Security Brief

Is the Afghan Peace Deal Dead on Arrival?

The Trump administration’s push for an end to two decades of war may be slipping through its fingers.

Afghan security forces arrive at the site of a car bombing near Bagram Air Base in Parwan province, Afghanistan, on Dec. 11, 2019.
Afghan security forces arrive at the site of a car bombing near Bagram Air Base in Parwan province, Afghanistan, on Dec. 11, 2019.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: A fresh wave of violence endangers the already shaky Afghan peace deal, the acting U.S. intelligence chief approves sweeping changes without consulting Congress, and geopolitical tensions are on the rise in the Arctic.

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Renewed Violence in Afghanistan Endangers Peace Deal

If nearly two months of Taliban attacks hadn’t made it clear that the U.S. peace deal with the militant group was running behind schedule, attacks targeting a Kabul hospital and a funeral in Afghanistan on Tuesday showed that that the uptick in violence poses a significant threat to the shaky bargain to end nearly 19 years of war. The Taliban has denied any role in the attacks.

While the Taliban has stuck to March pledges not to attack foreign troops in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials had already said the level of violence was “unacceptably high.” That was before gunmen stormed a maternity hospital on Tuesday, killing two dozen people including newborns. On the same day, an Islamic State-linked group said it carried out the suicide bombing in nearby Nangarhar province that killed 25 people.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the attacks as an “act of sheer evil” in a statement. The Afghan government has already blamed the hospital attacks on the Taliban, announcing that it would resume offensive operations against the group—potentially derailing years of careful U.S.-led diplomacy.

With the peace talks still snagged on the Taliban’s demands for the release of as many as 5,000 prisoners—a deal-breaker for the Afghan government—the Trump administration concedes that one of its signature foreign-policy accomplishments is in jeopardy. “As long as there is no sustained reduction in violence and insufficient progress towards a negotiated political settlement, Afghanistan will remain vulnerable to terrorism,” Pompeo said.

What We’re Watching

Acting intel chief moves ahead with overhaul. Acting U.S. Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Richard Grenell approved sweeping changes to the 17-agency U.S. intelligence community last Friday without consulting Congress. Grenell—a Trump loyalist who also serves as the U.S. ambassador to Germany—had rebuffed Capitol Hill’s requests for details about the new plans. The moves will eliminate the DNI’s directorate for partnerships, which coordinates between civilian and military intelligence agencies, and makes the directorate’s chief a new advisor to the DNI.

Grenell also stirred controversy this week when he requested the identities of Obama administration officials who might have allowed the “unmasking” of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

U.S. Navy returns to the Arctic. The Arctic is becoming a geopolitical hotspot as climate change melts sea ice to historic lows, and the United States views Russia and China’s aims in the region with growing suspicion. Defense News has a must-read series of stories on the national security impacts of a less-than-frozen North, including a look at how the U.S. Navy is stepping up patrols in the Barents Sea, in Russia’s backyard, signaling the return of a substantial U.S. defense interest in the region for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

Arms sales boom in the Middle East. Arms sales in the Middle East have—for lack of a better word—exploded in recent years, thanks in large part to the United States. The Project on Middle East Democracy’s Seth Binder crunched the numbers: “Six of the top 10 importers of major arms were Arab countries, totaling nearly one-third of all global imports ($146 billion) between 2015 and 2019,” he writes. In 2017, the last year with publicly available data, “four of the top 10 purchasers of U.S. arms were Arab countries, and nearly one-third of all U.S. weapons sales ($36.6 billion), along with roughly $5 billion in U.S. security aid, went to Arab regimes.”

The end of Open Skies? European leaders are increasingly rattled by the Trump administration’s plan to withdraw from a decades-old treaty aimed at boosting military transparency with Russia. A group of 16 former senior European officials have signed an open letter to the administration urging it to reconsider withdrawing from the Open Skies Treaty. The treaty allows signatories, including the United States, NATO allies, and Russia, to conduct unarmed aerial surveillance to gauge military capabilities. Trump officials have expressed concerns that Russia is violating the treaty and announced plans to withdraw—over the concerns of its NATO allies.

Movers and Shakers

 More from Grenell. The acting DNI made another splash on Wednesday, appointing Neil Wiley, a career intelligence officer, to be his top deputy. Sue Gordon, a longtime CIA officer, was ousted from a Senate-confirmed version of the role after reports that Trump sought to place a political loyalist in that position.

Foreign Policy Recommends

Lebanon in freefall. Lebanon has been in political and economic turmoil for more than six months, amid non-stop street protests against elites that forced out Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his cabinet last fall. The New York Times’ Ben Hubbard breaks down the tremors shaking the value of the Lebanese pound, which only appear to be getting worse as the coronavirus pandemic has left the nation in lockdown.

A Holocaust survivor remembers. Haaretz has a must-read interview with Michael Goldmann-Gilead, a Holocaust survivor who would later go on to interrogate Adolf Eichmann—one of the Nazi architects of the “Final Solution”—after his capture by Israeli agents.

Odds and Ends

More cost-efficient than Ospreys. Nesting seagulls are apparently harassing U.S. Marine recruits on the West Coast, disrupting their training. So the Marines have hired a falconry service to use the birds of prey to scare off the seagulls from the Marine Corps training depot in San Diego.

UFO watch. For Vox, the renowned international relations scholar Alexander Wendt offers up some seriously deep thinking on why we need to take UFOs seriously. You know, just in case.

That’s it for today.

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Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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

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