Welcome back! As always after an extended break, we will not be recapping everything that happened while I was gone. If I’ve missed a story you think is important, you can always drop me a line and let me know.
At least 27 people were killed across Afghanistan from late Sunday into Monday. Six civilians were killed by a roadside bomb in Paktika province, while two Taliban attacks in Baghdis province killed at least 21 Afghan security forces. Local reports say that at least 15 Taliban fighters were also killed but Taliban casualty counts can be hard to confirm.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council and therefore a close adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, says that US officials approached him in Kabul last month looking to hold “talks.” What those “talks” would have entailed is unclear, though it would make sense if they were focused on stabilizing Afghanistan and bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Indeed while it’s impossible to envision a negotiated end to the Afghan war that doesn’t involve Pakistan, it’s nearly as hard to envision one that doesn’t involve Iran:
Strained relations with Pakistan and zero channels of communication with Iran isolate U.S. foreign policy ahead of negotiations with the Taliban and an imminent U.S. troop drawdown. Washington’s newfound acceptance of the Taliban as one of many stakeholders in a political settlement must be matched by a recognition that landlocked Afghanistan will rely on relations with its neighbors after a U.S. departure.
While we were on break, Bangladesh held a parliamentary election that may have completely upended the country’s democracy:
On Dec. 30, 2018, Bangladesh held its 11th national election since becoming independent in 1971. The questionable results ended in a sweeping victory for the ruling Awami League party of Sheikh Hasina. The party’s coalition secured 288 out of a possible 300 seats in Parliament, ostensibly winning more than 90 percent of the popular vote. The coalition of the principal opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, won a mere seven seats. The results ensured a third term in office for the Awami League. However, almost immediately after the results were announced, a host of foreign and domestic analysts pointed out that the election was far from free or fair. Their misgivings were warranted. At least 17 people were killed in election-related violence, many others were injured, and there were widespread allegations of voter intimidation.
The Awami League has, of course, dismissed the charges of electoral malfeasance and instead suggested that the opposition is solely to blame for its anemic performance. Hasina’s government argued that it received such a sweeping mandate because it had delivered steady economic growth during its two terms in office. Furthermore, party stalwarts accused the opposition of precipitating electoral violence.
Very few things in life are absolutely certain, but elections wherein one party wins over 90 percent of the popular vote are nearly always rigged.
The Myanmar government is promising to “crush” rebels in Rakhine State, but in this case it’s not talking about the Rohingya. The Arakan Army, which wants more autonomy for Rakhine and its majority Buddhist population, has increased its activity in the region over the past couple of weeks, reportedly displacing thousands of people. The Arakan Army says it’s responding to increased government suppression of Rakhine civilians.
In a surprise move, Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan, the reigning King of Malaysia, resigned on Sunday a scant two years into his five year term as head of state. The reason appears to be…love, I guess? The sultan is believed to have recently married a Russian beauty queen and, well, I’m sure there’s some degree of scandal involved there. The Malaysian kingship is shared among the rulers of nine of the country’s 13 states, with the throne changing hands every five years. It’s a ceremonial position but obviously still an important one, and it will now be up to the Council of Rulers (comprised of the nine heads of those aforementioned states) to elect somebody to replace Muhammad when it meets on January 24.
US and Chinese representatives reopened trade talks in Beijing on Monday…right around the time the US Navy was sailing a destroyer through the South China Sea on a “freedom of navigation” mission. The Chinese government criticized the move as a “provocation” but it’s unlikely to affect the talks.
South Korea’s Munhwa Ilbo newspaper reported on Monday that US and North Korean officials recently met in Hanoi to discuss planning for a second Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit. Vietnam may wind up hosting their next meeting, since it has cordial relations with both the US and North Korea. Another summit would help Trump cement his argument that he’s solved the North Korean nuclear issue, which isn’t true in any objective sense but is fine as long as he believes it and it reduces the chances of a US-North Korean military confrontation.
Kim, meanwhile, is in China for a summit with Xi Jinping. Presumably Trump will be on their agenda. In his annual New Year’s address, Kim warned that talks over denuclearization could falter if the US doesn’t start rewarding North Korea for the steps it’s already taken.
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has been the target of a couple of weeks of large public protests demanding his resignation, culminating (for now) with a demonstration reportedly involving “tens of thousands” of people on Sunday. Demonstrators are upset for some reason at the fact that almost 30 years after the coup that brought him to power, Bashir presides over a deeply impoverished country at the head of a deeply repressive government. They would like very much for him to skedaddle, though he’s far more likely to try brutalizing the protesters first. Already Amnesty International says his security forces have killed “dozens” of protesters, over 40 in the first five days of demonstrations alone, and independent estimates say they’ve arrested over 2000 (Bashir’s government says 800).
Two tourists, one Canadian and the other Italian, have reportedly disappeared in Burkina Faso and are feared kidnapped. Islamist groups operating in West Africa engage in kidnapping for ransom as a way to bring in revenue, though after the murder of two European tourists in Morocco before Christmas, any disappearance like this is going to raise concerns about outcomes worse than kidnapping.
The Nigerian military may not be able to defeat Boko Haram, but it sure can bash the hell out of any newspapers that report on the fact that it can’t defeat Boko Haram. On Sunday Nigerian soldiers stormed the Maiduguri offices of the Daily Trust, one of the country’s largest news outlets, arrested two reporters, and seized computers, phones, and other equipment. It claims the newspaper reported classified information, but it’s impossible not to place this incident within the context of a string of Nigerian military efforts to stifle the country’s news media over unfavorable reporting.
The Trump administration deployed a small group of US soldiers to Gabon over the weekend in order to potentially assist any US citizens caught up in any elections-related unrest in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (see below). Instead of that, though, they got to witness an attempted coup by elements of the Gabonese military. It failed, of course–that’s why we’re talking about an “attempted coup” and not a “coup,” with two of its ringleaders killed in the process and seven more arrested. The coup plotters managed to seize the country’s main radio station but there was apparently no real popular or significant military support for their effort and it just fizzled out.
At the root of the situation is the health of President Ali Bongo, who had a stroke while in Saudi Arabia back in October and made a television appearance on December 31 in which he was slurring his words and apparently unable to move his right arm. Bongo isn’t terribly popular to begin with, and people appear increasingly frustrated at the lack of transparency over his condition.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
So about the DRC presidential election. To be fair, it was held on December 30 as promised, so that’s something. But, uh, the Congolese government seems to be taking a long time counting the votes. Results were supposed to be made public over the weekend but have been delayed, perhaps indefinitely. The DRC’s electoral commission says that only about 53 percent of the votes have been counted, which frankly isn’t all that surprising given the size of the country, the remoteness of its hinterlands, and the massive amounts of ongoing unrest gripping so much of it. But the delay naturally has people on edge about the possibility that President Joseph Kabila is playing around with the tally in order to benefit his chosen successor, Emmanuel Shadary. And the fact that Kabila’s government has shut down internet and text messaging services since the election doesn’t inspire confidence that they’re acting in good faith.