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Biden’s Back Channel on the Amazon

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Latin America Brief.

The highlights this week: Why Brazilian environmentalists are criticizing U.S. engagement with Brazil on the Amazon, a new Spanish-language streaming giant is created to battle Netflix, and Haiti’s prime minister resigns.

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Playing With Fire

At U.S. President Joe Biden’s upcoming virtual climate summit on April 22 and 23, the United States had hoped to be able to announce progress from over a month of private talks with the Brazilian government on protecting the Amazon rainforest. After President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, satellites detected that destruction of the Amazon rose 34 percent that year compared with the previous one. Over 9 percent more of the forest was chopped or burned down in 2020.

When Biden suggested in a presidential debate last year that Brazil could face economic consequences for failing to control deforestation, Bolsonaro lashed out. Now that Biden is in office, his envoys have thus tried a more cordial, low-profile approach consisting of weeks of meetings with Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles.

The talks yielded an impasse and fierce criticism from Brazilian environmental and Indigenous groups, which were not included.

In response to the deadlock, on Sunday U.S. Ambassador to Brazil Todd Chapman reportedly took a firmer line and told a group of Brazilian politicians, businesspeople, and diplomats that Brasília had until next week’s summit to demonstrate a commitment to addressing the issue or it would face consequences in bilateral trade agreements and U.S. support for Brazil’s entrance into the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In a dramatic change in tone on Wednesday, Bolsonaro sent a seven-page letter to Biden promising that Brazil would end all illegal deforestation by 2030 and would not demand U.S. funding as a precondition for doing so. On paper, this was nearer to the kind of pledge that Washington sought, but Brasília’s recent obstinance still casts doubt on its credibility. The same day, Bolsonaro’s government published its goal for reducing deforestation by the end of 2022—which would bring it to a level 16 percent higher than the year before Bolsonaro took office.

The hang-up. For weeks, Salles, Bolsonaro’s environment minister, had dug in his heels over a Brazilian demand for $1 billion from the United States in order to commit to reducing deforestation. He told Estadão that with the funds, Brazil could cut deforestation by 30 to 40 percent over the course of a year.

Washington insisted it needed proof of progress this year before contributing money, given the Bolsonaro administration’s record of defunding Brazil’s environmental protection agency, dismantling safeguards for Indigenous groups, and encouraging commercial development of the Amazon.

The impasse over commitments is understood to be a factor in top White House advisor Juan Gonzalez’s skipping of Brazil in a three-country tour of South America this week.

Front-line defenders speak out. Meanwhile, in an open letter to Biden last week, more than 200 Indigenous, environmental, and civil society groups warned the U.S. president not to trust Bolsonaro’s environmental commitments without seeing proof of action and called to be included in any negotiations. Many Indigenous Brazilians are residents of protected areas of the rainforest and know firsthand which enforcement measures are effective.

On Monday, Chapman, the U.S. ambassador, met with a small group of Indigenous Brazilians about the issue, and Bolsonaro’s Wednesday letter included a promise to dialogue with Indigenous groups. And on Tuesday, a group of young environmentalists backed by eight former environment ministers sued the federal government in the São Paulo state court for reducing its carbon-cutting ambitions in its updated Paris Agreement commitments.

Attempts at paradiplomacy. Just as they did during the race to procure vaccines, Brazilian governors are organizing to conduct their own diplomacy on environmental issues. At least 22 of Brazil’s 26 governors are preparing their own letter to Biden, which in its current form suggests cooperating on Amazon reforestation, recuperating other Brazilian biomes for carbon capture, and developing other pathways to a greener economy.

Brazil’s private sector, too, has scrambled to act: Members of Brazil’s agribusiness and financial sectors wrote the federal government last week, saying that its signaling “makes the country less attractive for international investments.”


The Week Ahead

April 16-19: Raúl Castro scheduled to transfer party leadership to President Miguel Díaz-Canel at Cuban Communist Party national congress.

April 21: United Nations Security Council set to discuss progress on Colombia’s peace accord.

April 22: Escazú Agreement on environmental consultation and access to information in Latin America comes into effect.

April 22-23: White House holds climate summit, to which leaders of Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Jamaica, and Mexico are invited.


What We’re Following

Super Sunday election results. Guillermo Lasso won Ecuador’s presidential runoff Sunday with 52.4 percent of valid votes to Andrés Arauz’s 47.6 percent. Twenty percent of all votes cast were nullified, demonstrating the influence of the Indigenous politician Yaku Pérez, who called for followers to spoil their ballots.

In Peru, the left-wing union organizer Pedro Castillo will advance with right-wing Keiko Fujimori to a presidential runoff. Both are highly socially conservative; Fujimori promises hard-line security policies, while Castillo pledges to nationalize several economic sectors. Castillo’s late surge over a more moderate left candidate who previously polled well in rural areas underscores Peru’s anti-system sentiment.

In Bolivia, the ruling Movement for Socialism lost all four of its gubernatorial runoff races to challengers who included leaders from rural communities and an economist, consistent with a national trend of its opposition on the right and moderate left gaining ground.

Guatemala blocks a judge. Guatemala’s Congress blocked judge Gloria Porras, known for her work against corruption, from assuming her role as chief justice of the country’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday, earning rebukes from a top U.S. State Department official among others.

Fake engagement in Honduras. Facebook failed to remove artificial likes on posts by Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández for almost a year after the platform was alerted to them by an internal content monitor, the Guardian reported. The monitor was encouraged by a supervisor to prioritize fake information campaigns in the United States and Western Europe or those carried out by Russia and Iran.

A new Spanish-language media giant. Mexico’s Televisa and the U.S.-based Univision announced plans for a $4.8 billion merger in hopes of dominating global Spanish-language television and streaming. At their heels is Netflix; the streaming giant recently moved its Latin America headquarters to Mexico City and has produced highly popular shows such as The House of Flowers, which earned the nickname “the millennial telenovela.”

Televisa, too, has ventured into modernizing its soap opera fare with shows such as Together, The Heart Is Never Wrong, the first Mexican telenovela with two gay characters as protagonists (best known by the combination of their names, Aristemo). Televisa and Univision say that of the around 600 million Spanish speakers in the world, only 10 percent currently use online video services, compared with 70 percent of English speakers.


Question of the Week

Peru’s Pedro Castillo, the leftist candidate who will advance to the presidential runoff, amassed word-of-mouth support across the nation’s countryside in part through networks linked to teachers’ unions and rondas campesinas, or the rural self-defense groups whose members are called ronderos.

Which of the following is not true about Peru’s ronderos or rondas campesinas?

A) They have a history of fighting the Shining Path terrorist group.
B) They helped enforce quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic.
C) Some of their actions have been questioned by human rights advocates.
D) Their authority comes from informal agreements rather than Peruvian law.


In Focus: Haiti’s ‘Descent Into Hell’

Haitian Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe resigned Wednesday amid a political crisis that the Catholic archdiocese of Port-au-Prince described as a “descent into hell.” A string of kidnappings in the country now includes, as of Sunday, the abduction of seven clergy members and three other people on their way to church.

“The public authorities who are doing nothing to resolve this crisis are not immune from suspicion,” the church wrote. It and several private sector employers’ federations closed their offices Thursday in protest.

President Jovenel Moise tweeted that Jouthe’s resignation would make it possible to address insecurity, suggesting Jouthe had been ineffective in stopping the recent violence. His replacement is Claude Joseph, who had been serving as foreign minister. Moise himself has been under widespread social pressure to resign for months.

International arbiters. On Tuesday, for the first time, the U.N. office in Haiti voiced concerns over Moise’s preparations to hold a constitutional referendum in June, saying that the process was “not sufficiently inclusive, participatory, or transparent.” It had previously supported the measure.

The same day, the Organization of American States issued a statement calling on the government to protect Haitians from violence. International arbiters have long been heavily influential in Haiti’s political fate. That includes Washington’s current decision to support Moise in a dispute over when his presidential term ends.

COVID unchecked. COVID-19 vaccination is yet to begin in Haiti, which awaits its first vaccines from the World Health Organization’s COVAX alliance. Vaccine hesitancy in the country is high, and a U.N. official said the violence in the country was contributing to lack of trust in the health system.


A doctor walks in the corridors of the Doctors Without Borders Drouillard Hospital in Cite Soleil, Haiti on June 3, 2020.

A doctor walks in the corridors of the Doctors Without Borders Drouillard Hospital in Cite Soleil, Haiti on June 3, 2020.

A doctor walks in the corridors of the Doctors Without Borders Drouillard Hospital in Cité Soleil, Haiti, on June 3, 2020.Pierre Michel Jean/AFP/Getty Images


And the answer is…

D) Their authority comes from informal agreements rather than Peruvian law.

Former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori granted legal recognition to the ronderos in the 1990s as part of enlisting them in his campaigns against leftist guerrillas in the countryside. Today, they retain that recognition, although some of their actions have been criticized as arbitrary. Some COVID-19 quarantine flouters in the regions of Puno and Cajamarca, for example, could earn whippings from ronderos, local leaders of the groups told Reuters.

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Britain’s Post-Brexit Foreign Policy Can Be a Force for Good

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Thirty years ago, I visited former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s home, together with other members of the Kurdish community in London, to present the case for protecting Iraq’s Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. I was 5 years old.

Iraq’s Kurds had already suffered a genocide under Saddam during the 1980s and faced another onslaught in 1991 after the dictator was forced to withdraw his invading forces from Kuwait by the international community and then looked to strengthen his grip over the Kurds.

The United States, Russia, and China were skeptical about the idea of intervening in the internal matters of another country. Washington in particular was content that it had forced Iraqi forces out of Kuwait and was concerned about putting the lives of U.S. soldiers at risk and involving them in a long-standing conflict between Kurdish revolutionaries and the Baathist regime. However, as a result of the leadership of Thatcher’s successor, John Major—who became prime minister just three months after Saddam invaded Kuwait and was initially hesitant to propose a no-fly zone to the Americans—and thanks to the former prime minister’s instrumental and decisive lobbying, London forced a shift in Washington’s position through sheer perseverance and diplomatic nous.

Operation Provide Comfort prevented Saddam from carrying out another genocide, and the resulting safe haven in the Kurdistan region—enforced by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France—protected the Kurds and civilians from other parts of Iraq. It was a glorious moment in British political history and for the trans-Atlantic alliance.

There were other heroic examples of British interventionism and leadership in the years that followed, including interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo that saved hundreds of thousands of civilians from the brutality of despots and warlords. These seminal moments in British political history were overshadowed by the 2003 invasion of Iraq but still demonstrate why Britain was and can still be a force for good in the world in the face of global crises, acting as America’s liberal conscience to push back against the popular wisdom and myopia that all too often paralyze the ability of Western governments to formulate and enable measures that could stave off humanitarian atrocities.

An assertive and proactive Britain—one that has the willingness, resources, and global infrastructure to fill the policy voids that result from failed collaborative efforts to address global crises—is absolutely critical as the international community grapples with ongoing wars, Russian belligerence, and China’s human rights atrocities. Although Brexit has raised some doubts over Britain’s future role on the global stage, London retains wide-ranging international linkages; important institutional positions in the G-20, G-7, the U.N. Security Council, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank; a diplomatic and security service that is among the best in the world; and an economy that will still be the sixth or seventh largest in the world in 2030.

The government’s publication last month of the long-awaited “Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy” indicates that a bold and realistic foreign policy looms on the horizon, one that recognizes the strengths and limits of British influence and adapts the resiliency of the country to modern-day challenges and new frontiers in warfare, including cyberspace and artificial intelligence.


The indications that the U.K. will look to make a stronger mark on the global stage have been exemplified by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership on combating climate change, the response to China’s egregious human rights abuses, the imposition of sanctions on Syrian officials involved in war crimes, and the commitment to raise defense spending by 16.5 billion pounds ($21.9 billion) by 2024.

Johnson has also committed to advancing girls’ education around the world and to making this a key part of his legacy as prime minister—and rightly so: Globally, 132 million girls do not go to school, and nearly two-thirds of the world’s 781 million illiterate adults are female. These conditions enable fragile states and weak institutions and the proliferation of terrorist groups and criminal enterprises that exploit the weak and destitute to swell their ranks.

Britain is also leading Europe’s vaccination race, having now administered more than 40 million doses to people across the country under the stewardship of its minister for vaccine deployment, Nadhim Zahawi, who happens to be an Iraqi Kurd who fled Baath-ruled Iraq for Britain in the 1970s.

Yet it is not so much whether Britain will still matter on the global stage (it will) but whether the government manages to take advantage of the country’s international standing and influence—and whether it has the political will to uphold international security and norms in the face of the next crisis.

The scars left by former Prime Minister David Cameron’s failure to secure parliamentary approval (or exercise his prerogative powers) for airstrikes on Bashar al-Assad’s regime, in response to its use of chemical weapons in 2013, have not disappeared. The notion of having a proactive foreign policy, particularly where it relates to preventing and responding to geopolitical or global conflagrations, has been undermined by the legacies of costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The neglect of Libya’s post-conflict stabilization, the calamities of the Syria conflict, and the refugee crisis that has resulted from long-standing tumult in conflict-stricken regions have suppressed moral impulses that should have otherwise been followed as part of an activist foreign policy that recognizes both the strengths and limits of British influence and reach.

While it has its detractors, in many respects the policy review constitutes a doctrine for engaging global threats and challenges, rather than a strategy in and of itself—a framework that is underscored with, firstly, a unity of purpose and a focus on alliances and, secondly, a willingness to pursue proactive and activist policies when these alliances come under pressure or prove ineffective.

This is where the policy review addresses tensions between two potential post-Brexit foreign-policy visions, which envisage either a focus on soft-power tools to solve global challenges or a focus on hard-power measures and great-power competition with China. Critics of Brexit warned that the withdrawal from the European Union would diminish the country’s capacity to shape the contours of international affairs, but the logic of that argument also means that less Europe means more responsibility.

That renders it imperative that the government adopt a proactive foreign policy that does not waver in the face of opportunities and crises that require it to be both a global power and a global broker, one that bridges political divides and works closely with like-minded nations to address threats to international security.

As part of this proactive approach to international affairs, Johnson should use the momentum that has followed the withdrawal from the EU to reinvigorate multilateralism across the continent and beyond. President Joe Biden is expected to undertake efforts to heal divisions between the United States and Europe while also designing U.S. foreign-policy priorities around the promotion of democratic values.

As the new U.S. administration begins to put these into motion, Johnson should also deploy Britain’s reputational assets and harness the country’s global reach to address long-standing fractures in Europe that have prevented the continent from pushing back against Russia’s hybrid warfare and China’s expansionism, both of which have undermined liberal democracies and values.

These cross-cutting and collaborative partnerships should place a particular emphasis on mediation and conflict resolution, particularly in areas where the U.K. has established interests, strategic partnerships, and influence; this includes the Persian Gulf, where the U.K. should ensure its Gulf Arab allies keep the peace that has followed their recent decision to end the Gulf crisis, a three-and-a-half-year conflict between Qatar on the one side and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Bahrain on the other.

This will enhance economic cooperation, stabilize the Middle East, and contain the threat from nefarious actors like Iran. The U.K. can straddle the line that separates Biden’s focus on diplomatic negotiations to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons from Israel and the Arab Gulf states’ preference for coercive diplomacy and deterrence against Tehran and its proxies.

Britain could play a moderating role that de-escalates tensions and conflicts to prevent wider regional conflagrations, including putting its weight behind a comprehensive nuclear agreement that addresses Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its ballistic missile program, and foreign legion of proxies, which present an immediate and long-term threat to regional stability.

These alliances also provide the U.K. with an opportunity to mitigate the risks of unclear messaging and miscalculation: While Britain and China will have to work together on trade and climate change, and the imposition of tit-for-tat sanctions may continue amid China’s ongoing human rights abuses and a potential standoff over Hong Kong, Beijing will more aggressively test London’s commitment to seeing through its tilt toward the Indo-Pacific, where China has expanded its engagements over the past three decades and where it may target British fleets and personnel to test London’s resolve.

Working with the United States in particular, the U.K. should seek through its alliances to develop its foothold in a region that constitutes the new geopolitical center for both shaping the international order and protecting pathways that are vital to the global economy but also to resolve tensions and avoid military conflict with China.

The policy review emphasizes Britain’s role as a force for good in standing up for human rights worldwide, but that role will have to be undertaken through both words and deeds. Past Western interventions in the Arab and Islamic world have tainted the notion of democracy promotion, but the erosion of democratic values both at home and around the world as a direct consequence of Russian and Chinese efforts to weaken democratic norms has far-reaching national security implications. The U.K. must redefine the scope of democracy promotion, establishing how it should be applied and when—with the stark lessons of the past two decades in mind.

In 1991, during our meeting with Thatcher she addressed the press and famously proclaimed to her Conservative colleagues and the wider political class: “The Kurds don’t need talk; they need practical action. … It is not a question of standing on legal niceties. We should go now.”

These are precisely the moments that can define the political legacies of leaders. And, drawing on the example set by Thatcher and Major in 1991, Johnson should not shy away from the moments of reckoning that lurk around the corner, global crises that may soon give him and the U.K. a chance to reveal and test the character and identity of post-Brexit Britain in the midst of a multipolar world that is increasingly shaped by competition and power politics.

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Arafat’s Nephew Is Coming for Abbas



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Nasser al-Qudwa, a nephew of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, poses next to a portrait of Arafat in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Nov. 10, 2008. ABBAS MOMANI/AFP via Getty Images

Eighteen years ago, Mahmoud Abbas, then-Palestinian prime minister, was locked in a power struggle with iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. At stake was control of Palestinian security forces vital to a U.S.-mediated Israeli-Palestinian peace plan, known as the Roadmap for Mideast Peace. Arafat and Abbas disagreed over which of them would control these forces, and Abbas grew increasingly frustrated with Arafat’s unwillingness to cede him any power. The rivalry negatively affected the—now stagnant—peace process and led to a schism inside the West Bank’s ruling Fatah party.

Fast forward to 2021. Abbas is president of the Palestinian Authority (PA)—a position he has held for more than 15 years after being elected to just a four-year term in 2005—and Palestinians are patiently awaiting a vote that could finally seal his fate. Whether the elections, slated for this May, July, and August, will be allowed to go ahead remains unclear. (Both Israel and the PA hold the cards.) But in the interim, Abbas is facing a challenge from the nephew of the very man he was at loggerheads with two decades ago.

Nasser al-Qudwa is not a household name in the Palestinian territories, but his recent decision to establish a new political movement is turning heads. The National Democratic Assembly, which runs under the slogan, “we want to change, we want to liberate, we want to build,” has attracted Palestinians of all strata in calling for an end to the rampant corruption and cronyism that have historically plagued the PA. The group stresses it is not a faction or party but rather a distinct political movement running an electoral list.

On March 31, the National Democratic Assembly joined forces with jailed militant Marwan Barghouti to run as an independent slate—called “Freedom”—in Palestine’s May 22 legislative elections. Barghouti is a veteran Fatah official who played a leading role in the Second Intifada and is currently serving five life sentences in Israel over charges that he orchestrated deadly attacks on Israelis. In poll after poll conducted in the Palestinian territories, the charismatic Barghouti has consistently shown that—should he run in the PA’s presidential elections—he would win.


Nasser al-Qudwa and Fadwa Barghouti

Nasser al-Qudwa and Fadwa Barghouti

Nasser al-Qudwa and Fadwa Barghouti, Marwan Barghouti’s spouse, leave the Palestinian Central Elections Commission office after registering their joint list for the upcoming parliamentary election in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 31. Nasser Nasser/The Associated Press

The merger raised the ire of Abbas, who has ruled by decree and without parliamentary oversight since 2007 and is concerned about where a reshuffled electoral list could land Fatah. In particular, the 85-year-old president wants to avoid a repetition of the party’s painful 2006 loss to Hamas. He believes that can only be accomplished if Fatah runs united and strong.

The “Freedom” slate—headed by Qudwa and Fadwa Barghouti, a lawyer and Marwan Barghouti’s spouse—isn’t the only breakaway Fatah list competing against Abbas’s traditional electoral slate. He will also have to face the “Future” list, which is sponsored by Mohammed Dahlan, a former Fatah security chief in Gaza who is currently living in exile in the United Arab Emirates. Abbas blames Dahlan for failing to stop Hamas’s 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip and expelled him from Fatah in 2011 following accusations of embezzlement. Both men have been hurling allegations of corruption at each other ever since.

A poll by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that the Qudwa and Dahlan lists could pose significant problems for Fatah, particularly in the Gaza Strip. But the emerging struggle is only the latest evidence of broader dysfunction within the party, which has been years in the making.

“Al-Qudwa’s decision to run an independent list is a sign of the intense dissatisfaction within Fatah with the direction of Abbas’s leadership and his authoritarian and increasingly paranoid grip on power,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.



Nasser al-Qudwa

Nasser al-Qudwa

Then-Palestinian Foreign Minister Nasser al-Qudwa (right) speaks during the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People with Yuri Gourov, U.N. chief of the Division for Palestinian Rights, at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Nov. 29, 2005.STAN HONDA/AFP via Getty Images

Qudwa was born in 1953 in Khan Younis, a city in the southern Gaza Strip. He studied dentistry in Cairo and became politically active as head of the General Union of Palestinian Students in Egypt—which has served as a launch pad for many Palestinian politicians who go on to hold important positions in the Palestine Liberation Organization or Fatah.

During his time working in the union, Qudwa became a member of the PLO’s Palestinian National Council (PNC), then the Palestinian parliament-in-exile. He later joined the Palestinian Central Council—the intermediary body between the PNC and the PLO Executive Committee.

Qudwa has been affiliated with Fatah since the late 1960s and rose through the faction’s ranks quietly without stirring any major disagreements with other Fatah leaders. He was elected to the Fatah Revolutionary Council, the party’s parliament, in 1989 and became a member of the faction’s highest decision-making body—the Central Committee—in 2009, where he remained until his expulsion in March 2021.

Qudwa maintained close personal relations with his uncle Yasser Arafat until his death in 2004, when Qudwa founded and took the reins of the Yasser Arafat Foundation. Arafat had paved the way for Qudwa’s diplomatic work: In 1986, he appointed Qudwa assistant to the permanent representative of the PLO at the United Nations.

Qudwa’s name became synonymous with Palestine’s presence at the U.N. from 1991 until 2005, when he served as permanent envoy and earned a reputation as an ardent believer in the power of international law to bring justice to the Palestinian people. As envoy, Qudwa headed Palestine’s delegation to the International Court of Justice, making the case against Israel’s separation wall. In 2004, the court issued an advisory opinion declaring the wall illegal.

Qudwa served as Palestinian foreign minister for a few months between 2005 and 2006. Those who watched him in action in diplomatic circles have noted his remarkable role in committees tasked with finding solutions to different political crises across the Middle East. Since 2007, Qudwa has held several high-profile diplomatic positions, including as Deputy Joint Special Envoy of the U.N. and the League of Arab States on Syria, assisting then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in the exercise of his mandate. He also served as U.N. Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Afghanistan in the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Now, his focus is on the homefront.

The PA has not held presidential or legislative elections since 2005 and 2006, respectively, and about 40 percent of Palestinians have little faith that fresh elections will end up taking place this spring and summer. But that has not stopped some from supporting Qudwa’s new movement, which is relying heavily on the support of Palestinian nongovernmental organization workers, writers, disgruntled members of Fatah, and other smaller leftist movements as well as independents.

In recent weeks, the National Democratic Assembly has held regular online policy forums over Zoom to discuss its political program, with as many as 300 Palestinians—including myself—in attendance. Qudwa believes the new movement is a byproduct of their collective vision.

“This is the vision of the National Democratic Assembly. I contributed heavily, but it’s not my personal vision,” Qudwa told Foreign Policy. “Anybody could have objected to anything, and we had lengthy discussions within the assembly and the committee that was entrusted with the language and with the texts of the [manifesto].”


An elderly Palestinian man

An elderly Palestinian man

An elderly Palestinian man reacts during a rally protesting the confiscation of land for an Israeli settlement south of Hebron in the West Bank, on March 19, before the Israeli army declared the area a closed military zone and ordered demonstrators to leave. HAZEM BADER/AFP via Getty Images

The group’s program is the antithesis of what was espoused by the PA’s current ruling powers. The National Democratic Assembly demands reform of the Palestinian political system, which it hopes to do by fighting corruption, rebuilding the Palestinian territories’ security and administrative apparatus, adhering to the rule of law, and engaging in regular elections. Its long-term goal is to achieve national liberation for Palestinians under a two-state solution along the 1967 armistice line. Here, the National Democratic Assembly—which opposes Israel’s settlement enterprise—is seeking a return to the same peace plan negotiating parameters accepted by the international community for the last 30-odd years.

Beyond the occupation, Qudwa has said the National Democratic Assembly would focus on improving all aspects of Palestinian life, from health care to education and the environment. The movement supports expanding freedoms of speech and dissent for both individuals and media organizations. One of its key priorities is also to promote gender equality, ensuring women have fair access to education and work opportunities.

Qudwa believes a major overhaul of the Palestinian polity is needed, especially as Palestinians grow weary of decades of futile peace talks that have only entrenched Israel’s hold on their land. He regards grassroots efforts to defend Palestinian villages whose lands are at risk of Israeli expropriation as the way forward—and supports a prohibition on Palestinians working in Israeli settlements. At present, there is no official PA policy on the latter issue: The PA has largely turned a blind eye to the tens of thousands of Palestinians working in settlements because it cannot provide a viable alternative form of employment.

This approach, Qudwa said, will align Palestinian national policy more closely with the Geneva Conventions, making it easier to pursue cases against Israel under international law and garner support from other states. “Without challenging settler colonialism, there will be no national independence. … Otherwise, you will just keep going back and forth with futile negotiations,” Qudwa said at a virtual news conference on March 22.

Whether or not this challenge will actually translate to support at the ballot box is not yet certain, but a recent survey shows if elections were held today, a united Fatah list would win 43 percent of the vote. A list headed by Dahlan would win 10 percent, while 7 percent of Palestinians would vote for a Qudwa-led independent list. The two men would siphon votes from Fatah’s official list, giving the party 30 percent of the vote. Now that Barghouti is backing Qudwa’s list, the poll predicts support for the “Freedom” slate will increase to 11 percent, dropping Fatah’s share of the vote to just 28 percent.



Nasser al-Qudwa and Mahmoud Abbas

Nasser al-Qudwa and Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas (right) listens to then-Foreign Minister Nasser al-Qudwa during the second working session of the Summit of South American-Arab Countries, held in Brasília, Brazil, in May 2005. MAURICIO LIMA/AFP via Getty Images

Qudwa’s attempt to run on an independent slate has come at a high price. What started out as a threat snowballed into his expulsion from Fatah’s Central Committee. He was also stripped of his duties as head of the Yasser Arafat Foundation—in contravention of the internal bylaws of both institutions, observers say.

“The swiftness with which Abbas retaliated against al-Qudwa shows his inability to countenance any form of opposition, dissent, or challenge from within Fatah,” Elgindy said. “The rift within Fatah, along with Abbas’ rigidity, could easily derail—or at least postpone—planned elections and threatens to tear the movement apart.”

In January, as rumors began to emerge that Qudwa would be running an independent platform, Abbas threatened to “shoot” anyone from Fatah who would stray from the official party line. He repeated his threat directly to Qudwa after summoning him to his presidential compound in February, but Qudwa did not backtrack. A series of retaliations ensued: Abbas expelled Qudwa from Fatah’s Central Committee, ceased all funding from the PA and PLO to the Yasser Arafat Foundation, and even took away Qudwa’s security detail and the government-issued car he uses for official business.

Qudwa is contesting his expulsion, which he believes was illegal and goes against the internal bylaws of Fatah’s Central Committee. “I was not expelled by Fatah. We haven’t seen the end of this story. I belong to this movement, I’m proud of that, and I will continue to adhere to my Fatah identity and Fatah membership in spite of what happened,” Qudwa told Foreign Policy.

The last straw was dismissing him from the very institution he heads in honor of his uncle and the father of the Palestinian national movement—a step some have called illegal.

“The foundation has a board of trustees that is responsible for choosing the board of directors and its chairman,” said Hani al-Masri, a renowned policy expert and a member of the board of trustees of the Yasser Arafat Foundation. Masri, who is also part of the “Freedom” electoral slate, denounced the decision to dismiss Qudwa as a retaliatory measure.

“What is happening is [part of a series of] arbitrary sanctions due to political differences and competition in the [lead-up to] elections, and it calls into question how far the freedom and integrity of the elections and its results will be respected,” Masri wrote.

As Abbas heads back from Germany for what his office called a “routine” medical checkup, it remains to be seen whether this power struggle within Fatah will push him to cancel the upcoming elections—as he has in the past. A costly political move, Abbas may have to rely on Israel to intervene. So far, Israeli authorities have shut down an election-related event in East Jerusalem and arrested some Hamas members in the West Bank who considered running.

Qudwa believes elections should go ahead no matter what. “Elections can be a tool for change,” he said. “Change can happen either by people going into the streets or democratically through the ballot box.”

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Is Leaving Afghanistan Misguided or Overdue?

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Matthew Kroenig: Hi, Emma! A lot has happened since we last debated. Washington, D.C., has now opened up the COVID-19 vaccine to everyone age 16 and older; it looks like there might be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Emma Ashford: I had my second dose last week, so maybe by the fall, we can have these debates in person for a change.

MK: It would be a change indeed to see the anger in each other’s eyes as we argue about the most important issues of the day. And there is much to argue about this week: a possible impending Russian invasion of Ukraine, a major explosion at a nuclear plant in Iran that may upend the Iran nuclear negotiations, and President Joe Biden’s announced plan to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan before Sept. 11 this year.

Where should we begin?

EA: Well, let’s start with America’s longest war, now hopefully well on its way to an end. As Biden said in his speech on Wednesday, this is a war that has lasted through four presidencies; his choice to finally withdraw means that it won’t last for a fifth.

And it’s a good thing. I might have preferred to stick to former President Donald Trump’s May deadline, but I think the symbolism of Sept. 11, 2021, will do a good job of ensuring that this is actually a withdrawal. What do you think?

MK: I disagree. It’s a mistake to set an arbitrary calendar deadline. The U.S. withdrawal should be based on conditions on the ground. The U.S. and NATO effort is sustainable at this point, and it helps the Afghan government control Kabul and much of the country. Sept. 11, 2021, will now become the date that the United States and NATO lost the war in Afghanistan, and I fear that the Taliban’s reconquest of the country will not be far behind.

EA: Actually, the best thing about the Sept. 11 date is highlighting that this isn’t arbitrary. It’s been 20 years. And I thought the anonymous official quoted in the Washington Post earlier this week put it best when they pointed out that a conditions-based approach is simply an excuse for permanent presence.

Look, the bottom line is that the United States accomplished what it went to Afghanistan to do. Al Qaeda was evicted, the 2001 Taliban government was smashed, and Washington made the point that no one attacks the United States with impunity. That was all achieved by about 2003. Everything since then has been an expansion of the original goals, and it’s simply not necessary for U.S. security. There are places in the world where I’d concede you could make a good argument about permanent presence—U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf, for example—but Afghanistan is just not that strategically important.

MK: There is nothing wrong with a permanent presence. The costs of staying are low, and the potential costs of leaving are higher. The original goal was to remove the Taliban government, but if U.S. forces leave, there is a reasonable chance the Taliban will return to power in Kabul.

We’ve seen this movie before when then-President Barack Obama withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq. The situation was stable, he pulled everything out, security deteriorated rapidly, the Islamic State ransacked the country, and U.S. forces had to return.

I’m afraid Biden might be repeating the same mistake. It is much easier to stay indefinitely than to withdraw now and fight our way back in later.

EA: First, let’s be accurate. When he withdrew the troops from Iraq, Obama was abiding by the Status of Forces Agreement signed by President George W. Bush. So if it was a mistake, it was also Bush’s mistake.

MK: If Obama really wanted to extend the agreement, he could have made it an earlier and more important priority, but he didn’t.

EA: Perhaps. The situation in Iraq could certainly have been handled better. There were a lot of confounding problems, not least the fact that neighboring Syria had collapsed into civil war.

But look at it this way: the Islamic State problem is actually a great example of the fact that you don’t need a permanent presence in another country to deal with terrorism. U.S. troops went back into Iraq to deal with the Islamic State, using mostly air power and partner forces on the ground, and left once they’d achieved that goal. Better than a permanent presence, for sure.

MK: There are still a couple of thousand U.S. forces in Iraq, and that is about the right number for Afghanistan. I see this move as more about domestic politics—to appease the anti-war left—and less about national security.

EA: In many ways, it’s just the opposite. Biden is using political capital to do this by alienating some Senate Democrats, such as Senate Foreign Relations Chair Robert Menendez, in ways that may make his domestic agenda harder to achieve. I applaud him for that.

One other point: The idea that a couple thousand troops in Afghanistan will do the job is pretty misleading. At that level of presence, U.S. forces on the ground are mostly defending themselves and doing some training work. And that might not even be enough to defend against a renewed Taliban offensive, which would likely happen after the collapse of the existing cease-fire. In short, a small rump force in Afghanistan is just a recipe for increasing deployments later on.

MK: That level, buttressed by roughly 6,500 from NATO allies, has worked well in recent months. But I doubt we will convince each other on this issue. Should we turn instead to the intensified Russian threats against Ukraine?

EA: Yes, from conflicts we should get out of to conflicts we should avoid getting into.

For those who don’t closely follow Russian military deployments, the last few weeks have seen a growing Russian military buildup in its Western Military District, in Kaliningrad, and in Crimea—that is to say, in the areas closest to Ukraine. It’s concerning. Russia hasn’t concentrated this level of forces near Ukraine in several years, and there’s the potential for the conflict in the Donbass region to reignite as a result. But I think the big question here is Russian intentions. Do you think President Vladimir Putin plans an invasion? Because I’m not sure.

MK: I think Putin follows Lenin’s old adage: “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, then advance. If you hit steel, retreat.” The Ukrainian government has cut off the canal that supplies water to Crimea. I think Putin would like to take control of the waterway and establish a land bridge between Russian territory and Russian-occupied Crimea.

The only question in Putin’s mind is: Can I get away with it?

EA: Like most good quotes, that one’s probably apocryphal, though with a grain of truth to it. In this case, however, I’m still fairly skeptical that this presages a major Russian advance into Ukraine. Mostly because it’s difficult to see what the goal would be. The water issue has come up every year since 2014; the Russians haven’t invaded before. And there aren’t many other territorial gains that would be appealing to the Russians.

MK: The water situation continues to deteriorate, however. Arable land in Crimea is drying up, and Russia is spending billions of rubles to resupply water in other ways. Reopening the canal restores Crimea as a self-sustainable territory and alleviates a major economic burden for Russia.

EA: Perhaps I’m being too academic here, but I just keep thinking about how political scientists code acts of aggression. There are many steps between peace and all-out war, including things like the use of military forces for signaling or coercion—basically a threat to invade if you don’t do what Russia wants. So I tend to agree with a number of Russia analysts that this is probably more about trying to pressure Ukraine than it is about an actual invasion.

MK: Russia has already created the pretext for war, with two separate justifications. Putin says he might need to invade, first, to protect endangered Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine or, second, in retaliation if Ukraine strikes first. These are the exact same justifications he used to invade Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008, respectively. Fool me once…

EA: Well, let’s assume the worst-case scenario and say that you’re right. It has happened before, after all. I’d argue that the U.S. response should be broadly similar in either case and should be nonmilitary. Washington doesn’t have a strong interest in defending Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, at the cost of American lives.

MK: I’d say use what works. Bush helped to prevent a deeper Russian incursion into Georgia in 2008 when he sent the U.S. military on a humanitarian mission. Biden was on the right track when it looked like he would send two warships to the Black Sea earlier this week. It was a mistake to cancel that deployment.

EA: It’s dangerous, though. If escalation does happen, U.S. troops could be caught in the middle.

I was interested to see the readout of Biden’s call with Putin early this week, which did emphasize U.S. support for Ukraine, but which also mentioned strategic stability and proposed a summit meeting with the Russian president. I took that to be a sign of an attempt to stabilize the U.S.-Russia relationship, even in the light of this current crisis. But the announcement of new sanctions on Russia on Thursday also suggests that the relationship could still get worse.

MK: Allowing dictators to invade their neighbors with impunity is dangerous, too, but I think you are right; the Biden administration hopes it can stabilize the situation with a combination of carrots and sticks.

The other big news this week was an explosion that damaged Iran’s uranium enrichment facility at Natanz. Most speculated that the attack was conducted by Israel, but there is widespread disagreement about Israel’s intentions, whether Washington was notified in advance, and what all of this means for the resumption of the Iran nuclear negotiations.

EA: Yeah, talk about curveballs. There seems to be no real doubt that this attack was carried out by Israel, and the timing was particularly problematic: News of the attack hit just as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was meeting with his Israeli counterparts. That suggests to me that Washington didn’t know in advance.

But either way, it’s a really blatant attempt by a third party to try to block the negotiations over the U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear deal, which is finally starting to get traction. I’m pleased to see that the Iranians have continued to attend meetings in Vienna, and hope the Biden team will ignore this attempt to derail the process.

MK: Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons, and Israel is trying to stop it. I don’t object to strong nuclear nonproliferation efforts against a rogue state in search of the bomb. Moreover, for those who favor returning to the nuclear deal this development could strengthen the prospects for a diplomatic breakthrough. Tehran’s greatest source of leverage is threatening to ramp up its nuclear program, but that will be an empty threat while Iran is busy cleaning up the mess at Natanz.

EA: Biden was elected by the American people after a campaign in which he committed to rejoining the Iran deal. It’s not up to Israel to decide whether he does or not. And these attacks could also weaken our hand: They could shift the internal discussions in Tehran or send a message that America is working with Israel on this.

After Iraq in 2003, the Iran deal was a massive success for the notion that nonproliferation should be about diplomacy, not bombs. First Trump, and now Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, seem determined to undermine the peaceful route to nonproliferation.

MK: The distinction between diplomacy and bombs is a false one. This one may be apocryphal too, but as Frederick the Great reportedly said, “diplomacy without armaments is like music without instruments.” Diplomacy with Iran will be more effective if Tehran understands that international efforts are backed up by tougher measures if diplomacy fails.

But, ultimately, I don’t think this attack will be a major game-changer. I remember back in 2011 when experts speculated that the Stuxnet cyberattack would set back Iran’s program by years, and then subsequent International Atomic Energy Agency reports showed that, according to the objective measures like numbers of centrifuges and stockpiles of enriched uranium, Iran’s program continued to advance.

EA: I think that’s right. And I’m somewhat guilty of conflating cyberattacks with real bombs here. But I would also note that you’ve just made a good argument for why this kind of physical approach to ending a nuclear program doesn’t really work. You might slow the program down for a few years, maybe drive it deeper underground, but if a state is really determined, it will be back. Again, the diplomatic approach, with monitoring and safeguards, is better.

MK: I know conditions on the ground demand that I continue this debate, but I’ve set an arbitrary deadline for when I will abandon the column this week, so I will have to leave it there.

EA: Smart. Just like the Biden team on Afghanistan.

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Biden Hosts Suga, With China in the Foreground

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Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. President Joe Biden welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to the White House, Cuba’s Communist Party opens its eighth congress, and U.S. intelligence proves shaky on an alleged Russian bounty program in Afghanistan.

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Biden Hosts Suga at White House Summit

U.S. President Joe Biden hosts Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at the White House today, the first in-person visit of a world leader since Biden took office in January.

The two leaders have already been in close consultation as one half of the so-called Quad group of nations that includes India and Australia. The same theme of crafting a united regional front against China will be at the top of the agenda today.

Talking Taiwan. The White House is said to be pushing for Japan to sign off on strong support for Taiwan in a joint statement to be made after the two leaders meet. The announcement would be well-timed from Taiwan’s perspective, as the island witnessed the largest incursion of Chinese air force planes into its air defense identification zone earlier this week. For Japan the issue is more fraught, as Suga may be unwilling to make commitments to Taiwan’s defense.

Biden is also expected to push Suga to adopt tough rhetoric on the treatment of the Uyghur minority in China’s Xinjiang province as well as the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong.

Suga’s challenges. While Suga will be focused on the U.S. relationship today, he faces stiff challenges at home. A strict approval process means its COVID-19 vaccine rollout has lagged behind other developed nations. Less than 1 percent of Japan’s residents have been vaccinated so far, putting it in the same league as Uzbekistan and Belarus.

His cabinet’s approval rating rose slightly—from 38.8 percent in February to 42.1 percent in March—but his disapproval rating is almost as high, at 41.5 percent, according to a recent poll.

Suga must also navigate public concern over the country’s hosting of the Olympic Games, rescheduled to this summer after being postponed last year. In a recent Japanese poll, 72 percent of those polled were in favor of postponing, or canceling, the games.

Japan’s balancing act. As Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh writes in his preview of today’s summit, joining hands with the United States on China policy will not be easy for Japan. China is Japan’s number one trading partner and Japan’s exports to China jumped 5.1 percent from 2019 to 2020. As Hirsh observes, any criticism of China could have an immediate economic effect, as Australia found out when its condemnation of Beijing’s actions on Hong Kong and Taiwan led to trade tariffs and boycotts of Australian goods.


What We’re Following Today

Passing the baton. The Cuban Communist Party begins its eighth national congress today in Havana. The gathering is expected to mark the end of Raúl Castro’s tenure as first secretary of the party as he makes way for President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Even though the island’s U.S. sanctions-ravaged economy is in crisis, that hasn’t stopped it from producing five COVID-19 vaccine candidates, two of which are in late stage trials. If found to be effective, Cuba is likely to embark on vaccine diplomacy of its own—offering doses for free or at cost to poor countries.

Bounty bust? In a new slate of Russian sanctions issued on Thursday, the White House appeared to backpedal on an allegation of Russia paying Taliban forces bounties to encourage hits on U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The alleged bounty program was treated as fact by the Biden campaign during the 2020 election cycle, even as then-President Donald Trump said it had not reached his desk because U.S. officials doubted its veracity. In a White House fact sheet issued Thursday, the Biden administration said the CIA intelligence on the alleged program was inconclusive, and that the agency had assigned it a “low to moderate confidence” level.

Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon assessed the sweeping sanctions package on Thursday. The measures “are less than what some in the United States had hoped for (and some in Russia feared) but leave the door open to a sharp increase in U.S. pressure,” Mackinnon writes.

Xi meets European leaders. Chinese President Xi Jinping, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hold virtual climate talks today ahead of a climate summit of world leaders hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden on April 22. The talks come just as U.S. climate envoy John Kerry wraps up his official trip in Shanghai. China is expected to hold off on making any climate announcements until the Boao Forum, dubbed the Asian Davos, which begins on Sunday.


Keep an Eye On

Eritreans in Tigray. Eritrean troops reportedly remain in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, more than two weeks after Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said that the foreign forces would withdraw. Mark Lowcock, the top humanitarian official at the United Nations, made the assertion at a meeting of the U.N. Security Council, adding that the region remains “completely or partially inaccessible” to humanitarian agencies.

Samoa’s new government. Samoa could have new political leadership for the first time in almost 40 years after a surge of support for the newly-formed opposition FAST party led to an electoral tie, with FAST and the ruling Human Rights Protection Party (HRPP) winning the same number of parliamentary seats in last week’s general election. The balance of power lies with a single independent lawmaker, Tuala Iosefo Ponifasiom who has yet to choose a side. Tuala is awaiting the official election results, expected this weekend, before making his decision.


Odds and Ends

Garden gnomes have become the latest consumer item to fall victim to the pandemic-induced supply chain crunch.

The United Kingdom has seen a gardening boom as residents rediscovered their neglected backyards under lockdown, making the mythical figures a hot commodity.  “Gnomes of any type, plastic, stone or concrete, are in short supply,” Ian Byrne, a manager at a gardening store told the BBC. Byrne has sought out help from suppliers in Europe and China to address the scarcity.

Ian Wylie, the head of the British Garden Center Association, said that the recent blockage of the Suez canal has also led to shortages in gardening items, including decorative gnomes, and that stores were “doing everything” to revive supply chains.

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How Will Biden Pivot on South Asia?

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s South Asia Brief.

The highlights this week: The Biden administration’s South Asia policy could shift after its withdrawal from Afghanistan, extremists stage violent protests in Pakistan, and Washington and New Delhi spar over a U.S. naval ship maneuver.

If you would like to receive South Asia Brief in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


A New U.S. Approach to South Asia?

The Biden administration’s announcement this week that it will withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11 has significant implications for the sputtering Afghan peace process. The Taliban’s own perceived victory could embolden them in future talks, as FP’s Elise Labott writes. And the next five months before the completion of the withdrawal will be critical, as I argue in Foreign Policy.

The Afghanistan withdrawal also holds implications for U.S. policy in South Asia more broadly. Washington has long viewed the region through the lens of the conflict in Afghanistan. With U.S. forces on their way out, soon a new frame of reference will likely dominate U.S. thinking on South Asia: China, and specifically the U.S.-China rivalry.

For several decades, the United States has not developed a truly regional policy for South Asia. Instead, it approaches the region through a few silos: the war in Afghanistan, the relationship with Pakistan (in turn shaped by Afghanistan), and the U.S.-India partnership. Other South Asian states have not figured prominently in U.S. strategic thinking. When then-President Donald Trump unveiled a “Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia” in 2017, Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan were the only countries mentioned.

Bureaucratically, the United States doesn’t conceive of South Asia as a single, distinct region. The State Department’s South Asia regional bureau also includes Central Asia, and two military commands split the region down the middle: Central Command oversees Pakistan, and Indo-Pacific Command oversees India.

This geographically limited approach to South Asia is misguided, given the region’s strategic significance. It holds one-quarter of the world’s population and sits astride the Indian Ocean region—an area whose map Robert D. Kaplan predicts may be as “iconic” to the 21st century as Europe’s was to the 20th. South Asia is also particularly vulnerable to threats such as natural resource stress and climate change that will define the coming decades.

During its first months in office, the Biden administration has continued the silo approach. It has closely focused on Afghanistan, enlisted Pakistan’s support in the Afghan peace process, and moved to deepen its partnership with India. The United States has largely ignored the rest of the region, although climate czar John Kerry did make a visit to Bangladesh.

However, the coming U.S. exit from Afghanistan means that China, arguably the Biden administration’s biggest foreign-policy priority, will soon take center stage in U.S. strategic calculations about South Asia. Early signs, from the public spat with Chinese officials in Alaska to major overtures to Taiwan, suggest that Biden will take a hard line on Beijing. Expect him to approach South Asia through the lens of U.S.-China rivalry.

India, which Washington sees as its best bet in South Asia to counterbalance Beijing, will remain a top priority for U.S. policy. But Pakistan, a major Chinese ally, will likely be left on the outside looking in—despite recent pitches from Islamabad for a more multifaceted relationship with Washington that goes beyond security.

On the other hand, the U.S.-China rivalry could finally prompt the United States to apply a broader geographic frame to its policy in South Asia. China’s deepening footprint in the region, fueled by the expansion of its Belt and Road Initiative, means that smaller South Asian states will increasingly appear on the U.S. strategic radar.

Additionally, the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, a Trump administration initiative focused on countering China that the Biden administration appears likely to retain, calls for scaling up both security and non-security cooperation with Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Infrastructure development tools associated with the Indo-Pacific region, including the new Development Finance Corporation and the Blue Dot Network, could also be deployed to compete with the Belt and Road.

A truly regional U.S. strategy in South Asia wouldn’t necessarily be problem-free. Countries across South Asia are experiencing democratic backsliding. The Biden administration, which has made democracy promotion a pillar of its foreign policy, could spark tensions by criticizing problem states—especially Bangladesh and Sri Lanka—for their democracy and human rights troubles.

Overall, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan gives Washington the opportunity to engage more broadly across a region that as a whole is significant for U.S. interests. Motivated by its intensifying rivalry with China, the Biden administration is especially likely to pursue deeper ties with some of the smaller states of South Asia—countries often given short shrift in U.S. policy calculations.


The Week Ahead

April 22-23: The Biden administration hosts a virtual climate summit with 40 world leaders, including the prime ministers of Bangladesh, Bhutan, and India.

April 24-May 4: Turkey hosts a 10-day Afghanistan peace conference in Istanbul, with an aim to jump-start a possible political settlement.


What We’re Following


A Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan supporter prepares to throw a stone towards police during a protest in Lahore, Pakistan, on April 12.

A Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan supporter prepares to throw a stone towards police during a protest in Lahore, Pakistan, on April 12.

A Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan supporter prepares to throw a stone towards police during a protest in Lahore, Pakistan, on April 12.ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

Violent protests shake Pakistan. A hard-line Islamist political party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), staged violent protests in major Pakistani cities this week. More than 300 people were injured, and two police officers died during the violence. Media reports and videos indicate that protesters took some police officers hostage. TLP was protesting the arrest of its leader, which Pakistani officials say was intended to “maintain law and order”—a move that clearly backfired.

In February, Pakistani officials agreed to put before parliament a TLP demand to expel the French ambassador after remarks by French President Emmanuel Macron that the TLP deemed Islamophobic. The deadline for the demand to be implemented is April 20, and the TLP has vowed major demonstrations if it isn’t met. On Thursday, the French Embassy in Pakistan urged its citizens there to leave the country temporarily, citing “serious threats to French interests.”

Pakistan has long treated the TLP, which aggressively defends Pakistan’s blasphemy laws and rails against religious minorities, with kid gloves. That changed on Wednesday, when the government announced it will ban the group. But Pakistan has often banned extremist groups only to have them reemerge under new names. The TLP, which has substantial support among religious conservatives, is unlikely to go away.

Naval controversy. On April 7, the U.S. Navy 7th Fleet issued a press release stating that one of its vessels had transited India’s exclusive economic zone, asserting that the maneuver—without India’s advance consent—was within international law. The statement provoked anger in India, which insists that such maneuvers do require prior permission.

The press release was more significant than the incident itself. The U.S. Navy often stages such maneuvers, and numerous countries—rivals and allies alike—have objected to them in the past. But the incidents are typically tabulated quietly in U.S. government reports long after they have passed, without much notice.

Why the change? It could be a bureaucratic tweak that calls for new reporting processes. Or the Biden administration could want to telegraph an indirect conciliatory message to China and other rivals that these operations don’t just target them. Either way, the incident won’t soil U.S-India relations, but it underscores how a superpower’s behavior can rankle even its closest partners.

Rising second wave. The number of new coronavirus cases continues to climb in South Asia, and especially in India, which marked a grim milestone on Monday as it surpassed Brazil to become the second-hardest-hit country, after the United States. India’s vaccine campaign did receive a shot in the arm on Monday, when it approved the use of Russia’s Sputnik V, which will supplement India’s two domestically produced vaccines. A perfect storm of rapidly rising new cases, vaccine struggles, and crowded events suggests more hardships ahead.

Wednesday was the deadliest day for Pakistan of its current surge. Last month, in an effort to ease vaccine shortages, Islamabad decided to allow the private sector to buy and sell shots. More vaccines have become available, but the move has amplified Pakistan’s inequalities. Most shots obtained from private markets are in cities, and poor rural residents can’t access them.


Under the Radar

Meera Srinivasan, the Hindu’s Colombo correspondent, published a sobering dispatch this week about the tens of thousands of Sri Lankan women experiencing severe debt due to their reliance on high-interest microfinance loans. Many women have fallen into a crushing cycle: paying sky-high rates—up to 200 percent—after being harassed by collections agents, only to obtain more loans to cover their losses. These stories are jarring, given that microcredit has so often been depicted as a ticket out of poverty for South Asian women.


Quote of the Week

“The Americans are responsible for the troubles, hardships that we are going through. Now they are going to leave with their troops, with no peace, no progress. They just want to leave their war behind.”

Haji Abdul Samad, an Afghan pomegranate farmer quoted in the New York Times, on the Biden administration’s withdrawal decision


Regional Voices

A Pakistan Today editorial argues that the U.S. exit from Afghanistan is reminiscent of the Soviet withdrawal: “It is difficult to avoid a sense of seeing yet another abandonment of Afghanistan by a superpower.” It raises concerns that its neighbor could go the way of Iraq, which saw the emergence of the Islamic State after the withdrawal of U.S. forces. The editorial contends that regional powers should help salvage the Afghan peace process.

Meanwhile, a Times of India editorial describes the withdrawal as a “tricky situation,” calling on India “to get its ducks in a row.” It argues that New Delhi, which has engaged little with the Taliban, should reach out to moderate factions of the group—a move that could help counter Pakistan’s influence over the Taliban and in Afghanistan on the whole.

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Jordan Has Become a Banana Monarchy

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As the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan marks its centennial this month, its citizens are still buzzing about the “Hamzah affair.” The political earthquake began two weeks ago, when security services rounded up almost two dozen prominent figures on charges of coup-mongering. Among those was former Crown Prince Hamzah, one of King Abdullah II’s half-brothers, who was ordered to stop meeting with opposition-minded tribal communities. Angered by economic hardship and rampant corruption, many of those communities had begun to see him as a better choice for king than Abdullah.

The British imported the Hashemites from the Arabian Peninsula to rule over their invented kingdom in 1921. Though it lacked wealth and prestige, the monarchy maintained domestic stability by patronizing and protecting its tribes, particularly after Jordan absorbed millions of Palestinians after the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. The bargain was austere, but it worked: bread for loyalty. Since Abdullah’s enthronement in 1999, however, tribal Jordanians have seen many jobs and social services vanish. It was this fraying relationship between the monarchy and its tribal base that Hamzah entered.

While some allege a real conspiracy tied to Saudi meddling, most analysts believe that the entire affair was a manufactured crisis designed to distract a public enraged about the ruling monarchy’s worsening mismanagement over the past decade. The pandemic made the already-stagnant economy worse, spiking unemployment from 15 to 25 percent and raising the poverty rate from 16 to a staggering 37 percent. Fruitless promises of democratic reform from Abdullah have led nowhere. With tribal activists regularly criticizing the king—the ultimate act of transgression—the monarchy is responding not with better policies and more transparency, but by doubling down with heightened repression.

But neither stifling dissent nor palace intrigue is the real story. Like all autocracies, Jordan has little tolerance for popular opposition. Moreover, most of the Arab monarchies suffer from dynastic infighting. Saudi Arabia, Morocco, and Bahrain have all seen powerful hard-liners muffle dissident princes over the last decade. Kuwait’s Sabah monarchy has been rocked by coup conspiracies and succession disputes.

What this crisis actually reveals is the painful demise of a U.S. protectorate in the heart of the Middle East. Jordan has become a banana monarchy whose popular legitimacy is in tatters and that survives only through massive infusions of aid and arms from Washington. It has surrendered much of its sovereignty with a new defense treaty—inked in January without the Jordanian public’s knowledge—giving the U.S. military such untrammeled operational rights that the entire kingdom is now cleared to become a giant U.S. base. All this makes the regime inherently unwilling to entertain any domestic reforms without explicit American pressure.


Meanwhile, the United States remains complicit in the economic bungling and political abuses unraveling the country. Abdullah is currently the longest-reigning national leader in the Arab world, and U.S. leaders routinely celebrate his pro-Western monarchy, framing it as an Arab model of reform and moderation. During the recent crisis, the Biden administration reached out to Abdullah to endorse the arrests and confirm his well-being. U.S. President Joe Biden counseled him to “stay strong,” while Secretary of State Antony Blinken trumpeted the U.S.-Jordanian “strategic partnership.”

This is a sad but familiar story. Think of Iran under the shah or non-Middle East cases such as South Vietnam or Honduras under the Somozas. History shows that when sponsoring a client dictatorship becomes a sacred pillar of Washington’s foreign policy, client rulers become extremely dependent upon U.S. support, prioritizing their relationship with Washington over their own people. In Jordan’s case, the government has preserved U.S. dominance in the Middle East and protected Israel while neglecting Jordanians’ own woes. Such rulers surrender to the worst excesses of autocracy, enriching themselves and alienating society. They ignore the warning signs of revolution, believing that Washington will save them. But it never does.

This hegemonic impulse to back banana regimes as they self-destruct is not simply a rehash of the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, the idea that even the most corrupt pro-Western dictatorships are preferable to anti-Western democracies. It stems from a more quotidian reality. Once the United States becomes committed not just to defending a regime but also to running the country itself, it cannot get out. Trapped in the trenches, the United States faces a paradox. Policymakers fear that reducing any part of their support will destabilize their client state, which could not survive without it. The only option is to perpetuate the current system, even though that regime’s own policies are clearly destabilizing it. This is why the Biden administration can recalibrate ties with large and wealthy Saudi Arabia on account of its authoritarian overreach, but it can do nothing in small, poor Jordan.

Jordan’s transformation into a U.S. dependency began during the Cold War. Washington replaced the fading British in the late 1950s as its great protector, a logical move given the need to back anti-Soviet regimes everywhere. Jordan had no oil. However, so long as Jordan endured, it could be a geopolitical firebreak insulating Israel and the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula from the radical forces of communism and Arab nationalism.

After the Cold War, Jordan became more integral by helping to inaugurate Pax Americana in the Middle East. It made peace with Israel, facilitated counterterrorism campaigns, and expedited the invasion of Iraq. It hosted the coalition against the Islamic State and funneled guns for Syrian rebels, albeit not without its own intelligence agents skimming off the top. The recent U.S. defense treaty goes a step further, conscripting the monarchy to help wage future U.S. wars in the region.

Throughout this process, Washington helped build the Jordanian state. Foreign aid was one mechanism. In many years, U.S. economic aid exceeded all domestic tax revenues, the only thing keeping “Fortress Jordan” from collapsing into insolvency. While Jordan today receives support from many donors, including the International Monetary Fund, U.S. economic support remains uniquely fungible: It comes mostly in cash, it is guaranteed, and it now exceeds $1 billion annually.

Likewise, the U.S. Agency for International Development began designing and operating much of Jordan’s physical infrastructure in the 1960s, doing the basic task of governance—providing public goods to society—for the monarchy. When Jordanians get water from the tap, no small feat in the bone-dry country, it is because of USAID. Even the Aqaba Special Economic Zone, a mega-project aimed at turning the Red Sea port city of Aqaba into a regional commercial hub, was funded and designed by U.S. technocrats.

Above all, the coercive institutions bolstering the Jordanian regime became symbiotically attached to America. The General Intelligence Directorate, glorified by Western journalists as an Arab version of Mossad, spends as much time smothering Jordanian dissent as battling terrorism. It owes much of its skills and resources to the CIA. The armed forces soldier on thanks to U.S. training and military aid. Most of its armory—tanks, jets, artillery, guns—is made in the United States.


Jordan is hence exceptional, even among the ranks of Washington’s allies. It is a U.S. satellite, run by a monarchy that knows the most important building in Amman aside from its palace is the U.S. Embassy. Of course, being a U.S. protectorate brings occasional costs. Dependency upon Washington’s goodwill, for instance, gave Abdullah little room to halt the Trump administration’s “deal of the century.” That provocative plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma incensed Abdullah, as it favored Israel’s land claims while sidelining Jordan’s traditional front-line role as mediator to the conflict. However, even during this hiccup, not even the Trump administration questioned the wisdom of keeping Abdullah on the throne.

All this explains why as Jordan’s banana monarchy devolves further, from rounding up its royal kin to suppressing its tribal critics, the U.S. instinct is still to give full-throated support. Washington cannot imagine any other kind of Jordan, because it never had to. It may yet learn the hard way. Not only does history show that American support fails to save authoritarian clients from social upheaval, but the governments that replace them are also often tenaciously anti-American. Iran’s Islamic Republic is a canonical case, one that has haunted U.S. leaders for 40 years. Closer to the United States, Cuba’s regime is the historical result of revolution toppling one of the original banana republics, the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship.

Given the unlikelihood of the United States imposing any pressures for serious reform from a distance, the onus of change rests upon Jordan’s shoulders. The monarchy already knows what not just tribal Jordanians but all citizens crave, because they have been loudly protesting for it since the Arab Spring. They want credible, transparent campaigns to end widespread corruption. They wish to replace wasteful public spending with productive, job-creating programs. They desire less repression and more democracy, a pledge famously made by Abdullah himself in 2011.

But time is running out. The Middle East remains a revolutionary place, as six of its autocratic rulers have lost power to mass uprisings in the last decade. Whether Jordan is next depends upon if the monarchy can fundamentally rethink its approach, rather than fall back upon the United States for affirmation. If it does, the Hashemite Kingdom may actually become the model of reform and moderation that Washington proclaims it is now.

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U.S. Slaps Wide-Ranging Sanctions on Moscow—but Stops Short of Killer Blow

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The Biden administration announced a sweeping package of sanctions on Russia on Thursday, including further restrictions on Moscow’s ability to tap capital markets and fresh designations on companies that support Russian cyberattacks overseas. The new measures, the culmination of a broad review of nefarious Russian activity that U.S. President Joe Biden launched his first day in office, come after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently warned that relations between Moscow and Washington have “hit the bottom.”

In its review, the administration flagged several areas of Russian malfeasance, including interference in U.S. elections, cyberattacks on U.S. federal agencies and corporate entities, and the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexey Navalny, a leading Russian opposition figure, among others. The new measures include the expulsion of 10 diplomats and intelligence officers from the Russian Embassy in Washington and sanctions on six technology companies that provide support to Russia’s foreign intelligence service, which U.S. cybersecurity agencies said on Thursday was behind last year’s SolarWinds hack, a wide-ranging intrusion of at least nine federal agencies and dozens of private sector companies. 

“This is the start of a new U.S. campaign against Russian malign behavior,” U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the Biden administration of trying to destroy relations between the two countries at a briefing on Thursday, according to Ria Novosti, and said Russia was preparing its response. The Kremlin has denied allegations that it was behind SolarWinds or has sought to influence U.S. elections.

The new measures, couched in an expansive executive order that lays the legal groundwork for further sanctions on a wide range of Russian activities, are less than what some in the United States had hoped for (and some in Russia feared) but leave the door open to a sharp increase in U.S. pressure. 

The additional steps to choke off Russia’s ability to raise money were seen as particularly timid. The Biden administration did ban U.S. financial institutions and entities from buying ruble-denominated Russian sovereign debt, which is a step more than the Trump administration took. But it stopped short of closing the taps entirely because it will still allow—for now—U.S. banks to trade in Russian debt in the secondary market, which is what they mostly do already. So the new sanctions are hardly a body blow to the finances of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The vast majority of all dealing is the buying of bonds off of other people,” said Josh Rudolph, an expert on malign finance at the Alliance for Securing Democracy who worked on Russia sanctions at the National Security Council under both Barack Obama and Donald Trump. As implemented, the new sanctions will have “very little practical impact,” he said. Russian markets slumped in anticipation of the announcement but rallied once it became known that the United States had held back from the “nuclear option” of prohibiting all trade in Russian bonds. 

But Thursday’s actions weren’t all theater—and may pose a longer-term threat to Russia if it continues its behavior, thanks to the more expansive sanctions authorities authorized under Biden’s executive order.

“Issuing this new executive order is a really positive step in the administration’s ability to deter future actions,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who served as the deputy national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council until 2018 and briefly served as senior director for Russia and Central Asia on Biden’s National Security Council. “It allows them to very clearly articulate their priorities for Russia and then expands the tools and capabilities that they have to take future actions.”

The announcement included a particular focus on Russian interference in U.S. elections, including sanctions on 32 individuals and entities suspected of involvement in election interference in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. The Treasury Department also made clear that Konstantin Kilimnik—a known Russian intelligence officer who worked closely with Paul Manafort when the latter was chairman of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign—had shared sensitive information on polling data and campaign strategy that he received from Manafort with Russian spies. Previous U.S. inquiries, including the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller, hadn’t explicitly connected those dots.

The new measures also shed further light on Russia’s overseas intelligence activity, including its network of websites and foundations that, according to the Treasury Department, are controlled by Russian security services and are used to spread false information. “It’s like information to fight disinformation,” Rudolph said. Individuals and entities associated with Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is reported to have bankrolled Russian election interference and mercenary activity in dozens of countries, were also hit with further sanctions. 

Notably absent from the measures unveiled on Thursday was any concrete response to allegations that Russian intelligence officials paid bounties to militants in Afghanistan to target U.S. forces. On a call with reporters, a senior Biden administration official appeared to walk back the reports, which sparked an outcry when they first emerged last year during the Trump administration. “The United States intelligence community assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks on U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019 and perhaps earlier,” the senior official said.

Thursday’s response also did not include any further sanctions against the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, which the United States and allies in Eastern Europe fear would give the Kremlin further leverage over European energy supplies. The executive order did lay the groundwork for future penalties if Russia deliberately disrupts energy supplies to Europe, the Caucasus, or Asia. 

Biden told Putin of the coming sanctions in their call on Tuesday, the senior administration official said. According to a readout of the call, Biden and Putin discussed the need to hold further discussions on arms control. Biden proposed the two leaders hold a summit in a third country in coming months and emphasized the United States’ commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, as Russian troops have been massing close to the country’s border. 

The “Biden administration has framed the U.S.-Russia relationship with some skill: leaving room for cooperation and even a meeting with Putin. But on our terms: pushing back rather than reaching for vacuous progress,” said Daniel Fried, a retired career diplomat who previously served as the State Department’s coordinator for sanctions policy. “But Putin isn’t done with his aggression abroad or repression at home. So these sanctions won’t be the last.”

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U.S. Bucks Won’t Stop Here in Afghanistan

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. Whew, what a week: U.S. troop withdrawals, NATO visits, and sanctions on Russia. Who’s ready for a quiet weekend with some maple taffy on a stick?

The highlights this week: The Biden administration pledges to keep up U.S. aid to Afghanistan, the White House unveils a bevy of top diplomats, and top U.S. spooks pay a visit to Congress. 

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Troops Are Leaving, But U.S. Taxpayer Dollars Aren’t Going Anywhere

As quick as the Biden administration was this week to announce the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, it was just as quick to insist the power of the U.S. taxpayer dollar wasn’t going anywhere.

“While we will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in a speech on Wednesday announcing his decision. 

Lawmakers, who hold the proverbial power of the purse, agreed. “We need to be able to continue to up some of our assistance to the Afghan government,” Rep. Andy Kim, a New Jersey Democrat who sits on both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and House Armed Services Committee, told Security Brief. “The Afghan government is very much dependent and reliant on our support, on the support of other coalition partners, and that does need to continue.”

Kim, who was formerly a U.S. diplomat posted to Afghanistan and a National Security Council staffer before running for Congress, said providing development and security assistance to the Afghan government will help prevent terrorist groups from gaining enough strength to pose a threat to the United States.

But what good does that money do? The United States has spent an estimated $143 billion in overall development and aid projects in Afghanistan over the course of two decades, including security assistance, governance, and humanitarian aid projects. By many standards, Afghanistan has made considerable strides since then, such as in education, women’s rights, cutting infant mortality, and other crucial metrics of development and welfare. But all that progress was made in a protective sphere of (relative) stability backstopped by U.S. and NATO troops. 

Even then, a lot of that money hasn’t been exactly well spent, as many multimillion-dollar programs are full of mismanagement, fraud, or corruption. (In 2016, for example, a government watchdog found the United States squandered nearly half a billion dollars on Afghan mining projects alone.)

Dollars on the ground replace boots on the ground. This raises the question: After U.S. troops leave, can all those aid and development programs safely continue—and with adequate oversight? In other words, can money make up for the absence of troops? Some experts believe it’s a risky gamble for the United States to make. 

Richard Fontaine, head of the Center for a New American Security, brought up another good point on Twitter: If the United States is tired of having boots on the ground in Afghanistan, how long before Congress tires of pouring billions of dollars worth of foreign aid into Afghanistan?

“Continued financial support to the Afghan security forces will be critical after a U.S. withdrawal. History suggests, however, that Congress may well tire of writing billions of dollars in checks to a foreign military without U.S. troops in the field,” Fontaine tweeted.


Who Is Joining Team Biden Next?

The White House sent a slew of nominees for senior national security and diplomatic posts to the Senate this week. We’ve tracked them all here:

State gets a new deputy. On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed Wendy Sherman to be deputy secretary of state by a vote of 56-42. Politico’s Nahal Toosi reported Biden is also moving quickly on leaders at the State Department’s regional and functional bureaus, tapping Marcia Bernicat as director-general of the U.S. foreign service, Molly Phee to be assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Karen Donfried to be assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and Barbara Leaf to the agency’s top Middle East job (previously reported by Foreign Policy).

The picks could come as soon as today, along with new leaders for diplomatic security, international organizations, and conflict and stabilization.

Cracks in the Pentagon’s glass ceiling. Biden tapped Christine Wormuth, the former top Defense Department policy official in the Obama administration, to serve as secretary of the Army this week. Wormuth, who led Biden’s Pentagon transition team after Kathleen Hicks was tapped as deputy secretary of defense, would be the first woman to hold the role, which requires a Senate confirmation. Biden has also nominated Susanna Blume to lead the Defense Department’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, a title she was holding on an acting basis. 

Elsewhere in NatSec land. Meanwhile, Jill Hruby, an experienced engineer, is Biden’s pick to lead the National Nuclear Security Administration within the Energy Department, which oversees the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. Christine Abizaid, who was a top Pentagon official for Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Obama administration, is Biden’s choice to lead the National Counterterrorism Center. She’s also the daughter of John Abizaid, a retired Army general who served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia under Trump. 

Kahl me maybe. More trouble ahead for Colin Kahl, Biden’s pick to become the Pentagon’s policy chief. Some 18 Republican senators, including the GOP leader on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jim Inhofe, sent a letter to FBI leadership this week asking if the former Biden aide revealed classified info in past tweets. Kahl made it through committee on a tied vote last month and is awaiting a floor vote on confirmation. 

DHS moves. This week, Biden nominated John Tien to be deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security; Jen Easterly to be director of DHS’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency; Ur Jaddou to head Citizenship and Immigration Services; Chris Magnus to be commissioner of Customs and Border Protection; Jonathan Meyer to be DHS general counsel; and Robert Silvers to be undersecretary for strategy, policy, and plans. 


The Week Ahead

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is set to visit the White House on April 16. 

The European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council meets on April 19 to discuss Ukraine and Ethiopia

U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Frank McKenzie Jr. is set to testify in the House of Representatives on April 20.


What We’re Following

Global threats. Dust off your bingo cards, national security wonks. For the first time in two years, Congress is holding global threats briefings this week, an unclassified assessment of the top U.S. national security threats from all of the intelligence chiefs, and there’s no surprise what’s top of mind for the United States’ leading spooks: China.

Speaking before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence yesterday, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines called China an “unparalleled priority” and highlighted Beijing’s cyberthreats as having the potential to disrupt U.S. critical infrastructure. 


Leaders of the U.S. intelligence community testify before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Leaders of the U.S. intelligence community testify before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and other leaders of the U.S. intelligence community testify before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence at the Capitol in Washington on April 15.Tasos Katopodis-Pool/Getty Images

Bounties busted. Speaking of intelligence assessments, remember last summer’s big story that the Russian government paid bounties to the Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan? The U.S. intelligence community isn’t so sure about it, and the Biden administration expressed little confidence in the narrative in a statement today.

“The United States intelligence community assesses with low to moderate confidence that Russian intelligence officers sought to encourage Taliban attacks [on] U.S. and coalition personnel in Afghanistan in 2019 and perhaps earlier,” a senior administration official said.

Taiwant more. The Biden administration is calling on Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to sign onto a joint statement of support for Taiwan during a visit to the White House on Friday, the Financial Times reported, after Chinese aerial incursions over the island increased in recent days.

It would send another high-level message to Beijing after U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” in a joint statement with their Japanese counterparts during a visit to Tokyo last month. 


Infrastructure Week. While the Biden administration has been busy with foreign policy, the White House has also come under fire from congressional Republicans for broadly defining the term “infrastructure” in a $2.3 trillion plan being debated on Capitol Hill. 

What counts as infrastructure in foreign policy and national security? We want to publish your thoughts in next week’s Security Brief! Be as creative as possible, please. 

And a belated congratulations to Joseph Ledford, who correctly named the team of former NBA stars that former Chicago Bulls great Dennis Rodman brought to North Korea for an exhibition game to mark North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s 30th birthday: Kenny Anderson, Cliff Robinson, Vin Baker, Craig Hodges, Doug Christie, and Charles Smith.


Quote of the Week

“If we instead pursue the approach where … U.S. exit is tied to conditions on the ground, we have to have clear answers to the following questions: Just what conditions be required to allow us to depart? By what means, and how long would it take to achieve them—if they could be achieved at all? And at what additional cost in lives and treasure?

I’m not hearing any good answers to these questions. And if you can’t answer them, in my view, we should not stay.”

—President Joe Biden, justifying his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.


What We’re Reading

War games. The U.S. Air Force could stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the service learned in a classified war game late last year—but not with today’s gadgets. Commanders in the game, reported by Defense News, needed a sixth-generation fighter jet, cargo planes able to drop guided bombs, and drones as a sensing grid to stop China—a possible preview of what the service might be asking for in future budget requests from Congress. 

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Biden to Announce Nominees for Key Diplomatic Posts

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After nearly three months in office, U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to announce a raft of nominees for ambassador posts and other senior State Department positions, Foreign Policy has learned, as part of the administration’s goal of rebuilding the State Department.

The nominees include ambassadors to African and Asian countries as well as top State Department posts based in Washington to oversee the administration’s diplomatic affairs with Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and international organizations. 

Some current and former officials have criticized the Biden administration for waiting so long to announce nominations for senior posts and ambassador positions, noting that about half of all U.S. ambassador posts worldwide are currently unfilled. This is significant as the Biden administration needs to quickly staff up to grapple with the country’s top foreign-policy challenges, from China to Iran to climate change. The Biden administration has only nominated and confirmed one ambassador position: Linda Thomas-Greenfield, ambassador to the United Nations. Biden has yet to name nominees for other critical posts, such as U.S. ambassadors to NATO, the European Union, China, Japan, South Korea, or Germany.

Biden officials say they are still contending with bureaucratic hurdles and bottlenecks left behind by former U.S. President Donald Trump, including his refusal to acknowledge the election results that set back the timeline for when Biden could pick and vet nominees. They also say stringent background checks for potential nominees’ security clearances have delayed the process. 

Most of the new nominees are career foreign service officers, following Biden’s and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s pledges to restore morale at the State Department and empower career diplomats following the Trump era, in which big donors dominated plum positions. Other nominees are retired diplomats and long-time foreign-policy experts who have close ties to Biden’s foreign-policy circles. Some of the names were first reported by Politico

Biden officials say they have worked to ensure a diverse array of nominees for senior roles at the State Department as the department grapples with systemic failures regarding diversity and inclusion. A National Security Council spokesperson said successive nominations will include “many more” career foreign service officers.

Karen Donfried, currently head of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, will be nominated as Biden’s assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, and Barbara Leaf, a former senior career diplomat serving on Biden’s National Security Council team, will be nominated as the top envoy for the Middle East as the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. 

Other nominees for top posts in Washington include Marcia Bernicat to be director-general of the Foreign Service, Mary “Molly” Phee to be assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Michele Sison to be assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs, Gentry Smith to be assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, and Anne Witkowsky to be assistant secretary of state for conflict and stabilization operations.

Historically, most presidents tap campaign donors to be ambassadors to higher-profile posts in places like Western Europe or the Caribbean. Trump appointed more political appointees and campaign donors than his predecessors, adding to the perception that he distrusted the diplomatic corps. Nearly 44 percent of U.S. ambassadors nominated by Trump were political appointees, according to a tally from the American Foreign Service Association, far higher than the historical average of around 30 percent. 

But Biden has faced concerted pressure from within his own party to name more ambassadors without campaign ties. During the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, Sen. Elizabeth Warren pledged not to nominate wealthy campaign donors as ambassadors—a pledge Biden did not opt to match. Biden insisted at the time all of his appointments would be qualified for the job.

Thursday’s nominations appear to be a step toward filling out envoy posts with experienced foreign service officers, many of whom served in high-level career posts during the Trump years—though all are in embassies historically led by career diplomats.

According to official documents provided to Foreign Policy, Biden will nominate Larry Edward André Jr. to serve as U.S. ambassador to Somalia, Elizabeth Moore Aubin to Algeria, Christopher John Lamora to Cameroon; Tulinabo Mushingi to Angola and Sao Tome and Principe, Michael Raynor to Senegal and Guinea-Bissau; Eugene Young to the Republic of the Congo, and Maria Brewer to Lesotho. 

The White House is also expected to nominate Marc Knapper, currently a deputy assistant secretary of state for Korea and Japan, to be U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, and Steven Bondy to be ambassador to Bahrain. 

The problem the Biden administration faces is two-fold: pressure to reverse the pay-to-play dynamic of the Trump administration and others in the past while quickly getting qualified people in key countries. Brett Bruen, a former foreign service officer, said Biden should buck the trend of tapping diplomatic amateurs who are campaign donors to be ambassadors in places like Western Europe, particularly as the United States looks to compete with China diplomatically on the world stage. “That needs to stop. They need to start treating European and NATO allies as they are serious relationships that require serious, experienced [ambassador] nominees,” he said. 

A senior Republican lawmaker said at the current rate, some key ambassador posts could sit vacant through the end of the year. Two U.S. diplomats concurred, saying they expected some could take even longer to fill given the lengthy nomination vetting and confirmation processes. 

“The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has helped expedite a number of important nominees, but we can’t do our job if the president doesn’t send us names and files,” said Sen. James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. “At this rate, it’s hard to imagine we will have ambassadors at key posts until much later this year.” 

“This administration has repeatedly said the cornerstone of its foreign-policy agenda is to rebuild alliances and partnerships across the globe, yet around half of the ambassador roles remain vacant,” he added.

“The message to the White House is you need to speed this thing up,” Bruen said. “And the fastest and best way to move is to go with those [career diplomats] who have already been extensively vetted, who have the knowledge to move quickly through the confirmation process.”

While experienced career diplomats fill in for missing ambassadors, in a lot of places that doesn’t work for long, redoubling the urgency of filling those posts. 

“It’s not great for American interests,” a senior U.S diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “If you don’t have an ambassador in place, sometimes you’re just completely frozen out.” 

Previously, the idiosyncratic U.S. process for choosing ambassadors got a pass from allies and adversaries. “If this were four or eight years ago, what I would have said to you is ‘the rest of the world is used to this about us,’” said Heather Hurlburt, a national security expert at the New America think tank. “But the thing we have to realize is that increasingly, the world looks at this and sees it as another sign of our political dysfunction. Whatever level you buy into great-power competition rhetoric, it is very difficult to argue that the U.S. is so well positioned and so unilaterally powerful that we can afford not to care.”

Another senior lawmaker who oversees the confirmation process said he is committed to getting State Department posts filled as quickly as possible, particularly since many ambassador posts sat vacant for months or even years under the Trump administration. 

“Since the Trump administration refused to recognize the importance of having the United States’ interests represented and articulated around the world, I am more committed than ever to making sure the Senate Foreign Relations Committee does its part in vetting and considering nominees as expeditiously as possible,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, chairperson of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. “It is hard to overstate the importance of making sure the State Department and our embassies are fully staffed and led by the right people.”