Morning Brief

A Wave of Violence Hits Afghanistan as Hopes for Talks Fade

Progress on the prisoner issue is still stalled, but key players are looking for a way out.

Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi speaks during a press conference.
Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi speaks during a press conference in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Aug. 24. Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Violence rips across Afghanistan as peace process stalls, Mike Pompeo headlines the second night of the RNC, and two more opposition leaders were arrested in Belarus.

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Pressure Is Mounting for Progress in Afghanistan 

A series of attacks across Afghanistan over the previous few days has left 12 dead and many more wounded, straining an already fragile peace process. Tuesday’s attacks included a truck bomb in the northern Balkh province which was claimed by the Taliban, as well as an attack on a military checkpoint in the Ghor province that is believed to be the work of the Taliban, though the group hasn’t claimed responsibility.

Looking for a way out. Tuesday’s attacks raise serious doubts over whether intra-Afghan talks can begin soon. Talks were supposed to start earlier this month after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced his intention to release the final 400 Taliban prisoners needed to meet a major condition of the February U.S.-Taliban peace agreement. But progress stalled again after Ghani changed course and decided to withhold the release of 320 prisoners.

Pakistan steps in. A Taliban delegation met with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi on Tuesday, who urged the group to seriously explore how to overcome the current impasse and kickstart talks with the Afghan government. “Pakistan is eager to see an intra-Afghan dialogue start soon to ensure regional peace and stability,” Qureshi said in a statement after the meeting.

It was not clear whether Qureshi had pressured the Taliban to reduce the current wave of violence, but Pakistan has long been advocating a reduction in violence to open the way for talks. The meeting was also attended by Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed, chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) spy agency. The ISI has historically had strong links to the Taliban, and is believed to maintain some influence over the group.

Prepping for negotiations. Despite the recent setbacks, the Taliban still seems serious about exploring an end to the conflict. It was also announced on Tuesday that Taliban chief Mullah Akhunzada has finalized a 20-person negotiating team for the upcoming talks, a sign that the group is still prepared to negotiate with the government. “We will be ready for negotiations in the near future,” lead Taliban negotiator Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai told AP.


What We’re Following Today

Pompeo speaks at the RNC. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech to the Republican National Convention on Tuesday in support of President Donald Trump’s candidacy, a highly unusual move for an office that has traditionally stayed out of domestic politics. Secretaries of State have promoted their bosses at party conventions in the past, but it hasn’t happened since at least the end of World War II. Typically, they will book meetings or visits to coincide with the national convention to give them a convenient excuse to avoid the event.

Pompeo’s speech represents a clean break from past tradition, and is another sign of the gradual politicization of government institutions under Trump’s presidency. Speaking from Israel, Pompeo praised Trump’s diplomatic achievements, including the recent peace deal between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Indian lawyer in court over critical tweets. Prashant Bhushan, a prominent public interest lawyer from India, was due to be sentenced yesterday over two tweets he posted criticizing the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In one tweet, Bhushan accused Chief Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde of hypocrisy after he posed with a motorcycle without a mask, despite having put the Supreme Court in lockdown due to coronavirus concerns. In the other post, he said the Supreme Court’s recent activity showed “how democracy has been destroyed in India” under Modi.

The Supreme Court has called the tweets a “calculated attack on the very foundation of the institution of the judiciary,” but the case is emblematic of the authoritarian slide India has taken since Modi first assumed power in 2014. Foreign Policy collected a series of cases similar to Bhushan’s from around the world to demonstrate the global trend of hostility toward online activists. Bhushan’s case has been adjourned until Sep. 10.

Pompeo pushes Sudan on normalization. Before giving his speech to the RNC, Pompeo met with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok to discuss removing Sudan from the U.S. state sponsor of terrorism list, which would open the way to easing sanctions on the country. Pompeo also urged Hamdok to normalize his country’s relations with Israel. Shortly after the recent UAE-Israel peace deal was announced, Sudan was rumored to be one of the countries likely to normalize relations with Israel in the near future, though its foreign ministry has forcefully rejected those rumors.


Keep an Eye On

Experts say Navalny likely poisoned. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied accusations that Russian President Vladimir Putin was involved in the suspected poisoning of prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Navalny fell ill on a flight to Moscow last week after drinking tea at an airport in the city of Tomsk, before slipping into a coma at a local hospital in nearby Omsk after his plane made an emergency landing. On Monday, German doctors who are treating Navalny said they strongly suspected he had been poisoned by a nerve agent, consistent with past cases of poisoning that have been blamed on the Kremlin.

Several national governments have called on Russia to open an investigation into the incident, but Kremlin authorities have refused, claiming there is insufficient evidence to suggest that Navalny was poisoned.

Opposition leaders arrested in Belarus. The crackdown in Belarus continued on Tuesday after authorities arrested two leading figures of the country’s massive protest movement against longtime President Aleksandr Lukashenko. Olga Kovalkova and Sergei Dylevsky were part of the National Coordination Council, the body established by exiled opposition leader and presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya to spearhead a transition from Lukashenko’s unpopular presidency.

Authorities immediately opened an investigation into the council shortly after it was formed last week, and Lukashenko has accused it of trying to illegally “seize power.”

Mladic back in court. On Tuesday, former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic returned to the Hague to appeal a conviction he received in 2017 for genocide and crimes against humanity during the 1990s Yugoslav Wars. Mladic received a life sentence in 2017 after a court ruled he was ultimately responsible for the Srebrenica massacre and the siege of Sarajevo, among other crimes, which resulted in the deaths of several thousand people, mostly Muslims. Mladic was one of the leading commanders of the Bosnian Serb forces at the time of those atrocities.

Mladic is asking for acquittal or a retrial on nine grounds of appeal, and he is due to address the court today. A date for the ruling has not been determined, but will likely happen sometime in 2021.


Odds and Ends 

Creeping propaganda. Chinese Communist Party propaganda seems to have found its way into some Australian schools. Textbooks used in at least 11 schools in the state of Victoria include a map depicting China’s vast, controversial maritime claims across the South China Sea. China’s claims are highly contested by most countries in the Asia-Pacific region, including Australia, and are the source of much friction. The textbook doesn’t appear to have mentioned the controversy, simply labeling the image a “map of China.”

The publisher, Cengage Learning Asia, has since recalled the 750 textbooks it sold, but explained that the offense the image caused was unintentional; it included the map to suit a course on Chinese language, culture, and society.


That’s it for today.

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

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