Security Brief

Can Trump Make a Deal for Afghanistan?

A deadly blast in Kabul raises questions about peace talks between the Taliban and U.S. negotiators.

US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Pittsburgh International Airport in Pennsylvania on August 13, 2019, before returning to his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey. Trump met with his national security advisers on Friday to discuss Afghanistan. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Pittsburgh International Airport in Pennsylvania on August 13, 2019, before returning to his Bedminster golf club in New Jersey. Trump met with his national security advisers on Friday to discuss Afghanistan. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

What’s on tap: Afghans and U.S. national security aides have deep concerns about peace negotiations after new violence in Kabul, Trump’s idea for a naval blockade of Venezuela, and the Army’s challenges in staffing up new cyber and electronic warfare units

New Violence in Afghanistan

A wedding turned deadly. A suicide attacker linked to the Islamic State detonated a bomb on Saturday night in a crowded wedding hall in Kabul, killing at least 63 people and wounded more than 180. “It was like doomsday,” one wedding guest told the Washington Post

The attack, one of the worst assaults on Afghan civilians in years, comes at a perilous time, as U.S. and Taliban negotiators reach the final stages of talks to end America’s 18-year war in Afghanistan. 

Trump briefed. On Friday, members of President Donald Trump’s national security team met at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, to discuss the status of negotiations over a possible U.S. troop pullout. But there was no indication that any conclusions were reached during the session, which was reportedly attended by Vice President Mike Pence, National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and others. 

“Just completed a very good meeting on Afghanistan. Many on the opposite side of this 19 year war, and us, are looking to make a deal – if possible!” Trump said in a Friday night tweet after the meeting.

Deep concerns. But national security aides have deep concerns about the negotiations, fearing that a pullout could plunge Afghanistan into a new civil war that could see the return of Taliban rule and give terrorist groups a sanctuary from which to plot new attacks, writes Reuters. The nearly finished deal has reportedly still not locked in Taliban commitments to a ceasefire or political negotiations with the Afghan government. 

Afghans skeptical. Outraged Afghans on Sunday questioned the point of U.S. negotiations after the latest violence, which left many women and children dead. “Peace with whom?” Rada Akba asked on Twitter, according to Reuters. “With those who bomb our weddings, schools, universities, offices and houses?” 

What We’re Watching

Zarif rules out talks. Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Monday said Tehran is not interested in talks with Washington, and that any mediation should focus on bringing the United States back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump withdrew from last year. Zarif’s comments could spell trouble, as an Iranian tanker that had been detained for a month for allegedly attempting to breach European Union sanctions on Syria left Gibraltar and headed toward Greece. Iran warned that any U.S. move to seize the vessel would have “serious consequences.”

Progress on Syria safe zone. A joint Turkish-U.S. operation center to establish and manage a safe zone in northeast Syria will be fully operational this week, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Friday. But the two nations still disagree on several key issues, including the depth of the safe zone, and whether the US-backed Syrian Defense Forces, which Turkey views as a terrorist threat, can remain in the area. 

Trump’s Venezuela naval blockade. Trump privately floated a plan to station U.S. Navy ships along the Venezuelan coastline to prevent goods from coming in and out of the country, Axios reported Sunday. The president has been raising the idea of a naval blockade periodically for at least a year and a half, but the Pentagon hasn’t taken the idea seriously in part because senior officials believe it’s “impractical, has no legal basis and would suck resources” from the Navy, according to the outlet. 

Peaceful protests in Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday for the 11th consecutive weekend of mass demonstrations, defying torrential rain, a police ban, and threats from the Chinese government, writes CNN. Reuters has a deep dive into the amorphous movement, which is fueled by young activists without clearly discernible leaders or structure, frustrating authorities attempts’ to stymie it. 

Why Greenland? Late last week a news report that Trump was interested in buying Greenland, a semi-autonomous region of Denmark, set the Twitters abuzz. By Friday it had become clear Greenland was not for sale, but the idea has captured the imagination of the internet. Defense News explores the United States’ national security interests in Greenland–and China’s as well. 

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The Air Force’s robot plane. Air Force scientists have tested a robot kit that can turn virtually any plane into a self-piloting drone, writes Patrick Tucker for Defense One. The program, called ROBOpilot, could have significant cost-saving implications for the service’s effort to develop a sixth-generation fighter jet. 

North Korea malware. U.S. Cyber Command is warning of a malware threat from Lazarus Group, a group linked with North Korea, marking the second time in two months the command added malware details to the VirusTotal security repository as part of an information sharing effort with the private sector, CyberScoop reported last week. Lazarus is especially known for hacking banks and other financial motivations. 

The Army’s cyber problem. A new report by the Government Accountability Office gave the Army less-than-perfect marks for its effort to form new cyber and electronic warfare units, noting that the new units are seriously undermanned and poorly equipped. The new units are crucial to competing against modern threats from Russia and China. 

Iran’s satellite launch. Images show that Iran is preparing another satellite launch after twice failing this year to put one in space, despite U.S. allegations that such a move would defy U.N. Security Council restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program. 

Quote of the Week

“He’s like a heat-seeking missile for Trump’s ass.”

A former American ambassador on Mike Pompeo’s sycophancy, writes Susan Glasser in a New Yorker profile of Trump’s secretary of state. 

That’s it for today. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here or sign-up for our other newsletters here.

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

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