Coming Up This Week
- Tuesday is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and China has massive celebrations planned. MilitaryTimes is eagerly watching a parade on Tuesday that will show off China’s ever-modernizing arsenal of next-generation weaponry—perhaps including the Dongfeng 41 nuclear-capable missile that can reach the U.S. in under five minutes.
- Because of China’s birthday on Tuesday, Hong Kong’s weekend protests are likely to continue into the week this time.
- Wednesday is the one-year anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. Saudi Crown Prince still insists he didn’t order the hit, but he did recently take responsibility for it, since it “happened on my watch.”
- Cameroon hopes to start an inclusive dialogue this week to resolve separatist tensions in its northwest and southwest, but the government has structured the talks in a way that makes them unlikely to succeed—e.g. by insisting on Cameroonian mediators, which ensured that separatist leaders outside of Cameroon would refuse to participate.
- Friday will be a big day for this “whistleblower” story in the U.S.: it’s the day that Pres. Trump’s former special envoy for the Ukraine will speak with House leaders, and also the due date for SecState Pompeo’s response to a House subpoena for documents related to the case.
Saudi and Iran
- Saudi Crown Prince MBS told 60 Minutes that he preferred a political solution to rising tensions with Iran, rather than a military one that would lead to “a total collapse of the global economy.”
- It looks like we might see a new round of dialogue on Iran kick off soon: MBS also voiced support for a meeting between Presidents Trump and Rouhani to sign a new nuclear deal, and—separately—Iraqi PM Mahdi is reportedly planning to host MBS and Pres. Rouhani for talks in Baghdad.
- King Salman’s bodyguard was shot dead in a “personal dispute” with a friend.
- The Houthis released a video that appears to show hundreds of Saudi POWs being marched away from a Houthi victory in Najran, seemingly validating their claim of a successful operation there.
- The part I missed yesterday is that Najran is in Saudi—not Yemen—which is significant because the Houthis had promised to stop attacking inside Saudi, unless Saudi “fail[ed] to reciprocate positively” to their ceasefire. However, this operation reportedly took place just as Saudi agreed to reciprocate with a limited ceasefire, so it’s not necessarily a sign that the ceasefires won’t hold.
- The NYT chimed in on the impeachment case with a front-page investigative report concluding that “President Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani ran what amounted to a shadow foreign policy in Ukraine, our reporters found, aimed at finding and spreading political dirt, that unfolded against the backdrop of elections in both countries.” You can guess which side the author is on…
- Joe Biden’s presidential campaign sent letters to the major U.S. networks demanding that they stop giving Giuliani airtime.
- GM workers are entering their third week of strikes, and will start getting $250/week ($6.25/hour) from their United Auto Workers union.
- Afghanistan’s election commission counted turnout of 2.2 million from the 78% of polling stations that have reported so far. That implies total turnout of under 2.5 million (assuming the laggard stations are more remote ones)—far lower than the 7 million who voted in 2014, and under a quarter of the country’s 9.7 million registered voters.
- Pres. Ghani’s goons are flooding Afghan and international media with their “expert” opinions that low turnout doesn’t invalidate the election’s results or make its winner any less legitimate, which is convenient for Ghani’s expected victory.
- Meanwhile, villagers in Ghazni say U.S. airstrikes on Saturday night killed five civilians; the Pentagon says they killed 11 Taliban fighters instead.
- The WSJ published an excellent piece on what Afghanistan would look like after an American exit—in short: uncertain, but not great. Article pasted below.
- An estimated 60,000 people protested in Moscow to demand the release of fellow protesters who were jailed last summer. That’s the largest known demonstration against Pres. Putin in almost 10 years.
- We may soon see a new round of talks with North Korea: after whispers that the U.S., South Korea, and North Korea are all open to new discussions, Kim Jong Un challenged Pres. Trump to take the “wise option and bold decision” to revive talks.
- I missed this last week, but a lightning storm caused a blackout that knocked Venezuela’s largest refining complex offline eight days ago. The Paraguana Refining Center—which has a capacity of 955,000 barrels per day (but operates at under a third of that due to supply shortages)—is still offline, but officials expect to restore production tomorrow or Wednesday.
- Venezuelan VP Delcy Rodriguez accused Colombia of harboring terrorists at three training camps, and presented evidence showing the coordinates of those “camps:” two are underwater in the Caribbean, and another is in the front yard of a home.
- Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah was rearrested over the weekend for violating his probation by leading new protests against the increasingly authoritarian government.
Can the New Afghanistan Survive America’s Exit? (WSJ)
As the Trump administration tries to end the war, the Taliban prepare to return to power, threatening the country’s gains since 9/11 in education, economic development and women’s rights
At the end of 2001, just months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the Taliban reached out to the U.S. with a proposal: They would agree to renounce al Qaeda, stop fighting and join power-sharing talks.
President George W. Bush, like the country at large, was in no mood for negotiating with the regime that had given shelter to Osama bin Laden and his followers. The Bush administration scuttled a reconciliation deal that the Taliban had struck with the country’s interim leader, Hamid Karzai, vetoed the Islamist movement’s participation in the Bonn peace conference and killed or imprisoned Taliban leaders.
Eighteen years and many thousands of Afghan and American deaths later, the U.S. and the Taliban—including some former Guantanamo Bay detainees—have initialed in Doha, Qatar, an agreement along similar lines that holds the promise of ending the war.
Except that the Taliban, a routed force in 2001, are now stronger than ever. An exhausted America, no longer determined to bring democracy to the Muslim world, just wants to leave. And today’s Afghanistan has experienced great progress in education, health and economic development since 2001. Many Afghans, while longing for peace, worry about the consequences of rushing to a deal with the insurgency.
“There are a lot of anxieties about the return of the Taliban,” said Afghanistan’s national-security adviser, Hamdullah Mohib. “We are of course fearful of losing all the gains that we have made in the last 18 years.”
Though President Donald Trump pulled out from a signing ceremony and a meeting with the Taliban leaders that he had aimed to host at Camp David earlier this month, citing a Taliban attack that killed an American soldier, the State Department has since described the Doha negotiations as merely “suspended.” Officials on all sides say that they expect the process to resume in some way after Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday.
Held amid a bloody civil war, the election could be the most fraud-ridden in the country’s history and could further sap the legitimacy of its bickering government, which wasn’t even invited to the Doha talks. Whatever the outcome of the vote, Afghanistan has reached a pivot point: Its post-2001 order, installed through a vast American effort, looks frayed and increasingly untenable.
Critics warn that a hasty U.S. withdrawal could again turn Afghanistan into a haven for terrorist groups to hatch ambitious plots, but Mr. Trump is hardly alone in wanting to end America’s longest overseas war and bring the remaining 14,000 U.S. troops home. Afghan war fatigue has become bipartisan. Both Republican and Democratic policy makers increasingly see Afghanistan less as a front line in securing U.S. interests than as a burden that distracts from dealing with more serious strategic challenges, such as a rising China and an expansionist Russia.
“There is a growing weariness with it all,” said retired Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who commanded U.S. forces in Afghanistan under Mr. Bush and served as U.S. ambassador in Kabul under President Barack Obama. “I don’t think there is a great number of Americans who really care. It’s forgotten.”
On Tuesday, Mr. Trump told the U.N. General Assembly that “America’s goal is not to go with these endless wars—wars that never end.” In their talks with the U.S. negotiating team—led by the State Department’s Afghan-born special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad —the Taliban have operated on the assumption that America’s overriding priority is to pull out.
The draft agreement initialed in Doha includes Taliban guarantees of “safe passage” for withdrawing American troops. That pullout is conditioned on Taliban pledges to crack down on jihadist groups that target America, including the Taliban’s old ally, al Qaeda, and their new rival, Islamic State.
What the text doesn’t contain, officials familiar with it say, is a Taliban commitment to end their war against the Afghan government currently led by President Ashraf Ghani. Negotiations about cease-fires and the country’s future were due to start in Norway once a U.S.-Taliban agreement had been signed. Those talks are now indefinitely postponed, and the war rages on. The U.N. reports that 1,366 Afghan civilians were killed in the first half of this year, with more of those fatalities attributed to U.S. and government forces than to the insurgents.
“The Kabul government is installed by invaders, and it gets dictation from foreigners,” said Suhail Shaheen, the spokesman for the Taliban negotiating team, during an interview in Doha in the lobby of a luxury hotel, where he was unfazed by the scantily clad tourists who headed past him to the pool. His movement’s aim, he added, is “independence of the country and Islamic government,” with the form of that regime to be decided by religious scholars and through future intra-Afghan negotiations.
Mr. Shaheen wouldn’t blame Osama bin Laden for the Sept. 11 atrocities, saying that the Taliban have no evidence of al Qaeda’s guilt. “It is a past story, and we are now focusing on the future,” Mr. Shaheen said. “We assure that we will not allow anyone to attack America or its allies.”
Afghanistan—a laboratory of U.S. nation-building—has changed in many ways since the Taliban’s repressive regime (which Mr. Shaheen represented as deputy ambassador to Pakistan) ended in 2001. Many Afghans today bitterly oppose any accommodation with the Taliban that would surrender the civil and political freedoms they have acquired since then. Though the past 18 years have been marred by endemic corruption and waste, they have also produced a new, literate and more open-minded generation, at least in Kabul and other big cities.
Pale-blue burqas—mandatory under the Taliban and ubiquitous just a decade ago—are hard to find these days in central Kabul. In affluent neighborhoods such as Kart-e-Char, dozens of espresso bars have popped up next to hipster barbershops, bookstores, bowling alleys and even a makeshift movie venue or two. Just as elsewhere in the world, young Afghans are influenced by the global culture they can see on their smartphones. Even the Taliban, who banned TV and photography when in power, now flood social-media platforms with slick videos.
In one Kabul coffeehouse last weekend, young Afghan men and women—some without the head scarf—mingled freely. A wall was covered by love notes written on colorful Post-its, and the shelves were filled with books and board games such as Monopoly and Jenga. The 24-year-old manager and barista, Bijan Qadiri, returned to Kabul six months ago after studying for a philosophy degree (and writing a thesis on Nietzsche ) at a Turkish university. “We have to start somewhere to change the society and the mind-set,” he said when asked why he had started the business. A board behind him proclaimed, “When you can’t find sunshine, be the sunshine.”
Many in this new generation—one that believed American promises—would have no place should the Taliban return to power in Kabul.
“We are all fed up with war. We want to have peace,” said former lawmaker Fawzia Koofi, one of the few women who participated in recent informal intra-Afghan talks with the Taliban—and a survivor of a Taliban assassination attempt. “But we don’t want a peace where, yes, we can breathe, but it’s like a prison.”
Saturday’s election could create a fresh crisis, further weakening the government in Kabul and undermining its ability to shape the peace process. Many U.S. officials had hoped the election would be postponed. The Taliban have pledged to disrupt it by attacking polling stations.
“The majority of the Afghans will not be able to participate in this election because of security concerns, and this will provide a huge opportunity for fraud,” warned Mohammad Hanif Atmar, a former Afghan national-security adviser who withdrew from the presidential race, citing the need to focus on peace talks.
The outcome of the previous presidential election, in 2014, was thrown into dispute over fraud allegations, and only U.S. shuttle diplomacy averted a violent confrontation by helping to forge a national-unity government between Mr. Ghani and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah. No such diplomacy is likely to be forthcoming this time.
Mr. Abdullah—now the country’s chief executive—has again emerged as Mr. Ghani’s top electoral rival. “If you talk about the obstacles to achieving peace, one of them is the Taliban at the moment, and the next one is the gentleman who is now in the [presidential] palace,” Mr. Abdullah said. “He is one of those people who say, ‘I am the state.’”
Mr. Ghani’s relationship with the U.S.—and particularly Mr. Khalilzad—has also grown acrimonious as the Doha negotiations proceeded. The Afghan president wasn’t even allowed to keep a copy of the draft deal. Mr. Khalilzad has refused to testify about the agreement in an open congressional hearing, offering only a classified briefing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week.
To some worried Afghans and Americans, such secrecy evokes bad memories of the last time the U.S. negotiated an end to a stalemated war: the 1972-73 Paris peace talks with North Vietnam. Nader Nadery, a senior adviser to Mr. Ghani, said that he made sure to watch Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary “The Vietnam War” on Netflix as the Doha talks got under way. “There are certainly parallels,” he said. “There were occasions where the South Vietnamese government was not involved in the talks. It was kept aside—just like us.”
The lead U.S. negotiator in Paris, national-security adviser Henry Kissinger, came up with the concept of a face-saving “decent interval” between the deal and the inevitable collapse of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government. Mr. Kissinger’s interval lasted for just 2½ years and ended with the fall of Saigon and the exodus of some two million refugees from South Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands ended up in re-education camps or dead.
“Negotiations with the Taliban without the Afghan government are a formula for nothing good,” said Ryan Crocker, who reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kabul after the downfall of the Taliban and returned as U.S. ambassador in 2011-12. “It’s just like Paris in the 1970s all over again, where by coming to the table we are signaling that we are surrendering and that the question is simply the terms.”
One big difference with Vietnam, Mr. Crocker added, is that the U.S. hasn’t actually been defeated in Afghanistan. Despite a massive cut in U.S. forces, which topped 100,000 in 2010, the Taliban haven’t been able to seize and hold any of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals. The number of U.S. military fatalities, which totaled 498 in 2010, has been below 25 in each of the past five years. “It’s wrong to say that we are in a quagmire. We’ve got an insurance policy for our own security in Afghanistan, and I don’t think that the premiums are all that high,” Mr. Crocker said.
Afghan Interior Minister Massoud Andarabi, who oversees 190,000 troops, argues that the Taliban have failed in their goal of strengthening their negotiating position through battlefield victories while talking to the U.S. in Doha. “When this year started, they thought: One more push, and they will be in the cities, they will gain more territory, they will capture more districts. But none of that happened,” he said. “They are losing and are having casualties like never before.”
Yet the Afghan security forces remain profoundly dependent on American logistics for everything from fuel to ammunition—much like the South Vietnamese army, which crumbled after the U.S. departure and a cutoff of American funds. Much the same happened with the Afghan government that the Soviet Union installed after its 1979 invasion. President Mohammad Najibullah had to step down once his military fractured in 1992 and was eventually killed, his mutilated body hanged on Kabul’s main square.
“If the foreign forces leave Afghanistan precipitously, the country will go back to the same situation as after Najibullah’s collapse, and civil war will erupt once again,” said Mohammad Mohaqeq, a former civil-war-era warlord and now Afghanistan’s deputy chief executive.
In Vietnam, the communist government that took over the whole country as a result of the Paris accords ended up growing friendly toward the U.S. and has become a major center for American investment. The Taliban say they could be just as friendly once restored to power. Mr. Shaheen, the Taliban spokesman, said that the U.S. would be welcome to invest in mineral, oil and gas projects in Afghanistan, alongside companies from Europe, Russia and China.
“Al Qaeda’s position is to eliminate all Western influence in Islamic countries. The Taliban position is: End your military occupation, but please continue your assistance,” said Barnett Rubin of New York University, a former State Department adviser involved in peace talks with the Taliban. “Becoming rulers of Afghanistan without any foreign support is not a lot of fun.”
The Taliban’s ideology is also less extreme than that of Islamic State, which has established a foothold in Afghanistan in recent years and perpetrated a series of bombings that deliberately target civilians, particularly members of the country’s Shiite minority. Women under the Taliban would be free to work and study all the way to the Ph.D. level as long as they wear the Islamic veil, Mr. Shaheen said, and the religious scholars who would draft the country’s future governance should include Shiite clerics, not just Sunni ones.
Afghan officials dismiss such talk as hollow posturing. “There is a lot of efforts to show that the Taliban are a changed force. We don’t think they have changed in the slightest,” scoffed Mr. Mohib, the national-security adviser. “Our partners are perhaps a little tired of the war in Afghanistan, and they need to find a way out of it…. Whitewashing of the Taliban is part of those efforts.”
Kai Eide, a former head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, took a more conciliatory view. “In my contacts with the Taliban, they have insisted that they are eager to be part of the international community,” he said. “Can you trust such statements? There will be doubt and skepticism. But the only way to find out is to sit down and talk.”