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Blackwater USA – Daily Brief 7/26/19


  • Pres. Trump vetoed three joint resolutions to prohibit arms sales to Saudi Arabia. The measures were intended to withdraw U.S. support for Saudi, in protest of Saudi’s poor human rights record, but Trump said they were “ill conceived” and didn’t address the “root causes” of the war in Yemen.


  • Reuters reports that an official from China’s representative office in the rural Yuen Long area of Hong Kong encouraged local villagers to drive away anti-government protesters—about a week before triad thugs roughed up protesters at the local train station.
  • China expressed “deep concerns” that a U.S. Navy ship transited the Taiwan Strait in a freedom of navigation exercise.
  • Reuters says that Chinese duck farmers are enjoying a great market, now that African swine fever has caused interest to switch from pork to duck. Protein prices are up all around: pork prices are up 35%, chicken costs 20% more, and duck is three times more expensive than it was a year ago. Duck meat is still about half the cost of pork, which is probably what made it the most attractive protein option.


  • IS claimed the attack on a Ministry of Mines & Petroleum bus in Kabul that killed eight people, while the Taliban claimed the suicide blast that wounded 17 as first responders gathered at the scene of the IS attack. I don’t think that means the two are working together, though.


  • New PM Boris Johnson fired about half the members of the cabinet he inherited from Theresa May, and installed pro-Brexit hardliners in their places.


  • The UN says that almost 700 people have been killed in summary and extrajudicial executions in the DRC in 2019—and a third of those killings were carried out by the security forces.


  • Around 150 African migrants died after their boat wrecked near Al Khoms, Libya—but about 140 luckier ones survived.
  • The first batch of 1,000 Sudanese Rapid Support Forces arrived in Libya, where the RSF is supporting Khalifa Haftar’s assault on Tripoli (apparently Haftar is paying them quite well). A further 3,000 RSF troops are expected to follow.


  • The Washington Post printed a glowing book review for Peter Martell’s new book on what went wrong in South Sudan: in short, ethnic factionalism prevented South Sudanese from uniting behind a competent government, but the book apparently also discusses the historical and cultural contexts that led to factionalism. Review pasted below.


  • 24 Marines at Camp Pendleton were arrested in two separate human and drug trafficking investigations.

Strategic Minerals

  • The State of California and four major carmakers—Ford, Volkswagen, BMW & Honda—signed a deal committing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with more fuel-efficient cars, aiming for a target of about 50 miles per gallon by 2026. That could lead to greater demand for the critical minerals that go into higher-efficiency cars.

Why South Sudan won the war but lost the peace (Washington Post)

Eight years ago this month, hopes ran high as South Sudan declared independence after decades of rule from Khartoum. Former rebels — long the de facto leaders in the territory — joined the new governments and made grand plans for building a new state. South Sudan seemed to have the odds on its side — and U.S. support.

In 2019, those hopes have largely been dashed by years of a civil war that has killed an estimated 383,000 and ongoing disputes in the Sudan/South Sudan borderlands. An estimated 2.3 million South Sudanese have fled the country.

What went wrong?

How did the situation get so bad, so fast? This is the question Peter Martell sets out to answer in his new book, “First Raise a Flag: How South Sudan Won the Longest War but Lost the Peace.” Martell, the BBC’s Juba correspondent during the independence period and a former Agence-France Presse East Africa bureau news editor, uses his decade or more of experiences covering South Sudan to explain what went wrong. Setting the story of South Sudan’s current crisis in deep historical context, Martell shows how the politics of ethnicity and corruption, along with the involvement of regional and international powers, combined to create a poisonous atmosphere in which South Sudanese leaders view ruling as a zero-sum, winner-takes-all game.

The deep dive into Sudanese history is a great strength of Martell’s book. He begins in the pre-colonial era, showing how slave raiding and competition for dominance between Egypt, Britain and local leaders shaped the idea that the people of what is now South Sudan were inferior to their northern neighbors. This perception led the British, who colonized Sudan in 1899, to favor northerners in opportunities for education and advancement. After Sudan’s independence from the United Kingdom in 1956, these biases continued, ensuring that southerners always took a backseat to the north.

Not surprisingly, in the south there were high levels of discontent, which came to a head in 1955-1972 with the First Sudanese Civil War, then again in the Second Sudanese Civil War from 1983–2005. The near-permanent state of warfare only ended with the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which provided for a 2011 referendum on South Sudanese independence, in which more than 98 percent of South Sudanese voted to secede.

The remainder of Martell’s book contains fascinating tales from his reporting as South Sudan prepared for, celebrated and then dealt with the realities of independence. Less than three years later, civil war broke out as the result of disputes between competing factions of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the rebels-turned-political-party that now governed the new country. Dividing largely on ethnic lines, forces loyal to President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, fought those supporting his ex-deputy, Riek Machar, who is a member of the Nuer ethnic group.

Ethnic groups provide an important safety net

Fighting began when Kiir accused Machar of plotting a coup against him. But this was simply a sign of much deeper tensions in the relationship between the two leaders and the groups they represent. Why? Because being in a brand-new state with weak institutions and no meaningful way to hold leaders accountable for their actions meant that leaders could use what limited resources the South Sudanese state had to enrich themselves at the country’s expense. As Martell writes,

…there was no social contract between the government and the people. Instead, there was a simple system where the military men in charge bought the loyalties and services they needed from cash taken from oil. That money should have developed the nation for all. Instead, it funded a brutal capitalist dictatorship of greed where the people’s dreams were squandered for power. It was less of a government, more of a business conglomerate.

Moreover, people depended on their leaders to use those looted state resources to help their ethnic group. Martell carefully distinguishes between reliance on ethnic groups and “tribal warfare,” which he calls “a lazy shorthand explanation” used to avoid the fact that people rely on their ethnic communities because they are reliable. Ethnic groups — whether Nuer, Dinka or one of South Sudan’s many other communities — provide social safety nets in times of need in ways their government is not capable of doing. But using state resources to provide for communities’ needs undermines the state-building process that would render the need for reliance on the ethnic group unnecessary.

Martell’s book is a detailed, wonderfully accessible book for those interested in South Sudan and the dilemmas of new statehood. While many of the stories he tells are heartbreaking and even horrifying, there is a high degree of sensitivity here, as he reminds the reader of the many ways that conflict between leaders in Juba affects the lives of ordinary South Sudanese.

And, as Martell points out, “There is suffering, yes, but people also live. Parents raise families, go to work, make love, drink and laugh.” This is a rare reminder in the genre of books by former foreign correspondents, which often focus on conflict, poverty and disease to the neglect of the humanity of their subjects. Martell avoids this trap, and in doing so, has written a must-read book on how South Sudan got to where it is today.