1 May 2021

What’s Going on at the Iran-Pakistan Border?

By Mariyam Suleman

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi is on a three-day visit to Iran’s capital. In a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, both stressed the need for stability and peace in the region. Border security for the last few years has been a priority for both countries.

One crude method to improve security and promote legal trade, mutually employed by both countries, is a 959-kilometer barrier between Pakistan and Iran, planned to be complete by December this year.

But cross-border families are angry. With crossings restricted, thousands of pickup trucks, often called zambad by the locals, lined up at the border between Pakistan and Iran, have been held hostage for the last one month in uncomfortable heat and hunger.

Above these zambads are barrels full of fuel — the symbol of the notorious yet very common illegal Iranian fuel trade. Sale of Iranian oil is tightly restricted due to U.S. sanctions; once smuggled into Pakistan, however, the options for selling it are much broader.

The barren and underdeveloped nature of the region – despite the attention Pakistani Balochistan has been receiving since the inception of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – and the few options for employment on both sides of the border make it difficult not to break the law. But the reasons behind the illegal fuel trade are multilayered.

Pakistani Taliban Claims Suicide Bombing in Quetta

Thomas Joscelyn

Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan (the TTP, or Pakistani Taliban) has claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a luxury hotel in Quetta, Pakistan. The group has identified the terrorist responsible as Muhammad Abbas (a.k.a. “Farooq”), saying he “targeted police officers and other higher-ups with a martyrdom-seeking attack” on the “five-star Serena hotel.”

At least several people were killed and a dozen or more wounded in the blast yesterday (Apr. 21). According to the Pakistani interior ministry, a Chinese diplomatic delegation, including China’s ambassador, was staying at the same hotel, but was not at the location at the time of the bombing. There is no indication that the Chinese delegation was intentionally targeted.

Instead, the TTP claims that two Pakistani “assistant commissioners” perished, while “scores of other security officers were either killed or injured” and many vehicles “were burnt and destroyed in the attack.”

The TTP has executed a string of mostly small-scale attacks, including assassinations, against Pakistani military and security personnel this year. The group claims the latest bombing is evidence of its “strong military leadership” and the “might” of its “intelligence” arm.

The jihadists’ claim of responsibility was posted by the TTP’s official propaganda outlet, Umar Media, on social media and its website. The message is attributed to the TTP’s spokesperson, a man identified as “Muhammad Khurasani .” The author of the statement criticizes unnamed Pakistani journalists and officials for supposedly covering up the success of the operation, saying these people “childishly” hid “information on the type of attack and its target.”

Like other jihadist organizations, the TTP has suffered a string of setbacks over the years. However, the group has been reconstituted under the leadership of its current emir Noor Wali Mehsud.

What Is the Significance of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s Latest Attack in Quetta?

By Umair Jamal

Ambulances park close to the site of bomb blast outside Serena Hotel in Quetta, Pakistan, Wednesday, April 21, 2021.Credit: AP Photo/Arshad ButtADVERTISEMENT

On April 21, a bomb attack in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, killed at least four people and injured 12 others.

The suicide bombing, which has now been claimed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), took place in the parking lot of the Serena Hotel. It is the only four-star hotel in Quetta and is considered one of safest places in the city.

“Our suicide bomber used his explosive filled car in the hotel,” a TTP spokesman said in claiming the attack.

The TTP’s latest attack in Quetta means that the group has returned to Pakistan’s cities. Previously, the group had been carrying out attacks in the country’s tribal areas adjacent to Afghanistan. “The attack underscores TTP’s enhanced operational capabilities. TTP or any militant group in Pak has pulled off a vehicle borne suicide attack after a long hiatus. The fact that TTP is able recruit & train suicide bombers and successfully deploy them is alarming,” said Abdul Basit, an expert on counterterrorism and security in Pakistan, on Twitter.

“Hitherto, TTP’s reunification was more of a sign of desperation to survive. But, now it’s safe to assume that [the group is] beyond revival as the group has resurrected its operational capabilities and seems to be enhancing its organizational footprint in Pakistan,” he added.

Can Japan’s ‘Invisible’ Diplomacy Help Solve the Myanmar Crisis?

By Keiho Sasamori

More than two and a half months have passed since the coup in Myanmar. Although other countries are responding to this situation, they have not been able to have a concrete impact toward stopping the bloodshed that is happening in Myanmar, sparking harsh criticism from observers like the BBC.

Likewise, there has been criticism toward Japan for its ambiguous position compared to other countries, especially since it has not imposed aggressive economic sanctions. The Japanese government’s response is attracting attention both at home and abroad, raising questions about how long it can continue its current stance.

On April 2, the Japanese government was asked about future sanctions in an open letter of inquiry by a group of Myanmar people living in Japan and Human Rights Now, the international NGO. The government’s reply was, “We will consider it in the future.” Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu gave a similar response when asked at a press conference about the possibility of suspending Official Development Assistance (ODA).

During the press conference, Motegi quoted a line from “The Little Prince” by saying, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” In its response to the earlier open letter, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs cited the example of the Japanese ambassador meeting the foreign minister appointed by the junta, and said that Japan would continue to play its “unique role” in the crisis.

Looking Past China’s Rise for the Trends Shaping Asia

Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, China has begun to more aggressively challenge America’s role as the key economic and political power in Asia. Increasingly repressive at home, Xi has not shied away from asserting China’s regional influence, positioning Beijing as the powerbroker on everything from trade routes to the ongoing efforts to denuclearize North Korea. And with its Belt and Road Initiative, China’s influence is spreading well beyond Asia, into much of Africa and even Europe. China’s ascendance is also evident in how much attention other global powers are paying to Beijing and its policies.

But while China’s rise often makes headlines, it is not the only trend shaping events in Asia. Illiberalism has become a force in democracies like India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode the wave of Hindu nationalism to a massive victory in the country’s 2019 parliamentary elections. And in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s electoral gains in midterm elections in 2019 left even fewer checks on his increasingly autocratic behavior. Meanwhile, Myanmar’s already faltering process of democratization came to an abrupt end in February, when the military seized power from the democratically elected government. The subsequent protests and the military’s violent crackdown in response have left the country teetering on the edge of civil war and failed state status.

ASEAN Won’t Save Myanmar


Ever since Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, staged a coup against the country’s civilian government on Feb. 1, leading to a seemingly irrepressible popular uprising, foreign-policy experts have continued to search for potential international solutions to the deteriorating situation. With major Western powers like the United States possessing
limited leverage over the Tatmadaw, and China and Russia stymieing a robust response at the international level, many have looked to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to play a more significant role.

The governments that make up ASEAN, which is set to meet in Jakarta, Indonesia, this weekend to discuss the crisis, are Myanmar’s neighbors. They have a strong interest in avoiding the country’s descent into complete chaos. So the hope that they might feel compelled to act isn’t totally unwarranted—but it is misplaced. ASEAN isn’t designed to solve problems, particularly not one as thorny as the unrest in Myanmar. Its consensus-based decision-making structure inhibits decisive action, especially given its significant divisions. It’s not even clear that all ASEAN leaders recognize what a profound political rupture the coup has produced.

Caught between rare earths and Chinese dominance — Part 3: Metal is the only thing that matters

Jamil Hijazi and James Kennedy 

This is a four-part article series on the reality of how and why China retains its dominance in the Rare Earth (RE) industry. Part one investigates how China built its multi-commodity monopolies across the technological spectrum. Part two provides a brief historical overview on what China learned from its Rare Earth monopoly. Part three looks at how China turned Rare Earth metals, alloys & magnets into ‘utility goods’ for its domestic economy. The final part of this article series explores how China’s current monopolistic strategy feeds on the ‘Free Market’ actions of its adversaries and explores a possible solution to overcome Chinese global control in Rare Earths.

Metal is the only thing that matters

China is slowly surrendering all other parts of its Rare Earth monopoly to further enhance its metallurgical monopoly. Why ? Because 95% of all value derived from rare earths is in the form of metal, alloys and magnets so that is the only point in the value chain that China needs to maintain.

How does this work? China maintains its monopoly through opaque subsidies that may equate to 100% of operating, capital and conversion costs by western standards. For example, the normal markup for finished goods in capitalistic economies is plus or minus 10%, specialized or capital intensive products it can be hundreds of time greater. For China, 10% is the typical markup on REs from oxides to metals. That is the all-in markup when adjusting for oxygen reduction. That may not even cover the cost of energy needed to convert oxides to metal.

‘Terminator of drones’: China unveils stealth-detecting radars

Country’s first portable and ‘multipurpose’ radar can be carried by a single soldier and can detect small and low-flying targets.

China has unveiled new advanced radars that could detect stealth aircraft, including drones, as well as low-flying cruise missiles, as the country continues to aggressively boost its fighting capabilities and flexes its military muscle amid emerging tensions in the region.

Among the “star products” at the Nanjing exhibition, which ends on Saturday, is the country’s first portable and multipurpose radar, which could be carried by a single soldier, according to the state-owned publication, Global Times.

The equipment is being dubbed the “terminator of drones” for its capability to detect small and slow targets that blend themselves under strong noise waves by flying close to the ground.

The so-called “YLC-48 radar” can “effectively detect and track incoming targets from any angle”, according to its developer, the No 14 Research Institute of the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC).

China to US: Back Off and Calm Down


China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi sent a warning to U.S. leaders on Friday, telling them in a virtual address that their increasingly anti-Chinese words and policies “will cause chaos in the world.”

Let's hope they were listening. The new Red Scare that American politicians have latched on to has, so far, failed to persuade Chinese leaders to Beijing to abandon their global ambitions. By the sound of it, it hasn’t even made them flinch.

For four years, Trump’s team — led bombastically by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — worked to sell Americans and the world on China as the new immediate threat. They slammed the Chinese Communist Party leadership in what Pompeo portrayed as a battle for the soul of the world. Now, with Biden and “the blob” of foreign policy moderates firmly back in charge and striking a more hopeful and less confrontational tone, China’s top diplomat is seeking to establish a new narrative about the way ahead.

Speaking at a Council on Foreign Relations virtual event on Friday, Wang delivered an unflinching take on geopolitics that was broad-ranging, if also blatantly divorced from reality and laced with pro-Beijing propaganda.

“We do not act in a coercive way and we oppose any country doing so,” the foreign minister said. "China is committed to a path of peaceful development, one with peaceful coexistence."

Russia Plans ‘Flying Minefield’ To Counter Drone Attacks

Samuel Bendett

The Russian military has released new details of its use in Syria of small kamikaze drones, known as loitering munitions, made by a Kalashnikov subsidiary. The drone maker is also working on deploying a drone ‘aerial minefield’ that could intercept enemy drones, which have recently proven troublesome for Russian air defenses.

Russia has lagged conspicuously behind the U.S., China, Israel and others in the field of unmanned aviation. Even Turkey has recently enjoyed more success in developing and exporting new military drones, and has been hailed as a new 'drone superpower,' while Russian exports tend to be confined to client states like Myanmar. However, Russia is now embarking on an ambitious modernization program, which ranges from full-size stealth combat drones to portable tactical devices.

America’s Military Risks Losing Its Edge

By Michèle Flournoy

For almost a decade, U.S. defense officials have deemed the return of great-power competition to be the most consequential challenge to U.S. national security. In 2012, during the Obama administration, the Defense Department announced that “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations,” such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, marking a sharp departure from the United States’ post-9/11 defense strategy. In 2016, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter highlighted a “return to great-power of competition.” And in 2018, the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy crystallized this shift: “Inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in U.S. national security,” it declared, with a particular focus on China as the pacing threat.

Yet despite such a widespread and bipartisan acknowledgment of the challenge, the U.S. military has changed far too little to meet it. Although strategy has shifted at a high level, much about the way the Pentagon operates continues to reflect business as usual, which is inadequate to meet the growing threats posed by a rising China and a revisionist Russia.

Much about the way the Pentagon operates continues to reflect business as usual, which is inadequate to meet the growing threats posed by a rising China and a revisionist Russia.

That disconnect is evident in everything from the military’s ongoing struggle to reorient its concepts of operations (that is, how it would actually fight in the future) to its training, technology acquisition, talent management, and overseas posture. Some important steps have been taken to foster defense innovation, but bureaucratic inertia has prevented new capabilities and practices from being adopted with speed and at scale.

The Singular Chancellor

By Constanze Stelzenmüller

Years ago, at the Munich Security Conference, I found myself squeezed in on the steps of the grand staircase of a hotel ballroom, trying, dutifully but vainly, to follow a more than usually humdrum speech by Germany’s first female chancellor. Tuning out, I recognized the one-star general hunkered down beside me, a senior staffer in the chancellery. I tapped his sleeve and said, “So what’s it like to work for her?” He turned to me and grinned appreciatively. “It’s like working next to a nuclear power plant. It just runs, and runs, and runs.”

And how it ran. Angela Merkel is now in the final months of her fourth term in office, her last, which is set to end with national elections on September 26. Only Helmut Kohl, the chancellor who oversaw the joining of East and West Germany in 1990, held office for longer. A Pew poll last year showed Merkel to be the world’s most trusted leader. Forbes magazine has ranked her the world’s most powerful woman for ten years in a row. In 2009, the toy company Mattel even created an Angela Merkel Barbie doll. For a while, some U.S. and British commentators, dismayed by their own leaders, even took to calling her “the leader of the free world” (a title the chancellor is said to detest).

When will the COVID-19 pandemic end?

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

This article updates our perspectives on when the coronavirus pandemic will end to reflect the latest information on vaccine rollout, variants of concern, and disease progression. In the United Kingdom and the United States, we see progress toward a transition to normalcy during the second quarter of 2021. The new wave of cases in the European Union means that a similar transition is likely to come later there, in the late second or third quarter. Improved vaccine availability makes herd immunity most likely in the third quarter for the United Kingdom and the United States and in the fourth quarter for the European Union, but risks threaten that timeline. The timeline in other countries will depend on seven crucial variables. And when herd immunity is reached, the risks will not vanish; herd immunity may prove temporary or be limited to regions in a country.

The fall in COVID-19 cases across much of the world over the past ten weeks signals a new dawn in the fight against the disease. Vaccines are proving effective and rapidly scaling, bending the curve in many geographies. This is a fragile dawn, however, with transmission and deaths still high, unequal access to vaccines, and variants of concern threatening to undo progress to date.

The trajectory of UK and US cases has enabled the beginnings of a transition toward normalcy,1 the first and more important of the pandemic’s two endpoints. We expect this transition to continue in the second quarter of 2021 and will likely see many aspects of social and economic life return to the prepandemic normal, consistent with UK Prime Minister Johnson’s staged reopening plan for the United Kingdom2 and US President Biden’s goal of a normal Independence Day.3 We are more confident in this timeline for the United Kingdom than for the United States, given that the first has already experienced a wave driven by a more infectious variant, whereas the latter could still face one. Parts of the European Union have recently faced setbacks: fewer doses in arms than in the United Kingdom or United States, a new wave of cases, and new lockdowns. A transition toward normalcy is mostly likely in Europe during the late second or third quarter of 2021. The timing will probably vary by country, depending on accelerating vaccine supplies, the impact of vaccinations on hospitalization rates, and the occurrence (or not) of new waves driven by new variants.

The Biden 100-Day Progress Report


President Joe Biden’s foreign-policy motto is “America is back.” And he is losing no time: In perhaps the busiest start of a new administration since Ronald Reagan’s in 1981, Biden and his new national security team have corralled allies in Asia and Europe, rejoined global institutions, and turned up the heat on authoritarian regimes. He has moved quickly to revoke the Trump administration’s immigration bans and pledge cash to vaccinate the world’s poorest. What’s more, he has done all that amid what is still a devastating pandemic—and following the first violent presidential transition in U.S. history.

Around the world, Biden is being met with a wave of goodwill. In the aftermath of his election victory, 79 percent of Germans, for example, said they trusted him to “do the right thing” in world affairs—compared with only 10 percent who said that of President Donald Trump a few months earlier, according to polls by the Pew Research Center. The sense of relief is especially strong among allies in Asia and Europe, whose citizens watched the Jan. 6 insurrection in the capital of the world’s leading democracy with a mix of horror and fascination.

It’s as if Trump has been forgotten—and not just because Twitter has taken away his megaphone. Rather, it’s the exigencies of global politics that have old allies and new partners looking to Washington for leadership again. An increasingly confident, aggressive, and technologically sophisticated China is challenging the Western-dominated global order on a growing number of fronts. Across the democratic world, angry populists continue to mobilize—and the United States just gave them a model for challenging election results they don’t like. It’s a very different world from the last time Biden held office.

U.S. troops increasingly vulnerable to directed-energy attacks, Pentagon tells lawmakers


The Pentagon warned lawmakers this week about the growing and urgent threat of directed-energy attacks on U.S. troops in the Middle East and elsewhere, according to four people briefed on the matter.

Two Defense Department officials briefed members of the House Armed Service Committee about the phenomenon in a classified setting on Wednesday, the people said, and told lawmakers they are increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of U.S. troops in places such as Syria, Afghanistan and various countries in South America.

Briefers pointed to Russia as a likely culprit, the people told POLITICO, but didn’t have a smoking gun, citing difficulties in attributing the attacks.

The Pentagon opened an investigation last year after suspected directed-energy attacks occurred on an unknown number of troops, POLITICO first reported earlier Thursday.

Lawmakers were officially notified on April 15 that the House Armed Services briefing would take place on Wednesday. Committee members heard from Jennifer Walsh, the acting Pentagon policy chief, and Griffin Decker, the Pentagon’s director of the emerging threats cell. The official notice, which was obtained by POLITICO, described the briefing as urgent and said it was centered on an “emerging threat.”

Quant Funds Made A Major Comeback In March

Jacob Wolinsky

PivotalPath said that dispersion was high during March at 3.7% at the composite level compared to the long-term average of 2.9%. The Equity Sector strategy had the highest level of dispersion across all strategies at 5.2%.

The equity Sector was also the worst-performing strategy for both March and the first quarter. The strategy was down 2.2% for March and is up 0.6% year to date. Interestingly, quant funds appear to have made a comeback last month, or at least, those tracked by PivotalPath did. Most quant funds had significant difficulties last year, with some of the largest ones posting negative or weak returns, although at least one quant fund managed a triple-digit return.

Equity Quant was the best-performing strategy, climbing from the bottom of the list to the top with a March return of 5.3%. That marks a 43% increase from the strategy's previous record high of 3.7% in May 2009. U.S. Long/ Short Quant funds returned 5.6% on average, while Global Long/ Short Quant Funds were up 5.5% for the month.
Alpha generation

Event-Driven hedge funds generated the most alpha during the first quarter. Equity funds generated the most alpha in 2020 and spent 20 months toward the top of the list of alpha generation strategies. In 2019 and 2018, the strategy was in second place by alpha generation. Equity Sector funds were in first place in 2017.

Hackers can stop the trains and the lights. But could they start a war?

By Sherryn Groch

On the morning of June 27, 2017, it seemed as if Ukraine had slipped back in time and into the wrong century – almost nothing worked. Not the ATMs, the trains, the airports, the television stations. Even the radiation monitors at the old Chernobyl nuclear plant were down.

Ukraine, in the midst of a long and undeclared war with Russia, had been hit by mysterious blackouts before but this was eating through computer networks at a terrifying pace, turning screens dark across the country. And it seemed to be spreading further than intended, out through Europe and around the globe, paralysing hospitals and companies from London to Denver, even the Cadbury chocolate factory in Tasmania, and bringing swathes of the world’s shipping to a halt. By the time the culprit – a wild variant of malicious computer code (or worm) known as NotPetya – was stopped hours later, it had looped back into Russia, where it originated, and racked up about $US10 billion ($12.9 billion) in damage worldwide, making it the most expensive cyber attack to date.

No one died but the world had been given a glimpse of a new reality, beyond cyber espionage or sabotage. This was cyberwar. With modern life more connected than ever, you could unplug a nation before you’d even fired a shot.

Today, cyber weapons feature in the opening moments of most countries’ war plans, but they are deployed in peacetime, too, and the line between espionage, vandalism and outright attack is far from clear.

DNI: Cyber Is The Common Weapon Among Top Adversaries

By John A. Tirpak

China aims to displace the U.S. as the world’s pre-eminent superpower; Russia is “pushing back” against the U.S., sometimes with force; Iran is a “regional menace” and North Korea is a “disruptive player,” and will be for years to come, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said in the U.S. intelligence community’s annual assessment of top threats facing the U.S.

Released April 9 amid Chinese saber-rattling against Taiwan and as Russian troops massed on the border with Ukraine, the 31-page unclassified threat assessment calls China the “pacing threat” for the U.S.—militarily, politically, and economically—noting that the other three nations remain active, potent adversaries, particularly in cyber warfare.

President Joe Biden on April 15 announced new sanctions on Russia stemming from the Solar Winds hack and Russia’s interference in the 2020 U.S. election. The sanctions target 32 individuals and organizations, and Biden also expelled 10 Russian diplomats. Biden called the move “proportionate,” saying his intent is not to “kick off a cycle of escalation and conflict with Russia.” The Solar Winds attack gave cyber criminals access to more than 18,000 computer networks, both government and private. Biden said Russia needs to be held to account for attempting to “undermine the conduct of free and fair democratic elections” in the U.S. and other Western nations.

Moscow said it would come up with “a decisive response.”

Artificial Intelligence, Lawyers And Laws Of War


WASHINGTON: “My entire career, I’ve stood around a mapboard and the lawyer’s always right there,” said Gen. Mike Murray, who commanded troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. But in a highly automated future war of long-range missiles, swarming robots, and sensor jamming, warned the head of Army Futures Command, “you’re not going to have 30 seconds to stand around a mapboard and make those decisions.”

“Back when I was a brigade commander, even when I was commander of the Third Infantry Division in Afghanistan,” Murray recalled, “life and death decisions were being made just about every day, and it usually was around, either [a] mapboard or some sort of digital display.” Along with the staff officers for intelligence, operations and fire support, he said, one of a handful of “key people standing around that mapboard” was the command’s lawyer, its Staff Judge Advocate.

“The lawyer always got a say,” the general went on. “Is this is just a viable course of action, given the law of armed conflict?… Is this a legal response? And usually those discussions would take some time. I think in the future the opportunities to get people around the map board and have a detailed discussion — to include discussions about the legality of the actions you’re contemplating as a commander — will be few and far between.”

How will the Army solve this problem? Gen. Murray raised this question addressing a West Point-Army Futures Command conference on the law of future war, but he didn’t provide an answer. The speakers who followed didn’t seem to have an answer, either.