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Blackwater USA | Daily Brief

Afghanistan

  • The Asia Foundation released results from its annual “Survey of the Afghan People,” which found that Afghans are more optimistic than they were last year about some things: e.g., 36.1% think the country is “going in the right direction,” vs. 32.8% last year.
  • The biggest changes in respondents’ reasons for optimism appeared in questions related to peace with the Taliban (e.g. 65.2% of respondents saying they’d vote for a president who accepts a peace deal with the Taliban; 26.3% of optimists saying that improvements to security are a reason for their positive outlook, vs. 16.4% last year), suggesting that peace talks have popular support.
  • On the other hand, 58% of Afghans still feel the country is going in the wrong direction, and cite insecurity, governance, and the economy as top concerns. In addition, more respondents than last year—74.5%—say they fear for their safety.
  • An NYT article about the report is pasted below, and you can read the full (333-page) report here.

Iran

  • Amnesty International now estimates that at least 208 people have been killed in the security crackdown on protest in Iran, and NewsMax is even calling it a “full-scale revolution.” Indeed, with strict media control and communications blackouts, we likely aren’t getting the full story.

Hong Kong

  • China banned U.S. military ships and aircraft from visiting Hong Kong, in protest of U.S. support for pro-democracy demonstrators. But that’s not as big of a deal as it sounds: it’s happened before (during other U.S.-China spats), and the U.S. military rarely makes port calls in Hong Kong, anyway (the last one happened in April).

Russia

  • Pres. Putin signed a law that allows Russia to label individual journalists or bloggers as “foreign agents,” which analysts fear will make it easier for the government to silence critics.

North Korea

  • North Korea reminded the U.S. that its “year end limit” to change its stance on nuclear talks is fast approaching, and warned that “it is entirely up to the U.S. what Christmas gift it will select to get.” The underlying ultimatum wasn’t quite specific enough to be a credible threat, though: it basically just called on the U.S. to offer more concessions sometime before the end of the year.
  • The U.S. arrested leading cryptocurrency researcher Virgil Griffith for helping North Korea evade sanctions by flying there for a secretive crypto conference.

U.S.

  • Preliminary data from Adobe showed that Cyber Monday sales rose 16.9% year over year, to $9.2 billion—and that just covers sales through 7 pm ET, excluding the “golden hours” of online shopping.
  • It’s harder to measure Black Friday sales, since no single source tracks all retailers, but online sales reached a record $7.4 billion, including $2.9 billion from smartphones.

Lebanon

  • The Trump administration quietly released $105 million in military aid for Lebanon that it had held back for over two months, leading some Trump critics to wonder whether there might be some kind of underlying quid pro quo, as alleged in a the Ukraine’s case.

Malta

  • Protesters aren’t happy with PM Muscat’s announcement that he’d resign in January, and have surrounded the parliament building to demand that he quit now.

Azerbaijan

  • Azerbaijan’s MPs almost unanimously voted to ask the president to dissolve parliament and call a snap election, and there’s definitely something I’m not reading between the lines: the current parliament is dominated by members of Pres. Aliyev’s party, and it does little more than rubber-stamp Aliyev’s decisions, anyway. The PM’s resignation a month ago also remains a mystery. I wonder what Aliyev is up to.

Libya

  • WSJ op-ed by an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute urges the U.S. to take a stronger leadership role in Libya, lest Russia have its way and impose a friendly strongman who would owe the Kremlin favors for its backing. Op-ed pasted below.
  • France cancelled a plan to send six semi-rigid inflatable Sillinger boats to Libya’s GNA government, under pressure from NGOs that said the boats would be used to facilitate prolonged detentions of migrants in inhumane conditions.

DRC

  • Protests against the UN presence in Beni are growing violent, and there are reports of “heavy gunfire.” Residents are upset that the UN peacekeepers in Beni have failed to protect them from ADF attacks, but the Congolese army hasn’t done any better.

Venezuela

  • VP Pence announced that sanctions on Pres. Maduro’s former intelligence chief, Gen. Manuel Christopher Figuera, will be lifted because Figuera defected from Maduro, and is now assisting the U.S.
  • In the same speech, Pence accused Venezuela’s Supreme Court of being Maduro’s “political tool” for ordering investigations into seven MPs who allegedly participated in a failed military uprising against Maduro, and threatened to punish its 25 magistrates if they don’t stop the investigations.

Steel

  • Pres. Trump imposed new steel tariffs on Brazil and Argentina, surprising both countries and other allies. Trump blamed the two countries for hurting U.S. farmers by devaluing their currencies, but some analysts wonder if he’s trying to punish them for working with China.
  • Regardless, Brazil’s Pres. Bolsonaro seems confident he can get the tariffs lifted: “I’m going to call [Trump] so that he doesn’t penalize us … Our economy basically comes from commodities, it’s what we’ve got. I hope that he understands and that he doesn’t penalize us with this, and I’m almost certain he’ll listen to us.”
  • Trump then proposed tariffs of up to 100% on French imports, in response to a French digital services tax that disproportionately affects U.S. tech companies.

UK

  • PM Johnson is vigorously campaigning for next week’s election, but also hosting NATO heads of state. He will not meet Pres. Trump, which is highly unusual for this kind of event: the U.S. president almost always meets the host country’s leader. Johnson had also asked Trump to avoid opining on the UK election; I wonder if this is related.
  • IS claimed the Nov. 29th London Bridge attacker as its “fighter,” but IS surely wasn’t his only influence: Khan was already attracted to jihadism before IS even existed.

Survey: Afghans’ Fear for Personal Safety Has Increased (NYT)

Afghans are increasingly fearful for their personal safety, but slightly more believe their war-weary country is moving in the right direction, compared to previous years, according to a new survey released Tuesday.

The Asia Foundation poll found that 74.5% of respondents say they always, often or sometimes fear for their personal safety, an increase of over 3 percentage points from 2018.

“Increased optimism around the peace talks along with persistent fears about insecurity and the economy continue to influence Afghan views,” Abdullah Ahmadzai, The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Afghanistan was quoted as saying in the survey.

A total of 17,812 respondents aged 18 years and up were surveyed face-to-face across all 34 provinces from July 11, 2019 to Aug. 7, 2019, the San Francisco-based foundation said.

Optimism about the nation’s direction was at its highest in 2013 before declining to an all-time low in 2016 over concerns about the economy, difficult elections and the effects of radical reductions in foreign troops.

This year, 36.1% of respondents said the country is going in the right direction, up from 32.8% in 2017 and 2018, while 58.2% said the country is going in the wrong direction, down slightly from 61.3% in 2018.

One of the main drivers of the uptick in optimism is the number of respondents who cite “peace and end of war,” an increase from 16.4% in 2018 to 26.3% this year.

President Donald Trump, in his surprise Thanksgiving holiday visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan last week, announced that the U.S. and Taliban have been engaged in peace talks and insisted the Taliban want to make a deal after heavy U.S. fire in recent months.

The trip came after Trump abruptly broke off peace talks with the Taliban in September, canceling a secret meeting with Taliban and Afghan leaders at the Camp David presidential retreat after a particularly deadly spate of violence, capped by a bombing in Kabul that killed 12 people, including an American soldier.

That ended a nearly yearlong effort by the U.S. to reach a political settlement with the Taliban.

It was not immediately clear how long or substantive the U.S. re-engagement with the Taliban has been.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said the Taliban’s stance is unchanged. He said the United States broke off talks and when it wants to resume them, the Taliban are ready.

Following the collapse of peace talks and election delays, which took place after this year’s survey field work, prospects for a sustainable political settlement are unclear, Ahmadzai said.

“More than ever, empirical data is a crucial resource for the future and development of Afghanistan,” Ahmadzai added.

According to the foundation, peace talks and the long-delayed presidential election have been at the forefront of public discourse in Afghanistan this year.

Afghans’ stated belief that reconciliation with the Taliban might be possible has grown significantly more common since last year, with 64% of respondents saying it is possible, up from 53.5% in 2018 and 52.3% in 2017, when the question was first asked.

Yet, belief in reconciliation does not necessarily go hand in hand with optimism about the trajectory of the country.

Just last week, a leading Afghan presidential candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, organized protests over a recount in the September election that has been mired in accusations of fraud. Thousands of Abdullah’s supporters rallied Friday in the capital, Kabul, against what they said is the presence of fake ballots during a recount that seems set to favor the incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani.

Results of the Sept. 28 presidential polls have been repeatedly delayed amid accusations of misconduct and technical problems with counting ballots.

If no candidate obtains over 50% in the results, a second round of voting will be held.

Ghani and Abdullah head a fragile national unity government that was put together under U.S. pressure after both leaders claimed victory in Afghanistan’s last elections in 2014.

The study had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.16 percentage points.

Don’t Let Russia Dominate Libya (WSJ op-ed)

A Kremlin-backed strongman in Tripoli would be a disaster for U.S. interests.

By Emily Estelle: The research manager for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute.

American interests are under attack in Libya, whether we realize it or not. Adversaries and allies alike are attempting to install a dictator. In doing so, they’re undermining U.S. credibility and challenging American leadership of the international order.

Hundreds—maybe thousands—of Russian mercenaries joined the battle for Tripoli, Libya’s capital, this fall, fighting alongside aspiring strongman Khalifa Haftar. Russia’s primary interest isn’t Libya, but the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. President Vladimir Putin interpreted the Arab Spring, and particularly the NATO intervention that led to the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, as Western threats to the survival of his autocratic regime. His interventions in Syria and now Libya are attempts to shore up faltering strongmen. Mr. Putin wants to put a new Gadhafi in power to show that revolutions are doomed to fail and that he, not the U.S. or NATO, is an effective power broker in the region.

Mr. Putin aims to undermine America’s post-Cold War leadership of the international order by casting the West as hypocritical and building an alliance system of like-minded autocrats. (China’s rise, and its development of technology that strengthens other autocracies, compounds this trend.) The U.S. has only worsened the situation by appearing to be an unreliable ally—to the Kurds in Syria and to the Libyan forces who fought ISIS with U.S. support but now face Mr. Haftar’s airstrikes.

The Kremlin today would probably like to install as Libya’s president either Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, or Mr. Haftar, a would-be autocrat in the style of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. Either result would send the message that democracy has failed in Libya. If Mr. Haftar’s forces succeed, it won’t be for a lack of Libyan resistance—many have striven against the militias’ rise to power in the years after Gadhafi’s fall—but because the free world did not do enough to help them succeed when guns overcame ballots.

Russia isn’t alone in its fight against democracy in Libya. America’s Arab allies and partners—notably the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt—are backing Mr. Haftar. They’re preventing the formation of a pluralistic democracy, a kind of government that could provide a model that their citizens could use to challenge them. These regimes are particularly threatened by the possibility of a democracy that allows the participation of Islamist parties like the Muslim Brotherhood. This is part of a larger competition to shape the future of governance in the Arab world. Islamist parties—often backed by Turkey and Qatar—bring their own challenges, but it is almost certainly better to let elections play out than to try to stamp out voters’ preferences through repression.

The security implications of the Libyan civil war are real and dire. Mr. Haftar’s supporters argue that as a strongman, he would curb terrorism and control migration. Experience suggests the opposite. The violent suppression of nonviolent Islamists strengthens an extreme and violent alternative, Salafi jihadism. By crushing peaceful political expression and victimizing vulnerable populations—which Salafi jihadist groups then exploit—Mr. Haftar’s methods and those of his backers invite future insurgencies.

The Trump administration is slowly waking up to this reality. The State Department last month strongly condemned Mr. Haftar’s forces and Russia. While this is an important step—needed to clarify the U.S. position after President Trump’s April phone call to Mr. Haftar was perceived as giving support for his offensive on Tripoli—a statement isn’t enough. Mr. Haftar’s forces and Russian mercenaries intensified their attacks on rival militias in Tripoli immediately following the U.S. denunciation. U.S. officials subsequently met Mr. Haftar to discuss a cease-fire, but his forces’ attacks have continued, including airstrikes on residential areas.

The U.S. has a choice: keep trying to improve Libya’s economy, security, and governance on the margins as the war rages on, or take measures to end the conflict—and to deny Mr. Putin and his fellow autocrats another victory. Europe is too divided on the subject to play this role. The U.S. should take the lead in convening Libyan and foreign leaders alike to reach a cease-fire in Tripoli. Washington should be willing to use some of its abundant leverage over Arab allies and partners to curb flagrant violations of the U.N. arms embargo on Libya. The U.S. should also step up efforts to curb Russia’s use of private military contractors and encourage European allies to impose sanctions on them as well.

These actions are a necessary first step to alleviate the suffering of innocent civilians, reassert American leadership and open a path to what the Libyan people have long awaited—the opportunity to govern themselves.

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