Security Brief

Security Brief: Afghan Peace Talks Take Step Forward; The 5G Race With China

American and Taliban negotiators agree to a framework for peace deal, and Washington pushes allies to ban Chinese telecom equipment.

Former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad gives a press conference at Serena Hotel in Kabul on October 14, 2009. A spokesperson confirmed Khalilzad had met with both incumbent president Hamid Karzai and main rival Abdullah Abdullah who are waiting for the results of fraud allegation-tainted elections held August 20.   AFP PHOTO/Massoud HOSSAINI (Photo credit should read MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Former US ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad gives a press conference at Serena Hotel in Kabul on October 14, 2009. A spokesperson confirmed Khalilzad had met with both incumbent president Hamid Karzai and main rival Abdullah Abdullah who are waiting for the results of fraud allegation-tainted elections held August 20. AFP PHOTO/Massoud HOSSAINI (Photo credit should read MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP/Getty Images)

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The Doha track. More than 17 years after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, American and Taliban officials took the first concrete step last week toward ending America’s longest war.

In an interview with the New York Times, America’s chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, said that during six days of talks in Doha, Qatar, the two parties had agreed in principle to the framework of a peace deal in which the insurgents guarantee to prevent Afghan territory from being used by terrorists, which has long been a primary demand by American officials. That could lead to a full withdrawal of American troops in return for a lasting cease-fire and Taliban talks with the Afghan government, he said.

The draft framework, though preliminary, is “the biggest tangible step toward ending a two-decade war that has cost tens of thousands of lives and profoundly changed American foreign policy,” the Times writes.

But big questions remain about what a peace deal would look like. The Taliban so far have refused to negotiate with the Afghan government, a key American condition of any deal. President Ashraf Ghani expressed concern that a peace deal would be rushed, pointing to previous settlements that ended in bloodshed, such as the withdrawal of the Soviet Union.

Among other things, the Afghans and the Taliban would need to figure out how to divvy up power in government, and how that will impact an array of issues such as the status of women in the country. Afghan women, who recount horror stories about life under Taliban rule, fear that a U.S. withdrawal could empower the Taliban to herald a new war on women.

Experts worry that without U.S. involvement, the terms of the peace agreement could fall apart. Ryan Crocker, a former American ambassador to Afghanistan, called the latest talks a rush for the exits, and compared it to the Paris peace talks with Vietnam.

“I can’t see this as anything more than an effort to put lipstick on what will be a U.S. withdrawal,” he told the Times. “By going to the table, we basically were telling the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, ‘We surrender. We’re here just to work out the terms.’ I just cannot see this getting to any better place. We don’t have a whole lot of leverage here.”

Afghan death toll. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said his country’s security forces casualties are far higher than previously understood and that 45,000 of Afghanistan’s troops have been killed since he assumed power in 2014.

Casualty report. At least 90 pro-Afghan government fighters were killed in the past week, in addition to 21 civilians, according to the New York Times’s unofficial tally of last week’s fighting.

Pressure campaign. The United States is pushing its allies to ban Chinese telecom giant Huawei from providing equipment for next-generation telecommunications infrastructure, a quiet fight that is pitting economic imperatives against security questions, the New York Times reports.

Current and former senior American government officials, intelligence officers, and top telecommunications executives tell the Times that the potential of 5G has created a “zero-sum calculus” for President Trump—“a conviction that there must be a single winner in this arms race, and the loser must be banished.”

The White House is drafting an executive order that would effectively ban U.S. companies from using Chinese-origin equipment in critical telecommunications networks, a far cry from existing rules, which ban such equipment only from government networks.

Congress will weigh in on Tuesday, when the heads of American intelligence agencies are set appear before the Senate to deliver their annual threat assessment. They are expected to cite 5G investments by Chinese telecom companies, including Huawei, as a threat.

Middle East

Idlib at risk.  The recent takeover of the last rebel stronghold in Syria by an Al Qaeda-linked group could threaten a cease-fire that has been in place for several months, the New York Times reports. The shattering of the cease-fire in Idlib, in northwest Syria, would put the population in the path of yet another military onslaught and propel a wave of refugees into Turkey, which lies to the north.

Iran buffer. Despite President Donald Trump’s December pledge to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria, the U.S. government is considering a plan to keep some troops in a remote U.S. base in southeastern Syria to counter Iranian activity, Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman reports. .

The al-Tanf garrison, located near Syria’s eastern border with Jordan, was established to help local forces fight the Islamic State militant group. But the base, which sits along a potential Iranian supply route through Iraq to Syria, has also become a critical buttress for combating Iranian influence in the region.

What remains. The villages of Marashida and Baghuz Fawqani are the last remaining holdouts of the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria. The two villages have been surrounded by American-backed troops and Islamic State fighters are making a last-stand fight there, the Washington Post reports.

Yemen. The U.N.’s special envoy to Yemen urged parties to the country’s civil war to withdraw their troops from the port city of Hodeidah per the terms of a December agreement, Reuters reports.

Down but not out. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for a bombing of a Catholic cathedral in the southern Philippines on Sunday that left at least 20 people dead.

Withdrawn. The American military pulled out of an aviation exercise led by the United Arab Emirates prior to the decision to draw down American cooperation with the Saudi-backed coalition in Yemen, Military.com reports.

In the beltway. The liberal think tank the Center for American Progress will no longer accept financial support from the United Arab Emirates, the Guardian reports.

BDS. With the U.S. government reopened, the Senate is expected to take up consideration of a controversial measure that could significantly curtail U.S. aid to Palestinian authorities and endorse measures to combat efforts to boycott Israeli businesses, Haaretz reports.

Latin America

How does this end? Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó told the Washington Post that his camp is in talks with military officials in an attempt to force President Nicolas Maduro from power amid an intensifying political crisis.

Venezuelan opposition figures have raised the possibility of amnesty for members of the military, a towering institution in Venezuelan society seen as the ultimate arbiter of the Maduro regime’s fate. “We have been in talks with government officials, civilian and military men,” Guaidó said. “This is a very delicate subject involving personal security. We are meeting with them, but discreetly.”

On Sunday, Maduro oversaw a military exercise in an effort to shore up support among the country’s armed forces. The defiant show of force came as a growing number of countries — Australia and Israel are the latest — recognized Guaidó as the country’s legitimate leader.

Venezuela. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council to urge states to recognize Venezuela’s opposition leader as the country’s rightful president.

No U.S. military involvement, for now... The Pentagon remained on the margins of the U.S. response to the crisis in Venezuela on Friday as military officials stressed they had not been asked to evacuate Americans amid an intensifying standoff between the Trump administration and President Nicolás Maduro, write Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe at The Washington Post.

The reluctance of defense officials to discuss even the position of U.S. military assets underscored the Pentagon’s desire to avoid escalating a potentially explosive situation in a region where the United States has limited military weight.

Meanwhile… Venezuela’s military attache in Washington defected and said he would support the country’s opposition leader, CNN reports. Juan Guaido, who has proclaimed himself Venezuela’s interim president is urging members of the country’s military to switch sides and oust the Maduro regime.

PMCs. Russian private military contractors arrived in Venezuela last week in an apparent effort to improve security for President Nicolas Maduro, Reuters reports. The number of Russian mercenaries dispatched to Venezuela is unclear, but one source put the number as high as 400.

Second act. The Trump administration named the controversial neoconservative figure Elliott Abrams as its special envoy to Venezuela, Politico reports. Abrams was convicted and later pardoned for his role in the Iran-Contra affair. He was reportedly among a group of George W. Bush administration officials who greenlighted a 2002 in Venezuela.

Find the spotlight. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has emerged as a prominent figure and spokesperson in the American campaign to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro from power, a move that is placing the ambitious politician front and center of a major foreign policy crisis, the New York Times reports.

Europe and Russia

Gas politics. Polish officials are laying the groundwork for a natural gas pipeline that would connect the country with Norwegian gas fields and rid Poland of its dependence on Russian gas, the Financial Times reports.

Strike drone. Images have surfaced online of what appears to be Russia’s first stealthy, autonomous strike aircraft, Popular Mechanics reports. The design is a flying wing, one-engine stealth aircraft and appears to be the Sukhoi “Okhotnik,” or “Hunter,” which began design in 2011.

Hard landing. Video has surfaced of the crash of a Russian Tu-22 bomber in Murmansk earlier this month, the Aviationist reports. The video shows the huge plane coming in hard and fast for a landing. The aircraft broke up after bouncing on the ground, ending up in a huge fireball.

Call me by your name. The Greek parliament narrowly approved a controversial deal to change Macedonia’s name to the Republic of North Macedonia in a bid to ease a dispute that has prevented the former Yugoslav republic’s accession to NATO.

Fear of commitment. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he is confident the United States will not pull out of the military alliance, a comment that comes weeks after a report that President Donald Trump was considering leaving NATO.

Stoltenberg added Trump’s pressure on NATO allies to spend greater amounts on their military budgets had delivered results, a comment Trump immediately praised on Twitter. Last week, the House of Representatives voted to bar the United States from withdrawing from NATO.

The Deripaska beat. The U.S. Treasury Department formally lifted sanctions on aluminum giant Rusal on Sunday after a lengthy review process of a proposal to dilute Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska’s control of the company. The move eases pressure on global aluminum markets after an attempt by congressional Democrats to block lifting the sanctions failed.

Deripaska’s control of the company has been significantly reduced but he retains a significant ownership stake in the conglomerate. American sanctions targeting Deripaska’s personal financial holdings remain in place.

Anti-trust. Europe’s top antitrust official is considering last-minute revisions to a proposed merger of the railway operations of Siemens and Alstom, a corporate tie-up being promoted by Berlin and Paris as a way for Europe to compete with China’s giant state-backed railway company CRRC, the Financial Times reports.

Africa

Supply route. The U.S. Defense Department is in the early stages of a project to develop land-based supply routes from the main American military base in Africa, Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, to other U.S. camps across the eastern part of the continent, Amanda Sperber reports for Foreign Policy. The first part of the trail is intended to link Lemonnier to Baledogle, the U.S. camp in Somalia, traversing areas controlled by the al Qaeda-affiliated group al-Shabab; swaths of land controlled by warlords with private militias; and a tense border region with Ethiopia.

This project will further entrench the U.S. military presence in Africa, and may also be part of a broader American approach to countering China in places across the continent where the U.S. has vital interests, including the strategic Horn of Africa, Sperber writes.

Congo’s new president. A new leader was sworn in Thursday in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — the first peaceful transfer of power in the country since the country was granted independence from Belgium in 1960. But questions about the legitimacy of the election have clouded the otherwise historic inauguration, writes Vox.

The unexpected ascent of Félix Tshisekedi, formerly an opposition leader, has riven the country’s opposition into factions and left many Congolese in a disenchanted daze, according to the Washington Post. But some are optimistic, and eager to see how the new leader will deal with high unemployment and corruption and fix poor services.

True colors. A little more than a year after ousting Robert Mugabe from power, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe’s president, is now showing his true colors. As demonstrators filled the streets of Harare, the capital, to protest the deteriorating economy, Mnangagwa reacted in the past week with the same authoritarian reflexes as his predecessor: deploying soldiers and the police to crack down on demonstrators — resulting in the deaths of as many as a dozen individuals — and shutting down the internet.

Death of a doctor. The death of Babiker Salama, an idealistic young doctor from an affluent family, has emerged as a signal moment in a powerful tide of protests that has roiled Sudan over the past five weeks, posing the greatest threat yet to the country’s ruler of 30 years, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir.

Asia

Huawei. Chinese telecom giant Huawei announced it will generate fifth-generation smartphone using components developed by the company rather than American suppliers, a move that would help insulate the company from growing tensions with the United States.

Meanwhile in Ottawa… Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fired his country’s ambassador to China after he made public remarks that the chief financial officer of Huawei, who is fighting extradition to the United States from Canada, could make a good case against being sent to the United States.

Crackdown. A Chinese court sentenced the human-rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang to four and half years in prison on charges that he subverted state power, the Guardian reports. Wang is the latest to be sentenced as part of the so-called 709 crackdown.

The Libya model? U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton appeared to walk back the Trump adminsitration’s hard-line approach toward North Korea and said the United States would be willing to lift sanctions on the country if took a “significant” step toward denuclearization.

“What we need from North Korea is a significant sign of a strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons and it is when we get that denuclearization that the President can begin to take the sanctions off,” Bolton said in an interview with the Washington Times.

A spat among friends. South Korea and Japan became embroiled in a fresh maritime dispute after Seoul accused a Japanese aircraft of making a low pass near a South Korean naval ship, Defense News reports. The incident comes on the heels of another simmering dispute over whether a South Korean naval ship locked its targeting radar onto a Japanese aircraft.

Cyber

Must read. A group of unidentified private security contractors targeted the research organization Citizen Lab, contacting the group under false personas to set up meetings during which they pressed the lab’s employees about their views on Israel. Citizen Lab quickly realized what was afoot and worked with the AP to expose the operation in a remarkable story.

Fun! Hackers broke into a Nest security camera and used the device to broadcast a fake warning of a North Korean ICBM attack into the home of a California family, the Mercury News reports.

The Threat Analysis Group. The Wall Street Journal profiles Google’s in-house threat intelligence team and finds a skilled group of intelligence analyst working off of mountains of data to combat sophisticated state-backed hackers. As digital threats have increased, a number of companies are standing up similar in-house intelligence units.

Ukraine. Russian-backed hackers are stepping up their attacks on Ukraine in an apparent bid to disrupt the upcoming presidential election, Ukraine’s head of cyber police told Reuters.  

The shutdown effect. The federal government shutdown threw a severe wrench in the gears of investigations targeting cybercriminals, Brian Krebs reports.

“The talent drain after this is finally resolved will cost us five years,” a veteran federal investigator told Krebs. “Literally everyone I know who is able to retire or can find work in the private sector is actively looking, and the smart private companies are aware and actively recruiting. As a nation, we are much less safe from a cyber security posture than we were a month ago.”

Big blue. Facebook will be consolidating its flagship messaging services — WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram — into a unified technical infrastructure, a move placing greater power in the hands of founder Mark Zuckerberg, the New York Times reports.

The move has potentially huge privacy and security implications for the billions of users who use the apps. WhatsApp has long used sophisticated encryption technology to shield user communications, landing Facebook in hot water with authorities seeking to access those messages. The founders of both Instagram and WhatsApp left Facebook last year amid reports of conflict with Zuckerberg.

Conspiracy! YouTube parent company Alphabet said it will decrease the frequency with which the platform’s recommendation algorithm steers users toward videos promoting conspiracy theories, the company said late last week. YouTube has come under fire for the persistence and prominence of videos promoting conspiracy theories on the platform.

Washington

Shutdown blues. Hundreds of thousands of federal employees are headed back to work this morning after President Donald Trump and congressional officials reached a deal to reopen the government without funding for the border wall.

Congressional negotiators now have three weeks until funding lapses once more, and Trump is not optimistic that they will reach a deal. “I personally think it’s less than 50-50, but you have a lot of very good people on that board,” Trump said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.

National emergency. Amid reports U.S. President Donald Trump is drafting a national emergency declaration to divert Pentagon funds for his border wall, 51 House Democrats are attempting to block that path.

Big picture. A new poll finds that a majority of Americans disapprove of President Donald Trump’s foreign policy and expect that the United States’s standing in the world will worsen, the Associated Press reports.

Two decades later. The U.S. Air Force finally took delivery of its first KC-46 tanker planes after a long-delayed nearly two decade development process marked by setbacks, Defense News reports.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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