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Blinken Threatens May 1 Afghan Troop Withdrawal

In a leaked letter to the Afghan president, the U.S. secretary of state signaled displeasure at the slow pace of peace negotiations.

By Colm Quinn, the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks about priorities for the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden at the State Department in Washington on March 3. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / POOL / AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: A leaked letter outlines U.S. Afghanistan strategy, a foiled attack on a Saudi oil port sends prices to 14-month highs, and Switzerland votes to ban face coverings. 

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Blinken Threatens Afghan Pullout In Ghani Letter

The Biden administration’s strategy to jump-start stalled Afghan peace talks became clearer on Sunday after a letter sent to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was published by the Afghan news channel TOLOnews.

The letter outlines four ways to “move matters more fundamentally and quickly” toward peace. They include ministerial-level talks bringing representatives from Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, and India together with the United States to discuss a “unified approach,” a senior-level meeting between the Taliban and the Afghan government hosted by Turkey to take place “in the coming weeks,” and a proposal to implement a 90-day reduction in violence intended to prevent a spring offensive by the Taliban.

The letter also urges Ghani to consider U.S. proposals for a roadmap toward a new Afghan government.

A not-so-veiled threat. Last week, U.S. envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad delivered U.S. policy proposals to the Afghan government which included a call for the establishment of a “transitional peace government of Afghanistan,” after which national elections would be held. Ghani has repeatedly refused to consider an interim government, which would likely see him sidelined.

The letter ends with a barely-veiled threat. “We are considering the full withdrawal of our forces by May 1st, as we consider other options. Even with the continuation of financial assistance from the United States to your forces after an American military withdrawal, I am concerned the security situation will worsen and that the Taliban could make rapid territorial gains,” Blinken wrote, saying he was making the point so that Ghani could understand “the urgency of my tone.”

Bossy Blinken? Reacting to the Blinken letter, Afghan First Vice President Amrullah Saleh gave a sense of the difficulty facing the Biden administration in the months ahead. “They make decisions on their troops, not on the people of Afghanistan … we will never accept bossy and imposed peace,” Saleh said.

Lessons learned? Writing in Foreign Policy before the publication of the letter, James Traub found reason to be optimistic, reasoning that rumored U.S. proposals meant that Biden has learned from previous U.S. missteps, including the postwar reorganization of Iraq.


The World This Week

On Monday, March 8, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov begins a tour to the Middle East, including visits to the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

On Wednesday, March 10, the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights, commonly known as the TRIPS council, meets. Discussions are expected to include a proposal, led by India and South Africa, for an intellectual property waiver for vaccines and therapeutics related to the treatment of COVID-19.

On Thursday, March 11, Today marks one year since the World Health Organization declared that COVID-19 had officially become a pandemic. Joe Biden is expected to deliver remarks at the White House.

China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) closes, a press conference with China’s Premier Li Keqiang is likely to follow.

On Sunday, March 14, Voters in the German states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate vote in regional elections. The elections are seen as an early test of the leadership of Armin Laschet, the new head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).


What We’re Following Today

Saudi oil terminal targeted. The Saudi-led coalition in Yemen said it launched a number of airstrikes on the Yemeni capital Sanaa, in retaliation for an attempted strike on a key oil port. Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for a missile and drone attack on the major Saudi oil port of Ras Tanura on Sunday, although Saudi authorities reported no damage to the port’s facilities from the strike as missile defenses were engaged.

Saudi state media blamed the attempted Houthi strike on the softer approach the Biden administration has taken to the Iran-aligned group, after it recently removed a terrorist label previously put in place by the Trump administration. Oil prices rose above $70 per barrel for the first time in 14 months as a result of the attack, with fears rising over threats to global oil flows.

Myanmar strike. At least 18 labor organizations have begun a nationwide strike across Myanmar, calling all workers “union and non-union alike” to join in work stoppages to protest the military coup. Local media report that troops have begun to occupy universities and hospitals, raising fears that wounded protesters may be subject to arrest.

Ouattara’s party wins in Ivory Coast.
Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara received a boost on Sunday, when parliamentary election results showed his RHDP party won a decisive victory. An alliance between former presidents Henri Konan Bedié and Laurent Gbagbo proved unable to damage the RHDP at the polls, as the party secured 147 out of 255 seats.

Switzerland bans burqa, niqab. Swiss voters on Sunday passed a proposal to ban face coverings by a narrow 51.2-48.8 percent margin, in a vote seen as reflection of the country’s attitudes toward Muslims. Although not referred to specifically in the initiative’s wording, the proposal is largely seen as a crackdown on Islamic dress rather than a ban on face coverings in general. The same group that backed Sunday’s vote also passed a ban on minarets in a 2009 referendum.


Keep an Eye On

Myanmar junta hires lobbyist. As international condemnation of the Feb. 1 coup and ensuing crackdown continues, Myanmar’s military junta has hired a lobbyist. Ari Ben-Menashe, a former Israeli intelligence operative turned lobbyist, has been hired to “assist in explaining the real situation in the country,” according to Foreign Lobby Report, and is expected to file a lobbying contract with the U.S. Justice Department this week. Ben-Menashe has previously provided services to former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe as well as Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar.

U.S.-South Korea deal. The United States and South Korea have reportedly agreed to a cost-sharing deal around the hosting of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula. The agreement comes after the United States made a similar deal with Japan last month. Without providing details, a State Department spokesperson said the accord amounted to a “meaningful increase” on South Korea’s side. South Korea had offered a 13 percent increase in its contribution during the Trump administration, although that offer was ultimately rejected.


Odds and Ends

If you don’t have an informed opinion on last night’s televised interview with Prince Harry and Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex, you might have what it takes to be a royal correspondent for a British newspaper. YouTubers Josh Pieters and Archie Manners tricked four royal commentators, including Queen Elizabeth II’s former press secretary, into providing reaction to the interview two days before it aired, by posing as a production company needing pre-recorded reactions to air directly after the event.

The duo quizzed the royal experts on false topics, including Meghan’s supposed refusal to get the coronavirus vaccine and her love of a particular donkey sanctuary.


That’s it for today.

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