by Siven Watt

August 20, 2021

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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 – TALIBAN HUNT FOR U.S.-ALLY “COLLABORATORS”

The Taliban are hunting for people they believe worked with and fought alongside U.S. and NATO forces – raiding houses, setting up checkpoints and threatening to kill relatives of “collaborators” – the consequences when found have at times been fatal so far, according to a confidential Aug. 18 threat assessment prepared for the United Nations (U.N.) by the Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, a U.N.-linked intelligence support center. The threat assessment indicates that those most at risk are people who were in central positions in military, police and investigative units. Ezzatullah Mehrdad, Dan Lamothe and Kareem Fahim report for the Washington Post.

The insurgents combed through records at the ministry of defense and interior and the headquarters of Afghanistan’s spy service, turned up at the homes of senior intelligence and counterterrorism officials, and drew up lists of operatives to hunt. Matthew Rosenberg reports for the New York Times.

At the apartment of a counterterrorism official, the Taliban left a letter, dated Aug. 16 and reproduced in the above U.N. threat assessment, instructing the man to report to the group’s Military and Intelligence Commission in Kabul, and warning that if they did not attend, their family would be detained and punished. Counterterrorism officials were responsible for overseeing the commandos who hunted down Taliban leaders, and the letter said, “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan considers you an important person.” The assessment also says that the group are “aggressively expanding their network of informers and pressing mosques and Hawala dealers, the informal money traders who form the backbone of the Afghan financial system, to help them track down wanted members of the security forces,” Matthew Rosenberg further reports for the New York Times.

The German broadcaster Deutsche Welle said Thursday that a close relative of one of its journalists had been killed by Taliban fighters on Wednesday. The relative was shot as militants went house to house searching for the journalist in western Afghanistan, the news organization said, although the journalist now works in Germany. The other family members were able to flee from the fighters, although Deutsche Welle has reported that the insurgent group had also been looking for three other journalists of theirs and had searched their homes. Claire Parker reports for the Washington Post.

Thousands Afghan grunts, commandos and spies who fought to the end, despite accusations in Washington that forces simply gave up, are left trapped in Afghanistan. Thousands of Afghan security force members were able to escape to neighboring countries over the past few weeks, many others were able to negotiate surrenders to remain in the country, and others instead joined with the Taliban – however, thousands remain. Matthew Rosenberg reports for the New York Times.

The Taliban is also screening for individuals outside Kabul airport and has “established vehicle checkpoints on all major roads and around major cities,” including Kabul and Jalalabad, the U.N. assessment also said, warning of a “worst case” scenario in which the militants close down Kabul and other cities to conduct mass arrests and public executions. Eric Cunningham reports for the Washington Post.

More on the U.N. assessment by the BBC and Al Jazeera.

AFGHANISTAN – INTELLIGENCE ASSESSMENTS

An internal State Department cable, singed by 23 U.S. Embassy staffers, all Americans, and sent via the Department’s confidential dissent channel on July 13, reaching the desk of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, warned of the potential rapid territorial gains by the Taliban and the subsequent collapse of Afghanistan’s security forces soon after the Aug. 31 deadline, and provided recommendation for how to mitigate the crisis and speed up an evacuation, a U.S. official and a person familiar with the document said, with one adding that the memo also called for the Department to use tougher language when describing the atrocities being committed by the Taliban. “The U.S. official said there was a rush to deliver it, given circumstances on the ground in Kabul. The cable was sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Director of Policy Planning Salman Ahmad. Mr. Blinken received the cable and reviewed it shortly after receipt, according to the person familiar with the exchange, who added that contingency planning was already under way when it was received, and that Mr. Blinken welcomed their feedback ...The signatories of the dissent channel cable urged the State Department to begin registering and collecting personal data in advance for all Afghans who qualify for Special Immigrant Visas, aimed at those who worked as translators or interpreters; locally employed embassy staff; and for those eligible for other U.S. refugee programs while there was still six weeks left before the withdrawal deadline. It also urged the administration to begin evacuation flights no later than Aug. 1, the people said ... On July 14, a day after the cable was sent, the White House announced Operation Allies Refuge to support the relocation of interested and eligible Afghan nationals and their immediate families who supported the U.S. government for the special immigrant visas. Evacuations didn’t kick into high gear until last week and have been complicated by the Taliban takeover of Kabul on Sunday. Several other actions that have since been taken by the administration were consistent with some of the requests and recommendations in the cable, the person familiar with the cable exchange said,” Vivian Salama reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The diplomats decided to send the dissent memo as they felt that their previous warnings and recommendations had made were being ignored and labeled alarmist, two State Department officials told CNN. In a statement to CNN, State Department spokesperson Ned Price declined to comment on the contents of the cable, but said, “the Secretary reads every dissent and reviews and clears on every reply.” Kylie Atwood reports for CNN.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Michael McCaul (R-TX) said he wants a full readout on this cable and any other warnings given to the administration, with the committee having already asked Blinken to appear before lawmakers to discuss the administration’s planning for the withdrawal. Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill.

Members of the House Intelligence Committee will meet with intelligence community officials on Monday to discuss the fallout in Afghanistan, reports Rebecca Beitsch for The Hill.

AFGHANISTAN – EVACUATING AMERICANS, AFGHAN ALLIES, AND JOURNALISTS

President Biden will give remarks on Friday at 1 p.m. on the evacuation operation in Afghanistan, the White House said. Reuters reports.

Department spokesman Ned Price said the Department was close to doubling the number of consular officers in the capital, but did not say how many would be deployed in total. Once the consular capacity in Kabul is doubled, Price said the Department believes it will have the number of officers needed to process individuals and fill flights. John Hudson reports for the Washington Post.

After Biden said Wednesday that he would maintain a military presence beyond the Aug. 31 if operations were not complete, the Pentagon said that such “would require additional conversations” with the Taliban to ensure the safety of Americans and Afghan allies seeking to flee the country. “But Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said Thursday there ‘has been no decision to change the deadline’ and indicated that an extension of the timetable for evacuations would need tacit approval from the Taliban in the form of a new agreement between U.S. officials and commanders of the militant group,” reports Quint Forgey for POLITICO.

The State Department said yesterday that evacuees are not required to get a negative COVID-19 result to travel: “A blanket humanitarian waiver has been implemented for COVID testing for all persons the U.S. government is relocating from Afghanistan,” the department said. AP reporting.

People evacuated from Afghanistan by the U.S. will not be charged the cost of their flight, Ned Price told The Hill. “The statement provides a point of clarification over federal law that mandates the State Department seek reimbursement for U.S.-chartered evacuation flights,” Laura Kelly reports for The Hill.

As American and Afghan allies try to leave the county, several people reported Thursday receiving confusing signals from the U.S. about how exactly they were supposed to leave, citing State Department emails urging them to go the airport, but then not being received by anyone or having their questions answered on how to board flights. Ezzatullah Mehrdad, Dan Lamothe and Kareem Fahim report for the Washington Post.

A bipartisan group of 55 senators – led by Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) – sent a letter to Biden Wednesday calling for him to “immediately evacuate” Afghans who are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) from the country, along with their families. “The senators also urged Biden to “expeditiously implement” tenets of the Afghan Allies Protection Act, which Biden signed into law last month. It calls for adding an additional 8,000 visas to the SIV program and removing a number of hurdles that made it difficult for those eligible to receive a visa,” report Mychael Schnell for The Hill.

Large news outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post have made welcome progress in their efforts to get their journalists out of Afghanistan, which came after a global rescue effort stretching from the Pentagon to Qatar. More on how news organizations got Afghan colleagues out of Kabul by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

The U.K.’s last evacuation flight could leave Kabul in four days under an accelerated timetable, The Times newspaper reported. Reuters reports.

Further details on how other nations are dealing with evacuations are provided by Shashank Bengali, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Annie Karni for the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN – EVACUATION NUMBERS

White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan told CBS and NBC yesterday that the administration does not have a “precise number” for the total Americans in Afghanistan, but stressed the administration’s promise to evacuate all those who wished to leave. “That’s because we ask every American who comes to Afghanistan to register with the U.S. Embassy. But when people leave, they often don’t deregister, and even some who come never register in the first place,” he said. Claire Parker reports for the Washington Post.

More than 18,000 people have been evacuated from Kabul airport since the Taliban took over the Afghanistan capital, a NATO official told Reuters on Friday.

The State Department’s pledge to evacuate 6,000 people on Thursday appears to have been only half fulfilled as Al Jazeera reports that a White House official said the U.S. evacuated about 3,000 people from the airport on Thursday, bringing total the total tally to about 9,000 evacuated by the military since August 14. “The United States evacuated approximately 3,000 people from Hamid Karzai International Airport on 16 C-17 flights,” the official said in a media pool report on Friday, adding that nearly 350 were US citizens.

National Security Council and the Department of Defense officials told a congressional briefing on Thursday morning that the U.S. had at that point evacuated 6,741 individuals, including 1,792 American citizens and legal permanent residents. The Pentagon has said its aim is to evacuate between 5,000 and 9,000 people a day. Laura Kelly and Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill.

AFGHANISTAN – THE TALIBAN TAKEOVER AND U.S. NEGOTIATIONS

An Afghan official familiar with talks with the Taliban has told The Associated Press News agency that the group does not plan to make any decisions or announcements about the upcoming government until after the Aug. 31 U.S. withdrawal date passes. “The official, who is not authorized to give information to the media and thus spoke anonymously, says Taliban lead negotiator Anas Haqqani has told his ex-government interlocuters that the group has a deal with the US ‘to do nothing’ until after the final withdrawal date passes,” Al Jazeera reporting.

The Taliban officially declared the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” on Thursday. Zabihullah Mujahid, the spokesperson for the group, declared the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in a tweet with a photo of the country’s logo. Mychael Schnell reports for The Hill.

U.S. officials said they were maintaining channels of communication with Taliban commanders in an effort to ease the way for U.S. citizens, Afghan visa holders and applicants to reach Kabul airport. A senior White House official described the evacuation operation as “risky” and said the U.S. couldn’t count on continued cooperation from the Taliban. Saeed Shah, Ehsanullah Amiri and William Mauldin for the Wall Street Journal.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Adm. Peter Vasely, has been leading the effort to negotiate with his Taliban counterpart. “One White House official said that while the US has several channels to the militant group, officials are still unclear about which Taliban fighters control what, and whether instructions are being properly passed down the chain of command,” repport Natasha Bertrand, Zachary Cohen and Kylie Atwood for CNN.

A series of negotiated surrenders, the product of a mix of coercion and persuasion, helped pave the Taliban’s takeover. “Each surrender, small or large, handed the Taliban more weapons and vehicles — and, vitally, more control over roads and highways, giving them freedom to move rapidly and collect the next surrenders as the security forces were progressively cut off from ammunition, fuel, food and salaries. Money, supplies and support from Pakistan, Russia and Iran also bolstered their ranks, analysts said,” David Zucchino reports for the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN – U.S.-MADE WEAPONS SEIZED BY TALIBAN

The Taliban have gained a massive new war chest, complete with U.S.-made Humvees, planes, helicopters, night-vision goggles and drones, after Afghan forces left the chest deserted, Reuters reports.

“The Biden administration is so concerned about the weapons that launching airstrikes against the larger equipment, such as helicopters, hasn’t been ruled out, officials told Reuters. Another U.S. official said that according to the current intelligence assessment, the Taliban are believed to control more than 2,000 armored vehicles, including U.S. Humvees, [and] up to 40 aircraft — potentially including UH-60 Black Hawks, scout attack helicopters and ScanEagle military drones,” Axios reports.

Afghanistan could be at risk of a “regional arms bazaar” as the Taliban are thought to have acquired billions worth of U.S.-made military equipment, although U.S. officials remain unclear on precise numbers. “That uncertainty over the status of a massive arsenal is sparking fears of a regional arms bazaar that could be a boon to terrorist groups and insurgents ... Much of the more sophisticated equipment such as aircraft and communications gear will likely become inoperable within months, however. Even the Afghan army and air force couldn’t maintain their aircraft and most of their vehicle fleets without thousands of foreign contractors on hand to do the work. In the short-term, there is little sense the Taliban would be able to operate any of the aircraft it has seized, and given the complex repair they require, the A-29 attack planes and Black Hawk helicopters will likely have a limited lifespan unconnected from the global, U.S.-funded supply chain. Dozens of A-29s and helicopters were flown to Uzbekistan over the weekend by Afghan pilots fleeing the Taliban takeover. It’s not clear what will become of those aircraft. One concern for the Taliban is having access to the correct caliber of ammunition, but after the millions of stored rounds for the U.S.-made guns eventually run out, they will be likely to find more on the open market,” Paul McLeary and Lee Hudson report for POLITICO.

A group of Republican senators sent a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin demanding a full account of U.S. military equipment left behind in Afghanistan, “which has already or risks falling into the hands of the Taliban and their terrorist allies.” “It is unconscionable that high-tech military equipment paid for by U.S. taxpayers has fallen into the hands of the Taliban and their terrorist allies,” the senators wrote, led by Sens. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), ranking member of the subcommittee overseeing the Western Hemisphere. “Securing U.S. assets should have been among the top priorities for the U.S. Department of Defense prior to announcing the withdrawal from Afghanistan,” the letter added.

AFGHANISTAN – OTHER U.S.-RELATED DEVELOPMENTS

President Biden’s commitment to no further casualties in Afghanistan necessitated a speedy military withdrawal, supported and then executed by Gen Austin “Scott” Miller, who wanted out as fast as possible, warning that they were on “borrowed time”, senior defense officials said, but State Department officials in Kabul and Washington expressed surprise at the speed of Miller’s withdrawal of his forces and headquarters from Afghanistan and asked him to slow it down so that the embassy would have time to put new security measures in place, said military and administration officials. “Both Miller, the top commander in Afghanistan, and Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, backed closing Bagram air base in favor of the harder-to-defend Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Looters swarmed the sprawling air base after the last troops were out in July, and some Afghan officials complained that they were caught off guard by the departure. U.S. military officials responded that senior Afghan officials were informed of the Americans’ timeline, raising questions about whether that was communicated by Afghan leaders to Afghan officers on the ground... If the Taliban used the cover of Kabul’s dense neighborhoods to lob a serious assault with rockets and mortars at the airport, the military had plans to retake Bagram and run evacuation flights from there, the defense official said. For now, that contingency doesn’t appear necessary, the official added,” Greg Jaffe and Dan Lamothe report for the Washington Post.

The U.S. is “laser focused” on the potential for a terrorist attack in Afghanistan by a group like ISIS-K, “a sworn enemy of the Taliban,” White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan told NBC Nightly News yesterday. Reuters reporting.

Around two-thirds of Americans doubt that the war in Afghanistan was worth fighting, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Republicans are somewhat more likely than Democrats to say the wars in both countries were worth fighting. About 4 in 10 Republicans do, compared with about 3 in 10 Democrats. AP reporting.

Maj. Gen. Hank Taylor told reporters Thursday that F/A-18s from the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group, currently based in the North Arabian Sea, “flew armed overwatch flights over Kabul to ensure enhanced security” in the past 24 hours. Ellen Mitchell reports for The Hill.

Former President Trump’s February 2020 deal with the Taliban is receiving criticism from his former allies as they scramble to distance themselves, including former acting defense secretary Christopher Miller and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley. More on this by the Washington Post and New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN – PROTESTS, RESISTANCE AND CASUALTIES

The Taliban faced new defiance and responded lethally in some circumstances as hundreds of Afghans protested in Kabul and other cities to celebrate Afghanistan’s independence from British rule, protests which spanned their second day on Thursday. In Kabul, and around the airport, the Taliban dispersed protestors and injured at least 12; firing into the air, some appearing to be aimed at the crowds, the group beat protesters and smashed some of the cars and motorbikes that accompanied the protest, demonstrators said. Saeed Shah, Ehsanullah Amiri and William Mauldin report for the Wall Street Journal.

The anti-Taliban protests on Wednesday in three eastern cities, Jalalabad, Khost and Asadabad, were also met with violence from Taliban fighters, who killed a number of people and injured several others with gunfire and beatings.. In Asadabad, in the east of the country, Taliban fighters opened fire on a protest, killing at least two people and injuring at least six more, and a Taliban fighter was stabbed, according to Al Jazeera. Reuters reported in Asadabad, several people were killed, but said it was not clear whether the casualties resulted from firing by militants or a stampede. Benjamin Parkin and Katrina Manson report for the Financial Times.

The Taliban imposed a daytime curfew in Khost from early morning Thursday, report Saeed Shah, Ehsanullah Amiri and William Mauldin for the Wall Street Journal.

The Taliban called on Afghanistan’s imams to urge unity when they hold their first Friday prayers since the Islamist group seized control of the country, as protests against the takeover spread to more cities on Thursday, including the capital, Kabul. Reuters reporting.

AFGHANISTAN – GLOBAL RESPONSE

Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told Chinese state media Thursday that China could contribute to the development of Afghanistan in the future. “China is a big country with a huge economy and capacity – I think they can play a very big role in the rebuilding, rehabilitation, reconstruction of Afghanistan,” Shaheen told CGTN television in an interview late on Thursday. Reuters reporting.

Leaders of the G7 nations have vowed to continue to do “everything possible to evacuate vulnerable persons” from Afghanistan and called on the Taliban to guarantee safe passage to Kabul airport,Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, said Thursday. The officials “affirmed our commitment in particular to the urgent need for the cessation of violence, respect for human rights including for women, children and minorities, inclusive negotiations about the future of Afghanistan, and the need for all parties to respect international humanitarian law,” Raab said in a statement. Claire Parker reports for the Washington Post.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis will today discuss the situation in Afghanistan with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan on Friday. Reuters reporting.

Hundreds of Russian armored vehicles and artillery pieces have been clearly visible on the Tajikistan border. “They were part of a high-profile military exercise taking place just 12 miles from a Taliban position, and they were there, a Russian general said, to make a point ... It will now be Russia, the exercises signaled, that will be shielding Central Asia from potential violence next door,” Andrew E. Kramer and Anton Troianovski report for the New York Times.

AFGHANISTAN – OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Taliban vow to ban heroin, but can they survive without it? By France 24.

Live updates on Afghanistan and Kabul are provided by CNN, Al Jazeera, the Washington Post and Wall Street Journal. .

U.S. DEVELOPMENTS

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals yesterday denied the Biden administration’s attempt to halt a Texas federal court judge’s ruling demanding the government restart a controversial Trump-era program that forced asylum-seekers to remain in Mexico for the duration of their U.S. immigration cases,reports Hamed Aleaziz for Yahoo News.

Trump-appointed U.S. District Judge Drew Tipton yesterday issued a nationwide preliminary injunction halting a pair of Biden memos that directed U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to prioritize arresting national security threats and felons or gang members who pose a risk to public safety. The rules also subjected immigration agents to strict oversight if they wanted to arrest anyone outside of the new priorities. “The Department of Homeland Security, which issued the first memo limiting immigration arrests on the day Biden took office, and ICE, which released an updated directive on Feb. 18, had no comment Thursday. DHS officials have said the guidelines are preliminary and they are writing a final version. The Justice Department did not say whether it plans to appeal. The Biden administration, which has nominated Sheriff Ed Gonzalez of Harris County, which includes Houston, to run ICE, has argued that the agency has always prioritized arresting criminals inside the United States. They said the new guidelines simply ensured that officers focused on the most dangerous offenders, instead of also sweeping up minor offenders such as traffic violators as they had in the past,” reports Maria Sacchetti for the Washington Post.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

A Biden administration official said yesterday that U.S. policy on Taiwan had not changed after President Biden appeared to suggest the America would defend the island if it were attacked, a deviation from a long-held U.S. position of “strategic ambiguity”. Reuters reporting.

U.S. aid chief warns that emergency food in Ethiopia’s Tigray region is set to run out this week. “`USAID and its partners as well as other humanitarian organizations have depleted their stores of food items warehoused in Tigray,” Samantha Power, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said in a statement late on Thursday. Reuters reporting.

CORONAVIRUS

The coronavirus has infected close to 37.29 million and has now killed over 625,100 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 210.18 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 4.407 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

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.

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