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There’s a blame game over the six flights preparing to take vulnerable Afghans and Americans away from Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport, with lawmakers, the State Department, activists and the Taliban pointing fingers at one another.
Two issues need unraveling: Are the Taliban holding roughly 1,000 people hostage? And does State know who exactly are on the grounded planes?
The “hostage” narrative began after Rep. MICHAEL MCCAUL (R-Texas), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, claimed on “Fox News Sunday” that the Taliban were grounding flights set to take off for America’s al-Udeid base in Qatar. “This is really … turning into a hostage situation where they’re not going to allow American citizens to leave until they get full recognition from the United States of America,” McCaul said.
But Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN offered a different take for the Taliban’s behavior during a news conference in Doha, Qatar on Tuesday. “It’s my understanding that the Taliban has not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document. But they have said those without valid documents, at this point, can’t leave. But because all of these people are grouped together, that’s meant that flights have not been allowed to go,” Blinken told reporters.
A person familiar with the evacuation operation told NatSec Daily the truth is somewhere in between. The Taliban are stopping flights from taking off because they want to see paperwork and manifests for all the passengers, but the reason the militants are demanding such things is because State keeps signaling they also don’t know who’s on the planes.
“State created this problem, so State needs to solve this problem,” said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations. The person said State should talk to the Taliban and provide visas to the passengers so they can leave.
A senior State Department official disputes that argument. “We have not stood in the way of a single charter. And in fact, we have gone to extraordinary lengths” to work with lawmakers, the Taliban, and others “to do all we can to facilitate the departure of these charters.”
That’s issue one. As for the second part, Blinken’s comments require a bit more parsing.
Blinken said the State Department had no means of verifying the manifests or documentation of passengers because there aren’t U.S. staffers on the ground in Afghanistan anymore. As a result, there are “real concerns” his agency has.
“We are working through each and every one in close coordination with the various initiatives and charter flights that are seeking to evacuate people,” Blinken said. “But I just want to emphasize that there are a lot of issues to work through.”
Those remarks shocked humanitarians and congressional staff. A group of activists and the office of Sen. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D-Conn.) are working to get two flights carrying about 700 people out of Mazar-i-Sharif and into the air. One of the leaders of the effort to evacuate the passengers, HAZAMI BARMADA, told NatSec Daily: “We actually have proof that State has seen these manifests and DoD approved them.”
Barmada shared those documents with NatSec Daily, allowing us to verify her statement, but we’re not quoting from the correspondence because of confidentiality concerns.
MARIA MCELWAIN, Blumenthal’s communications director, also released a lengthy statement pushing back against Blinken.
The most important part: “I can only speak for our two planes, but we provided the State Department with the manifest for our flights as early as August 30 and as late as yesterday. … Although some of our passengers are small children who, admittedly, do not yet have a full suite of documentation that an adult might have, in those cases we provide shot records and offered to help verify their identity any other way that we could. The State Department has had this information for eight days.”
“On Friday, Sept. 3, the State Department formally stated that they had no objection to our planes landing in Doha, which is what third-party governments require to allow aircraft to land,” McElwain added.
The senior State Department official confirmed to NatSec Daily that the agency’s staff had seen the manifests sent by Blumenthal’s office and others. The problem, though, is the Taliban keep insisting that everyone on the planes has requisite paperwork before taking off.
As for the other four planes — which have received significant press partly because a GLENN BECK-funded charity paid for one — multiple people said they don’t yet have their manifests approved for departure.
In the meantime, Kosovo will take in Afghans who don’t pass initial security screenings and host them for up to a year.
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — RISKS TO BIDEN’S MIDEAST APPROACH: A new report by the left-leaning Center for American Progress outlines the inherent challenges stemming from President JOE BIDEN’s Middle East policy.
“[I]t risks putting the United States in a reactive strategic position, beholden to events instead of seeking to proactively shape trends through diplomacy and other forms of engagement,” authors BRIAN KATULIS and PETER JUUL wrote. “The Biden administration’s inclination toward a hands-off approach may end up placing the United States in a crisis management mode similar to the one that overtook the Obama administration from 2014 to 2016 in reaction to the rise of the Islamic State group.”
“On a more fundamental level, though, the region’s basic human security problems will not go away, particularly those likely resulting from climate change. As a result, even the more modest and pragmatic goals the Biden team has set out for itself in the Middle East will require strategic reengagement in a region that’s been largely on the back burner during the administration’s first six months in office,” they concluded.
No strategy or policy for any region (or even country) is foolproof, and the full report is mostly complimentary toward the administration’s handling of the Middle East. But the authors do worry a less-engaged America will struggle to secure its interests if it deemphasizes regional human security.
“After the withdrawal from Afghanistan, America’s relationships in the Middle East will become even more important. The Biden administration will need to engage more, not less, with these partners to protect American interests at that same time it pushes them to show greater respect for the basic rights and freedoms of their people,” Juul told NatSec Daily.
POTUS SAYS HE’LL PROBABLY MEET AFGHAN REFUGEES: Departing the White House en route to Joint Base Andrews, where he embarked on a daylong trip to storm-ravaged New York and New Jersey, Biden was asked Tuesday whether he planned to sit down with Afghans who aided the two-decade American war effort and have been evacuated in recent weeks to the United States. He told reporters: “Well, they’re all over the country. I’m sure I’ll be seeing some of them.”
White House press secretary JEN PSAKI also indicated such a visit would take place but said it likely would not come any time soon. “Yes, he certainly looks forward to [meeting them] at some point, but that is not planned in this particular moment. They’re all coming to the United States … some of them for the first time, and we’re going to let them adjust with their families,” she said during a gaggle aboard Air Force One.
FINAL AFGHAN PROVINCE FALLS TO TALIBAN: The Taliban announced Monday it had “completely conquered” the mountainous Panjshir Province in the northeastern part of Afghanistan — assuming full control of the country a week after the U.S. military’s exit and crushing the final remnant of resistance to the militant group’s rule, per BILL ROGGIO and ANDREW TOBIN of The Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal.
“[Panjshiri warlord] Ahmad Massoud, whose father led the Northern Alliance against the Taliban in the 1990s and was assassinated by Al Qaeda just two days prior to 9/11, vowed to continue the fight against the Taliban and called on all Afghans to continue its resistance,” Roggio and Tobin wrote. “Without his base in Panjshir, Massoud’s promise to effectively continue the fight against the Taliban is a difficult proposition. Massoud’s forces may be able to launch guerrilla attacks from the mountains, but its ability to challenge Taliban rule will be limited.”
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AFGHAN WOMEN PROTEST TALIBAN: Hundreds of Afghan women protested for their rights Tuesday, but the militants forcefully quashed the movement and scared off demonstrators by shooting bullets in the air.
“While the Taliban have a near-monopoly on the use of force, the demonstrations underlined the challenges the former insurgents face as they try to win the hearts and minds of a generation of Afghans who never lived under Taliban rule, particularly those in urban areas,” The New York Times’ JIM HUYLEBROEK, DAN BILEFSKY and MARC SANTORA reported. The women, who were later joined by men, also chanted “Death to Pakistan,” prompted by the visit of Pakistan’s intelligence chief.
Another challenge, experts noted to NatSec Daily, is that the proliferation of smartphones means we all can witness these anti-democratic Taliban abuses in real time. That poses a new governance wrinkle for the group.
However, The New Yorker’s ANAND GOPAL wrote an eye-catching story about how some Afghan women in the countryside are happy the United States is gone.
The whole piece is worth a read, but here’s the paragraph detailing the 30,000-foot theme: “The Taliban takeover has restored order to the conservative countryside while plunging the comparatively liberal streets of Kabul into fear and hopelessness. This reversal of fates brings to light the unspoken premise of the past two decades: if U.S. troops kept battling the Taliban in the countryside, then life in the cities could blossom. This may have been a sustainable project—the Taliban were unable to capture cities in the face of U.S. airpower. But was it just?”
SOUTH KOREA’S SLBM: South Korea successfully developed a homegrown submarine-launched ballistic missile, becoming the first non-nuclear country to have such a weapon, per The Korea Herald’s CHOI SI-YOUNG.
“The homegrown SLBM, code-named Hyunmoo 4-4, is a variant of the Hyunmoo-2B ballistic missile, which could fly up to 500 kilometers and reach anywhere in North Korea. It will go through more tests before being deployed on the Dosan submarine,” Si-young wrote.
The reason Seoul wants such a capability is to deter potential attacks from Pyongyang, or at least to have the ability to strike North Korea from a hard-to-track submarine, experts say. “A conventional SLBM is crazy expensive but may have a logic (survivable large conventional second strike etc). This is just about the uniqueness of that possibility,” tweeted VIPIN NARANG, a nuclear expert at MIT.
As of now, there’s no indication Seoul is seeking a nuclear weapon.
RUSSIA TARGETS GERMANY’S ELECTION: Berlin has uncovered “reliable findings” that the activities of the Ghostwriter hacking group — responsible for phishing attacks targeting members of Germany’s federal and local parliaments — are the handiwork of “cyber-actors of the Russian state” and most likely Moscow’s military intelligence unit, the GRU, a spokesperson for Germany’s Foreign Ministry told reporters Monday, per The Washington Post’s LOVEDAY MORRIS.
Those “illegal cyber activities” ahead of the highly anticipated Sept. 26 parliamentary elections, which will produce a successor to outgoing German Chancellor ANGELA MERKEL, prompted German officials to convey their concerns to their Russian counterparts last week, the spokesperson said.
DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN THE RANKS: Nearly 40 domestic violence survivors who reported abuse to the military said “the system is broken and the military failed to protect them,” according to a devastating, two-year investigation by CBS News’ NORAH O’DONNELL, LEN TEPPER, KRISTIN STEVE, ADAM VERDUGO and CAITLIN YILEK.
“Roughly 100,000 incidents of domestic abuse have been reported to the military since 2015,” but CBS News found the Pentagon “has not kept comprehensive data on the problem,” and “it’s impossible to assess the full scope.” And although the military “is supposed to track disciplinary actions taken by commanders in domestic violence cases … a report from the Government Accountability Office earlier this year revealed the Pentagon hasn’t kept comprehensive data on those numbers, even though it’s been a legal requirement since 1999.”
The CBS News report notes that Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN has endorsed a recommendation to move prosecuting decisions for sexual assault and domestic violence cases “to an independent body outside the chain of command.” Austin issued a lengthy statement to CBS News, which read in part: “While I cannot comment on individual cases, I take these issues, and the impact on the men and women of the services, and their families, with the utmost seriousness.”
PANEL SEEKS FEEDBACK FOR CONFEDERATE-NAMED ASSETS: The government commission charged with recommending to Congress the removal or renaming of Defense Department assets that commemorate the Confederacy is now accepting public comment on potential new names for 10 Army installations and two Navy vessels.
“As we work with the local communities, we welcome input from the American public,” retired Navy Adm. MICHELLE HOWARD, the chair of the so-called Naming Commission, said in a news release Tuesday. “This feedback will help us determine names that appropriately reflect our military today and recognize the courage, values and sacrifices of our military men and women.”
The commission, established under the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, is due to deliver its final recommendations to Congress on Oct. 1, 2022. The dozen installations under consideration for a rebrand include Fort A.P. Hill, Fort Bragg, Fort Lee, Fort Rucker, Fort Benning, Fort Gordon, Fort Hood, Fort Polk, Fort Belvoir, Fort Pickett, USNS Maury and USS Chancellorsville.
What would you name the bases? Drop us a note. NatSec Daily expects a lot of votes for Forty McFortface.
BLINKEN ON THE HILL: Our own ANDREW DESIDERIO confirmed the secretary of State will appear in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 14 — a week from today. Expect his testimony to be mainly, if not all, about Afghanistan.
HOUSE DEM WANTS EU TRAVEL BAN TO END: Rep. BRENDAN BOYLE (D-Pa.) blasted the Biden administration’s continued travel ban on citizens from the European Union due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“The blanket ban on EU citizens coming to the US makes no sense, especially given many EU countries have higher Covid vaccination rates and far fewer Covid cases,” he tweeted last night. “As long as those wanting to come to the US test negative for Covid & are vaccinated, they should be allowed in.”
The travel ban remains a contentious issue between the United States and Europe, with top EU officials pushing Biden’s team to lift the restrictions. Last week, the EU took the United States off its list of safe countries to travel to because of the uptick in Covid-19 cases.
— The Taliban announced Tuesday who will run the government of Afghanistan. HAIBATULLAH AKHUNDZADA will be the supreme leader; MOHAMMAD HASSAN AKHUND will head the Cabinet; SIRAJUDDIN HAQQANI, the FBI-wanted leader of the Haqqani network that the State Department designated as a terrorist group, will head the Interior Ministry; and MULLAH ABDUL GHANI BARADAR, the head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, will be deputy prime minister.
— LEE FERRAN started Tuesday as the managing editor of Breaking Defense, he announced on Twitter.
— KRISTEN BREITWEISER, The Intercept: “My Husband Died on 9/11. I Am Still Waiting for a Trial of His Killers.”
— DEXTER FILKINS, The New Yorker: “Did Making the Rules of War Better Make the World Worse?”
— COLIN P. CLARKE, POLITICO Magazine: “Al-Qaeda Is Thrilled That the Taliban Control Afghanistan – But Not For the Reason You Think”
— Blinken travels to Germany: Following his trip to Qatar, the secretary of State will meet with German Foreign Minister HEIKO MAAS, attend a Ministerial on Afghanistan and visit the major transit operation moving people from Afghanistan to the United States via Ramstein Air Base, according to the State Department. Later in the day, he will return to Washington, D.C.
— The Institute of International and European Affairs, 8 a.m.: “The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan: Lessons learned and Future challenges”
— The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 9 a.m.: “Hearing on U.S.-China Relations in 2021: Emerging Risks”
— The Middle East Institute, 9:30 a.m.: “Taliban 2.0: What We Should Expect for Afghanistan’s New Rulers”
— The Atlantic Council, 10:30 a.m.: “The future of counterterrorism: Twenty years after 9/11, with ELIZABETH SHERWOOD-RANDALL”
— The Washington Space Business Roundtable, 11 a.m.: “2021 Flagship Luncheon with General JAMES H. ‘JIM’ DICKINSON”
— The American Society of International Law, 12 p.m.: “The Role of International Organizations in Armed Conflict”
— The Institute for Policy Studies, 1:30 p.m.: “20 Years After 9-11, with Rep. BARBARA LEE”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 p.m.: “What Lies Ahead for the U.S.-ROK Alliance? A Conversation with Reps. AMI BERA and YOUNG KIM”
— Government Executive, 2 p.m.: “State of Defense: The Future Soldier”
— The Institute of World Politics, 6 p.m.: “Online Seminar: Cyber Intelligence Overview”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
Thanks to Ben Pauker, as always, for his edits.