Security Brief

Hurdles Remain for Renewed Afghan Peace Talks

Trump has touted new diplomatic efforts with the Taliban, but it’s unclear whether anything has changed.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump during the 72nd U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2017, in New York.
Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani speaks with U.S. President Donald Trump during the 72nd U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21, 2017, in New York. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Peace talks between Washington and the Taliban could be back on, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi steps down, and Russia begins selling natural gas to China.

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Taliban Ready to Resume Negotiations

Both the Taliban and the Afghan government appeared caught off guard by U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement during a Thanksgiving Day visit to Afghanistan—his first since taking office—that the Taliban was ready to agree to a cease-fire deal. But the insurgent group responded quickly, with a spokesman saying on Friday that they were “ready to restart the talks.”

Trump abruptly canceled peace talks with the Taliban in September, but the surprise comments and the group’s positive response have raised hopes once more for a long-elusive peace deal to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan. The development comes a week after a prisoner swap between Washington and Kabul suggested the Taliban was still eager for a deal.

Cautious optimism. It’s not yet clear if the renewed discussions will lead to peace. Key disputes still need to be resolved, including the Taliban’s refusal to talk directly with the Afghan government. And, contrary to what Trump said last week, there are no signs the Taliban is ready for a cease-fire—a condition has long been a sticking point for the insurgent group, which primarily uses violence as leverage.

Election uncertainty. Adding to the uncertainty is that the country is still awaiting the results of the presidential election in September amid charges of widespread irregularities. President Ashraf Ghani hoped that a strong victory against his primary rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, would strengthen his hand in talks with the Taliban. But the longer the political limbo drags on, the less leverage Ghani has.

Syria watch. The Taliban was likely watching Trump’s abrupt decision to abandon U.S. allies in Syria and withdraw troops—before reversing course and ordering hundreds of additional U.S. forces into the country. The move was widely seen as a reflection of the president’s distaste for keeping American troops in foreign wars, the Guardian reports.

What We’re Watching 

Mahdi steps down. Iraq Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi resigned on Saturday following months of anti-government protests and widespread violence. The demonstrations began as a challenge to corruption, declining economic fortunes, and foreign interference in domestic affairs, but morphed into a rejection of the political system. Mahdi’s resignation came a day after security forces opened fire on a protest group in Nasiriya, killing 24 and wounding 210—evidently the last straw for both protesters and Mahdi’s advisors. The protests are notable in their scale, but also because they transcended the rigid sectarian lines that have traditionally defined political and social life in Iraq, as Jeffrey Martini and Ariane Tabatabai write in FP.

Mahdi steps down just over a month after his Lebanese counterpart, Saad Hariri, resigned in the face of mass anti-government protests. The resignations, combined with growing unrest in Iran, put future regional stability into question.

London Bridge attacker had ties to terror group. The assailant in last week’s fatal attack near London Bridge, 28-year-old Usman Khan, was a known member of a London-based al Qaeda sleeper cell jailed in 2012 for plotting to attack landmarks across the city. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Friday attack, though no evidence indicates that Khan was actually a member of the group. The attack and questions about Khan’s release from prison have suddenly put national security at the forefront two weeks before voters head to the polls in a crucial election.

Closer ties between Moscow and Beijing. A 1,800-mile long pipeline will begin delivering natural gas from Russia to China today, marking the completion of a major project for both countries. The pipeline, announced after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and sought to reduce its reliance on European energy customers, is part of a trend of greater cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. Trade between the countries has reached record levels, and joint military maneuvers suggest the economic cooperation has expanded into growing military ties.

India eyes Trump’s Turkey treatment. Trump has held off enacting mandatory sanctions on Turkey in response to its purchase of a Russian missile defense system, a decision that could have implications for U.S. strategic allies elsewhere. India, in particular, is watching these developments closely: It recently purchased its own S-400 system from Russia in addition to a contract for local production of 464 T-90S battle tanks. Much of its own future security relationship with Moscow will depend on how Washington chooses to respond. The move is a sign that second-rate powers in Asia and beyond could find it advantageous to play the great powers off of each other for their own geopolitical gain.

Movers and Shakers

Trump’s new SecNav. Trump has tapped Kenneth Braithwaite, a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Navy Reserves, to replace recently ousted Navy Secretary Richard Spencer. Braithwaite is a well-known Trump ally who has echoed the president’s calls for NATO members to boost defense spending, though he has also helped refine Trump’s harsh critique by maintaining that the United States is still committed to NATO. Spencer was ousted last week over his handling of Navy Seal Eddie Gallagher’s war crimes case, but he had long-standing disputes with Trump over his management of the navy, as FP’s Lara Seligman reports.

Quote of the Week

“The recent use of lethal force against people throughout the country is unprecedented, even for the Islamic Republic and its record of violence.”

—Omid Memarian, the deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, on the ongoing deadly crackdown against anti-government protesters

Odds and Ends

Cyborg warriors. A study released this month by the U.S. Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command suggests that ear, eye, brain, and muscular enhancement could be a regular feature of the armed forces by 2050. The report followed a year-long assessment outlining how the United States might increase its military capabilities in the face of developing artificial intelligence technologies in China—something that could revolutionize warfare.

That’s it for today.

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Dan Haverty contributed to this report. 

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

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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