Asia/Africa update: February 28 2019

AFGHANISTAN

A group of Taliban fighters attacked a police outpost in Balkh province on Thursday, killing five police officers in what Afghan officials described as a five hour battle.

US Afghan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad described this week’s meetings in Doha between his team and Taliban representatives as “productive” via Twitter on Thursday. The two sides reportedly made progress on hashing out the details of foreign troop withdrawals and guaranteeing that Afghanistan can no longer be used as a safe haven by al-Qaeda or groups like it. On the downside, the Taliban once again insisted that they will not negotiate with the current Afghan government. Talks will resume on Saturday.

The US has put a $1 million bounty on the head of Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son and either a budding terrorist mastermind or al-Qaeda’s new mascot–analysts disagree over whether young Hamza is as capable as he’s sometimes made out to be. I don’t really know why I included this under “Afghanistan” since nobody really knows where Hamza is these days, but it’s done now and I think we should just move on.

PAKISTAN

A senior Pakistani judge serving on the Peshawar High Court was attacked and severely wounded by gunmen in Peshawar on Thursday. No group has claimed responsibility.

KASHMIR

OK, so I’m going to cautiously suggest that things are stabilizing a bit in Kashmir. Yes, there were reports on Thursday of new exchanges of fire between Indian and Pakistan forces across the Line of Control, with at least four civilians killed, but that in itself is sort of a regular occurrence. Of more importance, Pakistani authorities said they will on Friday release Abhinandan Varthaman, the Indian pilot they captured on Wednesday, as a goodwill gesture. And Indian authorities reportedly gave the Pakistanis a copy of their file on the February 14 Pulwama bombing that got this whole crisis started, suggesting that tensions are ebbing somewhat. Indian authorities did slap a five year ban on a Kashmiri Islamist political party, Jamaat-e-Islami, over its alleged ties to separatists.

The rest of the world has begun noticing that South Asia might be spiraling toward a nuclear war, and that will probably help as well. Both the US and Chinese governments have issued calls for restraint, and Russia has offered its services as mediator. The US and China might be able to ratchet this situation down if the work together, with China leaning on its Pakistani client and the US using its increasingly friendly relationship with India to encourage it to back off a bit.

NORTH KOREA

There was a moment on Thursday as Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un prepared to begin the second day of their second summit in Hanoi when Kim, the authoritarian leader whose country’s press is much more PR firm than journalistic outlet, actually answered a question from a Washington Post journalist. David Nakamura asked the North Korean leader if he was “feeling good about a deal” and Kim replied, via interpreter, that he had “a feeling that good results will come.”

As it turns out, he was wrong. I wonder if he’ll ever answer another reporter’s question.

Trump abruptly walked out of the summit on Thursday, sending the US-North Korea relationship into a new period of uncertainty and raising a host of questions about what went wrong and where things go from here. In Trump’s telling, Kim offered what the US had been after for this second meeting, which was the dismantlement of North Korea’s main nuclear research facility at Yongbyon. But in return, Kim wanted all US sanctions against North Korea lifted, and Trump was unwilling to go that far just for Yongbyon, which may be Pyongyang’s main nuclear research facility but is not its only nuclear research facility. However, according to the North Koreans, Kim only asked for partial sanctions relief, not full sanctions relief (US officials later said that Kim wanted “most” sanctions lifted).

It’s impossible to know what actually happened–though, as 38 North suggests here, it’s hard to believe Kim really thought he could get complete sanctions relief by just offering to take apart Yongbyon. Maybe he was trying a bold opening position and it was too bold for Trump. Or maybe he’s desperate for sanctions relief, given recent evidence that the North Korean economy is in deep trouble and that the North Korean people are on the verge of starvation, and in his desperation he overreached. Maybe, as at least one former South Korean official has apparently said, John Bolton started throwing around new and unacceptable US demands, and that caused the talks to break down. If so then it’s likely Bolton knew exactly what he was doing.

But whatever specifically triggered Trump’s decision to walk away, it’s probably something that could have been addressed or at least clarified in the context of a normal negotiating process, in which the details are hashed out by staff and everything isn’t riding on what happens when two volatile guys get into a room together. While Trump probably deserves some credit for choosing diplomacy in this case, the haphazard, frankly idiotic way he’s conducted these negotiations led directly to this failure.

As I say, it’s hard to know where things are going now. Trump claims he didn’t just get up and storm out and that he and Kim parted amicably–but it couldn’t have been that amicable, or else they could have finished their summit and put out another flashy but ultimately meaningless statement like they did last year in Singapore. Trump also said that Kim promised not to resume nuclear or missile testing, which should at least prevent relations from deteriorating. Pompeo suggested that negotiations could resume after a pause, that “we’ll each need to regroup a little bit” before things continue. The North Koreans sounded decidedly more pessimistic about the possibility of further talks, and insisted that their “principal stand will remain invariable” and their “proposals will never change” in the event that there are further talks. But later, North Korean media reported that Trump and Kim plan to “continue” talking, so who knows?

SOUTH KOREA

Of all the people impacted by the collapse of the Hanoi summit, South Korean President Moon Jae-in may be one of the hardest hit:

With his approval ratings falling over South Korea’s stubborn economic troubles, Mr. Moon has hoped to recover some of his popularity by jump-starting his signature policy of helping to advance the North’s denuclearization and improving inter-Korean ties. That depended on Mr. Trump and Mr. Kim striking a denuclearization deal in Hanoi significant enough for Washington and the United Nations to ease sanctions and create room for Mr. Moon to push his ambitious plans for economic cooperation with North Korea.

Now, Mr. Moon faces criticism that he has been too optimistic and naïve, overselling North Korea’s willingness to denuclearize.

“South Korean conservatives will intensify their criticism of President Moon’s engagement policies for going too far, too fast with North Korea,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

Moon will now presumably lobby the Trump administration to allow him to move forward with more joint economic projects with North Korea even though they may run afoul of US sanctions. Which in itself could be a good way to keep some momentum going  for this peace process despite the misstep in Hanoi.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Protesters gathered again in Khartoum and Omdurman on Thursday in a direct challenge to President Omar al-Bashir’s recent emergency decree and establishment of special tribunals for protesters. Sudanese authorities reportedly arrested hundreds of demonstrators and trials before the tribunals were reportedly still going on after nightfall. Bashir stepped aside as head of his ruling party for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, though that may be temporary.

LIBYA

The two most prominent political leaders in Libya, internationally recognized Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj from Tripoli and eastern warlord–excuse me, “Libyan National Army” commander–Khalifa Haftar, met on Wednesday in Abu Dhabi and reportedly agreed to hold elections. Libya was supposed to hold elections last year but the country was too unstable. There’s been talk of holding a “national conference” to begin the process of writing a constitution and electoral rules, but Haftar’s decision to send the LNA campaigning across southern Libya has left those plans uncertain as well.

SENEGAL

As expected, Senegalese President Macky Sall easily won reelection on Sunday. Official results were released on Thursday showing Sall with a bit over 58 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff. Opposition leaders are complaining, but so far international observers insist that the vote was fair…if, I guess, you don’t count the bit where Sall’s government imprisoned his most prominent political rivals on corruption charges that may not have been entirely legitimate and disqualified other contenders from running.

MALI

Apparently Amadou Koufa, a senior figure within JNIM (al-Qaeda’s Mali franchise) who was “confirmed” killed by French forces in central Mali back in November, is very much alive:

SOMALIA

Al-Shabab carried out a suicide bombing against a hotel and office park in Mogadishu on Thursday, killing at least 11 people. That death toll is likely to rise, because the blast caused fires that have prevented Somali authorities from accessing the entire site. Somali police believe the target may not have been the hotel but rather an appeals court judge whose home is located nearby.

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