While You Weren't Looking

If history has taught us one thing, it’s that while we’re focused on one crisis, the next is just around the corner. A weekly update on emerging global stories, written by Foreign Policy staff writer Amy Mackinnon. Delivered Monday.

As Peace Talks Reconvene, Afghanistan Grapples With Targeted Killings

2020 was one of the deadliest years on record for such assassinations, many of which are still unclaimed.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
A member of Afghan security force stands guard at the site of an attack in Kabul on Dec. 20, when a car bomb targeting an Afghan lawmaker killed nine people and wounded more than a dozen others.
A member of Afghan security force stands guard at the site of an attack in Kabul on Dec. 20, when a car bomb targeting an Afghan lawmaker killed nine people and wounded more than a dozen others. ZAKERIA HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly update on emerging global stories.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: The second round of the intra-Afghan peace talks begins as targeted killings rise, Iran starts the year with provocation, and how Syrian officials are profiting from prison bribes.

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Afghanistan’s Civil Society Is Under Attack

As the second round of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban gets underway this week, targeted killings of civil society activists and political figures are on the rise. The latest was Bismillah Adil Aimaq, a journalist and human rights activist who was killed in an attack by unidentified gunmen in western Afghanistan last Friday. Aimaq, the head of a radio station in Ghor province, was the fifth Afghan journalist to be killed in just two months.

According to the New York Times, at least 136 civilians and 168 members of the security forces have been assassinated in Afghanistan over the past year, making it one of the deadliest on record for such attacks. While Afghan and U.S. officials have pointed fingers at the Taliban, many of the attacks have gone unclaimed, and the militant group has denied involvement. The Islamic State has sought to claim responsibility for some of the assassinations.

Today, for the first time, a U.S. official directly accused the Taliban of being behind the killings as Col. Sonny Leggett, the spokesperson for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, tweeted: “The Taliban’s campaign of unclaimed attacks & targeted killings of government officials, civil society leaders & journalists must … cease for peace to succeed.”

Afghan intelligence chief Ahmad Zia Siraj recently told lawmakers that security forces had arrested 270 members of a special Taliban unit with ties to the assassinations, called Obaida Karwan. Siraj told the Afghan Senate in December that the Taliban had carried out more than 18,000 attacks last year, including suicide bombings and targeted killings. According to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, 2,177 civilians were killed and 3,822 wounded in the first nine months of 2020.

A move toward targeting journalists and civil society members would mark a shift for the Taliban and other groups that have typically set their sights on high-profile political targets. The attacks appear to be intended to undermine public trust in the government—and to remove critics of the Taliban’s hard-line interpretation of Islam should the group return to government as part of a peace settlement.

But not everyone is convinced: An alternate, messier scenario is that a variety of nefarious groups have carried out the attacks, from corrupt officials to drug smugglers—all of whom could lose out in the event of a successful peace deal. “They want the peace talks to collapse and even support a civil war, because the more chaos and war in this country, the more they will benefit,” Dawlat Waziri, a former Afghan general and military analyst, told the New York Times.

Peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government began last September with a view to creating a road map for a future government. A second round of talks is set to begin in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday. While both sides have refused to publicly release their specific lists of priorities, the Afghan government will be looking to make progress on a cease-fire agreement, while the Taliban seek a form of government that reflects their strict interpretations of Islamic law.

What We’re Following

Spiraling tensions with Iran. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has seized a South Korean-flagged tanker and its crew, Iranian state media reported Monday. Tensions between Seoul and Tehran have escalated since South Korea froze $7 billion of Iranian funds in its banks after the United States reimposed sanctions on Iran following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal in 2018.

Iran also announced Monday that it had resumed 20 percent uranium enrichment, the most significant breach of the 3.67 percent enrichment agreed as part of the 2015 nuclear deal that was signed by several major world powers, including the United States. The move puts Iran one step closer to reaching the 90 percent enrichment required for a nuclear warhead and sets up an early challenge for the incoming Biden administration.

Sunday marked the anniversary of the assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani, and the United States was wary of a possible retaliation. The U.S. Defense Department announced that the USS Nimitz, due to leave the Persian Gulf, would remain in the region due to threats made against President Donald Trump and other senior officials by Iranian leaders. The move came just three days after the aircraft carrier had been ordered to return home as a message of de-escalation.

Massacres in Niger. At least 100 people have been killed in attacks on two villages in the Tillaberi region of western Niger. The region, which borders Burkina Faso and Mali, is plagued by a worsening jihadi insurgency—local officials blamed terrorists for the attacks on Saturday. Around 4,000 were killed in 2019 in the tri-border area due to jihadi violence and ethnic tensions stirred up by the extremists, according to the United Nations.

Landmark vote in Argentina. Last Wednesday, Argentina’s Senate voted to allow abortions up to the 14th week of pregnancy. The move is likely to reverberate across South America, which has some of the strictest abortion laws in the world. Argentina is the third country in the region to allow elective abortions, and the largest one to do so, following Guyana and Uruguay.

Until now, the procedure was allowed only in instances of rape or risk to the mother’s life. The government estimates that 38,000 women are hospitalized each year due to botched attempts to conduct abortions in secret.

Keep an Eye On 

Extortion in Syria. Families of people detained in prisons in Syria are routinely asked to pay bribes to officials to visit their relatives or secure their release, according to a new report by the Association of Detainees and the Missing in Sednaya Prison. The bribes, which can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars, could be enabling senior regime officials to stay afloat amid punitive U.S. sanctions.

A survey of more than 1,200 former prisoners and their families found that one-fourth had been asked to pay bribes, with families living abroad asked for up to $30,000. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, some 1.2 million people have been detained since the civil war began in 2011, and more than 12,000 are reported to have died during torture.

U.S. sanctions under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act came into force in June 2020 and seek to prohibit anyone in the world from doing business with the Assad regime, and the act calls for prison inspections for the release of detainees.

Synthetic opioids. The Mexican government announced on Thursday that seizures of the synthetic opioid fentanyl soared in 2020, increasing by 486 percent compared with the previous year. Defense Secretary Luis Cresencio Sandoval said demand for the drug, which has helped fuel the opioid crisis in the United States, had soared.

Authorities in Mexico seized 1.3 tons of the drug last year, much likely destined for the United States, compared with 222 kilograms in 2019.

Foreign Policy Recommends

The Year Ahead. While most may be glad to see the back of 2020, the year’s hangover will last for a while longer, as the world grapples with a near unprecedented economic crisis that will likely fuel social unrest and place further strain on conflict zones and fragile states from Yemen to Afghanistan.

Robert Malley, the president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, looks ahead to the 10 conflicts to watch in 2021 in this piece for Foreign Policy. For the first time, a transnational risk—climate change—has made it onto the annual list, as extreme weather events and changing climates have intensified conflict from Nigeria to Central America.

Odds and Ends

Karaoke cab. Traveling in Taipei on a shoestring budget? Meet local taxi driver Tu Ching Liang, who offers his passengers a discount or even a cash bonus on the condition that they sing karaoke as they cruise around the Taiwanese capital. Most days, his crooning passengers end up tipping him more than the original fare would have been.

That’s it for this week.

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Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack