What We’re Watching: Taliban loom large, China’s 5-year plan, Israel OKs West Bank construction, Zambians vote

What We’re Watching: Taliban loom large, China’s 5-year plan, Israel OKs West Bank settlements, Zambians vote

US braces for Taliban takeover: Just weeks before US forces were set to fully withdraw from Afghanistan after almost 20 years, the Pentagon is sending 3,000 additional troops to guard Kabul's airport and help most US embassy staff leave the country safely. The State Department refused to call this development an evacuation, insisting that the embassy will remain open after the US withdrawal for some duties, including processing special US visa applications for Afghans who worked for and helped the US military. Meanwhile, Taliban forces have captured their eleventh provincial capital in just one week as they zero in on Kabul. The Taliban now control the country's second and third largest cities — Kandahar and Herat — as well as roughly two-thirds of all Afghan districts, raising fears of an imminent takeover. US intelligence now anticipates Kabul could fall within 30 to 90 days, much earlier than previous estimates. Given the speed of the Taliban advance, the Biden administration's partial — and hasty — drawdown of the US diplomatic mission in Kabul makes sense in order to avoid the chaotic scenes of 1975, when the last Americans to leave Saigon were lifted off in helicopters from the roof of the embassy after the Vietcong conquered the capital of then-South Vietnam.

Israel authorizes Jewish and Palestinian construction in the West Bank: Israel has green-lit the construction of 2,200 new homes in the occupied West Bank — including 1,000 new units for Palestinians in the Jewish-majority area of the West Bank, known as Area C. It's the first time in years that the Israeli government has given Palestinians approval to build in this specific area, and comes after recent moves by Israel to bolster the standing of the Palestinian Authority, which rules in the West Bank yet is very unpopular with Palestinian voters. But critics say it is also a calculated play by Israel's rightwing PM Naftali Bennett to push through plans for more Jewish settler homes. Settlement construction is a lightning rod issue in Israeli politics: Meretz, a left-wing junior member of Naftali's coalition government, has already criticized the move. Still, none of this is surprising given that Bennett has never concealed his rightwing bonafides, and Israel's nascent ideologically-diverse coalition government was always going to have major disagreements on policy issues. So, why announce this now? Bennet likely wanted to get it out of the way so that the thorny issue doesn't overshadow his first meeting with US President Joe Biden next month.

What's in China's new five-year plan? Beijing has released a new "rule of law" blueprint detailing some of the government's policy priorities over the next five years. Clearly, cracking down on tech giants will continue to be a massive policy focus for Beijing, which detailed the need to "enhance anti-monopoly law enforcement." The Chinese Communist Party will also increase regulatory control over sectors like healthcare, technology, and the insurance industry. In recent weeks and months, Chinese regulators have increasingly enforced new rules limiting the autonomy of businesses in pursuit of what the government calls "social stability". But some critics say this new report is business as usual, and merely reflects President Xi Jinping's modus operandi of quashing potential rival power centers in the business world.

Zambia's nail-biter election: Zambians go to the polls on Thursday to vote in a general election amid a severe COVID-fueled economic crisis. In what is expected to be a very close race, voters must choose between President Edgar Lungu, in power since 2015, and business tycoon Hakainde Hichilema, known by his initials HH and backed by most opposition forces. HH, running for an astounding sixth time, wants to cut mining taxes to lure foreign investors and renegotiate the country's debt with the IMF. (Zambia was the first African country to default after the pandemic struck, in part because the money it owes to China, which rarely gives debt relief, has increased seven-fold under Lungu.) The latest polling has HH ahead by a narrow margin because economic stagnation and untenable borrowing have hurt Lungu, but the challenger' says it won't be a fair fight: the incumbent is using intimidation and violence to subdue voter turnout, even deploying the military. You can bet a close result will be contested in both the courts and the streets of Africa’s second-largest producer of copper.

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The German people have spoken. For the first time in over 70 years, the country's next government is all but assured to be a three-way coalition.

That coalition will probably be led by the center-left SPD, the most voted party, with the Greens and the pro-business FDP as junior partners. Less likely but still possible is a similar combination headed by the conservative CDU/CSU, which got its worst result ever. A grand coalition of the SPD and the CDU/CSU — the two parties that have dominated German federal politics since World War II — has been rejected by half the electorate.

Both the Greens and especially the FDP have been in coalition governments before. But this time it's different because together they have the upper hand in negotiations with the big parties wooing them.

The problem is that the two minority parties don't agree on anything much beyond legalizing weed. So, where does each stand on the policies that divide them?

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China and Canada's hostage diplomacy: In 2018, Canada arrested a Huawei top executive Meng Wanzhou because US authorities wanted to prosecute her for violating Iran sanctions. China responded by arresting two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in what looked like a tit-for-tat. Over the weekend, Meng and the "Two Michaels" were all freed to return to their home countries as part of a deal evidently brokered by Washington. The exchange removes a major sore spot in US-China and Canada-China relations, though we're wondering if establishing the precedent of "hostage diplomacy" with China, especially in such a prominent case, is a good one for anyone involved.

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40: Samyukta Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body representing 40 Indian farmer groups, took to the streets Monday to mark a year since the start of mass protests against new farming laws that they say help big agro-businesses at the expense of small farmers. The group has called for an industry-wide strike until the laws are withdrawn.

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Germany's conservative CDU/ CSU party and the center-left SPD have dominated German politics since the 1950s. For decades, they have vied for dominance and often served in a coalition together, and have been known as the "people's parties" – a reference to their perceived middle-of-the-road pragmatism and combined broad appeal to the majority of Germans. But that's all changing, as evidenced by the fact that both performed poorly in this week's election, shedding votes to the minority Greens and pro-business Free Democrats. We take a look at the CDU/CSU and SPD's respective electoral performance over the past 60 years.

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here. Happy week to all of you and thought I'd talk a little bit about Germany and Europe. Because of course, we just had elections in Germany, 16 years of Angela Merkel's rule coming to an end - by far the strongest leader that Germany has seen post-war, Europe has seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And indeed in many ways, the world has seen in the 21st century. Xi Jinping, of course, runs a much bigger country and has consolidated much more power, but in terms of the free world, it's been Angela Merkel.

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Germany's historic moment of choice is finally here, and voters will stream to the polls on Sunday for the country's first post-World War II vote without a national leader seeking re-election. They will elect new members of the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. The leader of the party that wins the most seats will then try to secure a majority of seats by drawing other parties into a governing partnership. He or she will then replace Angela Merkel as Germany's chancellor.

If the latest opinion polls are right, the center-left Social Democrats will finish first. In coming weeks, they look likely to form a (potentially unwieldy) governing coalition with the Green Party and the pro-business Free Democrats, which would be Germany's first-ever governing alliance of more than two parties.

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As the US economy powers ahead to recover from COVID, many developing economies are getting further left behind — especially those in Latin America. Economic historian Adam Tooze says the region, which did relatively well during the global recession, is now "looking at a lost decade." Watch his interview with Ian Bremmer on the latest episode of GZERO World.

Watch the episode: How the COVID-damaged economy surprised Adam Tooze

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