09/10/19

Hi there,

Today, we'll look beyond the Camp David Trump-Taliban meeting controversy to update you on what's actually happening inside Afghanistan, peek at how tech is shaping the Hong Kong protests, warily welcome a breakthrough in Ukraine-Russia tensions, and look ahead to the next Brexit lunacy.

As a bonus: what can today's tech firms learn from Chernobyl? I sat down with Microsoft president Brad Smith to find out.

Love us, hate us, let us know. And thanks for reading.

-Alex Kliment (@saosasha)

No Peace for Afghanistan

Gabrielle Debinski

As the US-led mission in Afghanistan nears its nineteenth year, we have now reached a point where a child born on this date in 2001 — before the attacks of 9/11 — is old enough to be deployed there. Over the weekend, President Trump scuttled months-long negotiations with the Taliban that were meant to end the longest war in America's history.


While that decision provoked the usual storm of partisan recriminations in Washington, Afghanistan's political, social, and economic fabric continues to deteriorate. Consider that Afghanistan recently surpassed Syria as the single most violent country in the world.

With peace talks in limbo and the country's future uncertain, here's a look at what's happening in Afghanistan today.

A political patchwork — Afghanistan's political scene is fractious and unstable. Five years ago, after an inconclusive presidential election the US backed a power sharing deal between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who holds the post of chief executive. Crippled by tribal divisions and endemic corruption, Afghanistan's unity government has failed to govern effectively. It controls less than half of the country's districts.

The Taliban, meanwhile, have staged a resurgence in recent years – they now control more land than at any point since before the US invasion in 2001. Their control of the lucrative opium trade nets them more than a billion dollars a year. Their gunmen and suicide bombers have killed hundreds of ordinary Afghans in recent years. They have refused to negotiate directly with the Kabul government, which they consider a puppet of Washington. They will speak only to the US, and only about one thing: conditions for the withdrawal of US troops. A deal on that score seemed near until this weekend.

An economy in shambles — Violence and corruption have sapped the promise of Afghanistan's economy. For years, warlords and criminal networks have squandered foreign aid intended to stimulate businesses and jobs. For the first time, unemployment for youth has topped 40 percent, the bleakest mark on record, according to a new Gallup poll. As more people struggle to get by day-to-day — 90% of Afghans recorded experiencing financial hardship, the highest in the world last year—a destructive cycle of poverty and violence has become a key part of the Afghan experience.

Afghanistan, the worst place to be a woman The US-led ouster of the Taliban after 2001 opened up new freedoms for women, who, under Taliban control, were barred from going to school or working, and were routinely stoned for transgressions like attempting to flee forced marriage. More women have enrolled in universities and some men have been prosecuted for domestic violence, long an epidemic in Afghanistan's deeply patriarchal society. Still, eighty-seven percent of Afghan women are illiterate and three quarters of its female population are victims of forced marriage.

What's next? — Long delayed presidential elections are scheduled for later this month. The Taliban oppose the ballot, and they are likely to carry out a spate of attacks on elections, as they've done in the past. The US, meanwhile, has recalled its chief negotiator with the group. Afghans, weary after years of war, are bracing for a fresh surge in violence.

Graphic Truth: Afghanistan Up For Grabs

Ari Winkleman

Following President Trump's last-minute decision to scuttle Afghanistan peace talks between the US and the Taliban, the country's political future is more uncertain than ever. The US-backed government in Kabul controls less than half of the country's districts. The rest are controlled or actively contested by Taliban fighters or warlords. Here is a map of who controls what in a country that is still very much up for grabs.

What Chernobyl Can Teach Tech: a chat with Microsoft’s Brad Smith

New technologies that thrive on data have brought great promise and benefits to our lives. But they also pose new threats to our privacy, our jobs, our national security, and even to our democracies.

Few people are as keenly attuned to these challenges or as involved in trying to sort them out as Brad Smith, president of Microsoft and author, with Microsoft's senior director Carol Ann Brown, of the new book Tools and Weapons: the promise and peril of the digital age.

GZERO's Alex Kliment sat down with him recently to talk about the challenges that tech poses to our societies and what, if anything, can be done to address them. We discussed the prospect of a new iron curtain dividing the pacific, the role of government in regulating tech, and what horses can teach us about the challenges of artificial intelligence.

Check an edited transcript of the interview here, or listen to it in podcast form here. Note that Microsoft is a sponsor of GZERO Media content.

What We’re Watching: Hong Kong Apps, Russia-Ukraine Prisoner Swap, Brexit by the Letter

GZERO Media

Brexit by the Letter? Britain's parliament is now suspended ("prorogued") for five weeks. Opposition MPs have made clear they won't give PM Boris Johnson the elections he wants until a law is implemented that blocks the potential for a no-deal Brexit. They've also voted to force Johnson to ask the EU for an extension of the October 31 Brexit deadline. What spectacular political gymnastics will Johnson conjure up next to avoid complying with this? Will he send the required letter asking the EU for that extension, and then send another that says he was joking? Send the letter, but call on a sympathetic EU government to veto the extension request? Call a vote of no-confidence in his own government to force elections? Resign? All these options are under discussion in the British press. And now that colo(u)rful Commons Speaker John Bercow vows to leave his post on October 31, will he pursue a career as a wrestling referee?


Hong Kong Crowdsourced Protest Maps Violent protests and police crackdowns continued this weekend despite chief executive Carrie Lam's decision to withdraw the extradition bill that started it all. Thousands of activists gathered outside the US embassy Sunday to sing the Star Spangled Banner and ask for American help to "liberate" their city, while on Monday students formed human chains to support calls for a more accountable government. The basic problem remains: the protesters want more self-rule than China's hardline President Xi Jinping is willing to deliver. We're also watching how technology is quite literally shaping the protests: activists have developed real-time crowd-sourced maps that indicate where the police are, along with an amazing phone-to-phone "ripple" transmission system that is meant to overcome slow cellular data speeds. Check out Quartz's feature on it here.

Russia and Ukraine Exchange Prisoners — Russia and Ukraine exchanged dozens of prisoners this weekend in a move that European and American leaders hailed as a step toward ending the five-year long conflict over eastern Ukraine and Crimea. The freed prisoners include 24 Ukrainian sailors captured by the Russian Navy in a clash last fall, a Ukrainian filmmaker accused by Moscow of terrorism, and a Russian citizen who was involved in the separatists' downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014. We are watching to see if this is really, as President Trump says, a "first giant step towards peace." We are skeptical, because the basic problem of the Ukraine conflict is intractable: Russia wants Kyiv to give the Russian-backed eastern provinces a measure of influence over Ukraine's foreign policy, but that's not something Ukraine's parliament can agree to. And forget about Russia ever giving back Crimea.

What We're Ignoring

Saudi Arabia's Bid to Influence the Influencers Over the past few months Saudi Arabia has tried to bleach the stain left by allegations that its agents murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October. One approach has been to fly Western Instagram influencers to the kingdom to show their followers how progressive and cool it is to visit (there are reports that Riyadh will begin issuing tourist visas for the first time later this month.) There are many reasons to want to visit Saudi Arabia – we'd love to see in person how Crown Prince Mohamed is cautiously liberalizing some areas of society while also ruthlessly crushing dissent. But the chance to mingle with clueless Western "influencers" like Aggie Lal posing in orientalist fantasy getups isn't one of them.

Hard Numbers: A Magnificent Seven Rescue for the Amazon?

56: In May, President Trump threatened to impose hefty tariffs on Mexican imports if that country's government didn't act to slow the flow of migrants making their way north. Mexico has reported a 56 percent decline in undocumented migrants crossing into the US since then.


600: Nigeria says it will send 600 South Africans back to their country of origin amid growing tensions between the two countries concerning xenophobic riots that took place in Johannesburg last week.

7: As thousands of fires continue to rage across the Amazon rainforest, seven South American countries with Amazon territory have signed a deal to protect it. Brazil has signed it, but will President Jair Bolsonaro really change his policy of loosening restrictions on turning the forest into farmland?

2.1 million: That Iranian oil tanker that British marines recently detained (and then released) under suspicion it was heading to Syria in violation of EU sanctions has been spotted by a drone . . . off the coast of Syria. The vessel is thought to have sold 2.1 million barrels of Iranian crude oil to that country.

This edition of Signal was written by Alex Kliment and Gabrielle Debinski, with Willis Sparks. The graphic was made by Ari Winkleman. Editorial support from Tyler Borchers. Spiritual counsel from an accordion player at the Duroc metro station in Paris.

Visit Microsoft on The Issues for a front-row seat to see how Microsoft is thinking about the future of sustainability, accessibility, cybersecurity and more. Check back regularly to watch videos, and read blogs and feature stories to see how Microsoft is approaching the issues that matter most. For the latest, visit Microsoft on the Issues.

University of British Colombia professor Edward Slingerland says drinking makes us feel good and has historically encouraged socializing. But there are negative implications, as well. We now have the problem of "distillation and isolation": getting as much booze as you want and drinking alone, especially during the pandemic. There's a gender issue too: the "bro culture" associated with alcohol can exclude and even be dangerous for women. Not all regions have the same problems, though, as drinking habits vary widely. Watch Slingerland's interview with Ian Bremmer on GZERO World.

Watch the episode: The (political) power of alcohol

Ian Bremmer shares his insights on global politics this week with a look at the deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus, Delta variant woes, and Lebanon one year after the Beirut blast.

An Olympian refuses to return home to Belarus and an anti-Lukashenko activist has been found dead in Ukraine. What's going on?

Yeah. That anti-Lukashenko activist was found hanged in a park in Kiev. Once again, not exactly likely a suicide. These anti-Lukashenko activists have a way of turning up injured or dead. It's a horrible regime. Their friends are limited largely to the Russians. That's about it. The economic pressure is growing from Europe, from the United States, very coordinated. But the problem is a very hard to do much to Lukashenko when he has not only support of his military, but also the support of most of the workers in the country who aren't prepared to strike because they want to ensure they still have jobs. I expect this is going to continue, but human rights abuses are stacking up. It is nice to see that the Americans and the Europeans are coordinating policy as well as they have been.

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Raisi won't have it easy: The newly "elected" president of Iran, Ibrahim Raisi, was officially endorsed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei on Tuesday. In his inaugural address, the 60-year-old hardliner pledged to get US sanctions removed and to respond to rising socioeconomic grievances within Iran, but he warned that he wouldn't lash Iran's prosperity or survival to "the will of foreigners." In Iran, the president's role focuses mainly on domestic policy, but with the economy reeling one of Raisi's big early challenges will be to continue complicated talks with the Biden administration to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear deal, which would lead to the US lifting some of the harshest sanctions. Both sides say they want a new deal, and have gone through half a dozen rounds of negotiations already, but they remain at odds over who should make what concessions first. Raisi also pledged to restore Iranians' flagging trust in their government and to improve the economic situation, but in ways that are in line with "revolutionary principles." He'll have his hands full with that. And don't forget that the likely imminent (re)takeover of neighboring Afghanistan by the Taliban — whom Tehran don't like at all — will also occur on Raisi's watch. Good luck, Mr. President, you'll need it.

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It's been 365 days since twin blasts at a Beirut port decimated Lebanon's capital. More than 200 people were killed and some 7,000 were injured, yet accountability has been scarce. There is ample evidence that multiple Lebanese officials knew that ammonium nitrate was being improperly stored at the port. Four high-ranking politicians, including former PM Hassan Diab, have been charged by a Lebanese judge, but they all refuse to cooperate with the ongoing investigation.

Since then, Lebanon's already-dire economic and financial crises have only intensified. The Lebanese pound, the national currency, has plummeted, losing 90 percent of its value since 2019, when the country's economic crisis erupted. And more than 50 percent of the population is now living below the poverty line.

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The Biden administration is finally devoting more attention to Southeast Asia. Last week US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines, marking the first regional visit by a Biden cabinet official. A trip by Vice President Kamala Harris is already in the works as well, and this week Secretary of State Tony Blinken will meet (virtually) with ASEAN counterparts.

The flurry of activity comes after earlier concerns that President Joe Biden was neglecting Southeast Asia, the region where US-China rivalry is the most intense. To understand better what Austin's visit meant, and what comes next, Eurasia Group's lead Southeast Asia analyst Peter Mumford spoke to us from Singapore.

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158: To boost vaccination rates, New York City will soon require proof of COVID vaccination or a negative test to enter gyms and restaurants, as daily new infections in the Big Apple have jumped 158 percent over the past two weeks due to the more contagious delta variant. New York is the first major US city to take this step, following similar schemes already in place in France and Italy.

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