Leave now, extension, or indefinite stay: Biden’s 3 bad Afghanistan options

“Today, the insurgents control more territory in Afghanistan than they did in 2001 when the US invaded”

“President Joe Biden has been presented with three broad options for how to prolong or end America’s involvement in the 20-year Afghanistan War — and all three have significant drawbacks for the administration and the Afghan people.
Here’s what Biden’s military and intelligence advisers offered up in recent days, as reported by the New York Times and the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, details of which I later confirmed.

The first option is to adhere to former President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which would require Biden to withdraw all remaining 2,500 US troops in Afghanistan by May 1. The second is to negotiate an extension with the insurgent group, allowing American forces to remain in the country beyond early May. And third is to defy the Trump-Taliban pact altogether and keep fighting in Afghanistan with no stated end date.

Each plan has serious pitfalls”

“If the US leaves in the next three months, it’s likely the Taliban will overrun the US-backed Afghan government and once again make life worse for millions of Afghans, especially women and children.

Staying in Afghanistan just a little bit longer would likely delay that takeover, but would also expend any diplomatic capital the US has left with the Taliban and keep US troops in harm’s way.

Finally, violating the terms of the agreement and remaining indefinitely will almost certainly lead the Taliban to restart its campaign, put on hold ahead of the May 1 deadline, to kill American service members in the country.”

“Multiple US officials told me in recent days that the administration’s Afghanistan policy review is nearing its end, with one telling me they expect Biden to make a decision “very soon.””

“There’s just no guarantee that the Afghan government and the Taliban will actually make a deal. After months or even years of talking, it’s possible neither side will make concessions to the other to hash out a comprehensive peace pact. If that’s the case, US troops will have remained in danger for little to no progress.”

Americans and Their Foreign Entanglements

“Like many historians, Kupchan repeats the standard claim that George Washington’s famous warning against “foreign entanglements” represented the views of the Founders and was followed by American leaders until the mid–20th century. In fact, the Founding Fathers were aggressive, unapologetic imperialists who fantasized about the creation of a global America.

Long before he entered politics, John Adams developed a theory of historical change that predicted America would become the next Rome. He wrote to a friend in 1755 that “the great seat of Empire” had been transferred from Rome to Britain and would likely move “into America.” The new country would “obtain the mastery of the seas, and the united force of all Europe will not be able to subdue us.”

Like Adams, Benjamin Franklin dreamed of an infinitely expansive America empire. In 1751, he provided a rationale, derived from John Locke’s theory that property belongs to those who mix their labor with nature, for conquering and occupying all the land held by indigenous people in North America. Industrious Anglo-Saxons, who Franklin expressly preferred as the inhabitants of the new republic, were to replace the Indians with a new empire: “Hence the Prince that acquires new Territory, if he finds it vacant, or removes the Natives to give his own People Room; the Legislator that makes effectual Laws for promoting of Trade, increasing Employment, improving Land by more or better Tillage; providing more Food by Fisheries; securing Property, &c. and the Man that invents new Trades, Arts or Manufactures, or new Improvements in Husbandry, may be properly called Fathers of their Nation.”

As president, George Washington, whose heroes included Caesar and Alexander the Great, allowed Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson to push for a buildup of the Navy and the creation of a Marine Corps, as well as for continued expansion westward across North America. Jefferson called for sending troops and warships to attack pirate ships operating from the northern African Barbary states that had captured and plundered American commercial vessels. Jefferson’s rival, Alexander Hamilton, agreed that the United States was “the embryo of a great empire,” even predicting that the U.S. would one day hold overseas colonies.

Within days of Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801, four U.S. warships set sail for Tripoli. Throughout his first term, American ships patrolled the Mediterranean, blockading the ports of several north African states and sinking or capturing Barbary pirate corsairs and Tripolitan ships. By the summer of 1804, virtually the entire U.S. Navy was deployed to the region—23 war vessels in all—including a squadron of gunships that remained anchored in the harbor of Tripoli, bombarding the city with impunity. The next year, Jefferson sent ashore a fighting force of Marines and mercenaries who besieged the pasha’s palace and replaced him with his brother, who had sworn to cooperate with the U.S.

In 1801, Jefferson told James Monroe of his vision for a totalizing and universal Americanism, calling it “impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits, & cover the whole Northern, if not the Southern continent with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms, & by similar laws.” The United States established an extensive network of formal representatives in the Mediterranean, with American consuls and Navy personnel stationed in more than a dozen cities. Jefferson also negotiated the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which brought a swath of 828,000 square miles of land, with all the diverse peoples living on it, into the United States. In an instant, the country’s territory had doubled.

Iran Just Handed Biden His First Credibility Test

“as many as 24 rockets were fired at a U.S. military base at Erbil International Airport, in the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The attacked, almost certainly launched by an Iran-backed militia, wounded an American soldier, killed one non-U.S. contractor and wounded five others. Three local civilians were also wounded.”

1 winner and 5 losers from Trump’s second impeachment trial

“For the first time in the history of the United States, a defeated president attempted to overturn the election’s outcome to keep himself in office.

Trump’s effort to try to steal the election was multifaceted. He spent months lying that there was massive voter fraud. He pressured state officials and state legislators not to certify President Joe Biden’s win. He filed dozens of frivolous lawsuits. He urged members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence to throw out valid electoral votes on January 6. And, that same day, he encouraged supporters to gather in Washington and egged them on. The violence at the Capitol ensued.

It was stunning conduct that flew in the face of the US tradition of peaceful transition of power. And Congress did have an opportunity by which they could make Trump face a very real consequence for this: impeachment and prohibition from holding federal office again in the future (preventing him from running again in 2024). An impeachment of a US president has never ended with conviction, but surely, if one ever would, one would think that Trump’s conduct would merit it.

But instead, partisanship triumphed, Republicans mostly closed ranks around Trump, and the vote fell well short of the two-thirds threshold needed for conviction. The result is that Trump will face no consequences — from Congress, at least — for his effort to defy the will of the voters and stay in power. That has ominous implications for the political system’s future stability, and seems to invite Trump or someone similar to try something like it again.”

An Easy Way to Take Pressure Off the Immigration System

“a significant number of applicants who had little interest in a permanent move but were nevertheless applying for immigrant visas. Perhaps the most common case was a grandmother who wanted to spend a year in the United States to help care for her grandchildren before returning to her family in Pakistan.

Our visa system takes a binary approach to immigration: You’re either an immigrant or a nonimmigrant. Since visitor visas are limited to six months, a grandmother who applied for a standard B1/B2 visitor visa and truthfully told a consular officer she expected to stay a year would likely be denied for not intending to follow the conditions of her visa.
As a result, I regularly heard from applicants that visa advisers—consultants who sell advice to help applicants navigate the U.S. visa process—would counsel family members, if eligible, to apply for immigrant visas instead, even though they lacked immigrant intent.”

“Rather than encourage people to apply for immigrant visas they do not need, several other countries, including Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, have all adopted hybrid visa categories melding aspects of both immigrant and nonimmigrant visas exactly for these parent and grandparent applicants.
The United States should do the same.”

“creating a new hybrid visa category to draw some immigrant visa demand to a new hybrid nonimmigrant category should shorten processing times.”

“hybrid visa helps protect social benefits by limiting the number of individuals eligible. There is currently no cap on the number of parents and grandparents who wish to become U.S. citizens and permanent residents. Elderly parents and grandparents eventually earn social benefits in the United States no matter what age they immigrate regardless of whether they paid into the system (with some restrictions).”

“The United States could copy the Canadians and Australians and require hybrid visa holders to purchase U.S. medical insurance and thereby contribute to their cost of health care. These visa holders would also not become eligible for social benefits, helping to reassure taxpayers they can support higher levels of visa approvals and family reunification without risking unfunded financial commitments.”

“a hybrid visa fills a gap between immigrant and nonimmigrant travel, for example, by allowing loved ones extended visits to help with the birth of a child, support a sick relative or provide child care to facilitate a son or daughter working outside the home.”

“When I adjudicated immigrant visas in Islamabad, we would often see applicants stuck between visa classes, especially parents and grandparents who had one child in the United States but others in their home country, with whom they would also want to spend extended time. There was simply no way in our system to align the purpose of their travel to one of our visa categories.”

Three Solutions to Biden’s Nuclear Stalemate with Iran

“Biden must open the door for these direct talks. His first step must be significant enough to restore belief in the original “win-win” logic of the deal and offer Iranian officials a credible rationale for engagement with the U.S. At the same time, it may be limited enough to keep the U.S. outside of the deal, offering him political cover with critics and underscoring the necessity for Iran to also take reciprocal steps.

Taking this kind of first step could, in its way, be a signal of strength for Biden: He’d be showing domestic opponents of the JCPOA that he will not be bullied into compromising his Iran policy. The fight over the appointment of Robert Malley as Iran envoy showed that hawks will “play dirty” to undermine the credibility of Biden’s outreach to Iran. Biden ought to nip this kind of cynical politics in the bud.

If Biden goes go this route, officials in the U.S., Europe, and Iran are currently deliberating what a reasonable first move could be. Our conversations with officials suggest that there is awareness that breaking out of the political deadlock may require Biden to be bold. He has a few options.

First, the Biden administration could restore temporary waivers that enable Iran to sell oil while U.S. sanctions remain in place. Iran’s oil production and exports are rising faster than projected despite the Covid-19 crisis and U.S. sanctions. This trend has reduced the perceived urgency of restoring the nuclear deal among key political stakeholders in Tehran who may gain more power after the upcoming Iranian presidential election. The Biden administration’s efforts to re-enter the JCPOA would be best served by making already increasing oil sales once again subject to the “win-win” logic of the nuclear deal. Iran’s earnings from these oil sales would be accrued in escrow accounts and subject to strict oversight as per the waiver terms. Revenues would be used by Iran for sanctions-exempt trade with the country in which the funds are held. Such a step would serve to remove a key piece of tension with U.S. allies such as South Korea, Japan, and India whose energy security has been impacted by U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Second, the Biden administration could support Iran’s loan request for funds from the International Monetary Fund. Iran’s request has languished despite the IMF’s technical assessment that Iran qualifies for financial support to address the balance of payments crisis created by the pandemic. Iran has indicated it is ready for these funds to be disbursed to its accounts outside of the country to be used for paying for sanctions-exempt imports. The funds would not flow directly into Iranian government coffers, but rather be used to address trade deficits. The Biden administration should grant this loan as part of its commitment to address the humanitarian impact of sanctions and a wider push to encourage the IMF to use its full financial capacities to address the ongoing economic crisis brought on by the pandemic.

Finally, a third option could be easing Iran’s access to its existing foreign exchange reserves. Presently, Iran has free and ready access to an estimated 10 percent of its reserves, a circumstance that has placed extraordinary pressure on Iran’s currency and generated high levels of inflation that harm ordinary Iranians. Iran has been engaged in fraught negotiations with numerous countries to try and get access to frozen assets, who continue to look to the U.S. Treasury Department for the final say. The Biden administration could give these countries, including allies Germany and South Korea, the approvals and guidance necessary to enable both central and commercial banks to readily execute payments on behalf of Iranian account holders. As with the oil waivers and IMF loan, these payments can be restricted to sanctions-exempt trade, a key outcome of which would be lower rates of inflation.

Should Biden take any of these three steps, Iran can be expected to cease ramping up its nuclear program. Neither country would be fully implementing its commitments under the JCPOA, but an opportunity will have been created for new talks in the spirit of “win-win” diplomacy. There is no guarantee that these talks, and the complicated choreography of JCPOA restoration, will succeed. But Biden needs to give himself a shot. After the last four years, timid gestures will fail to do that. It’s time to be bold.”

U.S. must undo damage to nuclear deal, Iran’s foreign minister says

“Iran’s foreign minister said on Sunday that if the U.S. wanted to restore the terms of the nuclear agreement it exited, the onus was on the Biden administration to live up to the deal.
“It was the United States that left the deal,” Mohammad Javad Zarif told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. “It was the United States that violated the deal. It was the United States that punished any country that remained respectful and compliant with the deal. So it is for the United States to return to the deal, to implement its obligations.””

“Iran’s foreign minister also said his country would refuse to consider negotiating a different deal or adding other elements to the agreement.

“The entire nuclear deal is nonnegotiable because it was fully negotiated,” Zarif said. “We need to implement something that we negotiated. We do not buy the horse twice.””

Britain Is Granting Record Numbers of Passports to Hongkongers. America Should Take a Hint.

“China has criticized Britain for opening its doors in this way, but the U.K. deserves praise for acting quickly and decisively in defense of freedom. Bloomberg’s reporting certainly suggests that demand is surging for this escape route.

It is shameful that America has not stepped up to do something similar.

Hongkongers currently have few options for coming to America. They can seek political asylum in the United States—and an executive order signed by President Donald Trump in July does reserve more spots on the refugee list for people fleeing Hong Kong—but to claim asylum one must be physically present in the United States. That, in turn, requires having another type of visa in order to get on a plane across the Pacific. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has slashed the number of political refugees the country will accept: just 15,000 during the current fiscal year, down from 85,000 in 2016.

Britain issued nearly four times as many BNOs to Hongkongers in October as the number of refugees America will accept from the entire world this year.

What could America do instead? Some members of Congress have proposed a bill to automatically grant asylum to any resident of Hong Kong who arrives in the United States and to exempt those numbers from the official refugee counts set by the White House. A more robust idea, proposed by Matt Yglesias in May, would be to grant a special visa allowing Hongkongers to settle in American counties where the population is shrinking, with permanent residency granted after five years.”

Why labeling Yemen’s Houthis as terrorists could hurt millions of people

“The Trump administration announced its intent to designate the Iran-backed Houthi movement in Yemen as a “foreign terrorist organization” — a move that could exacerbate one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.”

“The Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, are an armed rebel group of Zaydi Shia (a minority sect within Shia Islam) who have been fighting a civil war against Yemen’s Saudi-backed government since 2014. That civil war morphed into an international one in March 2015, when Saudi Arabia and several of its allies in the Gulf decided to intervene militarily in the civil war, waging war against the Houthis. Meanwhile, Iran, Saudi Arabia’s regional foe, has backed the Houthis.
Both sides have launched numerous attacks and committed atrocities. The Saudi-led coalition, for example, killed around 30 children on a bus in 2019. The Houthis, meanwhile, launched missiles at an airport and airbase in Saudi Arabia in 2019, and at Saudi oil stations last year.

In his statement, Pompeo said the new terrorism designation is “intended to hold Ansarallah accountable for its terrorist acts, including cross-border attacks threatening civilian populations, infrastructure, and commercial shipping.””

“Since 2015, the US has supported the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen against the Houthis. It has helped coalition forces push back on Iran, the Houthis’ main supplier for weapons and funds. Until November 2018, the US refueled Saudi warplanes that dropped bombs on Yemen — many of which killed civilians, including children. Now the US mostly helps the Saudis gather intelligence.

The entire war has been a disaster. The United Nations estimated in December that about 233,000 people have died since fighting began, mostly from indirect causes such as lack of food, water, health services, and more. Meanwhile, another roughly 24 million Yemenis require assistance to stay alive and fend off diseases like cholera.”

“One way those in need get help is through humanitarian organizations. The Houthis control Yemen’s north, and it’s impossible for those organizations to operate there without the Houthis’ approval.

If the US follows through on designating the Houthis as a terrorist organization, then it will be harder for those groups to offer support for fear of possible prosecution by the US government.

As a result, “humanitarian assistance is likely going to be dramatically scaled back,” said Scott Paul, the humanitarian policy lead at Oxfam. He added that the designation will likely scare off foreign businesses, investors, and banks, thus further decimating Yemen’s reeling economy. “Services will become less available, goods more expensive, and people’s ability to pay less possible,” Scott told me.

One way humanitarian groups have gotten around this predicament before is by asking the US government to provide waivers for them. Basically, the waivers say, “As long as you ensure you’re not helping the designated terrorist, you can continue operating as you have been.”

But Pompeo’s Sunday statement suggests the US hasn’t designed those waivers yet. “The United States recognizes concerns that these designations will have an impact on the humanitarian situation in Yemen,” he said. “We are planning to put in place measures to reduce their impact on certain humanitarian activity and imports into Yemen.””

““While the Houthis share much blame, alongside the Saudi/UAE-led coalition, for horrific human rights violations in Yemen, the designations do nothing to address these concerns,” reads the current letter, which is scheduled for release later this week or early next week. “They will, however, prevent the delivery of critical humanitarian assistance to millions of innocent people, greatly hurt the prospects for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, and further undermine U.S. national security interests in the region.”

Altogether, the real losers of the FTO designation won’t be the Houthis. It’ll be the millions of Yemenis already struggling to stay alive because of the war the US participated in.”

How the US’s Covid-19 death toll compares to that of other wealthy countries

“Despite Covid-19 surges in Europe, the United States of America’s extraordinary death toll remains among the worst in the developed world.

As of January 9, 2021, nearly 373,000 people have died of Covid-19 in the US, with a death rate of more than 1.1 per 1,000 people, according to Our World in Data.

While there are nations with higher death rates, this still puts the US in the top 20 percent for deaths among the world’s developed countries, with more than twice the death rate of the median developed country.”

“As a result of Covid-19 surges in Europe, the US does look relatively better, compared to other developed nations, than in September. Back then, the US had seven times the death toll as the median developed country. That gap has shrunk massively — to two times.

That’s not because the US has done better but because Europe has done much worse. After managing to largely suppress the coronavirus over the spring and summer of 2020, Europe eased up over the late summer and fall, and saw huge surges as a result.”

“there are some countries that have managed the pandemic well. That includes some European nations like Denmark, Estonia, Cyprus, Finland, Norway, and Iceland. But the biggest success stories are Australia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Singapore, and Taiwan — which have broadly adopted more aggressive government measures against the coronavirus than America.”

“So why did the US fail so badly? A lot of this comes down to President Donald Trump. He pushed the country to reopen far too early and quickly, calling on states to “LIBERATE” their economies. He abdicated federal leadership and instead forced states, cities, and private entities to pick up the slack on a host of issues, particularly testing and, recently, vaccines. He downplayed the need for masks, outright mocking people, such as President-elect Joe Biden, for wearing them. The list goes on and on.

In comparison, other leaders around the world have taken Covid-19 more seriously — embracing social distancing, testing and tracing, masking, and, when necessary, more extreme measures like lockdowns. Even with the recent surge of the coronavirus, many countries across Europe have reacted quickly and aggressively by imposing lockdowns, slowing the spread of the virus. The US, by comparison, has by and large remained open, with some states still not requiring masks.

Clearly, not everything has gone perfectly in Europe and other parts of the world. A lot of people and places have screwed up their response to the coronavirus, showing that it’s no easy challenge.

But when the numbers are added up, the US remains an extraordinary failure in its handling of Covid-19.”