Security Brief

Afghanistan’s Peace Deal Hangs in the Balance

Pompeo met with Afghan and Taliban leaders this week to salvage the fragile agreement. He came back empty-handed.

Security stands watch as a helicopter carries U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo back to his plane after meetings in Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 25, 2019.
Security stands watch as a helicopter carries U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo back to his plane after meetings in Kabul, Afghanistan, on June 25, 2019. JACQUELYN MARTIN/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: Afghanistan’s peace deal is more fragile than ever, France withdraws troops from Iraq, and Boko Haram carries out a massive attack in Chad—killing 92 troops.

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Can the Afghan Peace Deal Survive More Roadblocks?

Political infighting continues to hobble the peace process in Afghanistan, raising the risk that U.S. efforts to extricate itself from the 18-year war will again go up in smoke. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rushed to Afghanistan this week in an unsuccessful attempt to kickstart negotiations between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. Both politicians claim the presidency after disputed elections in September 2019, threatening talks between Afghanistan’s government and the Taliban.

From there, Pompeo traveled to Doha, Qatar, to meet with Taliban negotiators to try to keep the peace deal on track. Although the success of intra-Afghan peace talks is not a prerequisite for the U.S. withdrawal, failure to reach an agreement could derail the larger peace effort as the United States carries out a phased withdrawal of troops.

U.S. aid cuts? After Pompeo’s trip, he issued an unusually harsh statement on Ghani and Abdullah, announcing that the United States would cut $1 billion in foreign assistance to Afghanistan if the leaders don’t agree to form a new government. “We are hopeful, frankly, that they will get their act together and we won’t have to do it,” Pompeo told reporters during his return trip. “But we’re prepared to do it.”

Pandemic looms. Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a poorly timed curveball into the peace efforts. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans have crossed back into their home country from Iran, one of the worst-hit countries, as Stefanie Glinski reports for FP from Herat. If the coronavirus spreads throughout Afghanistan, with its weak health care infrastructure and fragile political climate, it could be another factor that threatens to undermine peace.

What We’re Watching

France pulls out of Iraq. The coronavirus is causing knock-on effects for Western counterterrorism efforts. On Wednesday, the chief of staff of the France’s armed forces in Iraq announced that it was suspending its anti-terrorism operations in the country and would withdraw its troops to combat the coronavirus at home. France will maintain its presence in Kuwait and Qatar, as well as air operations in Syria. The decision comes as French President Emmanuel Macron initiated a special military operation in France to assist in the response to the pandemic.

Boko Haram strikes Chad. The militant terror group Boko Haram carried out a deadly attack against government forces on an island in Chad on Monday, killing 92 troops. The ambush shows how vulnerable the Lake Chad region of Africa has become to extremist groups. “I have taken part in many operations… but never in our history have we lost so many men at one time,” President Idriss Déby said. Nigeria also suffered a deadly Boko Haram attack on Monday, with 47 soldiers killed.

Are sanctions worsening the pandemic response? Top U.N. leaders have called for rolling back international sanctions regimes around the world to help countries such as Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea better respond to the coronavirus outbreak, FP’s Colum Lynch reports. The appeal is unlikely to gain traction in the United States: Indeed, Washington targeted Venezuela with fresh sanctions this week. Some experts think that easing restrictions could backfire.

First Pentagon coronavirus death. U.S. Department of Defense officials confirmed this week that a defense contractor is likely the first person working for the Pentagon to die from the coronavirus. “To the best of our knowledge, this is the first death of someone working for DoD who had tested positive for COVID-19,” officials said. The department has reported 211 confirmed cases of coronavirus, including service members, contractors, dependents, and civilians.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Reuters that the Pentagon would hold back some data on how many U.S. troops and Pentagon personnel have contracted the coronavirus out of concern for national security.

Movers and Shakers

New Pentagon appointments. On Monday, the U.S. Senate confirmed the nominations of Matt Donovan as the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness and James McPherson as undersecretary of the U.S. Army. The appointments that could be the last in the Department of Defense for several months, after the Senate Armed Services Committee postponed all appointment hearings due to concerns over the coronavirus.

New CAPE chief. The White House announced on Tuesday that it planned to nominate John Whitley to head the Pentagon’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office. CAPE serves as the department’s think tank, responsible for producing analysis of programs and strategies for use by the department. Whitley will replace Robert Daigle, who left the post during a wave of sudden departures from the Pentagon late last year.

Nikki Haley moving on. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley has resigned from the board at Boeing over her opposition to the U.S. government’s intention to bail out the airline manufacturer due to the effect of the coronavirus on travel. Boeing is asking for $60 billion in assistance from the federal government, which U.S. President Donald Trump appears likely to grant.

Foreign Policy Recommends

Iraq’s next generation. Iraq’s Generation Z is largely a product of war. Born and raised in the aftermath of the 2003 U.S. invasion, members of this generation are fed up with a political system that has put the needs of foreign interests above theirs. As Andrew North reports for Tortoise Media, they have driven the recent anti-government protests that have rocked the country with a simple but powerful demand: “We need a country.”

Americans stranded abroad. Former U.S. diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford argues for the Quincy Institute that a partnership between parked commercial airliners and the U.S. government could help bring back thousands of Americans who remain stranded overseas amid the coronavirus pandemic.  

Iran without Suleimani. How will Iran’s military and its proxies in the Middle East fare without military commander Qassem Suleimani? Kenneth Pollack of the American Enterprise Institute releases a deep-dive study on the changing nature of Iran’s so-called axis of resistance.

The Week Ahead

North Macedonia is expected to submit paperwork to formally join NATO within the next few days. The country’s accession bid was completed last week after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that it had received the required approval from all 29 member states.

Odds and Ends

Flushing money down the drain. New toilets onboard the U.S. Navy aircraft carriers USS Gerald R. Ford and USS George H. W. Bush reportedly clog so often that a cleaning service using specialized acid is required to unclog them. The process costs around $400,000 per clog, according to a new congressional audit.

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 an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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