18 January 2020

As Violence Soars, Time Runs out for Afghan Interpreters

By Sarah Blake Morgan

In a quiet cul-de-sac of this major North Carolina city, two boys kicked a soccer ball as their father tended to the tiny scraped knee of a third. “You’re strong,” Zia “Booyah” Ghafoori said, scooping up his youngest son.

A U.S. flag fluttered gently from a pole attached to their modest two-story home, the epicenter of the Afghan family’s new life in America.

Ghafoori, 36, came to the United States with his pregnant wife and three small children in 2014 on a Special Immigrant Visa. The visa is Ghafoori’s reward for his 14 years as an interpreter for U.S. Special Forces or, as Ghafoori calls them, “his brothers.” His nickname, Booyah, came from them.

While earning the admiration and respect of the U.S. military, Ghafoori’s work made him a traitor in the eyes of some of his fellow countrymen. He came to the United States to escape possible retribution from the Taliban, the extremist Islamic group that has steadily regained power in the country since being ousted by the U.S. after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Hostility toward the United States has spiked in neighboring Iran and in Iraq in recent days after President Donald Trump ordered an airstrike that killed a top Iranian military leader in Baghdad.

China-Pakistan Naval Drills: More Than Just Symbolism

By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Earlier in the week, the navies of China and Pakistan began their sixth bilateral naval exercise, titled Sea Guardians-2020, in the northern Arabian Sea. Such military exercises are expected to strengthen security cooperation between the two countries, who are already “iron brothers.” According to Chinese media reports, the naval drills are aimed at exploring new methods of conducting China-Pakistan joint naval drills while stepping up the capabilities to jointly addresses issues such as maritime terrorism and crime.

The exercise is also sensitive because it is taking place on India’s west coast, a critical security area from New Delhi’s perspective. Clearly, the exercise will be very important for China because it increases the PLA Navy’s familiarity and understanding of the operational conditions in this part of the Arabian Sea. Moreover, gaining greater access to the Arabian Sea through Pakistan is also likely an attractive incentive for China. If it works, it can be an alternate route for China in the event of a naval blockade by an adversary that closes the Malacca Straits choke point.

In addition, India will also have concerns because India’s Arabian Sea coast hosts several major Indian ports including Kandla, Okha, Mumbai, Nhava Sheva (Navi Mumbai), Mormugão, New Mangalore, and Kochi. For China, the Arabian Sea is also important in the context of its air and naval facility, Jiwani, close to the Gwadar Port and the Iranian Chahabar Port that is jointly developed by India and Iran.

They May Be Friends Now, But China And Russia Killed Each Other In 1969

by Kyle Mizokami
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In 1969 the two pillars of the communist bloc, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, nearly went to full-scale war. Years of deteriorating ties between the two countries, once the staunchest of allies, finally led to skirmishing on the long mutual border between the two countries. While tensions were eventually de-escalated, what if the two countries had gone to war?

On March 2, 1969 Soviet troops patrolling Damansky Island (Zhenbao) on the Ussuri River came under fire from Chinese troops. The attack, just 120 miles from the major Soviet city of Khabarovsk, killed fifty Soviet troops and wounded many more. The Moscow believed that the attack was premeditated, with Beijing bringing in a special combat unit to ambush Soviet forces. Alleged atrocities against wounded Soviet troops made the Soviet leadership furious.

Soviet border guards counterattacked Chinese forces in and around the island on March 15, according to the CIA killing “hundreds” of Chinese troops. Clashes continued through the spring and summer, and by August, CIA director Richard Helms had informed the press that the Soviet leadership had been discreetly inquiring with foreign governments about their opinion on a preemptive strike on China.

Try as It Might, Germany Isn’t Warming to Huawei

By Björn Alexander Düben

Few companies have elicited as much controversy in recent months as the Chinese electronics giant Huawei. Like many other states, Germany is presently faced with the choice of whether or not to involve Huawei in its rollout of the new fifth-generation (5G) mobile telecommunications networks – a critical infrastructure for future industrial and technological development. Due to its economic and political clout, Berlin’s choice of companies to supply 5G network components will likely set an example for other European states to follow. But for more than a year, Germany has been locked in an increasingly fierce political debate about this issue that shows no signs of abating.

Why does the choice of Huawei as a 5G network supplier arouse so much controversy in Germany? For China’s state-controlled media, the answer has been clear: a U.S.-led campaign of pressure and intimidation against its allies has sown distrust between Beijing and Berlin. Since early 2018, the United States has been investigating Huawei in connection with alleged sanctions violations. Citing security risks, Washington issued warnings to its allies – including Germany – to refrain from including Huawei equipment in their critical infrastructures, lest it would be compelled to curtail intelligence sharing with their governments. Consequently, leading Chinese media have observed that “Washington has done all it can to block Huawei equipment from entering European countries’ 5G networks, even threatening to stop sharing intelligence with allies that reject the warning.” They have consistently attributed Germany’s qualms and hesitation regarding its choice of 5G vendors to the “mounting pressure and intimidation from the United States administration” and its attempts at “defaming Huawei in a coordinated smear campaign.”

Will China Play an Active Role Amid US-Iran Tensions?

By Ankit Panda
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The action-reaction cycle of escalation between the United States and Iran took a dramatic turn on January 8 as Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched several ballistic missiles at US military facilities in Iraq.

The attack, codenamed Operation Martyr Soleimani, was designed by the Iranian side to avenge the killing of Qassem Soleimani, the late leader of the IRGC’s Quds Force, who was responsible for managing Tehran’s proxy and regional activities in the Middle East.

The current round of escalation can be traced back to the final days of 2019, when the United States reacted disproportionately to an attack that killed a U.S. contractor by the Iran-aligned Kataib Hezbollah militia in Iraq.

But even going further back, the events of the last two weeks can be traced back to the gradual heightening of tensions between Washington and Tehran since the May 2018 decision by the Trump administration to place the United States in violation of its commitments under the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the American decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran.

Blockchain in China: A Solution in Need of a Problem

By Natalia Cote-Munoz and Sean Silbert

Last October, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that China would “seize the opportunity” investing in blockchain, stressing that China should join the world in setting standards for this emerging technology.

Xi’s announcement will jump-start China’s formidable blockchain activity, where state support often translates to easy financing and subsidies. Since last March, searches for blockchain on Baidu, China’s top search engine, jumped by almost 1,400 percent and over 500 blockchain projects have been registered — as per Chinese regulations — with the government by a diverse range of actors, including some of the largest Chinese banks and tech companies as well as several government offices. Various sectors have begun adopting blockchain in force, using the technology to settling disputes in the courts, to drafting invoice standards, to tracking the shipment of luxury goods.

China seems to be set on blockchain’s potential, but this announcement is a shift from previously negative policies towards blockchain and cryptocurrencies. In 2017, China banned cryptocurrencies, their mining, and initial coin offerings, all efforts to tighten controls on risky investments. Cryptocurrencies had become increasingly popular in the country, and their price volatility and increasing amount of fraud were deemed a risk by the government. Following Xi’s announcement, previous articles calling blockchain a scam were censored and more than 85 Chinese companies with business related to blockchain saw their value jump by the stock exchange’s 10 percent daily limit. Universities rolled out courses in blockchain the very next day.

China 2049: Economic challenges of a rising global power

David Dollar, Yiping Huang, and Yang Yao

China is on track to be the world’s next economic superpower, but it faces tremendous challenges, such as fostering innovation, dealing with an aging population, and coping with a global environment skeptical of a more powerful People’s Republic. This policy brief draws from a forthcoming edited volume — “China 2049: Economic Challenges of a Rising Global Power” (Brookings Institution Press, May 2020) — which is the result of a collaborative effort among economists from China’s Peking University and the Brookings Institution. The book will offer in-depth analyses of these challenges and explore a number of essential questions: Does China have enough talent and the right policy and institutional mix to transit from an input-driven to innovation-driven economy? What does an aging population mean for the country in terms of labor supply, consumption demand, and social welfare expenditures? Can China contain environmental and climate change risks? How should the financial system be transformed in order to continuously support economic growth and keep financial risks under control?

The book contributors, listed in the appendix of this policy brief, also consider the roles state-owned enterprises play in the future Chinese economy, how technological competition between the U.S. and China will affect each country’s development, China’s future role in the international monetary system, and whether the U.S. and other established powers will accept a growing role for China and the rest of the developing world in the governance of global institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund.

Counterterrorism and Preventive Repression: China's Changing Strategy in Xinjiang

Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Myunghee Lee and Emir Yazici

In 2017–18, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) changed its domestic security strategy in Xinjiang, escalating the use of mass detention, ideological re-education, and pressure on Uyghur diaspora networks. Commonly proposed explanations for this shift focus on domestic factors: ethnic unrest, minority policy, and regional leadership. The CCP's strategy changes in Xinjiang, however, were also likely catalyzed by changing perceptions of the threat posed by Uyghur contact with transnational Islamic militant groups in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, and a corresponding increase in perceived domestic vulnerability. This threat shifted from theoretical risk to operational reality in 2014–16, and occurred alongside a revised assessment that China's Muslim population was more vulnerable to infiltration by jihadist networks than previously believed. Belief in the need to preventively inoculate an entire population from “infection” by these networks explains the timing of the change in repressive strategy, shift toward collective detention, heavy use of re-education, and attention paid to the Uyghur diaspora. It therefore helps explain specific aspects of the timing and nature of the CCP's strategy changes in Xinjiang. These findings have implications for the study of the connections between counterterrorism and domestic repression, as well as for authoritarian preventive repression and Chinese security policy at home and abroad.


Trump Can't Win In Iraq Because Iran Is Winning The Middle East's Information War

by Michael Rubin
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Across Iran, hundreds of thousands poured into the streets to mark General Qassem Soleimani’s death. The head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Qods Force unit for more than two decades, Soleimani was revered in Iran. In 2015, for example, Tabnak.ir, an Iranian news website affiliated with more pragmatic factions inside the Islamic Republic, published a poll in which their audience voted Soleimani as one of the most respected figures in Iran. In the wake of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons attack on East Ghoutra, a Damascus suburb, Iranians polled by the reformist Khabar Online, a theoretically independent news site inside Iran, voted Soleimani “man of the year.”

The problem is not that ordinary Iranians support terror; they do not and, indeed, over the decades have often been victims of it. Rather, Iranians see Soleimani primarily as a nationalist hero both because he carefully cultivated his own image and because he most Iranians have not heard any alternative narrative. If they consume only Iranian media, they would be unaware of Soleimani’s role in Syrian sectarian cleansing or terrorism more broadly.

Persian Might: How Strong Is Iran's Military?

With the possibility of a major conflict brewing with the United States since the killing of Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani, the capabilities of the Iranian military are being sharply scrutinized.

So just how strong are the Islamic republic's armed forces?

The answer to that question hinges largely on what strategic goals Iran pursues.

Tehran’s main goal is to project its influence and protect its interests throughout the Middle East or to at least prevent adversaries, like Saudi Arabia, from gaining the upper hand.

To accomplish that, Tehran has done everything possible to deter and harass the enormous contingents of U.S. forces deployed in 10 countries throughout the region with the ultimate objective being to push them out.

In pursuing that goal, Iran will likely avoid a full-blown war because its military is no match for the American armed forces and Washington's allies stationed in the Middle East, experts say.

Iran's Escalation Phases Since May 2019

This analysis is co-published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute.

Iran has been escalating its attacks on American and allied targets since May 2019. Iran has shot down an American drone, attacked American bases with rockets culminating in the death of an American contractor, and assaulted the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. These Iranian attacks established the context for the U.S. drone strike that killed Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) commander Qassem Soleimani and leading Iranian proxy in Iraq Abu Mehdi al-Muhandis on January 3, 2020. Iran’s escalations occurred in phases and were part of an orchestrated campaign to achieve its strategic objectives, including sanctions relief and the ouster of the U.S. from Iraq and the region. 

A new ISW-CTP graphic by Nicholas Heras, Frederick Kagan, Kyra Rauschenbach, and Jason Zhou illustrates the phases of Iran's campaign.

Beyond Soleimani: Implications for Iran’s Proxy Network in Iraq and Syria

by Nakissa Jahanbani

Early on January 3, U.S. airstrikes near Baghdad International Airport killed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force (IRGC-QF) Major General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi politician and militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was deputy chief of the Popular Mobilization Commission and the founder of the Kata’ib Hezbollah militia. These strikes occurred against a background of rising escalation between the United States and Iran in Iraq, particularly after December 27 when Kata’ib Hezbollah, a prominent Iranian proxy, killed a U.S. citizen and pro-Iranian militia members attacked the U.S. embassy in Baghdad just four days later.

Considered by many to be one of the principal architects of Iran’s extensive regional reach, Soleimani cultivated relationships with dozens of proxies throughout the Middle East and beyond. But while the international focus on Soleimani’s death is warranted, the death of al-Muhandis is significant in its own right, both due to his role in Iraq, but also in what it signals about what Soleimani’s, and by extension Iran’s, priorities in Iraq were. In one strike, the United States removed two of the most critical actors in Iranian regional strategy, and the global audience was left wondering: what is next for IRGC-QF’s role in the region, particularly its relationships with its partner militias in Iraq and Syria?...

Donald Trump’s Iran Problem

By Robin Wright

On September 19, 1983, during Lebanon’s long civil war, the Reagan Administration ordered Marine peacekeepers in Beirut to open fire on Muslim militias in the mountains overlooking the city. The marines had been deployed for more than a year, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, to help hold together one of the world’s most fractured states. Colonel Tim Geraghty, their commander, warned that an attack would cost the United States its neutrality and its mission; nevertheless, U.S. ships fired more than three hundred rounds of seventy-pound shells. Geraghty later wrote, “As the sun set at the end of a tumultuous day, I remarked to members of my staff that my gut instinct tells me the Corps is going to pay in blood for this decision.”

On October 23rd, a suicide bomber drove a truck loaded with twelve thousand pounds of explosives into the peacekeepers’ barracks. Two hundred and forty-one Americans died. The largest loss for the corps in a single incident since Iwo Jima was carried out by a Lebanese group that became Hezbollah—but it was orchestrated by Iran. Washington ordered U.S. warplanes to destroy an Iranian military post in Lebanon, but called off the strike. The marines moved to underground containers; a few months later, they sailed home, their mission abandoned. “The Iranians’ goal was to remove the marines and Western influence,” Geraghty recalled last week. “And they did.”

Iranian Hackers Have Been ‘Password-Spraying’ the US Grid

In the wake of the US assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and the retaliatory missile strike that followed, Iran-watchers have warned that the country could deploy cyberattacks as well, perhaps even targeting US critical infrastructure like the electric grid. A new report lends some fresh details to the nature of that threat: By all appearances, Iranian hackers don't currently have the capability to start causing blackouts in the US. But they’ve been working to gain access to American electric utilities, long before tensions between the two countries came to a head.

On Thursday morning, industrial control system security firm Dragos detailed newly revealed hacking activity that it has tracked and attributed to a group of state-sponsored hackers it calls Magnallium. The same group is also known as APT33, Refined Kitten, or Elfin, and has previously been linked to Iran. Dragos says it has observed Magnallium carrying out a broad campaign of so-called password-spraying attacks, which guess a set of common passwords for hundreds or even thousands of different accounts, targeting US electric utilities as well as oil and gas firms.

How the Iran-Iraq war shaped the trajectories of figures like Qassem Soleimani

Bruce Riedel

The death of General Qassem Soleimani has underscored the crucial importance of the Iran-Iraq war in shaping the politics of today’s Iran and its future. Soleimani and his successor Ismail Qaani began their careers as soldiers in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard fighting the Iraqis in the 1980s, their legitimacy as Iran’s defenders flows from the war. The defining moment in their lives, the war shaped their views of the region and especially of the United States.

The Iran-Iraq war was one of the largest and longest conventional interstate wars since the Korean War ended in 1953. At least a half million lives were lost and over another million injured. The economic cost was over a trillion dollars. After eight years of warfare, much of it like the trenches of World War I, the armies ended in virtually the same positions they had started in September 1980. It was also the only war in modern times in which chemical weapons were used on a massive scale along with ballistic missiles to attack cities. It was the most extensive use of weapons of mass destruction since Japan in 1945.

Iran spent years building a cyber arsenal. Will it unleash that arsenal now?

Chris Meserole

In 2007, a computer virus crippled centrifuges at Iran’s uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, setting back its nuclear program by years. The Stuxnet attack — not uncovered until a few years later — taught the revolutionary regime in Tehran a valuable lesson about how effective cyber weapons can be, prompting Tehran to invest heavily in cyber capabilities of its own. The results speak for themselves: Iranian hacking groups have graduated from conventional distributed denial of service (DDoS) and domain name system (DNS) attacks to more sophisticated operations against critical infrastructure and industrial control systems.

In the wake of Qassem Soleimani’s killing last week, the question of how Iran aims to use its cyber arsenal has acquired a newfound urgency. Tehran will need to respond forcefully to Friday’s attack, as well as related recent strikes. Iran’s cyber weaponry would seem to offer a ready-made option for high-impact, low-cost retaliation, as Iran’s national security chiefs have apparently recognized.

Yet fears of a devastating Iranian cyberattack are premature. The coming days and weeks will almost certainly bring an uptick in Iranian activity, as always happens when the two countries are engaged in brinksmanship. But it would be surprising if Tehran’s promised retaliation leveraged cyber operations alone.

War with Iran is still less likely than you think

Michael C. Horowitz and Elizabeth N. Saunders

Michael C. Horowitz and Elizabeth Saunders write that despite Iranian attacks in retaliation for the killing of Qasem Soleimani, neither the United States nor Iran wants to go to war. Iranian retaliation could be costly, but it is not the same as all-out war. This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post.

In June, after tensions spiked following attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman that the United States blamed on Iran, we laid out the case for why the two countries were unlikely to fight a general war. We drew on similar arguments in 2018, when we explained why war between the United States and North Korea was unlikely despite the fears of many analysts at the time.


The U.S. killing of Soleimani, an attack on a high-ranking government official, is different from previous moments of international tension during the Trump administration. Soleimani was an important military officer in a sovereign state, rather than the leader of a stateless terrorist organization, like Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In last summer’s oil tanker and drone-downing episodes, the stakes were lower, and there were elements of deniability or ambiguity that were not feasible in the case of killing Soleimani.

Iran’s next move

Daniel L. Byman
Iran’s initial retaliation for the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani seems, for now, limited to a missile attack on two Iraqi bases that housed U.S. forces on Wednesday. The missiles killed no one, but Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei proclaimed them a “slap in the face” for the United States. Iran’s actions and rhetoric are widely seen as a way for Iran to save face domestically while avoiding actions that would lead to a military spiral. President Donald Trump, for his part, declared that Iran is “standing down” and signaled that the United States had no desire for further military escalation.

Let’s hope the crisis is over, but there’s good reason to fear it’s not. Iranian leaders may bide their time, seeking to serve their revenge cold and ensure that the ultimate response is more bloody and better serves their interests. Even if Iran currently plans not to escalate, further U.S. action or changes in the region might lead it to target the United State again.

How might Iran respond the next time?

The Real Backstory of Why Trump Ordered the Killing of Suleimani Is Becoming More Clear

By John Cassidy

The Trump-Iran story continues to develop in alarming ways. On Thursday, reports that Western governments believe Iranian military forces mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing a hundred and seventy-six passengers and crew members, produced a predictably divided reaction. “Innocent civilians are now dead because they were caught in the middle of an unnecessary and unwanted military tit for tat,” Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic Presidential candidate, said, on Twitter, immediately drawing cries of outrage from Trump supporters who insisted that Iran was entirely responsible. Iran’s government dismissed the reports as disinformation. But, if it does turn out that the Iranian military made a terrible blunder amid the frightening escalation in long-running tensions between Tehran and the Trump Administration, it will be ever more imperative to get a full account, not only of that blunder but also of the escalation.

On that subject, more disturbing details are emerging by the day. The picture we are getting is of the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, and Vice-President Mike Pence both egging on an impetuous President to launch the January 2nd drone attack that killed the Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani at Baghdad International Airport. None of Trump’s other senior political or military advisers, meanwhile, appear to have urged restraint, despite the near-certainty that the move would inflame the entire Middle East and provoke reprisals. Any deliberative policymaking process appears to have been replaced by a combination of belligerence, toadyism, and saluting the Commander-in-Chief.

A Known Secret: Israel's Nuclear Arsenal Is Deadly And Ready

by Kyle Mizokami
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Key point: The country will likely not declare itself a nuclear power any time soon; ambiguity over ownership of nukes has served the country very well.

In a private email leaked to the public in September of 2016, former secretary of state and retired U.S. Army general Colin Powell alluded to Israel having an arsenal of “200 nuclear weapons.” While this number appears to be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that Israel does have a small but powerful nuclear stockpile, spread out among its armed forces. Israeli nuclear weapons guard against everything from defeat in conventional warfare to serving to deter hostile states from launching nuclear, chemical and biological warfare attacks against the tiny country. Regardless, the goal is the same: to prevent the destruction of the Jewish state.

Israel set off to join the nuclear club in the 1950s. David Ben-Gurion was reportedly obsessed with developing the bomb as insurance against Israel’s enemies. Although an ambitious goal for such a small, initially impoverished country, Israel did not have any security guarantees with larger, more powerful states—particularly the United States. The country was on its own, even buying conventional weapons off the black market to arm the new Israeli Defense Forces. Nuclear weapons would be the ultimate form of insurance for a people that had suffered persecution but now had the means to control their own destiny.

Russia’s Unusual Role in the Global Order

WPR has been covering Russia as a global actor for more than a decade. This frequently updated collection is designed as an entry point for that extensive coverage.

Russia occupies an unusual position on the world stage. Under President Vladimir Putin, Moscow has repeatedly demonstrated that it has the capacity to destabilize the international order, but not the capacity to fill the vacuum it is creating. While Russia lacks the military strength to challenge U.S. supremacy, no one—particularly not the NATO alliance—is ignoring its capabilities. Moscow’s use of arms sales and military engagements to build ties to countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America has also attracted attention. And its massive, and growing, exports of fossil fuels to Europe offers Russia additional leverage.

Even as Moscow maintains an outsized influence on the global stage, discontent is brewing at home. Putin has dominated the Russian political scene for more than two decades, but his popularity is waning amid a slowing economy and a deeply unpopular pension reform effort. That may open space for his long-suffering political opponents to call attention to the corruption and violence that have marked his tenure.

Who Signs Up to Fight? Makeup of U.S. Recruits Shows Glaring Disparity

by Dave Philipps and Tim Arango

… Soldiers like him are increasingly making the United States military a family business. The men and women who sign up overwhelmingly come from counties in the South and a scattering of communities at the gates of military bases like Colorado Springs, which sits next to Fort Carson and several Air Force installations, and where the tradition of military service is deeply ingrained.

More and more, new recruits are the children of old recruits. In 2019, 79 percent of Army recruits reported having a family member who served. For nearly 30 percent, it was a parent — a striking point in a nation where less than 1 percent of the population serves in the military.

For years, military leaders have been sounding the alarm over the growing gulf between communities that serve and those that do not, warning that relying on a small number of counties that reliably produce soldiers is unsustainable, particularly now amid escalating tensions with Iran.

Infographic Of The Day: How The STEM Crisis Is Threatening The Future Of Work

STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and math has more recently become a bigger part of American children curriculums with the coining of the term in 2001 by Judith Ramaley. Over the last decade, the U.S. has seen nearly 2 million new STEM jobs - but students' math and science scores continue to lag behind other nations.

Can AMLO’s Vision for Mexico’s Future Survive Trump?

The election of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, or AMLO, in July 2018 was supposed to result in a radical transformation for Mexico. But since taking office that December, AMLO has struggled to deliver on his campaign promises, including tackling corruption and reforming the country’s drug war. Meanwhile, he has often found himself playing catchup to U.S. President Donald Trump, whose quixotic threats linking trade and immigration have forced AMLO’s hand when it comes to Mexico’s efforts to block immigrants from crossing into the United States.

The most recent crisis came when Trump unexpectedly announced he was imposing a series of increasing trade sanctions unless Mexico managed to stop all migrant flow across the border—a virtual impossibility. Trump ultimately granted a reprieve, but only after Mexico apparently reaffirmed earlier pledges to try to stem migration, including deploying security forces to the country’s southern border. This is not a permanent solution, though, and the migration issue will continue to dog AMLO’s presidency so long as Trump remains in office.

2020 trends to watch: Policy issues to watch in 2020

2019 was marked by massive protest movements in a number of different countries, impeachment, continued Brexit talks and upheaval in global trade, and much more. Already, 2020 is shaping up to be no less eventful as the U.S. gears up for presidential elections in November.

Brookings experts are looking ahead to the issues they expect will shape the world this year and the solutions to address them. Below, explore what our experts have identified as the biggest policy issues in their field for 2020, the ideas or proposals they encourage policymakers to consider, and the overlooked stories that deserve greater attention.

American self-criticism borders on narcissism

Shadi Hamid

Those who said there will be war may not have realized there already was war. This doesn’t mean killing Iranian General Qassem Soleimani was good. It almost certainly wasn’t. Iran quickly retaliated by targeting two American military bases in Iraq and may find new ways to escalate, but Iran had already been escalating. The regime of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, with its Iranian patrons, led by Soleimani, has been waging a brutal assault on Syrians for more than eight years. War, in short, has been happening — costing hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians their lives — since long before Donald Trump ordered the drone strike against Soleimani.

In the aftermath of the strike, critics of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, particularly on the left, have described the move as one more rash American intervention that’s sure to further destabilize the region. Yet this formulation gives U.S. policy, for all its flaws, too much credit. Not everything is America’s fault; others are sometimes to blame; and no one, not even the weaker parties, are devoid of agency or freed of responsibility. The burden of de-escalation does not fall entirely on the United States; Iran, too, can choose to de-escalate.

There is also the problem of Trump himself. Because killing Soleimani was very much his decision — reflecting the impulsiveness and disarray a decision by him implies — it seems fair to assume that one’s view of the president will affect how one interprets the fallout from Soleimani’s killing. Correcting for subconscious bias isn’t easy, but at the very least, observers should be aware of the Trump effect.

Chaos Is the Point’: Russian Hackers and Trolls Grow Stealthier in 2020

By Matthew Rosenberg, Nicole Perlroth and David E. Sanger

The National Security Agency and its British counterpart issued an unusual warning in October: The Russians were back and growing stealthier.

Groups linked to Russia’s intelligence agencies, they noted, had recently been uncovered boring into the network of an elite Iranian hacking unit and attacking governments and private companies in the Middle East and Britain — hoping Tehran would be blamed for the havoc.

For federal and state officials charged with readying defenses for the 2020 election, it was a clear message that the next cyberwar was not going to be like the last. The landscape is evolving, and the piggybacking on Iranian networks was an example of what America’s election-security officials and experts face as the United States enters what is shaping up to be an ugly campaign season marred by hacking and disinformation.

Africa File

Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.

The Salafi-jihadi movement is strengthening across several regions of Africa and will grow more dangerous in 2020 if current trends continue. This comes as the US seeks to limit its presence on the continent and shift its focus toward great-power competition with China and Russia—even though this competition is playing out in Africa. US resources are also focused on managing extremely high tensions with Iran. These dynamics place the US and its allies at risk of strategic surprise from the growing African Salafi-jihadi threat, particularly if intelligence, military, and diplomatic assets decrease.

Americans have a false sense of security that the African Salafi-jihadi threat is local. Local Salafi-jihadi groups underpin the global movement. Their sanctuaries in remote areas and in failed or failing states allow them to train, experiment, and prepare to take their capabilities onto the global stage.

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Victory at Last!

by Tom Engelhardt
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Yes, our infrastructure stinks, our schools are failing, this country’s a nightmare of inequality, and there’s a self-promoting madman in the White House, so isn’t it time to take pride in the rare institutional victories America has had in this century? Arguably, none has been more striking than the triumphal success of the American war system.

Oh, you’re going to bring that up immediately? Okay, you're right. It’s true enough that the U.S. military can’t win a war anymore. In this century, it’s never come out on top anywhere, not once, not definitively. And yes, just to get a step ahead of you, everywhere it's set foot across the Greater Middle East and Africa, it seems to have killed startling numbers of people and uprooted so many more, sending lots of them into exile and so unsettling other parts of the world as well. In the process, it’s also had remarkable success spreading failed states and terror groups far and wide.

Al-Qaeda, whose 19 suicidal hijackers so devastatingly struck this country on September 11, 2001, was just a modest outfit then (even if its leader dreamt of drawing the U.S. into conflicts across the Islamic world that would promote his group big time). Nineteen years later, its branches have spread from Yemen to West Africa, while the original al-Qaeda still exists. And don’t forget its horrific progeny, the Islamic State, or ISIS (originally al-Qaeda in Iraq). Though the U.S. military has declared it defeated in its “caliphate” (it isn’t, not truly), its branches have multiplied from the Philippines deep into Africa.

Scientists Made a Nearly Invincible Lithium-Ion Battery

Lithium-ion batteries have shaped the modern world. These power pouches are at the heart of most rechargeable electronics, from cell phones and laptops to vapes and electric cars. But while they’re great at holding a charge and have a high energy density, lithium-ion batteries aren’t without their problems. Their reliance on toxic, flammable materials means the smallest defect can result in exploding gadgets.

A team of researchers led by physicists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory believed a safer battery was possible, and for the past five years they have been developing a lithium-ion battery that’s seemingly immune to failure. The rugged battery they first unveiled in 2017, working with researchers at the University of Maryland, can be cut, shot, bent, and soaked without an interruption in power. Late last year, the Johns Hopkins team pushed it further, making it fireproof and boosting its voltages to levels comparable with a commercial product. Samsung, eat your heart out.