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.

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Does the EU really have a foreign policy?

For decades, European leaders have debated the question of whether Europe should have a common foreign policy that’s independent of the United States.

Germany, the UK, and countries situated closest to Russia have traditionally preferred to rely on membership in NATO and US military strength to safeguard European security at a cost affordable for them.

French leaders, by contrast, have argued that, with or without NATO, Europe needs an approach to foreign policy questions that doesn’t depend on alignment, or even agreement, with Washington.

There are those within many EU countries who agree that Europe must speak with a single clear voice if the EU is to promote European values and protect European interests in a world of US, Chinese, and Russian power.

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The politics of US crime: Perception vs reality

A recent spate of violent crimes in New York City has made national headlines. Since Eric Adams was sworn in four weeks ago as mayor of America’s most populous city, violence on the streets — and the subways — has again become a major political focus. Things got even more heated this week, when two young cops were killed while responding to a domestic dispute in Harlem.

Crime is not only a dominant political issue in New York. It also resonates more broadly with American voters worried over increased lawlessness and unrest. Indeed, crime is already shaping up to be a wedge issue as Republicans vie to win control of the US Congress this November.

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Hard Numbers: South China Sea jet search, US economy surges, Cuban protesters charged, Africa gets vaxxed

FILE PHOTO of a F-35C Lightning II, assigned to the Argonauts of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 147, launches off the flight deck of Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) on Jan. 14, 2022.

U.S Navy/EYEPRESS

100 million: The US Navy is scrambling to find a $100 million F-35 stealth fighter jet that crashed and sank soon after taking off on Monday from an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. One expert described the Cold War-ish race to locate the remains — stocked with classified equipment — before the Chinese do as "basically The Hunt For Red October meets The Abyss."

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The logo of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project is seen on a pipe at the Chelyabinsk pipe rolling plant in Chelyabinsk, Russia, February 26, 2020.

Nord Stream 2 used as a bargaining chip with Russia. The US now says that if Russia invades Ukraine, it’ll block the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is set to transfer even more natural gas from Russia to Germany under the Baltic Sea. This is a big deal, considering that Germany – thirsty for more Russian gas – has long been pushing for the pipeline to start operating despite ongoing objections from Washington. The $11 billion energy project, which would double Russian gas exports to Germany, is seen as (a big) part of the reason why Berlin is reluctant to push back hard against the Kremlin over its troop buildup at the Ukrainian border. Still, German officials admit Nord Stream 2 could face sanctions if the Russians invade, suggesting that the Americans’ threat was likely coordinated with Berlin in advance. This comes amid ongoing diplomatic attempts to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis, with US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz set to meet at the White House on February 7.

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Putin Has a “Noose” Around Ukraine, Says Russia Analyst Alina Polyakova | GZERO World

What’s going on in Vladimir Putin’s mind? That’s the million-dollar question.

Ukraine and Russia analyst Alina Polyakova doesn’t think it’s anything good.

Russia's president, she says, has put a “noose” around Ukraine with a troop build-up along the border that could spell invasion in the near term. The US has led an effort to deescalate the situation through diplomacy.

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The AI Addiction Cycle | GZERO World

Ever wonder why everything seems to be a major crisis these days? For former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, it's because artificial intelligence has determined that's the only way to get your attention.

What's more, it's driving an addiction cycle among humans that will lead to enormous depression and dissatisfaction.

"Oh my God there's another message. Oh my God, there's another crisis. Oh my God, there's another outrage. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God," he says. "I don't think humans, at least in modern society where [we’ve] evolved to be in an 'Oh my God' situation all day."

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Merkin' It With Angela Merkel | PUPPET REGIME | GZERO Media

Angela Merkel is retired — but only from politics. Still, maybe she's not as good at other jobs as she was as German chancellor.

Watch more PUPPET REGIME!

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