By Shashi Malla
Region West Asia/Middle East
Afghanistan Peace: At What Cost?
U.S. & Taliban Agree to Temporary Truce
The United States and the militant Taliban have agreed to a temporary truce that could open the way for a more permanent peace agreement that would bring more American troops home, and more importantly finally terminate 18 years of “endless” war in Afghanistan (AP/Associated Press).
The peace deal would call for direct negotiations between Afghans on both sides of the conflict to start next month, an eventual countrywide ceasefire and a commitment from the insurgent Taliban not to harbor terrorist groupslike al Qaeda, while, at the same time, setting a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops.
The temporary truce marks a milestone in efforts to end America’s longest-running foreign war and fulfil Trump’s campaign pledge to bring US troops back home. However, prospects for a real and lasting peace still remain quite unclear.
The initial agreement for a seven-day “reduction in violence” is “very specific” and covers the entire country, including Afghan government forces.
The Taliban had committed to a halt in roadside and suicide bombings, as well as, rocket attacks. If the Taliban uphold their own commitments, a US-Taliban peace agreement could be signed within 10 days. The signing has been tentatively set for February 29, and the start of the all-Afghan talks planned for March 10. The agreement provided for the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners before the start of negotiations.
Much will depend on the results of the all-Afghan negotiations, if and when they get started. The role of “spoilers” – those interested in maintaining the status quo – will remain a threat to peace efforts throughout the process. Analysts point to rogue elements in the Taliban, other terrorist groups and Pakistan’s military intelligence.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has been critical of the way special US envoy Zalmay Khalizad [an US citizen of Afghan descent] has conducted the talks with the Taliban, complaining about being kept in the dark about progress. There is also internal bickering about whether Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah in the Unity Government should represent Kabul at the negotiating table. Prominent Afghans have called for more inclusive representation.
There is also serious uncertainty about the gains made for Afghan women and girls in education and social life since the fall of the Taliban months after the U.S. military response to the September 11, 2001 al Qaeda terrorist attacks in New York and Washington ordered by Osama bin Laden from Afghan soil.
Syria: World Faces Moral Dilemma & Bankruptcy
A humanitarian catastrophe of unusual proportions is taking place in Syria’s Idlib province, but the world is completely ignoring it. Especially CNN’s Arwa Damon is daily documenting the long treks of refugees relentlessly moving northward through snow and frost to the Turkish border, where they hope to be saved. They have very few possessions still with them. Their abject misery is self-evident, but the world is looking the other way.
The United States has largely withdrawn from Syria, and the ‘benign’ Trump administration which prides itself from having achieved so much in so little time, has washed its hands off its regional, let alone global responsibilities.
Europe never really got involved, and the consequences will be terrible for the countries in the south-eastern flank – when hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – of refugees turn up on their very doorsteps.
Syrian Regime’s War Crimes
The brutal and murderous Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad, supported by Russian planes and pro-Iranian militias, is pursuing a scorched-earth strategy in Idlib. Helicopters purposefully drop barrel bombs on hospitals and schools, markets and homes. Large settlements have been depopulated and become ghost towns (DW/Deutsche Welle).
The Syrian warmachine is driving hundreds of thousands of defenseless and impoverished people hither and thither. International aid organizations estimate that nearly three hundred thousand of the displaced are children without sufficient clothing and food. Every night scores of them freeze to death. These are the “terrorists” that Assad’s barbaric squads pursue relentlessly. They have been abandoned by the world.
Russian Contempt for Human Life
The Russian leadership is cynically participating in this contempt for human life.
Russia is a major player not only in Syria, but also in Libya, and can, therefore, influence the flow of refugees to Europe. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has been smarting under the loss of its ‘super power status’ after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is trying to win back power and influence in various parts of the world by flexing its muscles. It could play a diabolical game in the refugee crisis and de-stabilize many European countries.
Turkey has 12 observation posts in the north-western province of Idlib to prevent a Damascus-led offensive. It wants to prevent the Syrian regime’s advance in order to stop the deaths of civilians and to stop a wave of refugees fleeing to Turkey.
Turkey is currently trying to drive the Syrian army back behind the 12 observation posts by military force. These were originally created to control a ceasefire for Idlib that was established by the tripartite agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran.
Ankara fears that half of the current population of almost 4 million in the Idlib region may settle in Turkey if he border is opened. Currently, the border is still closed. Turkey already hosts 3.6 million refugees, and more would definitely destabilize the country.
Persian Gulf Imbroglio Persists
At the Munich Security Conference (MSC), German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier lamented that the US unilateral withdrawal from the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran, as well as other international rules violations by Washington. Coming from one of the signatories, this rebuke was a clear recognition that the Trump administration was responsible for the escalation in tensions in the region.
As the MSC is an independent and non-partisan forum, Iran was also given a platform to present its views. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad JavadZarif fiercely criticized the US and proposed talks with his country’s Arab neighbours. He rejected any talks with the US as long as sanctions were not lifted, saying that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran had caused severe economic damage (DW/Deutsche Welle).
Zarif extended a hand of friendship by proposing a common security architecture in the Middle East and about confidence-building measures with the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia. He said that Iran did not want problems in the region and that security should come from within. He highlighted that the US [at least under Trump] did not offer that security. He pointedly told Saudi Arabia that it was fallacious to think it could ‘buy security’ by buying US weapons. Iran had amply demonstrated that Saudi Arabia was highly vulnerable to missile and drone attacks.
However, his Saudi counterpart, Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud rejected Zarif’s overtures. The Saudi foreign minister said that his country had always been open to real dialogue, but that there had to be consensus on the cause of the instability in the region before discussions could take place, and [unfortunately] Iran was the cause.
It was a suitable setting for a rapprochement, but as long as the US and its closest Saudi ally continue to apply “maximum pressure” on Iran [in the forlorn hope that the clerical, authoritarian regime collapses] there can be no serious dialogue in the Gulf region. Turkey, Qatar and Oman, which all have a strong interest in de-escalation, made concerted efforts at mediation between the conflict parties at the conference, but to no avail.
Ali Vaez of the International Crisis Group made this sobering analysis: “The gap between the parties in the Gulf is growing instead of growing smaller…And for the foreseeable future, it seems unbridgeable.”
Munich Security Conference
France Projects New Era of European Power
French President Emmanuel Macron projected a new vision of a resurgent Europe with new military power at the prestigious Munich Security Conference (MSC) last Saturday. As the only nuclear power in the European Union (EU) – after the departure of the United Kingdom, and one of only 9 states with nuclear capability – and the EU’s only permanent member of the UN Security Council, Macron also foresaw greater European sovereignty (DW/Deutsche Welle).
Macron continued the pivotal theme of his presidency: projecting bold European power onto the international stage. He particularly stressed: “We cannot always go through the United States, no, we have to think in a European way as well.” To show his commitment, he has already invited Germany to take part in a strategic dialogue over France’s nuclear weapons policy.
The UK’s exit from the EU has shifted more responsibility onto France, leaving the Paris government balancing its nuclear defence strategy between, as Macron puts it, “the ambitions of NATO and Europe.” At the same time, he was careful to stress that common security in Europe had two pillars – NATO and a Europe of defence.
Macron believed Europe required the ability to act independently, but also felt nuclear issues needed to be managed in cooperation with NATO. In this framework, the goal of conducting joint exercises was to achieve “a joint strategic culture”.
He also addressed ‘the elephant in the corner’ head on, i.e. Trump’s divisive and disruptive policies at home and abroad: “We need some freedom of action in Europe …We need to develop our own strategy. We don’t have the same geographic conditions [as the US], not the same ideas about social equilibrium, about social welfare. There are ideas we have to defend…[Thus] Mediterranean policy…is a European thing [above all the acute problem of war-torn and poverty-ridden refugees], not a trans-Atlantic thing, and the same goes for Russia [unlike during the Cold War] – we need a European policy, not just a trans-Atlantic policy.
The theme of a nascent European power was taken up by the German defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer who “completely agreed” with Macron. “AKK” as she is popularly known, recently resigned from the chairmanship of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and as designated successor of Chancellor Angela Merkel, lately buffeted by harsh political winds.Merkel is to all intents and purposes a lame duck leader, who will probably bow out before the year is complete.
AKK addressed the MSC resolutely: “We have joint instruments and joint interests, let’s finally create a joint political will!” This must have been heady music to Macron’s ears. She continued enthusiastically: “I want the effect of German and European security and defence policy to be greater, our actions to be better coordinated internationally, and more clearly visible.” She even proposed one way in which this might be brought about: A joint EU military strategy for the Strait of Hormuz [connecting the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean, and the world’s most high-risk choke point controlling Europe’s energy supplies], independent of the US policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran.
Also at the MSC, Armin Laschet, the state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia and a leading contender to succeed Angela Merkel as German Chancellor [prime minister], criticized her for taking too long to respond to a French proposal on a post-Brexit reform of the EU. He stressed that the time was ripe to focus on “great European visions.”
It could also be a rekindling of the dual French-German leadership of Europe as during the time of General Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer or Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl.
U.S. & Europe United on Need to Confront China’s Rising Influence
What the conclave in Davos, Switzerland is for the world economy, the Munich Security Conference is for questions of foreign policy and national security. This annual event in the Bavarian capital gathers government leaders and experts from around the world.
It became very clear that Americans and Europeans could readily agree on the need to confront China’s rising influence in the world as one of the few strategic agendas where they are united. This is in sharp contrast to wider transatlantic disagreements over defence, trade and multilateralism (SCMP/South China Morning Post, February 15).
Fu Ying, the former Chinese ambassador to Britain, challenged the dominant narrative at this year’s conference by challenging/asking Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives whether the US democratic system wasso fragile that it could be threatened by a single hi-tech company, Huawei.
The US Department of Justice ratcheted up pressure on Huawei last week, indicting it for racketeering and conspiracy to steal trade secrets from six US companies, charges Huawei vehemently denied. The US has also contended that Huawei had lied about selling products to North Korea in violation of United Nations sanctions.
United States Election Watch
State of the Democratic Primary
According to the latest data tracking the race for the 2020 Democratic
National Polling Average Pledged Delegates
Bernie Sanders 24% 21
Joseph R. Biden 23 % 6
Elizabeth Warren 14 % 8
Michael R. Bloomberg 10 % —
Pete Buttigieg 9 22
Amy Klobuchar 5 % 7
Tom Steyer 1 % —
Tulsi Gabbard less than 1 % —
Against the backdrop of his losses in Iowa (caucus) and New Hampshire (primary), former Vice President Biden has fallen sharply in the NYT-national polling average. For the first time, he has dropped behind Bernie Sanders, who has climbed to his highest point in the race yet. The trajectory of the last month was decisive: Sanders has been rising steadily, while Biden has taken a sudden plunge.
The race is in a moment of turmoil. The big picture is that Sanders is consolidating support on the left of the Democratic Party, with his rival (on the left) Warren still clinging to double digits.
While Biden struggles at the center, no other moderate has risen rapidly to take his place. If Biden does not get up steam or center-left Warren picks up support fast, Sanders could very well develop a convincing lead over a fractured group of opponents.
This state of play could get confirmed or shaken up this week in the western state of Nevada [state capital: Las Vegas], when the candidates will debate on February 19 just before the state’s nominating caucuses on February 22. Up to now, Biden had been the favorite here, but the race is fluid since large numbers of voters could change their minds at the last moment.
The Nevada debate could be a major moment in the campaign, with the potential to anoint a candidate as the strongest moderate in the race.
The writer can be reached at: [email protected]