The Taliban’s ‘escalated aggression’ against vulnerable Afghans

With help from Nahal Toosi, Alex Thompson and Daniel Lippman.

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Beheadings. Hangings. Severed limbs. Lash marks. Bullet-ridden bodies inside a car. NatSec Daily has seen images of these atrocities in recent days, sent by multiple veteran-led groups working to rescue vulnerable Afghans.

In the months since the U.S. and its partners withdrew from Afghanistan, the Taliban — now the de facto rulers of the country — have grown increasingly sophisticated in tracking down those who helped foreign forces in the 20-year war. That’s led to a more targeted and brutal uptick in violent vengeance, these groups say.

“What we’ve seen is an escalated aggression,” said DANIEL ELKINS of the Special Operations Association of America, which is assisting groups working to rescue those left behind.

Members of the volunteer task forces like Argo, Pineapple, North Star and Project Exodus Relief described a newly prominent Taliban tactic. A militant texts former military interpreters, female judges, commandos and others that they should meet at a specific location to then board a flight out of Afghanistan. But it’s a trap — and when these people arrive, they are beaten, tortured and killed.

That’s not all: “The Taliban find high-risk people through records left in Afghanistan and the biometrics capability abandoned by the previous government,” ZACHARY KALLENBORN, the master coordination director for Project Exodus Relief, told us in an email. “We suspect that other nations and groups (like the Haqqani Network) are providing material support and technical expertise to Taliban death squads operating throughout the country.”

The Taliban are also able to geolocate their targets using Facebook and other social media, the groups told us, which supports the militants’ more traditional method of pressuring locals to give up the whereabouts of newcomers. Since many villages are small and insular, anyone hiding out there sticks out easily.

“I fear if they find us, or catch me, they will take as much ransom as they could and still kill me,” a former U.S. Army interpreter told NatSec Daily via Signal. “Taliban are in [a] celebratory mood. And I live super cautiously that’s why I am still alive.” Because he fears for his safety, we will refer to him as HAMDULLAH.

Hamdullah has already been approved for a special immigrant visa (SIV) and was scheduled for an Aug. 14 flight out of the country before it got canceled, according to emails he forwarded to NatSec Daily. His passport was sent to the U.S. embassy but he heard it was destroyed as part of the U.S. evacuation — meaning he is now without one.

He said he’s had little interaction with U.S. officials since the fall of Kabul. He emailed the SIV team at State on Aug. 24 and they replied to his message on Sept. 25, according to the emails NatSec Daily reviewed. “Due to a very high number of inquiries over the past month, NVC [National Visa Center] is experiencing delayed response times as we work to get a response to every inquiry,” they wrote back.

“After the withdrawal, the US Government and State Department used strong words that allies left behind will be evacuated,” Hamdullah told us. “So I strongly believed we will be contacted and will find ways to evacuate us because they have a special commitment to us. But I haven’t heard back from them since then, even though I personally believe that the US Government are doing everything possible to get us to safety. I still keep that only hope alive.”

He added: “the US Government evacuated mostly the wrong people.”

Hamdullah is among those the State Department says they are prioritizing for evacuation, along with American citizens and long-term permanent residents.

“We are continuing to process … Special Immigrant Visa applicants, at all stages of the application process,” State Department spokesperson NED PRICE said last week, adding “we have been able to work with a number of them to facilitate their departure from Afghanistan if they have chosen to do so. … For everyone at every single stage of the process, we are continuing to support them.”

As the administration works through the backlog, though, their safety in Afghanistan grows more precarious. “We just don’t have enough houses for everyone,” said ZAC LOIS of Task Force Pineapple, which means those awaiting safe passage “are sitting ducks right now.” Making matters worse is that these groups are running low on cash — some volunteers are zeroing out their personal bank accounts. The groups tell NatSec Daily that there’s an urgent need for food, water and warm clothing as winter approaches.

Combined with Afghanistan’s collapsing economy and widespread hunger, “we could see a humanitarian crisis unlike any we’ve seen in the last decade,” Elkins said.

But even under such dire circumstances, none of the volunteers we spoke with expressed true pessimism.

“I’ve talked to more than a few politicians and they all tell me the same thing: There is nothing we can do,” said DUKE, the nickname for a North Star member who didn’t want to be publicly identified. “As an American and a veteran, I refuse to accept that answer.”

FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY –– ABRAHAM ACCORDS PEACE INSTITUTE STRATEGY DOC: Our own NAHAL TOOSI has obtained a copy of the Abraham Accords Peace Institute’s internal strategy document.

It’s a hefty tome that covers a lot of territory (no pun intended). And it shows how the institute — co-founded by JARED KUSHNER, former President DONALD TRUMP’s son-in-law and senior adviser — intends to be more than just a PR shop for the accords.

A quick refresher: The Abraham Accords are diplomatic normalization deals between Israel and the countries of Sudan, Morocco, Bahrain, Kosovo and the United Arab Emirates. Kushner was a key driver of the accords. The Biden administration has pledged to build on them.

A few nuggets from the strategy document:

It argues there’s a China angle: “Importantly, the Accords serve to constrain shared threats from the Islamic Republic of Iran while simultaneously constraining the malign influence and practices of China and Russia. Adversaries will continue to manufacture and exploit fissures among the U.S. and its regional partners if the United States and our allies fail to capitalize on the favorable shift in the region’s security and economic architecture.”

It sees Sudan as part of a solution to regional food security concerns: “A Joint Commercial Venture involving collective capital investment, Moroccan fertilizer, Israeli irrigation and agricultural technology, beginning on Emirati and/ or Bahraini land holdings in Sudan can provide measurable benefit to the people of Sudan and increase its export potential … Sudanese ‘refugees’ residing in Israel could be trained on the required skills before returning to apply them in Sudan.” (It’s not clear how Sudan’s recent coup will affect this.)

It’s big on trade and cultural exchange: This includes plans to convene an annual trade conference; offer fellows and scholars programs; and push for a “strategic investment forum.” For the latter, the institute will “advocate for annual meetings of member nation sovereign wealth fund managers and their counterparts among Israel’s banking and investment ecosystem.”

There’s a lot more. But in case you’re wondering, the document contains only a handful of scattered, largely unsubstantial references to “Palestinians” or “Palestine.”

FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY –– BLINKEN GOING TO AFRICA: Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN is heading to Africa next week. He’ll be visiting Nigeria, Kenya and Senegal, a U.S. official familiar with the matter told Toosi. A State Department spokesperson declined to comment.

U.S. WARNS EUROPEANS ABOUT POSSIBLE RUSSIA INVASION OF UKRAINE: The U.S. is warning its European allies that Russia may be seriously considering an invasion of Ukraine, per Bloomberg News’ ALBERTO ANRDELLI, JENNIFER JACOBS and NICK WADHAMS.

“The assessments are believed to be based on information the U.S. hasn’t yet shared with European governments, which would have to happen before any decision is made on a collective response, the people said. They’re backed up by publicly-available evidence, according to officials familiar with the administration’s thinking,” they reported.

Russia didn’t invade Ukraine earlier this year after putting many troops and equipment on Ukraine’s doorstep. But this time it might be different, as there isn’t another summit in the offing between President JOE BIDEN and Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN, and Moscow might seek to justify a show of force as responding to regional instability emanating from Belarus.

“This is very different than what we saw in April,” Rep. MICHAEL TURNER (R-Ohio), a member of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees, told NatSec Daily. What we’re seeing now “certainly leads to the conclusion that Russia has different intentions this time.”

Should the U.S. defend Ukraine?: A debate last night between Fox News’ TUCKER CARLSON and Turner over whether or not the U.S. should defend Ukraine against Russia set the natsec Twitterverse on fire.

Turner wants Biden to send troops and weapons to Ukraine as Russia amasses troops on its border. Carlson wanted to know why Turner thought that was in America’s national interest.

In sum, Turner said it was important for the U.S. to stand up for a democracy, keep the country out of Russia’s hands and safeguard the strategic Black Sea area. “We’ve not asked anybody to go to war with Russia or to send troops to Russia,” Turner said, “but it is incredibly important that they be providing lethal weapons and they be providing intelligence” to Ukraine to defend itself.”

Carlson wasn’t convinced. “Why is it incredibly important to Americans? I know from the Ukrainian perspective it’s incredibly important, but why is it important enough to risk American lives to protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine?” he asked, insisting migrants coming into the U.S. violated this nation’s territorial integrity.

Neither the Fox News host nor the politician walked away with their minds changed, but the conversation was a microcosm of the foreign policy battle happening within the Republican Party and the nation writ large — when and for what should America put its sons and daughters in harm’s way?

Some favored Carlson’s argument: “Lots of pearl clutching over this but @TuckerCarlson is absolutely right to question what vital national interests we have in Ukraine and why we should risk war with nuclear-armed Russia over the country,” tweeted DAN CALDWELL of the right-leaning Concerned Veterans of America. “NATO expansion and arming Ukraine aren’t holy sacraments.”

SULLIVAN SELLS AUKUS TO AUSSIES: In an event today with the Australia-based Lowy Institute think tank, national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN fielded some questions on the new AUKUS partnership and explained why Biden signed off on the trilateral security pact — which provoked fury from Paris.

“Because it is a big bet,” Sullivan said. “And the president wanted to say — not just to Australia, but to the world — that if you are a strong friend and ally and partner, and you bet with us, we will bet with you. And we will bet with you with the most advanced, most sensitive technology we have. Because we trust you, we believe in you.”

From Biden’s perspective, the submarine deal is “about something bigger, too,” Sullivan continued. “It’s about a statement of putting your money where your mouth is, when it comes to the rhetoric around alliances. Good allies to the United States deserve a good ally in the United States back to them.”

Those comments from the top U.S. official come just two weeks after Biden acknowledged to French President EMMANUEL MACRON that the initial AUKUS announcement was “clumsy,” insisting he thought Paris knew about the agreement beforehand. But Sullivan evaded today when asked whether Washington was comfortable with Canberra’s handling of the September rollout.

“My view — and I mean this sincerely; I know it comes off as a sincere dodge, but a dodge nonetheless — is that I just think there’s no profit in revisiting how we got to where we are,” Sullivan said, adding: “Going back through all the ins and outs of this will be interesting for the historians to do at some point. But as national security adviser, I’ve got to keep sort of my eyes firmly fixed on the present and future.”

IT’S THURSDAY: Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @QuintForgey.

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XI ON GLIDEPATH TO LIFETIME RULE: Our China Watcher PHELIM KINE details the historic events in Beijing, where Chinese President XI JINPING cleared another hurdle on the road to lifetime rule.

Xi tightened “his grip on power today with a Chinese Communist Party Central Committee resolution that enshrines him as a pivotal historical figure critical to China’s growing wealth and power” during the Sixth Party Plenum today, Kine wrote. “The Plenum should pave Xi’s path to an indefinite extension of his role as China’s leader at next year’s 20th Party Congress. The effect will be deepening a hawkish and insular foreign engagement style that may hamper effective U.S.-China relations for years.”

That Xi was aiming to lead China until his last breath was an open secret, but that doesn’t make the news any less stunning — there will be an autocrat ruling more than 1 billion people for the foreseeable future. That also spells trouble for the U.S. and its regional allies, since a less-inhibited Xi might make more dangerous plays abroad to cement his legacy — like for Taiwan.

TRUMP AND GRENELL BLAST BIDEN ON SERBIA-KOSOVO: Trump and his acolytes offered a rare comment on a foreign policy issue they seemingly care deeply about: economic normalization between Serbia and Kosovo.

“The great people of Serbia and Kosovo have overcome tremendous obstacles in their pursuit of economic normalization,” the former president said today. “The region is too important and the people have waited too long for this work to be cast aside. Today, my Envoy Ambassador RIC GRENELL visited the Kosovo-Serbia border to highlight this important agreement. … Peace is possible, don’t give up—long term prosperity for those two nations is at stake!”

Grenell spoke to reporters at a border crossing between the two countries. “I come because we are frustrated,” he said, adding he went there as a “private citizen.”

“Many of the Trump administration and many Americans are frustrated because we saw a historic agreement, an economic one, which we agreed on for the people of Kosovo and the people of Serbia is not respected,” Grenell said, adding the “people of the Western Balkans deserve American leadership.”

The authors of NatSec Daily are old enough to remember when Grenell accused then-private citizen JOHN KERRY of the “incredibly serious” act of undermining the Trump administration’s foreign policy. We wonder what Grenell thinks of Grenell’s move today?

FBI WARNING ON IRANIAN HACKERS: The FBI is warning private industry that Iranian hackers aim to steal information from U.S. and foreign organizations.

“According to the FBI, the threat actor will likely use the leaked data (e.g., emails and network info) bought from clear and dark web sources to breach the systems of related organizations,” BleepingComputer’s SERGIU GATLAN reported. “The FBI says that U.S. organizations that had data stolen and leaked online before should expect to be targeted in future attacks coordinated by this unnamed Iranian threat actor.”

The hackers employ “auto-exploiter tools used to compromise WordPress sites to deploy web shells, breaching RDP servers and using them to maintain access to victims’ networks. This threat actor is also attempting to breach supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems with the help of common default passwords, according to the FBI,” Gatlan continued.

BIDEN ADMIN CONSIDERING ARMS SALE TO INDONESIA: Our own PAUL MCLEARY and LEE HUDSON — with a small assist from Alex — report that “[t]he State Department is mulling the sale of armed drones to Indonesia, but concerns over human rights abuses and the country’s past purchases of Russian equipment have set off a debate inside the Biden administration over approving the move.”

Jakarta wants MQ-1C Grey Eagle drones, but the administration’s stance that it will heavily consider human rights concerns before authorizing a sale is complicating the approval process.

Plus, McLeary and Hudson note, “[t]here is also uncertainty over whether Indonesia has the appropriate regulatory processes in place to protect U.S.-made technology, and whether the government could support high-end technology over the long-term.”

SERVICES IMPROPERLY HANDLING SEXUAL ASSAULT CASES: A new report by the Defense Department’s inspector general found that U.S. military services have failed to adequately handle sexual assault cases.

Military Criminal Investigative Organizations (MCIOs) “did not consistently assign certified lead investigators for investigations of covered offenses,” the report notes in a summary, though some of those MCIOs said that was “because they did not have enough certified investigators to assign to all investigations of covered offenses.” Furthermore, “[s]ervices did not consistently assign specially trained prosecutors to cases involving covered offenses.”

In one especially egregious finding, the DoD IG found that the Air Force failed to appoint a specially trained prosecutor in 107 out of 114 cases — 94 percent of the time. Overall, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps assigned such a person only 58 percent of the time.

“We found that the DoD cannot ensure that all victims of sexual assault are receiving support services available to them,” said SEAN O’DONNELL, the acting DoD IG, in a statement. “We also found that the DoD cannot ensure that all commanders and investigators are making decisions based on the best possible information because of, among other things, inexperienced or untrained prosecutors.”

NDAA AMENDMENT-PALOOZA: Our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!) reported on the over 700 amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act and highlighted the main ones you should know.

Topline: Senate Budget Chair BERNIE SANDERS (I-Vt.) has revived his bid to trim the defense budget by 10 percent. The effort was rejected last year, but it won the support of top Democrats, including now-Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER.

China: Several senators are aiming to spur a debate on adopting a more aggressive stance on China. An amendment by Sen. RICK SCOTT (R-Fla.) would authorize Biden to use military force to defend Taiwan from attack. A bipartisan proposal spearheaded by Sen. MITT ROMNEY (R-Utah) calls for a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and would bar funding for U.S. officials to attend.

Nukes: Nuclear spending critics have several proposals to trim programs in the bill, which largely endorses wholesale nuclear modernization. Sen. ED MARKEY (D-Mass.) filed an amendment to block funding for the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent until the Pentagon provides Congress with an independent study on extending the life of the Minuteman III missiles and it certifies that an extension through 2050 can’t be safely accomplished. Markey is also pushing to adopt a no-first-use policy.

Conversely, Sen. JOHN HOEVEN (R-N.D.) and 15 other Republicans have an amendment to block the reduction of the U.S. nuclear stockpile over the next five years considered by some Democrats.

Intel: Senate Intelligence Chair MARK WARNER (D-Va.) and ranking member Sen. MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.) have also filed their panel’s annual intelligence policy bill as an NDAA amendment, a maneuver that’s been agreed to in previous years to help the bill become law.

POMED BLASTS ADMIN’S EGYPT EMBRACE: The U.S.-based Project on Middle East Democracy issued a scathing statement after the State Department spent two days this week meeting with Egyptian officials for a “Strategic Dialogue.”

“Instead of conditioning the Strategic Dialogue upon Egypt carrying out even minimal steps on human rights — steps that [Egyptian President ABDEL FATTAH] AL-SISI could take with the stroke of a pen — the Biden administration rewarded his repressive regime with a prestigious meeting,” the organization said. “That the Biden administration would hold the Strategic Dialogue now, and offer to al-Sisi’s regime public praise and various goodies to ‘deepen cooperation,’ is the latest sign of its hollow approach to human rights when it comes to authoritarian ‘partners.’”

Egypt remains a key partner for the United States in North Africa and the Middle East. But Sisi’s brutal crackdown on his people, imprisonment of anti-regime activists and many other human rights violations has groups like POMED pushing the U.S. to downgrade the relationship. In September, the administration decided to withhold about $130 million in conditional military aid over human rights concerns.

STEPH GUERRA has been promoted to senior policy adviser for biosecurity in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House. She most recently was policy adviser for biosecurity in OSTP.

— JESSICA MCKENZIE, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: ‘Harrowing’ intelligence report still downplays threat of climate change to national security

— CATHERINE HERRIDGE and MICHAEL KAPLAN, CBS News:These U.S. soldiers were injured by Iranian ballistic missiles. They’ve been denied the Purple Heart award.

— GRAHAM HACIA, Wired:JEN EASTERLY Wants Hackers to Help US Cyber Defense

— Biden participates in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ meeting: Leaders of the intergovernmental trade group “will discuss ongoing efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic and supporting the global economic recovery,” per the White House.

— The fourth day of Vice President KAMALA HARRIS’ Paris trip: Second gentleman DOUGLAS EMHOFF “will visit a culinary training program that provides classes at no-cost to help develop a new generation of individuals interested in careers in cooking and baking,” per the White House.

— The Baker Institute, 8:30 a.m.:Roundtable Dialogue: Are We Moving Toward a ‘Post-American’ Regional Security Complex in the Persian Gulf? — with KRISTIAN COATES ULRICHSEN

— The Brookings Institution, 10 a.m.:The Future of U.S. Policy Toward Afghanistan — with SHAQAIQ BIRASHK, VANDA FELBAB-BROWN, CARTER MALKASIAN, LOTFULLAH NAJAFIZADA and MICHAEL E. O’HANLON

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 11 a.m.:Book Launch: Armies of Arabia — with ZOLTAN BARANY and ANTHONY H. CORDESMAN

— The Wilson Center, 12:30 p.m.:Canada and the United States: Exploring New Nuclear — with ALEXANDRIA ANDERSON, HEATHER FERGUSON, MARK FISHER, JOHN KOTEK and CHRISTOPHER SANDS

— The American Enterprise Institute, 1 p.m.:Fighting Fakes: Defeating the Disinformation Crisis — with ELISABETH BRAW, JOHN G. FERRARI and PAUL N. STOCKTON

Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.

And thanks to our editor, Ben Pauker, who edits this newsletter as a “private citizen.”