World update: March 12 2019



In addition to its ongoing, now several days long campaign in Afghanistan’s Badghis province, the Taliban have also apparently been active recently in Ghazni province, and an airstrike there on Tuesday reportedly killed at least seven Taliban fighters. There are several unconfirmed reports of multiple civilian casualties from the same strike, with one local official citing a total of 16 killed but some evidence the figure could be higher than that. It’s unclear if this was a NATO airstrike or an Afghan airstrike.

US and Taliban negotiators concluded their latest round of peace talks in Doha on Tuesday without an agreement, but with both sides saying that they’d made “progress.” Talks are still focused on the eventual US withdrawal and on ensuring that Afghanistan does not once again become a haven for al-Qaeda or similar groups. Those are the easier issues to tackle, though the two sides are still trying to come to a common understanding of what constitutes a “terrorist” group. Discussions around a ceasefire and post-war political framework promise to be more difficult and will only be taken up if these other issues can be hashed out.


North Korea held a sham election for its sham parliament on Sunday, and shock of shocks the ruling party appears to have eked out another win. The only interesting part of the outcome is that it appears that Kim Jong-un was not on the ballot. North Korean leaders have always run for parliament in the past. That probably reflects a desire to present Kim as more of a “presidential” figure, which doesn’t usually include a seat in the legislature, but who knows?



Algerians don’t seem quite sure how to take Monday’s announcement that Abdelaziz Bouteflika will not run for a fifth term but also isn’t ending his fourth term as scheduled. On the one hand, Bouteflika is finally leaving office. On the other, nobody knows exactly when that will be. There doesn’t seem to be a legal basis under which Bouteflika can just extend his term like this, nor is his plan to amend the country’s constitution as simple as all that. Protesters, whose demands seem to be morphing from a simple rejection of another Bouteflika term to a desire for a more fundamental political overhaul, are worried that this plan is just another attempt to buy time for the regime to shuffle some things around and maintain its hold on power. Which it probably is.

Lakhdar Brahimi, an Algerian diplomat who’s spent much of his career working for the United Nations in various trouble spots like Lebanon, South Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, has apparently been tapped to lead the national convention that will work on rewriting the constitution and managing the political transition. This, too, may cause some problems with the protesters. Brahimi is actually older than Bouteflika, though he appears to still be alive so he’s got one up on the president in that regard. He’s also tightly connected with the ruling FLN party and that could impact on his perceived credibility.


Historian Dave Glovsky recaps Macky Sall’s reelection last month:

On Thursday, Febraury 28th, Senegal’s electoral commission announced the provisional results of the country’s presidential election. Macky Sall won re-election in the first round with 58.27 percent of the vote, eliminating the possibility of a run-off where opposition support could have coalesced around one candidate. Despite popular opposition, especially in and around the capital of Dakar, Sall not only received a majority of the vote, but surpassed the 55.90 percent Abdoulaye Wade won during his re-election in 2007. The four other candidates on the ballot have rejected the results of the election, but have decided not to challenge it in front of Senegal’s Constitutional Court. The result was also confirmed by Senegal’s Constitutional Court. Idrissa Seck, the former prime minister and mayor of Thiès, finished second with 20.50 percent of the vote, followed by Ousmane Sonko at 15.67 percent. Sonko’s showing, particularly among young people, will make him a formidable challenger in the 2024 election, especially given that Macky Sall will be prohibited from running again.


Seven Malian soldiers were killed on Tuesday when their vehicle hit a landmine in the central part of the country. Al-Qaeda is active in that area and has been for several years now, and it’s not clear that the mine was laid recently.


UN investigators have uncovered evidence of a massacre in the DRC’s western Bandundu province back in December. Over 500 members of the country’s Banunu community were killed by Batende attackers, while another 19,000 people were displaced and some 1000 buildings damaged. The violence may have been linked to the DRC’s presidential election, as the Batende apparently supported Joseph Kabila’s government while the Banunu supported the opposition.



The Atlantic Council’s Dimitar Bechev writes that Russia’s TurkStream pipeline project, sort of a companion to its NordStream pipelines in the Baltic Sea but in this case running into the Balkans via the Black Sea, represents a serious challenge for the European Union:

It is no secret that the Kremlin has been throwing its weight around in the EU’s backyard. But its frequently discussed methods—propaganda, disinformation, and intelligence ops—pale in comparison to its activities in the energy sector. The Kremlin has failed spectacularly in its efforts to stop countries like Montenegro and newly renamed North Macedonia from joining NATO. But its ability to co-opt politicians and businesspeople by dangling lucrative infrastructure contracts and hydrocarbon profits in front of them is unparalleled.

Europe is fighting back hard. Because TurkStream will terminate in the EU, Gazprom needs to bring it into conformity with European anti-monopoly rules. These rules, largely crafted after Russia shut off gas shipments to Ukraine in 2009, are geared toward diversifying energy supplies to avoid dependence on Russia. One such rule—that energy companies can’t simultaneously own transit infrastructure and sell gas through it—presents a particular challenge for Moscow, which would otherwise allow Gazprom to both build the pipeline and then supply it.

Russia is looking for Balkan partners to bring the pipeline into compliance with EU rules, but to some degree that’s going to depend on Balkan states like Bulgaria and Serbia, as well as other potential TurkStream customers like Hungary, holding the line. And Serbia and Hungary, at least, were already pretty friendly with Moscow before all this potential gas and gas-related profit entered the picture.


Despite the allegedly “legally binding” assurances she received from the European Union on Monday, Theresa May’s Brexit plan was resoundingly smashed in the House of Commons again on Tuesday. Which means it’s time for our favorite gif:

may laughing

May had stacked the deck as much as she could, waiting until the proverbial last minute before the UK’s March 29 Brexit deadline and suddenly announcing what sounded like concessions from Brussels (they probably were not really concessions) just the night before the vote. But a bad deal is a bad deal even if you twist someone’s arm to accept it, and so while May got considerably more support for her deal this time than she did back in January, it wasn’t enough to get over the finish line.

What happens now is unclear. What is clear is that the EU is done trying to help May get out of her political jam:

The main message to the UK this evening is “we have done all we could,” said a senior EU official. They said the EU had compromised in November, when the deal was first agreed, and worked to help May with assurances in December, January, and again yesterday.

“The solution can only be found in London,” the official added.

The EU were set to make clear that the UK now had three options: leave with no deal on March 29, ask for an extension, or cancel Brexit by revoking article 50.

Brussels will also note that any extension would require unanimous agreement of all 27 member states, and would be dependant on the reasons and length of an extension requested by the UK.

It’s far from clear that May can make a case for an extension at this point that would satisfy every EU member state, though she may try. But there’s no way she can turn this vote around with a short-term extension, and if the UK requests a lengthy extension it will have to participate in European parliamentary elections later this year. Canceling Brexit would cause a political meltdown in London without at least some intervening event like a second referendum, and even that would probably be chaos. So that leaves buckling up and feeling the Gs of a no-deal Brexit–no transition period, no trade agreement, nothing. Just out on March 29, done and dusted.

Amazingly, May hasn’t resigned despite suffering two of the biggest political rejections in modern British history within the span of about two months. Parliament will vote on whether to proceed with a no-deal Brexit on Wednesday, though the no-deal Brexit may be coming whether parliament wants it or not.



There’s some evidence that Venezuela’s power grid is coming back on line after days of mostly blackout conditions nationwide, though there continue to be reports of outages around the country. On Tuesday, the Venezuelan government announced that it’s investigating opposition leader Juan Guaidó for “sabotaging” the country’s power grid, presumably in concert with the United States, though it still hasn’t offered any evidence that sabotage was involved in the outage.

Nicolás Maduro’s government also announced that it’s giving the remaining US diplomats in Venezuela 72 hours to leave the country, a day after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the US was pulling its staff out of Venezuela because they’ve “become a constraint on US policy” or, in other words, “we’re worried about them being taken hostage if we invade.” US Venezuela envoy and confessed criminal Elliott Abrams says the Trump administration is planning some “very significant” sanctions against international financial firms over their dealings with Venezuela. And Reuters reports that Guaidó is preparing to unveil a plan to open Venezuela’s oil industry up to foreign firms, presumably a sweetener to try to entice some foreign (i.e., US) military support even though the US interest in Venezuela is totally not at all about oil, I don’t know where you’d even get such a crazy idea.


Finally, at The Nation Daniel Bessner and Udi Greenberg argue that the foreign policy programs unveiled by left-of-center presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are unfortunately still stuck in a counterproductive “good vs. evil” framework:

Nevertheless, progressives should be cautious about how Warren and Sanders understand international relations. For all their ingenuity, both candidates sometimes insist that this moment is defined by a battle between good and evil. In doing so, they frame geopolitics in simplistic terms that undermine the left’s long-term goals. According to Sanders, for instance, the world is presently locked in a “struggle” between a “movement toward authoritarianism, oligarchy, and kleptocracy” and a “movement [committed to] strengthening democracy, egalitarianism, and economic, social, racial, and environmental justice.” For this reason, Sanders maintains, the United States must lead a coalition that combats “the rise of a new authoritarian axis” led by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and other right-wing dictators. Warren has also been ominous in her rhetoric, warning that these regimes may weaken the foundations of America’s democratic institutions. The global right’s “marriage of authoritarianism and corrupt capitalism,” she cautioned in her Foreign Affairs article, “is a direct threat to the United States, because it undermines the very concept of democracy.”

While this vision of planetary struggle is enticing—what leftist doesn’t abhor the oligarchic authoritarianism of Putin, Bolsonaro, Orbán, and their ilk?—it’s also dangerous. Most alarmingly, Warren and Sanders’s dualistic understanding of international relations uncomfortably echoes the Manichaean vision of the Cold War, the same framework they hope to replace.

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