The Early Edition: August 21, 2017

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

AFGHANISTAN STRATEGY

President Trump is scheduled to reveal his administration’s Afghanistan strategy in a televised address tonight, setting out the plans – which are expected to include sending additional U.S. troops – after discussions with top advisers last week and after the president tweeted Saturday that a decision had been made. Peter Nicholas and Gordon Lubold report at the Wall Street Journal.

“I am very comfortable that the strategic process was sufficiently rigorous,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters yesterday, avoiding discussion of the details of the new strategy, which has taken months to decide, Michael R. Gordon, Eric Schmitt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Getting the president to agree on a broader regional strategy caused delays to the decision, according to two anonymous officials who participated in the discussions, revealing Trump’s reluctance to commit to a policy on Pakistan before adopting an Afghanistan strategy. Steve Holland John Walcott report at Reuters.

The options for the new strategy include an additional 3,800 U.S. troops and the replacement of U.S. troops with private contractors, and the repeated delays to committing to an approach reveal the lack of good options available to the president. Carol Morello and John Wagner explain at the Washington Post.

The debates over the new Afghanistan strategy, and the President’s skepticism of the war, prompted advisers to entertain unorthodox plans, including sales pitches highlighting the possibility of mining in Afghanistan. Dan De Luce, Elias Groll, Jenna McLaughlin, Jana Winter and Paul McLeary provide an insight into the debates within the Trump administration at Foreign Policy.

Afghan security forces are still reliant on U.S. troops, despite a show of confidence in the security forces at a ceremony yesterday, with a resurgent Taliban and the increased presence of the Islamic State in the east of the country threatening to undermine efforts to stabilize the country, Helene Cooper explains at the New York Times.

Trump’s address to the nation on the Afghanistan strategy comes at a time when his credibility has been undermined due to his divisive comments at a news conference last week about the clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the address offers the president the opportunity to project an image of stability after a turbulent two weeks. Stephen Collinson writes at CNN.

NORTH KOREA

An annual joint military exercise between the U.S. and South Korea is scheduled to begin this week, coming amid increased tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, with North Korea’s state media characterizing the drills as a provocation, Jonathan Cheng reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The military exercises have the potential to escalate tensions once more after an apparent easing of rhetoric following comments by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un last week that he would hold off from carrying out his threat on the U.S. territory of Guam. Choe Sang-Hun and Austin Ramzy report at the New York Times.

Guam, Hawaii and the U.S. mainland cannot “dodge” a “merciless strike” by the North Korean military, North Korea warned yesterday in messages carried by the official government newspaper Rodong Sinmun ahead of the planned joint military exercises. Faith Karimi, Brad Lendon and Yuli Yang report at CNN.

Pyongyang should not use the exercises “as a pretext for aggravating the situation,” South Korean President Moon Jae-in said today, responding to comments in North Korean state media that the exercises would usher in an “uncontrollable phase of nuclear war,” the BBC reports.

The increased threat from North Korea has prompted debate of pre-emptive military action within the administration, and the planned joint military exercises, due to begin today, reinforce the impression that the U.S. is seriously considering military options. David E. Sanger writes at the New York Times.

Trump’s “game of chicken” with China has the potential to push Chinese President Xi Jinping to rein in North Korea, and Trump’s approach recalls actions by previous U.S. leaders during the Cold War, Graham T. Allison writes at the Wall Street Journal.

The Pyongyang regime’s objective is survival and the U.S. should seek alternatives to provocation that give the regime the opportunity to survive without nuclear weapons. Avner Golov provides five alternative courses of action at the Hill.

U.S. NAVY DESTROYER COLLISION

A U.S. Navy Destroyer collided with a merchant vessel near the Straits of Malacca and Singapore today, five sailors have been injured and search-and-rescue efforts are underway for the 10 missing crew members, according to U.S. Navy officials. Gordon Lubold, Nancy A. Youssef and Jake Maxwell Watts report at the Wall Street Journal.

The collision between the U.S.S. John S. McCain and the merchant vessel is the second accident involving a Navy ship and a cargo vessel in recent months, the accident highlighting the geopolitical dangers in the South China Sea and raising questions about safety on U.S. Navy ships. Hannah Beech and Matthew Haag report at the New York Times.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces launched a military offensive yesterday to retake the city of Tal Afar from the Islamic State, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warning the Islamic State fighters that they should “surrender or die,” Tim Arango reporting at the New York Times.

“The coalition is strong, and fully committed to supporting our Iraqi partners,” the commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said in response to the announcement of the offensive on Tal Afar, the BBC reporting.

Tal Afar remains one of the last territories in Iraq controlled by Islamic State militants and constitutes a key a strategic location for the Islamic State due to its proximity to the Syrian border, Mustafa Salim and Tamer El-Ghobashy report at the Washington Post.

The U.N. has warned that the civilians and families face “extreme risks,” with thousands expected to flee Tal Afar as a consequence of the military operation to retake the city from Islamic State, the AP reports.

Military operations by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite militia group Hezbollah against Islamic State militants in Tal Afar and on the Syria-Lebanon border have solidified a de-facto alliance between Iran and the U.S., demonstrating the contradictory relationship between the long-time rivals. Maria Abi-Habib, Ali Nabhan and Ghassan Adnan explain at the Wall Street Journal.

SYRIA

The Lebanese army recaptured two-thirds of its territory along the Syria-Lebanon border from the Islamic State at the weekend, having launched a military operation in the Ras Baalbek and Qaa region on Saturday; simultaneously the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi’ite militia group Hezbollah and the Syrian army launched a separate operation against Islamic State from the Syrian side of the border. Al Jazeera reports.

Over 200 Islamic State militants were killed by the Russian air force as they advanced on the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor, according to Russian news agencies citing Russia’s Defense Ministry comments today, which did not state when the strike took place. Reuters reports.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rejected calls to cooperate with Western nations, stating that they must “cut their relations with terrorism” before diplomatic ties can be restored, also praising Russia, Iran, China and Lebanon’s Hezbollah for supporting the Syrian government, the AP reports.

BARCELONA TERROR ATTACK

Spanish police have confirmed the identity of the driver suspected of killing 13 people in Thursday’s attack in Barcelona as 22-year-old Younes Abouyaaqoub, stating that it is possible that the suspect has escaped to France, the BBC reports.

Spanish authorities have identified Imam Abdelbaki Es Satty as a prime suspect, and are investigating whether Es Satty radicalized the attackers while he was an imam at a mosque in Ripoll, the hometown of most of the suspects. Jon Sindreu, Kavita Mokha and Pietro Lombardi report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Barcelona attack has revealed the struggles to combat the radicalization of some young Muslim men from predominantly Moroccan origin, despite the efforts of the Spanish authorities to integrate communities and to bolster its counterterrorism capabilities. Declan Walsh, Raphael Minder, Erc Schmitt and Rukmini Callimachi write at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A meeting between Russian immigrant Rinat Akhmetshin and the Trump campaign last summer is of interest to special counsel Robert Mueller. Sharon LeFraniere, David D. Kikpatrick and Kenneth P. Vogel reveal the web of connections between Akhmetshin and the Kremlin at the New York Times.

Breitbart News published an article yesterday characterizing National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster as soft on Islamist extremism and terrorism, coming two days after the President Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen Bannon left the White House and returned to head Breitbart. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

“It’s very disconcerting,” the former C.I.A. Deputy Chief David Cohen said yesterday, accusing the President of “politicizing” the intelligence-gathering process by stating that Iran had violated the nuclear deal without being presented with evidence. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

The investigation into Friday’s knife attack in the Finnish city of Turku is “proceeding,” Detective Chief Inspector Crista Granroth said yesterday, and an 18-year-old Moroccan asylum seeker has been arrested on charges of killing two women and wounding eight in what is believed to be the first suspected Islamist militant attack in Finland. Jussi Rosendahl and Lefteris Karagiannopoulos report at Reuters.

Trump administration officials have renewed efforts to expand the use of Guantánamo prison, according to officials familiar with the matter, Charlie Savage and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.

The U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon (Unifil) is not effectively fulfilling its mandate on the Israel-Lebanon border, allowing the Lebanese Shi’ite militia group Hezbollah to violate numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions without any repercussions; therefore, the U.N. must change Unifil’s mandate. Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. Danny Danon writes at the Wall Street Journal.

More than 10 U.S. diplomats and their family members have been injured by a mystery sonic weapon at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba’s capital of Havana, according to two senior U.S. government officials, Patrick Oppmann and Elise Labott report at CNN.

President Trump’s “pathological need to focus attention on himself” has drawn attention away from vital issues such as the humanitarian crises in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria, and has inhibited public discussion of U.S. support for the Saudi military campaign in Yemen. Jackson Diehl writes at the Washington Post.

“Terrorists and criminals must be fought and destroyed relentlessly so that the majority of us can live in peace and safety,” Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said today, stating that his government would bolster its efforts to combat the Islamist group Boko Haram. Bashir Adigun reports at the AP.

The founders of 116 robotics and artificial intelligence companies have signed an open letter calling for a ban on the use of lethal autonomous weapons, stating that allowing “killer robots” would permit “armed conflict to be fought on a scale greater than ever, and at timescales faster than humans can comprehend,” making the warning after U.N. talks on their regulation were postponed. Jamie Smyth reports at the Financial Times.

The Iran nuclear deal constitutes one of the few occasions where Tehran’s ambitions have been relatively contained and it is difficult to see what can be gained by certifying Iran as noncompliant with the deal, the Washington Post editorial board writes.

A top aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Vladislav Surkov, played a key role in organizing the pro-Russia separatists in Ukraine, according to former rebel leaders and Ukrainian and Western officials, James Marson explains at the Wall Street Journal. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK