World

Australia commits troops to Strait of Hormuz. Pacific leaders angered by Morrison’s climate inaction. Hong Kong protests questioned by city’s billionaires. Bombings in Afghanistan as US plans withdrawal. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Bombing kills 63 at Afghan wedding

An Afghan man mourns during the funeral of his brother after a suicide bomb blast at a wedding in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Credit: Reuters / Omar Sobhani

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

Australia: On Wednesday, Australia committed forces to a United States-led operation to prevent tankers being blocked or attacked in the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow passage through which a fifth of the world’s oil used each day passes.

But this has not been a particularly willing coalition. Australia was just the third country to join, alongside Britain and Bahrain.

Other countries have resisted, partly because the operation is seen as part of Donald Trump’s campaign to impose “maximum pressure” on Iran after his withdrawal from the Obama-era nuclear deal.

Morrison insisted that Australia was only joining the coalition to ensure free movement through the strait, not to try to pressure Iran to renegotiate the deal.

“This is about freedom of shipping,” he said. “They’re completely separate issues. And I think to conflate those issues would be ill informed.”

Labor backed the deployment, saying it was “appropriate”. But it swiftly prompted criticism.

A maritime security expert, Ashley Townshend, from the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said Australia was committing to “an entirely avoidable engagement”.

“While we have clear interests in freedom of navigation, this crisis is one of Trump’s making,” he said in a tweet.

Australia will send a maritime surveillance aircraft for one month later this year and a frigate in January for six months. Defence personnel will also be stationed at an international headquarters in Bahrain. The commitment involves about 200 troops. Morrison insisted it is a “modest” deployment.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Tuvalu: Scott Morrison hoped to use last week’s meeting of Pacific leaders to build ties with Australia’s neighbours as part of his attempt to counter China’s growing regional influence. Instead, his conduct prompted a furious backlash from across the Pacific.

The region’s leaders, who were meeting for a Pacific Islands Forum summit in Tuvalu, were angered by his resistance to including a stronger push for global action on climate change in the final joint declaration. Smaller Pacific nations wanted to call for a ban on new coalmines and for countries to increase their agreed carbon emissions cuts, but these were not included in the declaration.

The diplomatic standoff threatened to undo Morrison’s Pacific step-up, his signature foreign policy, which has involved four visits to the Pacific this year and increased aid. Until the forum, this show of commitment had been well received.

But the summit demonstrated the divide between Morrison, who refuses to take strong action to combat climate change, and Pacific leaders, who are not particularly worried about China. As Samoa’s prime minister, Tuilaepa Malielegaoi, told TVNZ: “The bigger geopolitical issues don’t have importance to us as small island countries, whose only interest is to provide a modern living.”

But Pacific leaders were also angry at Morrison’s approach during the talks, including his effort to win them over by pointing to Australia’s largesse.

Tuvalu’s prime minister, Enele Sopoaga, suggested Australia, which was one of seven founding members of the forum in 1971, should now be ejected.

“We are still seeing reflections and manifestations of this neo-colonialist approach,” he told Radio New Zealand.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Hong Kong: For four months, the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests have resulted in millions of people taking to the streets, uniting all sectors of society. But the solidarity appeared to end during the past two weeks as a dissenter emerged: the city’s tycoons.

According to the daily Bloomberg Billionaires Index, 20 of the world’s 500 richest people are based in Hong Kong. But their fortunes have been declining since the protests began, due to a drop in tourism and worried investors.

Hong Kong’s richest person, Li Ka-shing, a 91-year-old property and infrastructure tycoon worth $US28.4 billion, has lost about 10 per cent of his wealth during the protests. Last week, he took out full-page advertisements in local newspapers, reportedly calling for the protests to end. “The best of intentions can lead to the worst outcome,” the advertisements said. Admittedly, the call was characteristically ambiguous, and not as strident as Beijing wanted.

Another real estate mogul, Peter Woo, who is worth $US11.5 billion, wrote in the Hong Kong Economic Journal that the protesters had succeeded in persuading legislators to suspend a controversial extradition bill and should now retreat. “This tree has fallen,” he wrote.

But the protesters are continuing with their demand for the bill to be withdrawn. They are also calling for Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, Carrie Lam, to step down and for an inquiry to be held into alleged police brutality.

On Tuesday, Lam offered to hold a dialogue with the protesters but showed no sign of compromise. Last weekend, an estimated 1.7 million people marched through the city, apparently ignoring the call of the tycoons. Another mass march is scheduled for next Saturday. So far, the wealth of Hong Kong’s top 10 richest people has dropped by $US15 billion.

SPOTLIGHT: Afghanistan

Afghanistan: Last Saturday, Mirwais Alami and Raihana Hazrati were married in the 1000-person Dubai City Wedding Hall in Kabul. Hazrati’s mother, concerned about security, had asked the couple to delay the wedding and hold a small party for family only. The couple refused.

At 10.40pm, a suicide bomber entered the hall and detonated his explosives, killing at least 63 people and wounding about 200. On Sunday, Alami, the groom, told the local TOLOnews television network: “I can’t get myself to go to the funerals. My legs feel weak.”

The attack was claimed by Islamic State. It came as the United States and the Taliban have been negotiating an end to the war and a staged withdrawal of the US’s 14,000 troops.

A draft deal includes an agreement that the Taliban will cut ties with al-Qaeda and prevent it operating in Afghanistan. The US wants this provision extended to all Islamic extremist groups, including Islamic State, though they are not mentioned in the draft.

In any case, Islamic State’s branch in Afghanistan, which has operated since 2015, has often clashed with the Taliban and has aspirations to gain power there.

The attack on the wedding was seen as a possible attempt to gain publicity and attract global recruits, ahead of a potential US withdrawal. Trump said he will start the withdrawal before the next election.

The US hopes the Taliban will then combat groups such as Islamic State. But there are fears it will instead focus on weakening the current Afghan government, which it regards as a US puppet. The country remains deeply divided, with numerous factions that have ready access to arms.

On Monday, as the country held festivities to celebrate 100 years of independence from Britain, a series of 10 bombings left 66 people injured in Jalalabad. No one claimed responsibility.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 24, 2019 as "Bombing kills 63 at Afghan wedding". Subscribe here.

Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.