Morning Brief

Will There Still Be a Taliban To Negotiate With?

Reports of a fractured Taliban spell trouble for an Afghan government “fully ready” to talk.

A man walks past a wall painted with images of US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Kabul April 5, 2020.
A man walks past a wall painted with images of US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in Kabul April 5, 2020. Wakil Kohsar/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Infighting within the Taliban threatens the Afghan peace talks, the U.S. Federal Reserve announces an interest rate decision, and Brazil resumes regular coronavirus reporting.

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As Peace Talks Loom, The Taliban Could Fracture.

As peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban become more concrete, internal divisions within the militant group could undermine any hopes for a resolution.

On Sunday, sources told Reuters that talks could begin this month, and President Ashraf Ghani was bullish on an imminent dialogue with the Taliban. “The ceasefire, prisoners release and reduction in violence has created a momentum for the talks to begin soon and the government is fully ready,” a presidential statement said.

U.S. Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, fresh from meeting Taliban leaders in Doha and the Pakistani government in Islamabad, has now traveled to Kabul. The purpose of his meetings, according to a U.S. State Department release, is to “obtain agreement between the Afghan parties on the practical next steps necessary for a smooth start to intra-Afghan negotiations.”

Not a shura thing. As a future without the United States as an occupying force becomes possible for the first time in almost two decades, the question of whether the Taliban will transform from an insurgent group to a political player is far from settled.

A report of splinter groups among senior Taliban figures outside Afghanistan suggests the possibility of a unified front is under threat heading into any negotiations. Radio Free Europe reported the emergence of a group called Hezb-e Walayat-e Islami, or Party of Islamic Guardianship made up of senior Talban members. A June 1 report to the United Nations Security Council by a monitoring team stated  that “at least one group of senior Taliban” had “formed a new group in opposition to any possible peace agreement.”

Coronavirus comes for the Taliban. As Lynne O’Donnell and Mirwais Khan report in Foreign Policy, a succession battle is also looming within the Taliban after the apparent death of Supreme Leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada from COVID-19. The Taliban have publicly denied Akhunzada’s death. Meanwhile, Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob—the ambitious son of the Taliban founder Mullah Omar—is reportredly moving to consolidate power while other senior leaders are stricken with the coronavirus.

A Taliban weakened by infighting could be a boon to the Afghan government, but not if it means it doesn’t know who to negotiate with. “We need one united Taliban,” said one Afghan government official. “But the real problem now is that until two years ago, in the central leadership, it was all about jihad, about getting rid of the ‘occupiers,’ about religious principles. Now it is purely about power. Who gets what. It comes down to money and power.”


What We’re Following Today

Powell’s comments. The U.S. Federal Reserve will release its decision today on whether to raise, lower, or maintain interest rates, followed by a press conference with Fed Chairman Jerome Powell. Powell’s comments should indicate how much more liquidity the central bank plans to pump into the U.S. economy. Interest rates are not expected to change, as the Fed said it would keep in rates in place until the U.S. economy has returned to better health.

Who killed Olof Palme? Swedish prosecutors will today announce the findings of an investigation into the 1986 assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. Many explanations have emerged since Palme’s murder, including the theory that it was perpetrated by South Africa’s intelligence services, given that Palme was a vocal opponent of the apartheid regime. South African intelligence officials met Swedish investigators in March to discuss the case.

Brazilian government ordered to resume publishing coronavirus statistics. Brazil has resumed publishing complete data on its coronavirus epidemic after an order from Brazilian Supreme Court Justice Alexandre de Moraes. For the past few days, the health ministry website has only shown the number of new cases per day, and not total figures. Some Brazilian states plan to begin relaxing social distancing restrictions this week, even though the number of new daily cases has yet to fall.

Burundi’s president dies. The outgoing president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, has died according to a statement by the government. The statement said the president had fallen ill on Sunday night and was taken to hospital but “surprisingly, on the morning of Monday June 8, 2020, his health suddenly deteriorated and he had a heart attack.” Some observers suspect he was suffering from COVID-19, given the absence of a lockdown during Burundi’s recent election campaign and his wife’s reported travel to Kenya for coronavirus treatment.

Before his death, Nkurunziza was due to step down in August and take on a ceremonial role. Evariste Ndayishimiye—the winner of May’s presidential election—is expected to succeed him. However, according to the Burundian constitution, the position will be held in the interim by Pascal Nyabenda—the president of the national assembly and an ally of the deceased president.


Keep an Eye On

“Free and fair” elections? Georgia was the latest U.S. state to experience long voting lines and other obstacles to voting in its primary election on Tuesday, where polling places have been reduced and understaffed due to coronavirus fears. Voters reported requesting mail-in ballots that never arrived as well as malfunctioning voting machines. The primary is seen as a dry run for the November U.S. presidential and legislative elections, where Georgia could emerge as a key swing state.

IBM out of facial recognition. IBM said it will stop building and selling facial recognition technology, in the latest sign of the tech sector’s reckoning with race and law enforcement. “We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies,” CEO Arvind Krishna wrote in a letter sent to U.S. lawmakers. Big tech still holds deep ties to law enforcement: Amazon-owned Ring has partnerships with at least 400 police forces in the United States to share images captured by the doorbell replacement device. Ring has denied reports that it will soon add facial recognition to its service.


Odds and Ends

The United States is capable of launching rockets into space, but has proven less adept at launching its new Space Force and has now found itself behind a Netflix show of the same name. “Space Force,” the Netflix comedy series starring Steve Carell, has moved quickly to lock in trademark rights to the name in countries across the globe—potentially setting up a conflict with the U.S. military branch if the two were to compete on merchandise, for example.

As Foreign Policy reported in 2013, the U.S. Department of Defense set up its own trademark and licensing office in 2007 that has since proved lucrative: U.S. merchandise sales increased from $5 million to $50 million between 2007 and 2011.

For now, the U.S. military does not seem worried. “At this time, we are not aware of any trademark conflicts with the fictional program Space Force produced by Netflix,” an Air Force spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter. “We wish Netflix and the show’s producers the best in their creative depiction of our nation’s newest branch of the military.” Perhaps the U.S. military believes its new outfit can outlast the TV show, which has currently garnered only a 41 percent rating on the film critics’ aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.


That’s it for today. 

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to morningbrief@foreignpolicy.com

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

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