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Blackwater USA – Daily Brief

China

  • Pres. Trump suspended new tariffs on approx. $156 billion of Chinese goods—just as spontaneously as he’d said he would impose them, in the first place. This portion covers planned tariffs on cellphones, laptops, toys and other consumer goods. But Trump’s rationale made him sound more like Santa Claus than geopolitics would imply: “We’re doing this for Christmas season, just in case some of the tariffs would have an impact on U.S. customers.”
  • Part of the real reason was likely to let China save face, in light of bad economic data—see next point—and a crisis in Hong Kong…for which Chinese state media is partially blaming the U.S. (there’s also a conspiracy theory that the CIA is sponsoring the demonstrators). But when asked about Hong Kong, Pres. Trump said “We’ll see what happens. But I’m sure it’ll work out. I hope it works out for everybody, including China, by the way.”
  • The bad economic data was China’s release of several macro data points that raise concern, including a record-high unemployment rate, and lower than expected consumption and property investment. Chinese factory production stats were also underwhelming.
  • Meanwhile, Hong Kong continued to get stricter: it changed its airport rules to make sure only passengers can enter the terminal, blocking the protesters who shut the airport down earlier this week. Flights seem to be operating smoothly now.

Venezuela

  • The NYT had a pretty brutal article on Pres. Maduro’s recent desperate attempts to block dissent within his own military. A particularly awful excerpt: “Juan Carlos Caguaripano, a National Guard captain who led a failed assault on a military base in 2017, suffered testicle injuries during beatings in jail, according to his family and lawyers. He told his lawyers he was glad it happened because the heavy bleeding that ensued gave him a respite from interrogations.” The wjole article (the rest of which is less terrible) is pasted below.

Iran

  • Iran says the UK will soon return the tanker seized off Gibraltar, and I think it has no reason to bluff on this one, since everyone is watching—that said, Iran hasn’t said anything about the foreign tankers it impounded, and the Times of Israel says there are no plans to release it. Let’s see.

Iraq

  • The WSJ said the U.S. Marine casualty last week may have been by friendly fire, rather than enemy fire.

Libya

  • Libya’s GNA said it had achieved its first drone strike against Haftar’s LNA (thanks to a gift of Turkish Bayraktar drones), hitting an LNA hangar containing some drones and a Russian-made transport plane. Bayraktar is owned by relatives of a son-in-law of Turkish Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, so its presence in Libya—against an arms ban—could imply illegal Turkish state support for the GNA.
  • I also saw news that a Turkish laser weapon had—for the first time in global history—shot down a drone in combat. That seems to have flown under the broader media radar, so I’m not sure if it’s a niche story or just typical of the Libyan war propaganda that we hear on both sides nowadays.

Russia

  • A little belatedly, Russia is urging villagers near the site of its recent nuclear accident to leave the area, which is bringing back some historical references to Chernobyl—and how long it took Moscow to do anything about the disaster. However, this is certainly not as big of a deal, and (Western) global data readings are more accurate than they were then.

Afghanistan

  • The media is waiting for a U.S.-Taliban deal, after the NYT said it could come any day now.
  • CFR had a good article about a potential deal (pasted below), in which an interviewee warned that “the biggest deal-breaker may be an inability of the Taliban negotiators to get all the factions of the Taliban to follow any peace document that is signed.”
  • Separately, there have already been signs that some of the Taliban’s more extreme elements will defect to groups like IS that meet their jihadi standard of being unwilling to negotiate with the West.
  • On the positive side, Pajhwok says there have been fewer attacks in Afghanistan during Eid al Adha.

Strategic Minerals

  • Fiji called for a 10-year moratorium on seabed mining around it, until it can better research its economic zone. That was likely prompted by an announcement that Nautilus Minerals—a seabed mining company that had faced resistance in Papua New Guinea—was being forced to restructure because its prospects took more exploration funding than expected.
  • Zambia was apparently unfriendly towards Vedanta in its disputed liquidation of copper assets in Zambia. The state wanted a greater share than it got, and accuses Vedanta of breaching its license by not repaying debts with money it didn’t have.

Other News

  • Germany—like China—released some weaker-than-expected economic data today. Germany’s miss raised fears of a broader slowdown—but that wasn’t entirely unexpected, since Germany’s industries tie it in closely with global materials suppliers like China.
  • As a result of bad economic indicators from Germany and China, the yield curve inverted today—which means that yields on 10-year Treasuries fell below those on two-year Treasuries. To technical traders who watch these things, that’s traditionally a voodoo warning sign of an economic slowdown: it hasn’t happened since 2007, when I worked at Lehman Brothers…
  • The Dow’s industrial stocks were hit harder than Nasdaq’s tech companies today, which suggests the market thinks manufacturers and mining companies will face a tougher slog if/when there’s a downturn.

Can U.S.-Taliban Peace Talks End the War in Afghanistan? (CFR)

U.S. officials say that they are close to reaching a deal with the Taliban, but peace in Afghanistan would still not be guaranteed.

This year has seen the most intensive diplomacy yet between the United States and the Taliban to end the nearly eighteen-year war in Afghanistan. But disagreement over the conditions of a peace deal, coupled with the Afghan government’s ambiguous role in the talks, calls into question the feasibility of lasting peace.

U.S. officials, led by envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, have met with Taliban leaders in eight rounds. The negotiations have gathered momentum over the past few months, in part driven by pressure from Washington to reach a deal by September 1. The parties produced a draft agreement in March and have since inched closer to finalizing its terms.

Separately, the Taliban has met with Afghan leaders since 2017, though only unofficially, because the Taliban views the Afghan government as an illegitimate “puppet regime” of the West. These meetings, especially the recent “intra-Afghan dialogue,” are a positive step, experts say, but still far from the formal negotiations needed for a peace deal.

Meanwhile, China, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States have held related meetings on the peace process.

What do the Taliban and the United States want?

The negotiations appear to be focused on four elements:

Withdrawal of foreign forces. Both sides agree on the full withdrawal of the fourteen thousand U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan, as well as of additional foreign forces, but they disagree on the timeline. The United States is reportedly offering a two-and-a-half-year deadline, while the Taliban insists on nine months.

Counterterrorism assurances. The Taliban has agreed to prevent Afghanistan from being used by terrorist groups, but negotiators disagree over how to define the terms “terrorism” and “terrorist.”

Intra-Afghan dialogue. Washington has urged Afghan government and Taliban leaders to begin official talks on how Afghanistan will be governed after the war, but the Taliban refuses to negotiate with the government until after it has reached a deal with the United States.

Comprehensive cease-fire. U.S. negotiators seek a permanent cease-fire among U.S., Taliban, and Afghan government forces prior to a peace deal, but the Taliban insists on putting off a cease-fire until U.S. troops have withdrawn.

The protection of women’s rights is also one of the United States’ implicit demands, though it is not officially expressed in the draft agreement. Taliban negotiators have acknowledged women’s rights but said that they must be consistent with Islamic principles.

What’s at stake?

Many worry that a failed peace deal will exacerbate fighting and increase the civilian death toll, especially since the Taliban has carried out attacks throughout the negotiations and vowed to target civilian participants in the upcoming presidential election. Over the past five years, more than 45,000 Afghan troops and police officers were killed. A UN report [PDF] found that in the first six months of this year, 3,812 civilians were killed or injured, including 1,207 children. Continued war could also exacerbate the production of illegal drugs and drive more Afghans to seek refuge abroad.

Since the war began in 2001, more than 2,400 Americans have been killed and some 20,000 injured. More than 1,100 NATO troops have also been killed. The war has cost the United States a total of $975 billion [PDF]. On top of that, medical care and disability payments for veterans will cost an estimated $1 trillion over the next forty years.

What are the prospects for a peace deal?

Despite reassurances of progress by Khalilzad, many factors could cause the peace process to fall apart.

For one, it is uncertain whether the Afghan government, largely sidelined from the peace process, will recognize and abide by a U.S.-Taliban deal. The Taliban could also walk away from the negotiating table, believing that it can push U.S. troops to withdraw without a deal.

“The biggest deal-breaker may be an inability of the Taliban negotiators to get all the factions of the Taliban to follow any peace document that is signed,” said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat and UN official, in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Even if the United States and the Taliban reach an agreement, many fear that it will only end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan and not conflict in the country at large. If Taliban and Afghan government leaders are unable to broker a power-sharing agreement, many experts say, Afghanistan will remain a hub of instability where its citizens fear attacks, and it could once again serve as a haven for al-Qaeda and terrorist groups affiliated with the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Venezuela’s Maduro Cracks Down on His Own Military in Bid to Retain Power (NYT)

A week after Venezuela’s intelligence forces detained a retired navy captain, he appeared in a military tribunal a broken man, in a wheelchair and showing signs of torture.

“Help me,” he mouthed to his lawyer.

The captain, Rafael Acosta, died that day. He was buried three weeks later, on July 10, against his wife’s wishes, surrounded by security guards, in a plot assigned by the government. The five family members allowed to attend could not see him: The body was wrapped in brown plastic.

Captain Acosta suffered blunt force trauma and electrocution, according to leaked portions of his autopsy report, and the government admits excessive force was used against him. His death is an indication of how President Nicolás Maduro’s embattled government has turned a brutal apparatus of repression against its own military, in a no-holds-barred effort to retain control of the armed forces — and through them, the state.

Top military leaders have repeatedly declared their allegiance to the Maduro administration. But over the past two years, as the oil-rich economy crumbled and a majority of Venezuelans were left without sufficient food and medicine, factions within the security forces have staged at least five attempts to overthrow or assassinate the president.

The government claims to have foiled at least a dozen more plots in that period, including a scheme in which Captain Acosta and five others under arrest were accused of participating.

The Venezuelan state media calls the stream of real and imagined threats “a continuous coup.” Mr. Maduro’s Socialist Party is resorting to this siege mentality to justify ubiquitous surveillance, arbitrary detentions and the torture of perceived enemies, including those inside Venezuela’s 160,000-strong armed forces, according to the United Nations, human rights advocates and victims’ families.

“The abuse of military officers has grown because they represent a real threat for Maduro’s government,” said Gen. Manuel Cristopher Figuera, Venezuela’s former head of intelligence, who defected in April and spoke from the United States.

There are now 217 active and retired officers being held in Venezuelan jails, including 12 generals, according to the Coalition for Human Rights and Democracy, a Caracas-based nonprofit that represents several of the men.

The coalition has documented 250 cases of torture committed by Venezuelan security forces against military officers, their relatives and opposition activists since 2017. Many of the victims have spent years in jail without trial. Few have been convicted of crimes and most have not even been charged, according to the organization.

The weaker the government is, “the stronger is the torture against the people they consider dangerous,” said Ana Leonor Acosta, a lawyer with the coalition. Ms. Acosta is not related to Captain Acosta.

These abuses were brought to international attention last month, when Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations human rights commissioner, published a scathing report that said the Venezuelan government subjected prisoners seen as political opponents to “electric shocks, suffocation with plastic bags, water boarding, beatings, sexual violence, water and food deprivation, stress positions and exposure to extreme temperatures.”

Since Mr. Maduro took office, Venezuela has lost two-thirds of its gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund. Conditions worsened after the Trump administration, angered over Mr. Maduro’s rhetoric and repressive tactics, backed the opposition and imposed sanctions that crippled the oil industry.

The United Nations estimates four million Venezuelans have fled the deteriorating conditions. While Mr. Maduro has sought to ensure the loyalty of the military’s top brass with promotions and lucrative contracts, middle- and lower-ranking officers and their families are increasingly affected by the crisis. That makes them restless.

“The hunger came to the barracks and the military ranks became infested with dissidence,” said Ms. Acosta, the lawyer. “The armed forces are gripped by paranoia, suspicion and division between those that support this government and those who don’t.”

Venezuela’s information ministry did not respond to detailed questions about torture allegations sent by The New York Times for this article. The attorney general’s office, which handles criminal and human rights investigations, declined to comment. In the past, the government has denied accusations of systematic torture, blaming specific cases on isolated excesses committed by rank-and-file agents.

In Captain Acosta’s case, the government detained the two low-ranking soldiers who signed his detention order. Diosdado Cabello, the head of Venezuela’s governing party, said a government investigation found that the two soldiers had used excessive force when the captain resisted arrest.

“These are those responsible, but this is not a state policy,” Mr. Cabello said.

Critics of Mr. Maduro’s government believe the two soldiers are scapegoats for decisions made in the presidential palace.

“This has been Maduro’s decision,” said General Figuera, the former head of Venezuelan intelligence. “He’s the one giving orders there.”

Captain Acosta’s family also believes what happened to him falls within a pattern of abuse by the state.

“It’s all a smoke screen,” said Captain Acosta’s wife, Waleswka Pérez, in an interview. “What happened to my husband has been happening for quite a while and there’s a lot of fear, because they are capable of doing anything.”

Mr. Maduro’s growing reliance on torture is a remarkable about-face for a Socialist government that came to power two decades ago promising to eliminate the human rights abuses of its predecessors. Mr. Maduro signed an anti-torture law in 2013, shortly after assuming the presidency following the death of his predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez.

“The Socialist government has to be a humanist government, it can’t torture anyone,” Mr. Chávez said in 2006, during the inauguration of a school named after the leftist politician Jorge Rodríguez, who was tortured and killed by Venezuelan security forces in 1976.

Mr. Rodríguez’s children, Jorge and Delcy, have become top advisers to Mr. Maduro, and have taken a leading role in justifying the president’s political repression. In a televised address, Jorge Rodríguez claimed Captain Acosta and the other men detained on the same day planned to assassinate government leaders. He also shared a video he said showed Capt. Acosta discussing plans for a coup.

To keep the security forces in check, Mr. Maduro has resorted to increasingly brutal tactics, said Ms. Acosta, the lawyer.

Juan Carlos Caguaripano, a National Guard captain who led a failed assault on a military base in 2017, suffered testicle injuries during beatings in jail, according to his family and lawyers. He told his lawyers he was glad it happened because the heavy bleeding that ensued gave him a respite from interrogations.

Óscar Pérez, a police officer who led a small antigovernment guerrilla unit, was shot at least 15 times at close range by security officers in January 2018 after repeatedly offering to surrender in a shootout he broadcast live on social media.

Andrik Carrizales, a major with the Venezuelan Air Force, was shot in the head by security officers for joining a failed attempt to take over a weapons factory in Maracay on April 30. His lawyer said that after surrendering, Maj. Carrizales was handcuffed, forced to kneel and shot at close range.

He survived — only to be detained in a military hospital, despite having gone blind and facing life-threatening injuries.

“He’s being tried for rebellion, but no one is persecuting his abusers,” said his lawyer, Martín Ríos. “The major is being systematically tortured to criminalize protests, infuse terror and scare people from denouncing or seeking justice.”

The climate of fear is most palpable here in Maracay, Venezuela’s military capital, home to the nation’s main air bases and military academies.

The city’s military pedigree has long made it a hotbed of conspiracies. It was from here that Mr. Chávez, a paratrooper commander, staged a coup against Venezuela’s democratic government in 1992. He failed, but became president seven years later. In 2002, Maracay’s paratroopers rose again, this time in a countercoup to return Mr. Chávez, who had been deposed, to power.

Today, Maracay is the epicenter of Mr. Maduro’s barracks purges. Its residents included at least four of the five active and retired security officials detained along with Captain Acosta.

Captain Acosta’s cousin, Carmen Acosta, one of the few members of the close-knit family who was allowed to attend his funeral, says they believe he is innocent.

“They didn’t even charge him,” she said. “He died, helpless, innocent and alone.”

Human rights lawyers say it’s increasingly difficult to document and denounce torture cases in Venezuela. The government’s fear campaign spreads far beyond the accused officers, terrorizing family members, legal representatives, associates and entire communities.

In Maracay, Captain Acosta’s family says they live in fear. His octogenarian mother has retreated into a terrified seclusion, refusing to see even close relatives out of fear that it could endanger them.

Ms. Acosta, his cousin, said she decided to speak to the press after weeks of anguish.

“If we stay silent, they win,” she said, holding back tears. “This is what they want: to make everyone live in fear.”