The World Today for January 18, 2018



Armed Response

When an ambush killed five Nigerien troops and four US soldiers last October, Americans weren’t the only ones surprised to learn of the US military presence in the poverty-stricken country on the edge of the Sahara.

People in Niger were stunned, too, reported Buzzfeed News. And not all of them were happy.

“I won’t lie to you: People don’t like it,” Daouda Dakoye, a 34-year-old teacher, told the website. “In Niger, nobody knew America had 800 soldiers [stationed here] until after the attack. We see the French soldiers coming and going, building things, transporting materials. But the American soldiers — I mean, where are they? What are they hiding?”

Rated by the United Nations as one of the world’s least-developed countries, Niger is battling several Islamist groups linked to both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda along its long, loosely governed border with Mali, noted the Washington Post.

Leading up to the Oct. 4 ambush near the village of Tongo Tongo, militants had staged at least 46 attacks, mostly targeting local security forces, since February 2016, according to the United Nations. Niger had already declared a state of emergency in various districts of the area. Last week, Adnan Abu Walid al-Sahraoui, who was a member of Al Qaeda’s regional branch before pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the ambush.

Meanwhile, in neighboring Mali, some 4,000 French troops and 10,000 UN peacekeepers haven’t been able to eliminate Islamist militants altogether, nearly five years after France’s military intervention in 2013.

On Wednesday, Italian lawmakers approved sending troops to Niger to fight human trafficking and terrorism, the Associated Press reported. And French President Emmanuel Macron flew into Niger’s capital, Niamey, just before Christmas to pledge to continue the fight against extremists there in 2018, AFP reported.

Why, then, are some Nigeriens concerned about the presence of US troops? Many fear that the deployment of armed drones – as requested by the Nigerien government after the October ambush – could lead to a rash of controversial killings like those that have angered citizens of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

(The Intercept news site reported in 2015 that airstrikes, usually by drone, conducted by US special operations units during Operation Haymaker in the Afghan theater had killed people other than their intended targets nine times out of 10.)

“Given the recent authorization to engage in offensive operations, we’re also concerned about the parameters of US operations,” said Corinne Dufka, associate director for West Africa at Human Rights Watch. “The US needs to be transparent about the scope of any operations and fully respect human rights.”

Accusations of civilian fatalities have dogged the expansion of America’s military presence in Africa, where American soldiers conduct around 10 missions a day – or 3,500 exercises, programs, and engagements per year, the US military’s top commander for Africa recently revealed.

For instance, the US denied claims that civilians were killed as collateral damage in an August raid on a Somali village, even after Somali officials had admitted that 10 civilians, including children, had been killed.

Death by drone could be more contentious.



Another Gauntlet

Catalan lawmakers threw down another gauntlet on Wednesday, electing a separatist speaker and signaling the possible selection of ousted President Carles Puigdemont later in the month.

That would return Catalonia to a “full-blown political confrontation with Madrid,” Reuters reported.

Meeting for the first time since Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy removed Puigdemont and called for a new regional election, the parliament appointed separatist MP Roger Torrent as speaker in a move that “shattered” the fragile calm that has endured since the December polls.

Late Tuesday, Catalonia’s two main separatist parties – which hold a slim majority – reiterated they would back Puigdemont to return as regional president. A first vote to choose a new leader is likely on Jan. 31.

In self-imposed exile in Brussels, Puigdemont has suggested he might perform his duties via Skype, since a return to Spain would result in his arrest on charges of sedition and rebellion. Madrid has vowed to go to the courts to stop that from happening.


Unparalleled Peace Process

As Washington pushes its allies to enforce sanctions against North Korea more stringently, Pyongyang and Seoul continue to advance unprecedented overtures of peace – a development that has “scrambled” the US strategy.

On Wednesday, Pyongyang and Seoul agreed to march together under one flag at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics next month, the New York Times reported. They cleared the way for North Korean athletes to participate in four sports, and they agreed to field a joint team in women’s ice hockey.

Though it’s a long way from actual, lasting peace, the unprecedented gesture could make it tricky for Washington to continue with threats of surgical pre-emptive strikes and other bellicose rhetoric. And it should boost the political capital of South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

Elsewhere, President Donald Trump accused Russia of helping Pyongyang evade sanctions and praised China for its efforts to restrict oil and coal supplies in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday.


Backing the Bank

Saudi Arabia deposited $2 billion into Yemen’s central bank on Wednesday to shore up the weak Yemeni currency.

The financial equivalent of Saudi Arabia’s military support for Yemen’s Sunni government against the Iran-backed Shi’ite Houthi rebels, the move followed a plea from Prime Minister Ahmed Obaid bin Daghr.

“It’s not a loan, it’s a deposit and the legitimate Yemeni government will not have to pay it back,” Reuters quoted a source close to the Saudi government as saying.

Over the nearly three-year-long civil war, the Yemeni currency, the rial, has lost more than half its value against the US dollar and soaring prices have put some basic commodities out of reach for many Yemenis.

“Saving the rial means saving Yemenis from inevitable hunger,” Yemen’s prime minister said Wednesday.

However, aid workers noted that the move could widen disparities between the rebel-held North and government-controlled South, particularly if the money allows the government to pay public sector salaries.


Unsung Hero

The names of Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg, who risked their own lives and fortunes during World War II to help Europe’s Jews escape death at the hands of the Nazis, have been immortalized.

But what of the Swiss envoy Carl Lutz?

According to a recent investigation into war documents by the BBC, Lutz arrived in Budapest in 1942 to serve as neutral Switzerland’s vice-consul to Hungary. Hungary had already sided with Germany. But when the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944, they expedited efforts to exterminate Hungary’s Jews by deporting them to Auschwitz.

Using his diplomatic resources, Lutz began fudging letters of Swiss diplomatic protection to save them. The Nazis granted Lutz permission to issue only 8,000 letters to individuals with a direct connection to Western powers, but he managed to duplicate the letters to save entire families.

Historians estimate that his efforts saved as many as 62,000 lives.

“It is the largest civilian rescue operation of the Second World War,” said Holocaust expert Charlotte Schallié.

After the war, though, Lutz was reprimanded for overstepping his authority rather than feted for his heroism – primarily due to Switzerland’s strict policy of neutrality.

“Ask most people in Switzerland about Carl Lutz, and the answer will be, ‘Who?'”

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