barack Obama would prioritize the enforcement of the law, something the executive branch is allowed to do, in ways they didn’t like. Now we have a Republican president telling Congress to go fuck itself and…well, I’m sure they’ll be shouting from the rooftops any second now.

However, the administration has followed through on the publication of a list of Russian oligarchs alleged to have ties to Vladimir Putin that was mandated by that same piece of legislation. Well, kind of. It did publish a list, one that includes 114 leading Russian politicians and 96 oligarchs, that purports to be a list of Putin’s “inner circle.” The publication of the list could very well introduce a significant amount of uncertainty into the Russian economy, since the people on the list might as well have big “SANCTION ME” signs taped to their backs. Consequently the Russian government is pissed, or at least it’s putting on a convincing portrayal of being pissed, with Putin arguing that the United States has basically declared Russia its enemy. The politicians named on the list are treating it more or less as an honor, suggesting anybody not on the list should be suspected of ties with the Americans.

On the other hand, there are indications that the administration half-assed the creation of the list, taking the oligarchs’ names from Forbes magazine without bothering to actually check and see how they connected to Putin. Or to translate that into Bullshit:

“The names of and net worth of oligarchs in the unclassified version of the report were selected based on objective criteria drawn from publicly available sources,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

So there are names on the list of ultra-wealthy Russians who probably don’t connect to Putin in any meaningful way, and therefore the whole list can be dismissed as something a D+ high school student might try to pass off as research for a civics paper. That’s certainly how the Russians are trying to spin it.


The Catalan parliament has decided that if Carles Puigdemont can’t be regional president, nobody will. It’s indefinitely postponed a vote to elect a new chief executive following the Spanish Constitutional Court’s ruling declaring Puigdemont ineligible.



On Tuesday, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction issued its quarterly report on the state of America’s Longest War. For the first time since it began reporting this information two years ago, SIGAR was blocked from releasing information about how much of Afghanistan the Afghan government actually controls. Which is both indefensible, because it bars information that the American people have a right to know, and stupid, because you might as well just come out and say that Kabul has continued to lose ground to the Taliban. It’s not as though the administration would try to hide any evidence that it’s winning the war.

After taking heavy backlash over this move, the military later on Tuesday said that the information had been mistakenly classified in “a human error”…but didn’t, as far as I’ve seen, then release the information. However, an independent investigation by the BBC finds that the Taliban is “threatening” around 70 percent of the country. That means there’s a Taliban presence of some kind in all but 122 of Afghanistan’s 398 districts. So by that count only 30 percent of the country can be said to be unambiguously under Kabul’s control–and many of those (like Kabul itself) are still seeing frequent violence.

Just some things to keep in mind as you’re watching Donald Trump lie about the course of the Afghan war during his State of the Union address this evening.

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