The Early Edition: January 29, 2018

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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

The Taliban claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Saturday, killing at least 95 and wounding 158, the attack occurred less than a week after the Taliban sieged an international hotel in the capital, which killed 22, and a few days after the Islamic State group claimed responsibility for an attack on the offices of the Save the Children charity in the city of Jalalabad, killing four. Sayed Salahuddin, Pamela Constable and Sharif Hassan report at the Washington Post.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for an attack on an army base near a Kabul military academy today, at least 11 soldiers have been killed, according to a defense ministry spokesperson. The BBC reports.

At least five insurgents were involved in today’s attack, according to the defense ministry spokesperson, adding that four were killed during the assault and one was arrested. Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah report at the AP.

The recent spate of attacks in Afghanistan and the capital have prompted anger among citizens against the government for their inability to provide security, the Afghan government blamed Pakistan for being behind the attacks by the insurgents, saying that Islamabad was lashing out due to the Trump administration’s decision to put more pressure on Pakistan – a suggestion that was rejected by the head of the U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel. Craig Nelson reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The focus on attacking civilians is designed to cause chaos and cast doubt on the possibility of Afghanistan having a centralized, functioning government. The U.S.-led coalition’s increased air campaign against Taliban-held territory has led the insurgents to shift toward guerilla-style attacks in the capital and other densely populate areas where airstrikes serve little purpose, Max Fisher provides an analysis at the New York Times.

The Taliban and other terrorist groups are growing stronger despite the over 16-year U.S.-led coalition and Afghan security forces campaign. The security situation has worsened, the Afghan government is weak, the economic situation is dire for many, aid groups are leaving the country or shrinking their operations, and, fundamentally, there is no real sense from the Trump administration about what victory in Afghanistan might look like and how it can be achieved, Amanda Erickson writes at the Washington Post.

The lack of clear objectives in Afghanistan means that the U.S. cannot win the war, the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations all failed to convincingly answer essential questions: “Why are we in Afghanistan? What interests justify our sacrifices? How will the war end?” Steve Coll writes at the New York Times, providing an overview of the various administrations’ incoherent approaches to Afghanistan.

SYRIA

The U.S. national security adviser H.R. McMaster spoke with Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin on Saturday and pledged to stop arming the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia, according to President Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan’s office. Turkey consider the Y.P.G. to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.), Tuvan Gumrucku and Angus McDowall report at Reuters.

The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called on the U.S. to immediately withdraw its military personnel from the Syrian Kurdish-dominated Manbij region on Saturday, making the remark a day after McMaster’s reportedly spoke to Kalin, adding that the U.S. “must cut ties with the terrorist organization.” Al Jazeera reports.

Withdrawing U.S. forces from Manbij is “not something we are looking into,” the head of U.S. central Command Gen. Joseph Votel said yesterday, increasingly the possibility that U.S. soldiers could be caught in the crossfire as the Turkish troops advance into northern Syria to fight the U.S.-backed Y.P.G., as part of their operation which began last week. Euan McKirdy reports at CNN.

“Step by step, we will clean our entire border,” Erdoğan vowed yesterday in a speech, suggesting that the Turkish operation against the Y.P.G. could extend further along Syria’s territory. Reuters reports.

Turkey and the U.S. share a common goal of eradicating the threat posed by the Islamic State group, however the fight against the Islamic State militants should not entail support for the Y.P.G. terrorist group that threatens Turkey’s national security and interests, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu writes at the New York Times, arguing that the U.S. has chosen the wrong partner on the ground and has breached “everything that N.A.T.O. stands for.”

At least eight civilians have been killed by Turkish airstrikes near the Afrin enclave today, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (S.O.H.R.), bringing the total number of civilian deaths since the Turkish operation began to 51. Al Jazeera reports.

A member of the Syrian Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (Y.P.J.) carried out a suicide bombing attack on the Turkish military in the Afrin region yesterday, if confirmed, the suicide attack by a U.S. ally against Turkey could further escalate tensions between the two N.A.T.O. allies. Rod Nordland reports at the New York Times.

At least eight civilians were killed by government shelling on the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the capital of Damascus yesterday, according to S.O.H.R., the attack occurred despite a Russia-brokered ceasefire that was supposed to take effect Saturday. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.N. special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura will attend the Russia-hosted peace initiative in Sochi this week, Mistura’s attendance has caused consternation among the opposition, the Syrian Negotiations Commission (S.N.C.), who voted not to attend the congress and have said that the Russian-led process would not open the possibility of the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent speech on Syria strategy correctly identifies the U.S. challenges in the country once the Islamic State group has been defeated, however the shift in strategy must be matched by action and a real commitment that pressures Assad to halt his mass atrocities and that counters Iran’s expansionism. Josh Rogin writes at the Washington Post.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 60 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between January 19 and January 25. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The Republicans may turn their focus on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in order to undermine the Russia investigation, according to sources familiar with the matter, a secret Republican-authored memo drawing on classified information reveals that Rosenstein approved an application to extend surveillance of the former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. The memo has proven highly contentious due to its claim that the F.B.I. and Justice Department partly relied on the controversial dossier compiled by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele in order to obtain the warrant on Page, and this revelation may be used to suggest that Rosenstein did not properly examine the surveillance application, Nicholas Fandos, Adam Goldman and Sharon LaFraniere report at the New York Times.

Trump faces a deadline today whether to sanction Russia for their interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

Republican lawmakers yesterday debated whether to publicly release the disputed memo about the F.B.I. and Justice Department, drafted by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). The internal debate included a discussion of whether the administration should first review the contents of the memo before its release, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Trump supports the release of the disputed memo, the White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said in an interview yesterday that the president “generally sides on the side of transparency.” Patrick Temple-West reports at POLITICO.

Trump tried to pressure senior aides to discredit senior F.B.I. officials, according to at least two senior White House officials, the president called for efforts to “fight back harder” after his personal lawyer John Dowd warned him that the F.B.I. officials could offer corroborative testimony of the former F.B.I. Director James Comey’s account of potentially improper efforts by Trump to limit the F.B.I.’s Trump-Russia investigation. Murray Waas reports at Foreign Policy.

Republican lawmakers have diverged in their belief over the necessity of legislation to protect Mueller’s position and investigation after it was recently revealed the Trump called for Mueller to be fired in June 2017 and Democrats have renewed their attempts to protect the probe. Sean Sullivan reports at the Washington Post.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said that it “wouldn’t hurt” to pass legislation protecting Mueller in an interview yesterday but added that she had faith in Rosenstein’s overview of the investigation, similar statements about passing legislation were made by other Republican lawmakers over the weekend. Eli Watkins reports at CNN.

Trump’s legal team have been examining the possibility of relying on a 1997 federal ruling for some leverage should he be interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of the investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia and whether the president obstructed justice. Del Quentin Wilber, Peter Nicholas and Michael C. Bender report at the Wall Street Journal.

Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) sent letters to former Democratic National Committee (D.N.C.) and Hillary Clinton campaign officials last week for information about their communications with Steele, who was commissioned by the opposition research firm Fusion G.P.S. to compile the controversial dossier. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

The Steele dossier itself may be part of a Russian effort to undermine the Republicans and the Democrats and America’s democratic institutions. Daniel Hoffman, a former Chief of Station with the C.I.A., writes at the Wall Street Journal, arguing that there are three reasons how the Russians may have intervened in Steele’s work to compile the dossier.

Mueller is likely to conclude that Trump obstructed justice, the case against the president has grown stronger in recent months, such as the revelation that he ordered the White House counsel Don McGahn to stop the Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia investigation, and that Trump ordered the firing of Mueller. Just Security Editor Renato Mariotti writes at POLITICO Magazine.

NORTH KOREA

“Diplomacy should impose reason on Kim’s reckless rhetoric and dangerous provocations,” the Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said of the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a meeting with his South Korean counterpart Song Young-moo on Friday. Phil Stewart reports at Reuters.

The U.S. has increased its efforts to pressure African countries to cut ties with North Korea and have pushed for the expulsion of North Korean laborers and diplomats. David Pilling, Adrienne Klasa and Katrina Manson report at the Financial Times.

South Koreans’ interest in the reunification of the Korean Peninsula has dampened over the years, particularly among young South Koreans who view the prospect as unrealistic and undesirable. Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

TRUMP ADMINISTRATION FOREIGN POLICY

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is scheduled to visit to Africa in March, the announcement of a forthcoming trip comes shortly after Trump reportedly made disparaging comments about African nations and other countries. Chris Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Tillerson visited European countries last week and included an attempt to secure British and French support for stronger measures against Iran in order to prevent U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear agreement, however his efforts to promote certain goals have seemingly been undermined by the Trump administration’s “America First” message. Matthew Lee provides an analysis at the AP.

The U.S. has set up working groups with European counterparts to address what the Trump administration deems to be flaws in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Tillerson told reporters on Saturday. Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

Several State Department officials have said that they have hired attorneys after due to their employment situation, including being assigned low-level jobs because they worked on policies associated with the Obama administration. Elisa Labott reports at CNN.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

An apparent U.S. airstrike killed at least six Iraqi police officers and allied militiamen on Saturday after Iraq’s joint-operations command mistook them for armed insurgents. The incident is being investigated, according to the spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group, Tamer El-Ghboashy and Mustafa Salim report at the Washington Post.  

A “heatmap” produced by the Strava fitness tracker app has seemingly revealed the location of foreign military bases, the BBC reports.

U.A.E.-backed Southern Yemeni separatists fought Saudi-backed government troops in the city of Aden yesterday, killing at least 10 people, and the fighting reveals fractures in the Saudi-led coalition. Mohammed Mukhashaf and Stephen Kalin report at Reuters. 

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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