Asia/Africa update: January 26-27 2019

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

A group of Taliban accidentally blew themselves up, at least according to Afghan authorities, at a volleyball match in Baghlan province on Saturday. Four of the group’s fighters and one civilian were killed. Also on Saturday, one person was killed in a bombing in Nangarhar province.

US Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad sure sounded optimistic about where peace talks with the Taliban were heading when he got on his Twitter on Saturday:

So here’s the thing. That “intra-Afghan dialogue” is going to be hard to achieve, because the Taliban simply won’t talk to the Afghan government. That’s why Khalilzad had to fly from Doha to Kabul to brief the Afghans, instead of the Afghans having any of their own representation in Doha.

The Taliban also sounds pleased with the progress of talks, which are circling around an 18 month timeframe for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan. But there are three possible outcomes here: 1) the US finally gets the Taliban to meet with the Afghan government and they hash out some kind of unity/reconciliation program, 2) the US just up and leaves Afghanistan to its own fate without having achieved that dialogue, or 3) the whole peace process collapses and everything goes back to square one. If we assume that option two, rightly or wrongly, is unlikely, and option one also seems unlikely because the Taliban haven’t shown any willingness to budge on this point, then that doesn’t leave things in a very good place.

Taliban officials have suggested they’d be amenable to meeting with the Afghan government after the US has left, but after the US leaves the Taliban is as likely to be the Afghan government as it is to meet with the Afghan government, so I suspect that’s not going to be good enough for Washington. With more talks looking like they’ll happen late next month, this is the kind of thing that needs to be resolved soon.

PAKISTAN

The Pakistani government has been engaged in a war with the Pakistani Taliban in North Waziristan since 2013. But Pakistani Major General Asif Ghafoor brought reporters to the town of Miran Shah on Sunday to deliver the message that order is returning to the area, along with “95 percent” of the people who were previously displaced by the conflict. Pakistani leaders say they’ve largely driven their Taliban into Afghanistan, and they’re fencing the border to try to prevent attacks.

INDONESIA

West Papuan separatists say they delivered a petition with 1.8 million signatures to United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, calling for an independence referendum in the province. Recent clashes between separatist militants and the Indonesian military in West Papua’s Nduga region have revived separatist tensions.

PHILIPPINES

ISIS has claimed responsibility for bombing a church in Sulu province on Sunday, killing at least 20 people. Sulu province will become part of the Philippines’ new Bangsamoro autonomous region as a result of last week’s referendum, though a majority in the province apparently voted against autonomy. It’s hard to imagine that there’s no connection between the vote and Sunday’s attack.

CHINA

James Dorsey argues that while the US and China are both laboring under some serious misconceptions as they try to outmaneuver one another for hegemony (the “21st century Great Game”), China’s worldview is at least a little more developed than the one dominating Washington:

While the United States sees the Great Game as an as yet open-ended battle for influence in Europe and Asia and looks at Russia as a European rather than a Eurasian power, China overestimates what its future position, aided by its US$1 trillion infrastructure and energy-driven Belt and Road initiative, is likely to be.

The skewed perceptions of both the United States and China create spaces for multiple other powers like Russia and various Middle Eastern states to carve out positions of their own.

China, nonetheless, alongside Russia has one advantage. In contrast to the United States, it adopts the notion put forward by former Portuguese Europe minister Bruno Macias that the number of the world’s continents is shrinking from seven to six. Increasingly, Europe and Asia no longer see their common landmass as two separate continents and are gravitating towards what Mr. Macias calls a “supercontinent.”

AFRICA

NIGERIA

The People’s Democratic Party, Nigeria’s main opposition party, has paused the presidential campaign of its nominee, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, to protest Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to suspend the chief justice of the country’s Supreme Court on Friday. Buhari suspended Walter Onnoghen over alleged financial misconduct, but with a presidential election coming on February 16 tampering with the final arbiter of any potential election disputes is obviously going to raise eyebrows.

SOMALIA

The US military, which historically hasn’t had a huge footprint in Africa in terms of bases, may be looking to change all that:

The U.S. Defense Department is in the early stages of a project to develop land-based supply routes from the main American military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, to other U.S. camps across the eastern part of the continent, according to contractors involved with the project and officials familiar with the deliberations.

The first part of the trail is intended to link Lemonnier to Baledogle, the U.S. camp in Somalia. The passage traverses areas controlled by the al Qaeda-affiliated group al-Shabab; swaths of land controlled by warlords with private militias; and a tense border region with Ethiopia.

This project will further entrench the U.S. military presence in Africa. It might also be part of a broader American approach to countering China in places across the continent where the U.S. has vital interests, including the strategic Horn of Africa, though one former official said the plan is more likely driven by logistical considerations.

The Somali leg of this little scheme is going to cost an estimated $75 million all on its own–most of which will wind up going to contractors, of course–so I think it’s time we started talking about a larger military budget. I mean, it’s already been seven, maybe eight hours since the Pentagon’s last budget hike and frankly the US is going to lose its qualitative military edge over existential threats like Venezuela, Iran, eSwatini, and the Maldives if we don’t start giving our military what it needs to stay competitive.

KENYA

A bomb detonated outside a cinema in Nairobi injured two people on Saturday. There’s been no claim of responsibility though al-Shabab is a strong possibility.

ZIMBABWE

Human rights activists are worried that the ongoing crackdown against protesters and the political opposition in Zimbabwe may be ongoing for a good long time to come:

Activists and lawyers in Zimbabwe fear that the brutal crackdown by security forces will continue “for the foreseeable future” as authorities seek to crush all possible opposition to the ruling Zanu-PF party.

Hundreds of activists and opposition officials remain in hiding this weekend after almost two weeks of arbitrary arrests, beatings, rapes and abductions committed by police and military in the poor southern African country.

The crackdown followed an outbreak of rioting and looting during a shutdown called by union leaders to protest a hike in fuel prices. So far 12 people have been killed, many more injured and between 700 and 1,500 detained.

“This is not going to be over quickly. We have seen that the state have just notched up the level of oppression and that is the level they are going to be operating at for the foreseeable future,” said Doug Coltart, a human rights lawyer in Harare.

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