The President's Take

A Critical Crossroads for Libya, Afghanistan and the Nile Waters Dispute

In his introduction to this month’s edition of CrisisWatch, our President Robert Malley reflects on critical crossroads for protracted conflicts in Libya and Afghanistan, and a possible turning point in the Nile Waters dispute.

Even in prolonged, protracted conflicts, one can from time to time discern potential tipping or inflection points – opportunities that, if seized, might offer a possible exit ramp, and risks that, if taken, could trigger deadly escalation.

That seemed to be the case this past month in Libya, where the tide of war turned once more. The see-saw battle between forces aligned with the internationally-recognised government in Tripoli and General Khalifa Haftar’s Arab Libyan Armed Forces for now has swung in the former’s favour, partly a result of a heavier Turkish military role.  Casualties are mounting, the new front line has moved from the capital to the strategic town of Sirte and nearby oil fields, UN diplomacy is struggling and, most ominously, the risk of greater external involvement is growing. Egypt described Sirte as a redline and threatened direct military intervention to halt the Turkish-backed offensive. Ankara, Moscow, and other foreign powers fanning the conflict’s flames could either choose to de-escalate together and press their local allies to do the same, or double down and turn the conflict into an even more intractable and costly proxy war.

Afghanistan too appears at a crossroads. On the one hand, violence escalated in some areas, punctuated by an uptick in roadside bombs, targeted killings, ambush shootings and attacks aimed at healthcare personnel and facilities amid COVID-19’s spread. President Ghani and his principal rival, Abdullah Abdullah, are still struggling to form a unity government. Talks among the government, the Taliban and other Afghans – without which there can be no peace deal – have yet to take off. On the other hand, under U.S. pressure, the peace process registered incremental progress, with the government’s release of thousands of Taliban prisoners, raising prospects that those talks could begin this month. Complicating Kabul’s and the Taliban’s calculations are U.S. President Donald Trump’s still mercurial intentions concerning the scope of a U.S. troop withdrawal: as American elections draw near, the president could be tempted to announce a comprehensive pull-out in fulfilment of his earlier pledges. The coming months will potentially be critical in determining whether Afghan parties embark in meaningful negotiations – or whether violence again determines their country’s fate. 

A third possible turning point relates to the dispute among Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile’s principal tributary. Prospects for resolution have been up and down for the past few weeks. First, after an unsuccessful round of negotiations in June, Addis Ababa reaffirmed plans to begin filling the reservoir during the rainy season, due to start this month, with or without Cairo’s assent. Then, in a possible step forward, and in line with Crisis Group’s recommendations, the African Union stepped in, convening an online meeting in which all three countries agreed to return to negotiations. Since then, however, Ethiopian Premier Abiy Ahmed pledged to start filling the GERD reservoir within two weeks and Cairo warned at a UN Security Council meeting that the GERD posed Egypt an existential threat. With the clock ticking, all parties need to get back to talks as fast as possible. 

In June, we broke precedent by writing about events roiling the United States and its leadership’s incendiary response.  Crisis Watch has mentioned Brazil before, but only twice in its 16 years. This month, it earns the dubious distinction of another entry, a result of the government’s careless management of COVID-19 (with some one million reported cases and over 50,000 dead) as well as provocative pronouncements by President Jair Bolsonaro’s allies, including appeals to the military to shut down the Supreme Court. The country’s trajectory has been uncertain since the controversial arrest and conviction of former President Lula and could be nearing a new tipping point. How dangerous the current situation is will largely hinge on whether political elites – and especially Bolsonaro himself – place the health of Brazilians ahead of their own political advantage. 

1 July marked Canada day. It also marked 570 days since the arbitrary arrest of our Canadian friend and colleague, Michael Kovrig. In a letter from prison to his family that his wife Vina released, he writes, “If there’s one faint silver lining to this Hell, it’s this: trauma carved caverns of psychological pain through my mind. As I strive to heal and recover, I find myself filling those gulfs with a love for you and for life that is vast, deep and more profound and comforting than what I’ve ever experienced before”.  We think of him every day.  China must free him.

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