Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Can the Afghan Peace Deal Survive Early Setbacks?

Peace advocates and hardliners within the Taliban are feuding over whether to stick to the fragile agreement, the Pentagon says.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and Dan Haverty
U.S. soldiers look out over hillsides during a visit by Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, at an Afghan army in Wardak province on June 6, 2019.
U.S. soldiers look out over hillsides during a visit by Gen. Scott Miller, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, at an Afghan army in Wardak province on June 6, 2019. THOMAS WATKINS/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. We love to hear from readers. What’s on tap today: What to make of Afghanistan’s peace deal spoilers, how the coronavirus outbreak is derailing diplomacy, and Iran is multiplying its uranium enrichment.

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The Afghan Peace Deal Looks Fragile

The ink was barely dry on the peace deal signed between the United States and the Taliban when violence broke out again in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, the United States launched an airstrike against Taliban targets, the first since a reduction of violence was implemented on Feb. 21 to facilitate the deal. U.S. officials said the “defensive strike” was a response to a wave of Taliban attacks on Afghan forces in Helmand province, but said that the United States remained committed to the peace deal.

The airstrike came hours after U.S. President Donald Trump spoke with the deputy leader of the Taliban, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in what he described as a “good conversation.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on Thursday that the senior Taliban leadership is “working diligently to reduce violence” from past levels, and the Trump administration “still has confidence” that the Taliban will work toward peace.

U.S. drawdown goes ahead. Despite the rise in violence, the United States still plans to reduce its troop presence in Afghanistan. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Monday that he had given the U.S. commander in Afghanistan the green light to begin withdrawing troops. As part of the peace deal, the United States committed to reducing its military presence from around 13,000 troops to 8,600 within 135 days of signing the deal—and a total withdrawal after 14 months.

But Esper reiterated that the drawdown was “conditions based,” suggesting that if Taliban violence persists it could lead to a breakdown of the deal, a return to hostilities, and an end to the promised U.S. troop withdrawal.

The hurdles to peace. Peace in Afghanistan requires the Afghan government to navigate a web of disputes—and the Taliban to hold together amid its own internal divisions. Already Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his chief political rival, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, cannot agree the negotiating team for talks with the Taliban, scheduled to begin in Oslo, Norway, on March 10. Ghani has also rejected the Taliban’s demand that Afghanistan free 5,000 of Taliban prisoners ahead of the talks.

To some U.S. officials, the spate of Taliban attacks shows the group is not a monolith and has its own divisions over the peace deal. “Keeping that group of people on board is a challenge. They’ve got their range of hard-liners and soft-liners and so they’re wrestling with that too, I think,” Esper told a Senate panel on Wednesday.

What We’re Watching 

Coronavirus derails diplomacy. High-level diplomatic meetings are being canceled or postponed amid growing fears over the global spread of the coronavirus. The United States postponed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders’ meeting set to be held in Las Vegas on March 14, U.S. officials tell Foreign Policy. Chinese President Xi Jinping has also delayed a trip to Japan—a visit the Japanese foreign minister, Toshimitsu Motegi, has called a “once-in-a-decade event.” 

Meanwhile, the World Bank has scrapped its 2020 Fragility Forum set to take place this week, and the United Nations pared down a planned two-week conference on women’s issues to just one day.

Iran triples uranium enrichment. The U.N. watchdog overseeing Iran’s commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal reported this week that Tehran has tripled its supply of enriched uranium since last November and will not answer questions regarding three possible nuclear sites. This puts Iran within reach of having enough enriched uranium to produce a nuclear weapon, though it denies that is its intention. Iran began broaching the limits of the 2015 nuclear deal, including on enrichment, after the Trump administration pulled out and reimposed sanctions in 2018.

Russia’s new weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin boasted this week that Russia has acquired a new range of offensive weapons aimed at maintaining “strategic balance” with other world powers. He claimed that his country was now leading the world in hypersonic weapons systems—missiles that can fly 27 times the speed of sound—and that the share of modern equipment in the Russian military had increased from six percent to 70 percent over the course of his 20 years in power.

New espionage case. A Pentagon linguist was charged with exchanging classified information with a foreign national with links to a terror group, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday. Mariam Taha Thompson allegedly sent classified information, including identities of “active human assets” to someone linked to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militant group in Lebanon. The Justice Department said she had romantic ties to the alleged co-conspirator.

Blowback on AFRICOM cutbacks. A bipartisan group of lawmakers is moving to check the Pentagon’s potential plans to slash U.S. troop numbers in Africa as terrorist groups gain ground in the Sahel and East Africa, FP’s Robbie Gramer scoops.

Movers and Shakers

Intel shake-up continues. Trump continues to install political loyalists to top intelligence posts. Michael Ellis, a former counsel to the House Intelligence Committee, was recently named senior director of intelligence for the National Security Council. The post provides a key link between the intelligence agencies and the White House, with Ellis deciding which information goes to Trump.

White House loyalist to State. A top White House aide has moved to a senior post at the State Department’s bureau overseeing international organizations, FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer scoop. Sean Doocey will join a troubled bureau that was beset by accusations of mismanagement and politically motivated retaliation.

Pentagon nominations. Trump this week formally nominated Kenneth Braithwaite, the current ambassador to Norway, to be the next U.S. Navy secretary. (Trump dramatically ousted the last one in November.) The president also nominated James Anderson to be deputy under-secretary of defense for policy and Victor Mercado to be assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans, and capabilities.

More impeachment fallout. The White House has withdrawn its nomination of Elaine McCusker as the Pentagon comptroller after she reportedly questioned the legality of the administration’s decision to freeze aid to Ukraine. The decision appears to be part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to remove high-ranking officials it deems insufficiently loyal to the president.

A former ambassador’s new digs. Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and one of the central figures in the Trump impeachment hearings, is taking up a post as a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

The Week Ahead

National security advisor speaks. Robert O’Brien, Trump’s national security advisor, will give a speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on March 11. The livestream will be available on the day at the thinktank’s website.

Odds and Ends

Just in case. An Australian newspaper known for its humor is printing extra pages for its readers to use as toilet paper in a bind–bracing for shortages amid the coronavirus outbreak, the Guardian reports. Australian toilet paper manufacturers have already boosted production to keep up with panic buying, but it never hurts to have a back-up plan.

That’s it for today.

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

Dan Haverty is a former editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty