Asia/Oceania/Africa update: February 1-2 2018



Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is going to run for a fourth term in October. I know you were all wondering if he would so I thought I’d let you know.


An American drone strike in Ghazni province earlier this week reportedly struck a Taliban “meeting” and killed at least 26 of the group’s fighters including a senior commander.

The fallout from last weekend’s terrorist attacks in Kabul continues to shake the Afghan government. Hundreds of people protested outside the Pakistani embassy in Kabul on Thursday, directly their anger both at the Afghan government for failing to protect them and at the Pakistani government they believe has been harboring their attackers. On that latter point, Afghan officials say they’ve presented “proof,” including at least one confession, to the Pakistani government supporting their claims that Taliban militants have been operating from Pakistani soil. Representatives of the two governments are supposed to meet in the coming days to try to work out some cooperative security arrangements.

On Afghan TV on Friday, President Ashraf Ghani forcefully laid into Islamabad and called Pakistan the “center of Taliban terrorism.” And while there is certainly a case to be made against Pakistan, this finger pointing seems completely intended to divert public attention away from the fact that Ghani’s government can’t even secure its own capital, let alone the rest of the country. To wit, an ISIS operative captured during Monday’s attack on the Marshal Fahim National Defense University has led police to an ISIS hideout in Kabul filled with weapons, explosives, all sorts of interesting stuff. Right under the government’s nose. There’s no explanation for this apart from incompetence, either borne from corruption or just plain boneheadedness.

If I’m sounding particularly pessimistic about Afghanistan here, it’s because I am–as I illustrated on Thursday for LobeLog. I was talking about the Pentagon’s attempt (possibly in error) to prevent the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Relief (SIGAR) from reporting on the progress of the war:

After facing some backlash for blocking the release of unclassified information, the Pentagon backtracked, blaming “human error” for the “unnecessary” restriction. If so, then it was a very coincidental error. It just so happened to obscure the fact that, a year into the “tough on terror” Trump administration and several months after Donald Trump announced his “new” Afghan War strategy—including stepped-up American airstrikes against the Taliban and Islamic State (IS or ISIS)—the situation on the ground in Afghanistan is virtually unchanged according to the Defense Department’s own estimates.


Perhaps someone at the Pentagon or in the Operation Resolute Support chain of command genuinely erred in blocking the release of this information. Or perhaps the Trump administration decided that the American people no longer have a right to know how the longest war in American history is actually going—and only reversed course when called out. Either way, the incident brings to mind a number of other details that the American people ought to know about the situation in Afghanistan.


In a sign of bad Af-Pak relations, Islamabad announced on Thursday that it’s extending the legal stay of roughly 2.5 million Afghan refugees for only another two months. Some of the refugees have been in Pakistan since the Soviet-Afghan War, so this is not a new phenomenon, but when their residency periodically comes up for renewal they’re usually given longer term extensions. The short duration of this one suggests that the Pakistanis are either getting ready to send them back or that they want to give themselves some leverage in discussions with Kabul.


On Thursday, the Maldivian Supreme Court tossed out a 2015 terrorism conviction against former President Mohamed Nasheed. Which is a pretty big deal. Nasheed lost the 2013 election to current President Abdulla Yameen under dubious circumstances, and Yameen’s presidency has been so chock full of corruption and human rights abuses that the opposition has been trying to get him removed from office by that same court. Now, with a presidential election scheduled to happen later this year, Nasheed can and says he will run against Yameen. If the election is legitimate, then Nasheed stands a fair chance of winning.


The United Nations says it is concerned about the risk to civilians in northern Myanmar, where fighting between the Myanmar military and the Kachine Independence Army has been escalating for the past couple of weeks.


The Cambodian government has made it a crime to “insult” the country’s monarchy, with penalties that could include up to five years in prison. What’s great about this is that there is no way it could possibly be used to lock up anybody who opposes Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.


Philippine police rejoined the country’s Purge war on drugs in early December, and so far they’ve only merked 50 people. Kudos for their restraint.


An unexploded 450 kilogram World War II bomb was successfully disarmed in Hong Kong on Thursday. While Germany deals with this sort of thing on the regular, it’s also fairly common for unexploded WWII ordinance to be found in Hong Kong, which was occupied by Japan between 1941 and the end of the war and thus saw its share of Allied airstrikes.


United Nations inspectors say that North Korea managed to violate UN sanctions to the tune of about $200 million in 2017. Most of that money came from illicit coal exports, but Pyongyang was also able to sell arms to some fascinating places like Syria and Myanmar.



International press freedom organizations are criticizing an Australian proposal to toughen anti-whistleblower laws and broaden their application to reporters who publish their information. The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s executive director Trevor Timm called it a “clear and present danger” to Australian journalists that seems “more at home in an autocratic regime than an open democracy.” The Committee to Protect Journalists Asia program coordinator Steven Butler called the measure “shameful.” You get the idea.



Human Rights Watch says that forces connected with Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army have been preventing displaced persons–at least 3700 families in total–from returning to Benghazi. And not for security reasons–allegedly they’ve been seizing people’s land and then arresting/torturing those who try to take it back. This pattern may help explain the several mass execution sites that have been discovered recently in eastern Libya.


Out of work Moroccan miners have been protesting in the town of Jerada for the past five weeks over chronic unemployment with little help from the government. Two men died there in late December scavenging for coal in an unsafe mine, which triggered the demonstrations. That kind of scavenging is one of the few ways men in the town have to try to make ends meet–they sell what they can get to traders for pennies, and the traders then sell it on the open market at a huge markup.


Alex Thurston details five myths about Boko Haram:

Recent years have brought a spate of publications about the Nigerian-born jihadist movement Boko Haram. Many of these publications are works of and , and there are in the pipeline. Nevertheless, key misconceptions about Boko Haram persist, particularly in non-scholarly publications, journalistic treatments of the group, and policymaking. With my own on the group recently released, I want to dispel some of these myths.

One of his myths is that Boko Haram was an al-Qaeda affiliate before it signed on with ISIS. Thurston says that there was a relationship between Boko Haram and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but that AQIM quickly found Boko Haram leader Abu Bakar Shekau uncontrollable and never put the group through the established steps toward al-Qaeda membership. Jacob Zenn of the conservative Jamestown Foundation takes issue with that one and argues that the group’s pre-2011 relationship with AQIM was not “marginal” to its development, as Thurston contends, even if Boko Haram didn’t go through the formal process of becoming an al-Qaeda affiliate.

Elsewhere, anthropologist Omolade Adunbi examines the Fulani herding community’s involvement in communal violence across central Nigeria:

However, what is missing in this conversation is the question as to why and how a pastoralist community suddenly becomes a roving insurgency across the country. Several factors can be adduced for the incessant attacks on innocent farmers across the country.


Many of these factors are interrelated and intertwined. They include: the emergence of Boko Haram as a roving insurgency; the effects of climate change on herders; the spread of small arms across the Sahara Desert; and the growing ethnic and religious mistrust in Nigeria.


The Trump administration announced on Friday that it will no longer sell weapons to South Sudan in an effort to suppress the country’s civil war. Now, the US already doesn’t sell weapons to South Sudan, so this is a purely symbolic move. But the hope is that it will lead to other countries agreeing to follow suit and perhaps a full embargo via the UN Security Council.


“People’s President” Raila Odinga is still a free man, but the TV stations that tried to broadcast his “inauguration” on Tuesday are still off the air, despite a Kenyan High Court ruling ordering them to be reinstated. Obviously this is a serious concern for any Kenyan interested in things like freedom of the press and the rule of law.


Violence and famine have left millions of Congolese people in desperate straits and has sent thousands of them fleeing the country–over 8000 just in the past week, to Burundi and Tanzania. Millions are now displaced, which only exacerbates the food shortages. This Guardian photo essay explains the situation quite well.


Jacob Zuma may face another confidence vote in parliament this month, as pressure grows for him to step down before his term as president ends. Zuma’s support within the African National Congress has allowed him to survive past confidence votes, but it’s not clear he has much juice left within the ANC. He’s scheduled to meet with party leaders this weekend, ahead of his state of the nation address on February 8, for a discussion that might have a big role in determining his short-term future.

South Africa’s political dysfunction can’t end soon enough, given that millions of people in Cape Town are now on a 13 gallons of water per day restriction and may literally be about to run out of water. Cape Town is in the midst of a three year-long drought and is staring at what is being called “day zero,” the day on which all the city’s usable water will have run out. Nobody can say with certainty when “day zero” is coming, but barring a serious conservation effort and/or a major extended rainfall it is coming.

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