Asia/Africa update: February 6 2019

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

After trading assertions and denials all day, the Trump administration and the Taliban concluded that there is no timetable for a US withdrawal from Afghanistan. So pretty much where they were before the day started. Earlier on Wednesday, Russian media quoted a Taliban negotiator saying that the US had agreed to pull half of its forces out of Afghanistan by the end of April. The US denied this and then that same Taliban negotiator also denied having ever said it. So that’s all kind of jumbled. What isn’t jumbled, apparently, is any question as to whether the US will be leaving a residual force behind in Afghanistan after the war for counterterrorism purposes, as Donald Trump suggested in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. The Taliban are definitely not interested in that.

Peace talks between Taliban representatives and assorted Afghan politicians in Russia seem to have concluded on a mostly positive note. The Taliban insists that it has no plans to retake sole control over the country (at least not by force) and has even suggested it might moderate somewhat on issues like women’s rights. Of course there’s no plan in place to hold the Taliban to anything it says during the negotiations process. The Afghan government remains miffed that it’s not participating in either this Russian track or in the talks between the US and the Taliban, and if the Taliban continues to refuse to talk with Kabul that’s going to make it harder to progress toward an end to the conflict.

PAKISTAN

In a ruling critical of their handling of Islamist protests back in 2017, Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday made some relatively blunt statements insisting that the country’s military and intelligence establishments need to butt out of civilian politics. Pakistan’s deep state is one of the most active in the world in terms of undermining civilian authority, but this seems to have been a pretty serious rebuke.

Pakistani police, meanwhile, are investigating a case of vandalism at a Hindu temple in the town of Kumb on Monday. Nobody was hurt but the attackers did set fire to some statues and books in the temple.

MYANMAR

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees declared last year that the situation in Myanmar’s Chin state was stable enough for ethnic Chin refugees to begin returning (mostly from Malaysia and India). But ongoing violence in neighboring Rakhine state, and reports that it’s spilling over into Chin state, have Chin refugees worried about returning home. Activists are calling on the UN to reverse its cessation decision–which forces those refugees to go home or risk losing their refugee status and legal protection.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Maybe too little, too late, but Omar al-Bashir has apparently decided to try killing them with kindness, so to speak. Talking with reporters on Wednesday, Bashir said that most of the protesters who have been demonstrating against his government since mid-December are “young and there are factors that drove them to take to the streets.” That’s…actually kind of understanding of him. At least he’s not calling the protesters “rats” anymore, am I right? Bashir also said that he will release all the journalists his security forces have rounded up in connection to the protests, which is believed to be 16 of them.

LIBYA

Warlord Khalifa Haftar’s so-called “Libyan National Army” seized control of southwestern Libya’s El Sharara oil field on Wednesday. The field, which normally pumps out 315,000 barrels of oil per day, had been taken over by a band of local fighters in early December, prompting Libya’s National Oil Company to shut down production there. It’s unclear whether the NOC will resume production with the field in LNA hands, since the LNA does not recognize the authority of the Libyan government in Tripoli and the NOC does.

BURKINA FASO

After a major counterterrorism offensive in northern Burkina Faso left at least 146 jihadi fighters dead on Tuesday, insurgents retaliated on Wednesday by attacking a security base in the country’s Oursi region. At least five police officers were killed but Burkinabe authorities say some 21 attackers were also killed in the fighting.

As far as Tuesday’s operation is concerned, Human Rights Watch says it’s getting reports that the Burkinabe military may have killed those 146 alleged jihadists somewhat indiscriminately. According to HRW at least some of those who were killed were executed in front of their families, suggesting strongly that they may actually have been civilians.

NIGERIA

Alex Thurston expects Muhammadu Buhari to win reelection later this month–though it may not entirely be a legitimate victory:

Yet despite struggles on numerous fronts, Buhari still has a strong chance to win re-election. His party, the All Progressives Congress, or APC, controls the governorships of 22 of Nigeria’s 36 states. That number, and the map of APC political control, largely corresponds to what Buhari won in 2015, and he may come close to replicating the winning map he had then—a combination of the northern states, his long-time electoral base, and those in the southwest. Buhari’s party has suffered major defections since 2015, but many of the prominent defectors are in the National Assembly, while most, although not all, APC governors have remained loyal. Crucially, Buhari has suffered relatively few defections in the southwest, and key politicians in the region—especially Buhari’s co-chair for the 2019 campaign, Bola Tinubu, the former state governor of Lagos and a widely influential figure considered a political “godfather” by Nigerians—have stood by the president.

More grimly, Buhari and the APC have arguably used the levers of state to maintain their influence. Following the off-cycle gubernatorial election in the southwestern state of Osun last September, critics leveled two serious charges. First, that a partial re-run election had been biased in favor of the APC candidate, with re-run results overturning what had initially seemed to be an opposition victory. And second, that the police had intimidated voters and had favored the APC. With a history of electoral manipulation in Nigeria, the possibility of a fraudulent APC victory this year cannot be ruled out.

Speaking of intimidation, Nasir El-Rufai, governor of Kaduna state and a Buhari ally, warned Wednesday that foreigners who try to “intervene” in the election “will go back in body bags.” It’s unclear to whom he was referring or what he considers to be “intervention,” but the rest of it seems pretty clear. There is certainly a risk of post-election violence here if Buhari and the APC are seen to have cheated or intimidated their way to victory.

CHAD

French aircraft have been bombing Chadian rebels all week, and on Wednesday they hit a 20 truck convoy that was part of a larger group that crossed into Chad from southern Libya last week. The rebels, from a group called the Union of Forces of Resistance, say they lost two of their fighters in Wednesday’s airstrikes. The French government is thoroughly committed to protecting Chadian President Idriss Deby, if for no other reason than that his military has been more effective in fighting jihadists than pretty much any other in the Sahel region.

CAMEROON

The United States is cutting military assistance to Cameroon over likely human rights violations:

Cameroon is a key U.S. security partner, and about 300 U.S. troops are based there to train and assist the Cameroonian military, including in its fight against extremism in its far northern region. Human rights groups have reported that Cameroonian security forces have targeted civilians, in the far north and in the country’s unstable southwest and northwest regions, where the military is battling English-speaking separatists fighting to create a breakaway nation called Ambazonia.

“We emphasize that it is in Cameroon’s interest to show greater transparency in investigating credible allegations of gross violations of human rights security forces, particularly in the Northwest, Southwest, and Far North Regions,” the State Department said through a spokesman via email Wednesday.

Security cuts will include the “provision of four defender boats and nine armored vehicles, and the upgrade of a Cessna aircraft belonging to the Rapid Intervention Battalion,” or BIR, the department said.

The BIR has been especially singled out for targeting civilians in the breakaway anglophone region.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

A new peace deal between the CAR government and 14 of the country’s rebel factions could bring the war-torn country closer to peace, but there are fears that it may also grant impunity to war criminals:

“Certain compatriots have thought that the republic has abandoned them. I want to say to you all that I will spare no effort to make Central African Republic our common home,” President Faustin Archange Touadera said at the signing in the capital, Bangui.

Yet few appeared to be optimistic about bringing rebels into the government while honoring the families of their victims. The fighting has killed thousands, displaced hundreds of thousands and sent two people to the International Criminal Court.

“We are shocked because we see our authorities jubilant alongside our executioners,” Yannick Nalimo, a journalist and blogger, told The Associated Press. “It does not put anyone at ease. The people do not want these people, who put the country down and stripped us bare, to come back and manage the affairs of the state.”

The parties signed the deal on Wednesday, but contrary to what it had promised the CAR government has not released details of the agreement to the public.

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