The Cable

Security Brief: Russia Providing Arms to Taliban; China’s Global Kidnapping Campaign

"We've had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and [they] said, this was given by the Russians to the Taliban."

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis walks with Gen. John Nicholson at the Resolute Support Mission headquarters on an unannounced visit to Kabul on March 13, 2018.
THOMAS WATKINS/AFP/Getty Images
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis walks with Gen. John Nicholson at the Resolute Support Mission headquarters on an unannounced visit to Kabul on March 13, 2018. THOMAS WATKINS/AFP/Getty Images

By Elias Groll, with Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Sharon Weinberger

Russia arming Taliban. For months, U.S. military commanders have sounded alarms that Russia is supporting the Afghan Taliban, and now the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, has gone a step further, accusing Moscow of directly arming the Taliban.

“We’ve had weapons brought to this headquarters and given to us by Afghan leaders and [they] said, this was given by the Russians to the Taliban,” Nicholson said in an interview with the BBC.

Meanwhile, American military commanders are drumming up support for the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, promising that new troops and equipment and a closer relationship with Afghan forces will reverse Taliban gains.

“This is not another year of the same thing we’ve been doing for 17 years,” Gen. Joseph Dunford , chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Washington Post. “This is a fundamentally different approach.”

That notes of optimism comes as the Taliban have made significant territorial gains, with the group now openly active in 70 percent Afghanistan’s territory. Afghan military forces, meanwhile, are taking casualties at a record level. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani continues to drum up support for a peace initiative that would bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, but so far a a breakthrough appears far off.

China’s global kidnapping campaign. Extralegal renditions and coercive repatriations are an increasingly common tool of the Chinese government, FP contributor Zach Dorfman reports.

Chinese officials have beaten and drugged Chinese economic or political fugitives living abroad and forced them onto planes or shipping vessels headed back to China. In other cases, they have threatened family members to get their targets to return home. It may even be happening within U.S. borders.

Welcome to this Monday morning edition of Security Brief, in which we mourn the demise of Loyola-Chicago’s long-shot bid at the NCAA tournament and celebrate the return of John Wall to the Wizard’s line-up. As always, send your tips, questions, and concerns to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com.

Idlib in the crosshairs. With Syrian government forces and their Russian allies pursuing a scorched earth strategy to reclaim rebel-held territory, Idlib province may be their next target, the New York Times reports. The population of the province, which borders Turkey, has doubled in recent years, and Idlib now represents the largest patch of rebel-controlled territory.  

Getting tough on Russia? Some advisers to President Donald Trump are pushing him to adopt a tougher line on Russia on the heels of the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain and an ensuing diplomatic crisis, according to the New York Times. Trump so far hasn’t signed on to a policy of levying additional sanctions on Moscow.  

Russia retaliates. After some 20 countries expelled 150 Russian diplomats in solidarity with the United Kingdom after it accused the Kremlin of being behind the poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal, Moscow hit back at London last week. The Kremlin is demanding that the UK reduce its number of diplomatic personnel in Russia to match the number of Russian diplomats in Britain, the Financial Times reports.

ASW above the Arctic. Russian anti-submarine warfare planes are once more flying over the North Pole, the first time since the Cold War Russia’s ASW planes have circled the arctic, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced. He also praised a return to what some are calling a return to Soviet-era closed cities. “Construction of unique military campuses of a closed cycle, built using the latest technologies in the Franz Josef Land archipelago, and the Novosibirsk islands, is nearing completion,” he said.

Rethink the retaliations. While Prime Minister Theresa May has received widespread praise for her response to the Skripal poisoning, the eminent Russia historian Robert Service writes in FP that the British government is going about pressuring Russia in all the wrong ways. “The way to hit Russia where it hurts is to make clear to Putin that Russia’s need for engagement with the West is much greater than the West’s need for Russia,” Service writes.

All dressed up, nowhere to go. The intense scrutiny on Russian diplomatic efforts has left Moscow’s new ambassador to Washington without much to do. In a letter to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) last month, Ambassador Anatoly Antonov pleaded for advice on how he might obtain a meeting in Washington. “I would be very grateful for your advice on how to develop contacts with members of U.S. Congress, departments and agencies, as well as for your possible assistance in setting up such meetings,” Antonov wrote in the letter, which was obtained by Politico.

The Sarmat flies. Russia released a video on Friday purporting to show a test-firing of its new intercontinental ballistic missile, the Sarmat. Russian President Vladimir Putin has touted the weapons as capable of defeating American missile defenses.

Chest-beating. Russian announcements of new nuclear weapons capabilities has caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who pointedly raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a recent phone call, according to NBC News. “If you want to have an arms race we can do that, but I’ll win,” Trump told Putin.  

Russia targeting undersea cables. The Associated Press reports that the United States and its allies are increasingly concerned about Russian snooping near undersea cables that serve as critical links for international communications.  “We’ve seen activity in the Russian navy, and particularly undersea in their submarine activity, that we haven’t seen since the ‘80s,” Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, head of U.S. European Command, told lawmakers last month.

The art of the drone deal. The Trump administration is readying a plan that would help U.S. companies sell arms abroad, including drones. “The plan, dubbed the Arms Transfer Initiative, picks up on work started under the Obama administration, while adding a Trumpian element to the proposal that is described by administration officials as both promoting his America First philosophy while ensuring that allies are better able to provide for their own security,” reports Paul McLeary in Breaking Defense. The proposed changes, which are winding their way through the National Security Council, aim to address, among other issues, long-standing export restrictions on drones of specific capabilities.

Syria withdrawal? Two hours after President Donald Trump vowed that American troops would leave Syria “very soon” and “let the other people take care of it” a U.S. and a British servicemember were killed in an operation in Syria against the Islamic State, the Washington Post reports.   

On the two-yard line. President Trump’s pledge that American troops will soon leave Syria drew exasperated responses from U.S. commanders, who argue American forces are close to defeating the Islamic State entirely. “We’re on the two-yard line. We could literally fall into the end zone. We’re that close to total victory, to wiping out the ISIS caliphate in Syria,” a U.S. special forces commander told NBC News. “We’re that close and now it’s coming apart.”

Freeze in Syria aid. The Trump administration last week ordered that $200 million in humanitarian and stabilization aid to Syria be frozen amid a review of the American presence there, according to the New York Times.  

Trade war. China retaliated against American tariffs by slapping levies of up to 25 percent on American food products, such as frozen pork and fresh and dried fruits. The retaliatory tariffs are valued at around $3 billion but are so far not targeting the largest American exports to China.

The committee to save the world is down to one. Amid the departure of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is the subject of a revealing new New York Times Magazine profile. “A year into Trump’s tenure, Mattis has become a quietly central figure in an administration of near-constant purges. He may be the lone cabinet member to have survived with his status and dignity intact, and in the process his Pentagon — perhaps the one national institution that is still fully functional — has inherited an unusually powerful role in the shaping of American foreign policy,” the magazine reports.   

Need to know basis. The Trump administration’s new policy on transgender troops caught top military officials by surprise, according to the Washington Blade. Service chiefs were apparently not briefed on the policy and were left scrambling to understand the new rules.

Fusion breakthrough? Achieving a sustainable fusion reaction may be far off, but Lockheed Martin looks to be moving forward with its development of a fusion reactor. The contracting giant has obtained a patent for a part of a containment system, the Drive reports

Goodnight, sweet prince. The Tiangong-1, China’s prototype space station, burned up over the skies of the Southern Pacific on Sunday as it re-entered the earth’s orbit. Chinese officials insist the re-entry was controlled, but there is little evidence to back that up, Space.com reports. While in orbit, the space station served as a test-bed for orbital docking and human spaceflight.

The swarms are coming. Raytheon claims it is developing technology that will allow troops to control swarms of drones using mere hand gestures and voice inputs, Defense News reports. The project is a part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics.

Foal Eagle kicks off. Amid a flurry of diplomatic activity on the Korean peninsula, South Korean and American forces kicked off their annual military exercise over the weekend.  

New sanctions-busting list targets North Korea. The US has released a list of 27 ships and 21 shipping companies that have allegedly helped North Korea avoid sanctions. The companies’ assets will be frozen and the ships banned from ports around the world as the US ratchets up pressure on Pyongyang before the upcoming Trump-Kim summit.

Why did Kim go to Beijing? North Korean leader Kim Jong Un boarded a train last week for a surprise visit to Beijing ahead of planned summits with the leaders of South Korea and the United States. The visit has observers trying to lead the tea leaves, and the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos sums up the prevailing analyses of the visit’s meaning. “The optimistic view holds that, now that Kim has achieved a nuclear arsenal that puts the world on edge, he can turn his attention to economic growth,” Osnos writes. “Pessimists call that reading naïve, arguing that Kim’s overtures are primarily intended to lure South Korea into shedding its reliance on American security and maneuvering the United States off the Korean Peninsula.”

A new North Korean nuclear reactor. Fresh satellite imagery has identified a new North Korean nuclear reactor. That reactor is likely capable of producing fuel for North Korean nuclear bombs and represents one of the many thorny issues U.S. officials will have to tackle ahead of a possible summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.   

Abe-Kim summit? Japanese diplomats are eager to get in on the diplomatic action on the Korean peninsula and are seeking a summit meeting for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, CNN reports.

Seoul gets a new jet. American and South Korean officials debuted the first of South Korea’s F-35s last week. “The F-35A will not only deliver tremendous capability to ROK, it also reinforces our alliance and further strengthens our defense relationship,” Ellen Lord, the U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said at an event at a Lockheed Martin facility in Texas.

Seoul eyes the Barracuda. South Korean defense officials are reportedly eyeing the purchase of French-made Barracuda-class nuclear submarines, the Diplomat reports. The submarine would add a potent weapon in a possible conflict with North Korea and is considered to be a highly advanced sub.

WannaCry hits Boeing. The notorious ransomware strain WannaCry struck defense and aerospace contractor Boeing, reportedly affecting computers at one of the company’s South Carolina plants. U.S. officials have said the virus is a creation of North Korea, but it remains unclear whether Pyongyang was involved in the attack or whether the virus, which has long been a publicly available, was repurposed by a different actor.   

F-18s to Kuwait. Boeing and Kuwaiti officials finalized a $1.2 billion deal to supply 28 F-18 jets to Kuwait’s military.

An extradition win. A Russian hacker accused of breaking into the computer systems of LinkedIn, Dropbox, and Formspring was extradited to the United States from the Czech Republic, where Russian diplomats had tried to return him to Russia rather than face charges in the United States.

US sells patrol boats to Vietnam. Amid an ongoing warming of ties, the US has sold 6 patrol boats to Vietnam, which regularly skirmishes with Chinese fishing and coast guard vessels in disputed portions of the South China Sea. Vietnam has also cozied up to Russia, signing a military cooperation agreement in 2014. In a landmark visit, US aircraft carrier docked at a Vietnamese port in early March.

China’s coast guard now officially belongs to the military. China has often deployed coast guard vessels to disputed parts of the South China Sea to harass fishing boats and vessels of rival claimants. Now as part of a major reorganization, control of the Chinese coast guard has been transferred from a civilian government agency to the Central Military Commission, meaning that Xi Jinping will have direct authority over it. That further muddies the waters for future incidents at sea, when rival claimants like Vietnam or the Philippines will have to determine how to deal with a militarized Chinese coast guard.

AI for the gray zone. A new DARPA program aims to use artificial intelligence to understand enemy actions in the so-called “gray zone,” the much touted phrase referring to conflict between states and non-state groups that fails to rise to the level of armed conflict, according to Defense News.

Pakistan replies to sanctions. Following U.S. sanctions on Pakistani nuclear companies, Pakistani officials defended their country’s nuclear safety record, Reuters reports. “Pakistan’s efforts in the area of export controls and non-proliferation as well as nuclear safety and security are well known. Pakistan and U.S. have a history of cooperation in these areas,” Pakistan’s foreign ministry said in a statement.  

Cracking down on Chinese telecoms in the US. Last week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai proposed a new rule that would bar telecommunications companies that are deemed to pose a threat to national security — specifically Huawei and ZTE, both Chinese national champions — from using money from a special FCC fund intended to help rural communities build telecoms infrastructure. The Chinese companies have been offering special low prices in such areas. The move comes as Chinese investment is also receiving increased scrutiny in Congress.

A new drone on the scene. Turkish Aerospace Industries debuted a new version of its Anka medium-altitude, long-endurance drone equipped with a suite of signals intelligence and communications intelligence tools, according to Aerospace Daily & Defense Report.  

Landing an F-18 with ‘ATARI.’ The U.S. Navy successfully tested a system allowing it to take remote control of an F-18 jet and remotely land it on an aircraft carrier, Flight Global reports. The ATARI system, or aircraft terminal approach remote inceptor, was tested aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln last month.  

Pentagon gets a new strategist. President Trump selected the vice president for academic affairs at Marine Corps University, James Anderson, as his assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities. Defense News describes Anderson as an outspoken advocate for missile defense.

Poland buys the Patriot. Poland signed a $4.75 billion dollar deal to buy the Patriot missile defense system, according to Reuters. Polish President Andrzej Duda described the move as “Poland’s introduction into a whole new world of state-of-the-art technology, modern weaponry, and defensive means.” Russian officials have criticized the purchase.

F-35 to Taiwan? Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and James Inhofe (R-OK) are urging the Trump administration to approve the sale of the F-35 fighter jet to Taiwan. In a letter, the two influential senators argue that “these fighters will have a positive impact on Taiwan’s self-defence and would act as a necessary deterrent to China’s aggressive military posture.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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