Morning Brief

Afghanistan Takes One Small Step Toward Peace

An agreement on rules and procedures of future talks is the first sign of progress between the Afghan government and Taliban in months.

Members of the Taliban delegation leave their seats at the end of the session during the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha on September 12, 2020.
Members of the Taliban delegation leave their seats at the end of the session during the peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in the Qatari capital Doha on September 12, 2020. Karim Jaafar/ AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Intra-Afghan talks reach a key milestone, Iran approves a measure to enrich uranium to higher levels, and 2020 set to be the third-hottest year on record.

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Afghanistan Peace Talks Inch Toward Progress

After months of stalemate, peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban took a small but substantial step forward on Tuesday as both sides reached agreement on procedures and rules that will govern future peace talks.

The deal was hailed by U.S. Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, who has shuttled between Doha and Kabul in recent months. “This agreement demonstrates that the negotiating parties can agree on tough issues. We congratulate both sides on their perseverance,” he said.

Although the agreement to begin working toward an agreement is a start, there are still hurdles to surmount: No agenda has been set for peace talks and both sides disagree on the order of priorities. For Afghan government officials, a cease-fire is their top concern, while the Taliban want other issues—such as prisoner swaps and a future governing framework—ironed out first.

All the while, violence in the country—whether it’s carried out by the Taliban, CIA-backed paramilitary groups, or the Islamic State—shows no sign of stopping. And as U.S. troops prepare to leave, the Afghan government must be wary of the U.S. government’s interest in Afghanistan leaving along with them.

Zal may stay. Wednesday’s declaration is a vindication of sorts for U.S. envoy Khalilzad, who could be out of a job once a Biden administration takes office. As FP’s Jack Detsch, Robbie Gramer, and Colum Lynch report, insiders think he may hold on to the position, although that sentiment is not universal. “I see a stronger logic for replacing him than keeping him,” one official said. “It’s not like he is having wild success.”

The unheard. As intra-Afghan talks slowly grind into gear, one group that will not be at the table are victims of decades of bloodshed. “Inclusion of the civilian victims in the negotiations,” Ezzatullah Mehrdad writes in a dispatch from Kabul, “would break the old pattern of short-lived deals and rewarding violence.”


The COVID Poverty Trap

According to a new study by the United Nations Development Programme, the long-term impact of COVID-19 could increase the number of people living in extreme poverty by 207 million, pushing the total number above the 1 billion mark. The study does leave room for optimism: a “focused set of investments” based on the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) would change the trend’s trajectory significantly.

What We’re Following Today

Iran ratifies plan to boost uranium enrichment. Iran’s Guardian Council, which sees to it that Iran’s laws do not contradict the constitution or Shiite Islamic law, has ratified a bill passed by Iran’s parliament on Tuesday that would dramatically increase the potency of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile if sanctions are not lifted within two months. The law also calls for an end to international nuclear inspections under the same terms. The move makes it difficult for President-elect Biden to swiftly re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, as Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has suggested; Biden has said he would only rejoin the agreement if Iran was in “strict compliance with the nuclear deal.”

Trump blocks defense bill over social media grudge. In the face of bipartisan pushback, U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the U.S. defense budget unless lawmakers also agree to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a free speech provision that has served to protect internet platforms from legal challenges over content hosted on their services.

Right-wing opponents of Section 230 maintain that the law has been used to censor conservative voices, although advocacy groups argue that a repeal would have the opposite effect and that internet platforms would be more likely to ban accounts posting incendiary content rather than face legal trouble. As FP’s Jack Detsch points out, even if Trump vetoes the bill, support for it is so strong that Congress would likely have the two-thirds majority needed to override the president.

2020 to be third hottest year on record. A report from the World Meteorological Organization, a U.N. agency, says that 2020 is set to be third hottest year on record, behind only 2015 and 2016. Those years coincided with a warming phenomenon known as El Niño, however in 2020 the cooling La Niña event was taking place. Despite the natural fluctuations, the WMO stated that the vast majority of warming occurred as a result of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere. The report comes in the wake of another WMO study in November that showed global greenhouse gases did not decrease significantly this year, despite the global slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Keep an Eye On

Armenia’s leadership. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan continues to face pressure to resign, more than three weeks after he signed a peace deal with Azerbaijan which ceded vast swaths of territory Armenia had held for more than two decades. As thousands of protesters rallied on Wednesday in Yerevan to support the prime minister’s removal, Artur Vanetsyan, head of one of Armenia’s opposition parties, joined the calls for Pashinyan to go. “Pashinyan’s resignation would offer a chance to save our dignity,” he said.

Islamophobia in India. A Muslim man in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh has been arrested by police for allegedly attempting to convert a Hindu woman to Islam. The man’s arrest is the first under the state’s new law which prohibits “forced” religious conversions, which critics say is Islamophobic and is designed to forcibly segregate religious groups. The arrest comes after recent depictions of interfaith couples in Indian media were condemned by right-wing Hindu groups. Four other states, which like Uttar Pradesh are ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are planning to pass their own laws targeting interfaith marriage.

U.S. out of Baghdad. The United States is withdrawing staff from its embassy in Baghdad as tensions rise and the anniversary of the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani approaches. A Washington Post report said the exact number of personnel to be removed was not clear, and that the U.S. State Department neither confirmed nor denied the move. U.S. embassy staff began leaving Baghdad in May 2019 when “non-emergency” staff were removed as a precaution against increased rocket attacks against Baghdad’s Green Zone. The move comes as the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is set to decrease from approximately 3,000 to 2,500.

Odds and Ends

Christmas in Belgium may lead to some tough decisions this year, as citizens get their head around new limits on social mixing over the holiday period. Under current guidelines, citizens are allowed to gather in groups of four at their homes as long as the guests are kept outdoors. Where things get personal is the authorized use of bathroom facilities. Hosts are allowed designate one—and only one—“close contact” who is allowed enter a home to use the bathroom. “So if you really have to go to the toilet, there will be nothing else to do but return home,” a government spokesperson told local media.

Accusations of fraud are flying in South Africa after the national lottery pulled the numbers 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 in this week’s winning draw. The numbers were played by 20 winners, who will now share in the roughly $7.5 million jackpot. The lottery tweeted that the results were “unexpected but we see many players opt to play these sequences.” South Africa’s lottery regulator has vowed to investigate the draw—which happened on live television—for any irregularities.

That’s it for today.

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

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