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A curated weekday guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.
Undercover Taliban agents spent years infiltrating Afghan government ministries, universities, businesses and aid organizations, to then step out of the shadows and help the Taliban seize control as the U.S. forces withdrew from Afghanistan. “We had agents in every organization and department,” Mawlawi Mohammad Salim Saad, a senior Taliban leader who directed suicide-bombing operations and assassinations inside Kabul, said. “The units we had already present in Kabul took control of the strategic locations,” he added. Yaroslav Trofimov and Margherita Stancati report for the Wall Street Journal.
Leaders from Iran, Turkey, Turkmenistan and Pakistan — member nations of the Economic Cooperation Organization — have vowed to help Afghanistan. During a summit yesterday, the leaders called for the removal of trade barriers and the development of new transport corridors across the region, and stressed the need for nations to provide support to Afghanistan to avoid further economic turmoil and a wave of refugees from fleeing the country. Alexander Vershinin reports for AP.
The Taliban prime minister, in his first public address, has said that his government “wants good relations with all countries and economic relations with them.” Afghanistan’s Acting Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Hassan said his interim administration has inherited a sinking economy and called on the global community to assist the country in preventing a further crisis as inflation spirals. Eltaf Najafizada reports for Bloomberg.
The talks with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) will restart today, with the U.S. and allies “unsure how Tehran’s new government will approach negotiations, not optimistic about the prospects ahead and emphasizing that if diplomacy fails, the U.S. is ‘prepared to use other options,’” Nicole Gaouette, Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler report for CNN.
The competing ambitions of the countries involved in the nuclear talks may make success unlikely. In addition to Iran, the talks include Russia, China, the U.K., France and Germany. The U.S. will be participating indirectly with the European diplomats acting as intermediaries, as Iran refuses to meet U.S. officials directly. A break down of what the various actors involved in the talks want is provided by Jonathan Marcus reporting for BBC News.
Reporting on the low expectations for the Iran nuclear talks is also provided by Nahal Toosi and Stephanie Liechtenstein reporting for POLITICO.
Just Security has published a piece by Nima Gerami on ‘Navigating Nuclear Deadlock: What Comes Next in the Iran Talks?’
Iran has announced further advances in its uranium enrichment, which reduces the amount of time Tehran would need to develop a nuclear weapon, if it chooses to do so. Nicole Gaouette, Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler report for CNN.
Israel and Iran are now targeting ordinary civilians through large scale cyber operations. “In recent weeks, a cyberattack on Iran’s nationwide fuel distribution system paralyzed the country’s 4,300 gas stations, which took 12 days to have service fully restored. That attack was attributed to Israel by two U.S. defense officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity…It was followed days later by cyberattacks in Israel against a major medical facility and a popular LGBTQ dating site, attacks Israeli officials have attributed to Iran,” Farnaz Fassihi and Ronen Bergman report for The New York Times.
There has been a dramatic increase in Israeli settler attacks on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank in recent months. Violent incidents against Palestinians are up nearly 150% in the past two years, according to data presented by the Israeli military at a defense ministry meeting this month, while a U.N. agency separately has found that 115 Palestinians have been beaten or otherwise attacked by settlers since the start of the year, resulting in four fatalities. Steve Hendrix reports for the Washington Post.
CHINA AND TAIWAN
Taiwan’s air force scrambled fighter jets yesterday to warn away 27 Chinese aircraft that entered its air defense zone, Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said. The latest Chinese mission included 18 fighters jets plus five nuclear-capable H-6 bombers, as well as, unusually, a Y-20 aerial refueling aircraft, the Taiwan ministry said. Reuters reports.
The U.S. is trying to nudge China’s leadership into discussions abouts its nuclear capability. U.S. officials have said that President Biden and his top aides intend to first focus the talks with China on avoiding accidental conflict, then on each nation’s nuclear strategy and the related instability that could come from attacks in cyberspace and outer space, with the potential, in years from now, for the two nations to begin discussing arms control. David E. Sanger and William J. Broad report for The New York Times.
U.S. government officials have become increasingly suspicious of Chinese scientists in U.S. universities, leading to research disruptions. Officials are concerned that Chinese scientists are exploiting the openness of American institutions to steal sensitive taxpayer-funded research at the behest of the Chinese government. However, this has had a chilling effect across campuses, slowing research and contributing to a flow of talent out of the U.S. that may benefit Beijing. Amy Qin reports for The New York Times.
Five House members met with the Taiwanese president last Friday, despite objections from China. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen thanked the five U.S. lawmakers (Reps. Mark Takano (D-CA), Elissa Slotkin (D-MI), Colin Allred (D-TX), Sara Jacobs (D-CA) and Nancy Mace (R-SC)), for meeting with her and discussing the alliance between the island and the United States. Brad Dress reports for The Hill.
The German government has urged members of Congress not to sanction the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The pipeline would circumvent Ukrainian transit infrastructure and deliver Russian gas directly to Germany. President Biden has waived sanctions in response to the pipeline but dissatisfied Senate Republicans are pushing for new sanctions as an amendment to the annual defense bill. According to documents obtained by Axios the German government has argued that imposing sanctions would “weaken” U.S. credibility and “ultimately damage transatlantic unity.” Zachary Basu reports for Axios.
The Biden administration, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, is pushing back on Congress passing harsher sanctions against Russia in response to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The Biden administration last week imposed new sanctions on a ship involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, however Biden’s team is wary of tougher action on the project for fear of antagonizing Germany. Alexander Bolton reports for The Hill.
27 more Russian diplomats have been dismissed from the U.S., according to Russian Ambassador Anatoly Antonov. The diplomats and their families will leave the U.S. on Jan. 30, Antonov said in a video interview. Reuters reports.
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis has said that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be using the Belarus border crisis as a distraction from other actions to cause regional instability. Landsbergis said that NATO, of which Lithuania is a member country, plans to discuss ways to deter Russia from making a “strategic move.” In an interview Landsbergis said that it was unclear if Russia’s next move “would be a military action against Ukraine…because in 2014 the scale was limited.” Humeyra Pamuk and Michael Martina report for Reuters.
OTHER GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS
At least 20 Sudanese troops have reportedly died following clashes with Ethiopian forces on the countries’ shared border. Sudanese soldiers fell into an ambush on Saturday after traveling across the Atbara river in response to shelling, Alrasheed Ali, a member of the border commission of Sudan’s southeastern Gadaref state, has said. A statement from Sudan’s army said it had inflicted “heavy losses of life” on Ethiopian troops and militias who attacked them, while noting an unspecified number of deaths on its own side. Mohammed Alamin reports for Bloomberg.
Hondurans voted yesterday in a tense presidential election that pitted a ruling party dogged by corruption against Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of a controversial former leftist president deposed by the military. U.S. officials have expressed fear that the election could prompt violence and instability in the country. The election results also could determine whether the Central American nation continues to recognize Taiwan or switches allegiance to China, as Castro promised. José de Córdoba reports for the Wall Street Journal.
Castro took a commanding early lead in the initial results from the Honduras election, however the final results will most likely take days to be announced. Live reporting on the election is provided by The New York Times.
Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb leader accused of risking war by pursuing the breakup of Bosnia-Herzegovina, has dismissed the threat of western sanctions and has hinted that China and Russia would come to his assistance. Dodik said that he would not be deterred and that sanctions and cuts to E.U. funding would only force him to take up offers of investment from China and that he expected to see Russia’s leader “pretty soon.” Dodik also insisted his plans need not lead to the end of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Daniel Boffey reports for the Guardian.
Fiji will contribute 50 troops to an Australian-led peacekeeping force in the Solomon Islands after anti-government rioting erupted last week in parts of the capital of Honiara, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama has said. Agence France-Presse and Reuters report.
JAN. 6 ATTACK
Prosecutors in the case against former White House strategist Steve Bannon have accused Bannon of attempting to try his criminal contempt case through the media instead of in court. “Bannon is trying to convince a judge not to bar him and his lawyers from sharing documents he receives from the Justice Department (DOJ) with the public before his trial. The DOJ prosecutors said in [a] filing Sunday some of those records must stay private while the case is pending, because they include internal communications between congressional staffers and notes of FBI interviews with witnesses who could testify against Bannon at trial,” Katelyn Polantz reports for CNN.
In the 10-page filing the DOJ accused Banno’s defense team of lodging “frivolous” legal complaints in order to cause a public dust-up with prosecutors. Prosecutors said that an attorney for Bannon “had repeatedly rebuffed their efforts to negotiate an evidence-sharing agreement, a standard part of the process in criminal trials. Instead, the prosecution said, Bannon’s defense used a public court filing Wednesday — and a statement to the Washington Post — to complain about the case,” Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein report for POLITICO.
The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack will decide “this week” whether to refer former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows for criminal contempt charges for defying a subpoena, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), a member of the panel has said. Chandelis Duster and Daniella Diaz report for CNN.
OTHER U.S. DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper has sued the Department of Defense, accusing officials of improperly blocking significant portions of an upcoming memoir about his tumultuous tenure under former President Trump, who fired him shortly after the 2020 elections. “Significant text is being improperly withheld from publication in Secretary Esper’s manuscript under the guise of classification,” the lawsuit states. Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said that the department was aware of Esper’s concerns, saying that “as with all such reviews, the department takes seriously its obligation to balance national security with an author’s narrative desire.” Maggie Haberman reports for The New York Times.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s first National Security Advisor, appears to have called QAnon theories “total nonsense” and a “disinformation campaign” created by the CIA and the political left. Flynn’s statement, which contradict with his own extensive links to the conspiracy theory and seeming eagerness to serve as its hero, was revealed by Lin Wood, a pro-Trump attorney and QAnon supporter. Victoria Bekiempis reports for the Guardian.
The coronavirus has infected over 48.22 million people and has now killed over 776,600 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 261.61 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 5.20 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.
The global risk posed by the new Omicron Covid-19 variant is “very high,” the World Health Organization (WHO) has said, as more countries report cases of the variant. The WHO urged its member states to accelerate Covid-19 vaccine coverage “as rapidly as possible,” particularly among high-priority groups, and to enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts. Saphora Smith reports for NBC News.
The WHO’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, yesterday urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concerns over the new Omicron Covid-19 variant. Moeti called on countries to follow science and international health regulations in order to avoid using travel restrictions, which “may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of Cpvid-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.” Andrew Meldrum reports for AP.
Health officials and experts have cautioned against travel bans in response to Covid-19, saying that the recent bans in response to the new Omicron variant are premature and could set a harmful precedent. Although the variant has been reported in several other countries in Europe, Asia and North America, travel bans are largely being imposed on southern African countries. Recent studies have also shown that travel bans from the start of the pandemic resulted in economic and other consequences that are still being seen. Deepa Shivaram, Emma Bowman and Jaclyn Diaz report for NPR.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has called to “urgently” reverse “scientifically unjustified” travel restrictions linked to the Omicron variant. Al Jazeera reports.
Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera has described the travel bans in response to the Omicron as “Afrophobia,” joining other African leaders in condemning the restrictions. Rachel Pannett reports for the Washington Post.
The Omicron variant is likely already in the U.S., however it is unclear yet whether it will cause a more severe disease and how effectively vaccines will work against it, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said. Kate O’Keeffe and Michelle Hackman report for the Wall Street Journal.
A South African doctor who was one of the first to detect the new Omicron strain of Covid-19 has said that symptoms of the new variant are so far mild and could be treated at home. Promit Mukherjee reports for Reuters.
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.