Jul 8, 2021

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World.

  • Many thanks to Zach for steering the ship last week. It’s good to be back.
  • We’re setting off tonight from Afghanistan, with stops in Haiti, Bulgaria, Eswatini and more (1,948 words, 7 minutes).

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1 big thing: Biden defends Afghanistan exit

An Afghan soldier inside Bagram Air Base after U.S. forces pulled out. Photo: Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty.

President Biden addressed the country this afternoon to defend his withdrawal strategy in Afghanistan as the Taliban continues to gain ground and after U.S. troops abandoned their largest base under cover of darkness.

What he's saying: Biden set an Aug. 31 deadline to end U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, and he denied that a Taliban takeover of Kabul was "inevitable" after America left.

  • “Nearly 20 years of experience has shown us, and the current security situation confirms, that just one more year of fighting in Afghanistan is not a solution but a recipe for being there indefinitely," Biden said.
  • He responded directly to critics, arguing that "the status quo is not an option" because the Taliban would resume attacks on U.S. troops, potentially necessitating deployments of additional troops just to protect the existing U.S. presence.
  • "How long are you willing to stay," Biden asked. “Would you send your own son or daughter?”

Driving the news: U.S. troops pulled out of Bagram Air Base near Kabul in the middle of the night late last week without notifying the Afghan troops set to take control of it (the Pentagon says the Afghans knew the departure was coming, just not when).

  • Thousands of military and civilian vehicles lay abandoned. Looters flooded in after noticing that electricity to the base had been cut off.
  • It was a highly symbolic moment, as the sprawling air base had been the hub of U.S. operations in Afghanistan during two decades of war. The withdrawal is now 90% complete.
  • Meanwhile, the Taliban has accelerated its advances around the country, capturing a major border crossing with Iran today, per Reuters.

In his remarks, Biden repeatedly put the onus for what happens next on "the Afghan people" and the government in Kabul, which he urged to "come together" and to find a way to share power with the Taliban.

  • Biden also stressed that the beleaguered Afghan Security Forces have superior numbers, training and equipment and thus should be able to repel the Taliban.
  • Asked whether the U.S. would bear responsibility for future civilian casualties, he replied adamantly, “No, no, no!"

Biden said the original goals of the U.S. invasion had long since been achieved, and thus America's exit was "quite frankly overdue." He added: "We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build.”

  • Press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier in the day that there would be no "mission accomplished moment" when the U.S. completes its withdrawal by Sept. 11. "It's a 20-year war that has not been won militarily," she said.
  • But Biden rejected parallels to the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, saying there would be no scenes of "people being lifted off the roof of an embassy."
  • Biden did confirm that the U.S. would be evacuating Afghans who worked with the U.S. troops to third countries while their visa applications were processed, but he would not say which countries those were.

What to watch: The U.S. is not the only country that's concerned about a potential implosion in Afghanistan.

2. Haiti assassination remains mystery as suspects arrested, killed

A crowd gathers outside a Port-au-Prince police station where assassination suspects are being held. Photo: Valerie Baeriswyl/AFP via Getty

Haitian officials said today that four suspects in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse were killed in a gunfight today and six more were arrested, at least one of whom is a U.S. citizen.

The state of play: The government is describing the assailants as foreign “mercenaries” but has filled in only fragments of the picture in terms of how Wednesday morning’s attack was carried out, by whom and why.

  • Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph says he’s now in charge, and he's declared a “state of siege,” which gives the security forces additional powers. Vigilantes have also been hunting for suspects, the NYT reports.
  • But Joseph only became prime minister in April and was due to give up the job to Ariel Henry, who was appointed by Moïse two days before his death.
  • Henry also claims to be in charge, deepening concerns over a potential power vacuum.

The big picture: Haiti was already in the midst of a political crisis.

Be smart: You often hear the headline that Haiti is the “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere,” but the history matters, writes Axios Today host Niala Boodhoo, who has lived in and reported from Haiti.

  • Haiti was France’s richest colony before slaves revolted against the French, culminating in Haitian independence in 1804.
  • Freedom came at a literal price: France forced the Haitian government to pay illegitimate debts for over 122 years.
3. Global news roundup

Zuma addresses supporters at his home three days before surrendering to police. Photo: Mlungisi Louw/Volksblad/Gallo Images via Getty

1. Jacob Zuma, the former South African president (2009–2018) who stands accused of corruption on an industrial scale, surrendered himself to police on Wednesday, three days after supporters had gathered at his home and threatened to prevent his arrest.

  • Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for contempt after failing to appear before a commission investigating the corruption accusations.
  • Why it matters: The outcome is a victory for South Africa’s democratic institutions, but a further challenge to the ruling ANC party, in which Zuma still has many allies.

2. At least 20 and up to several dozen protesters in the small Southern African kingdom of Eswatini have been killed in demonstrations sparked by a law student’s death, allegedly at the hands of police.

  • What to watch: The protests underline the slumping popularity of Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III. Polls suggest that most in the country want a multiparty democracy, per the Economist.
  • The government has shut down the internet amid the unrest, per Quartz Africa.

3. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett visited Jordan secretly last week and met with King Abdullah II at his palace in Amman, Axios’ Barak Ravid scoops.

  • Why it matters: This was the first such meeting in more than five years due to deep tensions between King Abdullah and former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

4. Lithuania has accused Belarus of flying in migrants and sending them to their shared border, and it plans to build a barrier to stop that from happening.

  • The backstory: Lithuania has been a forceful critic of the crackdown in Belarus by Aleksandr Lukashenko, particularly after a flight bound for Lithuania was effectively hijacked so Belarus could arrest a dissident journalist.

More headlines:

  • The Olympics will be held without fans.
  • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi conducted a major Cabinet reshuffle amid criticism of his handling of the pandemic.
  • The Venezuelan government and opposition plan to hold talks in Mexico in August, per Reuters.
Bonus: Where in the World?
Screengrab via Apple Maps

We're going to be bringing some Olympics history to Where in the World leading up to the Tokyo Games. Scroll to the bottom for the answer.

This port city hosted the 1920 Olympics.

  • The games were held in the wake of World War I, which had forced the cancellation of the 1916 Olympics. Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire were banned from participating, and the newly formed Soviet Union declined to attend.
  • It was the first time the Olympic flag was used, to symbolize five continents "united by Olympism," though the vast majority of the athletes came from Europe or North America. The U.S. dominated the medal table, followed by Sweden.
4. Bulgaria's election: Strongman vs. celebrity

Larger than life: Trifonov sings at a campaign concert/rally. Photo: Nikolay Doychinov/AFP via Getty

Sunday's snap parliamentary elections in Bulgaria pit the man who has dominated the Balkan country's politics for a decade against an insurgent party led by a popular TV host, Axios fellow Teodora Trifonova writes.

The big picture: Former longtime Prime Minister Boyko Borissov failed to form a government after an inconclusive election in April, which followed massive protests last year over corruption and Borissov's alleged mafia ties.

  • Since the election, the Biden administration has sanctioned three Bulgarian power brokers for corruption, denting Borissov's support further.

The other side: That has left a major opening for political newcomers like Slavi Trifonov, sometimes referred to as the Bulgarian David Letterman.

  • Trifonov's "There is Such a People" party now has 21.8% support versus 21.5% for Borissov's GERB party, according to a poll released Thursday by Alpha Research.

Known to Bulgarians simply as “Slavi,” the 6.6-foot showman is a folk-pop musician, producer and actor, but he's best known for his late-night program “Slavi’s Show."

  • Before previous elections, Trifonov interviewed all the major political players, including Borissov.
  • Now he is using his own cable channel, launched in 2019, as a platform to criticize other politicians and promote his own party.
  • He's set to become the latest TV star to parlay his fame and outsider appeal into political power, following former President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Borissov is a colorful figure in his own right.

  • A former bodyguard to Bulgaria's last communist leader, he projects the image of a man of the people.
  • But he has had to fend off a number of scandals, including when photos surfaced last year appearing to show him sleeping next to a handgun, stacks of cash and gold bars. He claimed the photos may have been staged or doctored.

What’s next: Despite leading the two top parties, Borissov and Trifonov have both said they won't serve as prime minister if their party wins. Both are considered likely candidates for the presidency in the fall, though that role is less powerful.

  • Some observers fear another inconclusive election could further strain Bulgaria's democracy.
5. State of the outbreak: Delta blues
Data: Johns Hopkins University; Chart: Axios Visuals

Fears are growing that Indonesia — with its massive population (271 million), low vaccination rate (13% have one dose) and surging COVID-19 death toll — could become the next India.

  • Driving the news: Shortages of oxygen and other supplies are growing dire, and the daily death rate has doubled over the past two weeks.
  • The big picture: The Delta variant first discovered in India has now become dominant in Indonesia. It has also driven surges in countries from Spain to South Africa.
6. China slays its own giants

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

China's special treatment of homegrown companies can stop cold when their growth has come at odds with Beijing's dominance, Axios' Felix Salmon writes.

The big picture: Ride-hail giant Didi is learning the hard way that Beijing wants to remain the absolute power of the land, unthreatened by corporate giants.

  • The app was knocked out of China's app stores days after going public on the NYSE at a $73 billion valuation. That came after regulators warned the company to delay its IPO, the Wall Street Journal reported.
  • Flashback: Chinese regulators successfully scuttled an IPO for Ant Financial late last year, just days before it was set to price,

The bottom line: Didi, Alibaba and other hot startups were long viewed as vehicles for the Communist Party of China to burnish the China brand globally.

  • The last few months have made it crystal clear that China values control — of enterprises and of data — more highly than it values outbound promotion.
  • The country's moguls and foreign shareholders should expect a lot more turbulence ahead.
7. Stories we're watching

Lavender fields in Brihuega, Castilla La-Mancha, Spain. It's a beautiful world out there. Photo: Rafeal Martin/Europa Press via Getty

  1. Covid latest: 4 million deaths; Canada easing U.S. border restrictions; U.K. to lift curbs despite surge; Israel and South Korea swap doses; Italy prioritizes homeless, migrants.
  2. Four-day work week an "overwhelming success," Iceland study finds
  3. Iran's nuclear limbo continues ahead of inauguration
  4. Verdict looms in sedition case roiling Jordanian royal family
  5. Biden to host Jordan's king on July 19
  6. Cargo shipping glut may be easing
  7. Athletes traveling to Olympics face logistical hurdles


“If this method continues, they’re going to have problems. Because one side, which is our side, may not accept the result.” 
— Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro threatening to reject presidential election results if they aren't tabulated using paper ballots.

Answer: Antwerp, Belgium.