The Early Edition: March 13, 2019

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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

Talks between the U.S. and Taliban ended yesterday without a significant breakthrough. The discussions – which took place in Qatar for over two weeks – did not culminate in a peace deal, but U.S. officials said they had made substantial progress on certain issues, Mujib Mashal reports at the New York Times.

The U.S. and the Taliban concluded a draft agreement on counter-terrorism assurances and troop withdrawal, and “agreed in principle” on the issues of intra-Afghan dialogue and a comprehensive ceasefire, according to a series of messages on Twitter yesterday by the U.S. presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. Dan De Luce reports at NBC News.

Khalilzad said the U.S. and the Taliban “will meet again soon” and that he hopes significant progress or a peace deal can be reached by the time of the Afghan elections in July. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid also said that both sides had made progress on troop withdrawal and preventing future attacks on other countries from Afghanistan, but emphasized that there has been no agreement with the Afghan government on a ceasefire or talks. Eric Knecht reports at Reuters.

Afghan officials are reporting a friendly fire incident between U.S. and Afghan forces in southern Uruzgan province. The AP reports.

The Taliban raided an Afghan army checkpoint in the western province of Farah, killing 10 soldiers and seriously wounding a prominent journalist, officials said today. Rahim Faiez reports at the AP.

SYRIA

The Islamic State group faces imminent defeat in its last enclave in the Syrian town of Baghouz, the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) has said today. Al Jazeera reports.

Islamic State militants have staged a counterattack from Baghouz, with an S.D.F. commander saying that their forces are repelling the Islamic State’s resistance. Philip Issa reports at the AP.

Syrian Kurds are preparing for a political battle to gain legitimacy for their autonomous region and to push for international aid once the Islamic State group is defeated in Baghouz. Ellen Francis reports at Reuters.

President Trump has made a series of claims about the Islamic State group over recent months, stating that the U.S. has “liberated virtually 100 percent” of Iraq and Syria from the group. Meg Kelly provides an analysis of the president’s claims at the Washington Post.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 211 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Feb. 10 and Feb. 23. [Central Command]

VENEZUELA

The Venezuelan government announced yesterday that it will investigate the opposition leader and self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó for his role in the alleged sabotage of the national electrical system. The investigation comes as the country is roiled by a nationwide blackout and follows the U.S. decision to withdraw its diplomats from Caracas due to the deteriorating situation. Mary Beth Sheridan and Anthony Faiola report at the Washington Post.

Guaidó yesterday vowed to replace Nicolás Maduro as president “very soon.” The opposition leader has been recognized as interim president by more than 50 countries and the situation in Venezuela has led to increased U.S. pressure on the Maduro government – with special envoy Elliot Abrams saying that the U.S. would soon institute “very significant additional sanctions” on businesses who have dealings with the Venezuelan government, the AFP reports.

Maduro yesterday accused Trump and the opposition of masterminding a “demonic” plot to oust him as leader, and said the U.S. had launched an imperialist “electromagnetic attack” which had caused the power blackout. Tom Phillips reports at the Guardian.

China today offered to help restore Venezuela’s power grid and expressed deep concern that the blackout has reportedly been caused by a hacking attack. Reuters reports.

The U.S. has almost run out of options to achieve its aim of a peaceful change of power in Venezuela, David E. Sanger and Edward Wong explain at the New York Times.

U.S. MILITARY AND BUDGET REQUEST

Details of the Pentagon’s $750bn national defense budget for 2020 were released yesterday. The plan demonstrates the Trump administration’s shift away from focusing on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan towards prioritizing strategic competition with China and Russia, Paul Sonne reports at the Washington Post.

The Pentagon signed a directive yesterday implementing the Trump administration’s limit on transgender people serving in the military – a policy which has been subject to a series of lawsuits. Advocates have said they will continue to challenge the policy in the courts, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

The Pentagon has announced that it has started work to develop new missiles following the Trump administration’s decision to suspend its obligations to the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) arms control Treaty; with Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Col. Michelle Baldanza stating that the steps being taken are “designed to be reversible, should Russia return to full and verifiable compliance before we withdraw from the Treaty in August 2019.” Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

The number of vacancies and temporarily-filled posts at the Pentagon have reached a new high. Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer explain the reasons for the empty posts and the consequences of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ departure at Foreign Policy.

CHINA

China has been using “payday loan diplomacy” when dealing with developing Pacific nations, the new U.S. ambassador to Australia – Arthur Culvahouse Jr. – said today, echoing previous comments by Vice President Mike Pence about Chinese “debt traps.” The AP reports.

Chinese hackers and others are carrying out a “cyber siege” against the U.S. Navy and its industry partners, an internal Navy review has found. The report also criticized the Navy for its response to cybersecurity challenges, Gordon Lubold and Dustin Volz report at the Wall Street Journal.

The European Union has stepped up its criticism of China, labeling the country a “systemic rival” in a paper released yesterday. Michael Peel and Jim Brunsden report at the Financial Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Sanctions are having a clear impact on North Korea,  the head of the U.N. panel monitoring sanctions against the country – Hugh Griffiths – said in an interview yesterday, explaining that sanctions are biting “because you can’t spend decades engaging in clandestine and illegal ship-to-ship transfer of coal, or petroleum products.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

North Korea is rebuilding satellite launch sites and the activity could be a deliberate tactic by leader Kim Jong-un to push the Trump administration to embrace step-by-step negotiations on denuclearization. Laura Bicker provides an analysis at the BBC.

TRUMP-RUSSIA INVESTIGATION

Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn has completed his cooperation with Robert Mueller’s investigation, according to a joint status report filed yesterday by Flynn’s lawyers and lawyers for the special counsel. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. in 2017 and is due to give testimony against his former business partner Bijan Rafiekian, who faces charges of conspiracy and acting as an unregistered foreign agent for Turkey. Darren Samuelsohn reports at POLITICO.

Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort faces a second round of sentencing today. He will appear before Judge Amy Berman Jackson and faces up to 10 years in prison for charges – to which he has already admitted as part of Mueller’s investigation – of conspiracy to lobby the U.S. on behalf of pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. Lydia Wheeler and Morgan Chalfant report at the Hill.

Manafort’s sentencing today will likely amplify voices calling for Trump to be impeached despite House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) attempts to dampen the prospect of ousting the president. Stephen Collinson provides an analysis at CNN.

Pelosi’s comments about impeachment are unsurprising and her cautionary approach is a result of her legislative experience. Karen Tumulty writes at the Washington Post.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Vice President Mike Pence has been negotiating a deal with Republican senators to try and defeat a Democratic resolution rejecting Trump’s emergency declaration at the U.S.’ southern border with Mexico. The plan would include a requirement for Trump to sign legislation curbing his power to declare future national emergencies, Alexander Boltion reports at the Hill.

The Senate will vote today on a resolution to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen. The same resolution was passed in December but was not taken up by the Republican-controlled House. Marianne Levine reports at POLITICO.

The Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq – who was accused of killing U.S. troops in 2007 – is establishing a terror network in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, according to Israeli intelligence officials. The claims by the officials comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been lobbying Washington to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Golan, which was captured from Syria in the 1967 war and annexed in 1981, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Iran has said it will “firmly respond” to any Israeli naval interventions against its oil shipments, making the comments after Israel said last week that its navy could act against alleged Iranian oil smuggling in contravention of U.S. sanctions. Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. State Department has responded to ongoing protests in Algeria against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, stating yesterday that it supports efforts “to chart a new path forward based on dialogue that reflects the will of all Algerians….” Reuters reports.

The violence that took place in the Democratic Republic of Congo last year may amount to crimes against humanity, according to a U.N. investigation. The BBC reports. 

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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