The Early Edition: August 29, 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

The U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad is close to reaching an agreement with the Taliban, according to diplomatic sources, with a deal expected to contain counterterrorism guarantees and pave the way for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops over the next 15 to 18 months. Colum Lynch, Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer report at Foreign Policy.

The deal may refer to the Taliban as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” – which was the name of their former hardline regime – according to two foreign diplomats and a Taliban source. If agreed, critics say this would be a propaganda coup for the insurgents, Dan De Luce and Mushtaq Yusufzai report at NBC News.

“I believe that what is needed is some type of disruption to the status quo,” the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford said yesterday, defending an approach that would lead to a U.S.-Taliban deal and the initiation of talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

It is “premature” to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Gen. Dunford said yesterday, emphasizing the need to fulfil counterterrorism objectives. Nancy A. Youssef and Gordon Lubold report at the Wall Street Journal.

Attacks on human rights defenders in Afghanistan have been relentless, according to a report by Amnesty International that comes as the U.S. and the Taliban continue negotiations on a possible deal to end the conflict. Saeed Kamali Dehghan reports at the Guardian.

“Any deal that calls for withdrawing our forces completely from Afghanistan is a bad deal for the United States,” Sen. Lindsey (R-S.C.) and retired Gen. Jack Keane write at the Washington Post, arguing that there can be no outsourcing of U.S. national security to the Taliban.

IRAN

The U.S. carried out a cyberattack on June 20 against a crucial database used by Iran’s paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.), undermining Tehran’s ability to disrupt shipping in the Persian Gulf, according to senior U.S. officials, adding that Iran is still attempting to recover the information that was destroyed. Julian E. Barnes reports at the New York Times.

The cyberattack took place on the same day that President Trump decided to call off a military strike against Iran for its shooting down of a U.S. surveillance drone; though officials have said the cyberattack had been planned for week if not months. Ellen Nakashima and Paul Sonne report at the Washington Post.

The U.S. Treasury Department yesterday issued sanctions on several Iranians and their associated companies for allegedly procuring materials to develop Iran’s weapons of mass destruction program, with the Treasury undersecretary Sigal Mandelker stating that the U.S. government “will continue to thwart” Iran at every turn. Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. must stop “economic terrorism” against Iran before talks can be held, the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said today, making the comments after President Trump said last week that he would be willing to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani under the right circumstances to discuss the dispute between the two countries over the 2015 nuclear deal, the U.S. policy of “maximum pressure,” and Iran’s increasingly aggressive moves in the Persian Gulf. Rozanna Latiff reports at Reuters.

The European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini today stated that the nuclear deal must be preserved and must not be sacrificed as part of U.S. measures to agree a broader deal with Iran that goes beyond the issue of the nuclear program. The AP reports.

President Trump would face resistance from his allies and adversaries if he attempts to meet with President Rouhani, Adam Taylor explains at the Washington Post, outlining the views of hardliners within his own administration, the likely opposition from countries like Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E. and Israel, and the skepticism within Iran about engagement.

ISRAEL-IRAN TENSIONS

The shadow war between Israel and Iran has broken out into the open following a series of recent attacks against Iranian-backed targets in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, with the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani stating that Isreal’s actions would be met with a response. David M. Halbfinger, Ben Hubbard and Ronen Bergman report at the New York Times, providing an overview of recent developments.

The Lebanese army yesterday shot at two of three Israeli reconnaissance drones that entered its airspace, according to a security official, with the incidents coming after an alleged Israeli drone crash in a suburb of the Lebanese capital near a media office belonging to the Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militant group. Zeina Karam reports at the AP.

The Iraqi government has been attempting to crackdown on Iran-backed paramilitary groups that have refused to fully integrate with Iraq’s armed forces but have faced resistance, and the situation could put Iraq in the crosshairs of the U.S.-Iran rivalry. John Davison and Ahmed Rasheed explain at Reuters.

The proxy war between Iran and Israel could undermine stability of the Iraqi government and undermine Baghdad’s attempt to maintain neutrality between its two allies, the U.S. and Iran. Pehsa Magid writes at Foreign Policy.

YEMEN and The KINGDOM

Saudi-backed Yemeni government forces yesterday reclaimed full control of the southern city of Aden from U.A.E.-backed southern separatists. The two forces are nominal allies in the fight against the Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels, but there have been increasing rifts in the coalition, Al Jazeera reports.

Airstrikes in Aden have killed at least 30 Yemeni government troops today, according to a government commander. It is not immediately clear who is responsible, but Yemen’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammed Abdullah al-Hadrami has blamed the U.A.E. for the “explicit extra-judicial targeting.” Ahmed Al-Haj and Maggie Michael report at the AP.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday urged the Yemeni government and the separatists to “resolve their dispute,” making the comments after meeting with the Saudi Vice Defense Minister, and brother to the Crown Prince, Khalid bin Salman. Sune Engel Rasmussen and Saleh al-Batati report at the Wall Street Journal.

Houthi rebels carried out a cruise missile attack targeting Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport yesterday, according to the group’s spokesperson. The Saudi-led coalition spokesperson said today that a “hostile project” was fired but caused no injuries. Reuters reports.

The Trump administration has been planning to engage in direct talks with the Houthi rebels and is hoping to encourage Saudi Arabia to conduct secret negotiations with the Houthi leadership in Oman, according to sources familiar with the matter. Dion Nissenbaum and Warren P. Strobel reports at the Wall Street Journal.

SYRIA

Syrian or Russian jets yesterday carried out airstrikes against a city in Syria’s rebel-held northwestern Idlib province yesterday, killing at least nine civilians and marking a further escalation in the area as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad steps up his efforts to regain control of the country. Reuters reports.

Syria’s Kurdish-led Y.P.G. militia took the “first practical steps” at the weekend to withdraw from territory along the border with Turkey, according to Kurdish-led authorities. The presence of the Y.P.G. has been a source of tension between the U.S. and Turkey as the U.S. has backed the Kurdish militia in the fight against the Islamic State group, while Turkey views them as an extension of the separatist Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The BBC reports.

The process to establish a “safe zone” in northeast Syria and to remove the Y.P.G. must “advance rapidly,” the Turkish President Reçep Tayyip Edrogan has said, warning that Turkey would not accept a delay in the plan that was agreed with Washington. Daren Butler reports at Reuters.

CHINA and HONG KONG

Chinese state media today broadcast a video of armored vehicles and trucks crossing the Hong Kong border as part of a “routine” garrison rotation. The movements follow a decision by Hong Kong’s police to deny permission for a mass rally on Saturday, the AFP reports.

The images of Chinese military vehicles have prompted fears that Beijing could crack down in Hong Kong in response to months of protests triggered by a now-suspended bill allowing the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China. Erin Hale reports at the Guardian.

The Chinese troop movement also came as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she would not rule out using emergency powers should violent protests continue. James Griffiths reports at CNN.

Carrie Lam has been steadfast in her unwillingness to compromise with protestors’ demands, prompting questions from all sides as to whether she is able to restore calm to Hong Kong. Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin explain at the Washington Post.

PAKISTAN and INDIA

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan intends to draw attention to the situation in Kashmir at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly, according to Pakistan’s U.S. ambassador Asad Majeed Khan, who made the comments as India continues a crackdown on the territory which is claimed by India and Pakistan in full but ruled by each in part. Paul Beckett reports at the Wall Street Journal.

India’s foreign ministry has been attempting to portray a sense of calm in Kashmir. Tensions have risen since Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented an order on Aug. 5 revoking Kashmir’s autonomous status, Emily Schmall reports at the AP.

Pakistan today carried out a surface-to-surface ballistic missile test at a time of increased tensions with India over Kashmir. Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. has opened an interim diplomatic Venezuela office in Colombia, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced yesterday, stating that the office was continuing “the U.S. mission to the legitimate Government of Venezuela” – which Washington considers to be led by the internationally recognized self-declared interim president Juan Guaidó. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

A planned fund of $250m to Ukraine for military assistance has been delayed by the Trump administration, prompting criticism from various quarters that the assistance is necessary to push back against Russian expansionism. Caitlin Emma and Connor O’Brien report at POLITICO.

A U.S. warship was yesterday denied permission to visit a Chinese port, the U.S. Navy said yesterday, which has come amid increasing U.S.-China tensions. Mike Ives reports at the New York Times.

Russia and Turkey yesterday discussed further military cooperation in a move that could threaten Turkey’s standing with the U.S. and N.A.T.O. – of which it is a member. Amie Ferris-Rotman and Kareem Fahim report at the Washington Post.

The Trump administration’s Israel-Palestine peace plan will not be released until after Israel has held its elections on Sept. 17, the U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt said yesterday. Steve Holland reports at Reuters.

Police checkpoints in Gaza city belonging to the Palestinian militant Hamas group in were hit by two suicide bombers yesterday in a rare attack for which no one has yet claimed responsibility. Iyad Abuheweila and Declan Walsh report at the New York 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