Early Edition: March 22, 2021

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

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

U.S. DEVELOPMENTS    

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin secretly travelled to Afghanistan Sunday night to meet with the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, but wouldn’t confirm to reporters whether the Biden administration still intends to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by the May 1 deadline. “It’s obvious that the level of violence remains pretty high in the country,” Austin said. “We’d really like to see that violence come down, and I think if it does come down it can begin to set the conditions for some really fruitful diplomatic work.” John Ismay reports for the New York Times.

Russia describes a U.S. refusal to agree talks between President Biden and President Vladimir Putin as a “missed opportunity” after Biden recently said he believed Putin was a killer. “We note with regret that the American side has not supported (Putin’s) proposal to hold talks with U.S President Biden…to discuss problems that have built up in bilateral relations and also the theme around strategic (nuclear) stability,” Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement, adding, “Another opportunity has been missed to search for a way out of the dead end in Russian-American relations caused by Washington. Responsibility for this lies entirely with the United States.” Reuters reporting.

The evidentiary bar appears to have been met to charge some Jan. 6 rioters with sedition, Michael R. Sherwin, the federal prosecutor who had until Friday led the Justice Department’s inquiry, said during an interview that aired yesterday. He added prosecutors were looking into former President Trump’s actions: “It’s unequivocal that Trump was the magnet that brought the people to D.C. on the 6th. Now the question is, is he criminally culpable for everything that happened during the siege, during the breach?” Sherwin said. “We have people looking at everything.” Katie Benner reports for the New York Times.

The Biden administration is under pressure as unaccompanied migrant children levels surge at the border, but admin officials are defending their strategy. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the administration’s approach during two interviews, where he blamed Trump-era policies for dismantling the entire immigration system, adding that a new system is being built that would address the needs of vulnerable children arriving at the border, including new housing facilities for minors who have entered the United States in recent weeks. CBS News reported over the weekend that the U.S. government was holding around 15,500 unaccompanied migrant children, including a third who had been held at border facilities not suitable for long-term detention. “According to the government records, unaccompanied children are spending an average of 136 hours in [Customs and Border Patrol] custody, well beyond the 72-hour limit outlined in US law,” CBS said. Al Jazeera reporting.

GOP Sen. Ron Johnson (WI) is the “Republican Party’s foremost amplifier of conspiracy theories and disinformation” following former President Trump’s ban from social media platforms, focusing his disinformation campaign on critical issues the country currently faces, including the coronavirus pandemic and vaccinations, the legitimacy of American democracy, the Jan. 6 Capitol attack, and climate change. His “assault on the truth” is “helping to diminish confidence in American institutions.” Trip Gabriel and Reid J. Epstein reports for the New York Times.

Bipartisan tension mounts over the Pentagon’s spending plans: “Pentagon officials are reportedly crafting a fiscal 2022 budget between $704 billion and $708 billion that is essentially flat compared with this year’s funding … The spending request is not expected until May, but top generals have already started the annual ritual of appearing before defense committees in Congress to make their cases for more resources,” reports Rebecca Kheel for The Hill.

President Biden and Vice President Harris yesterday delivered separate rebukes of discrimination in the country, condemning racism, xenophobia, nativism, and sexism, as the world observed the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. “One of the core values and beliefs that should bring us together as Americans is standing against hate and racism, even as we acknowledge that systemic racism and white supremacy are ugly poisons that have long plagued the United States,” Biden said. “We must change the laws that enable discrimination in our country, and we must change our hearts.” Andrea Shalal reports for Reuters.

Last week’s Atlanta spa shooting that left eight dead, including six women of Asian descent, is prompting Georgian lawmakers to push for improvements to the state’s hate crime laws which were only introduced last year, marking a “major stress test for when the legislation can be applied, what it can achieve and how it plays into the state’s increasingly polarized politics,” report Astead W. Herndon and Stephanie Saul for the New York Times.

Biden says Turkey’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention  the international accord it signed in 2011, designed to protect women from violence  is “deeply disappointing.” Turkish officials said domestic laws were in place that would protect women’s rights instead. The move “risks compromising the protection and fundamental rights of women and girls in Turkey (and) sends a dangerous message across the world. … We therefore cannot but urge Turkey to reverse its decision,” said the E.U.’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. Jonathan Spicer reports for Reuters.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 29.81 million and now killed over 542,300 people in the United States,according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 123.24 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 2.71 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

AstraZeneca’s U.S. clinical trial of its Covid-19 vaccine has shown 79 per cent efficacy at preventing symptomatic disease and 100 per cent efficacy against preventing severe disease and hospitalization  it also made clear there were no safety issues regarding blood clots. AstraZeneca is preparing to submit its findings to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for emergency use approval. Clive Cookson and Donato Paolo Mancini report for the Financial Times.

The U.S. will soon control a Covid-19 vaccine patent which could offer leverage over drug manufacturing companies; however, Western countries have given up their leverage over Covid-19 vaccine production, creating stark inequalities in access to vaccines by poorer countries, signing away the opportunity to vaccinate the world. “Residents of wealthy and middle-income countries have received about 90 percent of the nearly 400 million vaccines delivered so far. Under current projections, many of the rest will have to wait years … Growing numbers of health officials and advocacy groups worldwide are calling for Western governments to use aggressive powers — most of them rarely or never used before — to force companies to publish vaccine recipes, share their know-how and ramp up manufacturing. Public health advocates have pleaded for help, including asking the Biden administration to use its patent to push for broader vaccine access … Governments have resisted. By partnering with drug companies, Western leaders bought their way to the front of the line. But they also ignored years of warnings — and explicit calls from the World Health Organization — to include contract language that would have guaranteed doses for poor countries or encouraged companies to share their knowledge and the patents they control,” report Selam Gebrekidan and Matt Apuzzo for the New York Times.

Although the virus certainly isn’t defeated in the U.S., another coronavirus surge is unlikely, said Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the FDA. “We’re talking about some form of protective immunity in about 55% of the population,” Gottlieb said yesterday on CBS’s Face the Nation, adding, “There’s enough of a backstop here that I don’t think you’re going to see a fourth surge.” Christina Maxouris, Lauren Mascarenhas and Eric Levenson report for CNN.

Anti-lockdown protests spanned several European countries over the weekend, including Germany, the U.K., Austria, Finland, Romania and Switzerland, as the virus continues to spread through those countries which are introducing new lockdown measures. Al Jazeera reporting.

A map and analysis of the vaccine roll out across the U.S. is available at the New York Times.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. 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.

CHINA RELATIONS

E.U. officials today formally agreed to blacklist four Chinese individuals and one entity for their links to human rights abuses against China’s Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang. The sanctions, which including travel bans and asset freezes, are “the first sanctions against Beijing since an E.U. arms embargo in 1989 following the Tiananmen Square crackdown,” reports Reuters.

The Philippines criticize China’s claim over the South China Sea and call for it to withdraw around 220 of its vessels that are moored at a reef which the Philippine’s cross-government task force say is situated within its exclusive economic zone. Officials said that the ships were crewed by China’s maritime militia and did not appear to be fishing. “We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory,” Defense Minister Lorenzana said, accusing China of violating Philippine’s maritime rights. BBC News reporting.

MYANMAR

Some Myanmar police officers have fled to India after refusing official orders to unleash violent attacks on protesters following the Feb. 1 military coup; those officers have urged the Indian government to grant them asylum on humanitarian grounds. Anupam Nath reports for AP.

E.U. officials are expected to meet today in what will likely result in sanctions being placed on 11 people linked to the coup and repression of demonstrators, said E.U.’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, adding that the names of those sanctioned will be confirmed publicly after the meeting. Reuters reporting.

MIDDLE EAST

The Saudi-led coalition carried out air strikes against the Iran-back Houthi rebel group’s military sites, including camps and manufacturing facilities, residents have reported, adding that strikes also hit the capital, including Sanaa airport. Al Jazeera reporting.

Russian fighter jets struck multiple sites in Syria, including a gas facility, cement factory and several towns on Sunday; meanwhile, Syrian army strikes killed seven civilians and injured over a dozen medics in an attack on a hospital, witness and rebels said. Suleiman Al-Khalidi reports for Reuters.

The Israeli security service has revoked Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki’s VIP status in the West Bank following his support for the international Criminal Court (ICC)’s investigation into Israel. Al-Maliki entered the West Bank from Jordan on Sunday after a meeting ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, where he reportedly asked for the investigation to be accelerated, prompting Shin Bet, Israel’s security force, to remove the status that allows easier access and movement inside the region and at border crossings. Barak Ravid reports for Axios.

Thousands of Israelis protested outside the official residence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of tomorrow’s general election, calling for citizens to vote him out. “The national vote will be the fourth snap election within a two-year period after previous rounds were largely inconclusive or led to an unstable government, plunging Israel into a protracted political deadlock … A rally in central Jerusalem on Saturday night was the largest in months, part of an anti-Netanyahu protest movement. Organisers said up to 50,000 people had turned up, although Israeli media estimated numbers to be closer to 20,000,” Oliver Holmes reports for The Guardian. 

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)