World update: January 30 2019

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban is trying to assure other Afghans that, if it does conclude a peace deal with the US and US forces do withdraw from Afghanistan, they’re not looking to seize total control of the country again:

The statement Wednesday by Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen appears aimed at easing fears among those worried about any agreement that includes the Taliban. Its unusually conciliatory tone also could offer Khalilzad greater leverage as he seeks to rally Afghanistan’s leadership behind his peace efforts.

In an exclusive audio message to The Associated Press, Shaheen asserted that the Taliban want to live alongside their countrymen “in an inclusive Afghan world.”

“After the end of the occupation, Afghans should forget their past and tolerate one another and start life like brothers. After the withdrawal, we are not seeking a monopoly on power,” said Shaheen, who is based in Qatar, where the Taliban have a political office.

These nice-sounding words are somewhat belied by the Taliban’s ongoing refusal to meet with the current Afghan government. The leader of that government, Ashraf Ghani, spent his Wednesday renewing longstanding complaints about Pakistan aiding the Taliban. The Pakistanis have been nudging the Taliban toward talks with the US but not so much with Kabul.

BANGLADESH

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has an overwhelming majority in the country’s new parliament, but she opened its session on Wednesday assuring everybody that she won’t let it go to her head. The PM told legislators that “her government will not create obstacles to criticism by the opposition,” which sounds OK but also sounds like one of those things where if you have to say it, then you’re already in a problematic situation.

MONGOLIA

The (now former) speaker of Mongolia’s parliament, Enkhbold Myegombo, was voted out of that post late Tuesday over allegations that he was involved in a scheme to sell government jobs for illicit campaign cash. The allegations led to major public protests last month, but Enkhbold refused to resign, insisting that the legal process should determine his fate.

AFRICA

ZIMBABWE

The Guardian reports that Zimbabwean police have catalogued multiple instances of abuses by the country’s military against protesters:

Internal Zimbabwean police documents passed to the Guardian suggest the army has been responsible for murder, rape and armed robbery during the ongoing brutal crackdown in the southern African country.

In more than a dozen investigation reports shared with the Guardian by police officials frustrated at the apparent impunity of the military, a series of alleged attacks are described, including two murders and the rape of a 15-year-old girl.

Police investigators wrote that all the acts were committed by men wearing army “uniforms” or “camouflage” – a style of wording allowing the police to avoid making direct accusations against the powerful military.

The official explanation is that these abuses have been committed by imposters dressed up as soldiers to discredit the military. But the details described in the police reports make it pretty clear that they’re legitimate soldiers.

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s public sector unions are debating whether to call a national strike after their wage negotiations with the government broke down. It appears that some of the unions are accusing others of being paid off by Zimbabwe’s political opposition to go on strike and create chaos, and if the unions are divided then any strike stands little chance of succeeding.

EUROPE

SWEDEN

Sweden’s new center-right coalition government is wasting little time doing what center-right government’s do: imposing austerity. It’s looking to cut some $88 million out of its budget because that’s dogma, I guess. In some cruel irony, its first stab at saving money involves canning about a third of the ~13,500 workers in its unemployment office, which not only makes them newly unemployed but will undoubtedly make it harder for all of the country’s unemployed to access government benefits. Sweden’s unemployment rate stands at about seven percent, which makes the belt-tightening just that much more ridiculous.

UNITED KINGDOM

European Council President Donald Tusk told Theresa May on Wednesday that she’s on her own trying to make Brexit more palatable to her parliament. May is looking for the European Union to offer major concessions to rewrite the “Irish backstop” portion of the Brexit agreement everybody reached back in November. But the EU isn’t budging off of its position that the agreement is what it is and cannot be reopened for further negotiations. Brussels might be willing to talk with May over some concrete alternative to the backstop, but right now May is just demanding that the EU fix her mess and it doesn’t seem particularly interested in doing so.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

Juan Guaidó’s call for more protests against Nicolás Maduro was met on Wednesday by a substantial turnout in neighborhoods across Caracas. Perhaps ominously for Maduro, Wednesday’s protests included workers and pensioners who you might think would be on board with Chávismo and yet seem to have been alienated by Maduro’s authoritarian turn and of course by Venezuela’s economic woes. Maduro has been sending his security forces out in raids against known protesters, and it’s believed that at least 40 people have been killed since this reinvigorated round of protests began earlier this month.

New US envoy for Venezuela Elliott Abrams told reporters on Wednesday that the Trump administration is looking at plans to open up a “humanitarian corridor” to help people affected by the country’s recent chaos and by the escalation of US sanctions. By the way, if you’d like to know why the words “humanitarian” and “Elliott Abrams” should probably never appear in the same sentence ever again, The Intercept’s Jon Schwarz has you covered:

ON DECEMBER 11, 1981 in El Salvador, a Salvadoran military unit created and trained by the U.S. Army began slaughtering everyone they could find in a remote village called El Mozote. Before murdering the women and girls, the soldiers raped them repeatedly, including some as young as 10 years old, and joked that their favorites were the 12-year-olds. One witness described a soldier tossing a 3-year-old child into the air and impaling him with his bayonet. The final death toll was over 800 people.

The next day, December 12, was the first day on the job for Elliott Abrams as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs in the Reagan administration. Abrams snapped into action, helping to lead a cover-up of the massacre. News reports of what had happened, Abrams told the Senate, were “not credible,” and the whole thing was being “significantly misused” as propaganda by anti-government guerillas.

The US government is warning commodities traders not to deal in Venezuelan oil or gold, both to cut Maduro’s government off from funding and due to the possibility that Maduro might try to raid the Venezuelan treasury if he believes his position is untenable and he needs to make a run for it. This crisis still seems to hinge on what happens with the Venezuelan military–if enough of its leadership should at some point decide to go over to Guaidó, Maduro will be finished. It might be tempting to think that he can rely on Russia to save him, a la Bashar al-Assad, but that’s probably not going to happen. There are some geopolitical principles at play here for Moscow (basically anti-US intervention), but Venezuela is too far away and just not strategically important enough for Russia to risk very much in supporting Maduro.

CANADA/CUBA

The Canadian government has slashed its diplomatic staff in Cuba by half due to a resurgence of what at this point I’m just going to call Cuban Diplomatic Flu. Nobody knows what’s causing it–it’s not even clear that it’s a real thing, actually–but it’s a story that just refuses to go away.

UNITED STATES

Finally, it’s kind of pointless since it won’t get past the Senate and would be vetoed in the unlikely event that it did, but a couple of prominent Democrats have introduced legislation to end the longstanding “first use” doctrine in US nuclear policy:

Legislation introduced by Democratic lawmakers in the House and Senate on Wednesday would bar the United States from using a nuclear weapon unless attacked with one first, demonstrating growing momentum for anti-nuclear sentiments on the left in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a 2020 presidential contender, and Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, introduced the No First Use Act in their respective chambers to codify in law what they said “most Americans already believe — that the United States should never initiate a nuclear war.”

The justification for retaining the right to use nukes first is something something deterrence, while the argument for adopting a “no first use” policy is that it would reduce tensions and lessen the possibility of a nuclear exchange because Russia, say, is afraid that the US will beat it to the punch.

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