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Blackwater USA – Daily Brief

Hong Kong

  • A recording surfaced purporting to show Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, lamenting the ongoing crisis last week and saying (in English): “If I have a choice, the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology.”
  • That seemed to imply that China isn’t giving her a choice about quitting—though she added in the recording that China had “absolutely no plan” to deploy the PLA in Hong Kong, and hadn’t imposed a deadline for ending the crisis.
  • However, Lam then walked those comments back, saying she just wanted to share her “spiritual journey” in reflection on the protests with a private audience, and never offered or wanted to quit.

Afghanistan

  • U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told ToloNews that the U.S. and the Taliban have reached an agreement “in principle,” and elaborated on the current draft’s terms for the first time: it calls for the U.S. to withdraw 5,400 troops from Afghanistan, and vacate five bases there.
  • The Economist thinks those deal terms were “watered down,” and showed that the U.S. had “given ground” to the Taliban on the idea of a ceasefire. The Economist’s pretty grim assessment of the deal is pasted below.
  • And then a Taliban tractor bomb targeting a residential compound housing foreigners in Kabul killed at least 16. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid defended the attack by saying the Taliban needed to show its strength during negotiations. However, today’s choice of target appeared designed to make local Afghans resent their foreign neighbors who were targeted.

Iran

  • Iran finally acknowledged that there was actually an explosion at its missile launch site, but insisted that it happened during a test—not a launch—and was just because of a technical glitch, rather than sabotage.
  • Pres. Rouhani addressed parliament today, and seemed defensive over the botched launch and failed cover-up: he even angrily swore that he would never hold bilateral talks with the U.S.
  • On the other hand, France looks poised to offer Iran a $15 billion bailout package (to make up for lost oil sales under U.S. Sanctions), if Iran agrees to comply with the 2015 nuclear accord. Senior Iranian officials are in Paris to discuss the offer, and Tehran upped the stakes by threatening to resume nuclear activity on Friday if the talks fail.
  • The Adrian Darya 1 (fka Grace 1) shut off its tracking beacon around 45 nautical miles from Syria, where it’s probably headed with its 2.1 million barrels of oil ($130 million value). Iran says the ship—and its cargo—were sold to an unnamed buyer who would decide where it goes.

Brexit

  • PM Johnson threatened to call a snap election as early as Oct. 14th if his Conservative Party MPs support a law to block a no-deal Brexit (Johnson says that would remove his leverage in negotiations with the EU). An election before the October 31st deadline for Brexit would sure distract from Brexit planning.

Yemen

  • A UN Human Rights Council-appointed team published its report on potential war crimes in Yemen, blaming Saudi for intentionally starving Yemenis as a tactic of war—and blaming the U.S., UK, and France for supporting Saudi in doing so. (The report also criticized Iran for its role on the other side of the nasty war).
  • Meanwhile, Saudi has deployed more troops to southern Yemen, where UAE-backed separatists are unhelpfully fighting the Saudi-backed government of Yemen (and distracting from the fight against the Houthis).

Other News

  • Argentina’s Pres. Macri gave in to spiraling inflation, and imposed the same sort of currency controls used by his predecessor, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner—who is the VP on the ticket Macri is running against in the Oct. 27th runoff. Analysts say that will likely harm Macri’s chances of re-election.

Not what peace looks like: America’s long Afghan war nears an end, but that may not mean peace for Afghanistan (Economist)

Peace processes can be surprisingly violent. On September 2nd Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s envoy to Afghanistan’s “reconciliation”, as the State Department calls it, gave tolonews, an Afghan news service, details of a draft agreement hammered out after nine rounds of negotiation with the Taliban. As the interview was being broadcast late into the evening, a truck-bomb exploded in Kabul, killing at least 30 people, the third attack in the country in three days claimed by the Taliban. These came just weeks after a massive suicide-bombing by Islamic State killed at least 80 people in the Afghan capital, and days after a Taliban assault on two northern cities. For many Afghans, this looks less like impending reconciliation and more like an ominous taste of things to come.

Mr Khalilzad’s announcement was largely as expected. Subject to the deal’s approval by President Donald Trump, America would withdraw 5,400 of its 14,000 troops in Afghanistan (the fate of another 8,500 foreign troops, mostly European, is uncertain) from five bases within five months of the deal being signed. America is insisting that the withdrawal is based on conditions on the ground, and that it could “stop the clock” on the pullout. Precisely what those conditions are is uncertain.

Mr Khalilzad was even less clear on what America would get in return under the accord. He has previously said that any deal must include three elements: Taliban commitments to counter-terrorism against international jihadist groups like al-Qaeda; an “intra-Afghan” dialogue, ideally between the Taliban and the Afghan government; and a ceasefire.

Mr Khalilzad seems to have given ground on the ceasefire, saying only that the provinces of Kabul and Parwan—home to Bagram airfield, the largest American base in Afghanistan—would see a “reduction in violence” in the first stage of the deal. But he also said that any return of an Islamic emirate—the Taliban’s term for the government toppled in the American-lead invasion in 2001—was unacceptable, suggesting that America would not allow the insurgents to dictate terms to the Afghan state.

Having completed the latest round of talks in Doha, Qatar’s capital, Mr Khalilzad travelled to Kabul to break the news to Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president. Mr Ghani was shown a paper copy of the agreement—which was later whisked away. “We will consult and comprehensively study this,” said his spokesman. Afghanistan would respond “based on our national interests”. Many Afghans are nervous that America, in its haste to leave, will shred those interests.

The steady watering-down of American demands is a worrying sign, in their eyes. Whereas America once insisted that the Taliban would need to negotiate directly with the Afghan government on a political settlement for the country, it now seems more likely that the insurgents will hash out the issue with a more nebulous group of political elites and civil-society representatives.

However, the Taliban have made a “significant compromise” of their own, says Graeme Smith, of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. They had vowed never to negotiate the future of their country while American boots remained on Afghan soil; now they are agreeing to talk during a gradual withdrawal.

As a result, says Mr Smith, “Afghanistan is now on the brink of serious peace talks for the first time in a generation.” He says both the Taliban and the Afghan government are already preparing negotiating teams and policy positions, and that European governments are getting ready to host talks, possibly in Norway.

Complicating matters is an Afghan presidential election scheduled for September 28th. The Taliban have threatened to disrupt the poll and some opposition candidates have threatened a boycott, accusing Mr Ghani of manipulating the vote. But Mr Ghani, widely expected to win re-election, seems determined to plough ahead.

If and when talks begin in earnest, the Afghan government fears that the Taliban may seek to run down the clock with extreme demands—such as sweeping changes to the Afghan constitution or a dramatic roll-back of civil rights. Mr Khalilzad is said to have reassured Afghan leaders that America would reserve the right to assist Afghan forces if they were attacked by the Taliban.

But that will be ever harder to do with a dwindling force and diminishing political appetite for renewed military entanglement. On August 19th Mr Trump promised that, even after the departure of troops, America would be leaving “very significant” intelligence assets in Afghanistan—something that may have come as news to both the Taliban and the Afghan government. But lingering spooks are more likely to focus on counter-terrorism against groups such as Islamic State, who will aim to spoil any deal by peeling off disaffected Taliban members and intensifying violence. “We’re not fighting a war over there”, declared Mr Trump on August 29th. “We’re just policemen.”