World update: March 9-10 2019



US airstrikes in Nangarhar province on Saturday killed at least 13 Afghan civilians. The Pentagon categorized these as “precision airstrikes” and blamed the Taliban for using human shields.


Fighters with the Arakan Army rebel group attacked a police outpost in Rakhine state on Saturday night, killing nine police officers. The Arakan Army, to be clear, has nothing to do with the Rohingya and is a Buddhist rebel force fighting for Rakhine’s autonomy.


While its caliphate dwindles to nothing in Syria, ISIS appears quietly to be putting a lot of effort into establishing a stronger foothold in the Philippines:

But far from defeated, the movement has sprouted elsewhere. And here in the Mindanao island group of the southern Philippines, long a haven for insurgents because of dense wilderness and weak policing, the Islamic State has attracted a range of militant jihadists.

“ISIS has a lot of power,” said Motondan Indama, a former child fighter on the island of Basilan and cousin of Furuji Indama, a militant leader who has pledged fealty to the group. “I don’t know why my cousin joined, but it’s happening all over.”

The group first made a big push for southern Philippines recruitment in 2016, circulating videos online beckoning militants who could not travel to its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. Hundreds of fighters poured in from as far away as Chechnya, Somalia and Yemen, intelligence officials said.



Australia’s coalition government saw its poll numbers go in the wrong direction in this week’s Newspoll. The coalition has lost 50 of these weekly polls in a row, but it had closed the gap with the Liberal Party a bit in recent weeks. This week, however, the two-way gap opened to 54-46, a couple of points wider than last week’s 53-47 split. News that Australia’s economy hit a wall in the fourth quarter of 2018 apparently had an effect.



Fresh off of its operation to seize oil fields in southern Libya, Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” has begun hinting that it might march on Tripoli soon unless the government there recognizes Haftar as the commander in chief of the Libyan military. This would of course slightly upend plans to write a constitution and hold elections this year, but since Haftar is interested in controlling the country by whatever means necessary, he’s not going to lose much sleep over a missed vote. Were Haftar to take Tripoli he would take Libya’s National Oil Company along with it, which would enable him to sell the oil from those southern fields his LNA now controls.

A large chunk of the LNA apparently stopped and held a position in central Libya, rather than returning to the east, after its southern campaign ended, suggesting that it’s preparing to do something. It may move on Misrata, whose militias are the only other serious military force in the country and are opposed to Haftar, before moving against Tripoli. Or it may not do anything.


Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika returned home from his medical trip to Switzerland on Sunday, and he was greeted with a general strike and protests so massive they’ve spread to France. The strike is intended to last for five days and includes workers from Algeria’s energy sector, which is a huge segment of the country’s economy. If the strike begins to eat into Algeria’s fossil fuel profits, that could really rattle the regime.


Congolese Mai Mai fighters on Saturday attacked an ebola center in the city of Butembo, in North Kiva province. That same facility was targeted and burned by unknown attackers last month and had only just reopened.



If there’s a far-right leader in Europe, chances are Donald Trump thinks they’re pretty neat. But apparently he’s taken a special shine to far-right Austrian Chancellor (yikes) Sebastian Kurz:

The Trump administration has taken note of Kurz’s success. In the larger session following the Oval Office meeting in February, the Americans surprised Kurz, whose delegation did not include a single cabinet minister, by assembling virtually the entire national leadership, from the vice president and secretary of state to the national security advisor and the secretary of energy. The signal was clear: Kurz, in the White House’s view, has distinguished himself sufficiently to merit special attention and represents the future of European politics.

It’s unclear exactly why this is so, since on several issues Kurz and Trump are at odds. But Kurz has apparently distinguished himself within the European Union as a voice for making trade concessions to Washington and for limiting the powers of the EU in general, and also he’s a xenophobe who discriminates against Muslims. Apparently that’s enough to get you noticed in the Trump White House.


The Italian government may be courting a spat with the Trump administration over its interest in China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Washington has been warning European countries to steer clear of the BRI, to little effect, but Italy is easily the largest and most important European country to express interest in the project. The Italians insist that they’re only looking to expand their exports to China and will not get involved in a deeper political relationship with Beijing.


Saturday saw another round of “Yellow Vest” protests across France, but the size of the demonstrations continues to drop week to week. This week an estimated 28,600 people turned out, down from 39,300 last week and easily the lowest turnout since these demonstrations began last year.



One of the most dramatic scenes to emerge from Juan Guaidó’s humanitarian aid stunt on February 23 was the sight of a large flatbed semi, carrying crates of (we’re told) aid for the Venezuelan people, burning on the bridge between Colombia and Venezuela, prevented from entering Venezuela and then, everybody was told, set alight by Venezuelan border guards. It was seen as proof of Nicolás Maduro’s unfitness to be president. Senator Marco Rubio even tried to use it as a justification for military intervention. Dramatic stuff. Only it turns out that the truck was set on fire by an anti-Maduro protester who tried to throw a Molotov cocktail at those border guards and wound up throwing the burning rag on the truck instead. It also turns out that the Trump administration’s repeated claims that Maduro’s forces burned trucks containing desperately needed medicine are lies as there was no medicine included in the aid shipment. Anyway you’ll be relieved to know that even though their narrative is bullshit it’s all still Maduro’s fault according to Rubio and the administration.

Venezuela’s power outage reached day four on Sunday after dueling protests filled the country’s streets on Saturday. Maduro, who thanked his military over the weekend for defeating a “coup,” says the US carried out an “electromagnetic attack” or a cyberattack against the Venezuelan power grid. The former is far-fetched to say the least (EMP talk always is), though I will reiterate that the theory that the US did something to cause this outage unfortunately cannot be dismissed. The simplest explanation remains that Venezuela is a deeply immiserated country whose infrastructure is falling apart. There are reports of multiple deaths in Venezuelan hospitals due to the extended power outage. The Venezuelan government denies this, but it almost defies belief that patients with critical needs–dialysis, incubators, etc.–have remained hale and hearty through all of this. Even accounting for generators it’s hard to believe nobody has died yet. At any rate the longer the outage goes on the greater the risk becomes.

Guaidó wants the National Assembly to declare a “state of alarm” over the outage, which I guess is like a state of emergency when you don’t have any enforcement power. It would authorize the inflow of humanitarian aid, though Maduro still won’t allow that (especially since the whole idea of aid has been so politicized by the US and Guaidó). The opposition leader is also apparently planning a “march” on Caracas and says he may yet call for outside military intervention to remove Maduro. I guess when all else fails, you know?


Nicaraguan opposition leaders have walked out of talks with Daniel Ortega’s government and say they will not return without concessions from Ortega. The Civic Alliance, the umbrella group for the Nicaraguan opposition, is demanding a release of political prisoners detained by Nicaraguan security forces over the past year and an end to the government’s efforts to repress protests. The talks are supposed to be about settling Nicaragua’s political crisis and preparing for elections, which the opposition would like to see happen ASAP but Ortega insists will happen on schedule in 2021.


After being starved of resources and forced to make do with a mere $716 billion this past year, the Pentagon is getting a raise:

U.S. President Donald Trump will submit a budget to Congress on Monday that includes a sizable $750 billion for fiscal year 2020 for national defense spending, of which $718 billion will go to the Pentagon, a U.S. defense official confirmed to Foreign Policy.

America’s annual national defense budget funds the Department of Defense as well as nuclear elements of the Department of Energy, such as nuclear warheads and reactors used on Navy ships and submarines.

With this year’s budget request, which is subject to congressional approval, the Pentagon is actually getting even more than it had hoped for. While not a huge leap, the figure is more of an increase than budget planners initially expected, reflecting growth of 4.7 percent over last year’s top line. Defense officials had been planning for a $733 billion overall national defense budget, which would have been an increase of 2.4 percent over last year’s $716 billion top line.

Hot damn. Of course we’re going to have to scrimp a little bit to make ends meet with this new defense windfall, and so the administration is proposing a few modest adjustments to the budgets of…well, pretty much every other part of government. You may think our priorities are warped, but frankly I say why stop here? Why not eliminate the rest of the government, give the whole $4 trillion or so budget to the Pentagon, and see how that goes? Some of the cuts would be no-brainers, like the entire State Department–who needs diplomacy when you can just blast the shit out of everybody? Department of Education? We’d be better off with mandatory military service from ages 6-18. Medicare? Seniors make great cannon fodder. SNAP? Let the fuckers eat depleted uranium.

Remember, the most important responsibility our government has is to make sure America is defended, even if there’s nothing left really worth defending.


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