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A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.
AFGHANISTAN – RECENT TALIBAN GAINS
At least three further major cities in western and southern Afghanistan have been confirmed to have fallen under Taliban control, as further provinces are threatened. The Taliban seized Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, this morning after a weekslong battle officials have said, hours earlier, the Taliban captured Herat, the provincial capital of Herat Province and Afghanistan’s third-largest city, and Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city. Officials from Uruzgan and Zabul, two provinces long considered part of the Taliban’s heartland, also said today that local elders in both provinces were negotiating a complete handover of the territory to the Taliban. Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Christina Goldbaum report for the New York Times.
There are reports that the Taliban have taken Qalat, the capital of Zabul Province, and are surrounding Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgan Province, with reports also saying that Uruzgan has now fallen. “Atta Jan Haqbayan, the provincial council chief in Zabul Province, said the local capital of Qalat fell to the Taliban and that officials are in a nearby army camp preparing to leave. Two lawmakers from Afghanistan’s southern Uruzgan Province said local officials have surrendered the provincial capital, Tirin Kot, to the rapidly advancing Taliban. Bismillah Jan Mohammad and Qudratullah Rahimi confirmed the surrender Friday. Mohammad says the governor is en route to the airport to depart for Kabul,” Tameem Akhgar and Rahim Faiez report for AP.
There are also reports that the Taliban has entered the provincial capital of Logar, Pul-e-alam, from which there is a direct road to Kabul. The Taliban have taken the police headquarters and fierce fighting is ongoing. “Fourteen provincial capitals out of 34 are now confirmed to be in Taliban hands, while at least another two are currently on the brink of falling,” BBC News reports.
Live reporting and a map of the current situation in Afghanistan is provided by BBC News.
The Taliban are gaining ground faster than the U.S. military expected, three defense officials have said. “All of the momentum is going one way right now,” a defense official said, and another defense official confirmed that the U.S. military is still conducting one to five airstrikes each day — weather permitting — in Afghanistan, primarily using unmanned drones that are flown from neighboring countries. Courtney Kube, Chantal Da Silva and Mushtaq Yusufzai report for NBC News.
The seizure of Kandahar in the south and Herat in the west mark the biggest prizes yet for the Taliban. Kandahar is also the birthplace of the Taliban’s so-called “Islamic Emirate,” lending its seizure symbolic as well as strategic importance. “In Herat, local member of parliament Masood Karokhai said the Taliban had taken control of the city after launching an offensive from various locations. He said the region’s airport and military base outside the city were still controlled by government forces,” Ahmed Mengli and Mushtaq Yusufzai report for NBC News.
The capture of Kandahar is a major blow for the Afghan government, with many observers considering its fall as the beginning of the end for the country’s U.S.-backed government. In a statement today, the Taliban said they had taken control of the governor’s office, police headquarters, as well as other key operational centers throughout the city. “Hundreds of weapons, vehicles and ammunition were seized,” the statement said. “Kandahar, which lies on the junction of three major highways, is of particular strategic importance and was formerly a major hub for U.S. military operations,” Clarissa Ward and Brad Lendon report for CNN.
The Taliban have captured Ismail Khan, the veteran local commander leading militia resistance in in the city of Herat, local officials have said, as the Taliban seize most of the city. Reuters reporting.
AFGHANISTAN – FOREIGN TROOPS AND EMBASSIES
The U.S. is sending about 3,000 troops to Afghanistan to help evacuate civilians from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the State Department confirmed yesterday. U.S. officials have insisted that the embassy is to remain open, however the move is an ominous sign at how quickly Afghanistan appears to be unravelling. Quint Forgey, Nahal Toosi and Alexander Ward report for POLITICO.
U.S. negotiators have asked the Taliban to spare the U.S. embassy if the Taliban take over Kabul. The request, a condition if the Taliban takes over the country’s government and ever wants to receive foreign aid, is part of an effort led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief U.S. envoy in talks with the Taliban, to get the Taliban to come back to the negotiating table for peace talks. Laura Jakes reports for the New York Times.
One Army and two Marine battalions will head to the Hamid Karzai airport in Kabul “within the next 24 to 48 hours,” to assist with the evacuation of U.S. embassy personnel, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said yesterday. Additional troops will also be deployed to Kuwait and Qatar in case more forces are needed. Dan De Luce, Courtney Kube and Abigail Williams report for NBC News.
The personnel at the U.S. embassy in Kabul will be cut down to an essential core, as troops are deployed to Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf to help the evacuation. The decision to send troops to evacuate the embassy amounts to a remarkable turnaround for President Biden’s administration, which has been publicly expressing confidence in Afghan security forces. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby declined to say how many of the newly deployed troops would remain in Afghanistan following Biden’s Aug. 31 deadline for U.S. troops to complete their withdrawal. Kirby said that the U.S. aims to complete the diplomatic withdrawal by Aug. 31. Gordon Lubold and Jessica Donati report for the Wall Street Journal.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani yesterday to coordinate planning for the drawdown, State Department spokesperson Ned Price and Pentagon press secretary John Kirby have said. Price has also called the diplomatic drawdown as “prudent,” and rejected the notion that the reduction in personnel is a prelude to a full evacuation of the diplomatic outpost. Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood, Phil Mattingly and Ellie Kaufman report for CNN.
Blinken and Austin reassured Ghani over the phone that the U.S. “remains invested in the security and stability of Afghanistan in the face of violence by the Taliban,” a State Department statement has said, Vanessa Romo reports for NPR.
The U.K. is sending 600 troops to Afghanistan to help with the evacuation of British citizens from the country, joining the 3,000 U.S. troops to be sent to Kabul. The U.K. Defense Secretary has also said that the U.K. is relocating its embassy in Kabul from the outskirts of the secure Green Zone to a potentially safer location closer to the center of the capital. Patrick Wintour, Peter Beaumont and Julian Borger report for the Guardian.
Britain, Canada, Germany and India, along with the U.S., are among those sending forces or calling back citizens amid the intensifying security threat in Afghanistan, Rachel Pannett, Susannah George, Ezzatullah Mehrdad and Dan Lamothe report for the Washington Post.
The U.S. Embassy has urged all U.S. citizens to leave Afghanistan immediately “using available commercial flight options.” The embassy also said that its ability to assist Americans in Afghanistan is “extremely limited” because of the security conditions and reduced staffing. Mychael Schnell reports for The Hill.
AFGHANISTAN – U.N. AND HUMANITARIAN CRISIS
Thousands of people in Afghanistan are fleeing their homes to seek safety in Kabul as the Taliban take further territories. Thousands have gathered in makeshift camps in the city’s outskirts, with many people “struggling to find food, shelter and other basic necessities, such as medicine and sanitary items,” Nicola Careem & Ashitha Nagesh report for BBC News.
The U.N. Security Council is discussing a draft statement that would condemn the Taliban’s attacks on cities and towns which have caused high civilian casualties and threaten sanctions for abuses and acts that risk Afghanistan’s peace and stability, diplomats said yesterday. Reuters reporting.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres is following the escalation in fighting in Afghanistan “with deep concern,” a U.N. spokesperson has said. “We are particularly concerned about the shift of fighting to urban areas, where the potential for civilian harm is even greater,” Stéphane Dujarric said. Guterres has expressed hope that discussions between the Afghan Government, Taliban and regional and international envoys underway in Doha “will restore the pathway to a negotiated settlement to the conflict,” while underscoring that the U.N. also “remains focused” on assisting the growing number of Afghans in need. UN News Centre reports.
The U.N. has warned any fighting in Kabul would have a “catastrophic impact on civilians,” Michelle Nichols reports for Reuters.
AFGHANISTAN – OTHER NEWS
U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has criticized the U.S. decision to leave Afghanistan, describing it as a “mistake” that has handed the Taliban “momentum.” Speaking to reporters, Wallace warned that “the international community will probably pay the consequences” and said he was worried al-Qaida would regain a base in Afghanistan. Matthew Weaver reports for the Guardian.
Analysis of the blame on the U.S. for the impeding disaster in Afghanistan is provided by the Guardian. “Interviews with former officials who have been intimately involved in U.S. policy in Afghanistan point to an interconnected webs of factors behind the implosion, some of them long in the making, some a result of decisions taken in the past few months,” Julian Borger reports for the Guardian.
As further provincial capitals in Afghanistan are captured, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has warned that the U.S.’s retreat from Afghanistan risks a replay of the humiliating withdrawal from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam conflict in 1975. McConnell said the U.S. was “careening toward a massive, predictable, and preventable disaster.” “The latest news of a further drawdown at our embassy and a hasty deployment of military forces seem like preparations for the fall of Kabul,” he said, urging Biden instead to commit to providing more support to Afghan forces. The Guardian reports.
McConnell is urging Biden to commit to sending more troops back into Afghanistan past the Aug. 31 deadline Biden’s administration imposed on withdrawing U.S. troops. “Here’s what should happen now. President Biden should immediately commit to providing more support to Afghan forces, starting with close air support beyond August 31st. Without it, al Qaeda and the Taliban may celebrate the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks by burning down our Embassy in Kabul,” McConnell said in a statemen yesterday/ Caroline Vakil reports for The Hill.
Afghan police have arrested the governor of the strategic Ghazni province for surrendering its capital city to the Taliban earlier this week. “An employee of the governor’s office in Ghazni said that Gov. Daud Laghmani simply handed over his office to a senior Taliban commander. ‘He gave a flower to the Taliban commander and congratulated him,’ he said,” Yaroslav Trofimov, Alan Cullison and Ehsanullah Amiri report for the Wall Street Journal.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry has urged the Taliban to ensure the safety of Iran’s diplomats and staff at its consulate in the Afghan city of Herat, which the Taliban has said it has captured, Reuters reporting.
In a statement following talks in Doha Qatar between Afghan government negotiators, Taliban representatives and international and regional representatives, international envoys have called for an accelerated peace process and a halt to the Taliban’s attacks. Envoys from the United States, China and other states released a statement yesterday calling for an accelerated peace process for Afghanistan as a “matter of great urgency” and for an immediate halt to attacks on provincial capitals and cities in Afghanistan. Reuters reports.
The Afghan government should engage with the Taliban to reach an inclusive settlement, E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said yesterday. “We encourage the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to settle political differences, increase representation of all stakeholders and engage with the Taliban from a united perspective,” Borrell said in a statement. Foo Yun Chee reports for Reuters.
The U.S. has called for the immediate release of Afghan officials who are being held by the Taliban. In a statement posted to Twitter, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said it “strongly condemn the unlawful arrest of several members of the Afghan government, including both civilian leaders and officers of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces,” and urged the immediate release of all Afghan government officials detained. Jordan Williams reports for The Hill.
U.S. RELATIONS AND IMMIGRATION
President Biden is sending his special envoy for the Horn of Africa, Jeffrey Feltman, to Ethiopia to try and bring a halt to the fighting in Ethiopia. The announcement comes amid international alarm at the escalation of the civil war in Ethiopia that started in the Tigray region and that has killed thousands and created a humanitarian crisis. National security adviser Jake Sullivan, when announcing the trip by Feltman also urged Ethiopia’s government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front to come to the negotiating table after nine months of conflict. Reuters reports.
The U.S. has encountered an “unprecedent” number of migrants illegally crossing the U.S. southern border in July. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas yesterday said that Biden’s administration is facing a “serious challenge” at the border with July marking the highest monthly number of migrants detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in two decades. Priscilla Alvarez reports for CNN.
Mayorkas recognized that the situation at the southern border “is complicated, changing and involves vulnerable people at a time of a global pandemic.” Mayorkas also pushed back on claims that migrants are driving the dramatic rise in cases of Covid-19 across the south. Joel Rose reports for NPR
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will avoid arresting or deporting undocumented immigrants who are victims of crime, except in exceptional circumstances, according to a new directive. “Going forward, ICE will require agents and officers to help undocumented victims seek justice and facilitate access to immigration benefits, according to the agency,” Geneva Sands reports for CNN.
Anti-Asian bias incident reports have continued to rise in recent months, new research has shown. “Reporting forum Stop AAPI Hate released national data on anti-Asian bias incidents Thursday, revealing that over the course of roughly 15 months during the pandemic, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders reported more than 9,081 incidents. About one-fourth of those incidents were reported from April to June 2021, the report said,” Kimmy Yam reports for NBC News.
Republican Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) has been heckled at a fundraising event for saying that the 2020 election was not stolen by President Biden. “In the clip, posted to the YouTube channel of Bobby Piton, a Republican Senate candidate in Illinois, Crenshaw says: ‘don’t kid yourself into believing that’s why we lost. It’s not.’ Piton appears to interrupt Crenshaw by shouting, ‘you’re wrong,’ and saying he has ‘plenty of proof’ that the election was fraudulent,” Teaganne Finn reports for NBC News.
The hackers behind a $610m heist of cryptocurrency, one of the biggest-ever digital coin heists, have now returned nearly all the money they stole, with about $33m in frozen coins yet to be returned. Poly Network, the platform from where the funds were stolen, yesterday “declared the hacker on Twitter to be a “’white hat,’ referring to ethical hackers who generally aim to expose cyber vulnerabilities, upon the return of the funds,” Reuters reporting.
The hacker behind the $610m cryptocurrency heist has claimed that they did it “for fun,” to flag the weaknesses in Poly Network’s system. In a Q&A embedded within a digital currency transaction a person claiming to be the anonymous hacker explained their reasoning behind the hack saying that “when spotting the bug, I had a mixed feeling…ask yourself what to do had you facing so much fortune. Asking the project team politely so that they can fix it? Anyone could be the traitor given one billion!” Ryan Browne reports for CNBC.
The federal government has made “significant” progress in strengthening the U.S. against cyber threats over the past year, but more work remains, a congressionally established bipartisan committee has concluded. In its 2021 implementation report, the Cyberspace Solarium Commission found that around three-quarters of its recommendations for defending the U.S. against cyber threats have been implemented since March 2020 but also “stressed that in the wake of a year of escalating attacks, such as the ransomware attacks on Colonial Pipeline and meat producer JBS USA, more remains to be done,” Maggie Miller reports for The Hill.
CHINA AND HONG KONG
China’s newly appointed ambassador in Washington, Qin Gang, has stressed the utmost importance of Taiwan in the China-U.S. relationship during his first meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, according to Chinese state media. Qin said he and Sherman both had an “in depth, very frank” exchange of views, and “the two sides agreed that Sino-U.S. bilateral relations are very important, and it is necessary to resolve issues through dialogue and communication, manage differences and contradictions, and improve bilateral relations,” the official Xinhua news agency has reported. Reuters reporting.
The first election in Hong Kong under the overhauled electoral system is to be largely uncontested, with only pro-Beijing candidates running for most seats in a Hong Kong election committee tasked with choosing the city’s leader, government announcements have shown. “A new committee which can disqualify candidates is tasked by law to work closely with Chinese security authorities to vet contenders for the election committee as well as the leadership election in 2022. The composition of the election committee is the latest blow to the opposition movement which has seen scores of members arrested, jailed or flee Hong Kong since Beijing imposed a national security law on the city last year,” Reuters reporting.
OTHER GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS
A bus blast last month that killed 13 people, including nine Chinese workers, was a suicide bombing by Islamist militants backed by the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi has said. “Qureshi, addressing a news conference in Islamabad together with a top investigator, said Pakistan has data evidence to back the allegation that the intelligence agencies from the two neighbors were involved,” Asif Shahzad reports for Reuters.
The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Karim Khan, in his first visit to the capital of Sudan, has said that he is hopeful that the Sudanese government will turn over former President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to the ICC to face charges of genocide and war crimes in the region of Darfur. In a news conference following a meeting with the transitional government in Sudan, Khan was optimistic about al-Bashir being handed over. “There is from my meeting today a lot of cause for optimism,” Khan said, adding “this is a very critical moment for Sudan. We cannot march from the darkness into light without dealing with some of the issues and injustices of the past.” Abdi Latif Dahir reports for the New York Times.
Khan also said that that Sudan will not decide before next week whether to hand al-Bashir over to the ICC. The Sovereign Council, a joint military and civilian body overseeing Sudan’s transition towards democracy, must approve measures on joining the court and handing over suspects before al-Bashir can be turned over. “I was informed that a meeting … is scheduled for next week and we’ll see what that brings,” Khan said in a news conference. Reuters reporting.
Zambia is preparing to begin announcing results of a tight presidential election between top contenders President Edgar Lungu and main rival Hakainde Hichilema. The elections were held amidst restrictions on internet access and violence in three regions in Zambia. Chris Mfula reports for Reuters.
Israel has said that it downed on Wednesday a drone belonging to the Lebanese Hezbollah group that crossed into Israeli airspace from Lebanon. “Our troops monitored and successfully downed the drone,” the military said. “We will continue to operate in order to prevent any attempt to violate Israeli sovereignty,” it added. Reuters reporting.
Israel and Morocco plan to upgrade their restored diplomatic relations and open embassies in each other’s countries within two months, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has said during a visit to Morocco. “Morocco was one of four Arab countries – along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – to move towards normalizing relations with Israel last year under U.S.-engineered accords,” Ahmed Eljechtimi reports for Reuters.
Haiti’s presidential election, which had been scheduled for September, have been pushed back to November 7, officials have said. The provisional electoral council has said that the polling day in November will include the first round of the presidential election, legislative elections that should have been held in 2019, and a constitutional referendum that president Jovenel Moïse had supported. “According to the new electoral calendar, the second round of presidential and legislative elections will be on January 23, 2022 at the same time as municipal and local elections, which have also been delayed for years,” Agence France-Presse reports.
The coronavirus has infected over 36.3 million and has now killed over 619,000 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been close to 205.5 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 4.33 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.
The head expert of the World Health Organization (WHO) team looking into the origins of Covid-19 has called for a closer look at a lab in Wuhan. Peter Ben Embarek, a food-safety specialist, has said in comments broadcasted by Denmark’s state-owned TV 2 that investigators should seek more information about the lab. The comments are “the biggest departure by a member of the WHO’s team from their view, expressed at a news conference in February, that a laboratory incident was too unlikely to merit further studies,” Drew Hinshaw, Jeremy Page and Sune Engel Rasmussen reports for the Wall Street Journal.
China’s Foreign Ministry has told foreign diplomats in a meeting today that the WHO report that called a leak from a lab as an unlikely cause for Covid-19 must be respected. Beijing said that it is open to further Covid-19 origins studies in China, but only based on the WHO findings which downplayed the likelihood of a lab origin. Eva Dou reports for the Washington Post.
The WHO has called on governments to cooperate to accelerate studies into origins of Covid-19 and “to depoliticize the situation.” “WHO reiterates that the search for the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is not and should not be an exercise in attributing blame, finger-pointing or political point-scoring,” the WHO has said in a statement. Reuters 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.