Stories from across the world as viewed through the lens of our Foreign Editor David Pratt
Turkey: Afghan refugee exodus puts pressure on Erdogan.
They’re building border walls again. This time it’s a massive concrete structure that stretches for 87 miles along Turkey’s eastern frontier with Iran, complete with watchtowers and surveillance cameras.
Turkey of course has long served as a transit route towards Europe for those fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East and beyond. Once again, the country is seeing growing numbers of Afghan refugees arrive as the Taliban continues to make advances wreaking havoc and destruction before them.
If figures collated by international observers are anything to go by then somewhere between 500 and two thousand Afghans daily are said to be crossing into Van province, with many more trying to find legal ways to leave Afghanistan if they can afford it.
In their wake these Afghans are leaving behind a situation eyewitness accounts confirm is increasingly desperate in many parts of the country.
Just reading some of the recent reports it would appear that the share of the country’s 407 districts claimed by the Taliban has increased from 26 % in mid-June to 55% on July 21st. The UN too speaks of a record high in terms of civilian casualty figures and in this country that’s a high bar indeed when it comes to bloodletting.
Speaking this week in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, Shukria Barakzai, a prominent women’s rights advocate and former politician who helped draft Afghanistan’s post-Taliban constitution, which guarantees a range of freedoms, including equality for women, spoke of what the country is now experiencing.
“It’s not civil war anymore because the Afghan government and security forces are not facing local Taliban. They are fighting against Pakistani militants, Chechens, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, al Qaeda, the Islamic State. The name Taliban is just an umbrella for all other international terrorist networks,” Barakzai insisted.
Some analysts will doubtless disagree with her assessment, pointing out that such a myriad grouping of Islamist organisations – some fierce rivals – would find it hard to work together under such an umbrella.
Few however would question the overwhelming evidence that the Taliban is once again a force to be reckoned with on the ground and that Islamist inspired groups are increasingly holding the upper hand militarily in parts the country.
What is also not in doubt is the burgeoning humanitarian fallout. The UNHCR has said an estimated 270,000 Afghans had been newly displaced inside the country since January. That brings the total population forced from their homes to more than 3.5 million.
Turkey itself of course is no stranger to refugees, hosting as it does about three and a-half million Syrian refugees and at least a hundred thousand Afghans who fled previous conflicts.
But with this latest surge resulting from the Afghanistan exodus, the Turkish government’s refugee policy is facing growing scrutiny. With a struggling economy hit hard by the COVID pandemic and soaring inflation, tensions in Turkey are already high and the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan knows it.
Already Turkey’s opposition is seizing on growing resentment towards all refugees. As The Economist magazine reported last week one leading opposition politician recently called the
Syrians and Afghans, who now account for roughly 5% of the country’s population, “the number-one issue for Turkey’s survival.”
The journal also reported on how the mayor of Bolu, a city in the north, said he would increase water bills for refugees tenfold. Such resentment also has a knock-on effect in wider European terms.
To date Turkey has acted as something of a gatekeeper for the EU in exchange for billions of dollars in aid, but opposition politicians are putting pressure on Erdogan not to make any new deals with the EU to host more refugees at precisely the moment the crisis in Afghanistan is sending them in Turkey’s direction.
“Turkey will not be the EU’s border guard or refugee camp,” snapped the Turkish foreign ministry earlier this month after Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s chancellor, said Turkey was “a more suitable place” for Afghans than his country.
But with the latest research showing that the goal of 8 out of 10 Afghan nationals is to go to Europe, it’s not only Turkey in which tensions will be sure to grow in the coming months.
Hong Kong: Security law bites as anthem is booed
It was the territory’s first Olympic gold in 25 years. A cause for Hong Kongers to celebrate one might think, except for the fact that some citizens in a city shopping mall reportedly chose to boo the Chinese national anthem when it was played during the medal ceremony a few days ago.
Such displays of dissent are nothing unusual in the territory where “We are Hong Kong” is often chanted by Hong Kong football fans, when China’s national anthem is played ahead of matches.
But last week’s Olympic response was another sharp reminder of tensions that continue to grip Hong Kong as the Chinese authorities tighten their grip and try to snuff out any hint of political opposition to Communist Party rule.
On multiple fronts it would seem, the old notion of “One Country, Two Systems” is being stripped away more than ever by Beijing. Last week too saw the first person convicted under Hong Kong’s new national security law sentenced to nine years in prison for driving his motorcycle into a group of police officers last year while flying a flag calling for the city’s “liberation”.
Leon Tong Ying-kit, a 24-year-old waiter, was given a nine-year prison sentence by a Hong Kong court for “promoting secession” and “terrorism”. They sentenced the former restaurant worker to 6½ years for the secession crime and eight years for terrorism, with 5½ years of the latter term to run concurrently with the first. He was also barred from driving for 10 years. While the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities say the law was vital to restore stability and that all prosecutions are based on evidence and have nothing to do with the people’s background or profession, rights groups point to the fact that some of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy politicians and activists have been charged and some sent to jail. Others meanwhile have fled the former British colony that was returned to China in 1997.
Some observers however see another consequence of this suppression of dissent following the anti – government protests in 2019.
Could it be they ask, that such a crackdown is now fomenting a violent underground resistance? With the stabbing of a policeman almost to deathon the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from the UK to China. and with a group of youths, some just 15 years old, accused of planting explosives around the city, the answer some conclude is yes.
Others however are wary, flagging up the possibility that the authorities were exploiting isolated events to make a case for a Xinjiang- style security crackdown similar to that imposed on the autonomous territory in northwest China, home to the minority Uyghur people.
Whatever the truth, it’s clear that China’s Communist Party has abandoned its old ways of in the territory of working from the shadows. Slowly, but surely, Hong Kong is being politically refashioned in the Chinese mainland’s authoritarian image.
Malta: State responsibility for journalist murder
The public inquiry’s findings were clear. The Maltese state should be held responsible for the death of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. It was back in 2017 that the investigative journalist and blogger was killed by a car bomb near her home.
Ever since then the swirl of conspiracy has centred on what the inquiry described as a “favourable climate” for anyone who wanted to “eliminate” the reporter whose work by then was said to be investigating corruption in a business linked to a wealthy businessman, Yorgen Fenech.
Fenech – who had close ties to the government – is the alleged mastermind behind the assassination and has been charged with complicity in Caruana Galizia’s murder, though he denies any responsibility. He was however caught trying to flee Malta on a yacht.
Publishing its finding last Thursday, the inquiry described a “culture of impunity” that had developed in the highest levels of the Maltese government in the years leading up to 2017.
This culture had also spread to other parts of the state, such as the police, and led to a “breakdown in the rule of law,” the report added. In all it was a damning indictment of the Maltese government led at that time by former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.
It was Muscat who once described Caruana Galizia’s as “the only opposition in the country,” but her death sparkedoutrage in Malta and abroad and eventually led to Muscat’s resignation in early 2020.
While the inquiry’s report did not offer any proof of direct government involvement in her death, it has rocked the country to its foundations and borne out the Caruana Galizia family’s beliefs that her death was a “direct result” of the collapse of the rule of law and “the impunity that the state provided to the corrupt network she was reporting on.”
While the family hopes the outcome will lead to the restoration of the rule of law in Malta,” the report and its findings are a separate process from the ongoing criminal case.
“It remains extremely important to closely monitor the ongoing criminal proceedings,” said the Paris-based NGO, Reporters without Borders (RSF), in a statement after the report was published these past few days. How those proceedings ultimately play out remains to be seen.
But it says a lot about the damage to Malta’s democratic reputation that since Caruana Galizia’s assassination, Malta has fallen 34 places in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. It currently ranks 81st out of 180 countries.
Iraq: The next US drawdown?
“There will be no US forces with a combat role in Iraq by December 31, 2021,” the joint statement from Iraq and the US declared last week. The decision on the face of it would seem official after a meeting between US president Joe Biden and Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Washington.
There was as one might expect substantial fanfare after this uncoupling was announced which comes in the wake of the draw down of US- led forces in Afghanistan. Things in that country as I have previously noted are not going well since that decision was implemented, so why should anyone think that it will be a more positive story in Iraq? Most American officials too are still haunted by the failed US withdrawal from the country back in 2011. Perhaps for that reason there is certainly no shortage of sceptics around who believe the latest announcement is not quite what it seems.
“A set piece of diplomatic theatre,” was how The New York Times described it and others tend to agree. As ever with these things the devil is in the detail.
“We’re not going to be, by the end of the year, in a combat mission,” insisted Biden. It’s that designation of “combat mission” that tells us what we need to know. In short most of the
2,500 American troops currently stationed in Iraq would as The New York Times pointed out remain, “simply reclassified on paper into advisory and training roles.”
For the simple inescapable fact is that Washington simply can’t make the sort of clean break with Iraq as it has done with Afghanistan. It really cannot afford to diminish a US presence because of the influence of Iran in the country and what is still a continuing threat from the Islamic State (IS) group.
Then there is the fact that although they don’t like to say it publicly Baghdad has a greater degree of tolerance for the American presence that they let on.
“Most Iraqi leaders, including those who don’t say it openly, do recognise the importance of having the US there,” was how Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at London-based policy institute Chatham House, summed it up last week to German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
“If the US left altogether, it’s likely that other countries like the UK and Germany would follow suit. If that happened, Iraq would become “a pariah state,” Mansour added, “one that’s closed off to the world.” That, it would seem is in no one’s interest for now, not even Iran which wants to keep channels with the US open and have continued regional leverage. Things as they say are rarely what they seem in terms of international diplomacy