World update: March 11 2019

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban carried out an attack on an Afghan military base in Badghis province on Monday, killing or capturing the entire company of soldiers there. The attackers reportedly killed 16 Afghan soldiers and took another 40 prisoner. The Taliban has been focusing its efforts on Baghdis province’s Bala Murghab district, which provincial officials say is close to collapse. Monday’s strike was the followup to an attack on the same base on Saturday, in which eight soldiers were killed.

Political scientist Barnett Rubin says that, while Afghanistan’s neighbors (Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and China) all agree that they don’t like having a US military presence in their neighborhood, they haven’t really figured out how to ensure that Afghanistan remains stable when (if?) the US leaves:

Any U.S. exit inevitably raises the question of what might replace the near-total dependence of the Afghan state on Washington for funding, training, technology, and equipment. However concerned these neighboring countries are that Afghanistan has become an extension of U.S. power projection into the region, they have not proposed any alternative way to sustain the Afghan state.

Stabilization of Afghanistan even after an agreement between the Taliban and the government, and a U.S. troop withdrawal, would require a degree of regional consensus over Afghanistan’s final status security issues, namely: What (minimal) redlines can all stakeholders endorse concerning the composition and structure of the Afghan government? What, if any, international military advisory or counterterrorist presence will international actors offer Afghanistan? What will be the size, mission, and composition of the security and defense forces that international actors will support? Who will finance, equip, and train those forces and fund service provision by the state? How will landlocked Afghanistan be integrated into the regional and global economy?

For those of you who are big Taliban buffs, a new book has revealed that the group’s former boss, Mullah Mohammad Omar, did not spend his last years hiding out in Pakistan as the United States has often suggested. In fact, he apparently spent those years hiding out in his home province of Zabul, mere miles from a couple of US bases, the whole time dodging the $10 million bounty the US had placed on his head. He gave up “operational control” over the Taliban shortly after the US invasion in 2001, only occasionally communicating with his deputies via messenger, but remained the group’s figurehead until well after his death–which, to reiterate, happened in Afghanistan, not Pakistan–in 2013. The account of his death suggests natural causes, though there have been persistent but very fringe rumors that he was murdered as part of some sort of intra-Taliban power struggle.

KASHMIR

Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged artillery fire across Kashmir’s Line of Control on Sunday, killing one civilian.

INDIA

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has seen a polling bump out of his recent confrontation with Pakistan. With India’s election scheduled to begin next month, Modi’s ruling coalition is polling in the 264 seat range–not a majority in the 543 seat parliament, but very close and certainly better than it was polling prior to the dust up with Islamabad.

BANGLADESH

The government of Bangladesh is planning to relocate some 23,000 Rohingya refugees to an island in the Bay of Bengal next month, a move the United Nations is warning could be catastrophic. The island, uh, may not be suitable for human habitation, as it’s frequently hit by cyclones and prone to flooding. Bangladeshi authorities insist they’ve taken precautions and will not relocate any refugees involuntarily.

NORTH KOREA

With the Trump administration back on its “all or nothing” bullshit with respect to North Korea’s denuclearization process, the chances for further diplomacy following last month’s failed summit in Hanoi seem to be shrinking. But the administration’s North Korea envoy, Stephen Biegun, told a think tank audience on Monday that “diplomacy is still very much alive,” though the administration is concerned about the possibility that Pyongyang is readying another space launch. So is it? The North Koreans are certainly up to something at their Sohae launch facility, but whether that’s preparing for an actual launch or bluffing in order to gain some extra negotiating leverage is anybody’s guess at this point.

The United Nations, meanwhile, says it’s investigating possible North Korean sanctions violations in as many as 20 countries, including China, Syria, and Iran. The UN expert panel on North Korean sanctions says that in addition to arms deals and other kinds of military cooperation it also has evidence of luxury cars arriving in Pyongyang despite sanctions.

AFRICA

SUDAN

The Sudanese parliament on Monday cut Omar al-Bashir’s state of emergency from one year to six months with an option to buy renew. Bashir instituted the state of emergency in response to ongoing protests against his government, but legislators were concerned with the length given that the country is scheduled to hold a general election in 2020.

ALGERIA

In response to the massive public outcry of the past several weeks, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced (or somebody announced on his behalf) on Monday that he will not seek a fifth term in office. His decision came after hundreds of Algerian judges announced that they would not oversee another election that featured Bouteflika’s name on the ballot, and after Algeria’s extremely powerful military began sending signals that maybe it was time for the deeply infirm president to go.

It’s the end of an era…or at least it will be at some point. Because, well, Bouteflika isn’t going anywhere yet. He’s not going to run for a fifth term, but also next month’s presidential election has been indefinitely postponed, which means his fourth term isn’t ending anytime soon. In the meantime, he’s got a new prime minister and his government will begin writing a new Algerian constitution that will, eventually, be submitted to a national referendum. In the meantime, plenty of the people who were protesting Bouteflika’s plan to run again reportedly are also opposed to this deal. And that should come as no surprise, considering that this arrangement seems more or less like a repackaging of Bouteflika’s earlier offer to serve only one year of his fifth term before holding a new election and nobody liked that idea either. It’s another attempt by the Algerian ruling clique to kick the can down the road when people are demanding change now.

EUROPE

SPAIN

More polling indicates that Spain’s Socialist party will win next month’s election but fall far short of a majority. The Socialists are in line to win 134 seats, which would be super if Spain’s parliament weren’t 350 seats. On the plus side, Spain’s three largest right-wing and center-right parties would collectively only bring in 161 seats, and even assuming they could agree to join forces there’s reason to think that, with the far-right Vox Party on board, they’ll have trouble attracting additional coalition partners to get past 50 percent.

UNITED KINGDOM

The European Union and British government announced late Monday that they’ve reached agreement on “legally binding changes” to their previous Brexit deal that may make the deal more palatable to Theresa May’s Conservative Party and improve its chances of passing. The exact details of the changes are still filtering out, but the upshot is that the EU will not be able to force the UK to remain in the “Irish backstop” (i.e., in the EU customs union) indefinitely should talks break down on a permanent arrangement for Northern Ireland. The declaration specifies an end to the backstop, come hell or high water, in 2020.

What happens now is unclear. May was planning a vote on her Brexit package for Tuesday and that may still happen, or she could look to extend the March 29 Brexit deadline a bit to allow more time to whip votes. The EU says it can only give London until May 23 to vamoose, though, or else the UK will have to hold its own elections for European parliament–an expense the British government would rather not incur. If May still can’t sell her deal to parliament at this point then a no-deal Brexit or a lengthy delay would seem to be the only two options left.

AMERICAS

PERU

Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra named a new prime minister on Monday, former Culture Minister Salvador del Solar. Vizcarra’s previous PM, César Villanueva, resigned on Friday in deference to Vizcarra’s declining poll numbers. Del Solar is a popular former actor so at least he’ll add some celebrity pizzazz to the cabinet.

VENEZEULA

UPDATE: Hey so here’s a very legal and very cool thing that the Secretary of State tweeted after I posted:

That “constraint on US policy” bit is formal talk for “we’re gearing up to do a coup and/or invasion and we don’t want to have to worry about our diplomats getting disappeared or worse.” So that should be fun, we haven’t done a good old fashioned regime change in a while now. The administration presumably feels like they’ve given Juan Guaidó a respectable amount of time to organize a coup on his own and he’s failed to get any traction, so like the old saying goes “if you want something done right, do it yourself.” In this case “something” is “breaking yet another major oil producing nation.” It’s kind of our national specialty.

Venezuela’s National Assembly declared a “state of alarm” on Monday in response to the country’s ongoing blackout, an act that would probably carry more weight if Nicolás Maduro’s government hadn’t stripped the opposition-run assembly of all its practical authority back in 2017. It’s certainly not going to have any impact on the power outage, which at this point–and whatever its cause–shows no signs that it might quickly be resolved. Venezuelans are struggling to find clean water, power for hospitals, and other basic necessities, and their government is clearly unable to fix the problem. A power station supporting part of Caracas exploded on Monday, adding to the crisis.

UNITED STATES

In case you were worried that the Pentagon’s big pay raise was just going to get wasted on pointless military crap, I have great news: it’s going to be used to modernize our nuclear program. We’re going to get a new stealth bomber and new ICBMs and new cruise missiles and everything! I think we can all agree there’s nothing unbelievably wasteful about that!

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