Taliban Issues Cold Response to U.S. Withdrawal Plans
The group has promised to avoid peace talks until “all foreign forces completely withdraw.”
Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. President Joe Biden plans to announce a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, Iran talks resume in Vienna, and the United States pauses the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
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Taliban Cast Shadow Over U.S. Troop Withdrawal
U.S. President Joe Biden is to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 of this year, bringing an end to a 20-year war. Although the news was first reported by the Washington Post on Tuesday, Biden is expected to make the announcement official today.
The date of withdrawal, two decades after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, is months later than a previous agreement made between the Taliban and the Trump administration. Under the so-called Doha Agreement, U.S. troops were to have left the country by May 1.
That detail has not been lost on Taliban leaders, who issued a statement following the news that puts its future participation in peace talks in question. “Until all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland, the Islamic Emirate will not participate in any conference that shall make decisions about Afghanistan,” Mohammed Naeem, a Taliban spokesperson, said on Tuesday.
The latest round of peace talks is set for April 24, the Turkish foreign ministry announced on Tuesday.
Withdrawal, not isolation. Although the unconditional withdrawal represents a departure from the nation-building policy adopted by Biden’s predecessors, it doesn’t signal a broader retrenchment in U.S. ambitions, at least where spending is concerned. Last Friday, the White House announced its $715 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2022, effectively maintaining the increased Trump administration defense budget and assuring the United States still spends roughly the same on defense as the next 10 highest spending countries combined.
A tall order. Michael Kugelman, a senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center and author of Foreign Policy’s weekly South Asia Brief, said the recent history between the Afghan government and Taliban—where even agreements on procedural elements of peace talks have taken months—foreshadow tough days ahead. “Announcing the withdrawal date was the easy part,” Kugelman said. “Now comes the really hard work of figuring out how to keep an already sputtering peace process alive at a moment when the Taliban is now enjoying even more of an upper hand than it already had.”
What We’re Following Today
Iran talks. Talks on a U.S. return to the Iran nuclear deal resume today in Vienna, days after a suspected Israeli attack on a key Iranian nuclear facility. On Tuesday, Iran said it would begin enriching uranium to the 60 percent level, more than 15 times higher than would be allowed under the nuclear deal but still below the 90 percent level necessary for a nuclear weapon. White House spokesperson Jen Psaki has described Iran’s activity as “provocative” and cast doubt on the seriousness of Iran’s commitment to the Vienna talks.
Writing in Foreign Policy on Tuesday, Maysam Behravesh said the Israeli attack on the Natanz facility was a net positive for Tehran as it now “appears poised to leverage its victimhood status—earned through repeated Israeli operations against its atomic energy infrastructure—to reach its goal at the negotiating table of a full removal of sanctions, which under other circumstances might have seemed a maximalist demand that risked alienating Russia and China.”
A U.S.-Russia summit? Biden has called for a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin to build “a stable and predictable relationship,” following his second phone call with the Russian leader on Tuesday. A Kremlin statement said Biden wished to normalize bilateral ties with Russia and cooperate on arms control.
The phone call comes as Russia made its first public comments over a military buildup close to the Ukrainian border. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday the movement of military units was part of a snap drill to test readiness in the face of NATO threats and the exercise would conclude in the next two weeks.
United States suspends J&J vaccine use. U.S. authorities suspended the use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine following six reported cases of a rare kind of blood clot among recipients. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended pausing administration of the single-dose vaccine “out of an abundance of caution.” The White House has said the pause “will not have a significant impact” on the country’s vaccine program. More than 6.8 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine have been administered in the United States—a fraction of the 190 million shots already given across the country.
Following the U.S. determination, South Africa has also halted use of the vaccine, despite the fact that it’s the only one available in the country, and Johnson & Johnson has said it’s delaying its vaccine rollout across Europe, just as several European countries, including Spain and Belgium, were set to start administering it later this week. Brazil, Canada, Chile, and New Zealand, among other countries, have also signed deals to procure large quantities of the vaccine, though many have yet to arrive due to supply bottlenecks.
Keep an Eye On
Biden backs UAE arms sale. The Biden administration has decided to follow through on the sale of $23 billion worth of military equipment to the United Arab Emirates, HuffPost reported on Tuesday. The sale—which includes 50 F-35 fighter jets—had been finalized in the final hours of the Trump administration and was paused for review in the first weeks of Biden’s term. An attempt to block the sale in the Senate was defeated by a 49-47 vote in December 2020. A White House review of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia is still ongoing.
Japan’s Taiwan message. The United States is pushing for Japan to sign off on a joint statement of support for Taiwan to be issued following the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to the White House on Friday, the Financial Times reported. If the Biden administration succeeds, it will be the first time Taiwan is mentioned in a joint U.S.-Japan statement since 1969. The Biden administration has shored up its support for Taiwan in recent days—on Friday, it relaxed rules on diplomatic contact, and on Tuesday, it dispatched three former U.S. officials—Richard Armitage, James Steinberg, and Chris Dodd—to Taipei in a show of support.
Odds and Ends
Dutch supermarkets are experiencing a widespread cheese shortage after hackers conducted a ransomware attack on the warehouse and transport provider Bakker Logistiek.
The hack meant the logistics firm could no longer process orders, coordinate deliveries, or navigate its complex warehouse network, which has led to shortages of packaged products—especially cheese—on the shelves of supermarket giant Albert Heijn. The chain has added a disclaimer on its website informing customers of the shortage.
Bakker Logistiek speculates the hackers gained access to its network through a recently unearthed vulnerability in the Microsoft Exchange email server.
Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn