With help from Nahal Toosi, Bryan Bender, Lawrence Ukenye and Daniel Lippman
A consequence of killing al Qaeda leader AYMAN AL-ZAWAHRI in Kabul is that the Biden administration may not soon return the $3.5 billion it took from the Afghan people.
In February, President JOE BIDEN blocked those U.S.-based funds, owned by Afghanistan’s Central Bank, from falling into the hands of the Taliban and other “malicious actors.” Once the U.S. could assure the money would be used to better the lives of millions of Afghans, and another $3.5 billion could potentially be paid to the families of 9/11 victims, that money would flow back to the Central Bank to bolster Afghanistan’s failing economy.
A senior U.S. delegation of State and Treasury department officials met last week with Taliban representatives in Uzbekistan to discuss ways to unfreeze the funds. Both sides remained far apart on their proposals, experts said, though the American delegation “underscored the need to accelerate the work on these efforts,” per a readout.
Now that it’s known the house where Zawahri died belonged to an aide to senior Taliban leader SIRAJUDDIN HAQQANI — showing there are clear ties between the Taliban and al Qaeda — the calls for a slowdown will only grow.
“The U.S. should suspend its dialogue with the Taliban and ensure no U.S. assistance gets anywhere near the Taliban leadership,” said LISA CURTIS, who served as the NSC’s top South Asia official during the Trump administration. Curtis suggested the money instead reach the Afghan people via a United Nations or World Bank delivery mechanism.
The Doha Agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, brokered by the Trump administration and adhered to by Biden’s team, stated that the militants would “prevent any international terrorist groups or individuals, including al-Qa’ida and ISIS-K, from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States, its allies and other countries.”
Well, harboring Zawahri in the Afghan capital is precisely the opposite of what the Taliban promised to do.
“By hosting and sheltering the leader of al Qaeda in Kabul, the Taliban grossly violated the Doha Agreement and repeated assurances to the world that they would not allow Afghan territory to be used by terrorists to threaten the security of other countries,” Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN said in a statement.
Clearly, there’s both elation at getting al Qaeda’s leader and anger about where they had to kill him. “The U.S.-Taliban relationship is likely heading into a frosty phase,” JONATHAN SCHRODEN, director of the CNA think tank’s Countering Threats and Challenges Program, told NatSec Daily.
Your host asked the National Security Council and State Department if Zawahri’s location meant an end to U.S.-Taliban negotiations over the money, or if the administration planned to hold on to the $3.5 billion for the foreseeable future. State declined to comment, and we didn’t hear back from the NSC before we hit “send” on this newsletter.
The politics, though, are clearly against reaching any kind of deal in the near future. That does keep a ton of cash out of the Taliban’s hands, but also harms Afghanistan’s most vulnerable as the country’s economy continues to crumble.
“The needs of the Afghan people remain the same or might even be growing,” said ASFANDYAR MIR, a senior expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “It is more important than ever for the administration to determine some real coercive leverage against the Taliban without making the life of ordinary Afghans more difficult.”
DID BIDEN STOP XI FROM HELPING RUSSIA?: There’s a monumental detail nestled in THOMAS FRIEDMAN’s New York Times Monday evening op-ed in which he rails against Speaker NANCY PELOSI’s visit to Taiwan.
Biden “personally told President XI JINPING that if China entered the war in Ukraine on Russia’s side, Beijing would be risking access to its two most important export markets — the United States and the European Union,” he wrote. “By all indications, U.S. officials tell me, China has responded by not providing military aid to [Russian President VLADIMIR] PUTIN — at a time when the U.S. and NATO have been giving Ukraine intelligence support and a significant number of advanced weapons that have done serious damage to the military of Russia, China’s ostensible ally.”
If true — NatSec Daily couldn’t confirm it before publication — it amounts to a remarkable achievement by the American president. He successfully deterred China from materially aiding Russia’s war on Ukraine, at least for now, halting a broader great-power stand-off in Eastern Europe. It’s also interesting that Biden would risk Western trade with China because of the Ukraine war.
There are other tidbits thrown in the remarkable op-ed, like how there’s “deep mistrust” between the White House and Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY and that “Putin is quite prepared to consider using a small nuclear weapon against Ukraine if he sees his army facing certain defeat.” Those aren’t small news items, (again) if true, but Biden possibly stopping China from entering the Ukraine fray would prove one of his biggest foreign policy successes.
PELOSI LANDS IN TAIWAN: It happened: Pelosi touched down in Taiwan amid warnings from China that her visit would trigger a swift retaliation. Video captured her walking off an official U.S. government plane around 10:55 p.m. local time in Taipei.
The congressional delegation she leads released a statement moments after their arrival.
“Our Congressional delegation’s visit to Taiwan honors America’s unwavering commitment to supporting Taiwan’s vibrant Democracy,” the statement reads. “America’s solidarity with the 23 million people of Taiwan is more important today than ever, as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy.” It also said the visit “in no way contradicts longstanding United States policy, guided by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979, U.S.-China Joint Communiques and the Six Assurances. The United States continues to oppose unilateral efforts to change the status quo.”
China, you’ll be shocked to read, is unhappy with Pelosi’s arrival. “China firmly opposes and sternly condemns this, and has made serious démarche and strong protest to the United States,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Chinese fighter jets buzzed the median line that divides the Taiwan Strait, though no Su-35 crossed it. The People’s Liberation Army is also planning six live-fire exercises off the coast of Taiwan, including in its sovereign waters.
Demonstrators, both for and against Pelosi et al.’s visit, perched outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Taipei, lining both sides of the street. The famous Taiwan 101 tower lit up with welcome messages for Pelosi.
Pelosi will meet with Taiwanese President TSAI ING-WEN on Wednesday, and it’s possible she will chat with other local officials and civil society groups before she departs.
BRUNO: THE NEED FOR SPACE DETERRENCE: The CEO of one of America’s most important space-launch companies says there’s a need for a clear deterrence strategy to fend off growing threats in the cosmos.
In an interview with NatSec Daily, coming after he penned an op-ed on the issue for Space News, United Launch Alliance chief TORY BRUNO said “our assets are pretty defenseless on an orbit,” noting that those in low-earth orbit are easier to hit than those further away from Earth. Speaking especially of the threats posed from Russia and China, he added: “They know that we have targets in every orbital regime.”
Asked if he worried about a major attack on U.S. assets in space during his lifetime, Bruno responded: “Only if deterrence fails.”
It’s not all hopeless: “We have strategies, some of which I can’t talk about, that make those assets less vulnerable, and for attacks to become more attributable, that are being worked on right now,” Bruno said. Having the Space Force dedicated to this problem is good, the CEO noted, because now there’s a military force that isn’t distracted with other important missions. But what Bruno encourages both the public and private sector to figure out is the “how to” of deterrence in space.
“If we want to keep the peace here on Earth, we absolutely have to keep the peace in space first,” he concluded.
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RUSSIA SAYS U.S. ‘DIRECTLY INVOLVED’ IN UKRAINE: Russia’s Defense Ministry on Tuesday claimed America’s ability to provide real-time intelligence to Ukrainian soldiers using American-provided HIMARS to kill Russian troops means the U.S. is a warring party, Reuters reported.
“All this undeniably proves that Washington, contrary to White House and Pentagon claims, is directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine,” said the ministry in a statement.
The statement comes a day after the Pentagon announced an additional $550 million in aid to Ukraine, which includes additional munition for HIMARS. Russian officials have previously asserted that NATO is waging a proxy war in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Tuesday announced that it sanctioned three oligarchs and 893 Russian Federation officials, among other targets.
CYBERATTACK ON TAIWAN PRESIDENT SITE: The website of Taiwan’s presidential office went dark Tuesday due to an alleged distributed denial-of-service attack, with other government websites also impacted, our own MAGGIE MILLER reported.
The attack took place hours ahead of Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, and the Chinese government threatened to take action to respond to the trip. Taiwan Presidential Office spokesperson CHANG TUN-HAN confirmed the DDoS attack on the office in a post on Facebook, noting that it consisted of 200 times more traffic to the website than normal, and it was carried out by a group from outside Taiwan.
NBC News reported that other Taiwanese government sites were also down ahead of Pelosi’s visit, including the Ministry of National Defense, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the website of Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, where Pelosi’s plane landed.
L3HARRIS CHOSEN FOR ARMED OVERWATCH: U.S. Special Operations Command chose the AT-802U Sky Warden made by L3Harris Technologies and Air Tractor for the Armed Overwatch program.
“The indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract will be worth up to $3 billion, L3Harris said in a release Monday. The initial program contract award is for $170 million,” Defense News’ STEPHEN LOSEY reported. “Initial production of the Sky Warden will take place at Air Tractor’s facility in Olney. L3Harris will then modify those planes into the Armed Overwatch mission configuration at its Tulsa, Oklahoma modification center, beginning in 2023. L3Harris said work will also take place at its other sites in Greenville, Rockwall and Waco, Texas and Nashville, Tennessee.”
“SOCOM is planning for the single-engine Sky Warden, as AFSOC’s Armed Overwatch plane, to be able to provide close air support, precision strike and armed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for counterterrorism operations and irregular warfare,” Losey added.
RISCH WANTS NATO ACCESSION VOTE: Sen. JIM RISCH (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is calling on his colleagues to vote soon on approving Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO.
“It’s imperative the Senate holds a vote on #Finland’s & #Sweden’s accession to @NATO this week. With 2/3 of #NATO members already having ratified, the U.S. is playing catch up. The U.S. must show leadership and move quickly to strengthen NATO with these new members,” he tweeted.
Officials in Helsinki and Stockholm have told NatSec Daily they expect all 30 NATO members to greenlight their country’s accession by the end of the year. When the U.S. will be one of the 30 remains an open question: The Senate goes on recess next week but still has the PACT Act and Inflation Reduction Act to vote on. However, Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER indicated the accession may get a vote as soon as Wednesday.
‘THERE ISN’T ANYTHING TO UNDERSTAND’: Your host became a reporter because he’s bad at math and his eyes glaze over when it comes to budgets. Which is why when Sen. PAT TOOMEY (R-Penn.) said he opposed legislation to provide relief to veterans suffering from the effects of burn-pits over a budget “gimmick,” your host didn’t know what to make of it.
So NatSec Daily called Rep. JIM HIMES (D-Conn.), a member of the House Financial Services Committee, who has relentlessly bashed Republicans over their flip-flop on the bill. I asked him to walk me through Toomey’s budget complaints like I’m five years old, but there was a problem with that request, he said.
“There isn’t anything to understand,” he said. The PACT Act is an authorization bill, Himes stated, and no funds can be spent unless they’re greenlit by appropriators. There’s nothing in the legislation that circumvents that process or, as Toomey says, sneaks in $400 billion in unrelated spending.
“I can’t do what you’re asking me to do because I can’t figure out what the hell Toomey is referring to,” Himes concluded.
He has no inside information, but Himes suggested 25 Republicans switched their vote in retaliation for Schumer and Sen. JOE MANCHIN (D-W.Va.) agreeing on a large bill. “The pattern here looks really ugly,” Himes said.
It looks like the bill will once again come up for a vote this week, and it’s expected to pass after Republicans took a beating for their no vote last time.
— Lt. Gen. MICHAEL LANGLEY was confirmed by the Senate to lead U.S. Africa Command, becoming the first Black four-star general in Marine Corps history.
— Lt. Gen. BRYAN FENTON was confirmed by the Senate to head U.S. Special Operations Command. He is succeeding retiring Army Gen. RICHARD CLARKE.
—NADINE NALLY is now cyber adviser to the director of net assessment at the Defense Department. Nally, an Army officer, most recently was director for defense innovation and cyber policy at the National Security Council.
— NANCY PELOSI, The Washington Post: “Why I’m leading a congressional delegation to Taiwan”
— DANIEL BYMAN, Foreign Policy: “Ayman al-Zawahiri’s Legacy of Terror”
— EDWARD LUTTWAK, Tablet: “Why Am I Banned in Ukraine?”
— U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 9:30 a.m.: Challenges from Chinese Policy in 2022: Zero-COVID, Ukraine, and Pacific Diplomacy
— Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 9:30 a.m.: Nomination Hearing: NATHANIEL FICK to be ambassador at large for cyberspace and digital policy.
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot me an email at [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
And thanks to my editor, John Yearwood, who never knows what the hell I’m referring to.