The Early Edition: September 6, 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

A U.S. service member and a Romanian soldier were “killed in action” in yesterday’s car bomb explosion in the Afghan capital of Kabul, according to a statement by the N.A.T.O.-led Resolute Support mission. The attack, which killed 10 civilians and wounded 42 more, was claimed by the Taliban. Al Jazeera reports.

The Taliban attacked a third provincial capital in Afghanistan in less than a week today — killing at least two civilians and wounding 15 others, Farah provincial governor Mohammad Shoaib Sabet said. The attack occurred as U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad returned to Qatar for unexpected talks on a U.S.-Taliban agreement he had described as “complete” days earlier; Khalilzad announced this week that he and the insurgents had reached a deal “in principle” that would begin a U.S. troop pullout in exchange for Taliban counterterror assurances. Tameem Akhgar reports at the AP. 

The Afghan government clashed with Khalilzad yesterday over the troop withdrawal agreement, voicing concern that the proposed deal lacks guarantees that the insurgents will comply with their promises once American forces leave.  “It is not clear what happens if and when the Taliban fail to comply with the commitments they’re making to the U.S.,” a senior official said, explaining “there’s no guarantee of any action;” the Afghan government’s objections to the accord could “weaken it politically,” Craig Nelson reports at the Wall Street Journal.

“The people of Afghanistan have been bitten by this snake before — they have seen the results of hasty deals, of deals they and their voices weren’t part of,” Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s director of public and strategic affairs Waheed Omer told reporters in Kabul yesterday. Omer explained that the country was not yet assured of “what the agreement’s consequences could have for Afghanistan’s future,” and that more debate was needed. Mujib Mashal reports at the New York Times.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) yesterday demanded that Khalilzad testify this month before the House committee about the negotiations, saying “I do not consider your testimony at this hearing optional.” “I am calling this hearing so that Congress and the American people will have the long-overdue opportunity to understand the contours of your negotiations with the Taliban and the potential risks and opportunities that may result,” Engel wrote in a letter to Khalilzad, adding “if this letter is insufficient to secure your attendance, I will consider other options that would ensure this hearing takes place in a timely manner,” hinting at subpoenaing the envoy. Christina Marcos reports at the Hill.

The deal between the US and the Taliban does not address the fate of Afghan women, putting their fragile gains —  including securing key freedoms  such as education and the right to work — at risk as the insurgents seek to expand their influence. AFP reports.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday declared the U.S. was “successful” in achieving its original mission to oust al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and prevent terrorist attacks plotted in the country and neighboring Pakistan. “If you go back and look at the days following 9/11, the objectives set out were pretty clear: to go defeat al-Qaeda, the group that had launched the attack on the United States of America from Afghanistan … and today, al-Qaeda … doesn’t even amount to a shadow of its former self in Afghanistan,” Pompeo told the Daily Signal news outlet, saying the U.S. has “delivered” on its mission. Carol Morello and John Hudson report at the Washington Post.

At least 179 pro-government forces and 110 civilians were killed during the last week of fighting in Afghanistan, Fatima Faizi reports in a casualty report at the New York Times.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Hundreds of protesters gathered today in Hong Kong, as the city prepares for weekend demonstrations after its C.E.O. Carrie Lam’s formal withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill failed to assuage some activists. Lam today insisted the measures announced this week were “a first step,” telling reporters: “the four actions are aimed at putting one step forward in helping Hong Kong to get out of the dilemma … we can’t stop the violence immediately.” Noah Sin and Donny Kwok report at Reuters.

Chinese officials have pointed to a pattern of American actions that they claim amounts to “foreign interference, even collusion” in orchestrating the monthslong protests. Steven Lee Myers reports at the New York Times.

“A leaderless movement … clashes with a government whose own leader is powerless, and directed by a faraway center that won’t issue commands — and that is incapable of compromise,” Ryan Manuel at Foreign Policy offers his take on the current protests.

IRAN

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said today that Iran seemed to be “inching towards a place where talks could be held,” days after U.S. President Trump indicated he was open to a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly in New York. Reuters reports.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed during a meeting in London on the need to stop Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, a Downing Street spokesperson said yesterday. “Both Prime Ministers agreed on the need to prevent Iran getting a nuclear weapon and stop wider destabilizing Iranian behavior … the Prime Minister stressed the need for dialogue and a diplomatic solution,” the spokesperson said. Reuters reports.

“Chinese policymakers taking a long-term perspective will likely see opportunities for larger gains from an Iran alienated from the West and dependent on Chinese economic and security support,” Alex Vatanka writes at Foreign Policy in an analysis of the ties between the two nations.

YEMEN AND The KINGDOM

Saudi Arabia yesterday urged southern Yemeni separatists to surrender control of Aden and voiced its support for the government, signaling that the severance from close ally United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) had widened. In a statement carried by the state news agency S.P.A., the kingdom asserted that any attempt to destabilize Yemen’s security would be a threat against the Kingdom and would “be dealt with decisively;” the kingdom also refused any “new reality imposed by force in the south.” Reuters reports.

The U.S. is reportedly in talks with Yemen’s Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels, in an apparent effort to end the five-year war in the country. “We are narrowly focused on trying to end the war in Yemen,” U.S. assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs David Schenker told reporters yesterday during a visit to Saudi Arabia, adding “we are also having talks to the extent possible with the Houthis to try and find a mutually accepted negotiated solution to the conflict;” senior Houthi official Hamid Assem told A.F.P. news agency he could neither confirm nor deny whether the rebels were holding discussions with Washington. Al Jazeera reports.

PAKISTAN AND INDIA

At least one person was killed and 10 others wounded after two bombs exploded minutes apart yesterday near a police vehicle at a bus terminal in the southwestern city of Quetta, Pakistan. No one immediately claimed responsibility. The AP reports

Pakistan is prepared to make the “fullest possible response” to India’s actions in disputed Kashmir and the global community would be responsible for any “catastrophic” aftermath, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said today. “I have informed the world that Pakistan does not want war, but at the same time, Pakistan cannot remain oblivious to the challenges posed to its security and integrity,” Khan said in a statement on the website of state-run Radio Pakistan. Reuters reports.

“Could an India that actively discriminates against religious minorities still be a close partner with the U.S.?” Sadanand Dhume at the Wall Street Journal considers that “New Delhi makes a grave mistake in jeopardizing the religious pluralism that sets it apart from China.”

IMMIGRATION

Republicans have blasted President Trump’s diversion of funds from military construction projects in their states and districts to help pay for his long-promised wall along the southern border, after Secretary of Defense Mark Esper announced this week that $3.6 billion will be taken from 127 projects at U.S. bases. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) voiced concern over whether the president has the constitutional authority to redirect the money, while Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) said: “Congress has been ceding far too much powers to the executive branch for decades and it is far past time for Congress to restore the proper balance of power between the three branches.” Ellen Mitchell and Jordain Carney report at the Hill.

Lawmakers also slammed the president’s plan to shift $400 million from military construction projects in Puerto Rico, with Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) asserting: “repurposing of these funds will make Puerto Ricans less safe by reducing U.S. military readiness and diverting resources from Puerto Rico’s National Guard.” Dareh Gregorian and Carmen Sesin report at NBC.

ELECTION SECURITY

The leaders of the House Blue Dog Coalition and the House Blue Dog Task Force on National Security yesterday sent a letter to House and Senate leaders urging them to take further action to secure election systems and to guard against foreign interference in future U.S. elections. In the letter sent to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the House Blue Dog Coalition called on congressional leaders to “put politics aside and pursue bipartisan solutions” to strengthen election security ahead of 2020, saying that “the threat to our national security could not be more clear.” Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

A look at Canada’s detailed plan to combat foreign election interference is fielded by Alexander Panetta at POLITICO, who notes that lessons from its upcoming nationwide vote in October “will prove essential for U.S. policymakers.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

U.S. President Trump met with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) yesterday at the White House to discuss gun legislation following mass shootings that have killed dozens of people over the past several weeks, according to three people familiar with the matter. The meeting covered a range of possible gun-related policy issues, including universal background checks for gun purchases. Andrew Restuccia and Natalie Andrews report at the Wall Street Journal.

“The Pentagon is slowly but surely beginning to rebuild its senior ranks under new Defense Secretary Mark Esper, but persistent gaps in staffing at lower levels of the department could continue to hamper policymaking,” Laura Seligman argues at Foreign Policy.

Social media giant Facebook is teaming up with Microsoft and several universities to launch a contest to better detect deepfakes, the company said in a blog post yesterday. Facebook is putting $10 million into the “Deepfake Detection Challenge,” in an effort to develop technology aimed at detecting high quality faked video and audio. Harper Neidig reports at the Hill.

A breakdown of the key points of a federal court’s ruling Wednesday that the U.S. government’s terrorism watchlist is unconstitutional is fielded by Shirin Sinnar at Just Security.

Trump’s special envoy for the Middle East and an architect of the long-awaited U.S. peace plan for the region Jason Greenblatt announced his resignation yesterday. Carol E. Lee, Josh Lederman and Peter Alexander report at NBC.

The U.K. government’s reluctance to repatriate Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) fighters being held in custody in the Middle East and put them on trial in their country of origin are creating a risk to regional security, U.S. defense secretary Mark Esper warned yesterday. Dan Sabbagh reports at the Guardian.

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton discussed increasing economic ties with Greenland during a meeting with the U.S. ambassador to Denmark Ambassador Carla Sands, Bolton said yesterday. According to a message he sent on Twitter, the pair touched on “Arctic and energy security, trade, and boosting US economic ties with Greenland, including investments in mineral exploration projects and airport upgrades.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

The U.S. has blocked the U.N. Security Council from publishing a statement following the recent exchange of cross-border fire between the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militant group in southern Lebanon and Israeli forces in Israel, diplomats said yesterday. The initial draft of the French-proposed council statement would have denounced “all violations of the Blue Line” — the U.N.-drawn dividing line between the two nations — and called on all parties “to exercise maximum calm and restraint.” Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

Sudan’s newly appointed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok announced his Cabinet yesterday, the first since former President Omar al-Bashir was ousted in April. The Cabinet is part of a power-sharing accord between the military and pro-democracy demonstrators, following pressure from the U.S. and its Arab allies, amid growing concerns the political crisis could trigger a civil war. The AP reports.

Former Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe has died at the age of 95, President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced in a message sent on Twitter. Mugabe was ousted in a military coup in 2017 after 37 years in power. Tricia Escobedo, David McKenzie and Hilary Clarke report at CNN. 

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About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).