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Afghanistan has now become what the UN is labeling the planet’s worst humanitarian disaster. Indeed, last week the world body issued its largest-ever donor appeal for a single country to battle the worsening crisis there, caused by freezing temperatures, frozen assets, and the cold reception the Taliban have received from the international community since they took over last summer.
At immediate risk are 24 million people — more than half of the Afghan population — who need humanitarian assistance to survive. That’s an increase of 30 per cent from last year. Meanwhile, 700,000 people have been internally displaced by violence since 2021, mostly women and children. Afghans, already among the largest refugee populations in the world, are leaving in droves, but getting a cold reception in neighboring countries as well as in an uneasy Europe.
The regional stakes are getting higher. ISIS-K, an offshoot of the broader Islamic State movement that expanded to Central Asia and South Asia, remains a threat. Attacks by local Taliban in neighboring Pakistan are picking up. Iran, which houses remnants of the previous regime, is moving closer to the Taliban. Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are exchanging threats with Kabul’s new rulers over military equipment or militant training camps, depending on who you ask.
But the economy needs more than rescuing. Atrophied by drought and COVID, it lies tattered by its dependency on foreign aid, which has mostly evaporated. The damage is worse than expected, for the country has suffered an immediate GDP contraction of an estimated 40 per cent since the Taliban takeover.
As the population approaches the mark of near-universal poverty, a liquidity crunch has paralyzed banking, health, and education. Public-sector employees haven’t been paid in months. Taliban soldiers, victorious in the battlefield, now protect ATM machines and food queues. The rich are selling their valuables. The poor are selling their organs. The destitute are selling their children.
Some claim that there’s a silver bullet available. If the U.S. releases the $7 billion of Afghan foreign reserves it still holds, and greenlights the Europeans to unfreeze the $2.5 billion held by them, then Afghanistan will be saved from starvation and death. But the problems ensnaring the country’s broken financial system are more complicated, and need more than just humanitarian aid.
US sanctions remain the single biggest question mark about how the world will deal with Afghanistan. For one thing, several Taliban leaders are still designated as terrorists, which means anyone who deals with them can be subject to criminal or civil penalties.
For another, the recent humanitarian exemptions granted by the US to get emergency aid to Afghanistan are not enough to address the larger problem: that Afghanistan remains cut off from the global financial system, which means that international bankers, investors, and even NGOs cannot get money into the country without violating US sanctions.
Also, the Taliban are still international pariahs. Though they have requested the unfreezing of Afghanistan’s assets, they haven't done much to gain international sympathy since they assumed power, and remain unrecognized diplomatically. They continue to deny women jobs and girls education, clamp down on journalists, and kill members of the former government.
Even if the sanctions are lifted and the funds are freed by some miracle of international consensus, the Taliban must ask themselves a tough question: do they actually have the capacity to emerge as rulers of Afghanistan and help their people?As the journalist and author Ahmad Rashid told our own Ian Bremmer: they can rule, but they can’t govern.
Governments around the world are offering creative incentives for getting a jab.
If you happen to live in New York and are one of the city’s 18% of unvaccinated residents, now might be a good time to go get jabbed. But not just because of omicron.
In late December, now former NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio announced the city would start offering gift cards, free roller coaster rides on Coney Island and trips to the Statue of Liberty to those who get their shots. And it’s not just the Big Apple.
As infections jump, vaccination incentive programs have been brought back around the world. Officials in vaccine-hesitant Missouri have earmarked $11 million dollars for gift cards worth $100. Vermont is awarding schools with per-pupil bonuses if they hit rates higher than 85%.
The mayor of San Luis in the Philippines is encouraging residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19 by raffling off a cow every month until August 2022. Hong Kong has also tried to entice its residents to get vaccinated with more than $15 million in prizes that included a $1.4 million dollar apartment, gold bars, and a Tesla.
One Austrian brothel called the Fun Palace offered patrons a free 30-minute rendezvous to anyone who got vaccinated on site.
Sadly, it’s unclear how effective these programs actually are in increasing vaccination rates. One recent study from the Boston University School of Medicine found that incentive programs in several states failed to move the needle.
Some experts argue that a more effective way to increase rates is for officials to make daily life more difficult for the unvaccinated. France’s president Macron seems to agree.
Watch this episode of GZERO World with Ian Bremmer: Omicron & the undoing of China's COVID strategy
China's mounting problems. Xi Jinping is not off to a good start in 2022. First, Chinese economic growth slowed down to 4 percent in the last quarter of 2021, almost a percentage point less than the previous period. While annual GDP was up 8.1 percent year-on-year, beating government expectations, the trend is worrying for the world’s second-largest economy. Second, annual population growth fell in 2021 to its lowest rate since 1949, when the ruling Communist Party took over. Although Xi probably saw this one coming, he's running out of ideas to encourage Chinese families to have more children — which the government needs in order to sustain growth and support the elderly over the long term. Third, and most immediate: the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics canceled ticket sales for domestic spectators — foreigners were not invited — as the more transmissible omicron variant has driven up COVID infections in China to the highest level since March 2020. It's only the latest sign that Xi's controversial zero-COVID policy is setting itself up for failure against omicron without mRNA vaccines. What'll it take for China to reverse course?
Drones, deserts, and demands. Although it has long been interfering in Yemen’s civil war, the United Arab Emirates has been avoiding direct conflict with the Houthis for years. Not anymore. A drone attack at the Abu Dhabi port targeting oil tankers has killed at least three people, and been claimed by Yemen’s Iran-backed rebels. The Emiratis don’t share a border with Yemen, from where the Houthis have targeted neighboring Saudi Arabia for its backing of government forces in Yemen’s eight-year civil war. That, along with an unannounced ceasefire between the Emiratis and Houthis, has led to zero attacks against the UAE since 2018. But as recent operations by UAE-backed groups have started targeting Houthi forces, Abu Dhabi now finds itself ensnared in an intensifying confrontation with the rebels. Thus, it has demanded that the US re-designate the Houthis as a terrorist group, as the Trump administration did in 2020 and Joe Biden reversed when he took over.German government split on Nord Stream 2. Just weeks after taking power, two members of Germany's new three-party coalition government disagree on what to do about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which carries (more) Russian natural gas to Europe under the Baltic Sea. The leftist Greens, led by Foreign Minister Analena Baerbock, want to hold off on Germany certifying the pipeline until Russia backs down on its thinly-veiled threats to invade Ukraine. But senior members of the center-left SPD, the majority partner in the coalition, would rather leave Nord Stream 2 out of the ongoing talks between the US, NATO, and Russia to avert war because Germany needs a steady supply of Russian gas. Chancellor and SPD leader Olaf Scholz, for his part, is walking a tightrope between not undercutting Baerbock and keeping the Russian gas flowing. Vladimir Putin obviously wants Nord Stream 2 to be certified ASAP to gain leverage with Ukraine — now a transit country for Europe-bound overland Russian gas — without hurting Moscow's European customers, while the Biden administration would like Germany to keep the ace up their sleeve as long Putin keeps bullying Ukraine.
Hard Numbers: Tongan volcano, Ukrainian cyberattack, Zemmour fined over hate speech, NK-China border reopens
100,000: We're still waiting for news from the Pacific nation of Tonga, two days after a massive underwater volcanic explosion triggered a tsunami that was felt thousands of miles away and sent a plume of ash 100,000 feet into the sky. With communications mostly cut off, Australia and New Zealand have sent airplanes to assess the damage.
70: Ukraine blamed Russia for a cyberattack that knocked offline some 70 Ukrainian government websites on Friday amid heightened tensions with Moscow. The next day, Microsoft said that it had detected on the same sites a very dangerous form of malware waiting to be turned by an unknown actor.
10,000: Far-right French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour was fined 10,000 euros ($11,412) after being convicted of hate speech when referring to unaccompanied migrant children. Zemmour is currently polling fourth in voter intention for the April vote.2: North Korea and China reopened their land border after two years. Kim Jong Un is eager to resume COVID-halted trade by land with China, which buys 90 percent of North Korea’s exports and is its only source of many basic supplies.
Talks between Iran’s government and world powers over the future of Iran’s nuclear program continue. The US and Iran are still not communicating directly; Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia are shuttling between them.
The good news is that they’re all still talking. The bad news is that, after eight rounds of negotiations, the main players haven’t agreed on anything that would constitute a breakthrough.
Even the good news isn’t that great. No, Iranian officials haven’t yet exited the room in anger, but they have good reason to just keep talking, according to Eurasia Group’s Henry Rome — even if they have no intention of working toward a deal. Negotiations, Rome warns, “provide political cover to advance the nuclear program.”
They make it harder for the US and Europe to dial up new pressure on Iran or for Israel to target its nuclear facilities and scientists. They give Russia and China a reason to defend Iran’s position.
They also protect (what’s left of) Iran’s economic stability by ensuring sanctions don’t immediately get tighter. And perhaps, Tehran may reason, the Americans might improve their offer.
Iran’s (mis?) calculation
But Iran’s government, now led by Ebrahim Raisi, a president more openly hostile than his predecessor toward the West, may feel it has little more to lose by continuing to say no.
After all, Iran’s “resistance economy” have survived tough sanctions before, and the government believes that new protests inside Iran against economic hardship can be contained — or, if necessary, crushed.
And what if Donald Trump becomes US president again in three years? Won’t he just tear up whatever Iran has signed, just as he withdrew the US from the last nuclear agreement?
Maybe. But revival of the nuclear pact, according to Rome, “is the best option for Iran’s economic stability.”
A new deal could free up $100 billion in frozen foreign reserves. It would allow Iran to sell much more oil at market prices. It would draw new trade and investment into the country.
That's a plus for Iran’s cash-poor government and for its long-suffering people. Without an agreement, Iran faces the indefinite extension of US sanctions, which might one day trigger public unrest that Iran’s security forces can’t contain.
The Biden administration — focused for now on COVID, domestic political headaches, inflation, China, and Vladimir Putin — is well aware that Iran’s willingness to talk may not offer hope for a breakthrough. US and European officials have said publicly that a deal must come within “weeks, not months.” That deadline could be extended, but only if genuine progress offers credible hope for an agreement.
In short, if there’s no deal by late spring, it will be time for all sides to brace for trouble. A breakdown of talks will persuade the Biden administration to squeeze Iran’s economy still harder. Iran could accumulate enough highly enriched uranium for several bombs, set more advanced centrifuges spinning, and advance closer to a nuclear weapon than ever before.
If so, warns Rome, Israel may be ready to come back off the sidelines “with cyberattacks and sabotage inside of Iran against military, economic, and nuclear sites, aimed at degrading Iranian capabilities and destabilizing the government.” Israel might also conduct military exercises that put the Middle East — and global oil markets — on edge.
The risk of military conflict, deliberate or accidental, can’t be ignored. In fact, Eurasia Group sets the likelihood of direct Israeli and/or US airstrikes on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2022 at 20 percent. Given the stakes, that’s a frighteningly high number.In short, there’s a reason this story features in Eurasia Group’s report on Global Top Risks for 2022.
Omicron is here. The bad news is that it's more contagious. The good news is that mRNA vaccines work against death and hospitalization. COVID may soon become endemic in some parts of the world.
Not in China, where Xi Jinping's zero-COVID approach faces its toughest test to date with omicron. Why? Because China lacks mRNA jabs, and so few Chinese people have gotten COVID that overall protection is very low.
Get ready for a wave of lockdowns that'll severely disrupt the world's second-largest economy — just a month out from the Beijing Winter Olympics.
That could spell disaster for Beijing, Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells Ian Bremmer on this week's episode of GZERO World.
Still, he says zero COVID remains popular with most Chinese people.
If things get really bad, though, Huang believes China will pivot to living with the virus, especially as the cost of keeping zero COVID in the age of omicron becomes too high. He thinks that's the right move for Xi.
Indeed, Huang expects China to start reversing course soon after the Games, and when the pandemic becomes endemic in other parts of the world. Beijing will throw in the towel on zero tolerance in 1-2 years, max.
Also, a look at vaccine incentives around the world. Do prizes like cows and brothel visits actually convince holdouts to get the jab?
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January 6 laid bare "the deep divisions, the partisan infighting, the polarization within our society," says Fiona Hill, the former US senior director of the National Security Council. In a GZERO World interview, she spoke with Ian Bremmer about her concerns about the state of democracy in the United States.
Hill famously testified against her impeached boss, Donald Trump, who stayed in power after being acquitted by the Senate of abuse of power and obstructing Congress. She also notes that divisions actually make America look weaker on the global stage — particularly to someone like Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.
Watch this episode of GZERO World: American strife: Will US democracy survive? Fiona Hill explains post-Jan 6 stakes