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The Morning Dispatch: Taliban Holdings Grow
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The Morning Dispatch: Taliban Holdings Grow

Plus: Lawmakers examine the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack.

Happy Wednesday! Let’s get right to it.

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • U.S. Central Command reported yesterday that the U.S. military has completed more than 50 percent of its withdrawal from Afghanistan ahead of President Joe Biden’s deadline of September 11. “The U.S. has officially handed over six facilities to the Afghan Ministry of Defense,” the update reads.

  • The Senate voted 68-32 on Tuesday to pass the $200 billion U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, which aims to bolster U.S. competitiveness with China. The measure will need to be approved by the House and President Biden to become law.

  • The Senate also voted on Tuesday to confirm Julien Xavier Neals and Regina Rodriguez as district court judges, 66-33 and 72-28, respectively. The pair are the first of President Biden’s federal judicial nominees to be confirmed.

  • The White House announced a new task force on supply chain issues Tuesday, following up on an executive order President Biden signed in February.

  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers this week the United States plans to enter into trade talks with Taiwan. The move is sure to increase tensions with the Chinese Communist Party. A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy said the U.S. should “stop elevating its relationship with the Taiwan region in any substantive way.”

  • Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe won the state’s Democratic gubernatorial primary last night and will now face off against Republican Glenn Youngkin in November. In New Jersey, former assemblymember Jack Ciattarelli won the Republican gubernatorial primary and the right to take on incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.

  • The “delta” coronavirus variant first identified in India has driven a rise in new COVID-19 cases in the U.K., and it is also spreading—to a much lesser degree—in the United States. Two doses of an authorized mRNA COVID-19 vaccine appear to be effective against this strain.

  • The United States confirmed 13,062 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 1.5 percent of the 855,248 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 377 deaths were attributed to the virus on Tuesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 598,323. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 16,835 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Meanwhile, 1,071,750 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday, with 171,731,584 Americans having now received at least one dose.

Taliban On the Rise

Longtime Vital Interests readers may recall analysis from Thomas Joscelyn—prescient analysis, we might add—arguing a flawed deal with the Taliban and full American withdrawal from Afghanistan would spell disaster for the sitting Kabul government.

Writing in February 2020, Joscelyn highlighted two key features to look out for, 10 days before the Trump administration reached an agreement with Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. 1) An unconditional withdrawal by American and coalition forces from Afghanistan would inevitably yield swift and sweeping territorial losses by Afghan government forces. 2) As the Taliban’s holdings grow, so too does a safe haven for al-Qaeda leadership and fighters.

“The Taliban has steadfastly refused to recognize the Afghan government’s legitimacy. Instead, the Taliban consistently says it is fighting to resurrect its own ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ (IEA)—the same totalitarian regime the U.S. and its allies toppled in 2001. The Taliban-led insurgency has been acquiring rural territory and contesting security forces ever since then, but the insurgency is stronger today than ever, meaning the jihadists are positioning themselves to overthrow the Afghan government.”

“The State Department is reportedly still trying to sell Americans on the idea that the Taliban will somehow renounce al-Qaeda… The bottom line: The Taliban has lied about its partnership with al-Qaeda from the beginning, and there is no reason to believe whatever the Taliban’s negotiating team in Doha says now. The Taliban and al-Qaeda remain closely intertwined on the battlefield to this day.”

As these two warnings came to fruition amid the American and NATO troop draw-down, accelerating rapidly beginning with the U.S.’s original exit date of May 1, Joscelyn was again among the first to take note. According to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals and 95 of its more than 400 districts are now under Taliban control. Many others are contested and/or on the verge of falling.

With three months until the Biden administration’s withdrawal deadline of September 11 (although many analysts anticipate a full exit will come much sooner), the Taliban appears to be reverting to its time-tested strategy of occupying rural areas surrounding government-controlled urban centers before closing in. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, the insurgent group is poised to conduct “large-scale offensives” into population centers as early as this summer.

In a recent report by the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, Taliban-initiated attacks from January to the end of March increased about 37 percent from the same period last year. Civilian casualties—including journalists, teachers, and government officials—increased 29 percent. 

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul on Sunday. Khalilzad, who negotiated the flawed “peace” deal between the U.S. government and the Taliban during the Trump administration and has remained the point man for the Biden administration, is heading next to Doha. There, he hopes to facilitate peace talks between Afghan government representatives and the Taliban to “make tangible progress towards a political settlement that protects the gains of the last two decades.”

But most analysts considered the ongoing intra-Afghan peace talks dead on arrival, as the promised U.S. withdrawal eliminates Kabul’s last remaining negotiating chip. “The Taliban believes they’ve won,” Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and editor of its Long War Journal, told The Dispatch. “They’ve achieved their first objective, and that was to get the U.S. to leave.” 

“The deal never required the Taliban to make peace with the Afghan government. As a matter of fact, the deal doesn’t even mention the Afghan government,” Roggio added, dinging former President Donald Trump’s February 2020 agreement with the group. “The deal delegitimized the Afghan government and legitimized the Taliban.”

On top of that, the Taliban has never held up its end of the bargain. For one, it failed to “reduce the unacceptable level of violence,” and has continued to perpetrate terrorist attacks and assassinations of government officials and civilians. And of particular interest to the United States, the group has yet to “prevent the use of the soil of Afghanistan by any group or individual against the security of the United States and its allies.” 

Far from it, the Taliban’s occupied territories offer refuge to al-Qaeda, as the two overlapping jihadist groups share diplomatic and military allegiances in Afghanistan. According to a June report by the UN monitoring team, “large numbers” of al-Qaeda fighters maintain cells across the country. “Ties between the two groups remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage,” the report reads.

This collusion isn’t new, but each of the last three U.S. administrations has had incentive to downplay its regional influence. Former President Barack Obama repeatedly downplayed the Middle East’s jihadist threat in an effort to reduce the American presence in the region, arguing that al-Qaeda was “on the run” and “decimated.” His CIA director, Leon Panetta, said that the group’s presence in Afghanistan was “relatively small” and at most “50 to 100” operatives, a dubious claim even at the time. These assertions were further undermined in October 2015, when an American-Afghan joint offensive uncovered a single Mujahideen training camp and killed its more than 150 al-Qaeda fighters.

The Trump administration, meanwhile, took the Taliban’s pact to cut ties with al-Qaeda as a condition of last year’s agreement at face value. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo even claimed the Taliban would take up arms and fight alongside U.S. troops against al-Qaeda.

“Al-Qaeda has been there the whole time, and it has been supporting the Taliban the whole time,” Roggio explained. “So it’s not a return of al-Qaeda or a resurgence of al-Qaeda—it’s just a continuation of a relationship. Al-Qaeda will be strengthened by a Taliban victory, because they fought on the side of the Taliban.”

Ransomware in the Spotlight

When Colonial Pipeline announced last month it had restored full operation to its pipeline network, drivers across the east coast breathed a collective sigh of relief that the burgeoning gas shortage would soon be over. But that good news was soured somewhat when it was revealed how Colonial had been able to solve its problem: By capitulating to the ransom demands of the cybercrime group that had taken its computer systems hostage.

This week, the Justice Department announced it had managed to trace and claw back more than $2 million of the company’s $4.4 million payment—transacted in the cryptocurrency Bitcoin—to the hacking group DarkSide. (In fact, the government managed to recover 80 percent of the Bitcoin that Colonial sent. The loss in value was primarily attributable to a significant sag in the price of Bitcoin itself in the days since Colonial sent the payment.)

But the affair—along with a rash of other high-profile cyberattacks in recent months—came as a grim reminder that critical U.S. infrastructure is vulnerable to this sort of attack.

On Tuesday, Colonial Pipeline President and CEO Joseph Blount testified before a pair of congressional committees about what led to the hack and what can be done to prevent similar attacks in the future. Lawmakers were in general agreement that the security dangers of attacks like this in the future present a significant threat.

“Make no mistake: If we do not step up our cybersecurity readiness, the consequences will be severe,” Democratic Sen. Gary Peters, who chairs the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said Tuesday. “The ransomware attack on Colonial Pipeline affected millions of Americans; the next time an incident like this happens, unfortunately, it could be even worse.”

What’s remarkable about ransomware cyberattacks is how much damage can result from a single oversight in digital security anywhere in a company’s network. In the Colonial case, an entire U.S. region temporarily lost access to gas—all because a single pipeline company used a VPN service that didn’t employ security-boosting two-factor authentication. As a result, all the hackers needed to gain access to Colonial’s IT networks was a single compromised password.

“It was a complicated password—I want to be clear on that,” Blount told the committee. “It was not a ‘Colonial123’-type password.”

When the company discovered part of its network had been compromised, it shut down all operations in an attempt to contain the threat. That effort was successful, but it led to the massive shutdown in operations that quickly became national news.

That the target was Colonial was no accident. Experts say ransomware groups tend to go for targets for whom even a momentary freeze in operations is catastrophic—making a large cash payment seem an attractive alternative.

“Organized crime is a business: They want to maximize their return on investment,” said Michael Hamilton, an information security expert at the Washington state-based firm Critical Insight Security.

As Sen. Rob Portman, the committee’s GOP ranking member, pointed out Tuesday, it’s the government’s position that “paying ransoms rewards ransomware hackers” and should be discouraged. At the same time, policymakers have hesitated to enact laws banning payment of such ransoms out of fear that this would simply cause companies not to report cyberattacks to the Justice Department. In this case, Blount said, the company notified the FBI within hours.

Individual companies—even those that control critical U.S. infrastructure—are typically responsible for their own compliance with best-practice information security standards. (In the wake of Colonial’s recent embarrassment, Blount told the committee that the company is now compliant with regulations “almost to a T.”)

But while defending against future ransomware attacks will for the most part come down to the diligence of individual companies, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing that can be done at the policy level either. Hamilton pointed to the importance of providing a backstop of federal funds for afflicted businesses to remove the temptation to pay ransoms, coupled with increased enforcement actions against criminal hacking groups and the states that harbor them.

Worth Your Time

  • In his latest New York Times column, Ross Douthat questions the conventional wisdom among many progressives about the possibility of a GOP coup following the 2024 elections. “Since Trump really is likely to be the Republican nominee in the next election, it’s worth taking alarmist scenarios seriously, in case next time turns out worse,” he writes. “But taking them seriously doesn’t mean treating them as some kind of certain doom.”

  • For The Atlantic, Emma Green sat down with former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, whose recently published book Faithful Presence addresses what he sees as an unfortunate conflation of politics and faith among Christians. “Haslam is willing to challenge his fellow Christians to be more Christ-like in the way they do politics, encouraging them to turn off Fox News and be more charitable toward their political opponents,” Green writes. “But he’s squishy about naming and blaming fellow Christian political leaders for the example they’ve set.”

  • For more on ransomware, check out Tuesday’s edition of The Daily, the New York Times’ weekday morning podcast. The problem, Times cybersecurity and digital espionage reporter Nicole Perlroth says, has been building for years. But it’s gone from isolated attacks holding individuals’ computers hostage to an emerging billion-dollar industry that has crippled entities in business and government.

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • In the latest Remnant, Jonah is joined by Jonathan Rauch, whose new book—The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth—explores our current epistemic crisis and how all Americans can defend free inquiry and objective reality. 

  • We’re still 17 months away from November 2022, but there’s no shortage of news on the electoral politics front. Check out Sarah and Chris Stirewalt’s latest Sweep to learn about the Commonwealth of Virginia’s taxpayer-funded partisan primary system, the mapping of small-dollar donors’ 2020 contributions, the GOP’s turn toward low-propensity voters, and President Biden’s reputation as a liberal.

  • Members of Congress from both parties are calling for the Biden administration to conduct a mass evacuation of Afghan interpreters, others who helped U.S. forces, and their family members before American troops complete their withdrawal from the country. “Our Afghan friends and allies are at greater risk than ever before,” a bipartisan group of 21 House members wrote in a letter to Biden. They said applicants for the special visa program that allows allies to become lawful permanent citizens could be temporarily held in Guam while they are being processed. Read more in yesterday’s Uphill.

  • On the website today: Jonah on the Democrats’ Manchin problem and Reuel Marc Gerecht on the coming Iranian elections.

Let Us Know

Will the Taliban be ruling Afghanistan on September 11, 2022—one year after the U.S. withdrawal date? If so, how will that affect U.S. national security?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), Harvest Prude (@HarvestPrude), Tripp Grebe (@tripper_grebe), Emma Rogers (@emw_96), Price St. Clair (@PriceStClair1), Jonathan Chew (@JonathanChew19), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).  

The Dispatch Staff's Headshot

The Dispatch Staff