26 April 2021

Taliban Says 'It's Too Early' to Know if Insurgents Might Attack Withdrawing U.S. Troops


The Taliban said "it's too early" to determine whether insurgents would attack withdrawing U.S. forces, which are scheduled to fully depart Afghanistan before September 11 following a decision by President Joe Biden, according to the Associated Press.

The Taliban signed a deal with former President Donald Trump in 2020 that set a U.S. troops withdrawal date from Afghanistan of May 1, 2021, but the military pullout date was extended by Biden.

"It's too early for these issues, nothing can be said about the future," Taliban spokesman Mohammad Naeem told AP when asked about the possibility of violence from insurgents.

Pentagon Press Secretary John F. Kirby emphasized during a press conference last Friday that the withdrawal of troops will begin May 1 and be completed by September 11, saying, "We've seen their threats, and it would be imprudent for us not to take those threats seriously. It would also be imprudent for the Taliban to not take seriously what [President Joe Biden and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III] both made clear: Any attack on our drawdown, on our forces or our allies and partners...will be met very forcefully."

Clausewitz and the Phantoms of War Without Victory

By James A. Russell

President Biden’s announced withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan, in turn, followed by NATO allies, is certainly welcome and long overdue. It is an acknowledgment of what has long been obvious: we were unprepared to pay the astronomical costs of defeating the Taliban. Victory was always a phantom in Afghanistan, just as it has been in Iraq for the United States and the western democracies.

Ending the direct involvement in wars like Afghanistan a hemisphere away from what we now call the "homeland" is a good idea, but the unsettled state of the international system means that perhaps, even more, grave conflicts loom in the cold dawn to come.

The people of this country should reflect deliberately on these possible threats and give more thought (and afterthought) to what is glibly called the “forever war,” but which requires a sober, non-ideological, and critical analysis not found in tweets, Instagram pictures, and cable news tantrums put together for our entertainment.

The German Prussian theoretician of war Carl von Clausewitz reminds us from the 19th century that organized political violence exists across a spectrum of conflict. As such, the struggle of political will as organized violence, as well as the native anger and hatred somehow shoved into a political goal, can scarcely be said ever to have abated at all.

Afghanistan Will Know No Peace Without Pressure on Pakistan


Forty-two years have passed since the start of nonstop imposed conflicts in Afghanistan. During this period, several attempts have been made to stabilize the country and to restore sustainable peace there. However, each peace effort has failed or stalled, including the Doha Agreement recently, which the United States under the Trump administration and the Taliban signed in February 2020.

This expedient measure that intended to serve the former president’s electoral goals excluded the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as a principal stakeholder in the U.S.-Taliban talks that produced a fragile deal. But it coerced the Islamic Republic into making an unprecedented concession: the release of over 5,500 Taliban prisoners. In exchange, the Taliban was supposed to start meaningful “intra-Afghan” talks, notably reduce violence towards a mutual ceasefire, sever ties with al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and ensure those prisoners would not return to the battlefield. None of these have so far materialized, thanks to the Taliban and their regional state-sponsor, Pakistan.

As former war criminals and drug-traffickers, most of the released Taliban prisoners have either returned to the battlefield or resumed drug-trafficking out of Taliban-controlled areas. And still others have manned the Taliban’s campaign of targeted killings, whose victims are largely the drivers of Afghanistan’s continued progress, including protection of human rights, empowerment of women and girls, and freedoms of expression and press.

‘The Taliban Have Tracked Me’


POL-E ALAM, Afghanistan—Shaima Zargar, director of women’s affairs in Logar province, just south of Kabul, says that up until a year ago she dressed pretty much as she pleased. She certainly never wore a chadari, or burqa, the forbidding blue shroud that the Taliban forced all women to wear the last time they were in power.

Now, Zargar puts a burqa on wherever she goes.

“The Taliban have tracked me. I’ve been actively followed. I’ve received direct threats, and it’s all been over the last year,” Zargar said of the period since the Taliban signed an armistice with the Trump administration. That fear has only grown in the last few days since U.S. President Joe Biden announced he was pulling all U.S. troops out by the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, and NATO followed suit.

Her greatest fear right now is violence and a sense it may be impossible for under-equipped local government forces to hold off the Taliban, said Zargar, whose office has worked hard to ensure the rights of Logari women. “We’ve fought back against cultural practices and prejudices, but none of that matters if families are afraid to send their daughters to school due to fear of bombs and mines,” she said.

That fear is borne out in the numbers. According to the United Nations, the first quarter of 2021 saw a 37 percent increase in civilian casualties among women.

“The number of Afghan civilians killed and maimed, especially women and children, is deeply disturbing,” said Deborah Lyons, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan.

In recent years, the United States has sought a “conditions-based” withdrawal from Afghanistan. From George W. Bush to Donald Trump, every president who has presided over the war has made reference to these nebulous conditions, which kept the resurgent Taliban on their toes.

ASEAN’s Myanmar Crisis

by Joshua Kurlantzick

With the situation in Myanmar disintegrating into chaos, and Myanmar possibly becoming a potential failed state, some regional powers, including the United States and Australia, have taken significant actions against the junta government. Australia has suspended military cooperation with the Myanmar military, and the Joe Biden administration has implemented a broad range of targeted sanctions against the junta and many of its businesses. Taiwan, which has significant investments in the country, has passed a parliamentary motion condemning the situation in Myanmar and calling on the junta to restore democracy. (Japan, historically reticent to take a tough approach toward Naypyidaw, has taken a more passive approach, calling on the Myanmar junta to restore democracy and having its defense head join a call rejecting the coup but so far not taking stronger moves.)

But Southeast Asian states, which have some of the greatest leverage over Naypyidaw—and certainly among the most to lose if Myanmar becomes totally unstable, with refugees flowing out of the country and conflicts possibly spanning borders—have done little about the crisis. Many regional states have remained silent on the coup and the atrocities, or have expressed mild concern. Indonesia has been an important exception, with President Joko Widodo condemning the violence and pushing for an emergency Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, which seems in the works, but with no fixed date yet even as Myanmar unravels.

Regional states claim they want to keep communication lines to Myanmar open, which is reasonable, but they have taken few other measures to address the crisis. As in many other crises, ASEAN remains torn, and with so many of its states now run by outright authoritarians or illiberal leaders who came to power in democratic elections, most of the region does not want to take a tough approach to the crisis.

Afghans Haven’t Forgotten Taliban Atrocities


QARABAGH, Afghanistan—The Taliban flooded into the Shomali Plain by the thousands, supported by tanks and air power. Reza Gul fled south toward Kabul barefoot amid the chaos, leaving behind her house, her belongings, and the bodies of her three teenage sons, slain by Taliban bullets.

Within days, the militants had deliberately killed countless people, scorched the rich farming land, destroyed tens of thousands of houses, and blown up irrigation systems. The Taliban’s 1999 invasion of the Shomali Plain, stretching north from Kabul toward Bagram, was one of their most brutal—and lingering. Today, the destruction is still visible. Behind the main highway, countless skeletons of old houses are testimony to the Taliban’s past atrocities; out of 70 villages in Gul’s district of Qarabagh, 99 percent of the houses were destroyed. Many of the ruins have never been rebuilt.

Gul, who is now 75, breaks into tears at the memory, which remains crystal clear, as deeply etched as the wrinkled crevasses in her face that she said show just how much she’s suffered.

US Nuclear Fears Are Shifting From a Clear Russian Threat to a Murkier Chinese One


China is putting its nuclear forces on higher alert, yet the threat posed by Beijing’s arsenal is not well understood by the United States or its allies, the head of U.S. Strategic Command testified on Tuesday.

“I can’t get through a week without finding out something I didn’t know about China,” Adm. Charles Richard, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

Richard said China’s “very opaque” nuclear policy makes it “difficult to determine their intentions.”

But evidence suggests that China is moving toward a higher state of alert, he said in his written testimony.

“While China keeps the majority of its forces in a peacetime status, increasing evidence suggests China has moved a portion of its nuclear force to a Launch on Warning (LOW) posture and are adopting a limited ‘high alert duty’ strategy,” he wrote.

Beijing is buying new satellites to detect enemy launches and new command-and-control systems for its own forces, he wrote.

“Their networked and integrated platform advancements will enable skip-echelon decision-making processes and greater rapid reaction,” he wrote.

IntelBrief: QAnon – A U.S. National Security Threat Amplified by Foreign-Based Actors

FBI Director Wray remains concerned about the national security threat posed by QAnon conspiracy theories and adherents of this movement.

Key tenets of the QAnon conspiracy theory appeal to a significant number of Americans, according to a new Soufan Center report.

Russia-driven amplification of QAnon-related narratives was predominant in 2020, but began to wane beginning in 2021.

China-related perpetuation of QAnon conspiracies proliferated toward the end of 2020 and now outpaces Russia-related amplification.

In testimony last week to the United States Senate Intelligence Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray highlighted the continuing national security threat posed by adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Wray’s comments echo longstanding concerns within the Bureau, dating back to 2019, regarding the ability of online conspiracy theories to inspire real-world harm by individuals and small groups. QAnon believers committed various acts of murder, plotted political violence, and kidnapped children; in 2021, more than three dozen QAnon members were arrested (one was killed) for storming the U.S. Capitol building during the January 6 insurrection. In the aftermath, the main protagonist of the QAnon narrative, President Donald J. Trump, failed to be reinstated, as prophesized, and the shadowy individuals behind QAnon’s online postings have failed to deliver new content for months. This begs the question, why is the FBI still concerned about QAnon? The Soufan Center’s latest special report, “Quantifying the Q Conspiracy: A Data-Driven Approach to Understanding the Threat Posed by QAnon,” clarifies that the QAnon threat persists because its core message continues to resonate with large numbers of the American public. Moreover, the report lays out evidence that foreign-based actors, located in China and Russia, among other states, are amplifying QAnon-related content.

The Flawed WHO Coronavirus Origins Study

Anthony Ruggiero

The only thing the WHO report accomplishes is showing how the organization was focused on pleasing Beijing. This is an important test for Biden—Xi Jinping will triumph if the WHO report stands

Even the head of the World Health Organization does not trust his own investigators’ report on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. He has every reason to be skeptical: Chinese authorities and the WHO’s credulous investigators arduously avoided a serious examination of the possibility that the virus escaped from a Wuhan laboratory. The report is less a researched conclusion than a collection of opinions of the WHO team filtered through the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Neither the report nor the WHO’s current leadership can advance our paramount concern to prevent another pandemic.

Beijing essentially dictated the conclusions to the WHO when its officials visited China in January and February. At a press conference on Feb. 9 in Beijing at the conclusion of the trip, the WHO and China were on the same page labeling the lab-origin theory as “extremely unlikely” while amplifying the CCP’s claims that the pandemic started outside China. Two days later in Geneva, the WHO director-general said all hypotheses would be investigated. Nonetheless, the final report stuck with Beijing’s preferred line against the lab-origin theory.

A War in Europe? Why Putin’s Russia Is Escalating in Ukraine

by Andreas Umland

Vladimir Putin’s decisions in favor of Russia’s military territorial expansion were as rational, in terms of domestic and foreign power politics, in Georgia in 2008 as they were in Ukraine in 2014. A third such decision in the coming weeks or months would be equally so. In 2008, no sanctions by the West followed the de facto Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The European Union’s only relevant sanctions package related to the Ukraine conflict was adopted less than two weeks after Russia had shot down a Malaysian passenger plane over eastern Ukraine on July 17, 2014. The sanctions that the EU adopted as a result, which remain in place to his date, and that have had a moderate impact on Russia’s economy, were not so much a reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Rather, they represented Brussels’s punishment of Moscow for the deaths of over 200 EU citizens who had been on the MH17 flight. Truly painful EU sanctions in response to Moscow’s adventures in the post-Soviet space—such is the lesson of Russia’s various wars in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus over the past thirty years—have never been and probably never will be adopted.

For Russia in 2008 and 2014, the economic costs of its violent escalations in Georgia and Ukraine were low, and, for the Putin regime, the short-term domestic political gains were high. Therefore, to refrain from military interventions in South Ossetia as well as Abkhazia in 2008, and in Crimea as well as the Donets Basin in 2014 would have been sins of omission. They boosted Putin’s popularity and his regime’s stability, at least in the short term.

The popularity of the Russian ruling elite has been declining for several months now. This is due, above all, to the far-reaching humanitarian, social, and economic consequences of the Coronavirus crisis, which are glossed over in Russia’s official statistics. Among Putin’s various current political problems, the best known is Alexei Navalny’s gradual transformation into a martyr. As a result of these and some other concurrent challenges, the stakes for Putin and his followers have risen significantly since 2020.

The U.S.-Japan Summit: Uneventful and Indecisive

Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s summit with U.S. President Joseph Biden was awaited with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety in at least four capitals: Washington, Tokyo, Beijing, and Taipei. Both the United States and Japan have concerns about increasingly assertive Chinese behavior in the East China and South China Seas and escalating pressure by China to annex Taiwan despite the often expressed wishes of Taiwan’s electorate to remain separate. In the weeks before the summit, China’s state-controlled media betrayed its leadership’s concern by repeatedly warning the Japanese government against collusion with the United States.

As is typical of high-level diplomatic discussions, the parties have different goals which must be reconciled lest the ritual communiqué be little more than vacuous statements about the commitment of both sides to peace, stability, and protection of the environment. Here, the stakes were high: this was to be the first state visit of Biden’s presidency and, as such, a symbol of the importance of the alliance with Japan as well as a test for both leaders. Japanese media opined that, since his previous career had focused on domestic issues, foreign affairs were not Suga’s strong suit and fretted about what that portended. Japan wanted yet another reiteration of American support for its claim to sovereignty over disputed islands in the East China Sea known to the Japanese as the Senkaku and to China as the Diaoyu, and a commitment to move forward with relocating the Futenma Marine Air Station to Henoko, long delayed because of political and geological problems. The United States wanted a stronger Japanese defense commitment to the alliance, while Taiwanese hoped for both sides to affirm their opposition to Beijing’s pressure for incorporation into the People’s Republic of China (PRC). And Beijing wanted to forestall exactly those aims.

Ukraine-Turkey cooperation has its limits

Dimitar Bechev

On April 10, President Volodymyr Zelensky made his way to Istanbul to take part in the ninth meeting of the Turkish-Ukrainian High-Level Strategic Cooperation Council. The primary purpose of his visit was to solicit support from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan against Russia, a more pressing priority than trade and investment.

In recent weeks, Ukraine has been feeling the heat. Since the end of March, Moscow has been amassing troops on the Ukrainian-Russian border. According to Kyiv, there are currently about 40,000 Russian troops in the area, not far from the frontlines in the Donbass, and the same number in Crimea which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

While Zelensky’s first port of call is the United States, he has good reason to count on Turkey, too. Ankara refuses to recognise Crimea’s annexation and offers rhetorical support to Ukraine. In a joint declaration, Erdogan and Zelensky pledged to continue “coordinating steps aimed at [..] the de-occupation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol, as well as territories in Donetsk and Luhansk regions”. The wording matches their last joint statement from October 2020, when the two leaders met in Turkey.

Erdogan also re-committed to the so-called Crimean Platform launched by Kyiv and backed by the Biden administration, which aims to put pressure on Russia. Turkey intends to use the foreign policy initiative to channel economic assistance to Crimean Tatars in regions bordering the peninsula.

A Historian’s Guide to the Geopolitics of War

by James Jay Carafano

Decades ago, the U.S. military adopted the concept of the “three levels of war” as part of their doctrine. Developed from a historical appreciation of conflict, this framework for understanding war remains relevant, a reminder that even as technology and geopolitics march on, sometimes the past marches with them.

“Seeing the elephant,” was a popular nineteenth-century catchphrase. It meant investing a lot of effort to see or do something and then concluding it hadn’t been worth it. The term was usually applied to the experience of war.

The phrase was often paired with the ancient Hindu parable of the blind men who encounter an elephant for the first time. Each described the animal differently, according to which part of the elephant they touched. This aptly explained the challenge of analyzing and describing war, so much was shaped by perspective and experience.

In practice, nineteenth-century military histories reflected the elephant parable. In the West, Napoleon Bonaparte was the historian’s elephant in the room, the dominant topic. What complicated understanding the Napoleonic way of war was that Bonaparte did pretty much everything there was to do in fighting a war. He commanded troops in battle. He directed protracted operations over vast distances. He was his empire’s strategist making all the big decisions about how the ways, means and ends of France’s way of war would be employed.

The Russian Military Buildup on Ukraine's Border | An Expert Analysis

By Peter B. Zwack, Victor Andrusiv, Oksana Antonenko 

The Kennan Institute recently asked several of our experts and friends to weigh in on this developing story and consider the following questions:

1. What is behind the ongoing military buildup by Russia on Ukraine’s eastern border and in Crimea?
2. Is this a show of force, a presage to military confrontation or invasion of Ukraine by Russia, or something else?
3. If Russia does undertake offensive operations in Ukraine, what might that look like and how might the U.S., Europe, and NATO respond?

Read analysis from Victor Andrusiv, Oksana Antonenko, Mykhailo Minakov, Igor Zevelv, and Brig. Gen. (ret) Peter Zwack below!

Paul Kagame: the hidden dictator


Do Not Disturb” said the sign outside Room 905 of Johannesburg’s Michelangelo Towers hotel on 1 January 2014. When the police finally broke in they found the garrotted body of Patrick Kare-geya, Rwanda’s former head of ­external security, on the bed. Karegeya had fallen out with the regime he had helped create, and was murdered by a Rwandan hit squad as he helped build an opposition movement in exile.

“Do Not Disturb” is also the sign that has been metaphorically hung on the narrative that Paul Kagame’s Rwandan regime has so assiduously cultivated over the past quarter century – namely that a heroic band of ­warriors led by Kagame swept in from Uganda to halt the Hutus’ genocide against their fellow Tutsis in 1994, then built a prosperous and harmonious new country on the ruins of the old one.

It is a narrative that the international ­community, wracked with guilt over its failure to prevent that genocide, has for the most part happily swallowed. Kagame’s regime has faults, it concedes, but it has brought peace and stability to Africa’s highly combustible Great Lakes region and turned tiny, mountainous, landlocked Rwanda into the “Switzerland of Africa”.

Foreign assistance, much of it British, pours into a country that has become an ­advertisement for the efficacy of international aid. Kagame is welcomed by ­presidents and prime ministers, hailed by philanthropists and showered with awards. Bill Clinton has called him “one of the greatest leaders of our time”. Tony Blair has praised his “visionary leadership”.

‘A Threat From the Russian State’: Ukrainians Alarmed as Troops Mass on Their Doorstep

By Anton Troianovski

MARIUPOL, Ukraine — There are the booms that echo again, and parents know to tell their children they are only fireworks. There are the drones the separatists started flying behind the lines at night, dropping land mines. There are the fresh trenches the Ukrainians can see their enemy digging, the increase in sniper fire pinning them inside their own.

But perhaps the starkest evidence that the seven-year-old war in Ukraine may be entering a new phase is what Capt. Mykola Levytskyi’s coast guard unit saw cruising in the Azov Sea just outside the port city of Mariupol last week: a flotilla of Russian amphibious assault ships.

Since the start of the war in 2014, Russia has used the pretext of a separatist conflict to pressure Ukraine after its Westward-looking revolution, supplying arms and men to Kremlin-backed rebels in the country’s east while denying that it was a party to the fight.

Biden Should Sink This Proposed Nuclear Weapon


President Joe Biden’s first real test of his commitment to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy and trimming the bloated nuclear weapons budget is imminent. The administration released an initial topline version of its first national defense budget request on April 9 and is expected to release the full request in May or June. While a number of unnecessary and costly nuclear weapons programs should be critically reviewed by the administration, one program stands out for immediate cancellation: the Trump administration’s proposal for a new nuclear-armed sea-launched cruise missile.

Abandoning development of this new nuclear weapon should be an easy choice. Biden opposed the missile during his campaign for president and for good reason. The weapon would be a redundant and dangerous multi-billion-dollar mistake.

Three decades have passed since the United States last deployed nuclear cruise missiles at sea. President George H.W. Bush directed the nuclear Tomahawk Land Attack Missile to be taken off patrol in 1991 at the end of the Cold War. The weapons remained in storage in Washington state until the Obama administration identified them as a redundant capability in its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review and ordered their retirement.

How Many Bridges Can Turkey’s Erdogan Burn?

Since his sweeping overhaul of Turkey’s political system in 2017, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cemented his near-total control over the country. Despite the worst electoral setback of Erdogan’s career in the Istanbul mayoral election in June 2019, as well as a tailspinning economy exacerbated by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, he continues to maintain his grip on power, even if he must destabilize Turkey’s democracy to do so.

At the same time, Erdogan has pursued an adventurous and bellicose foreign policy across the Mediterranean region, putting Ankara increasingly at odds with its NATO allies. After Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air-defense system in July 2019, Washington suspended Turkish involvement in the F-35 next-generation fighter plane program. In October 2019, the Turkish incursion into northeastern Syria targeting Syrian Kurdish militias highlighted the disconnect between the U.S. Congress—which fiercely defended the Syrian Kurds, America’s principal partner on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State—and former U.S. President Donald Trump, who seemed oblivious to their plight and subsequently received Erdogan at the White House. Turkey’s repeated incursions into waters in the Eastern Mediterranean claimed by Cyprus, as well as its standoffs with Greek and French naval vessels in the region, have further raised tensions and alarmed observers.

Psychological Warfare: Principles for Global Competition

By MAJ Robert Coombs

Principles of PSYOP

We have been handicapped however by a popular attachment to the concept of a basic difference between peace and war, by a tendency to view war as a sort of sporting contest outside of all political context by a national tendency to see a political cure-all, and by a reluctance to recognize the realities of international relations – the perpetual rhythm of struggle, in and out of war.[1]

George Kennan, The Inauguration of Organized Political Warfare, 1948

NSC 4, 1947, identified the United States “is not now employing strong, coordinated information measures to counter this [Russian] propaganda campaign or to further the attainment of its national objectives.”[2] The United States once again finds itself in the same predicament following the Second World War; we are in a global competition with revisionist states that seek to exert power through non-military capabilities. Captain Charles Smith stated in 1952, “Modern warfare has become total; it involves not only the man who fires the gun but every man and woman who can help build the gun or who can help make the man want to fire the gun… Therefore, military strategy must not only deal with overcoming the physical ability of the enemy to resist, it must also deal with the minds – to destroy the morale – of the whole population in order that military victory is made with the least cost to us in men, money and materials.”[3] The United States is realigning our military obligations once again, developing a scenario reminiscent of the 1950s when physical force was insufficient to achieve national strategic goals. This environment is ripe for the renaissance of psychological warfare, where soft power and influence through is the coin of the realm. To operate in an environment where influence takes primacy over physical prowess, we must understand the principles of psychological warfare that make up this environment.

How Face Recognition Can Destroy Anonymity

STEPPING OUT IN public used to make a person largely anonymous. Unless you met someone you knew, nobody would know your identity. Cheap and widely available face recognition software means that’s no longer true in some parts of the world. Police in China run face algorithms on public security cameras in real time, providing notifications whenever a person of interest walks by.

How Face Recognition Can Destroy Anonymity

Cameras are everywhere, and increasingly powerful software can pick an individual out of a crowd. Except sometimes algorithms get it wrong.

STEPPING OUT IN public used to make a person largely anonymous. Unless you met someone you knew, nobody would know your identity. Cheap and widely available face recognition software means that’s no longer true in some parts of the world. Police in China run face algorithms on public security cameras in real time, providing notifications whenever a person of interest walks by.