The Early Edition: August 22, 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

“From now on, victory will have a clear definition,” President Trump said in a televised speech last night, setting out his administration’s strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia from the Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Va., which heeded the recommendations of his advisers by stepping up U.S. engagement in the Afghan war and taking a tougher approach on Pakistan, but  refrained from spelling out details on troop numbers. Gordon Lubold, Eli Stokols and Peter Nicholas report at the Wall Street Journal.

The new strategy will not engage in “nation-building,” Trump stated, explaining that previous strategies attempted to “rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests above all other considerations,” and that the U.S. would not “dictate” to the Afghan people how to live. David Nakamura and Abby Phillip report at the Washington Post.

 “My original instinct was to pull out” of Afghanistan, Trump admitted in his speech, noting the reality of making decisions from the Oval Office, stating that “a hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda” and that there would be no “blank check” for U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Mark Landler report at the New York Times.

“Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on,” Trump said yesterday, also leaving the door open for an eventual “political settlement” with the Taliban. Al Jazeera reporting.

Trump singled out Pakistan as a “safe haven for terrorist organizations” and called on India to help the U.S. more with Afghanistan, “especially in the area of economic assistance and development,” James Griffiths reports at CNN.

A full transcript and video of Trump’s address is provided by the New York Times.

The U.S. stands ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban “without preconditions,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a coordinated statement yesterday, emphasizing that the Taliban would “not win on the battlefield,” Julian Borger reporting at the Guardian.

“If America doesn’t withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, soon Afghanistan will become another graveyard for this superpower in the 21st century,” Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid warned yesterday, responding to the new Afghanistan strategy. Al Jazeera reporting.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has directed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff “to make preparations to carry out the president’s strategy” and will be in consultation with allies and the Secretary General of N.A.T.O., Reuters reports.

“N.A.T.O. remains fully committed to Afghanistan,” N.A.T.O. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement today, welcoming the U.S. commitment, Robert Jan-Bartunek reports at Reuters.

“This new strategy means the Taliban cannot win militarily,” the head of U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan Gen. John Nicholson said in a statement yesterday, reiterating that the new approach would be based on “conditions and not arbitrary timelines,” Reuters reports.

“We welcome this decision,” the Afghan ambassador to the U.S. Hamdullah Mohib said in an interview with Al Jazeera today, lauding the move to a conditions-based approach and the president’s tougher stance on Pakistan. Al Jazeera reports.

 “The President’s announcement is low on details but raises serious questions,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Califf.) said in a statement yesterday, adding that the lack of specifics means that there is “no accountability to the American people” – other leading Democrats also joined Pelosi in criticizing the president’s speech. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

“I commend President Trump for taking a big step in the right direction with the new strategy for Afghanistan,” the Senate Armed Services chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), praising the president after months of berating the administration for delaying the strategy, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) praised Trump’s strategy as “principled realism,” joining other Republican leaders in expressing their support for the president’s approach, Adam Edelman reports at NBC News.

AFGHANISTAN STRATEGY: COMMENTARY

An annotated transcript of the President’s speech, offering an analysis of the president’s comments, is provided by Natalie Jennings at the Washington Post.

A modest increase in troop numbers is unlikely to change the dynamics of the Afghan war and eschews the approaches set out during the presidential campaign – that he would steer clear of expensive overseas interventions and decisively win any conflict worth entering – instead, articulating a strategy with no time limit that is likely to prolong the stalemate between Afghan forces and the Taliban. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Anne Gearan write at the Washington Post.

The Afghanistan strategy is unlikely to deliver an “outright victory,” but may help Afghan forces to reverse Taliban gains, step up the fight against terrorism and help to stabilize the country, however the strategy requires careful diplomacy from an inexperienced team. Michael R. Gordon writes at the New York Times.

The fierce debates within the White House, Trump’s anger with suggestions of sending additional troops to Afghanistan, and the president’s eventual acceptance of the need to expand U.S. engagement are explained by Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman at the New York Times.

The attempt to persuade the president to change his non-interventionist instincts during the Afghanistan policy review process is explained by Philip Rucker and Robert Costa at the Washington Post.

America’s longest war has come at an enormous expense to U.S. taxpayers, Andrew deGrandpre and Alex Horton provide six examples of costly failures at the Washington Post.

The reactions in South Asia to the new strategy have been mixed, with many Afghans welcoming Trump’s tough words on Pakistan but concerned that the strategy would do little to alleviate the deteriorating security situation, Rahim Faez and Kathy Gannon explain at the AP.

U.S. military commanders on the frontline in eastern Afghanistan await more troops, believing that the additional troops, and increased possibility for training and advising Afghan units, can bolster the Afghan forces’ ability to combat the Taliban. Lolita C. Baldor explains at the AP.

Trump’s move to a “conditions-based approach” rather than one based on timetables, suggests that the Afghan war is set to get longer, and the president’s strategy does not significantly differ from that pursued by his predecessors, Jonathan Marcus writes at the BBC.

President Trump’s speech last night proves that America has “no new ideas” on what to do in Afghanistan, his strategy bearing many similarities with the approach of previous administrations, only markedly different in terms of tone, tougher rhetoric on Pakistan and an open-ended pledge to “fight to win.” Susan B. Glasser writes at POLITICO Magazine.

Trump’s speech did not amount to a strategy, but merely restated what the military must “keep doing” to prevent the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and branding the process as “victory” at the expense of any sort of end goal. Spencer Ackerman writes at The Daily Beast.

U.S. NAVY DESTROYER COLLISION

China warned the U.S. that its military presence in Asian waters poses a threat to maritime safety, responding to the collision between U.S. Navy Destroyer U.S.S. John S. McCain and a merchant ship yesterday near the Strait of Malacca and Singapore – a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry emphasizing the dangers of increased U.S. naval traffic to navigation “in the South China Sea and relevant waters.” Chun Han Wong reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Navy has paused global operations as a consequence of yesterday’s deadly collision, allowing fleet commanders to review the Navy’s “fundamentals,” according to the chief of naval operations Adm. John Richardson. Eric Schmitt and Keith Bradsher report at the New York Times.

There is “no indication” at this point in time that the crash was intentional, Adm. John Richardson told reporters yesterday, adding that the Navy are “looking at every possibility,” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The incident has exposed a territorial dispute between Malaysia and Singapore as both claim the collision took place in their waters, Joshua Berlinger reports at CNN.

Accidents involving U.S. Navy Destroyers over the past year raise serious questions about the Navy’s capability, which is now conducting missions with less funding and fewer ships, the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

IRAQ

Iraqi forces have taken a number of villages on the outskirts of Tal Afar, one of the last remaining urban strongholds in the hands of the Islamic State, making the advances as part of an offensive launched at the weekend, the BBC reports.

Islamic State militants are being squeezed on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis explained today, making the comments during an unannounced visit to Iraq, adding that the so-called Middle Euphrates River Valley would be liberated in time. Robert Burns reports at the AP.

A meeting between influential Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and the crown princes of Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. has provoked speculation that Sadr is attempting to counterbalance Iranian influence in Iraq – but the meeting may point to other possibilities. Zaid al-Ali provides an analysis at Al Jazeera.

SYRIA

The Lebanese Army have launched the third phase of their offensive against Islamic State militants on the Lebanon-Syria border, having captured around two-thirds of the area following the operation launched on Saturday, the AP reports.

The next round of Syria talks in the Kazakhstani capital of Astana have been postponed, Kazakh Foreign Minister Kairat Abdrakhmanov said today, stating that Russia, Turkey and Iran “plan to hold a technical meeting” before agreeing on a date for the next round of talks. Reuters reports.

Two U.N. member states have intercepted North Korean shipments to a Syrian government agency responsible for the chemical weapons program in the past six months, according to a report by a panel of independent U.N. experts. Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 26 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on August 21. Separately, partner forces conducted nine strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

NORTH KOREA

Diplomacy is “the most important starting point,” the head of the U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris said today from South Korea, where he is observing the annual U.S.-South Korea military exercises, Reuters reports.

U.S. federal prosecutors are preparing to crack down on Chinese firms acting as financial conduits for North Korea’s weapons program, according to sources, and are building cases that would result in permanent seizure of funds. Aruna Viswanatha and Ian Talley report at the Wall Street Journal.

South Korea may have to live with the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea, with many skeptical about South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s contention that Pyongyang can be persuaded to denuclearize through diplomacy and sanctions, consequently raising difficult questions, such as whether South Korea should develop its own nuclear weapons arsenal. Choe Sang-Hun writes at the New York Times.

RUSSIA

Russian President Vladimir Putin appointed Anatoly Antonov as his new ambassador to the U.S., Antonov is known as a hard-liner and is expected to take an adversarial approach. Thomas Grove and James Marson report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. will suspend all nonimmigrant visa operations across Russia and permanently curtail visa operations outside Moscow, according to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, making the decision amid deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Russia. David Filipov and Andrew Roth report at the Washington Post.

GULF-ARAB DISPUTE

A meeting between Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and a little-known Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali al-Thani last week has prompted speculation that the Sheikh is part of a Saudi plot to promote him as an alternative to the current leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid al-Thani. Margherita Stancati and Dahlia Kholaif report at the Wall Street Journal.

Senegal restored diplomatic relations with Qatar today, after recalling its ambassador on June 6 amid the Gulf crisis, Al Jazeera reports in rolling coverage.

IRAN

“If we make the determination, we are able to resume 20 percent-enrichment in at most five days,” Iran’s atomic chief Ali Akbar Salehi said on Iranian state television today, emphasizing that Iran is committed to the deal but would react to an attempt by President Trump to push back against it, Nasser Karimi reports at the AP.

Iran’s support for the Houthi rebels is to blame for Yemen’s civil war, Yemen’s foreign minister said yesterday, the Saudi ambassador to the U.N. also joined Yemen in condemning Iran’s role and called on Iran to “get the hell out of the area, period.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The suspected driver in Thursday’s attack in Barcelona was shot and killed by Spanish police yesterday, the suspect, Younes Abouyaaqoub, appeared to be wearing an explosive vest, which was later revealed to be a fake. Jon Sindreu and Jeannette Neumann report at the Wall Street Journal.

The two brothers charged this month of plotting to blow up a flight from Sydney to Abu Dhabi were monitored by Lebanese Security services for more than a year and cooperated with the Australian authorities, the Lebanese interior minister said yesterday, Reuters reporting.

U.S. senators have introduced legislation to restrict the use of nuclear weapons by the president “if the United States has not been attacked by nuclear weapons,” Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said today from Seoul, also branding Trump’s recent rhetoric on North Korea as counterproductive. Bryan Harris reports at the Financial Times. 

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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