“A Look At Events Unfolding In Afghanistan,” Jack Devine on Bloomberg Radio, August 16, 2021

Jack Devine, former Chief of the CIA’s worldwide operations and Founding Partner, President of The Arkin Group, discusses the events unfolding in Afghanistan. Hosted by Paul Sweeney and Matt Miller.

A Look At Events Unfolding In Afghanistan

In Other News – Taliban offensive complicates Pakistan’s position, Multiple nations explore weather-modification technology, & More – 8/13/2021

August 13, 2021

As the Taliban offensive continues, Pakistan’s position grows increasingly complicated. Of the many nations who met this week in Qatar to discuss Afghanistan’s future, including the United States who will remain a major player even after the troop withdrawal, Pakistan is best positioned to impact what happens next. Pakistan officially denies supporting the Taliban, but for years it has provided the group with operating space, ideological recruits, medical treatment, money, and weapons– transfers further enabled by cross-border ethnic and tribal ties. On Monday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke to Pakistani Army chief General Bajwa about the need to eliminate safe havens for the Taliban along the Afghan-Pakistan border, but the outcome of such talks is unclear and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has stated that Islamabad is not taking sides. The international community is overwhelming against a complete Taliban takeover: China, Russia, and the United States have all put pressure on Pakistan to convince the Taliban not to take Kabul, and other key regional players like Iran have long opposed Taliban rule. But if the Taliban is rapidly capturing territory without substantial opposition, most strikingly in the northern region historically resistant to the group, it’s also uncertain whether Pakistan could even convince the Taliban to stop if it tried. Pakistan’s stance on the Taliban is increasingly complicated by its alliance with China who wants to keep Taliban influence far from its Muslim Xinjiang region. Further, a Taliban-led state might give Pakistan a stronger position against India, but a devastating civil conflict in Afghanistan also means an excessive inflow of refugees and the threat that Pakistani extremist groups are invigorated by the establishment of an Islamic Emirate next door. For our take on the important role of covert actions in the region, please see Jack Devine’s 2010 WSJ op-ed that remains relevant today: Jack Devine: The CIA Solution for Afghanistan – WSJ

Multiple nations seriously exploring weather-modification technology as climate change worsens. A new report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicates that the world is heating up much more quickly than previously assessed, and water-related disasters like drought and flooding are becoming more prevalent as a result. Water security and access, long a cause of territorial disputes, is increasingly important, and according to the World Meteorological Organization more than 50 countries have been pursuing weather modification programs. The UAE, in collaboration with researchers from the UK, is actively testing a new system of cloud seeding that creates artificial rain by flying drones into clouds and delivering an electric shock. The new system is reportedly safer for the environment than previous methods involving salt flares, and “rain enhancement science” is gaining traction worldwide. In January, China conducted its first successful unmanned weather-modification drone “sweet rain” flight- part of Beijing’s larger plan to extend its artificial rain program to over 60% of the country’s landmass by 2025. Some countries like Thailand and Indonesia are pooling resources on weather modification initiatives, and similar alliances are anticipated. Although the technology itself is still under debate, both for its effectivity and potential impact on the greater surrounding environment, the conversation will only increase and calls for international regulations are likely on the horizon.

Private digital asset platform is selected by US government to manage seized cryptocurrency. Criminals have been increasingly demanding cryptocurrency payments for a myriad of illicit activities, including notably lucrative ransomware attacks, but the government has simultaneously become much more adept at tracking and seizing the digital assets and now holds millions in recovered crypto. The US Marshals Service, a division of US DOJ who oversees asset recovery, used to deal with the seized crypto the same way it did with items like real estate or art- auctioning it off to the highest public bidder. But with larger amounts of crypto being recovered in an extremely volatile environment, the government wants a better solution. Since at least 2018 the Marshals have been looking to partner with a private sector company to help manage the crypto assets, and public records indicate that by June 2020, 15 companies were vying for the contract. Anchorage Digital, the first federally chartered bank for crypto as of January 2021, has won the five-year contract after closely edging out a competitor deemed too large to win a small business deal. The contract comes at a time of heated crypto debate; national and international governmental bodies are grappling with related issues on how to regulate the currencies and how and if to implement national digital currencies.

In Other News – Philippines & U.S. recommit to defense agreement, Belarusians have had recent extraterritorial attacks, & More – 8/6/21

August 6, 2021

Philippines recommits to defense agreement with the United States after China comes up short. Last week Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte retracted his threat to end the longstanding Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the U.S., a critical component of the larger Mutual Defense Treaty between the two nations that’s been in place for over 70 years. The decision was announced at a joint news conference between U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Manila counterpart Delfin Lorenzana, and signals frustration with China and a renewed warming towards Washington. For five years of his presidency, Duterte has advocated for an “independent foreign policy” while simultaneously courting China. But China hasn’t come through on many of Duterte’s aspirations – investments on infrastructure projects have been minimal and produced disappointing results, and China continues to challenge the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea (SCS). Further, in 2021 polling conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, ~87% of Filipinos expressed that China’s encroachment into exclusive zones and continental shelves was their top concern in the SCS, with the same percentage demonstrating they would prefer to align with the United States. In July, the U.S. publicly stated that it would aid the Philippines should China attack its aircrafts or ships, and with the recent renewal of the VFA Duterte is indicating that he’s newly appreciative of the collaboration.

Recent extraterritorial attacks on Belarusians aligns with dangerous trend of transnational repression. Over the past decade, transnational repression, roughly defined as the coercion perpetrated overseas by authoritarian governments against citizens of their own countries, has been on the rise – recently demonstrated most egregiously by Belarus. This type of coercion isn’t new, but technology has propelled it forward and authoritarian regimes are increasingly threatened by the ongoing social media activity around exiled dissidents. Technology has also made it easier than ever to locate and surveil expats. This week, an active Belarusian dissident living in the Ukraine was found dead, hanging in a public park near his home. Last week U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Belarus of an “act of transnational repression” when it tried to force a dissenting Olympic athlete back to Belarus after threatening her with punishment upon return. In May, in an extreme event that defied international protocol, a Ryanair flight was hijacked to capture a Belarusian journalist who was on the plane. Indeed, traveling poses unique risks to dissidents and the mobility controls and mechanisms designed to prevent criminals from crossing borders continue to be abused by authoritarian states for repressive purposes.

Easing of Covid restrictions primes law enforcement for potential criminal exploits at international borders. Furloughed port and airport workers could be targeted by organized criminals upon returning to their positions according to recent messaging by the U.K.’s National Crime Agency (NCA). Individuals stationed at the borders, delivery centers and other hubs have historically been exploited by organized criminal groups who want to traffic in weapons, drugs, or people without detection. But trafficking is a constant, under-the-radar threat and during the pandemic the attention of national governments has been diverted to the more immediate concerns of its citizens. The NCA acknowledged that many employees have suffered during the pandemic but cautioned against the temptation to sell border-related information because it could have outsized ramifications for the safety of all citizens. Exasperating the situation, the pandemic has pushed millions of people worldwide into extreme poverty and criminals are recruiting the most vulnerable for illicit trafficking schemes, often involving children. The recent NCA alert indicates that individuals working the border are being recruited both in-person and online, sometimes under seemingly legitimate pretenses. The issue isn’t unique to the U.K., and with law enforcement focused on domestic issues heightened during the pandemic, it is likely that transnational, organized criminals will continue to exploit unstable situations to recruit both victims and accomplices.

In Other News – European Union and a new anti-money laundering authority, Russia and it’s ambiguous game in Syria, & More – 7/30/2021

July 30, 2021

European Union proposes new anti-money laundering authority with strong focus on reducing anonymity. Last week the European Commission proposed a new legislative package to curb the threat of money laundering and terrorist finance throughout the European Union (EU). The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that between 2 and 5% of global GDP – between $800 billion to $2 trillion, is laundered annually. To ameliorate this risk, the EU now wants to establish a 250-member Anti Money Laundering (AML)-Combatting the Financing of Terrorism (CFT) authority to increase coordination among regional financial intelligence units and better identify seemingly unconnected illicit actors. The authority will be responsible for both formulating clear AML-CFT regulations as well as enforcing violations with financial penalties. The new EU proposal comes after the U.S. adopted a tougher AML law at the start of 2021 and will likewise require financial institutions to pay greater attention to transparency- both of its customers base and their transactions. Over the past several years, customers have increasingly maintained anonymity via unchecked beneficial ownership filings and cryptocurrency transactions. The EU proposal requires more stringent due diligence and Know Your Customer (KYC) requirements of its member states and prohibits financial institutions to transact with anonymous cryptocurrency wallets. There will also be an EU-wide limit of €10,000 on cash payments.

With new leadership in Israel and Iran, Russia is playing a deliberately ambiguous game in Syria. According to a top Russian military official, Israeli missiles launched against Iranian-backed targets in Syria have recently been downed on several occasions by Syrians using Russian-supplied air defense systems. These developments have not been corroborated by U.S. or Israeli officials, but the allegations are nonetheless telling. Putin and Netanyahu had an agreement that the Israelis could conduct strikes in Syria against Iranian-backed targets provided they first deconflicted. But with Netanyahu no longer in power, and a leadership change in Iran, a shift in Russian policy is possible or at least more believable. Several weeks ago, U.S. media reports also indicated that Russia was vying to sell an advanced spy satellite to the Iranians, which Putin vehemently denied. Earlier this week, two Iranian ships that have been under watch since late May due to suspected travel to Venezuela, instead wound-up participating in the Russian Navy’s 325th anniversary celebration. Whether the Russians are looking to limit Israeli actions in Syria, or if they are simply hedging bets with Iran, reporting on intercepted Israeli missiles also serves as a convenient advertisement for Russian-made military equipment.

Chinese operations in Pakistan could be increasingly targeted as the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan. This week in Karachi two masked assailants reportedly shot at a car transporting two Chinese nationals employed at a nearby factory. Earlier this month, nine Chinese and four Pakistani workers were killed in a bus bomb attack while traveling to the $4.2 billion Dasu hydropower dam, part of the broader U.S. $65 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. The Pakistanis initially denied that the bus was targeted by terrorists, but eventually conceded and an investigation is underway. In April, several people were killed in a hotel attack in Quetta that is believed to have targeted the Chinese ambassador; this attack was claimed by Pakistani Taliban. Beijing and Islamabad are close allies collaborating on regional infrastructure projects opposed by both separatist insurgents and Islamist terrorist organizations. Grievances range from lack of economic opportunity for the local population to the Chinese treatment of its Muslim, Uighur population. Baloch separatists at war with the Pakistani state have also attempted to undermine the Chinese – targeting the Chinese consulate in Karachi and hotels housing Chinese workers. Further, with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan China is the new face of the large, external power acting in the region. The Chinese recently met with the Taliban and expressed interest in maintaining regional peace, but with increasing economic inequity in the region, further exasperated by Covid-19 and political unrest, the Chinese are likely to remain a ready local target.

In Other News – Russia’s strategy in Southeast Asia, Pedro Castillo is declared President of Peru, & the meaning of the United Nations Global Compact – July 22, 2021

July 22, 2021

Russia’s multi-pronged support of Myanmar is a microcosm of its strategy in Southeast Asia. In the months since Myanmar’s February military coup, Russia and China have been the junta’s most powerful allies, but Russia has exploited regional instability to position itself as a third path between China and the West. While China was closer with the former Myanmar government than the military, it was also concerned about the government’s ties with the West and potential interference in its development efforts, particularly its Belt and Road Initiative. Russia, on the other hand, doesn’t depend on stability in Southeast Asia to the same degree as China and can instead take advantage of warring factions. Last month, on his first trip outside of the immediate region since February, Myanmar’s junta leader Min Aung Hlaing went to Moscow to meet with high-level Russian defense officials instead of heading to Beijing. Hlaing has reportedly visited Russia seven times within the past decade and previously stated that over 6,000 Myanmar officers have studied at Russian military academies. According to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia was responsible for almost 40% of arms sales to Myanmar from 1999-2018, second only to China. SIPRI data further indicates that Russia has been Southeast Asia’s largest arms supplier over the past two decades, counting Vietnam and Laos as top customers. But Russia is offering the region more than arms and has promised Myanmar two million Covid-19 vaccines and assistance in the nation’s own vaccine production efforts. Russia has also been trying to expand free trade agreements between its Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU) and Southeast Asian countries, most recently getting Indonesia to sign on to the deal. Stepping even further into soft power efforts, last week Russia’s foreign minister met with his Bangladeshi counterpart and agreed to encourage Myanmar to engage in dialogue with Bangladesh on the Rohingya crisis.

Leftist, former schoolteacher Pedro Castillo is declared President of a divided Peru, projected economic growth could play in his favor. Peru, like many of its neighbors, has been battling the triple and interwoven threat of Covid-19, social unrest, and severe economic downturn. But for the past several years Peru has also been challenged by sharp divisions between its executive and legislative powers. Last November, Peru’s unicameral legislature voted to impeach then-President Martín Vizcarra, citing mismanagement of the pandemic and corruption, in a move that outraged thousands. The June presidential elections were likewise fraught. Castillo’s right-wing rival Keiko Fujimori, who is also under investigation for corruption, alleged electoral fraud and the Peruvians initiated a six-week long investigation, eventually finding Castillo the rightful victor. The EU, U.S. and 14 electoral missions deemed the elections legitimate, and the U.S. called the election a “model of democracy” for the region. Castillo, who previously worked as an elementary school teacher and has never held public office, will be greeted by a political establishment that is almost entirely against him. Peruvian citizens are also deeply divided, and many urban elites reportedly moved their money overseas out of fear for Castillo’s economic policies. But Castillo’s Peru Libre party holds fewer than 40 of 130 seats in the legislature and Castillo has already recruited several moderate advisors. Further, he has backed away from talk of nationalizing Peru’s lucrative multinational mining, oil, gas, and hydrocarbon companies, instead pledging to raise taxes on mining firms. Prices of copper and gold, two of Peru’s most critical exports, remain high and Covid-related trade obstacles are expected to ease over the coming months. While it is uncertain how effective Castillo will be, or where he will ultimately fall on his policies, positive projections for Peru’s export-based economy will likely play in his favor.

Enjin becomes first blockchain platform to gain acceptance into the United Nations Global Compact, signaling widespread range of corporate sustainability efforts. On Tuesday, Enjin, an innovative blockchain technology company focused on non-fungible tokens (NFTs), became the first such company to join the United Nations Global Compact. Upon admission, Enjin stated that it hopes to use NFTs to promote sustainability and equality in line with the UN pact that encourages businesses and firms worldwide to adopt more environmentally friendly and socially responsible practices. NFTs have surged in popularity in the past two years, and during the first quarter of 2021 NFT sales reportedly exceeded US$2 billion. In essence, an NFT is a way to prove ownership of a unique virtual item. It’s a unit of data that’s stored on a blockchain, or digital ledger, that certifies exclusive ownership of digital files ranging from photos to sports trading cards. Enjin, which is headquartered in Singapore, has focused its NFT efforts on games and apps and is reportedly able to operate with a lower carbon footprint than Bitcoin due to a slimmed-down verification model that requires less energy. This week, the UN Global Compact not only included Enjin as a member, but gave the company its highest membership rank, sending a signal that it’s interested in promoting such an environmental effort by crypto and blockchain entrepreneurs. For its part, Enjin has stated that it wants to employ the technology in carbon capture companies, fighting climate change in the process. The Head of the UN AI and Robotics Center remarked that during the global struggle to recover from the pandemic we should take advantage of new technologies like AI and blockchain to better equip ourselves for the future.

TAG anticipates that a wider range of industries will be evaluated and held accountable on sustainability efforts moving forward. While environmental impact is still a key component of sustainability, the broader concept has evolved into the realm of human rights, labor, and anti-corruption among other socially responsible issues. Moreover, shareholders in diverse industries are increasingly demanding proof and measurements of sustainable practices of both the primary company and associated businesses along its supply chain. TAG is available to assist in conducting these valuable self-due diligence assessments on corporate sustainability issues, including assessments of associated second tier businesses.

In Other News – Simmering unrest in Cuba, Ransomware Attacks, & More – July 16, 2021

July 16, 2021

Simmering unrest in Cuba erupts in collective protest, Venezuela watching closely. Last weekend thousands of anti-regime protestors took to the streets across the island nation in some of the largest protests since the Cuban Revolution. In 2020, Cuba’s national GDP dropped by 11% – the worst regression since 1993, and medicine and medical supply shortages are now peaking during the height of the nation’s Covid crisis. On July 11, in a rare moment of collective public outcry, thousands of Cubans mobilized to protest government policies and the increasing lack of food, electricity, and basic goods. Cuban authorities tried to restrict internet access during the protests, a now-common authoritarian tactic to contain live dissent, but rapid social media dissemination of the imagery made denial of the events difficult. Reports from NGOs indicate that at least 100 protestors, activists and independent journalists have been detained nationwide. On Monday, Venezuela, who is a close political ally of Cuba’s and is likewise deep into a humanitarian crisis that it blames on U.S. sanctions, arrested former opposition deputy Freddy Guevara, charged him with terrorism and treason, and surrounded the home of opposition chief Juan Guaido. While Venezuelan officials attribute the actions to self-defense against a purported opposition criminal gang plot, some U.S. politicians have suggested that Venezuela was taking precautionary measures to prevent any spillover effects from Cuba. In late June, the United States, Canada, and the EU promised to review sanctions policies if Venezuela moved towards free elections for its upcoming November race, but Monday’s actions run contrary to this effort.

As ransomware attacks continue at a pricey and rapid clip, cyber insurance is a heated topic of debate. The dramatic uptick in sophisticated ransomware attacks since 2019 has transformed what was once an IT issue into one of business viability. Curbing the greater threat will require some combination of international agreements and industry-specific measures, but in the meantime many companies have opted to purchase cyber insurance to help them manage and recover the losses of cyberattacks. While it may have previously been cheaper just to pay the ransom than to deal with insurance, the ransoms are so high now that for some the calculus has shifted. A recent report on cyber insurance by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) argues that cyber insurance could theoretically help prompt policy holders to set up stronger defenses and that implementing “minimal ransomware controls”- such as quickly patching vulnerabilities, requiring multi-factor authentication, segmenting data compartments and access, and saving regular backups, should be a requirement of any insurance coverage. These minimal requirements are also in the interest of the insurance companies whose profitability has been challenged by the exorbitant payouts for ransomware attacks over the past year. But while the idea is hopeful, RUSI finds that so far cyber insurance hasn’t done much to improve cybersecurity practices. Further, criminals try to learn if, and how much, cyber insurance coverage exists before choosing their victims, and criminals are also targeting the insurance companies themselves. The issue of whether cyber insurers will be required by law to halt reimbursements for ransom payments, or if they will even have enough funds to do so, remains to be seen.

India-China border conflict exposes distrust of diplomatic measures. In recent weeks, India moved an additional 50,000 troops and significant military equipment to its Chinese border Line of Actual Control (LAC), bringing the total number of Indian troops to about 200,000. On Wednesday, the Chinese and Indian foreign ministers met and reportedly agreed to work on a mutually acceptable solution, but China and India have never seen eye to eye on their 3,488 km border line, and each nation’s infrastructure projects in the immediate region are increasingly viewed as security threats. A dispute in 2017 was triggered when the Chinese started to build a road within the Doklam region, and in mid-2020, in the most violent confrontation along the border in decades, fighting erupted in the Galwan Valley not long after India was working on a strategic road bridge. Further, Indian defense officials have remarked that the 2020 conflict prompted New Delhi to accelerate the construction of roads, tunnels, and bridges to provide for the quick movement of troops along the border. In addition to better road connectivity with Pakistan and Tibet, regional Chinese infrastructure developments are strongly guided by a desire to secure water access. China is planning to build a mega-dam in Tibet spanning the Brahmaputra River which would have potential environmental and access consequences for downstream countries like India. China has also previously withheld critical water-level data about the Brahmaputra from India during times of political tension. While boosting troops along the LAC is one defensive measure, Indian Prime Minister Modi, who recently slighted China in a rare move by publicly wishing the Dalai Lama happy birthday, is also re-invigorating the Quad Security Dialogue with the U.S. and allies, further indicating that India isn’t counting on a purely diplomatic solution with China moving forward.

In Other News – Climate change and diversification key factors, Lebanon’s deepening humanitarian crisis, & More – July 9, 2021

July 9, 2021

Climate change and diversification key factors in UAE-Saudi rivalry. After the UAE and Saudi Arabia failed to reach an agreement last week on boosting oil output, OPEC+ ministers canceled this week’s meetings, and the uncertainty has resulted in volatile trading in oil markets and speculation that the UAE might exit the alliance. During the pandemic, oil producing countries cut way back on production, and now that wealthier nations are resuming pre-Covid spending and travel norms there isn’t enough product. Every member of the OPEC+ consensus-based decision-making body agrees that oil output should increase, but they don’t agree on by how much and for how long. The UAE, who has been saddled with a low baseline of production based on 2018 calculations, is reportedly idling 31% of its capacity, the highest percentage of any OPEC+ members, and even with a shift to the 2020 baseline it will be sitting on substantial reserves. While there are political aspects at play and Saudi and the UAE are no doubt competing for similar investor profiles and status as the leading business hub in the region, it also seems that UAE – who has been diversifying its economy for longer than Saudi, is keenly aware that oil isn’t going to generate a lot of income for much longer. With an increasing demand for clean energy, prices for oil could spike in the short term but then rapidly drop, and if the UAE is forced to save its sales for the late game it will be disproportionately impacted and have fewer petrol dollars to invest in its own economic diversification along the way. Further, if UAE-Saudi tensions continue, there could be far reaching impacts on intelligence, diplomatic, and security issues in the region as diverse as the War in Yemen, the sustainability of the Abraham Accords, opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal, and internal political security within Saudi Arabia.

Lebanon’s deepening humanitarian crisis prompts aid offers from Qatar to Israel. After over 200 people died and 6,500 were injured in a still-unexplained explosion in Beirut’s port last August, Lebanon has spiraled into further political and economic disarray. Prime Minister Hassan Diab resigned in response to the outrage and Prime Minister Designate Saad Hariri still hasn’t been able to put together a new Cabinet. Lebanon, which has been in financial trouble for several years, is now experiencing fuel, medicine, and food shortages and more than half of its population is living in poverty. Despite its high proportion of arable land, Lebanon’s agricultural sector has been underdeveloped and took a further hit in April when Saudi Arabia suspended Lebanese produce imports after a shipment of pomegranates was found to contain millions of contraband Captagon pills. According to the World Bank, the financial crisis is one of the worst since the mid-1800s and could have regional and global effects. On Tuesday, caretaker Prime Minister Diab warned that a “social explosion” is pending as citizens without electricity or access to goods become desperate and fights are erupting at fueling stations and markets. Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has asserted that the fuel shortage could be easily resolved if Lebanon would accept Iranian oil shipments and that if Lebanon doesn’t act fast he will negotiate directly with Tehran to get the oil into the Port of Beirut. Israel, who wants to keep any Iranian oil tankers far from its shores, has offered Lebanon aid, as has Qatar who has promised 70 tonnes of food a month to Lebanese armed forces. The U.S. and France, recognizing the significant role Lebanon plays as a stabilizing force in the region, have also pledged more assistance to the military.

Over the past year China has systematically attacked democratic institutions in Hong Kong and laid a devastating groundwork of fear to contain their return. According to data from the Georgetown Center for Asian Law in Washington, since the Hong Kong national security law was implemented by the Chinese last summer, there have been 130 arrests with about half of those arrested formally charged. While the total number of arrestees might not seem that large given China’s power grab, those targeted represent a wide range of offenders, sending the message that all levels of civil society – universities, media outlets, artists, activists, are vulnerable to punishment. The law is so vague and indiscriminately applied that residents of Hong Kong have remarked to the media that it might be easier to live in Beijing where the line between illegal and legal is more clearly demarcated. Earlier this week, Chinese officials held a forum where they discussed how to further expand the law, and the penalties for protest activity or “conspiracy to commit subversion” will likewise expand. China is even invoking colonial-era law to punish non-violent political dissenters with life sentences. In addition to attacking Hong Kong’s civil liberties, establishments and culture, the law targets Hong Kong’s economic ties to the West, including a significant number of technology companies. International businesses who once trusted Hong Kong’s judicial system to protect commercial rights and local staff are now worried about their safety and are contemplating departure. While China might not face direct military opposition to its sweeping human rights abuses in Hong Kong, there are indicators that countries are actively looking to limit and punish the behavior through other means. For a deeper analysis of Chinese expansion and security and business implications stay tuned for an upcoming TAG Spotlight on China.

In Other News: Iran’s Newly Elected Leader Raisi, New FATF Rulings & More – July 2, 2021

July 2, 2021

Iran’s newly elected Ebrahim Raisi has yet to stray from the hardline path that has led him straight to the top, but his ruthlessness could be his downfall. It was no surprise when Raisi won the rigged Iranian presidential election on June 18 and he is expected to continue his ascent straight to the eventual position of Supreme Leader. Raisi, who was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2019 for human rights violations he has conducted over the past several decades, was effectively appointed President by Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei who likewise served as Iranian President before taking the Supreme Leader position in 1989. Khamenei entrusted Raisi just as Ayatollah Khomeini before him who tapped Raisi for jobs that required cold efficiency, including overseeing the execution of thousands of leftist prisoners and political opponents in 1988. The so-called “death commission” was debated even among the most conservative religious leaders, but Raisi never wavered in his hardline stance, later praising the achievements of the system to quash dissent and rule by fear. Since then, he has continued his path of repression, notably cracking down on Iran’s Green Movement protestors in 2009 – an indication of how he might respond to the civil unrest that is once again brewing. The economy is in dire condition and domestic grievances are apparent via the lowest voter turnout since the Iranian Revolution. But Raisi will likely follow the Iranian playbook and continue to escalate efforts in the region, such as supporting proxy groups and militias like the ones that just attacked U.S. troops in Syria, and those who will avenge the death of Qasem Soleimani. While Raisi doubles down on hardline politics and external diversions, a new Middle East is unfolding around him and unlikely allies under threat might suddenly find it possible to unite against him.

New FATF rulings highlight both conventional and novel regulatory challenges. Last week, delegates from Paris-based financial crimes watchdog coalition the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) met virtually to discuss the latest financial crime threat areas and evaluate global Anti-Money Laundering (AML) compliance efforts by country. Of note, FATF elevated the risk levels of Malta and the Philippines, downgraded Ghana, and kept Pakistan in the “grey list,” much to its dismay. While FATF rulings have no direct legal repercussions, according to a working paper from the IMF issued in May, investors take heed and negative FATF ratings lead to a statistically significant reduction in capital inflows. Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela called Malta’s addition to the grey list “unjust,” but the nation has been subject to ongoing international criticism due to its sale of national passports, weak regulations on terrorist financing and money laundering, and lax beneficial ownership requirements. Pakistan, who has been on the grey list for several years, reportedly complied with 26 out of 27 recent demands set out by FATF in 2018 but failed to fully investigate and prosecute senior leaders and commanders of UN-designated terror groups. More broadly, FATF is now looking at how countries regulate Ethnically or Racially Motivated Terrorism Financing and Virtual Asset Service Providers (VASPs), two areas that straddle civil liberties and privacy issues, and will likely challenge nations that already have strong regulatory regimes. Increased attention to Money Laundering from Environmental Crime is also expected to impact nations across the board.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is under fire for corruption allegations linked to a Covid-19 vaccine deal with India. The Brazilian opposition is blasting Bolsonaro for allegations of corruption involving a health ministry official, bribery, and a Covid-19 vaccine deal with Indian company Bharat Biotech. Bolsonaro fired the official and Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga said he would investigate. On Wednesday, federal prosecutors launched a criminal investigation into the $324 million Indian vaccine deal. Bolsonaro has suspended the contract, but it may be too little too late as calls for Bolsonaro’s impeachment are growing again. Bolsonaro’s popularity has fallen since the start of the pandemic, as Brazilians have been critical of his handling of the crisis. From the start, Bolsonaro was dismissive of the virus, resisted lockdowns, scoffed at masking, and appeared callous to the rising death toll in the country. Over 500,000 Brazilians have died from Covid-19, and many blame Bolsonaro. He has been criticized for a slow vaccination rollout and not jumping on the opportunity to secure vaccine supplies, like from Pfizer which reportedly offered but received no response from the Brazilian government late last year. At the same time, his main political rival, former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, seems to be gaining momentum and support. New polling data by Inteligencia em Pesquisa e Consultoria (IPEC) found that 49% backed Lula compared to 23% for Bolsonaro, meaning that if the 2022 presidential contest were held today, Lula could win a first-round vote. Economically, Brazil is recovering from the last pandemic year and GDP is expected to grow by more than 5% in 2021, but this may not be enough for Bolsonaro in the next election.

Happy 4th of July! Have a safe and happy holiday!

In Other News: U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan, Saudi-Pakistan Oil Deal & More – June 25, 2021

June 25, 2021

U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan presents a challenging opportunity for Turkey. Today, President Biden is scheduled to meet with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House to discuss the ongoing U.S. troop withdrawal and offer continued humanitarian, diplomatic and economic assistance to Afghanistan. But regardless of the offer it will be difficult to guarantee the nation’s safety without a military foothold. Turkey, who is part of the U.S.-led NATO non-combatant military mission in Afghanistan, has stepped up and volunteered to continue providing security to Kabul’s international airport after the troop withdrawal. Ankara has also requested logistical and financial support from other allied countries and last week floated the idea that Hungary and Pakistan could help. U.S. and Afghan officials support Turkey’s offer which would help ensure greater safety for continued diplomatic missions and international efforts. Over the years, Turkey has struck a fine balance in Afghanistan and is largely respected, but the Taliban is formidable and already condemning the notion of an ongoing Turkish presence. Turkey is reportedly looking to Pakistan and Qatar to help sway the Taliban in its favor, but progress in talks held in Qatar between the Taliban and Afghan officials has been slow and getting Pakistan to cooperate will be complicated. Further, new reporting from UN Security Council asserts that the Taliban is still closely aligned with al-Qaeda, and after the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops there will be little to contain this alliance from reemerging.

A new Saudi-Pakistan oil deal will help Pakistan, but it will also help Saudi Arabia put a check on Iranian influence in the region. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan had increased in recent years over issues related to Kashmir, the war in Yemen, and arms to Pakistan from Turkey. But Saudi Arabia’s agreement to restart oil aid to Pakistan is evidence that relations between Riyadh and Islamabad are improving, and it could be a strategic move to edge out Saudi’s regional rival Iran. According to Pakistani officials, the deal to restart oil aid is worth at least $1.5 billion annually and would start in July. It is not nearly as much as the previous oil credit of $3.4 billion, which was put on hold last year as relations soured, but it is considered a significant deal for Pakistan considering rising oil prices. Reportedly, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in May helped to facilitate the deal and has paved the way for improved relations between the two countries. The announced deal comes as Saudi Arabia appears to be shifting its diplomatic strategy in the region, including resending its ambassador to Qatar. The Saudi moves also come as Iran voted last week for hardliner Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi to be the next president. Raisi has the backing of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, signaling Raisi’s alignment with the conservative values of the Islamic Revolution and resistance to social reforms in Iran. Raisi, who is accused of human rights abuses by the United States, said this week that he backs talks to revive the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, but he ruled out the possibility of meeting with U.S. President Biden. What Raisi’s election will mean for Saudi-Iranian relations going forward remains unclear. The regional rivals have not had diplomatic relations since 2016, but they began secret talks in January to discuss a range of issues, including the proxy war in Yemen. In reaction to Raisi’s election, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said they will judge him by “the reality on the ground.”

A crackdown in Nicaragua intensifies as November elections draw near. Earlier this week, Nicaragua’s National Police detained a fifth presidential candidate under charges of committing unspecified acts threatening national security. The latest action brings the total number of opposition leaders now detained up to 15. The arrests of presidential candidates, journalists, and political dissidents are an overt effort for Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and wife Vice President Rosario María Murillo to thwart political competition and stifle public dissent as the presidential election approaches. Ortega, who led Nicaragua as Junta leader and President from 1979-1990 and resumed office again in 2007, now seeks a fourth consecutive term. The recent detainments have drawn the ire from human rights and democracy advocates worldwide. The Organization of American States (OAS) adopted a resolution last week to condemn the crackdown and call for an immediate release of candidates and political prisoners; 27 countries supported the resolution. On Monday, Mexico and Argentina, who had abstained from the vote, recalled their ambassadors to Nicaragua for consultations in response to the continued arrests. Earlier in June the United States placed sanctions on four senior members of Ortega’s administration, including his daughter and a top army official, for being “complicit in the regime’s repression.” If mounting international pressure cannot contain Ortega’s sprawling and oppressive reach, there is little hope for free elections this November.

“We Need Nothing Short of New Moscow Rules to Wrangle Putin,” Jack Devine, The Daily Beast, June 2021

A 31-year veteran of the CIA with decades of experience with the Russians, TAG President Jack Devine sees ongoing Russian aggression against the United States through an intelligence prism and argues that “now is the time to engage in ‘unseen’ efforts to compel Moscow back to a contained and constrained level of behavior.” According to Jack, author of the recently released book Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight Against Russian Aggression, the United States needs to engage in “intense and consistent sub rosa negotiations on a new set of ‘Moscow Rules.’” For more, check out Jack’s latest OpEd published in The Daily Beast, “We Need Nothing Short of Moscow Rules to Wrangle Putin.”

We Need Nothing Short of New Moscow Rules to Wrangle Putin