Haiti & Afghanistan: how not to transfer power

👩‍🚀 Billionaires fly to space; anticlimactically return safely

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Good morning!

This week, it's my (John) great honour to report that the other half of International Intrigue (Helen) came second at the National Touch Rugby Invitational in Washington DC over the weekend. 🥳

Some of us count having a flight of stairs in our house as 'plenty of exercise for one day'; others fly cross-continent chasing the sweet elixir of victory in competitive sport.

But a word of warning to all of Helen's new fans:

Just kidding - she’s even lovelier in person.

This week we take a look at how not to transfer power in a country:

  1. 🌴 WTF just happened in Haiti?

  2. 🐫 Afghanistan: after America’s adieu

Don’t forget to let us know what you think of this week’s edition 👇

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🌴 WTF just happened in Haiti?

By John

The way the world is going, 'WTF just happened in...' is probably going to become an ongoing series.

In the early hours of July 7, 28 armed mercenaries broke into Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s residence and shot him at least 12 times. 

President Moïse was a controversial figure who had been ruling Haiti by decree since February 2020, due to a dispute over when his Presidential term officially ended.

Haiti is no stranger to mysterious coups or bloody assassinations, but these recent events would make even a Bond script writer proud of his or her imaginations.

A lot remains unknown, but here are a few key points:

  • At least 21 of the gunmen were former servicemen of the Colombian Army. Two Haitian-Americans were arrested, one of whom was a US Drug Enforcement Agency informant.

  • None of the President’s bodyguards on duty July 7 were harmed, which some commentators suggest is suspicious. The head of the Presidential Guard has been arrested.

  • Haitian Police believe that Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a Haitian-American living in Miami, was involved in planning the attack. According to media reports, Sanon was a fierce critic of Moïse, and saw himself as Haiti's next president.

  • Haiti’s Prime Minister Claude Joseph ceded power to political rival Ariel Henry on Monday, after a power struggle over who should govern the country until fresh elections are held in September.

  • There is widespread looting and violence in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, but the UN and the US have so far rejected Haitian requests for peacekeeping forces.

  • And lastly, just in case you're wondering whether the Haitian judiciary might provide the institutional stability Haiti so desperately needs, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court René Sylvestre died of Covid-19 last month.

For more background, read this.

I also suggest you save the above list for the next time some mouth-breather tells you that US/UK/Europe politics is "like, literally the worst in the world".

Haiti’s horrible history

Haitians are long-suffering. Many of us will remember the horrific earthquake in Port-au-Prince that killed ~200,000 people in 2010. But honestly, that’s just 1/1000th of it:

  • French slavery. Haiti was the 'pearl' in France's colonial crown. Haiti was the richest colony in the history of the world, and accounted for nearly half of the world’s sugar production. By the late 1700s, about 30,000 French landowners ruled over 500,000 African slaves.

  • The Haitian revolution. The French Revolution in 1789 banned slavery in France and its colonies, but Napoléon attempted to reinstate slavery in French colonies in 1802. This kicked off a brutal war between France and Haitian ‘rebels’. Haitian General Jean-Jacques Dessalines became Haiti’s first independent leader in 1804, but died soon after, ushering in 150 years of power struggles and foreign interventions.

  • The Papa & Baby Doc eras. Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier brutally ruled over Haiti from 1957-71. His regime committed vast human rights abuses, was deeply corrupt, and led to mass emigration of educated Haitians. He was a self-styled Vodou priest and he conscripted other Vodou priests into his paramilitary death squads. Upon his death, Duvalier’s son took power. Arguably less violent but more corrupt, Baby Doc ruled Haiti until 1986.

  • The last 35 years. Since then, Haitian politics has been a story of elections, coups, and military rule. Haiti’s most recent (and 23rd!) Constitution is unclear and poorly drafted, its institutions are weak, and its electoral politics are a mess.

Haiti’s big problem

There’s no doubt that a legacy of slavery and colonialism still plagues Haiti. France imposed a crippling debt on Haiti in 1838 to reimburse slave owners. 

How crippling you ask? How about twice the amount France charged the US for the entire Louisiana Territory. The Haitian debt was only repaid in 1947.

But Haiti’s underlying problem is that it seems to be incapable of peacefully and productively transferring power. And without political stability, none of these other problems can be adequately addressed.

For that, the Haitian political elite deserve their fair share of the blame:

Haiti’s political elite has long excelled at placing struggles for power and the perquisites that go with it far above any sense of duty or accountability to the people of a country who mostly make do with no expectation that the government will deliver meaningful services to them—not even those of the most basic sort, whether electricity or clean drinking water.

- Howard W. French, former New York Times Bureau Chief

Of course, you could replace ‘Haiti’ with about 140 other countries and that quote would still be bang on. And no, perquisite (i.e. perks) is not a typo but yes, I had to look it up to find out.

So how can a country move from autocracy to democracy?

An analysis of democracies that were once autocracies lays out some key steps:

  1. Hold elections, even if they’re not free and fair. Consistent elections build expectations that power can only come from elections and never force.

  2. Armed rebellions rarely lead to anything good, but non-violent popular uprisings can. As with reason 1, the key is to create long-term expectations that the will of the people is the source of legitimacy.

  3. Nurture the middle class. Inclusive growth makes it harder for strongmen to overturn election results on the promise of redistributing resources.

  4. Distribute power to the regions. It is far harder for authoritarians to control many power bases at once than it is to control a central important source (i.e. the Capital).

  5. The rule of law must both exist and be widely believed to exist. A few corrupt judges can undermine confidence in an otherwise reasonable legal system.

Now, I'm just spitballing here, but if you wanted to take a country in the opposite direction, I suppose you'd: ignore the middle and lower classes, bully regional politicians, try to undermine the result of an election, pack the judiciary, and violently attack the institutions of state.

Luckily, I can't think of any recent examples of that 🤔.

Haiti’s future

I have no idea what the future holds for Haiti. Sadly, history suggests more of the same. But President Moïse’s assassination highlights (at least) two things:

  • There is little to no appetite for humanitarian interventions. An overly cynical view might be that Haiti isn’t valuable to rich countries. My sense is that after the world’s collective experience in Afghanistan, Syria, and many parts of Africa to name but a few, people just don’t believe that peacekeeping interventions lead to better outcomes in the long term. 

  • Haiti’s problems aren’t just Haiti’s problems. There is an increasing number of countries - often small island nations - that cannot economically support themselves in the 21st century. The world urgently needs a new model to support these countries, one that balances political independence with economic stability. The current trend towards isolationism and even nationalism will devastate countries like Haiti.

I've avoided editorialising about whether foreign states might have been involved in President Moïse’s assassination. I’ve not even mentioned the CIA's sordid history of meddling in Central American politics. Oh, whoops.

Anyway, the point is you’ll find plenty of that stuff elsewhere and I don’t have anything new to add.

Instead, I have been reflecting on the following passage and thinking that, no matter how much of a mess Haiti currently is, those of us in the 'free world' all owe Haitians a great debt of gratitude:

It was the Haitian Revolution, and not the much more celebrated American one of a quarter century prior, that went furthest toward fulfilling the ideals of the Enlightenment. Once victorious, the formerly enslaved people of Haiti not only banned human bondage, but announced to the world that all peoples, whatever their race, should be treated equally.

- Howard W. French, former New York Times Bureau Chief

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🐫 Afghanistan: after America’s adieu

By Helen

Here’s a question for the pub quiz fanatics: which of the below statements about Afghanistan is true?

  • A. ‘Buzkashi’, the national game, involves riders on horseback competing to grab and toss a goat carcass into a chalked circle, and was once proposed as an Olympic sport .

  • B. Arnold Schwarzenegger (pre-Governor/dad-bod days) is a revered demigod among the Afghan youth, many of whom reportedly believe he looks like an Afghan.

  • C. Afghanistan is the site of the world’s first oil paintings, which were discovered in the caves of Bamiyan, a region once home to a thriving Buddhist civilisation.

  • D. It has hosted the US’ longest foreign war, rounding out at ~20 years of military involvement and an estimated ~US$2 trillion spent on the fighting.

  • E. All of the above.

The correct answer is E, because there are no wrong answers in world geopolitics. (And shame on those of you who didn’t back the enduring, universal appeal of young Arnie.)

On a more sombre note, the US’ military withdrawal from Afghanistan has triggered heartache and anxiety from seasoned Afghanistan watchers, military officials, and diplomats - many of whom fear that Afghanistan might soon disintegrate into (another) civil war.

The Taliban (a terrorist group that once ruled Afghanistan) has capitalised on the accelerated US departure. The Taliban has advanced against former US-backed Afghan government forces to claim over 85% of the country at time of writing, and claims full victory is imminent. 

9/11

To understand how we got here, I take you back to September 11th, 2001. Few memories from my teenage years were as vivid as that day, when I genuinely thought WW3 was about to kick off:

  • As I’m sure quite literally everyone knows, Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked and kamikazed civilian planes into the US World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a Pennsylvania field, killing ~3,000 people.

  • The US (and its allies) attacked Afghanistan in retaliation when Taliban rulers refused to expel Al-Qaeda from Afghan territory, and refused to hand over 9/11’s mastermind, Osama Bin Laden. (I recently found out that in October 2001, then-President Bush rejected a Taliban offer to hand over Bin Laden if the US ended their bombing campaign in Afghanistan. With the benefit of hindsight, that’s simply mind blowing.)

  • The US and its allies overthrew the Taliban within two months, and began the task of state-building for Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the US entered another war to hunt for ‘weapons of mass destruction’ in Iraq.

State-building – I mean, it seems straightforward enough, right? What could go wrong?*

*Many things, as it turns out. Like countless powers before it (e.g. the British, the Soviets), the US got bogged in Afghanistan, a territory that’s notoriously difficult to govern and unite due to its harsh terrain and tribal politics. Afghanistan has earned the nickname the ‘graveyard of empires’.

An impending civil war?

The Taliban has patiently and ruthlessly played the long game since its ousting from Afghanistan in 2001. Not unlike how Voldemort bid his time before returning under the turban of Professor Quirrell. 🐍

The Taliban are slowly (and quite literally) levelling the playing field, including by attacking US/NATO-trained Afghan military personnel, such as air force pilots. The Taliban have expanded territorial control over rural areas, and even spooked some government troops to flee across the border into Tajikistan.

Fearing the Taliban’s brutal rule, many regional Afghan warlords have either conceded their territory, or recruited and armed their own local militia in an attempt to hold out.

But sceptics of the Taliban’s recent territorial claims believe that Afghan government forces can hold their own militarily. After all, as President Biden recently noted, the Afghan government troops greatly outnumber the Taliban and are ‘as well-equipped as any army in the world’.

What is my forecast for Afghanistan? If you answered: protracted and brutal power struggle, with a reasonable chance of all-out civil war, ding ding ding you’re right.

The geopolitical fallout

Afghanistan isn’t a vacuum and the re-emerging conflict has already impacted neighbours:

  • Pakistan: the Afghan government (not unfairly) accuses Pakistan of allowing safe haven for the Taliban. And just last week, Afghanistan withdrew its diplomats from Islamabad after the Afghan Ambassador’s daughter was “abducted for several hours and severely tortured by unknown individuals on her way home". 

Or put more simply:

  • Central Asia: The US is reportedly in talks with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan to shelter Afghan refugees who have helped the US government, but are now targeted by the Taliban. The security and stability of Central Asia is becoming more important to the US, and I expect the US will renew its diplomatic focus on the ‘stans’.

  • China: The Taliban can be incredibly commercially-minded and transactional when it suits them. The Taliban are reportedly courting Beijing’s money to (re)build infrastructure in Afghanistan. And no, China’s treatment of their Uigher ‘brothers’ in Xinjiang isn’t going to come between the Taliban and that sweet, sweet RMB:

We care about the oppression of Muslims... [b]ut what we are not going to do is interfere in China's internal affairs.

- Taliban spokesperson, July 2021

It’s probably just me, but I’ve always found it weird that the Taliban have official spokespeople. 

Zoom out: America retreats

Critics of the US withdrawal will say it could have been executed more carefully, or the US should have left some troops behind, or this, or that.

Perhaps they’re right. In reality, President Biden had few good choices and maybe it’s better for all concerned to just rip the band-aid right off now.

The bigger question though, is what role will the US and the ‘international community’ play in the future? Are international interventions off the table forever? Are we at the start of an isolationist era, where countries only look after their own, and if so, who stands to benefit most?

I suspect there will be little appetite in the US, and among its allies, for military interventions (including peacekeeping missions) in the short and medium term. 

A more transactional style of foreign relations will likely take the place of ‘values-based’ policy. And many will welcome that - the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were absolute disasters after all.

But I also suspect that isolationism won’t be forever. Free-market liberal democracies depend on the projection of values for legitimacy. In a perfect world, no country would feel the need to project anything militarily, but history tells us that the world is anything but perfect.

In the words of Prince Charles: “everything is cyclical, every 15 years or so my double-breasted suits are back in fashion”. 

And believe me, I’m as surprised as you that I just equated military interventions to men’s tailoring, but here we are.


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