The Early Edition: September 9, 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

U.S. President Trump unexpectedly canceled secret peace talks planned for the weekend with the Taliban’s “major leaders” and, separately, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the presidential compound in Camp David, Maryland, in a reversal of efforts to broker a deal ending the 18-year-long war in Afghanistan. In a series of messages sent on Twitter Saturday, Trump declared he had “immediately called off” the negotiations after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a blast in Kabul last Thursday that killed an American soldier and 11 others. Michael Crowley, Lara Jakes and Mujib Mashal report at the New York Times.

“What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position?” Trump wrote, accusing Taliban leaders of trying to build “false leverage” ahead of yesterday’s scheduled talks. “If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks, and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway,” the message continued; the announcement leaves in doubt the future of the draft accord worked out last week by U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad for a withdrawal of thousands of American troops over the coming months. Nahal Toosi, Wesley Morgan and Christian Vasquez report at POLITICO.

Trump’s move to suspend talks with the Taliban resulted from “opposing views within his administration, the group’s refusal to meet certain conditions and growing bipartisan criticism of an emerging deal,” Jessica Donati, Michael C. Bender and Craig Nelson report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s decision to cancel Afghan peace talks will cost more American lives, the Taliban warned yesterday in a statement. Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid criticized Trump for calling off the dialogue and claimed that U.S. forces have been battering Afghanistan with attacks at the same time; “this will lead to more losses to the U.S. … its credibility will be affected, its anti-peace stance will be exposed to the world, losses to lives and assets will increase,” Mujahid said. Michael Safi reports at the Guardian.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not rule out a return to talks but said the U.S. needed a “significant commitment” from the Taliban, making the remarks in a string of television interviews. “I hope it’s the case the Taliban will change their behavior, will recommit to the things that we’ve been talking to them about for months … in the end, this will be resolved through a series of conversations,” Pompeo told A.B.C. television program “This Week,” urging the insurgents to ditch their long-running refusal to negotiate with Ghani’s internationally recognized government. AFP reports.

The Pentagon has identified the U.S. soldier who died in Thursday’s Taliban bombing in Kabul as Sgt. 1st Class Elis Barreto Ortiz. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

AFGHANISTAN: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

A look at how Trump’s plan to secretly meet with the Taliban “came together, and fell apart” is fielded by Peter Baker, Mujib Mashal and Michael Crowley at the New York Times.

The president “upended” nearly a year of U.S.-Taliban peace talks. Cara Anna explains how at the AP.

“Trump on Saturday canceled talks with the Taliban … and let’s hope for the sake of American security that it’s a long suspension,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board argues, commenting that “the peace talks have looked increasingly like a surrender plan.”

“The self-styled master of negotiation does seem to have absorbed one lesson in the past three years: no deal is better than a bad deal,” Simon Tisdall at the Guardian comments on Trump’s surprise weekend announcement.

CHINA AND HONG KONG

Pro-democracy protesters rallied near the U.S. Consulate in Hong Kong yesterday — calling on U.S. President Trump to “liberate” Hong Kong from China. Demonstrators appealed to the U.S. Congress to pass a proposed “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which would impose penalties on Hong Kong or Chinese officials who suppress basic freedoms in the city. Ben Westcott, Julia Hollingsworth and Caitlin Hu report at CNN.

The Hong Kong government expressed “regret” over the U.S. bill and said in a statement today that “foreign legislatures should not interfere in any form in the internal affairs” of Hong Kong. Timothy McLaughlin and Casey Quackenbush report at the Washington Post.

IRAN

Iran has begun using advanced centrifuges prohibited by its 2015 nuclear pact and can enrich uranium “much more beyond” current levels to weapons-grade material, Behrouz Kamalvandi of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran declared Saturday. The announcement suggests that Iran was “more interested in increasing pressure on European nations to find a way around American-imposed sanctions than in carrying out a full-scale effort to restore the capabilities it gave up when it struck the deal with the West,” David E. Sanger writes at the New York Times.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.) confirmed today that Iran has begun installing more advanced centrifuges, the AP reports.

Iran’s nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi said yesterday the European parties to the 2015 nuclear deal have not met their obligations under the pact, a day after Tehran announced further violations of limits on its nuclear activity set by the accord. “Unfortunately the European parties have failed to fulfill their commitments … the deal is not a one-way street and Iran will act accordingly as we have done so far by gradually downgrading our commitments,” Salehi told reporters, adding: “Iran will continue to reduce its nuclear commitments as long as the other parties fail to carry out their commitments.” AFP reports.

The U.S. said Sunday that it will continue to impose sanctions on those who buy Iran’s oil or conduct business with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, warning that no oil waivers “of any kind” will be re-issued. Reuters reports.

“Letting [Tehran] enhance its conventional military capabilities could convince it to rein in proxies and curb its nuclear and missile programs,” Mahsa Rouhi argues at Foreign Policy, commenting that “despite the Trump administration’s assertions, it is increasingly clear that the maximum pressure approach deployed to force Iran to temper its behavior in the Middle East is not working.”

French President Emmanuel Macron’s proposal to give Tehran a $15 billion credit line in exchange for renewed compliance with the nuclear deal was a “bad bargain,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments.

SYRIA

Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels fired rockets at Israel from Syria today but “all failed to hit Israeli territory,” the Israeli military said. Reuters reports.

Turkish and U.S. troops held their first joint ground patrol in northeastern Syria yesterday as part of a so-called “safe zone” that Ankara has been campaigning for in the Kurdish-administered region. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

SUDAN

Sudan yesterday swore in its first cabinet since the ouster of former president Omar al-Bashir in April following nationwide protests against his rule. The 18-member cabinet, which includes Sudan’s first female Foreign Minister Asmaa Abdalla and former World Bank economist Ibrahim Ahmad al-Badawi as finance minister, took the oath at the presidential palace in the capital Khartoum yesterday. The AP reports.

Al-Bashir was denied bail by a court in Khartoum in his corruption trial, officials said Saturday. The former president, who ruled Sudan for nearly 30 years, is charged with “illicit financial gains, bribery and accepting gifts in an unofficial manner,” including $90m in cash from Saudi royals. Al Jazeera reports.

TRUMP BORDER WALL

The Trump administration plans to divert $771 million of funding away from projects designated to the European Deterrence Initiative — a program created by the Obama administration that was designed to support European defense after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Sam Brodey at The Daily Beast comments that the move could be a “gut punch” to U.S. diplomatic and security interests in Europe.

“The DOD budget is pretty big — they could have picked from a lot of other places … this is not a barber shop … this is the frontline,” former deputy assistant secretary of defense for European and N.A.T.O. Policy Jim Townsend told Kate Brannen at Just Security, commenting on Trump cuts to European defense.

Defunding military construction projects to build a border wall will “significantly and negatively impact quality of life for military service members and their families,” Lindsay L. Rodman argues at Just Security.

TRUMP-RUSSIA AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

The House Judiciary Committee is poised to vote this week on a resolution to formalize the impeachment inquiry against President Trump. Committee members could vote on a measure that would more clearly spell out the contours of the ongoing investigation as early as Wednesday; a draft of the resolution is expected to be released this morning. Kyle Cheney, Heather Caygle and John Bresnahan report at POLITICO.

“If House Democrats are not prepared to launch a full-throated impeachment process and commit to devoting a substantial amount of their energy to determine whether the President should be impeached, then they should simply move on and focus on their issue agenda instead,” Julian Zelizer argues at CNN.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS 

The Trump administration is weighing cutting back a refugee program, preventing refugees from most of the world who are fleeing war, persecution and famine from moving to the U.S.. Top officials are considering slicing the number of refugees allowed for entry by half or more, with refugees  chosen from countries with special status; a further option involves ending the program and giving U.S. President Trump authority to allow refugees in the country in emergencies. Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Michael D. Shear report at the New York Times.

At least three fighters aligned with Libya’s U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (G.N.A.) were killed in an attack on Saturday aimed at pushing back eastern forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a witness said. Reuters reports.

The Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militant group said it shot down an Israeli drone over southern Lebanon early today. A Hezbollah statement said the drone was downed with “suitable weapons” over the village of Ramieh and is now in the militants’ possession. Reuters reports. 

A joint statement by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) yesterday called for an end to fighting in southern Yemen between Yemen’s U.A.E.-backed separatists and forces loyal to the U.N.-recognized government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. The statement urged warring parties to immediately cease “all military operations” and “stop media propaganda” that fuels hostilities. Patrick Wintour reports at the Guardian.

The U.S. hopes to return to denuclearization talks with North Korea in the coming days or weeks, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday. Al Jazeera reports.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres yesterday commended Saturday’s exchange of prisoners and detainees between Russia and Ukraine and all those involved including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The U.N. News Centre reports.

A detailed look at national security developments at the U.N. last week, including the U.N.’s finding that the U.S., France, and Britain may be implicated in Yemen war crimes, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.)’s report that Iran has continued to exceed the limits of its nuclear program, is fielded by Emily Shire at Just Security. 

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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).