Security Brief

The Long Road to Peace in Afghanistan

Khalilzad is said to be close to a deal with the Taliban that would pave the way for intra-Afghan talks.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghan peace and reconciliation, gestures as he speaks during a forum talk with the director of TOLO news, Lotfullah Najafizada, at the Tolo TV station in Kabul on April 28, 2019.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghan peace and reconciliation, gestures as he speaks during a forum talk with the director of TOLO news, Lotfullah Najafizada, at the Tolo TV station in Kabul on April 28, 2019. WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

Good Thursday morning and welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief Plus. We will be taking a break for the Labor Day holiday and will return on Thursday, Sept. 5.

What’s on tap today: Khalilzad is on the verge of an agreement with the Taliban; Mattis breaks his silence, sort of; details emerge on American cyberattack targeting Iran; and Israel expands strikes targeting Iran.


Khalilzad Breaks Through

Just the first step. Zalmay Khlalilzad, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, is edging ever closer to clinching a deal with the Taliban that would pave the way for some 14,000 U.S. troops to come home before the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, Colum Lynch, Lara Seligman, and Robbie Gramer report.

What’s in the deal? In addition to a U.S. drawdown, the agreement, which observers caution is not yet finalized, will include a cease-fire, detail verifiable assurances that the Taliban will not permit terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda or the Islamic State to maintain a toehold in territory under their control, and set a date for intra-Afghan talks in Oslo, Norway.

But the pact is just the first step in what is likely to be a long and delicate path to peace after two decades of devastating conflict. The next phase will likely prove even more fraught: direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government on power-sharing and a permanent end to the fighting.

On the ground. In the meantime, the Taliban have made clear that they will not stop attacking Afghan forces, and critics fear a spike in violence ahead of the Sept. 28 presidential elections. A withdrawal of U.S. support could leave Afghan’s security forces dangerously exposed.

Counterterrorism efforts could take a hit too. As U.S. soldiers return home, Afghan forces will also take on more of the burden of fighting international terrorist groups in the country. While intra-Afghan peace talks are in their early stages at least, the Afghan government may direct security forces to focus primarily on the Taliban.

‘The withdraw word.’ But Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed that any agreement will be “conditions-based.” “I’m not using the ‘withdraw’ word right now,” he said at the Pentagon during a Wednesday press conference.

What’s next? Khalilzad is expected to travel to Kabul in the next few days to mount a final push to persuade Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, to accept the deal. If a deal is clinched, the United States will hold a signing ceremony with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.


Mattis Speaks

Call sign Chaos. Former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis will be publishing a memoir next week, and if you’re expecting a tell-all account of the former Marine general’s time in the Trump administration, prepare to be disappointed.

In an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Mattis dutifully avoids criticizing his former boss, mirroring his approach in the book. A four-decade study of effective leadership, Mattis’s book and the values he argues in favor of represent a repudiation of Trump’s chaotic style, volatility, and vulgarity. Nonetheless, he entirely avoids criticizing Trump. Goldberg calls it a 100,000-word subtweet.

But writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mattis makes implicitly clear his disdain for his former boss. “Nations with allies thrive, and those without them wither,” Mattis argues. “A polemicist’s role is not sufficient for a leader.”

With voters heading to the polls in 2020 to either replace Trump or hand him another four years in office, Mattis is both ensuring he won’t be used as a weapon in the political knife fight to come or depriving American voters of crucial information about what he clearly believes is a calamitous presidency.

But that silence may not last forever. “There is a period in which I owe my silence. It’s not eternal. It’s not going to be forever,” Mattis told Goldberg.


What We’re Watching

Citizenship blow. Some children born to U.S. service members and government employees overseas will no longer be automatically considered citizens of the United States, according to a policy alert issued by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) on Wednesday. The news provoked an outcry over what many see as another step in the Trump administration’s efforts to crack down on citizenship rights.

Israel’s shadow war with Iran. In recent weeks, Israel has carried out a series of strikes in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq that appear aimed at preventing Iran from supplying its proxy forces with advanced missile technology, the New York Times reports.

Pentagon builds the wall. Defense Secretary Mark Esper signed off on the construction of another 20 miles of border fencing, which Trump is seeking to rapidly construct ahead of the 2020 election. The latest transfer of Pentagon dollars to build Trump’s cherished border wall comes on the heels of a Washington Post report that Trump has promised pardons for any aides found to have violated the law in getting the wall built quickly.

Assassination. The Kremlin said it was not responsible for the killing in Berlin of a former Chechen guerrilla commander. Zelimkhan Khangoshvili was shot twice in the head in a Berlin park on Friday. Khangoshvili fought against Russian forces in the early 2000s.

A deal with the Houthis? The Trump administration is looking to end Yemen’s devastating civil war by attempting to open direct negotiations with the country’s Houthi rebel group, which is backed by Iran, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Port of call. China blocked a U.S. Navy ship from visiting the Chinese port of Qingdao in what is the latest sign of frosty relations between China and Washington, Reuters reports.

Plus one. President Donald Trump clashed with fellow world leaders at a G7 meeting last weekend over whether Russian President Vladimir Putin should be invited back to the forum, CNN reports.

For more news and analysis from Foreign Policy and around the world, subscribe to Morning Brief, delivered weekday mornings.


Quote of the Week 

“Instead of dispatching spies to the U.S. to recruit a single target, it’s more efficient to sit behind a computer in China and send out friend requests to thousands of targets using fake profiles.” — William R. Evanina, the director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, describes how China is increasingly using LinkedIn and other social media platforms to recruit assets. 


Technology & Cyber

Hacking Iran. An American cyberattack that targeted Iranian computer systems in June “wiped out a critical database used by Iran’s paramilitary arm to plot attacks against oil tankers and degraded Tehran’s ability to covertly target shipping traffic in the Persian Gulf,” the New York Times reports.

According to the Times, Iran has still not recovered some of the data destroyed in the attack and is still trying to bring targeted systems back online. Officials discussed the attack in part to “to quell doubts within the Trump administration about whether the benefits of the operation outweighed the cost.”

The June operation was launched in retaliation to the downing of an American surveillance drone and the seizure of tankers in the region. It represented a landmark event in the United States use of cyber weaponry. The attack demonstrated the way cyber capabilities have been integrated into the American military and can be quickly deployed in the event of a crisis.

Cable wars. American regulators may block an undersea cable designed to carry internet traffic between the west coast of the United States and Hong Kong because of a national-security concerns regarding one of the project’s financier’s ties to China, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Infrastructure hacking. A hacking group targeting critical infrastructure facilities in the Middle East went undetected for more than a year, according to fresh research from Dell’s SecureWorks.

LinkedIn. The New York Times’s Edward Wong looks at how the social media platform LinkedIn has become a popular, effective way for Chinese intelligence to recruit assets.

Facebook. The financial backers of a project to study Facebook’s impact on democracy threatened to pull their support if the company did not make more data available.


FP Recommends

Honor guard. The U.S. Army blogger who writes under the moniker “Angry Staff Officer” reflects on American military burial rituals and the funeral of a first lieutenant who was involved in the liberation of Dachau.


Movers & Shakers 

The No. 2. The U.S. special envoy to North Korea, Stephen Biegun, is being considered for the number two job at the Department of State, Politico reports. The current deputy secretary of state, John Sullivan, is being considered as the next U.S. ambassador to Russia, opening the job for Biegun.


That’s it for today. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here or sign-up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

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

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

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