Friday News Roundup — February 19, 2021

Happy Friday from Washington, DC. This week, as we dig out from another winter storm that appears to have dropped an ice rink on the nation’s capital, our thoughts and prayers are turned towards people without heat or power in Texas and the southern plains. A good portion of the Policy Team hails from the northern latitudes, but we would not smirk at lows of 14 below zero like they experienced in Oklahoma City. Politicizing disasters and retreating into our partisan corners is a bad look in all times, and accountability can come once our fellow Americans can find warmth, water, food, and shelter.

In less local news, there are currently three freshly-arrived robotic exploration missions on and around Mars. Last week, China’s Tianwen-1 spacecraft entered Martian orbit, as did the United Arab Emirates’ Hope probe. Hope was built at the University of Colorado and launched by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, in a reminder of how science transcends borders. And then yesterday NASA landed the Perseverance rover on the Martian surface. Perseverance is about the size of a Toyota Highlander, is carrying a full suite of advanced cameras and sensors for its mission, and comes with a helicopter drone to conduct the first controlled flight on another planet. This is pretty cool stuff and, to crib from E.B. White, a “visible symbol of aspiration and faith, the white plume saying the way is up.”

This week, CSPC published a new white paper by Senior Fellow James Kitfield, “Restoring Strategic Stability in an Era of Great Power Tension.” James identifies the potentially destabilizing role of emerging missile technologies and offers advice for the Biden administration and Congress in ensuring stability beyond the extension of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

This week, Joshua reviewed How China Loses: The Pushback Against Chinese Global Ambitions by Luke Patey of the Danish Institute for International Studies. Looking ahead to next week, our Geotech Program will be hosting a conversation with Daniel Sepulveda of MediaMath and Steven Feldstein from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on “Building an Alliance of Techno-Democracies”. You can register for that event here.

We would also like to highlight an essay, “Advice to Presidential Appointees: Familiarize Yourself With OMB” written by former Office of Management and Budget official and CSPC Presidential Fellow Christian Bale.

This week in the Roundup, Dan looks at how the Chinese Communist Party thinks about its strengths and vulnerabilities in rare earth minerals; Ethan parses the stakeholder interests in whether, how, and when to draw down in Afghanistan; and Michael calls on the Biden administration to think courageously about arms control. As always, we end with some news you might have missed.

Rare Earth Saber Rattling

Dan Mahaffee

False color photograph of the Bayan Obo Mining District in Inner Mongolia, China (Photo Credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

This week, in the pink hued pages of The Financial Times, it was reported that the Chinese government has requested further study of how placing export controls on rare earth materials might affect the United States. Once again, attention turns to rare earth materials, which are vital for a range of high tech hardware in both civil and military use. While this attention is nothing new, it is again a reminder of the complexity of the Geotech challenge, where the U.S. and China compete for leadership in cutting edge technologies, yet are interdependent at various levels of the supply chain. Taking the FT’s reports at face value, we also see the strategic depth of how China is thinking about that interdependence as potential sources of strength.

The issue of rare earths was covered in this roundup back in May of 2019, in the pre-COVID context of various levers that Washington and Beijing could use in trade and tariff negotiations. Much of that analysis of rare earths remains true: they are not that rare; rather, they are nasty to mine and refine, and over the decades, the world has been happy to export the externalities of their production to China — until they’ve become concerned about over reliance on one producer. Japan is no stranger to just such an embargo, as China cut them off from rare earths in 2011, prompting government action to diversify suppliers, encourage private sector investment and partnerships, and cooperation with Australia — which has plenty of its own rare earth materials. Beyond Australia, the United States has some of its own reserves, and while we may not turn to Russia’s supplies, U.S. Geological Survey Data notes significant reserves also in Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Vietnam.

As the FT coverage notes, the Chinese are aware of how embargoes can encourage supplier diversification and domestic production, thus undermining the value of the “rare earth weapon.” While Japan’s example proves a useful model for addressing such an embargo, it would still take time to make such pivots. As was described in May 2019, the issue will also continue to be the significant environmental impact — and the cost of mitigating that impact — when producing and refining rare earths.

It is also important to note that rare earths are not just a matter of security — even though it is telling that the FT reports that the Chinese leadership asked specifically about the impact of an embargo on the F-35 program — but also vital for the green technologies of the future. Solar panels, batteries, electric motors/generators, and other vital components of green infrastructure also need rare earths. Producers of rare earths had actually been bullish on the Biden administration’s plans for green infrastructure and technology — as they predicted increased demand for their products.

First, this is a reminder that the growing Geotech competition for the United States will be shaped by its interdependence with China. Unlike the Cold War, where the Soviet Union pursued a strategy of economic autarky with limited exceptions for imports of food and exports of hydrocarbons, China is tightly integrated into the global economy. Embargoes and tariffs can go both ways — and there can also be unintended blowback.

As we have also covered in our Geotech Report and our white paper on semiconductor security, cutting-edge microchip technology and the tools to manufacture them are areas of particular concern — along with the ties between the Chinese semiconductor industry and its military and security apparatuses. As the United States moved to expand export controls on semiconductors, China moved to stockpile before such controls came into place. This has been a contributing factor to a global semiconductor shortage affecting everything from PlayStation 5s to the auto industry.

Second, given the complexity of U.S.-China interdependence and supply chain vulnerabilities, we await the Biden administration’s next steps on a rumored executive order that would examine supply chain security. Reports indicate that some of the included sectors would be “semiconductor manufacturing, electric car batteries, medical supplies, and rare earth elements such as the ones used in iPhones and military systems.” Coverage of this proposed executive order suggests a 100-day review of these sectors’ supply chains. The Biden administration’s pending measure follows a Trump administration measure specifically focused on rare earths and reducing dependence on China.

Finally, what we see from this is that the rising competition, and continued talk of decoupling, is not merely a result of Trump administration rhetoric. The Biden administration’s review is just one of many needed reviews — in both government hearings and corporate board meetings — addressing the vulnerabilities in our supply chains, our overdependence on China, and the long-term strategic pivot to build alternative suppliers either in allied or partner nations or domestically. Rare earths are just one factor of many that raise the stakes of mismanaging Sino-American the various stages of competition, interdependence, and decoupling looming in the relationship.

The Afghan Forever War Decision Looms Large with NATO

Ethan Brown

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin with President Joe Biden (Photo Credit: Office of the Secretary of Defense)

This week, NATO gets its first formal introduction to the Biden administration and Lloyd Austin Defense Department, a two-day summit conducted remotely with a well-worn discussion topic facing yet another deadline — Afghanistan, and the pending May 1 calendar-dart for leaving America’s longest-running conflict. While the United States has been set upon a path for withdrawal since February, NATO Secretary-General reaffirmed support for peace in Afghanistan, saying “we will not leave until the time is right”. Taliban representatives have been adamant about foreign forces departing in accordance with the 1 May deadline, while failing to adhere to the spirit of the Doha agreement last year, namely, a reduction in violence. This winter saw increased Taliban operations against U.S. and NATO forces, which signaled unwillingness to engage with the Government of Afghanistan for a stable transition.

The early tones at the NATO summit were cordial, with Secretary Austin reaffirming American commitment to revitalizing the U.S.-NATO relationship, at one point calling the treatise and alliance of states “ironclad”, and “the bedrock” of trans-Atlantic security and shared democratic values. Sec.-Gen. Jens Stoltenberg was quick to acknowledge that NATO has been part of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan since the very beginning, while recognizing the need for member-states to contribute more finances and resources to the North Atlantic mission, something the previous administration made a calling-card out of.

The (waning and fragile) negotiations have been good for the Taliban, who are continuing to swell in influence and violence as U.S. and NATO forces drawback to a handful of main bases ahead of the withdrawal, per SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction). This is the strategic environment which took center stage during the NATO/Biden admin conference in Brussels this week: Continue with the agreed-upon withdrawal secured during the February 2020 agreement? Or maintain the status quo for keeping counter-terror operations ongoing as the winter months give way to the violent spring?

It’s a familiar setting, and one that I personally experienced multiple times during my career as an Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller — Winter thaws in Afghanistan signal the unofficial kick-off event for the Taliban’s “Spring Offensive,” an uptick in violence that portends the fighting season. The passes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) between Afghanistan and Pakistan open up to cross border traffic and a surge in violent extremists. During those colder months, cells within the assorted Afghann provinces belonging to the usual suspects (Al-Qaeda Indian-Peninsula, Haqqani network, ISIS-Khorasan and the labyrinthine Taliban conglomerate) settle into their winter haunts, stockpiling resources and biding time against the relentless climate. But once the frigid Afghan winter gave way to spring, it’s game on.

Rinse and repeat in 2021. General Scott Miller, commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan and the non-combat Resolute Support mission (legendary for continuing to carry his issued 1911 from his Delta years), spoke on the increased violence during recent months, as forces dwindled to 2500 and Doha peace talks bogged down. “[The violence] is going to make the peace talks very difficult, it would be difficult for any side to make the necessary compromises”; this amidst the chaotic restructuring of Afghan Police and Special Forces units under a unified command following Taliban commanders cutting short their winter training regimens in anticipation of a particularly rowdy fighting season.

The rhetoric that kept this war going wore thin long ago, but the Afghanistan campaign has become so deeply ingrained in our foreign policy that the decision to follow through with a full withdrawal carries new implications. The Biden team, composed of plenty of Obama administration veteran staffers, remembers well the black mark that the 2014 Iraq withdrawal left on President Obama’s foreign policy legacy, a domino-effect that saw the rise of ISIS, the failed “red-lines in the sand” policy in Syria, and the dying gasps of the Arab Spring. Pointing to the Iraq of 2015 and making cause-and-effect claims about Afghanistan in 2021 is a false equivalency and just makes for poor policy-making. The players are different, the environmental and social levers are dramatically different, and the United States has paid a far greater price in Afghanistan for much longer; the only referential equivalence is the lack of strategic success. But think of how the partisan hot takes will go as soon as the (already anticipated) violence surges following a full U.S. withdrawal — “Iraq again!”, “just like Obama”, and the like. So it’s appearances that have an undue influence on a major policy decision that should have been made long ago.

Are there any viable reasons to retain a U.S. presence in Afghanistan? Regional influence is one that has been bandied about many times, but what sort of influence is an Afghan state at a time when U.S. interests must allocate resources across the Pacific, the Arctic, and with gradually growing concerns about the stability of the African continent? Rather than treat Afghanistan like something it isn’t, just to justify the years and resources already spent, the Biden administration should continue the Trump admins focus on India for the sake of a stabilizing regional influence. Countering Iran was always good for a lengthy discussion on balancing regional power, but lost any sense of value when it came to NATO/U.S. presence in the west and far south, which became non-existent years ago.Human rights? The Taliban agreed to account for such issues as allowing women to attend schools, while the original U.S.-Taliban agreement last February binds the Taliban to disallow international terror groups to operate in Afghanistan and pursue a power-sharing model with the Afghan government.

In all likelihood, a U.S. and NATO withdrawal is going to lead to a pitched turf fight between the Taliban and GIRoA, and the Taliban have the upper hand. But a violent 2021 campaign is unlikely to stand out from the “bloody springs” of yesteryear, because we have become so insulated against the shock value of these assessments. The real title bout of fighting is likely to take place between the Taliban and the ISIS-K presence in the east and far north; the two groups are ideologically incompatible, utterly barbaric in their combat operations against one another, and frankly, the threat of the Khorasan caliphate should have always been a key cog in a now-foregone Taliban-GIRoA partnership. Tragically, the Afghan people will bear the brunt all the same — caught between the Taliban and either GIRoA or ISIS-K, or drawing violent repercussions from any of those groups for collaborating with NATO security forces.

While we wait for the formal press releases from the summit’s conclusion, early indicators appear to signal that NATO is genuinely shifting its focus to bigger, more prevalent threats and challenges, while keeping the all Afghanistan options on the table. If a NATO decision to continue maintaining an oversight/diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, to ensure compliance with the Doha agreement as the war-torn state transitions to a post-U.S. controlled paradigm, that is different and preferable to a continued combat presence.

Many have asked what good a withdrawal will do when (insert vague, abstract talking point) hasn’t happened yet and the Taliban haven’t given up anything (not exactly accurate) for the transition? I would reply with the query on what trillions of dollars and over 2400 U.S. service member deaths have achieved, or at least explain what good the last five years have done when it became clear that the Taliban only needed to play a waiting game. After all, very little changed in the 9 years between my first (2009) and last (2019) Afghanistan deployments, and this is just another Afghan Spring.

On Making Nuclear Weapons Illegal

Michael Stecher

Minot AFB has 150 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile silos and 26 nuclear-capable B-52 Stratofortresses deep in North Dakota oil country (Photo Credit: Capt. Ieva Bytautaite, 20th Air Force)

In October, Honduras became the 50th country to ratify the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), part of a flurry of activity around the treaty in the last year. Belize, Benin, Botswana, Fiji, Ireland, Jamaica, Lesotho, Malaysia, Malta, Namibia, Naura, Nigeria, Niue, Paraguay, Saint Kitts and Nevis, and Tuvalu all ratified it in 2020, which caused TPNW to come into effect on January 22, 2021, at which time Cambodia also became a party to it. For the last four weeks, it has been officially illegal under international law for any country to “develop, test, produce, manufacture … acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear devices;” to “use or threaten to use nuclear weapons;” or to assist or seek assistance from other countries for the same.

It is easy to dunk on the naiveté of this effort. None of the nine states with either official or generally accepted nuclear arsenals signed onto it, nor did the handful of states with active or quasi-active nuclear programs, so no immediate policy changes will be forthcoming. Of the 20 largest economies in the world, only Mexico and Indonesia have ratified it (in addition, Brazil has signed but not ratified the treaty). No members of NATO and only three Major Non-NATO Allies — New Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand — have ratified it. Not even Japan, the only country on which nuclear weapons have been used in anger, is a member.

The treaty, which was born from a discussion in the United Nations General Assembly, has a certain familiarity to it: there is a whole category of issues where General Assembly members make lofty proclamations that show how high-minded and peace-loving they are, followed by a robust round of self-back-patting, while the countries that engage in the hard work of securing peace look on with eye-rolling disdain.

This disdainful dunking, however, is misguided. Not as misguided as the Trump administration’s efforts to threaten Sweden into abstaining by suggesting that military-to-military relationships might be downgraded, but that is a low bar to clear. Many proponents of TPNW appear to have fallen prey to a classic syllogism in politics:

Something must be done.

This is something.

Therefore, this must be done

At its signing ceremony, Beatrice Finn, the Executive Director of the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons compared this effort to abolitionism, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and the fight against apartheid, elliding how those successes were built through blood and toil, rather than proclamations from 21st Century Duchies of Grand Fenwick, but I digress.

There is no prospect of the United States — or any other nuclear power — beating their swords into plowshares anytime soon. I am skeptical that any amount of disapprobation from the activist community will accomplish that goal. They and this treaty, however, are important moral reminders that nuclear weapons are incredibly and unsustainably dangerous. Students of international politics are given a great deal of received wisdom about the stabilizing effects of nuclear weapons, but this cannot be the whole story; a better understanding is probably that nuclear weapons lower risks under the most common scenarios while making tail-risk much more dangerous.

On Tuesday, the State Department released a new tranche of source material about the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union between January 1983 and March 1985. This follows on the 2015 declassification of a report written in 1990 by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board about the same period. The picture painted by these documents is horrifying. In the second week of November 1983, NATO conducted an exercise simulating a crisis that culminated in the outbreak of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Tensions were extremely high at the time because of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, the impending deployment of intermediate range Pershing II missiles in West Germany, and the shoot-down of a Korean AirLines 747 by the Soviet Air Force that September. The Soviet Union was also undergoing an unstable leadership transition following the death of Leonid Brezhnev in November 1982 and Yuri Andropov’s failing health.

In this volatile mix, Soviet leadership became extremely concerned that NATO was approaching a level of military overmatch that would allow them to conduct a surprise first strike and wipe out the Soviet ability to respond, and that an exercise like the one in November 1983 might be good cover for the preparations necessary for an attack. U.S. intelligence agencies saw that the Soviets stepped up their readiness, including putting a halt on all military flights (to maximize the number of planes that could be launched on short notice) and loading nuclear weapons on more than 100 aircraft in East Germany with orders to be ready to attack targets within 30 minutes.

U.S. military leaders saw this, but did not understand how worried the people around Andropov actually were. Major General Leonard Perroots, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, U.S. Air Forces Europe, advised his boss against stepping up the actual alert posture because he thought the Soviets were just engaged in posturing. He wrote in a memo declassified for the first time this week, “If I had known then what I later found out I am uncertain what advice I would have given.” If Perroots had made a different call (and he probably should have based on what was going on!), the Soviets would have seen more evidence confirming their fears and it is hard to know how that next week would have evolved.

CSPC intellectual godfather David Abshire was U.S. Ambassador to NATO at the time, and he became Special Counselor (and effectively Chief of Staff) to President Reagan in 1987. He relayed years later that Reagan truly did not understand how scared the Soviets were and how dangerous the situation was. The realization that he had nearly blundered into oblivion pushed him to pursue total nuclear disarmament with General Secretary Gorbachev in Reykjavik in 1986 and eventually the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty the next year.

Nearly 40 years later, we have collectively recovered some of the blithe arrogance that Reagan went on to repent for. The proliferation of signatories to the TPNW is partly a response to President Trump’s nuclear posturing toward North Korea, partly Russia’s increasingly belligerent nuclear rhetoric, partly the slow-motion collapse of the non-proliferation regime in Iran and North Korea, and partly the parlous status of arms control worldwide amid the pressure of nuclear modernization. What it should remind us, however, is that nuclear weapons are not useful to possess in their own right, they have to serve a purpose, and it had better be a pretty important purpose to be worth the risk.

The Biden administration will conduct a nuclear posture review that seeks to identify what that purpose is, and how to create nuclear forces to achieve those goals. I am very confident that they will conclude that the United States needs a lower level of nuclear force than the Trump administration did. Ensuring that vision is attainable and making it durable even after President Biden leaves office will require a reinvigoration of strategic arms control with an eye towards mutual disarmament among nuclear powers. To that end, TPNW might be useful: not as an end in itself, but in clarifying which are the countries that are interested in doing the hard work to drive towards disarmament and marshalling their efforts towards punishing those that are not.

News You May Have Missed

U.S. Destroyer in Contested Waters of South China Sea

Jaqueline Ruiz

A U.S. guided missile destroyer, USS Russell, performed a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea to challenge Beijing’s territorial claims on the contested waters. The destroyer is deployed to the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific. The 7th Fleet released in a statement, “This freedom of navigation operation upheld the rights, freedoms and lawful uses of the sea recognized in international law by challenging unlawful restrictions on innocent passage imposed by China, Vietnam and Taiwan”. The destroyer sailed by the Spratly Islands, several of which were transformed by China into fortified bases with missiles, runways, and weapons systems. China views these operations as violations of their sovereignty. The U.S. has denounced China’s ‘unlawful and sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea’ and claim that they pose a threat to the freedom of the sea, navigation, and overflight.

The Resurrection of Parler

Sarah Naiman

One month after Amazon Web Services pulled the plug on its web access and Apple and Google removed it from their app stores in response to the Capitol insurrection, Parler, a right-wing alternative to Twitter came back online. With the assistance of SkySilk, a provider that “advocates the right to private judgment and rejects the role of being the judge, jury and executioner,” Parler is once again accessible to its millions of users. Its resurrection is the result of a month-long battle in which it faced rejection from web-hosting companies and the courts. In addition to SkySilk, Parler was revived with the help of DDoS-Guard, a Russian company, and Epik, a firm that also previously resurrected a neo-Nazi website. While many users previously employed Parler to air their frustrations with censorship on traditional platforms, it became a hub for threats of violence and hate speech before, during, and after the insurrection. Moreover, following the riot, the website saw an influx of new users (15 million total) angry with Facebook and Twitter’s “censorship” of President Trump. The revival of Parler is likely to only increase political partisanship and entrench more Republicans in fringe conspiracies.

Foiled Iranian Attack Against UAE Embassy in Ethiopia

Miles Esters

This week Ethiopia’s intelligence agency thwarted an attack on the United Arab Emirates’ embassy in Addis Ababa, arresting 15 people along with a cache of explosives and weapons. Sundanese officials have confirmed that a second group of operatives had planned to attack the UAE Embassy in Khartoum. According to the New York Times, Ethiopian authorities have not commented on who was behind it, but American and Israeli officials believe the operation was supported by Iran. It is believed that Iran’s covert operation in Ethiopia “was part of a wider drive to seek soft targets in African countries where the country would be able to avenge” the deaths of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and nuclear scientist Mohseh Fakhrizadeh. Furthermore, U.S. defense officials assert that the arrest in Ethiopia was connected to last year’s failed plot by Iran to assassinate the U.S. ambassador to South Africa. Tehran maintains a dominant network of influence in the Middle East but also a covert presence in other regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Western Europe. The most infamous act of Iranian state-sponsored terrorism was the AMIA bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina on July 18, 1994, killing 85 people and injuring hundreds. Evidently, these events come at an uncertain moment of increased tensions between the United States and Iran and debate over whether the Biden administration should revive the Iran nuclear deal.

The views of authors are their own, and not that of CSPC.

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Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress

Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress

CSPC is a 501(c)3, non-partisan organization that seeks to apply lessons of history and leadership to today's challenges