9 December 2020

How the U.S. Should Leave Afghanistan

by Monica Toft

While on a recent foreign trip, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with the Taliban negotiating team in Doha, discussing a potential ceasefire and political settlement between the militants and the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. The efforts at intra-Afghan peace talks have, generously speaking, sputtered. But no matter how these talks do or don’t progress, it is long past time for the United States to leave Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, each time an administration gets close to leaving, influential voices give reasons given for why it can’t leave. The first and most difficult is that the United States can’t trust the Taliban to abide by any agreement it signs: if the Taliban have a choice between answering to God or answering to the international community, they’ll choose God. All other reasons given fall away from there; but the critical issue is that once the Taliban back away from whatever they agree to in the short term, Afghanistan will return to the status quo antebellum.

Afghanistan’s Biggest Fight: Climate Change

By Ezzatullah Mehrdad

One August night under a cloudy sky, Hamid Agha slept peacefully in his home, packed with extended family members, in the town of Charikar in Afghanistan. Around midnight, the rainfall began. The rumble of waters flowing down the hillsides woke Hamid Agha up. He rushed to the door. Clods of earth and rocks hit him and the flood ripped him out of his house.

The flash flood on the night of August 26 highlighted the deadly consequences of climate change in Afghanistan. The heavy dependence on traditional agriculture and rapid population growth make the country extremely vulnerable to climate change, which undermines all aspects of development. The more weather patterns change, the more Afghans suffer – and they have been suffering already through 40 years of war.

The wars have spared few Afghans. They are now doomed to live out a global warming catastrophe, too. Hamid Agha, who had survived the war, was carried away from his home by the flood. He heard children screaming for help amid the apocalyptic scene engulfing his house. Floating away, he caught the wall of his neighbor’s home.

India and Germany in Afghanistan: Building platforms of cooperation

Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza

India and Germany have made tremendous investments in Afghanistan since 2001. The present levels of violence combined with the uncertainties associated with the peace process are impacting on the role and commitment of both countries in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. Amid concerns over backsliding of the country into further chaos and violence, Germany and India who have been important stakeholders in rebuilding Afghanistan need to explore and build platforms of cooperation for the long-term stabilization of the country. Given the convergence of interests in the stabilization of Afghanistan and strategic partnership, Germany and India are uniquely positioned to cooperate. More importantly, as Germany and India aspire to play a major role in the international arena, Afghanistan would be a test case of how these both countries develop joint strategies of conflict resolution, global governance, and formation of an alliance of multilateralists in a rapidly changing global order.

Why the India-Sri Lanka-Maldives NSA-level Talks Matter

By Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Last week, Colombo hosted an India-Sri Lanka-Maldives trilateral maritime security dialogue. The meeting saw the revival of the national security advisor (NSA)-level dialogue among the three countries, which began almost a decade ago in 2011. That the meeting took place six years after the last edition in 2014 is significant. Both Sri Lanka and the Maldives are rcritical maritime neighbors to India in the Indian Ocean region and there have been continuous efforts by both India and China to win friends and favors in Colombo and Male.

The NSA-level talks are also a demonstration of the Indian intent to push subregional diplomacy, which has been gaining traction in India’s foreign policy in the last few years. The Modi government has made efforts to engage in subregional diplomacy as a useful track following the near-complete halt in regional diplomacy in South Asia under the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). 

China’s New Surveillance Currency

By Maximilian Kärnfelt and Kai von Carnap

Some 5,000 people in Shenzhen saw their phones light up in October with news they had won a digital “red envelope” worth 200 renminbi (RMB) ($30). One in six citizens had taken part in a lottery for free money, paid out in the Chinese central bank’s new digital currency, Digital Currency/Electronic Payment (DECP). China is in the vanguard of governments trying to catch up with online payments operators by putting virtual currencies into circulation. The People’s Bank of China (PBoC) says this will make the RMB more popular around the globe. But the real incentive for Beijing seems to be something else – data about citizens’ habits.

Beijing does want to accelerate the international use of its currency. Given the downward spiral of U.S.-China relations, U.S. financial sanctions against Chinese banks and restrictions on access to the SWIFT global payments system are no longer unthinkable. This would be a huge blow, as most of China’s cross-border transactions are settled in U.S. dollars. Only about 2 percent of international transactions cleared on SWIFT are settled in RMB and China’s CIPS payment system is still tiny, about 0.3 percent the size of SWIFT. A global RMB would allow China’s companies to pay ­– and be paid – around the world independently of the dollar.

The Party That Failed

By Cai Xia

When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, I was full of hope for China. As a professor at the prestigious school that educates top leaders in the Chinese Communist Party, I knew enough about history to conclude that it was past time for China to open up its political system. After a decade of stagnation, the CCP needed reform more than ever, and Xi, who had hinted at his proclivity for change, seemed like the man to lead it.

By then, I was midway through a decades-long process of grappling with China’s official ideology, even as I was responsible for indoctrinating officials in it. Once a fervent Marxist, I had parted ways with Marxism and increasingly looked to Western thought for answers to China’s problems. Once a proud defender of official policy, I had begun to make the case for liberalization. Once a loyal member of the CCP, I was secretly harboring doubts about the sincerity of its beliefs and its concern for the Chinese people.

Australia’s China Problem


MELBOURNE – Australia’s China problem – official contacts frozen and many of our exports under siege – is now gaining attention far beyond our shores. Much of the world, given stark evidence of the economic havoc that China’s displeasure can wreak, and of the ugly depths to which its “wolf warrior diplomacy” can descend, is trying to understand both how we fell into this hole, and whether we can climb out of it with our dignity intact.

How have Australia’s relations with China deteriorated so spectacularly? The short answer is that, although the most recent escalations have come from the Chinese side, for several years Australia has not properly managed the need both to get along with China and to stand up to it. As Geoff Raby, a former Australian ambassador to China, has argued, we have failed to devise a middle way between sycophancy and hostility. Or, to cite the immortal wisdom of the 1930s Scottish labor leader Jimmy Maxton: “If you can’t ride two horses at once, you shouldn’t be in the bloody circus.”

China’s Technoindustrial Policy Is More Soviet Retro Than Japan Innovation

By Tristan Kenderdine

Following from the Fifth Plenum Communique, which sketched the form of the coming 14th Five-Year Plan, the China Communist Party released two more major technoindustrial plans, a fuller Central Committee proposal on the 14th Five-Year Plan and 2035 Long-term Goal, and Xi Jinping’s interpretation of the proposals. This should be the blueprint for China’s technoindustrial policy for the 2022-2035 period. However in substance, the policy proposals are more rhetoric than robots.

While United States policmakers have shunned industrial policy for the past two decades, Senator Marco Rubio has argued for countering China’s industrial policy with a new U.S. industrial policy. The European Union has long utilized industrial policy principles for its economic development plans, given the uneven economic development among member states. And 2020 is seeing an acceptance that neoliberalism has failed to economically develop any new states this century, while hollowing out the structural bases of the industrialized economies.

The Great 5G Race: Is China Really Beating the United States?

Doug Brake, Alexandra Bruer

Fearmongers claim the 5G sky is falling: China is way ahead, and drastic measures are needed to catch up. But these claims are often based on poorly understood comparisons of 5G deployment. China’s 5G stats can paint a misleading picture if taken at face value.

China’s reporting of 5G “package subscribers” should not be conflated to mean the number of 5G users. Not every 5G subscriber has a 5G-capable device, nor does every 5G subscriber actually have access to a 5G network.

China’s mobile operators tend to count base stations, whereas U.S. operators report physical sites. Usually there are multiple base stations for each cell site or tower, so it’s important not to conflate these numbers.

A larger 5G network does not guarantee superior network performance. All else being equal, China will need roughly 4.5 times as many cell sites as the United States to support its substantially larger population.

China Wants to 'Mass Produce' New H-20 Stealth Bombers and J-20 Stealth Fighters

by Kris Osborn

China will mass produce its new J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter, H-20 stealth bomber and new Type 055 large destroyer as part of a stated goal to modernize its military in the coming years and carve a path toward global supremacy. 

The communist country will also be moving quickly to build and commission its third and most advanced aircraft carrier as part of a broad modernization overhaul outlined in a news report from the Chinese government-backed Global Times newspaper. 

Specific modernization benchmarks were outlined by the Communist Party of China Central Committee, as reported in the paper by the Chinese Ministry of National Defense. 

The details of each phase were not specified in the article, yet a Senior Chinese military official was quoted as saying the effort seeks to reach “phased goals in national defense and military modernization.” 

Why is Saudi Arabia finally engaging with Iraq?

Bruce Riedel and Katherine Harvey

After decades of isolating Iraq, Saudi Arabia is finally engaging its northern neighbor. The Saudis have been very reluctant to accept a Shia-led government in Iraq. The main border crossing at Arar was finally opened last month, after a 30-year closure dating to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The Saudis’ recent round of engagement dates to 2015, when they belatedly sent an ambassador to Baghdad, after cutting off relations 25 years before. The Saudi foreign minister visited the Iraqi capital in 2017, the first by a senior official since then-Saudi ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar went in early 1990. The Saudis opened a consulate in Basra in 2019. Opening the Arar border crossing is the biggest step towards normalization of relations since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Prior to 2015, however, the Saudis missed a critical opportunity to engage with the Iraqis — a missed opportunity that benefited Iran. In the summer of 2006, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, having attained the Iraqi premiership a few months before, visited the kingdom and met with King Abdullah. Abdallah concluded after the one meeting that Maliki and his government were stooges of Iran. They could not be trusted. He decided not to engage further. In doing so, Abdullah reinforced the bad American decision to invade Iraq with a bad Saudi decision not to help stabilize his neighbor.

Why Joe Biden Won’t Be Free from America’s Forever Wars

by Paul R. Pillar

Dissension among Democrats over domestic policies has been much in evidence since the election and has appeared in recriminations over their party’s disappointing result in congressional races. On one hand are those who preach the art of the possible amid the power politics of a badly divided nation. On the other hand are those who ask what is the point of attaining power if it is not used to try to do principled things on behalf of the nation, notwithstanding the possibility of failure.

Power-versus-principle disputes enter foreign policy debates as well, often with regard to matters such as shaping U.S. relations with states that have repulsive regimes that grossly violate human rights but offer cooperation on other matters important to the United States. A foreign policy division that is more analogous to the intra-Democratic divisions over domestic policy, however, and is most likely to arise during Joe Biden’s administration concerns how rapidly the administration should extract the United States from what have become known as the forever wars.

How Biden Can Advance Unity in U.S. Foreign Policy

By James Van de Velde

The new Biden administration, if it is serious about unity, should admit why it was and was not elected. It certainly was not elected by the majority of Americans to reverse the tremendous gains toward Middle East peace by now aiding Iran – the one obstacle to peace in the Middle East and an intractable totalitarian regime. Trump isolated and weakened Iran and revealed that change in Tehran is the only policy option for an implacably hostile and expansionist Iran. Biden is positioned now to negotiate a total end to the Iranian nuclear program, sap Iranian proxies in Lebanon and Syria from outside the theater, and work with regional allies committed to fundamental change in Teheran. If instead, Biden lifts sanctions and aids Iran, he will be forever known, along with former President Obama, as the savior – if not sponsor -- of the worst totalitarian regime currently on the planet and the only obstacle now to peace.

Trump has isolated Palestinian leadership and secured peace agreements between Israel and key Arab states. Biden can now appeal to Palestinian leadership to negotiate more seriously with Israel via stronger American leadership.

2021 NDAA Would Create a National Cyber Director


Language calling for a national cyber director within the Executive Office of the President is included in a final 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which the House will soon vote on, according to Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I.

In an interview with Nextgov, Langevin said the House will vote next week on the roughly $722 billion defense bill that is chock full of cybersecurity provisions that will affect all agencies. The Senate on Wednesday also agreed to proceed on the bill, which the chair and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee announced has achieved bicameral agreement. 

Members of both chambers have been in conference to reconcile the House and Senate versions of the bill, which both passed with veto-proof majorities. Members of Congress are committed to moving forward on a final conference report despite renewed threats from President Trump who has insisted the defense bill should remove liability protections in place for social media companies. 

How Biden Can Help Warriors Save Warriors


One of the top priorities for President-elect Joe Biden’s administration must be to arrest and reverse the terrible suicide trend that has befallen America’s military veterans and active duty service members.

The initial signs are positive that the incoming administration is taking this tragic issue seriously.

The Biden team overseeing Veterans Affairs issues is led by Meg Kabat, a capable former national director of VA’s Caregiver Support Program, and includes many other strong advocates for veterans. The incoming administration promises among their priorities to “publish within the first 200 days in office a comprehensive public health and cross-sector approach to addressing suicide in veterans, service members, and their families.”

The Biden team also says it will create “a national center of excellence for reducing veteran suicide, similar to the National Center on Homelessness among Veterans,” and that it will require all providers of veterans services funded by the VA to receive training on suicide risk identification.

Al Tanf garrison: America’s strategic baggage in the Middle East

Daniel L. Magruder Jr.

America’s presence in the Middle East holds hidden costs, unknown risks, and nominal benefits in maintaining the status quo. The “pivot to Asia” under the Obama administration required balancing how to secure U.S. interests in the Middle East with fewer resources. The U.S. must consider actions of the past, specifically the strategic baggage that has accrued over years of growing military commitments. One key case study in strategic baggage is in Syria.

“Strategic baggage” refers to a military commitment that has outlasted its utility. This occurs when, on balance, the perception of the costs is either too high, benefits too low, or risks too great to continue. The build-up of baggage impacts other choices regarding global priorities, goals, and allocation of military forces. In this way, it hampers America’s ability to make strategic choices moving forward, because we are wedded to the past and cannot wipe the slate clean.

The U.S. Desperately Needs a Strategy to Deal With Russia’s Mercenary Armies

Candace Rondeaux

Reports this week that the United Arab Emirates is potentially financing Russian mercenaries in Libya affiliated with the notorious Wagner Group, according to a Pentagon watchdog, appear to be sending mini shockwaves through Washington. But the UAE has long had a fixation on mercenaries, and the fact that Russia is a regular supplier of soldiers of fortune should surprise no one. Much more worrying is the lack of policy coherence in Washington on what to do about it.

A seemingly insatiable appetite for proxy wars and hired guns has helped fuel the rise of these shadow armies. President-elect Joe Biden’s administration can quickly get at least one thing right by standing up a joint task force on the proliferation of privatized militaries and their implications for American national security. If Congress is smart, it will take aggressive legislative steps to ensure that happens. ...

Over 1 billion people live in poverty hotspots

Raj M. Desai, Homi Kharas, and Selen Özdoğan

Where a person is born is the best predictor of their lifetime prospects. Yet, “spatial” income inequality has been widening. Geographic wealth disparities have been increasing in rich and poor countries alike. Eighty percent of global economic activity is generated on 3 percent of the landmass. Countries with worsening regional inequality, in the past decade, have seen greater political polarization, conflict, and government turnover.

In recent research, we examine spatial patterns in income levels and growth across 2,894 subnational areas in the world. The map in Figure 1 shows 538 administrative areas we call poverty hotspots—areas that are classified as low income in both 2000 and 2015 using the historical income thresholds provided by the World Bank. These were home to 1.12 billion people in 2015. Although largely concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa, Central, and South Asia they are distributed across 77 countries, far more than the 31 countries classified by the World Bank as low income.

Figure 1. World’s poverty hotspots

Subnational GNI per capita (Atlas method, current US dollars) below $755 in 2000 and $1,025 in 2015

When will the COVID-19 pandemic end?

By Sarun Charumilind, Matt Craven, Jessica Lamb, Adam Sabow, and Matt Wilson

Our November 23 update takes on the questions raised by recent news: When will vaccines be available? And is the end of COVID-19 nearer?

November 23, 2020

Since we published our first outlook, on September 21st, the COVID-19 pandemic has raged on, with more than 25 million additional cases and more than 400,000 additional deaths. While the situation looks somewhat better in parts of the Southern Hemisphere, much of Europe and North America is in the midst of a “fall wave,” with the prospect of a difficult winter ahead. Yet the past two weeks have brought renewed hope, headlined by final data from the Pfizer/BioNTech1 vaccine trial and interim data from the Moderna trial, both showing efficacy of approximately 95 percent2 ; and progress on therapeutics. Is an earlier end to the pandemic now more likely?

The short answer is that the latest developments serve mainly to reduce the uncertainty of the timeline (Exhibit 1). The positive readouts from the vaccine trials mean that the United States will most likely reach an epidemiological end to the pandemic (herd immunity) in Q3 or Q4 2021. An earlier timeline to reach herd immunity—for example, Q1/Q2 of 2021—is now less likely, as is a later timeline (2022). If we are able to pair these vaccines with more effective implementation of public-health measures and effective scale-up of new treatments and diagnostics, alongside the benefits of seasonality, we may also be able to reduce mortality enough in Q2 to enable the United States to transition toward normalcy. (See sidebar “Two endpoints” for our definitions.)

Human Rights Are Under Attack. Who Will Protect Them?

Globally, human rights remain under attack, whether by populist movements desperate to gain power or authoritarian governments eager to maintain it. Technology has opened up new frontiers for curbing people’s ability to express and share dissenting ideas. And broad assaults are underway on institutions like the International Criminal Court, which was established not only to offer recourse for the victims of rights violations, but to establish an international human rights benchmark. Instead, respect for human rights is being replaced by a dangerous intolerance.

Around the world, populist authoritarians have built their movements by demonizing minorities. In Brazil, for instance, President Jair Bolsonaro has reveled in his provocations, calling into question women’s rights as well as those of the LGBT and indigenous communities. In Poland, incumbent President Andrzej Duda recently ran for reelection—and won—on an explicitly anti-LGBT platform.

UN Reform and Mission Planning: Too Great Expectations?

by Marc Jacquand

Since 2017, the UN system has undergone a historic process of reform at several levels and across many entities. Several of these reforms have either directly aimed at improving the planning of UN missions or included elements that have a significant bearing on mission planning. As the focus shifts from designing to implementing these reforms, it is possible to begin reflecting on whether these aims have been met.

This paper takes stock of the various strands of UN reform and explores their impact on the planning of UN missions, drawing on the experiences of four missions that have recently started or transitioned. In addition to the peace and security, management, and development system reforms, it looks at the impact of several other recent initiatives. These include the launch of a series of independent strategic reviews of peace operations, the reinvigorated use of the secretary-general’s transition planning directives, the rollout of the Comprehensive Performance Assessment System, and the establishment of the Executive Committee.

Applying Science and Analytics to the Exploitation of Open Source Intelligence

By Dan Gouré

Through the COVID-19 pandemic, a commonly heard phrase has been “trust the science.” The same can be said in the realm of intelligence. The more that scientific wisdom and quantitative analytic tools can be applied to the collection and analysis of raw data, the greater the likelihood that useful intelligence can be generated. This is particularly the case when it comes to exploiting the vast amounts of data available from open sources.

Publicly available information or open source intelligence (OSINT), is accessible in all countries and from every group, even so-called hard targets such as North Korea and ISIS. When proven principles from the social and behavioral sciences are applied, in combination with sophisticated computer models, artificial intelligence and machine learning, OSINT can be an extremely valuable tool supporting government and commercial decision making.

Intelligence collection is most commonly associated with spies, surveillance satellites, electronic intercepts and cyber hacking. The ability to “listen in” on the deliberations of world leaders or acquire their secret plans can be of inestimable value in peacetime, crisis or war. These capabilities are particularly useful on the battlefield when divining the adversary’s intentions and predicting their activities can produce war-winning results.

Broadband Myths: Is It a National Imperative to Achieve Ultra-Fast Download Speeds?

Doug Brake, Alexandra Bruer

Some advocates are willing to take extreme steps to transform the U.S. broadband system, because they claim we require universal broadband networks capable of gigabit-per-second speeds. This is not true.


All else being equal, more bandwidth is better than less, and investment that drives fiber deeper into access networks is welcome. But there is no need to radically change the competitive system that continues to expand network capacity.

Even the most data-hungry of today’s high-bandwidth applications require vastly less than a gigabit per second. While faster networks can save time for massive file transfers, there is only negligible benefit from dramatically higher speeds.

Because there are not applications that require gigabit-per-second rates, demand for additional speed drops off quickly after a certain point, even in countries with widespread fiber infrastructure.

China military watch

Malcolm Davis and Charlie Lyons Jones

In this edition, we take a look at how the Chinese military is preparing for the future land combat environment.

Unlike China’s relatively cogent thinking on future warfare in the air, maritime, cyber and space domains, its thinking on land combat has been increasingly incoherent. Indeed, the strategic priorities the Chinese Communist Party has been setting for the military since the 1980s have required a shift in emphasis from land power to air and sea power. With the Soviet Union gone and China’s land borders largely settled (disputes with India notwithstanding), the People’s Liberation Army Ground Force (PLAGF) has struggled to find a meaningful purpose in China’s future force structure beyond sustaining the capability needed to win a limited war on the Sino-Indian border.

Some of the incoherence is best laid out by military commentators within China itself. In an article in the People’s Liberation Army Daily, Wang Ronghui seeks to explore the role armoured forces will have in future warfare. Writing with much jargon and little detail, Wang argues that the recent history of armed conflict has confirmed the armoured forces’ role as the ‘king of land warfare’ (陆战之王).

Countering Threats Below the Threshold of War

Major Juliet Skingsley

The announcement of a significant increase in the defence budget marks a new era in how the UK military will operate – but also brings into sharp focus a much-needed examination of exactly how the military should operate under international law.

Operations in the ‘sub-threshold battlefield’ – often referred to as the ‘grey zone’, where states and non-state actors compete in a hostile manner using a variety of tactics but below the threshold of war – have always been complicated by the lack of agreed protocols by those involved. The reality is, however, that the grey zone is far from a ‘rules-free’ battlefield.

Increasingly, asymmetrical activities in the grey zone harm UK interests and undermine international security, while the rapid pace of technological developments and the proliferation of activity such as cyberattacks make the need for change in how the UK operates even more urgent.