Asia/Africa update: July 25-26 2018

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

A Taliban suicide bomber attacked an Afghan intelligence convoy in Kabul early Thursday morning. Casualty reports have varied, but at least one report said that four people were killed. Meanwhile, on Tuesday Afghan officials said that the Taliban overran and captured two districts in Paktika province over the weekend. Typically Afghan forces are able to retake district centers that the Taliban has seized but it’s unclear whether they’ve made any progress in this case.

The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Alice Wells, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, led a delegation this week to Doha to speak with Taliban representatives there. The Trump administration is trying to prod the Taliban to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government and may be willing to dangle the possibility of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan to break the ice.

PAKISTAN

The unofficial/preliminary vote count shows Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party winning at least 105 seats in Wednesday’s election. That puts it 32 seats shy of a majority, but there are still 48 seats where results are not yet known so PTI’s final numbers could change. I’ve seen counts that put them at 110 or even 120 seats, much closer to a majority. Regardless, this puts Khan in the driver’s seat in terms of forming Pakistan’s next government. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, which had been Pakistan’s ruling party since the 2013 election, is in second with 54 seats right now but has already rejected the results of the vote, arguing that the campaign was rigged in Khan’s favor by the Pakistani military and the vote count itself was manipulated to boot. Several smaller parties, which could otherwise be potential PTI coalition partners, are echoing those complaints.

Khan, the former cricket star, now has to form a government, which is no sure thing given the allegations of fraud flying around and his past statements against the possibility of aligning with the Pakistan People’s Party, which came in third with 33 seats. It will be easier to gauge his chances once all the district tallies have come in. The military, which–Khan’s denials aside–really does seem to have put its finger on the scale to give him a leg up, could reassert itself if he struggles to put together a coalition. If/when the government is formed, Khan’s top priority will presumably be bolstering the Pakistani economy, which is reeling and may be forced to accept an austerity-heavy International Monetary Fund loan. He’ll also need to balance the short-term economic benefits offered by China’s Belt and Road projects against their long-term cost and a growing popular sense that Pakistan is getting screwed in its deals with China.

As to what he’ll do if he becomes PM, Khan campaigned on an anti-corruption, populist platform, so you can expect a “drain the swamp” mentality at least at first. He’s a right leaning populist who owes his victory in large part to religious conservatives and the military. This likely means that, while he’s talked about how a strong Afghanistan is good for Pakistan, he’ll be reluctant to take a hardline position against the Afghan Taliban, which is favored by religious types and supported by the Pakistani security establishment. He has talked about reaching out to India, which is not something the Pakistani military necessarily wants to hear, so that will be worth watching.

CAMBODIA

Cambodian voters will go to the polls this weekend and…well, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party is going to win. He’s already made sure of that by disbanding the country’s largest opposition party late last year. You don’t get to remain prime minister for 33 years and counting without being able to fix an election or two.

PHILIPPINES

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday signed into law a bill that provides substantial autonomy for the Philippines’ Moro Muslim population. The Bangsamoro Organic Law will establish a transitional government for the often rebellious Moro region before establishing a full regional government with its own parliament. In return, Moro rebels, who have been fighting for independence or at least autonomy since the 1970s, will begin disarming.

TAIWAN

The Taiwanese government lashed out on Thursday at Beijing’s efforts to “destroy Taiwan’s sovereignty and erase it from the world map” as Taiwan’s foreign ministry put it. In its latest maneuver, Beijing has forced several international airlines to refer to Taiwan as “China Taiwan” in any official capacity, under threat of sanction on the mainland. Most airlines have complied with this request.

NORTH KOREA

Pyongyang has reportedly turned over the remains of 55 US service members who were killed during the Korean War. That’s a small portion of the estimated 7700 US soldiers who went missing during that war, but it is a start.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday that North Korea is continuing to make fissile material for nuclear weapons. Baby steps, I suppose. But at 38 North, Gareth Porter argues that stories of Pyongyang’s continued nuclear activities have been overhyped by the media in an effort to “discredit diplomacy”:

Major media reporting on what is alleged to be intelligence and photographic evidence that North Korea intends to deceive the United States in negotiations on denuclearization has been extraordinarily misleading. It has blithely ignored serious issues surrounding the alleged intelligence conclusions and suggested that North Korea has demonstrated bad faith by failing to halt all nuclear and missile-related activities.

Recent stories do not reflect actual evidence of covert facilities, but rather deep suspicions of North Korean intentions within the intelligence community that have been fed to the media by individuals within the administration who are unhappy with the direction of the president’s North Korea policy following the Singapore Summit. And breathless reports on improvements in North Korean nuclear and missile facilities ignore the distinction between a summit statement and a final deal with North Korea. They have thus obscured the reality that the fate of the negotiations depends not only North Korean policy but on the willingness of the United States to make changes in its policy toward the DPRK and the Korean Peninsula that past administrations have all been reluctant to make.

38 North also has an exclusive piece on North Korea’s Chemical Materials Institute and its role in Pyongyang’s effort to develop solid fuel ballistic missiles that is worth checking out if you’re interested.

AFRICA

The Intercept’s Nick Turse reports that although there’s been talk of reducing US troop numbers in Africa, so far there’s been no action to back it up:

Today, more U.S. commandos are deployed to Africa than to any other region of the world except the Middle East. Back in 2006, there were only 70 special operators deployed across Africa. Just four years ago, there were still just 700 elite troops on the continent. Given that an average of 8,300 commandos are deployed overseas in any given week, according to SOCOM spokesperson Ken McGraw, we can surmise that roughly 1,370 Green Berets, Navy SEALs, or other elite forces are currently operating in Africa.

The Pentagon won’t say how many commandos are still deployed in Niger, but the total number of troops operating there is roughly the same as in October 2017 when two Green Berets and two fellow soldiers were killed by Islamic State militants. There are 800 Defense Department personnel currently deployed to the West African nation, according to Maj. Sheryll Klinkel, a Pentagon spokesperson. “I can’t give a breakdown of SOF there, but it’s a fraction of the overall force,” she told The Intercept. There are now also 500 American military personnel – including Special Operations forces — in Somalia.  At the beginning of last year, AFRICOM told Stars and Stripes, there were only 100.

MALI

Timbuktu was rocked by another day of violence on Thursday as there were clashes between the city’s Arab, Tuareg, and black populations. The violence was an outgrowth of Wednesday’s Arab protests, which themselves were sparked by a theft from a black-owned shop and the arrest of several Arab youths in connection.

NIGERIA

While Boko Haram gets most of the press, the frequent clashes between predominantly Christian farmers and predominantly Muslim pastoralists across Nigeria’s middle belt has been the far deadlier conflict so far this year. The International Crisis Group has found that some 1300 people have been killed in farmer-herder clashes since January, over six times the number killed in Boko Haram-related violence. The ICG argues that laws that have banned open grazing in a couple of Nigerian provinces may have exacerbated the traditional community tensions and driven herders toward more violent methods of earning a living.

ETHIOPIA

The project manager for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was found shot to death in his car in Addis Ababa on Thursday. It seems probable (?) that he was murdered, and with all the regional tension that the GERD project has generated there have already been public outcries for justice even though obviously no motive has been discovered this early in the investigation.

CAMEROON

A video has surfaced of what appear to be Cameroonian soldiers executing two women and two children in cold blood after accusing them of involvement with Boko Haram. It’s raised calls for an investigation into Cameroon’s armed forces amid wider accusations of wrongdoing by the military in its fight against Boko Haram in northern Cameroon and against English-speaking separatists in southwestern Cameroon:

Such action, as horrible as it is, did not come as a surprise to some human rights activists in Cameroon who say that security forces have been acting with impunity for years, especially in the fight against Boko Haram. Amnesty International and other groups have publicized numerous abuses.

“These extrajudicial killings are part of a broader pattern,” said Agbor Balla, a human rights lawyer in Cameroon.

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