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Afghanistan, North Korea – and Tunisia: a security briefing for Joe Biden

Biden’s first executive orders have done a lot, but he can’t order away all Trump’s cack-handed legacy – or silence the anger of neoliberalism’s losers.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
23 January 2021
Tunis, Tuesday
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Fauque Nicolas/Images de Tunisie/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Donald Trump is gone but, he hopes, not to be forgotten. In that he may be wrong. Several senators will very soon be vying for leadership of the Trumpian faction of the Republican Party. That could well make up more than half of all Republican voters and will make a good jumping-off point for a young and ambitious politician from the far Right, of whom there are quite a few.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden has moved rapidly to reverse as many of Trump's policies as he can, making an impressive start with some key domestic policies as well as two international issues on which global security rests. But Trump has left him some other foreign problems he won’t be able to ignore.

One of the new president’s first international acts was the immediate return of the US to the World Health Organization, a powerfully symbolic move that is also desperately needed. The pandemic has a long way to go before the crisis passes, with the number of new variants of the virus coming as quite a shock to many in the field.

If any of the variants had combined a 60% increase in infectivity with a similar increase in lethality, or even a wider age range of impact, then the resultant world crisis would have been truly appalling, bad enough as it already is. That has so far been avoided: much will depend on the extent of international cooperation and it is here that Biden may help focus much stronger global attention on the issue.

His second international move, rejoining the Paris climate accords, is also both symbolic and hugely important. After 9/11 we had eight years of the Bush administration's climate denial and Trump gave us four more. Twelve years of denial in two decades has done huge damage in preventing climate breakdown, made worse by the policies of other states such as Russia, Australia and Brazil. Time really is short, even if impressive developments in renewable energy technology give hope, and it is here, above all else, that Biden in the White House really could make a difference.

So far so good, then, but there have been three developments in this week of the inauguration that are sharp reminders of Biden’s wider concerns, in Afghanistan, North Korea and Tunisia.

As to the first, Trump was intent on getting US troops out of Afghanistan and came quite close over his four years, reducing them from over 10,000 to 2,500. This number is more than a little misleading, though, as it leaves 18,000 private contractors in place, including over 1,500 armed security personnel, most of them Americans.

What does that mean for life in Afghanistan? Trump’s people have been negotiating with Taliban representatives in Doha for close to a year, but despite the huge American presence in the country the reality on the ground is that the Taliban controls much of rural Afghanistan. It is poised to take a major share of post-conflict governance, no doubt with the intention of taking full control in the coming years.

This problem, which will land on Biden’s lap, is currently compounded by worsening security, especially in Kabul, in the form of a campaign of assassinations which appears to be directed partly at critical voices. Just last weekend two female judges working for the supreme court were killed, to add to more than 300 assassinations last year. One consequence is a pervading sense of tension and fear, with many of those in a position to leave the country now doing so.

Responsibility for the attacks is rarely claimed. The most common view, however, is that the Taliban is behind many of them, with the intention of pressuring the government to make major concessions as part of a peace agreement. Unless things change dramatically in the next couple of years, a quarter of a century of war will end up leaving Afghanistan uncomfortably close to where it was before 9/11.

Concerning North Korea, when Trump was campaigning for office in 2016 he made it abundantly clear that he would never allow North Korea to develop strategic nuclear weapons capable of reaching the US mainland. All the signs are that this has been a conspicuous failure. North Korea has not only developed powerful thermonuclear weapons but almost certainly has missiles capable of reaching the continental US.

Furthermore it is now developing nuclear-powered submarines and sea-launched ballistic missiles to complement its land-based systems, which are more susceptible to pre-emptive attack (Jane’s Defence Weekly, 20 January 2021, p 6).

Separating propaganda from reality, North Korea may still be some years away from that further capability, but Trump certainly failed in his negotiations with Kim Jong-un. In spite of the country’s parlous economic state it is the North Korean leader who ran rings around Trump and we now have nine nuclear powers, not eight (China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, the UK and the US), just as the UN’s Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons comes into force – yet another problem for Biden.

Finally there is Tunisia, the birthplace of the social upheavals and popular revolts across the Middle East and North Africa a decade ago. In recent weeks the country has witnessed scores of large public demonstrations against corruption and maladministration, with most of the anger in economic problems that have left nearly a third of young people unemployed. There have been more than 600 arrests so far.

There certainly is plenty of corruption in Tunisia but the significance of the protests lies in a different area. The one enduring and positive result of the 2010-11 revolution was that the country has survived as a relatively open society, whereas across most of the region it is the autocrats that remain in power, with the anger and bitterness at declining economies among their populations controlled by force.

Tunisia is therefore the one country where what is really being felt across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in many countries across the world, comes out into the open. It is the impact of the 40-year transition to the neoliberal economic world order and its essential requirement for losers as well as winners. That, though, is an issue that goes well beyond the remit of Joe Biden alone and should be on the minds of political and business leaders right across the world.

‘Liddism’ – keeping the lid on dissent in a fundamentally unfair and unjust system – will not work. The unrest in Tunisia is an ominous marker for what could break out in many countries, even those where the elites persist in the illusion that they can keep control.

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