Conflict update: May 3 2017

Conflict update: May 3 2017


Rex Tillerson gave a talk at the State Department today and I think he might have said the quiet parts loud:

“I think it is really important that all of us understand the difference between policy and values,” the secretary of state, a former oil executive, said as part of what he described as an “overarching view” on Trump’s “America first” mantra.

“Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated – those are our values. Those are not our policies.

“In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals,” Tillerson said. “If we condition too heavily that others just adopt this value we have come to over a long history of our own, it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance on our national security interests our economic interests.”

The speech was, shall we say, not well-received among State Department veterans. Savvy observers will note that America has really never let its values get in the way of its goals, but there are serious reasons why you don’t say that publicly. If we think that our values are good values and that it would be in America’s long-term interest for other nations to adopt those values, then even paying them lip-service can be useful (no matter how often people like me will rail about our hypocrisy).


To follow up on the late-breaking report from yesterday about an explosion in Kabul, we now know that it was a suicide attack on a NATO convoy, responsibility for which has been claimed by ISIS. Eight civilians were killed and 28 people wounded, including three NATO soldiers. Some of the wounded were wounded critically, so the death toll could conceivably rise.

The ongoing saga of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has him scheduled to finally return to Kabul this week to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. Afghan politics are unstable as it is, so there are obviously huge questions about how the rehabilitation of a notoriously violent warlord like Hekmatyar and his Hezb-i-Islami party/militia is going to shake things up in the capital.


A new poll of Arabs aged 18-24 by Dubai-based pollster ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller finds that 83 percent of them disapprove of Donald Trump and 64 percent feel “concern, anger or fear” about his presidency. By comparison, only 52 percent disapproved of Barack Obama (who wasn’t exactly reticent about bombing Arab countries) and 77 percent disapproved of George W. Bush (who, you know, Iraq). The survey was conducted across 16 Arab countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, the UAE, and Yemen (not Syria, for obvious reasons). The threat of terrorism/ISIS and unemployment are cited as the biggest problems facing the Middle East, there is a huge regional disparity between people who say the Middle East is generally on the right track (large majorities in the Gulf states but nowhere else) and people who say it’s headed in the wrong direction (large majorities in the Levant and Yemen), and Russia is now seen by more young Arabs as a regional ally than the US is.

Something on the order of sixty percent of the global Arab population is under the age of 30, so these findings have important implications for the future. Similarly, I should also mention another recent survey, conducted in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Palestine by Promundo and UN Women, that found some pretty retrograde gender equity attitudes among men in those countries. No big surprise there, I guess. The somewhat surprising thing, though, is that the results suggest that younger men aren’t really any less conservative on these issues than older generations (younger women, by contrast, do appear to be more liberal than older generations). I should note here that there’s some evidence that younger millennials in the US are exhibiting more traditionalist views on gender roles than older millennials or even my dreaded Generation X’ers, so this may reflect a more global trend.

From a pure “powder keg” standpoint I think the most troubling finding from the Promundo survey is that between 20 and 50 percent of the men surveyed said they were “ashamed to face their families” due to their work and/or money situation. Poverty in the abstract is associated with radicalization, but it’s probably not the poverty itself that causes this, otherwise you’d likely see fewer engineers signing up for al-Qaeda and more subsistence farmers. Instead it seems to be feelings associated with economic deprivation, like injustice, unfairness, humiliation, and disconnectedness, that then directly correlate with radicalization. Among the more powerful of those emotions are shame and feelings of emasculation, which recruiters for ISIS and the like play upon to great effect. If a fifth or more of young men in places like Egypt and Morocco are ashamed of their financial circumstances, that’s a very, very dangerous thing. A more liberal attitude toward gender equity and gender roles might actually help alleviate this tension by taking away the societal pressure these men are feeling, but the fact that they’re feeling that pressure probably makes them less receptive to the message. Clearly there’s still much work to be done on gender attitudes, and not just in the Arab world.


Continue reading “Conflict update: May 3 2017”

Conflict update: May 2 2017

Conflict update: May 2 2017


UPDATE/BREAKING: Right after I hit post on this, as often happens, I saw this Reuters report that a “large explosion” had reportedly occurred in central Kabul, near the American embassy. Al Jazeera is reporting that it was a suicide attack and that there are “several” casualties.

Earlier, a suspected Taliban attack in Faryab province late on Monday reportedly killed five Afghan police officers. Eight militants were also reportedly killed when Afghan security forces counterattacked and drove them back.


The leaders of Libya’s two main warring factions–Government of National Accord head Fayez al-Sarraj and Libyan National Army commander Khalifa Haftar–actually spoke with one another, face-to-face, in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. There was no official communication after the session, but both sides characterized the discussion as “positive.” A pro-Haftar Libyan TV station reported that they agreed to scrap parts of the 2011 UN peace deal (the one that led to the GNA’s formation) that would give the GNA immediate control over a united Libyan military, and instead will try to negotiate a power sharing arrangement, with elections to be held in early March.

Nothing may come of this, but there’s a better chance for a political settlement in Libya today than there was yesterday.


So much for the possibility of a negotiated UN takeover of Hudaydah, I guess. Maybe I was right to be cynical after all:

Saudi fighter jets dropped leaflets over Houthi-controlled Hodeida in recent days warning its hundreds of thousands of residents of an impending offensive, according to the United Nations and aid agencies. Yemen imports 90 percent of its food, and Hodeida’s already-damaged port is the entry point for the vast majority of it. A two-year-long civil war has destroyed Yemen’s economy, and more than 7 million people rely on humanitarian aid for survival.

Members of Congress are busily writing sternly-worded letters to the Trump administration demanding that it not aid what now seems like an imminent attack, and insisting that any direct US participation in such an operation would require Congressional approval. But, you know, why expect this White House, or any White House, to start respecting Congressional war powers now?

To recap: the hope here is that a major assault on Hudaydah will force the Yemeni rebels to capitulate enough to reach a political settlement to the civil war that’s imperiled millions of Yemenis. The problem is that the assault on Hudaydah is likely to take so long, and be so destructive, that international food and aid shipments will be interrupted for months and many of those millions of Yemenis will die before it can be completed and the Hudaydah port rebuilt.


Continue reading “Conflict update: May 2 2017”

Conflict update: February 22 2017


Yesterday Reuters reported that a week before Mike Pence spoke at the Munich Security Conference and assured all those in attendance that Donald Trump is totally in to Europe and, like, when he keeps giving Europeans swirlies in the White House bathroom that’s just because he doesn’t want them to know that he like-likes them, Steve Bannon met with the German ambassador to the US and told him that, actually, Trump (i.e., Bannon) really, genuinely hates the European Union. Which, I mean, of course he does. Mike Pence and James Mattis and Rex Tillerson can make as many apology trips to Europe as they want, but Trump/Bannon see the EU as the enemy of the right-wing white nationalist xenophobia that is their core ideology. Former Obama Deputy National Security Advisor Colin Kahl offered his take on Twitter last night:


The UN Food and Agriculture Organization issued a report today that says, among other things, that “planetary boundaries may well be surpassed, if current trends continue,” or, in other words, if the human population keeps growing at its current rate and we don’t figure out how to live more sustainably, humanity will no longer be able to feed itself by the middle of the century. In some ways we already can’t feed ourselves, as the UN also made clear today when it announced that it needs $4.4 billion by the end of March in order to stave off mass starvation in parts of Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen. But those are man-made shortages caused by war. What the FAO is saying is that we may be pushing the planet’s capacity to feed us to its natural limit.

On the plus side, if humanity lasts long enough to master interstellar travel, maybe our descendants will have the chance to thoroughly trash a few of these planets the way we got to trash Earth. Fingers crossed!


Yemen as of February 12: red = government, green = rebel, white = al-Qaeda (Wikimedia | Ali Zifan)

I missed this over the weekend (shame on me), but Huffington Post’s Jessica Schulberg and Ryan Grim reported on a possible policy change within the Trump administration that may have contributed to the Saudi-Hadi coalition’s recent moves against Yemen’s Red Sea ports of Mokha and Hudaydah. The Obama administration, to the extent that it had any willingness or ability to shape the Saudi mission in Yemen, kept insisting that their forces should leave the country’s Red Sea ports (particularly Hudaydah) alone, since they were the main conduit by which humanitarian aid was being brought into the country. But aid is now being diverted to Aden, on the Gulf of Aden, instead, and Hudaydah looks like it’s going to be the coalition’s next major target. Aden is a smaller port than Hudaydah and doesn’t allow easy access to the parts of Yemen where starvation is an imminent threat (the parts regularly being bombed by the Saudis, coincidentally), so if it has to become the new main port for humanitarian aid, a lot of people are going to suffer the consequences.

Schulberg and Grim don’t prove that the Trump administration has given the Saudis the green light to go after Hudaydah, but the fact that the Saudis suddenly started attacking Yemen’s Red Sea ports after Trump took office is conspicuous. Also conspicuous is the role that UAE ambassador Yousef al-Otaiba, whose nation is part of the Saudi-led coalition, is playing with respect to the Trump administration. He’s described as a “mentor” to Trump’s son in-law, Jared Kushner, who parlayed his father in-law’s election experience running a minor right-wing newspaper into a gig as what’s been referred to as the “shadow Secretary of State” in the Trump White House.

There’s an argument to be made that giving the Saudis the OK to attack Hudaydah is actually the merciful thing to do because it could bring the war to a quicker end. But while it might well bring the war to a quicker end, the consensus of the humanitarian types who were interviewed by Schulberg and Grim seems to be that it’s not worth the tradeoff in lost aid. The war might end faster, but the amount of starvation caused by the loss of Hudaydah could be so immediate and so acute that even more people will die as a result.


Continue reading “Conflict update: February 22 2017”

Conflict update: January 17 2017

Conflict update: January 17 2017


Easily the single worst thing that happened today was the Nigerian air force’s mistaken bombing of a government-run displaced persons camp in Rann, in the northeastern part of the country. Pilots were apparently looking for a Boko Haram force reportedly amassing in the area, and instead wound up bombing a camp full of people who have been horribly victimized by Boko Haram. There’s an extraordinarily cruel joke in there somewhere, or maybe the whole episode is the joke, I don’t know. The New York Times, citing Doctors Without Borders, says at least 52 people were killed and another 200 injured, but earlier casualty estimates (citing government sources) were far higher than that, and with the likelihood that some of the injured will die overnight before they can be evacuated to proper medical facilities (Rann is hard to reach under the best of circumstances), the figure of 52 dead is undoubtedly too low.


Iraqi forces continue to sweep through eastern Mosul, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said this evening (Iraqi time, obviously) that some unspecified operation had begun in western Mosul. He may have been talking about the southern shelling of the Mosul Airport, which is on the western side of the Tigris and may be the first Iraqi target on that side of the river. ISIS fighters fleeing to western Mosul are reportedly blowing up buildings and bridges in their wake, and, more troublingly, trying to drag civilians across the river with them to serve as human shields.

I recommend this piece from Al Monitor about Iraqi Christians and their return to towns and homes in Ninewah province that have been devastated in the fighting. Many Iraqi Christians may never return, such has been the degree of destruction. The plight of Iraqi Christians may not seem as desperate as that of, e.g., the Yazidis, who are so few in number that they were genuinely almost driven out of existence when ISIS attacked Sinjar, but at an individual and family level Iraqi Christians have suffered as terribly as anybody else at ISIS’s hands.

In Baghdad, a car bomb detonated in a predominantly Shiʿa neighborhood, killing at least seven people.


Continue reading “Conflict update: January 17 2017”