Early Edition: March 15, 2021

A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the weekend.

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A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the weekend. Here’s today’s news

U.S. DEVELOPMENTS

Around 3,500 U.S. troops are currently in Afghanistan  1,000 more than the U.S. has disclosed, according to U.S., European and Afghan officials, further complicating discussions over whether the United States will stick to its agreement of fully withdrawing troops by May 1. “The cloudy accounting around the troop numbers results from some Special Operations forces having been put “off the books,” according to a senior U.S. official, as well as the presence of some temporary and transitioning units. These troops, according to a second U.S. official, include Joint Special Operations Command units, some of them elite Army Rangers, who work under both the Pentagon and the CIA while deployed to Afghanistan,” report Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt for the New York Times.

“A Taliban spokesman has expressed scepticism over a proposal by the United States for an interim government in Afghanistan, saying transitional governments have proven ineffective and that the group’s vision for the country revolved around a strong central administration capable of enforcing their definition of an Islamic system of governance,” reports Al Jazeera, following an exclusive interview with Taliban spokesperson Muhammad Naim. “One need only look at our country’s past experiences over the last 40 years and the wars it has witnessed. Transitional governments were formed after the American occupation, some of them transitional, others participatory, but none of them have solved the country’s problems,” Naim said, adding, “We want an Islamic system that is strong and independent in order to solve the country’s problems and these foundational [questions] must be taken into consideration.”

The Biden administration has been attempting to make contact with North Korea since February but to no avail, further stagnating the prospects of fruitful talks between the two nations. With North Korea state media yet to acknowledge Biden as the United States president, the administration has made “multiple attempts” to communicate with Pyongyang, but an official said that no meaningful engagement had taken place for more than a year, which includes the majority of former President Trump’s final year in office. BBC News reporting.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan will later this week meet with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska, precluded by four days of talks by Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin with leaders in Japan and South Korea. “The flurry of diplomacy, which began on Friday with a virtual summit with the U.S.’ so-called Quad allies — Australia, India and Japan — establishes the Asia-Pacific as a top priority for the Biden administration after Barack Obama’s halting “pivot” to Asia and Donald J. Trump’s bluntly transactional approach to alliances in the region,” report Lara Jakes, John Ismay and Steven Lee Myers Published for the New York Times.

Blinken and Austin arrived in Tokyo today. Humeyra Pamuk and Kiyoshi Takenaka report for Reuters.

The U.S. and Iran have both expressed an intention to rejoin the original 2015 Iran nuclear deal  but both “warily circle” one another with a “you, first” rhetoric. “The United States and Iran have issued sometimes contradictory, often intransigent statements that reflect mutual suspicion and agendas that are far broader than the simple reactivation of an agreement that many opponents of their efforts say was flawed to begin with,” report Karen De Young and Kareem Fahim for the Washington Post.

The police have long brushed aside members of the Proud Boys and their history of violent protest and assault, including Joseph Briggs and Chair Ethan Nordean — now both men stand charged with some of the most serious offenses related to the attack on the Capitol Jan. 6. “The group’s propensity for violence and extremism was no secret. But the F.B.I. and other agencies had often seen the Proud Boys as they chose to portray themselves, according to more than a half-dozen current and former federal officials: as mere street brawlers who lacked the organization or ambition of typical bureau targets like neo-Nazis, international terrorists and Mexican drug cartels,” reports David D, Kirkpatrick and Alan Feuer for the New York Times.

IMMIGRATION

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been directed by Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “to support a government-wide effort over the next 90 days to safely receive, shelter, and transfer unaccompanied children who make the dangerous journey to the U.S. southwest border,” a statement released Saturday said. “The federal government is working around the clock to move unaccompanied children from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) care and to place them with a family member or sponsor until their immigration case is adjudicated,” the statement read. Barbara Sprunt reports for NPR.

“Mexico is struggling to deal with a new wave of migrants expelled from the U.S. while even more come north hoping to cross. Shelters that were empty four months ago are now having to turn many away,” reports Maria Abi-Habib for the New York Times. “The migrants’ hopes have been drummed up by human smugglers who promise that President Biden’s administration will welcome them … Instead, the United States is expelling them back to Mexico, where they wait along with tens of thousands of others hoping to cross. The pressure, and desperation, is quickly building among families stuck in Mexico, as shelters and officials struggle to help them,” adds Abi-Habib.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 29.43 million and now killed over 534,800 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 119.92 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 2.65 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Coronavirus stimulus payments have started arriving in Americans’ bank accounts days after President Biden signed a $1.9 trillion relief package. “The Internal Revenue Service announced on Friday that people would start receiving direct deposits over the weekend as the Biden administration rushes to get money to people who have been struggling throughout the pandemic. More batches will be sent out in the next few weeks, with some payments arriving by mail as checks or debit cards,” Madeleine Ngo reports for the New York Times.

The U.S. is under increasing pressure to share its vaccine stockpile with the rest of world, as enough vaccines have been purchased to immunize American adults three times over. When probed on the matter, President Biden said: “This is not something that can be stopped by a fence, no matter how high you build a fence or a wall … So we’re not going to be ultimately safe until the world is safe. We’re going to start off making sure Americans are taken care of first, but we’re then going to try to help the rest of the world.” He added: “If we have a surplus, we’re going to share it with the rest of the world.” Biden agreed Friday to work with Australia, India and Japan to expand vaccine manufacturing and delivery in Southeast Asia, although administration officials made clear that the United states will not donate any vaccines until all of the American population is inoculated. Nathaniel Weixel reports for The Hill.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical advisor to Biden, described a recent poll indicating that 47% of Trump voters would not get the vaccine as “disturbing.”The poll conducted in March revealed worrying proportions of Trump supporters who did not intend to be vaccinated, particularly compared with the 10% of Biden voters who expressed they would not receive a vaccine. Connor Perrett reports for Business Insider.

Ireland suspended use of AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine Sunday “out of an abundance of caution” following reports from Norway of serious blood clotting in some recipients of the vaccine. “Ireland’s National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) recommended the temporary deferral pending the receipt of more information from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in the coming days … AstraZeneca on Sunday said it had conducted a review covering more than 17 million people vaccinated in the European Union and the UK which had shown no evidence of an increased risk of blood clots,” Padraic Halpin reports for Reuters.

The Netherlands has reported 10 cases of adverse side effects from AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine, including possible thrombosis and embolisms, although none of the cases included a lowered number of platelets like has been reported in Denmark and Norway, a Dutch drug watchdog has said, following a temporary suspension of the vaccine in the country. Reuters reporting.

Delays in AstraZeneca vaccine deliveries can be offset by the increase in production of Pfizer’s vaccine, E.U. industry commissioner Thierry Breton said Sunday. “AstraZeneca said on Friday it would try to deliver 30 million doses to the EU by the end of March, down from a contractual obligation of 90 million and a previous pledge made last month to deliver 40 million doses … Breton told France’s Europe 1 radio that the delay was unacceptable, but that for now there were no plans to sue the company,” Reuters reports.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the US is available at the New York Times.

U.S. and worldwide maps tracking the spread of the pandemic are available at the Washington Post.

A state-by-state guide to lockdown measures and reopenings is provided by the New York Times.

Latest updates on the pandemic at The Guardian.

MYANMAR

Six people were shot dead Monday after security forces opened fire on demonstrators, state media reported, “a day after dozens of protesters were shot dead and attackers torched several Chinese financed factories in the city of Yangon,” reports Reuters.

Mahn Win Khaing Than, the leader of a group of Myanmar politicians ousted by the military coup, has called for a joint effort by citizens against the country’s military coup. “This is the time for our citizens to test their resistance against the dark moments … In order to form a federal democracy, which all ethnic brothers, who have been suffering various kinds of oppressions from the dictatorship for decades, really desired, this revolution is the chance for us to put our efforts together … Despite our differences in the past, this is the time we must grip our hands together to end the dictatorship for good,” said Than, who is currently in hiding, in his first public address . BBC News reporting.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

“British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was tried on a new charge of making “propaganda against the system” at Iran’s Revolutionary court on Sunday, her lawyer said, one week after she completed a five-year jail sentence,” reports Reuters.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is “deeply concerned” by footage of Saturday’s vigil for Sarah Everard  a woman who recently was killed by male police officer who has now been charged with kidnap and murder which saw the London Met Police aggressively handling demonstrators, detaining several women in the process. Home Secretary Priti Patel has directed Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) to “conduct a lessons learned review in to the policing of the event,” Johnson said. “The death of Sarah Everard must unite us in determination to drive out violence against women and girls and make every part of the criminal justice system work to protect and defend them,” he added. BBC News reporting.

Met Police chief Cressida Dick will not resign following pointed criticism at her force’s handling of the vigil. BBC News reporting.

Johnson reportedly has full confidence in Commissioner Dick, the prime minister’s official spokesperson has said. Andrew Woodcock reports for the Independent.

Bolivia’s former interim president, Jeanine Añez, was arrested Saturday in her hometown, Trinidad, and transported to La Paz, Bolivia, “following the issuance of a warrant accusing her of terrorism and sedition in connection with the 2019 ouster of her predecessor, former president Evo Morales,” reports Julie Turkewitz for the New York Times.

Islamist group Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) is suspected of killing “at least a dozen villagers in an overnight raid on a village in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, a witness and two civil rights groups said on Monday,” reports Erikas Mwisi Kambale for Reuters.

“Gunmen kidnapped primary school pupils and teachers in the northwestern Nigerian state of Kaduna, the state’s security commissioner said on Monday,” reports Reuters. 

About the Author(s)

Siven Watt

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter (@SivenWatt)