16 November 2018

Managed Instability: Iran, the Taliban, and Afghanistan

By Samuel Ramani

On October 23, the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) imposed sanctions on two Iranian Quds Force officers for providing financial and military support to the Taliban. The TFTC’s decision, which was reached by the United States and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies, labelled Iran as complicit in the wave of terrorist attacks launched by the Taliban in recent months. In a statement that followed the TFTC’s ruling, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin described Iran’s relationship with the Taliban as “yet another example of Tehran’s blatant regional meddling and support for terrorism.”

Mnuchin’s statement reflected the consensus within the Trump administration about Iran’s Taliban links. In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of supporting Taliban militants, and urged Tehran to suspend this relationship as a precondition for normalized diplomatic ties with the United States. Although U.S. officials have correctly drawn attention to the destabilizing consequences of this policy, there is inadequate evidence for claims that Iran wants to harm the security of the United States by creating a state of chaotic instability in Afghanistan.

Taliban routs commando company in one of Afghanistan’s most secure rural districts


Last week, the Taliban launched an assault on the district of Jaghuri in the embattled eastern Afghan province of Ghazni. Reports in the Afghan press downplayed the severity of happenings in Jaghuri, which is considered to be the most secure rural district in all the country due to the demographics and geography.

However, reporters from The New York Times who were on the scene saw something much different and far more terrifying than what was reported in the Afghan press: an Afghan Special Forces commando company that was sent to bolster defenses was routed, while security forces and government officials were attempting to flee the scene as Taliban forces advanced.

As The New York Times noted, Jaghuri, which is considered to be “Afghanistan’s Shangri-La,” has until now been immune from the Taliban’s insurgency, despite that fact that it is located in Ghazni province, which has been a hotbed of Taliban activity. Jaghuri’s population of 600,000 is predominantly Hazara and are opposed to the Taliban. The Taliban has isolated the remote district by cutting off roads, but refrained from attacking it.

Until now.

Afghanistan war: Taliban attend landmark peace talks in Russia

Russia has hosted a landmark international meeting on Afghanistan in Moscow aimed at kick-starting peace talks after decades of war.

It is the first time Taliban militants have attended such an event.

Members of Afghanistan's High Peace Council, which oversees peace efforts but does not represent the Afghan government, were also present.

But the Taliban again stressed the group would only hold direct talks with the US - not the Kabul government.

Kabul did not send its delegation for the meeting, which was attended by about a dozen countries. The US had observer status.


One pickup truck after another arrived at the government compound in a district capital in Afghanistan on Sunday, pulling around to the back of the governor’s office to unload the dead, out of sight of panicked residents.

Soldiers and police officers, many in tears, heaved bodies of their comrades from the trucks and laid them on sheets on the ground, side by side on their backs, until there were 20 of them.

The dead all wore the desert-brown boots of Afghanistan’s finest troops, the Special Forces commandos trained by the United States. Four days earlier, the soldiers had been airlifted in to rescue what is widely considered Afghanistan’s safest rural district, Jaghori, from a determined assault by Taliban insurgents.

CRS Report on Afghanistan – November 2018

An updated CRS report on Afghanistan has been posted. The 18-page report (R45122) published on November 1, 2018 provides an overview of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and the US policy on Afghanistan.

Entitled Afghanistan: Background and U.S. Policy: I Brief, the report provides by the Congressional Research Service provides members of Congress with

“. . . an overview of current political and military dynamics, with a focus on the Trump Administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan and South Asia, the U.S.-led coalition and Afghan military operations, and recent political developments, including prospects for peace talks and elections.”

Afghanistan’s Rivers Could Be India’s Next Weapon Against Pakistan


Most of Afghanistan is currently experiencing a 60 percent drop in the rain and snowfall needed for food production. The rapid expansion of Kabul’s population, extreme drought conditions across the country, and the specter of climate change have exacerbated the need for new water infrastructure. But building it is politically complicated; the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region is defined by its complex maze of transboundary rivers and there is no legal framework in place to avoid major conflict between the nations.

It’s no surprise, then, that in the Chahar Asiab district of Kabul, on a tributary of the Kabul River, the Maidan, work is scheduled to begin soon on the Shahtoot Dam. The dam will hold 146 million cubic meters of potable water for 2 million Kabul residents and irrigate 4,000hectares of land. It will also provide drinking water for a new city on the outskirts of Kabul called Deh Sabz. Afghanistan is finally, after decades of devastating wars, in a position to begin to develop its economy and electricity from hydropower.

The Taliban’s Fight for Hearts and Minds


In many ways, Charkh seems like a typical rural Afghan district. With little development or industry to speak of, its population of 48,000 ekes out a living mostly from farming. Poverty is common; those who can find better jobs elsewhere leave and send money back to support their families. But a closer look at Charkh reveals a divergence from what one may expect of an average Afghan district. Administrators there are widely seen as fair and honest, making them outliers in a country consistently ranked among the world’s most corrupt. Locals say there is remarkably little crime. Disputes among neighbors or families are rare, and when they arise, the district governor or judge quickly settles them. A health official regularly monitors clinics to make sure that doctors and nurses are present and that medicines are stocked. Across the district’s schools, government teachers actually show up, and student attendance is high—an anomaly in a state system where absenteeism is rife.

Satellite Imagery, Remote Sensing, and Diminishing the Risk of Nuclear War in South Asia

The backdrop: a security rivalry between India and Pakistan in place since the 1947 partition of British India. The risk: nuclear catastrophe. Because the consequences of such an outcome are so dire, even the small chance of a nuclear conflict is worth trying to minimize. This report assesses whether satellite imagery and remote sensing technology, administered by a trusted third party, could ease the pressures and thus lessen the risk of disaster on the subcontinent.


Structural political and security factors generate persistent security competition on the South Asian subcontinent. 

This competition in turn creates a small but difficult-to-close window for nuclear catastrophe.
However unlikely, deployment of tactical nuclear weapons can open the door to inadvertent escalation or unauthorized use or theft. Any of these outcomes would be a catastrophe for the region and the world.

Southeast Asia, the Great Powers, and Regional Security from the Cold War to the Present

by See Seng Tan, William T. Tow, Kai He, Kevin Cooney, Chris Lundry, Ralf Emmers, Siew-Mun Tang, Maria Ortuoste, Huiyun Feng, Donald K. Emmerson, and Sheldon W. Simon

In honor of Sheldon W. Simon, emeritus professor at Arizona State University, this roundtable features a collection of short, substantive essays on the dynamics between the great powers of Asia and the smaller Southeast Asian states. Authored by some of Simon’s colleagues, former students, and collaborators, these essays address a range of themes important to Simon’s work, including the great powers, interactions between the big and small states in the region, and Southeast Asian regionalism and security. In addition to their voices, Simon offers a retrospective reflection on the region.

Access to this roundtable is free through November 29, 2018.

China's Air Force on the Rise: Zhuhai Airshow 2018

By Rick Joe

The biennial Zhuhai Airshow held in southern China always presents an opportunity for Chinese military watchers to observe some of the latest aerospace and military technology intended for export to gauge domestic People’s Liberation Army (PLA) systems. Zhuhai also allows observers to closely observe PLA aircraft and systems placed on static display and sometimes new flight routines as well.

The recently concluded Zhuhai Airshow of 2018, however, ranks as the most impressive event in recent memory by a significant margin, featuring an impressive performance by J-20 stealth fighters, the first ever demonstration of a Chinese thrust vector control (TVC) equipped fighter, as well as a large number of new flying wing drones, new radar systems, and more. This piece will examine some of the most interesting and consequential displays and products.

J-10B Flexes With TVC

South China Sea: Beijing hopes for maritime accord with Asean neighbours in three years

Catherine Wong

Premier Li Keqiang made the commitment on Tuesday in Singapore before attending the annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

Li said a peaceful and stable international environment was crucial for Beijing to improve ties and reach free trade deals with its neighbours, adding that China hoped to conclude negotiations for a comprehensive regional economic partnership trade deal next year.

The premier also said that a code of conduct between China and other claimant countries – which China hoped would be successfully negotiated in the next three years – would be conducive to maintaining and sustaining peace in the region.

On the South China Sea, US and Chinese military leaders continue to talk past each other

by Mark J. Valencia

The long-anticipated top-level diplomatic and security dialogue between the United States and China has come and gone with no apparent progress on any of the issues bedevilling bilateral relations, especially the simmering tensions over the South China Sea. Glaringly, the two sides have not announced any agreement on risk-reduction measures, and sharp policy differences remain.

The second annual US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue was held on Friday in Washington, between delegations led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defence James Mattis for the US and Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe for China.

Picking flowers, making honey.

Alex Joske

The Chinese military’s collaboration with foreign universities.

What’s the problem?

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is expanding its research collaboration with universities outside of China. Since 2007, the PLA has sponsored more than 2,500 military scientists and engineers to study abroad and has developed relationships with researchers and institutions across the globe.1

This collaboration is highest in the Five Eyes countries, Germany and Singapore, and is often unintentionally supported by taxpayer funds.2 Australia has been engaged in the highest level of PLA collaboration among Five Eyes countries per capita, at six times the level in the US. Nearly all PLA scientists sent abroad are Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members who return to China on time.

Dozens of PLA scientists have obscured their military affiliations to travel to Five Eyes countries and the European Union, including at least 17 to Australia, where they work in areas such as hypersonic missiles and navigation technology. Those countries don’t count China as a security ally but rather treat it as one of their main intelligence adversaries.3

Mapping Xinjiang’s ‘re-education’ camps

Fergus Ryan 

This report by ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre collates and adds to the current open-source research into China’s growing network of extrajudicial ‘re-education’ camps in Xinjiang province.

The report contributes new research, while also bringing together much of the existing research into a single database. This work has included cross-referencing multiple points of evidence to corroborate claims that the listed facilities are punitive in nature and more akin to prison camps than what the Chinese authorities call 'transformation through education centres’.

By matching various pieces of documentary evidence with satellite imagery of the precise locations of various camps, this report helps consolidate, confirm and add to evidence already compiled by other researchers.

Tides of Change: China’s Nuclear Ballistic Missile Submarines and Strategic Stability


In recent years, China has expended considerable efforts to build a sea-based nuclear force for the primary purpose of enhancing its overall nuclear deterrent. Although Beijing’s goal is limited and defensive, the practical implications of its efforts for regional stability and security will be significant.


A fleet of survivable nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) would reduce China’s concerns about the credibility of its nuclear deterrent and lessen the country’s incentives to further expand its arsenal. Such benefits, however, will be tempered by vulnerabilities associated with Beijing’s current generation of SSBNs. In the near to mid-term, developing an SSBN fleet will require China to substantially enlarge its previously small stockpile of strategic ballistic missiles, possibly exacerbating the threat perceptions of potential adversaries and causing them to take countermeasures that might eventually intensify an emerging arms competition.

Confronting Growing China-Russia Cooperation

by Robert Sutter

Robert Sutter (George Washington University) discusses China’s increasing collaboration with Russia and what it means for U.S. policy. This brief draws on the author’s contribution to the book Axis of Authoritarians: Implications of China-Russia Cooperation (October 2018).

The 115th Congress has taken the lead in the recent across-the-board re-evaluation of U.S. policy toward China. Hearings, legislation, and authoritative letters from members of both parties culminated in many provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act passed in August hardening U.S. policy on China as a “whole of government” response to Chinese behavior undermining U.S. interests. Unfortunately, Congress continues to neglect the major negative implications for the United States resulting from Chinese president Xi Jinping’s increasing collaboration with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Perspectives on the South China Sea Dispute in 2018

Hong Thao Nguyen and Binh Ton-Nu Thanh

In 2017, China strengthened its position in the South China Sea dispute in at least five ways. First, it expanded its construction activities on Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief Reefs in the Spratly Islands and on North, Tree, and Triton Islands in the Paracel Islands. Since 2014, China has added a total of 290,000 square meters, or 72 acres, of new landmass. The expansion of artificial islands has reinforced its overall ability to control the South China Sea—for example, by allowing for the deployment of fighter jets in the region. For this reason, Xi Jinping praised this achievement as a “highlight of his first five years” at the 19th Communist Party Congress.

Second, China’s breakthroughs in scientific and technical achievements played an important role in increasing its influence in the South China Sea. The country’s first indigenous aircraft carrier is ready to enter the fleet, while a second may set sail as early as the end of 2018. Remote-sensing satellites to cover the region are also being prepared for sequential launch. The proposed construction of floating nuclear plants, the creation of a deepsea surveillance network to match those of maritime peers, and the launch of two new ultra-deepwater offshore exploration platforms, Bluewhale I and II, further illustrate China’s upgraded capacity to dominate the entire South China Sea in the face of competing claims. Most importantly, economic incentives to expand Chinese control over maritime areas inside the nine-dash line have been revitalized by the development of new technology for finding and exploiting flammable ice, although economically feasible exploitation may be years away.

How to Counter China’s Influence in the South Pacific

By Charles Edel

In the U.S. National Defense Strategy published in January 2018, Washington announced the return of great power competition, branded China a “strategic competitor,” and called for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” Despite these rhetorical developments, however, there remain lingering questions surrounding the Trump administration’s episodic engagement with the region, its failure to coordinate with allies on major issues, and inadequate resourcing for initiatives outside the military realm.

These concerns will be on the mind of many of the national leaders gathering in Singapore for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia summits, and then in Papua New Guinea for the Asia-Pacific Economic Forum (APEC), this week. Conspicuously absent from the gatherings is U.S. President Donald Trump, who has chosen instead to send Vice President Mike Pence. In contrast, Chinese President Xi Jinping is hosting a meeting with the leaders of the Pacific island states in Papua New Guinea ahead of the APEC meeting.

The Deal Trump Should Strike With Xi

By Geoffrey Garrett

Chinese President Xi Jinping will go to the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires at the end of November with one thing on his mind: defusing the trade war with the United States. That means striking a deal, and U.S. President Donald Trump is in a strong bargaining position. The current tit-for-tat tariffs hurt China more than they do the United States. The Chinese economy is more dependent on the United States than the U.S. economy is on China. The prospects for the U.S. economy look very good; there are growing storm clouds above the Chinese economy. In sum, advantage America. But what kind of deal should Trump push for?

The problem for Trump is that Xi cannot give him what he says he wants: an immediate and dramatic reduction in the U.S. trade deficit with China. Trump will probably get some guarantees to buy more U.S. exports—for example, further contracts for Boeing to supply China’s large and growing commercial aviation market. But these will not change the underlying structural reality driving the massive trade imbalance: Chinese people save much more than Americans; Americans consume much more than the Chinese. 


by Ruth Eglash, Hazem Balousha and Loveday Morris 

A new round of hostilities triggered by a botched Israeli covert operation in the Gaza Strip pushed the territory’s fragile security situation to the brink on Monday, as Palestinian militants launched hundreds of rockets toward Israel and Israeli jets carried out bombing raids. 

Israel’s military said it had rushed extra infantry troops and air defenses to the border with Gaza as at least 300 projectiles were launched toward Israeli territory on Monday. Several rockets hit residential buildings, while an antitank missile struck a bus transporting soldiers, the military said, critically injuring a 19-year-old. 

Although violence in Gaza has flared sporadically in recent months, Monday’s exchange reached a new pitch. The Israeli military struck 70 targets in Gaza, signaling a campaign with wider scope than other recent bombing raids. 

The headquarters of al-Aqsa TV, run by the Islamist militant group Hamas, was among the sites hit, with the Israeli military describing it as a “strategic terror target.” Hamas, which controls Gaza, said its main internal security building in central Gaza City also was struck…



Vice President Mike Pence said that the Trump administration does not plan to budge in its trade dispute with China, even if that means a cold war.

When asked by Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin how the White House will respond if Beijing refuses to change its position, Pence responded, “Then so be it.” He later added “We are here to stay.”

“We really believe we are in a strong position either way. We are at $250 billion [in tariffs] now; we can more than double that,” the vice president warned. “I don’t think it’s a matter of promises. We’re looking for results. We’re looking for a change of posture.”

Battling the Bots


To the casual observer, it’s not immediately evident how Kris Shaffer’s training as a musicologist prepared him for his job as an online detective. Shaffer, an analyst with the company New Knowledge, tracks disinformation campaigns for a living—the kind that Russia waged against the United States during the 2016 presidential election. His title is a mouthful: senior computational disinformation analyst.

But before he took the job, Shaffer was a musicologist who wrote his dissertation on a Hungarian avant-garde composer, Gyorgy Ligeti, whose claims about his music—not unlike the Kremlin’s propaganda—contained some “mistruths and half-truths,” he said.

Ligeti had composed a series of works that drew heavily on the giants of Western classical music—Beethoven and Mozart, among others—all the while insisting that his music remained entirely new, entirely avant-garde.

Pentagon Researchers Test 'Worst-Case Scenario' Attack on U.S. Power Grid

By Joseph Marks,

Plum Island, N.Y. – The team of grid operators had spent days restoring power when a digital strike took out one of two operational utility stations. The other utility was also under attack.

A month had passed since all power in the region was taken down by a devastating cyberattack. It had been a grueling six days restoring power across two electrical utilities and to the building deemed a critical national asset by the Secretary of Energy.

The cyber strike hadn’t forced the team back to zero, but it wasn’t far from it.

Just moments ago, the two electric utilities had been working in concert, delivering reliable and redundant power to the critical asset. Now one utility was down for the count and the other was under attack.

World Development Report 2019 : The Changing Nature of Work

Work is constantly reshaped by technological progress. New ways of production are adopted, markets expand, and societies evolve. But some changes provoke more attention than others, in part due to the vast uncertainty involved in making predictions about the future. The 2019 World Development Report will study how the nature of work is changing as a result of advances in technology today. Technological progress disrupts existing systems. A new social contract is needed to smooth the transition and guard against rising inequality. Significant investments in human capital throughout a person’s lifecycle are vital to this effort. If workers are to stay competitive against machines they need to train or retool existing skills. A social protection system that includes a minimum basic level of protection for workers and citizens can complement new forms of employment. Improved private sector policies to encourage startup activity and competition can help countries compete in the digital age. Governments also need to ensure that firms pay their fair share of taxes, in part to fund this new social contract. The 2019 World Development Report presents an analysis of these issues based upon the available evidence.


API members treat cybersecurity as a top priority, and along with the Oil and Natural Gas Subsector Coordinating Council (ONG SCC) released a report describing the industry’s resilience and preparedness to defend itself and energy consumers against malicious cyber threats and providing insight for policymakers into the comprehensive cybersecurity programs of the natural gas and oil industry.

Key points from the report include:

Companies acknowledge that cyberattacks can present “enterprise risks” – risks that could compromise the viability of a company – and have developed comprehensive approaches to cybersecurity.

Companies orient their information technology (IT) and industrial control systems (ICS) cybersecurity programs to leading frameworks and best-in-class standards, especially the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Cybersecurity Framework and the ISA/IEC 62443 Series of Standards on Industrial Automation and Control Systems (IACS) Security.

10 predictions for how the tech industry will change in 2019 and beyond

By Alison De Nisco Rayome 

By 2023, nearly every enterprise will act like a digital native, as the digitized global economy continues to expand, according to a Tuesday report from the International Data Corporation (IDC). The organization set out to make 10 predictions for the IT landscape moving into 2019 and beyond, as IT and business leaders continue to undergo digital transformation.

Organizations are being rebuilt around 3rd Platform technologies like cloud, mobile, big data analytics, and social media, and are further enabled by "innovation accelerators" such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), the report found. While many organizations are well on their way to transforming using these technologies, the next chapter of innovation will require companies to expand their digital reach, improve intelligence, increase app and service development, and meet increasing customer expectations and security needs.



The first text message showed up on Ahmed Mansoor’s phone at 9:38 on a sweltering August morning in 2016. “New secrets about torture of Emiratis in state prisons,” it read, somewhat cryptically, in Arabic. A hyperlink followed the words. Something about the number and the message, and a similar one he received the next day, seemed off to Mansoor, a well-known human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates. He resisted the impulse to click on the links.

Instead, Mansoor sent the notes to Citizen Lab, a research institute based at the University of Toronto specializing in human rights and internet security. Working backward, researchers there identified the hyperlinks as part of a sophisticated spyware program built specifically to target Mansoor. Had he clicked on the links, the program would have turned his phone into a “digital spy in his pocket,” Citizen Lab later wrote in a report—tracking his movements, monitoring his messages, and taking control of his camera and microphone.

The U.S. Is Again at Risk of Abandoning the Lessons of Counterinsurgency

Steven Metz 

After 9/11, the United States was thrown into a type of conflict that the U.S. military, intelligence community and Department of State all did not expect: large-scale counterinsurgency. The United States, particularly the military, had always been reluctant to take this on. Counterinsurgency is a politically and psychologically complex struggle that doesn’t play to America’s strength: morally unambiguous warfare where victory comes from creating the biggest and most powerful military, then winning battles until the enemy is crushed. Counterinsurgency often takes place in cultures and locations—remote villages, dense city streets—that Americans have a difficult time understanding.



People who form their ideas about the U.S. military based on Hollywood movies might get the impression that cutting-edge technology is standard in the fighting forces. In fact, the opposite is true. At nuclear sites around the country, technicians still use floppy disks. Only this summer is the U.S. Navy expected to upgrade from Windows XP, an operating system long since scrubbed from home computers. The new F-35 stealth fighter jet, touted as the most sophisticated in the world, was first conceived of in the 1990s.

So when the Defense Department announced last year that it wanted to partner with Silicon Valley to build a massive cloud storage unit where it could securely warehouse and categorize the secret data it collects from intelligence agencies and the military, some experts scoffed. Companies such as Amazon and Google are defined by an ethos of agility and innovation. The Pentagon, by contrast, is known to be clunky and risk averse. Just getting a contract through the department’s famously byzantine procurement process would require a kind of bureaucratic wrangling that a Jeff Bezos or a Tim Cook would find abhorrent.

Tenets of a Regional Defense Strategy

by Jonathan W. Greenert

Of the security concerns in the Indo-Pacific, the challenges are particularly acute in five current hotspots: the Korean Peninsula, the East China Sea, the South China Sea, the India-Pakistan border, and the Taiwan Strait. As the U.S. refines campaign plans in accordance with the National Security Strategy and the classified National Defense Strategy, it is essential that commanders and planners understand the diverse impact of the influence associated with the key players. This diversity is rooted in different levels of national power, approaches to strategic culture, and understandings of national security strategies.


The diversity among the key regional players requires a careful reckoning of each player’s formation of national power, as well as the likelihood and means of using that national power.