Feb 13, 2020

Axios World

By Dave Lawler
Dave Lawler

Happy Thursday World readers, and welcome back for a 1,797 word (7-minute) tour of this week's big global stories.

  • Please tell anyone who might enjoy this newsletter to sign up, and send tips and feedback to lawler@axios.com.
1 big thing: Getting out of Afghanistan

On patrol in Paktika province in 2009. Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images

President Trump says he's "very close" to a deal that will begin the end of America's war in Afghanistan.

Why it matters: There’s a reason the U.S. has been stuck in Afghanistan for nearly two decades. Pulling out would leave the precarious structure it's attempted to build in danger of collapse.

What they’re saying:

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said there has been a "breakthrough" after a year of negotiations with the Taliban.
  • Trump said, "We’re going to know over the next two weeks."
  • National security adviser Robert O'Brien said he's "cautiously optimistic" an announcement is forthcoming. Trump's position is clear, O'Brien said: "It's time for America to come home."

Between the lines: Trump is not the first American president to hold that position.

  • "President Bush wanted out, President Obama wanted out, President Trump wants out," says Michael Morell, who held top roles at the CIA under both Bush and Obama. "Nobody can see a path to this ending, and the American people are getting tired of it."
  • "What’s held them back is a belief that once we leave, the Taliban’s going to take over ... and offer al-Qaeda safe haven again."
  • "That is a risk that President Bush wasn’t willing to take, President Obama wasn’t willing to take, and President Trump earlier in his term wasn’t willing to take," says Morell, who hosts the Intelligence Matters podcast.

State of play: Defense Secretary Mark Esper said today that the U.S. and Taliban had “negotiated a proposal for a seven-day reduction in violence."

  • The conditions are vague. If the administration deems they’ve been met, it could sign a deal with the Taliban.
  • The U.S. would then withdraw some troops and the Taliban would enter negotiations with the Afghan government about the country's political future.
  • Esper indicated the U.S. was prepared to reduce its troop count to 8,600 from around 12,000. After that, the process would be "conditions-based."

Between the lines: Obama pledged a "conditions-based" withdrawal at the outset of his presidency. The conditions were never ripe. They're unlikely to be for years to come.

  • "You’re never going to be able to get the Afghan government to a place where they’re going to be able to hold this together themselves," Morell says.
  • "We could stay another 20 years and we wouldn’t be able to train them and reduce the corruption to the point where they could survive on their own."
  • Morell says if the U.S. were to withdraw not only troops but financial assistance, “the government would collapse in a matter of weeks.”

What to watch: For now, Trump may be satisfied with a partial deal and a partial troop reduction. Ultimately, he clearly wants out. So do all of the leading 2020 Democrats.

  • There’s no political will to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely, and leaving will never not be risky.

The bottom line: The administration is quite reasonably searching for a way to “leave with our head held high,” Morell says.

  • “But we should not in any way delude ourselves into believing that a deal between us and that Taliban that results in our withdrawal will somehow end the bloodshed in Afghanistan. It won’t.”
2. Europe: Merkel needs a new heir

On to the next one. Merkel (R) with Kramp-Karrenbauer. Photo: Gregor Fischer/picture alliance via Getty Images

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation as chair of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was abrupt, but her fall as Angela Merkel’s heir apparent was inevitable, Sudha David-Wilp of the German Marshall Fund writes for Axios:

Why it matters: The CDU has been longing for a different chancellor candidate throughout the short and bumpy tenure of Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK, because of her blunders and the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). Now it can cut its losses and prepare for the 2021 election. 

Driving the news: AKK couldn’t seem to control CDU lawmakers in the former East German state of Thuringia, who broke a taboo by cooperating with the AfD to form a government.

  • Merkel stepped in to block the pact, undermining AKK’s role as party leader.
  • AKK couldn't escape Merkel's shadow. Even after 14 years as chancellor, Merkel is Germany's most popular politician. AKK is nowhere close.

The big picture: The center-right CDU has been losing votes on the right to the AfD and on the left to the Greens.

  • Some conservatives are relieved to have an opportunity to pick a leader who can fend off the AfD, which is now the largest opposition party in parliament.
  • But tacking right to defeat the CDU would mean abandoning Merkel’s centrist course.
  • The left of the German political spectrum is just as fragmented. With six parties on the ballot in 2021, it will be a challenge to build a viable governing coalition.

What to watch: Europe's biggest economic power will be preoccupied with domestic politics until it determines who will follow Merkel as chancellor.

  • That could be answered sooner rather than later. The next CDU chair might consider AKK’s experience and judge that the party can’t afford to have both a chancellor and a chancellor-in-waiting.
3. Africa: Sudan seeks to shed its recent history

Celebrations in Khartoum last December marking the one-year anniversary of the uprising. Photo: Ashraf Shazly/AFP via Getty Images

Sudan's transitional government has reached an agreement to compensate the families of victims of the 2000 U.S.S. Cole attack, which killed 17 sailors and injured 39, it said today.

Why it matters: This is part of an effort to get off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Sudan previously harbored al-Qaeda, which carried out the attack. The designation carries restrictions on foreign assistance and financial transactions that have strangled Sudan's economy.

The big picture: This is only one of several steps to clean up Sudan's international image taken by the joint military-civilian government that replaced brutal dictator Omar al-Bashir last year.

  • The most high-profile act was the announcement this week that Bashir will go before the International Criminal Court to face charges for war crimes and genocide in Darfur.
    • It's not yet clear where (or whether) a trial will take place.
  • Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok also made a historic visit to the Nuba Mountains, a rebel stronghold, and opened the isolated region to foreign aid.
  • Meanwhile, the leader of Sudan's governing council, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, held a landmark meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after decades of hostile relations.

What to watch: Sudan's economy is in shambles and its transition to democracy is far from certain. The delicate power-sharing deal with the generals is slated to continue until elections in late 2022.

  • "[W]ithout outside help, including financial, the risk is that its democratic experiment will slip backwards," David Pilling writes in the FT. "Without it, the path of Egypt or Myanmar beckons."
  • "In the age of President Donald Trump, it has no obvious champion in Washington. Nor do Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states currently propping up Sudan have much interest in seeing a vibrant democracy take hold."
Bonus: Hong Kong's uprising is on hold

Speaking of major 2019 uprisings...

Trust in Hong Kong's local government fell from 54% in 2017 to 30% last year, while trust in police fell from 80% to 43%, according to Gallup.

  • Trust in the judiciary (75% to 52%) and the honesty of elections (50% to 39%) also fell sharply.
  • The latest: Protests that had already slowed in recent weeks ground to a halt due to the coronavirus, per AP.
4. World news roundup
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Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

1. The UN is urgently seeking $76 million to help control massive locust swarms in East Africa

  • "A major humanitarian crisis looms. Locusts can decimate cropland, crippling farms and leaving markets empty and livestock with nothing to eat. Around 19 million people already face high levels of food insecurity in East Africa," per the Washington Post.
  • “In our culture, we celebrate the locusts because their arrival means rain,” said Haphi Elema, a farmer and rancher in southern Ethi­o­pia. “But we know that if they stay longer than the rain, then they will eat everything and we will starve.”

2. The Senate voted 55-45 today to curb Trump's ability to launch military action against Iran without congressional authorization.

  • Trump has said he'll veto the war powers resolution if it reaches his desk.

3. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ripped up a military pact with the U.S. that allowed American troops to train there.

  • Duterte blamed a U.S. decision to bar the man who led his war on drugs from entering the country.
  • It could also be a signal he'd rather ally with China.

4. The Italian senate cleared the way for far-right leader Matteo Salvini to face trial for allegedly kidnapping 116 migrants by refusing to allow them to dock in Sicily last summer, when he was interior minister.

  • Salvini could face 15 years in prison if convicted, but a trial could take years. He has compared his situation to Trump's impeachment.
5. Exclusive: FBI task force targets Chinese meddling

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

In May 2019, the FBI's Foreign Influence Task Force quietly added a unit aimed at countering China's political influence in the United States.

In an exclusive interview with Axios' Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, an FBI official reveals for the first time the bureau's approach to countering China's interference in local and state politics:

"This is ultimately a potential systemic challenge to the world order that we've had for the past several decades."
— FBI official

The big picture: There is a growing body of evidence that China devotes massive resources to influencing the political environments of foreign countries, including the United States.

  • Unlike Russia, the Chinese Communist Party focuses on cultivating long-term relationships and using economic levers to coerce people into compliance, rather than targeting a specific election event.
  • “For a long time we focused on the federal level, but we really have come to understand that the Chinese are playing a long game with the political influence in this country," the FBI official said. "So we have spent a lot more time and energy trying to understand the state and local people-to-people influences going on."

Go deeper:

If you do one thing... Sign up for Axios China. It's really, really good.

Data du jour: Global CO2 emissions flat in 2019
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Reproduced from IEA; Chart: Axios Visuals

Go deeper

6. What I'm reading: A spy story for the ages

Some 120 countries around the world relied on the same firm, Crypto AG, for decades to keep their most sensitive communications secure.

  • The CIA owned Crypto AG, in partnership with West German intelligence. And they were listening.

The Washington Post's Greg Miller broke that remarkable story, in a joint reporting project with Germany's ZDF, after examining a classified CIA history of the program.

  • The program not only allowed the CIA to monitor Iran's leaders during the 1979 hostage crisis and Argentinian commanders during the Falklands War with the U.K., it also netted the agency millions of dollars.
  • Crypto employees didn't know they were working for the CIA. Major customers included Saudi Arabia, Iran, Italy, Indonesia, Iraq, Libya, Jordan and South Korea, as of 1981.
  • The West Germans were deeply uncomfortable with the CIA's desire to spy on nearly everyone, including allies. They walked away in the 1990s. The CIA didn't until 2018.
  • All of this gives texture to American concerns about firms like China's Huawei or Russia's Kaspersky.
  • Read the full story.

Go deeper: Axios' Dan Primack spoke with Miller on his Pro Rata podcast. Listen.

7. Stories we're watching

Nothing to see here: a slum in Ahmedabad. Photo: Raquel Maria Carbonell Pagola/LightRocket via Getty

  1. India building a wall to block a slum during Trump's visit
  2. Senators concerned India's "secular character" is under threat
  3. White House blocks Palestinians at UN
  4. "Tectonic shift" in supply chains underway
  5. Huawei equipment has secret "back doors," U.S. officials claim
  6. Ebola cases drop, emergency label sticks
  7. O'Brien says decision to remove Vindman was his, not Trump's


"I can absolutely tell you they were not retaliated against."
— National security Adviser Robert O'Brien on the removal of the Vindman brothers from the National Security Council. He claimed Trump didn't ask him to fire them, and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman was not punished for his impeachment testimony.
Dave Lawler