Today's Headlines

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Friday, October 17, 2014

Nigerian Ceasefire: Too Good to Be True?

The world received unexpected good news today when Nigeria's defense minister announced a ceasefire between the Nigerian military and the infamous insurgent group, Boko Haram. More importantly, it was announced that Boko Haram had agreed to release some 200 schoolgirls that made international headlines (and more importantly, thanks to my colleague Vicky, headlines right here) six months ago when they were kidnapped by the group. Since the kidnapping, a coalition of forces has been combatting Boko Haram in an attempt to suppress what appeared to be unstoppable momentum as they continued seizing hostages and securing land. For a while, it seemed as though the Nigerian government was powerless against them, and hopes of the girls' safety diminished over the weeks.

Unsurprisingly the world rejoiced at today's news, and rightfully so - the kidnapping of the schoolgirls was demonic and tragic. However, after taking a step back, it's easy to question the seriousness of this ceasefire. One has to look no farther than the Ukraine to understand the fragility of such an agreement, and Nigeria is arguably more volatile than Ukraine when it comes to conflict. So the question remains: will the ceasefire hold up, and will it hold up long enough to return these girls to their families?

There's good reason to ask this question. As I wrote back in May, Boko Haram is arguably one of the most horrifying examples of an insurgency that exists today. Sure, ISIS operates on a much larger scale and has a penchant for executing prisoners and posting the videos online for the world to see, and there are innumerable other groups around the world seeking to instill fear in local regions and kill innocent people. But Boko Haram has a particularly senseless method of committing heinous acts, with apparently little motivation other than simply killing as many people as possible. The fact that they even kept 200 schoolgirls alive as hostages for this long is shrouded in mystery, as it does not conform to their routine mode of operation (for a while, it was assumed that these girls would be drugged and eventually sold as sex slaves, although if today's announcements are accurate, this was not the case).



This is not to mention the broader geopolitical status of the region, where it would be charitable to say they are not doing well. Nigeria has been battling Boko Haram for years now, and has embarrassingly been unsuccessful in diminishing their capabilities to project terror on various regions in the country. Not too far away is Mali with their own terrorism-related woes, and the Central African Republic which is equally volatile these days. Africa is seldom the place where hopefulness pays dividends when it comes to these types of situations.

Ultimately, it would be heartless to express nothing but cynicism and skepticism at the announcements that came today, especially given the travails to stem the Ebola epidemic in the western horn (not to mention the seemingly endless turmoil all over the Middle East and in Ukraine). We should be optimistic at this news. However, that optimism should be guarded, as there are several key factors that lend distrust to the motives of Boko Haram. For now, let's hope that these girls are returned to the families that have ached over them for so many months, and that Boko Haram has somehow finally come to its senses and will accept more peacefulness in such a troubled nation.

Friday, October 10, 2014

It’s a Good Day to be a Girl

I don't even have to write an article, I could just give you Malala quotes.
Today, the Nobel Peace Prize committee announced its youngest winner ever, Pakistani education advocate and world-famous terrorism survivor Malala Yousafzai. Her co-recipient Kailash Satyarthi,is an equally impressive child labor activist, who goes beyond rhetoric to leading actual raids of factories employing children, even standing down armed guards. Together, they are excellent representatives of the people who actively fight every day against fundamentalism, extremism, and violence.

Ms. Yousafzai’s activism on behalf of women and girls’ education everywhere has earned her nearly universal praise from the West, including this latest honor, yet she still cannot return home to Pakistan due to fears for her and her family’s life. While she is widely known and celebrated abroad, feted by heads of state, and has even met Queen Elizabeth II, Malala is often called a Western pawn or CIA agent in the Pakistani media, with some even doubting the veracity of the Taliban’s attempt on her life in 2012.

Friday, October 3, 2014

A Week in Protests: Spotlight on Hong Kong

As my colleague Colin Wolfgang likes to say, “protests are so IN right now.” The latest country to experience mass pro-democracy protests is also perhaps the most surprising: in China over the last two weeks, student groups and pro-democracy activists have joined forces in Hong Kong to stage huge demonstrations and sit-ins. Despite a total government blackout on information leaving Hong Kong, reports and photos are still coming out showing that the protests have spread throughout the central area of the city, and show no signs of abating.
 
School children join the pro-democracy protests. Courtesy Getty Images.
The protests taking place in Hong Kong are primarily due to a declaration in August that Beijing would reserve the right to vet all candidates for the chief executive of the autonomously administrated city. The vetting process will take place in the first direct elections for the position, due to take place in 2017. When Hong Kong gained independence from the U.K. in 1997, part of the agreement for its transfer to Chinese administration was autonomous rule for 50 years, and direct elections for the chief executive in 20.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

It's Just Africa: Ebola Ravages West Africa

 The World Health Organization (WHO) was notified of the first cases of Ebola in Guinea, West Africa in March 2014. Since then, the virus has spread past Guinea, thanks to the region’s porous borders, into Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, and Nigeria. With a fatality rate of 70%, slightly lower than the 90% fatality rate of past outbreaks, Ebola has had a chance, due to unprepared public health systems and poorly informed citizenry, to spread steadily through the region. Ebola is thought to have spread to humans through fruit bats, which are considered a delicacy for some West Africans, as well as through other types of bush meat such as small rodents.

While Ebola does not spread quite as quickly as the Spanish flu or pre-vaccination days measles, efforts to contain the disease have already exceeded the capacity of public health systems in West Africa. The total case count of the disease has reached 6,574, as of September 29th, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the CDC, the total number of laboratory confirmed cases is 3,626 and the total number of deaths is 3,091. The overwhelming majority of these cases have been documented in Liberia (3,458 total cases, 914 laboratory confirmed cases, and 1,830 deaths), with Sierra Leone running a close second (2,021 total cases, 1,816 laboratory confirmed cases, and 605 deaths). In Senegal, no new cases have been reported since August 29, and in Nigeria, no new cases have been reported since September 5. In Guinea, the infection rate seems to have stabilized.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

ISIS, Kohrasan, and America's Begrudging March Towards War

It's been a long week.

I wrote two weeks ago about President Obama's new foray into intervention in Iraq, using airstrikes to weaken ISIS strongholds throughout the country. Vicky followed up with an excellent piece arguing that intervention was nothing new for Obama, and perhaps she's right. However, these airstrikes were arguably a bold move for a President more accustomed to surreptitious drone strikes and more covert action as opposed to this new, more broadened campaign. Surely Obama is beginning to step out of his comfort zone.

The past two weeks have seen ISIS continue to use their disturbingly impressive PR prowess to dominate headlines both in the U.S. and abroad. Many continued the dialogue of exactly how much of a threat ISIS was, but most everyone agreed that they did pose a significant threat to the Western world. The Congress and Senate gave approval for the U.S. to begin deploying arms and military advisors to Syria in an attempt to equip and train the floundering rebel movement that has been fighting President Asad's troops, among others, for two years now. This was a striking decision - and not because of the complexity of equipping and training rebel militants in the worst warzone in the world. This decision was striking because of what it meant domestically: after an arduous few years of being deadlocked with the Republican-controlled House, President Obama was somehow able to get Congress to pass a bill, and rather quickly. The fear that ISIS has brought to America's doorstep has lead to lawmakers and the American people alike to rally behind Obama, and support him in his efforts to combat these Islamic radicals. As a recent Pew Research poll noted, the majority of Americans now think that President Obama must be "tougher" in his foreign policy - a figure that would have been impossible to believe as he assumed the Presidency in 2008.

Early this week, President Obama took one step further outside of his comfort zone with similar airstrikes targeting ISIS territory in Syria, as well as renewed strikes in Iraq. This came after reports about some new, even scarier terrorist organization hiding out in Syria, that posed an even graver threat to American interests: Khorasan. Somehow able to have remained incognito until now, Khorasan is a group of former al Qaeda members that, like al Qaeda, have specific interest in attacks against America and Western Europe. As many experts have noted, unlike al Qaeda, ISIS is interested primarily in carving out their own territory and establishing a theocracy in which they can subject their people to strict Sharia law. Sure, disruptions to this plan such as American airstrikes will draw ire and could present ugly repercussions for America, but they are no al Qaeda in the sense that they exist solely to promulgate anti-American ideology and harm as many Westerners as possible in frightening, grandiose attacks. President Obama's airstrikes in Syria were a direct response to Khorasan, and it was reported shortly after the strikes began that the U.S. had thwarted an "imminent" plot to harm Americans.

Interestingly, the strikes came as Obama took the stage at the United Nations General Assembly this week, where on Wednesday he talked about the threat terrorist organizations like ISIS and Khorasan pose not just to the West, but to the entire world. He made a point of emphasizing the coalition of Middle Eastern countries he had rapidly assembled to carry out the strikes in Syria, and called on an even broader coalition to support even broader efforts to deter these groups in the future. Notably, when President Obama took the stage at the General Assembly last year this time, it was following his decision not to call for airstrikes in Syria, despite President Asad having crossed Obama's "red line" and using chemical weapons on his people. The changes from Obama's candor then and today is truly striking.

What comes next is anyone's guess. ISIS has shown no signs of slowing down, despite increased airstrikes today and new targets of oil fields they control, which keep them flush with cash. The Iraqi Prime Minister alluded to plotted attacks on American and European subway systems by terrorists in his speech before the General Assembly today, causing an immediate panic despite the fact that his words were difficult to immediately corroborate. And many analysts have expressed skepticism of the broad airstrikes against ISIS in Syria, as this can potentially strengthen Asad's army and terrorist groups such as Khorasan, who along with fighting the rebels, have also opposed ISIS' rise. For now, the strikes will continue, and it appears Obama has substantial support in his efforts.

Let's just hope next week isn't as crazy.