Morning Brief

Will Afghanistan’s Cease-Fire Open The Door For Peace?

The Afghan government has called for the Taliban to extend a three-day cease-fire, and reports suggest the Taliban may agree to an extension.

Taliban prisoners sit inside a vehicle during their release from Bagram prison 50km north of Kabul.
Taliban prisoners sit inside a vehicle during their release from Bagram prison 50km north of Kabul. Wakil Kohsar / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: A short cease-fire in Afghanistan raises hopes for peace talks, the White House considers sanctions against China over the new Hong Kong national security law, and Russia begins work on its first stealth bomber.

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‘The Future Depends on the Taliban’s Next Move’

A three-day cease-fire between the Afghan army and the Taliban expired at midnight local time on Tuesday. The truce was only the second cease-fire observed in almost 20 years of fighting—and it’s on this shaky ground that the Afghan government is hoping to build a path to peace.

The Afghan government took the opportunity to make good on one of the stipulations of the U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed in February by renewing the release of Taliban prisoners; approximately 1,000 prisoners have been released over two days, and the Taliban have promised to release a “remarkable number” in a reciprocal gesture.

By releasing the Taliban prisoners, the Afghan government is also signaling its optimism: Under the terms of their release, the former detainees must sign a waiver confirming they will not return to the battlefield. The incentive to return to Taliban service isn’t difficult to understand; the newly released men were only provided with enough cash for bus fare home.

On Tuesday in Foreign Policy, Stefanie Glinksi reported from Afghanistan as the prisoners were released. She found one prisoner hopeful. “The Taliban and the government need to come together. It’s what our people deserve,” said Abdul Basir, a 32-year-old political prisoner. Another was more blunt. “There won’t be peace in Afghanistan as long as the U.S. is still here,” 27-year-old Abdul Hak said. “They must leave for things to improve.”

Next step, peace talks? The relative comity is a contrast to the violence the Afghan government accuses the Taliban of perpetrating during the holy month of Ramadan. (The government says 146 civilians were killed and a further 430 were wounded over the 30-day period.) Afghan National Security Council spokesperson Javid Faisal has said the government wants to extend the cease-fire. “If the Taliban are ready to extend the cease-fire, we are ready to continue the cease-fire too,” Faisal said. “We hope they release our prisoners so that intra-Afghan peace talks begin as soon as possible … The future depends on the Taliban’s next move.”

The Taliban has not yet responded publicly to the overture, but AFP reports that the group could extend the cease-fire a further seven days if prisoner releases continue.

An early U.S. exit? With an eye on November’s presidential election, U.S. President Donald Trump is pushing for a quicker withdrawal of the roughly 12,000 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan according to the New York Times. The Pentagon is reportedly trying to calm the president’s urgency, and bring the withdrawal schedule more in line with the May 2021 date agreed in the U.S.-Taliban peace deal.

Any training and capacity building that U.S. troops have been conducting with Afghan forces has had to be put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic, potentially delaying withdrawal even longer. U.S. officials estimate that up to 50 percent of Afghan security forces have the virus.

What We’re Following Today

White House action on Hong Kong in the works. President Trump hinted at future White House against China in retaliation for its plan to impose national security laws on Hong Kong. Trump refused to be drawn on what those actions may be, but said “It’s something you’re going to be hearing about … before the end of the week.” Bloomberg News reported on Tuesday that measures could include sanctions on Chinese officials and entities doing business in Hong Kong.

The move comes as media reports suggest Hong Kong based-organizations could come under scrutiny under the new laws, an expansion beyond a previous draft that only targeted individuals.

WHO declares the Americas new virus epicenter. The World Health Organization has declared the western hemisphere the new pandemic epicenter as cases continue to rise in Latin American countries. As well as a rising number of deaths and cases in Brazil, officials are tracking growing outbreaks in Peru, Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. While countries in Europe and some European states begin to relax lockdown measures, WHO director for the Americas Carissa Etienne warned against such moves in Latin America. “Now is not the time for countries to ease restrictions,” she said.

Russian warplanes in Libya. The United States has accused Russia of sending its warplanes to Libya in support of Khalifa Haftar, the head of the Libyan National Army currently fighting with the United Nations-recognized Government of National Accord for control of the country. In a statement, U.S. Africa Command said that Russian MiG-29 fighter jets had come to Libya from Syria and had their markings repainted to disguise their origin.

As FP’s Jack Detsch reports, the release of such information by the United States is rare as Washington has largely ignored the conflict recently. By adding its firepower to Haftar’s efforts, U.S. Africa Command chief Gen. Stephen Townsend said Russia was “clearly trying to tip the scales in its favor in Libya.”

Keep an Eye On

Hungary could end rule by decree. Hungary could soon end Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s ability to rule by decree if a bill to end the country’s coronavirus emergency passes the legislature. Justice Minister Judit Varga said she would introduce the required legislation to end the “state of danger” on June 20. “We expect those who have attacked us with unjust political accusations to apologize for leading a slander campaign,” Varga wrote on Facebook.

Grenell to join Trump campaign. U.S. Ambassador Richard Grenell is expected to step down from his diplomatic post and join the Trump presidential campaign, according to Politico. Grenell had also held the role of acting director of national intelligence until John Ratcliffe was sworn into the permanent role on Tuesday. Grenell responded to the Politico story, which came after other news outlets had reported his impending departure, by calling it “fake news.” 

A new Russian stealth bomber? Russia has begun constructing a prototype for its first stealth bomber, according to a Russian state news agency. The aircraft is called the PAK DA and will be designed to match the capabilities of the U.S. B-2 stealth bomber. China is also at work on its own stealth bomber, the Xian H-20.

Odds and Ends

The £300 million ($369 million) takeover of the English Premier League team Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund is in jeopardy after an investigation by The Guardian revealed the kingdom’s ties to a pirate satellite TV service that gives illegal access to sporting events. The team’s acquisition by the fund, which is chaired by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had already come under fire from human rights groups and the fiancée of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Saudi Arabia denies being behind the TV service, named beoutQ, but that has not stopped the World Trade Organization from ruling that the government is involved in the service and as such is in breach of international law. Like most sports, the Premier League is mostly bankrolled by TV revenue—its latest three-year rights package was worth £5 billion ($6.15 billion)—and prospective owners must prove they have not broken any laws before any purchase is finalized, putting the Saudi takeover in trouble.

If the Saudi fund’s acquisition of the soccer team goes through, it would be one of several purchases it has made this year, including a $500 million stake in entertainment giant Live Nation and building a 7.3 percent stake in cruise operator Carnival.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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